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Blowing Through the Jasmine*

I walk down the hill to the town plaza, thinking the Thursday evening concert on the dock will be the ideal coda to yet another blissful summer day. Yesterday’s breathless 84°—the warmest day of the year—segued into today’s carefree, breezy 76°.  

The Plaza is empty. I check my watch. The concert should be well underway. Then it hits me. It’s mid-September. September. Public school has been in session for several days, the detritus of the Wooden Boat Festival had been hosed away on Monday. Summer—regardless of the sun’s tango with the magnetic Poles—is officially over. There hasn’t been a concert on the dock for two weeks.

 

I wander through the marina, coming to rest against the warm bronze flanks of a sea otter. The final busloads of tourists amble down the ochre blocks of our Victorian seaport to the terminus of the piers; the hard consonants of places where dark bread and sausage are eaten at breakfast mingle with rounded drawls dripping with humidity and tangled in mangroves. I join them in gazing into the bays and the vistas beyond.

 

To the east, the Cascades etch jagged lines into a cerulean horizon, bookended by Mount Baker to the north, Mount Rainier to the south. To the west, the Olympics are confections of cobalt, softly rounded in the late afternoon light and stripped of snow.

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Wrapping the peninsula like a velvet ribbon is a bank of fog that stretches from the Salish Sea through Admiralty Bay to the Port Townsend Bay, where it curls around Marrowstone Island. Fog horns blow—a winter sound incongruous with the sparkling diamonds of sun bouncing off waves and a sky radiating heat like warm denim. The Coupeville ferry emerges from the white ridge, blaring a warning siren as sailboats and cargo ships slip past and into the cottony nothingness. I imagine this fog cutting us off from the world, marooning us in Summerland forever.

 

What has happened to me? My autumn anticipation—visions of soup and flannel, leaves and wood smoke, pencil shavings and pumpkin—used to begin its eager percolation in early August. Even in Seattle—where I learned to love summer after years spent in searing central Washington and the sticky Midwest—I’d had enough by Labor Day. The city grows dull with dust, its gardens and trees limp, its citizens twitchy with Vitamin D; it just feels wrong in that place of espresso and indie bookstores to go so long without the soporific cleanse of cascading rain.

 

But here. I am not ready. I haven’t worn long pants in months and my legs are tan for the first time since 1988. My arms are a frenzy of freckles, my hair lightened to a coppery gold. More than the physical changes, something has clicked inside. I crave sunlight and heat for the first time in my life (right, so heat is relative. Stop at 75°, please—anything more is just showing off). It's emotional, this connection to the blue and the gold of summer. I tremble as I let go of the stillness of warm forests, to the coming and going of strangers along shaded sidewalks, to the weekly beer dates in the beachfront courtyard of our favorite pub—where pet goats and games of pétanque are minor distractions to the lazy drift of beautiful vessels just beyond.

 

It's often foggy here on summer mornings, typical for a maritime climate. This is good for writing productivity. But by late morning I can no longer type away in the sunroom. The rays eat away at the fog, blue overtakes white, the computer screen fades in the outrageous bright, and I become drowsy with the heat. I slather on the sunscreen and cart the laptop to the waterfront, to write to the sound of shrieking gulls and the slap of waves. I could do this every day, 365. I fear I have lost have my Northwest duck feathers that hardly notice a rain shower.

 

It's coming. Today and tomorrow a cheerful sun beams from the weather app on my iPhone. By Wednesday it's yanked away, replaced with a faucet drip of rain or a smudge of overcast. Yes, we will have Indian summer—late September through mid-October will bring those glorious sunrises, goldenrod days, and crisp nights. But it's coming, that endless mutation of gray, green, and brown. The steady tick of rain dripping from evergreen boughs and rhododendron leaves. Days when the high temperature is the same as the low.

 

I console myself with the knowledge that I now live in a place described as having a Mediterranean climate, with half the rainfall of Seattle. But in the absence of olive trees and cicadas, Roman ruins, and terraced vineyards, I'm not fooled. I will mourn the brown lines of my sandal tan as it fades from the tops of my feet, the shriveling of blackberries I grab by the handful as I bike along the Larry Scott trail. I will mourn my shadow when it no longer falls onto the sand before me. I'm with Henry James on this one.

 

“Summer afternoon—summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” ― Henry James

 “Summer, after all, is a time when wonderful things can happen to quiet people. for those few months, you’re not required to be who everyone thinks you are, and that cut-grass smell in the air and the chance to dive into the deep end of a pool give you a courage you don’t have the rest of the year. you can be grateful and easy, with no eyes on you, and no past. summer just opens the door and lets you out.” ― Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart

 

**A version of this post first appeared in this blog on September 14, 2013. A day exactly like today.

If you don't have time to read ...

... you don't have the time (or tools) to write. So sayeth Stephen King in his most excellent memoir and writing guide, On Writing (Pocket Books 1999)  

I began the summer with such grand writing goals and by the middle of August, I was nearly there: I'd written one of two short stories; completed two flash fiction pieces; created a database of literary agents to query and finished my query letter (or at least revised it 684 times); drafted one-, two-, and four-page novel synopses; I blogged and book reviewed. In between were two revisions of my first novel, Refuge of Doves—undertaken after receiving story and copy edits from my editor. I was determined to dance through my writing project list and take a bow on August 31.

 

Draft 2: Novel 2, begins September 1.

 

The second short story wasn’t going to happen. Writing the first story, and then trimming it from a bloated 8,500 words to a civilized 6,000-something, took weeks. That one story and the two flash were about all I had in me. I accepted I couldn't start fresh on another story in the final two weeks of August—a period that included a lovely visit with out-of-state guests, when I stepped away from writing for more than one day in well over a year—and have something worth sending out for submission by the end of summer.

 

Saturday afternoon, after our guests had gone, and I’d emptied the dishwasher and brought up the last load of laundry, I poured myself a glass of Saumur rouge and opened Francesca Marciano’s short story collection, The Other Language (click for my review).

 

The next morning I sat down to write. By Tuesday evening, I’d completed the first draft of a 5,100 word short story. Several revisions later, it lives and breathes at 4,800 words. I’ll give it, and myself, a bit of a rest before a final edit and proofread, but it’s solid. Complete.

~

 

A few weeks ago, I landed in the middle of a discussion with a few writers about routines and patterns, the things we must or cannot do at certain stages of our writing process. I was baffled by the number of writers who stated they read nothing, other than what they might be using for research, while writing new material. Several fiction writers commented they could read no fiction because they feared losing their own writing voice, imitating another writer, or being otherwise influenced by his style. Another commented how she feared comparing her work to other, published authors and losing heart. Still others cited lack of time, energy, interest.

 

I thought my head might explode.

 

If I stop reading, it means I've stopped breathing. Reading brought me to writing; from the first eager devouring of Louise Fitzhugh's Harriet the Spy at the age of six, I ached to wrap my hands around a pen, smooth open a spiral-bound notebook, and scribble. Something. Anything. The words. All the astonishing words.

 

It had never occurred to me that a writer could be anything other than a helplessly voracious reader. I can’t fathom silencing other writers, or emptying my ears and eyes and brain of beautiful language, of precise structure, of rhythmic flow.

 

But hey. We each have our own processes and systems and conditions by which we work the best. Some need near-silence to hear their own voice. I have never—tap wood—lost my voice in the presence of great writing. Instead, I overflow with inspiration and feel a sense of release and possibility.

 

My ear for music and language turns me on to a writer’s cadence and I find myself playing along in my own sentences, discovering new ways to structure my thoughts. It’s an invisible collaboration with another writer, a jazz riff played in admiration and homage in a quiet room, or in my case, in the front seat of the car, where I get most of my writing done. No wi-fi, you see. There are other voices I need to silence, to hear my own. But as for reading, it’s what sustains me as a writer. As a human being.

 

Grazie cara, Francesca Marciano. Your gorgeous stories, your strong and confident voice, restored me. You made me crave to write. The words gushed out. I had one more story in me this summer, after all.

 

Shedding Light

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Fourth of July CreekFourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So soaked in the mire of his paranoia and removed from the world, Jeremiah Pearl believes ash falling from the sky after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens is fallout from a nuclear war. He emerges from the forest with his young son, Ben, and holds a timber poacher at gunpoint, demanding, How many are left? I asked you how many are left goddamnit!

Smith Henderson’s smashing, crashing, tour de force debut novel, Fourth of July Creek churns with this sort of Action-Misunderstanding-Reaction and a human life often dangles at the end of any given chain of events. There is so very much at stake here; the novel wrings you limp and has you rereading the quiet ending for what you think you’ve missed.

The backwoods of western Montana give a dramatic backdrop to the novel, which takes place 1979-1981. Such an interesting period for this reader, who came of age during the Iran hostage crisis, the oil shortage, the boiling up of the Cold War, and the transition from Jimmy Carter’s cardigan sweater presidency to the sham of Reagan’s trickle-down economics. The world so often seemed on the brink of calamity and Jeremiah Pearl, urged on by his prescient wife Sarah, scoops up his family from Midwest complacency and flees to rural Montana in response. There he begins an anarchic lifestyle--adopting the gold standard, rejecting all forms of government regulation, and risking the health and well-being of his wife and five children. He becomes an oddity, a legend, and eventually attracts the attention of the FBI and the ATF.

But Pearl’s story is only one thread in this dark, writhing tapestry of a novel. The most constant narrator is Pete Snow, a social worker, alcoholic, and disaffected father on the brink of several disasters of his own making. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex wife after a raging, alcohol-infused blow up, “I take kids away from people like us.” There are no heroes here, except the Cloninger family, who accepts the stray children Pete Snow brings to their door.

Pete, who works only when he can pull himself out of a bottle or a bed, is finally kicked out of his mental lethargy by two different mysteries: who and where is Jeremiah Pearl and, after it is too late, how can he save his daughter?

The mythology of Jeremiah Pearl enthralls Pete and he eventually forms a tentative, misplaced friendship with the paranoid radical and Ben, his sweet, almost-saintly, son. In a parallel subplot, Pete embarks on an Odyssey-like quest to find his teenage runaway daughter, Rachel.

This early '80s world of underfunded social service agencies, abused and neglected children, and addict parents could be 2014, but Henderson recreates an urban squalor in Seattle that has been largely vanquished by massive gentrification. Or simply moved upstream to its nexus on Aurora Avenue. But the rural decay, the political paranoia, and the counter-culture community feel ripped from the headlines. The horror of adolescent institutionalization continues apace and some of the most dreadful scenes in Fourth of July Creek center on what happens to children when they are abused by loved ones and then punished by the system.

Although there are moments of grace and tenderness, this is a hard-bitten, grueling read. It is also damn near impossible to put down. Despite its heft the novel moves at a jittery pace, with tension building like the volcanic dome over Mount Saint Helens. You turn the pages in white-knuckled suspense, anticipating a fiery dénouement.

But here’s where I struggled. Why I cannot sing full-throated praises. Every woman in Fourth of July Creek is presented as a victim, a hag, a whore—most are all three. Only Sarah Pearl wields power over the men around her and that’s because she’s batshit. As a woman, this bleak and gut-wrenching depiction wore me down. As a reader and writer I found it terribly discouraging. And then there’s Pete, born with tremendous advantage and potential, who mostly fucked it away for reasons I could never quite understand or begin to empathize with.

Henderson uses a second-person Q&A to tell Rachel Snow’s story as she “wyoms” through the West and Midwest, as a way to break the tension and jolt the reader from the flow of Pete’s hedonistic and hard-scrabble life. It’s masterfully done, but very nearly overdone. The story within the story didn’t quite work for me. It does offer a female perspective in a novel that is so very white male, but again, the young woman is a victim, tossed about like a pinball. It’s a whole story of how young women become enslaved on our very streets, and it deserves a book of its own. One I’m certain Smith Henderson is more than capable of writing.

An outstanding achievement. One of the year’s best.

View all my reviews

Pitchin' and Moanin'

A Seattle suburb. A high-rise hotel. Each with as much character as a styrofoam cup. 2:16 a.m. I am wake. I don't know why. Then, Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep. Beep.

You've got to be kidding me.

"Hello, this is Emily at the front desk. How may I help you, Ms. Johnson?"

Fifteen minutes later, Dave sets up a ladder underneath the smoke alarm. I'm curled in a fetal position on the king bed, wrapped in thick cotton robe. The alarm emits several prolonged shrieks in protest before Dave wrangles it into submission and changes its worn battery. I wait for my neighbors to bang on the walls.

At last, I lock the door behind Dave and his ladder. I cue Bach on my iPad and turn off the light.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

WHOOSH. WHOOOOOOOSHHHH.

You've got to be kidding me.

Parked on an overhang a few feet from my window is a giant exhaust unit. Every two minutes it clicks on, sounding like a Boeing Dreamliner making an emergency landing on my balcony.

3:16 a.m.  I am imprisoned in Egyptian cotton and chrome Purgatory, held hostage by insomnia.

In four hours and forty-four minutes I meet with an editor to pitch my manuscript. First editor. First time out. First pitch.

Four hours of sleep.

First pot of coffee: 4:30 a.m.

One of my writer's goals this year was to pitch. No pressure, no expectations, just give it a go. On the advice of a fellow Northwest writer, I signed up for a writers' conference she assured me was low-key, warm and welcoming, where there would be agents and editors and an opportunity to deliver a standard five-minute pitch.

The agents and editors at this conference represent writers and books in a genre I don't write, though a few have broad portfolios. I felt I had little to lose. But I wanted to be prepared and professional. I researched how to pitch, spent several weeks honing a few paragraphs, tried out my pitch on two writer buddies, revised and rehearsed it again and again. I came to the conference with my manuscript distilled to one hundred eighty words that I could deliver in one minute, thirty-six seconds. Yes, I had my pitch memorized. No, I did not recite it from memory. It's okay to bring notes.

I was assigned an editor of an independent press. Not just an editor. The publisher's founder and CEO. She was my first pitch. My second, an hour later, the founder and CEO of a New York literary agency. I expected to be nervous, keyed up, a little hysterical from too much coffee, too little sleep and no breakfast. I expected to have fun, to receive feedback, to walk away with another learning experience in my writer's kit, my skin a little thicker for the "Thanks, but that's not what we're looking for."

I didn't expect to walk away with two requests for my manuscript.

Rumor has it only ten percent of writers send in a manuscript after a successful pitch. And yet, writers are admonished, "Don't be in a hurry to publish. Don't submit too soon. Revise, polish, revise and polish again."

I'm not rushing to hit "Send" with attachments. I know my manuscript isn't ready. But after two days of excellent workshops on craft and a renewed sense of inspiration and ambition, I emerge from this conference with a solid rewrite and revision plan. And determination to be in that ten percent by the end of the year.

You can do anything, as long as there is coffee. Even if Dave changes your smoke alarm battery at 2:30 a.m. And a Boeing 787 lands on your balcony at 3:00. Sleep when you're dead.

English: Artist impression of Boeing 787-9 Dre...

If I wanted your opinion, I'd...Oh, wait...

It's been a wobbly week here in Paradise. I received, in two separate batches, the first sets of anonymous critiques of my opening chapter. And that's my post. Thanks for stopping by.

No, seriously. When the critique bundles landed in my e-mail, I scanned for disaster, then perused them without breathing (maybe that's why I nearly passed out). I set them aside and eliminated 5,000 words from Chapter One. As a start.

A few days on. I reread the critiques. And I smiled. Eight writers saw my work. Eight published authors had criticisms and suggestions--some delivered far more gracefully than others--to make my story cleaner, snappier. Richer.

But I have to admit, I've put myself in a bit of a sticky place. I submitted these pages to a group of writers planted within a specific genre of fiction. More than that: a sub-genre of genre fiction. I picked a thematic element of my novel and tossed it to authors who write solely within this genre. The challenge is to extrapolate from a limited definition of story construction--according to a tried-and-true formula and for a specific group of readers--to the larger world of satisfying, engaging reads. And with some exceptions, I think the feedback was spot on. In the days since receiving these critiques, I've made enormous changes to my manuscript--not because I accepted everything offered as Gospel, but because I recognized the patterns. There were consistencies between the criticisms. And nothing my gut hadn't already warned me about.

This morning, while my coffee was hot and my mind was clear, I read the feedback and read it again. Honest. Encouraging. All of it useful advice, even if I choose not to follow it. Here are a few comments I grabbed:

The setting, the writing, the premise, the history, the - everything. I loved it.  

[[none of this is needed. I'm not trying to be harsh. This is publication ready writing. But this scene, while perfectly fine, is NOT moving the story forward.]] 

Your writing is lyrical and highly polished. I recommend that you spend a little more time on the main character’s scene before moving to a different historical time.

...That was a bit confusing. Otherwise, the writing is brilliant.  

...The writing is beautiful, but the distant viewpoint leaves me emotionally distanced from the characters. Good luck—you’ve got lots of talent.

Whenever I’m doing anything related to art (writing, acting, painting, cooking) I think of Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” Structure first. What is the main character’s goal, motivation and conflict. Establish those first and then decorate to best underscore the story elements. I believe this story will be fantastic.

In a sweet twist of serendipity, I read William Kenower's book of essays for writers, Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion, the day before I received the first set of these critiques. He has this to say about facing rejection and criticism:

The world does not want you to fail. The world is forever supplying you with the information needed to do exactly what you want. Whether you accept this information is up to you. But do not fear the information. The only thing to fear is your judgment of that information. When those letters come back, look with friendly eyes upon what the world wishes you to know, and be grateful that you are one letter wiser.

I have so much to learn about storycraft. So much work to do before this novel is ready for a real editor to shred to bits. Mired in my isolation, I've had no idea until this week whether what I've been working on for the past fifteen months is viable, publishable work. I still don't know that, but I feel more confident I'm on the right path. I believe the world does not want me to fail.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow

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The Sun Also Rises. Every Single Day.

Related Posts from wise writers~astute bloggers:

Five Reasons You Should Embrace Rejection Linda Formichelli for copyblogger

Doubt, Fear, False Alarms, and "Giving Birth" To Our Dreams Kristen Lamb

When Writers Face a Constant Climb

The Prisoner's Hands

A few weeks ago I began work on a piece that's been in my heart for several years. It is the story of a star-crossed romance that bloomed in the last year of World War II between a spoiled young French woman and a German prisoner-of-war with movie-star cheekbones and piercing blue eyes. The tale is inspired by a true war romance, a story of characters whom I've known for many years. It was first told to me by my husband, who spent a year working near the village of Cognac in vineyards owned by the French woman's brother-in-law. Brendan became acquainted with the sister and her husband during their visits to the farm from their home in western Germany. They took to Brendan, marveling at this young man who barely spoke French, yet who was willing to live with strangers, tending their vineyards and learning to make their Cognac in exchange for room and board. I then met the couple in 1993, several months after Brendan and I married. We spent ten days at the Bavarian home where the tall, elegant German man was raised, sheltered in the beauty of his Alpine village and by his parents' wealth and gentility.

This couple is still alive. In their late 80s, they spend their days arguing in French in a comfortable apartment full of memories in the medieval village of Freiburg.We've visited them several times over the years, usually at their summer cottage on the Atlantic coast outside the town of Royan, which was smashed to ruins by German and Allied bombs alike. An ironic tragedy borne of desperation and mis-information as the War waned.

We know our chances to hear their stories are disappearing - we hope that at least Brendan can visit in the coming year. And I hope to bring part of their extraordinary story to life.

One detail of the real romance I heard once has served as my inspiration, and thus far, as the title of the story: The Prisoner's Hands.

The young prisoner had fine hands: long, tapered fingers and clean nails, as clean as could be expected while living in the squalor of penal confinement. Because of those hands, and his ability to speak clear and sophisticated French, he came to the attention of local, influential factory owner. The businessman used his connections to "employ" the handsome young German prisoner as a day laborer on the grounds of his estate.

I have identified the prison camp as Stalag 180, outside the lovely, gentle village of Amboise, on the banks of the Loire River. In German hands it had been a transition point for captured Roma, French Jews and Communists before being sent to their deaths in the East. Under French control, it held Germans captured as Liberation forces cut a swath west across the war-trampled fields of north and central France. After some months, American soldiers took control of the prison camp; the German prisoners were released and the young man, still a teenager, returned to his Bavarian home.

This much I know is true. I also know that nearly ten years after the end of the war, the German prisoner married the factory owner's youngest daughter and took her back to Germany, where they have lived since.

I am now in unchartered waters. I have embarked upon a journey where creating a story inspired by real lives straddles a razor's edge. I struggle with the conflicts in my heart to offer an empathetic portrait of a man whose fellow citizens participated in crimes horrific beyond all comprehension. The details I weave from a collection of threads of the story as it has been told to me, of history as it has been recorded and from my imagination. It is easy to lose the singularity of these threads as the story takes shape and the characters go their own ways.

I began this story as my final assignment for my writing program, but I now set it aside. I will wait for a time when deadlines and word limits will not constrain a story that fills my heart with a pounding certainty that it should be told. I trust the story has been gifted to me for a reason. I will do my best.