Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Portrait of the Author as a Young Man, Part II

I met Marie during my first few months in Japan. Originally from Oregon, she was teaching at a women's college in a city called Wakayama, about an hour by train from where I lived. She was (and is!) enthusiastic, energetic, passionately committed to her ideals, and an amazing ideas person. The upshot is: we were together for three years in Japan, traveled through Asia, and became engaged on the rooftop of a hotel situated in the middle of an Indian lake. The fact that she was American and I was British wasn't insurmountable. In our plots and plans, Marie made it known that, when I moved to Oregon and we got married, she would go out to be the bread-winner and I would be able to write to my heart's content.

That's what happened.

Looking back over the span of 20 years, I have to chuckle at my 20-something chutzpah. I firmly believed I would write a novel, send it out, delight an agent, cause an editor to salivate uncontrollably, and be published with fanfare. I'll give it a couple of years, I believe was the mantra.

Writing for hours a day was the easy part. I wrote the usual coming-of-age bildungsroman, shipped it out to publishing types in London, and got big fat raspberries. I seem to remember one comment to the effect of "we'd all love to be published, but it behooves us to have something publishable first."

I did one thing right. After a number of negatives, I enrolled in a novel-writing class, taught by a grizzled old veteran. He was free with the red pen and urged me to toss out my ms. for something less full of adolescent angst. I remember his surprise when I returned the following week with a completely rewritten first chapter, with a completely different tone. I was now writing a farce, and he grudgingly showed some appreciation for it.

Once again, the writing came fast. Once again, I sent it out. One agent actually requested the whole ms. The rejections came again, but this time there were encouraging notes appended to the slips. That novel never did see the light of day, and neither did its subsequent sibling. The more I read about the trials of aspiring writers, the more I realize that I'm not alone in having several manuscripts gathering dust in a bottom drawer.

The important thing was that I soldiered on. I began a third novel, this one set in Japan. I also joined the local writing organization, Willamette Writers, and volunteered to help at their annual conference. One of the perks of being a volunteer was that one of the editors attending would do a critique of first chapters. I sent mine off. What that particular editor said has kept me writing to this day... (And those comments will be revealed in part III).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Portrait of the Author as a Young Man, Part I

Lots of writers claim they know they wanted to be writers in utero. Not me. I wanted to be a nun.

Blame it on early exposure to The Sound of Music. I mean, who wouldn't want to foil Nazis while singing "Climb Every Mountain" at the top of one's lungs? When it was pointed out that being a nun wasn't gender-neutral, I flirted with monk-hood. But really, when I dissect these early career cravings, it's clear that what I fell in love with were the costumes. And, as any good American can tell you, you have Hallowe'en in which to dress up to your heart's content, without having to take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

As a youth, I liked writing well enough. I just never thought of it as a career path. I borrowed shamelessly from Nancy Drew and got published as a fourth-grader in the school magazine. Later, I enjoyed writing a saga about a family in my school who were Anglo-Indian. But English classes become more the study of literature than the composition of story. And the study of literature is really the study of "critical theories," rather than a pure enjoyment of story itself. I got a first class degree by learning how to deconstruct Milton and evaluating Marxist critiques of Dickens.

I flirted with going into diplomacy, my father's profession. I even had an interview (set up by him) at Britain's spy agency. But there was no way I was going to pass the math component of the civil service exam. So I opted for two more years of postgraduate work, and then interviewed for a job teaching English in Japan.

While all this was going on, probably as an escape valve from having to think about careers and their consequences, I entered a short story competition. You had to write two stories. My first was an imagining of the poet Matthew Arnold giving up poetry for love while on a trip to Switzerland. (I was way too immersed in 19th century literature!) The second story--"Scab"-- was very short and had to do with an autistic child, whose welfare was causing his coal-miner father to work during a strike. I didn't win, but the judge's comments were encouraging. I forgot all about them, and left for Japan.

A couple of months after arriving in Japan, my parents forwarded a letter from an agent at Curtis Brown in London. Somehow--had she been one of the judges?--she'd seen my stories and was wondering if I had anything else?

Of course, I didn't. I was too busy sampling sake and crooning karaoke. I wrote her back a short note, hinting at my dissipation, and that was that. (Man, was I a twit!)

But a seed had been sown. If an agent was interested, perhaps I could write a decent sentence or two. I was 23 and the world was my (fried) oyster. In the odd moment between carousings (oh yeah, and teaching) I started to write stories. Then a woman entered my life. She would make me an offer I couldn't refuse.

But that story will have to wait for Part II...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

First graders are such fun

Last Saturday evening, we added two children to our brood of three and ended up with four boys and one girl. Noise level? Akin to several space shuttles blasting off simultaneously from Cape Canaveral. The 11-year-old and my thirteen-year-old headed downstairs to pound on the drum kit while the three youngers did Formula One laps around the living room.

After scoffing down pizza, my first-grader and the first-grade girl entertained us by pretending to be lions. The girl also rolled out a story about dragons. That was, she told installments of the story in between coming to the aid of my three-year-old who took it into his head to lie as if comatose on the floor, weakly imploring "Nicole! Nicole!" Only Nicole would do. And what she had to do was wave a half-eaten slice of pizza under his nose. Several waftings back and forth with the pizza, and he was a new man, ready for another swoon. (Three-year-olds love repetition!) I must say, Nicole was a very good sport about this and diligently revived him again and again.

As the story-telling wove in between the resuscitations and the roaring of lions, I found myself marveling at the exuberance of first-graders. They are so free in letting their imaginations roam. There was a tinge of sadness in this, however. I know the day will come when this exuberance will crawl into a cave, like Puff the Magic Dragon. Crazy stunts of the imagination will be thought childish. And so, I made a vow. I will celebrate and affirm this creative spark in my children for as long as I have breath in my body. From such exuberance, writers, actors, painters, and sculptors are born. From such exuberance, they come into their own.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Guide to Literary Agents blog contest

What did we ever do before the internet? It seems almost pre-historic when you think of it. I mean, God rest my aching wrists, I wrote my first stories on a typewriter (albeit an electric one--I'm not that antediluvian.) As for getting to know about agents and the like, you had to rely on a) either going to a conference to prove to yourself that they were not inhabitants of some outer solar system or b) looking up information in a book which, I swear, went out-of-date the moment you opened it. You'd send a query into the blue yonder and I'm sure I had at least one reply saying "I'm sorry, but this agent has been vaporized by intergalactic storm-troopers." What a waste of a 25 cent stamp! (Thanks, internet, for reminding me of the price of a first-class stamp in 1990.)

A dangerous writer no longer has to endure such frustrations. Now, all sorts of information pops onto one's computer screen at the touch of a keystroke. (This makes life very easy; it also can suck away at your precious time, link by tempting link.)

You no longer have to buy the book, because most literary agencies have gorgeous looking websites (not to mention blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.) And then there's the super-duper Guide to Literary Agents blog run by Chuck Sambuchino. http://www.guidetoliteraryagents.com/blog/ There's everything there that your giddy little heart might want to know during your agent search. Chuck's even running a "Dear Agent" contest for the next couple of weeks. Send in the first 150-200 words of your MG or YA novel to be read by agent Jennifer Laughran of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency http://www.andreabrownlit.com/agents.php and vie for the chance to have a critique by her of your first 25 pages. (More details on the Guide to Literary Agents blog.)

That's enough reminiscing for today. I'm going to do the dangerous thing and enter the contest.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Street Roots

He was sitting outside Trader Joe's in Northwest Portland, selling Street Roots. He'd set up a table, on which the newspapers were displayed. People were walking by as if he didn't exist.

Now, I may not do as much as I would like to combat the problems of homelessness, but I can never pass a Street Roots' vendor without stopping to buy a copy and have a chat.

The paper's mission is to create "income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty by publishing a newspaper that is a catalyst for individual and social change." The vendors buy their copies for 25 cents and sell the paper for $1. There's always at least one thought-provoking article in each edition, as well as poetry, short stories, and artwork. My favorite vendor/artist goes by the name of "Bear."

This particular vendor's name was David. He'd written a short message on each copy of the paper. "It's good to be back. Thanks for your support. Have a great day! Thanks, David."

Here's how our conversation went:

Me: "What have you got in this month's edition?"

David: "You have got to read the article about Joey Harrington."

Now, I know about as much about American football as any self-respecting English-bred aesthete--which is to say, next to nothing. However, I had heard about local boy, Joey Harrington, who was a star quarterback at the University of Oregon and then went on to have a less than stellar career starting with the Detroit Lions, and ending with the New Orleans Saints. But what was Joey Harrington doing on the cover of Street Roots?

Well, he's returned to Portland with his wife and infant son. But, not content to rest on his laurels, he's out in the community with his Foundation, supporting such organizations as the Shriners, the Boys and Girls Club, SMART, and Girls Inc. He also volunteers at Blanchet House. http://www.blanchethouse.org/ The guy is a complete mensch.

Not surprisingly, Joey Harrington wants the Saints to win today's Superbowl. I'm not bothered either way, but I'll go with New Orleans on his say-so. After all, they've never even been in a Superbowl.

David and I exchanged a few more pleasantries before I went on my way. As I was stacking my groceries in the back of my car, I glanced at Street Roots' back page. It showed a poster hanging at the United Church of Christ in Ashland, Oregon: Jesus, with an arm outstretched. The caption read: "How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?"

A good reminder to all of us Sunday worshippers of the rebel Jesus.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I Hear You, Julia Cameron!

In 1998, my DW (dear wife and dangerous writer both) gave me the Christmas gift of attending a 12-week Artist's Way workshop. For 12 weeks a host of us aspiring but blocked writers, painters, musicians, and photographers worked through Julia Cameron's famous "Artist's Way." There were morning pages to write, artist's dates to take, and a weekly fast from media. (Curses, this week fell during the Winter Olympics in Nagano. I had my wife videotape all the events and then went on a binge after media week was over.)

I threw a mini-tantrum of self-doubt about week 5, which I learned was par for the course. I found myself writing poetry--something I'd never credited being able to do before. By the end of the workshop, I had created an Artist's Circle (kudos to you Annelie, Carolyn, and Sari: my creative companions for several years, now residing in Sweden, Mexico, and California, respectively), and then underwent one of the scariest, most dangerous writerly events of my life by reading my newly created poems at an open mike.

I was reminded about all of this when I clicked on one of the blogs I follow, Alvina Ling's Bloomabilities. In a recent posting, she writes about attending the winter SCBWI conference and listening to the marvelous Libba Bray's keynote. What does Libba Bray call this year? "The Year of Writing Dangerously!"

Libba Bray and I are on the same wavelength. That's what Julia Cameron calls "synchronicity." I decide to blog, come up with a title, and then find that someone as magnificent as Libba Bray is shouting it from the SCBWI rooftops. Thank you, universe, for your faith in me.

(If you want to read something very funny, check out Libba Bray's blogpost about getting a massage. What a dangerous writer!)

Friday, February 5, 2010


Conversation on picking up Son # 1 from school. (He's 13.)

Me: I started a blog today.

Son # 1: No Way! That's the last thing I'd expect you to do. (Plugs iPod into car radio and listens to Girls Not Gray by AFI.)

Feeling good I can still surprise him!

What is "Dangerous Writing," Anyway?

"The Year of Writing Dangerously" is not about parasailing with your pen or iron-cheffing your characters. ("Big knife alert! Watch fingertips.") It is all about challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone.

If you write, but it's still a guilty secret, come out of the closet and call yourself a writer.

If you write only when inspiration strikes--or if you have a spare minute here and there--make an effort to start a practice. (Mine's called "Page-A-Day," and I'll doubtless spend a whole blog post on it later).

If you're feeling isolated, join a writers' organization. Then, sign up for a conference; put out feelers to form a writing group.

If you're a happy writer, but balk at the marketplace, gird your loins to make your work the best it can be and then send it to agents.

If you think you're perfect...Stop reading right this minute. Writing ain't for perfect people. It's messy, hogswilling work and the one constant is that you have to Rewrite... and Rewrite...and Rewrite Again.

Will it just be for "The Year?" Who knows? It will depend how far out of my comfort zone I've been able to stray. But I hope you will join me. I'll be writing about my revision of one novel, and the ending up of the first draft of another. I'll be writing about my forthcoming attempts to interest an agent. I'll be writing about my wonderful writing groups, and the conferences I plan to attend.

Being a "Dangerous Writer" is a badge of honor. I hope you'll wear it with me.

To Blog or Not to Blog....

That actually hasn't been the question. I'm usually far behind the times, slightly curmudgeonly about new-fangled electronic gadgetry, and averse to such "fads" as Facebook. Twitter makes me totally twitchy.

I also usually disdain anything with a whiff of "popularity" about it. (Too bad, Twilight. Adieu, Avatar.)

Add to that, I live with an uber-blogger, and so have been quite happy to stay silent while she entertains her blogging muse.

Until now. You see, blogging is becoming passe. Which means I'm on it like a hornet to a hot dog.

Yesterday, my local paper, The Oregonian, featured a piece on the front page by Martha Irvine of The Associated Press headlined: "A new age in blogging: 30 and up." (I'm part of the "and up.") A study has shown that long-form blogging has lost its appeal for younger types who are leaping like lemmings to Facebook and Twitter. Irvine ends her first paragraph with: "Tech experts say it doesn't mean blogging is going away. Rather it's going the way of the telephone and e-mail--still useful, just not sexy."

So, that's the motto, Dangerous Writers of a Certain Age: Still Useful, Just Not Sexy.

I've got the t-shirt on order.