Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Writing when there is no time for writing

I have spent most of the non-sleeping, non-working, non-eating-my-friend-Andrew's-kind-of-delicious-Irish-dinner hours working on There Is No Happy Ending (tentative title, but I am very fond of it…) and here are some things I learned.

1. It is so easy to dive into a project and never come up for air, when there is another project, a more urgent project, waiting not so patiently above the surface.

2. One of my characters is named Rory and she is living in Trastevere for the summer, which makes me desperate for the sticky heat and Lungotevere tables of a Rome summer. But Rory is also thinking about taking a year off. Both my editor and The New York Times made me think about this. A gap year is a rising trend and one that makes perfect sense to me. At 18, heading to college, we know nothing other than being in school. Why not give ourselves the chance to make footprints in the world and learn what we want—not what we are supposed to want. (apparently, I am now 18 again)

3. Jacob is a street artist. He is American by birth but he has lived in Rome his whole life. He has no idea where he is from. So when he disappears—and the book is about his disappearance—it makes perfect sense because he did not have roots in any one place. He disappeared from somewhere that he never felt exactly at home—he was never even really able to define home.

4. Mornings are perfect for writing. But what happens when I want to write until my eyelids fall closed and then I have to wake up and be a counselor for nine hours before I can be a writer again? What if I lose something?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

oops. I started another book.

About a year and a half ago I went to Berlin. At the time I was living in Rome—a city so richly beautiful in its own right but within minutes of descending from the train and walking the night-time streets of the Kreuzberg neighborhood I felt so alive in Berlin. I knew I had to write a story about there. The thing about the city—for me—was that it felt so intensely pulsing and working and creating. I wasn’t sure what kind of story it was going to be but I knew it needed to tell about the way that everything was very much happening—sort of urgent and curious and intense and challenging. What happened in Berlin, was that I became obsessed with street art.

We went to the Tacheles, an artists’ cooperative that looks like this.

Where people were sleeping on cots in the warehouse behind their canvases and selling paintings and postcards.

We went to the wall. Which looks like this.

And this.

And absolutely blew my mind beyond anything I had ever seen because for blocks and blocks and generations and languages people literally painted their protest and hope and stories on this physical structure that divided so much… the wall was tumbling and broken and faded in places, repainted in others, and mostly now a symbolic structure but the art that it gave voice to told the story, not just of the city, but of each individual who had written or painted.

Then just a week ago I was reading Crissa Chappell’s blog as I am totally obsessed with the descriptions of Total Constant Order and I cannot wait to read it. But then I read this and I thought, NO!, she beat me. Or maybe she inspired me. Because now I can’t stop thinking about Berlin and graffiti and this story.

I have to write about a street artist. He lives in Rome, though, a city whose street art fascinates me. He visits Berlin in the summer with an American girl who is trying to decide if she’ll go to college. And in the end (or maybe the beginning) he disappears.

This is what I’m writing now, while I’m supposed to be revising PERMANENT INK. This artist, I think he has dreadlocks. And he always has ink or paint on his palms.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Mr. Betterly, who changed my world

My 11th grade U.S. History class was called Cultures in Conflict. You had a choice—you could take A.P, Regular U.S., or Cultures. For me, there was no question. I knew with absolute certainty that the history I had been taught from textbooks was censored and tainted and exclusionary. This was my 16 year old mind at work. I wanted someone to tell me the real truth. I wanted someone to tell me how to repair the mess I saw around me. I wanted someone to tell me how to change the world.

For many of us who attended Emma Willard School any time between, well, 1966 and 2000, Mr. Betterly was exactly this person. On a campus of teenage girls, Mr. Betterly (who I imagine now was probably around 6’3”) seemed to positively tower over everyone else. His laugh was distinct, his voice at once quiet and commanding. His grey hair combed back close to his head was the only sign that he wasn’t positively ageless. His shirts boasted colors and patterns of the southwest—sleeves rolled over his biceps made us imagine that in another year (or maybe, a setting outside our first floor history classroom) a pack of unfiltered cigarettes would have peaked out from beneath the rolled sleeve. His cowboy boots clicked in the hallways. And his jewelry… we’d never seen men wear jewelry like this. Those rings—beautiful turquoise rocks in hammered silver ovals, thick silver bracelets inscribed with birds and symbols that suggested peace and activism and freedom and tranquility and all of the things we wanted in the world. Much of this jewelry, he made.

Mr. Betterly taught courses on religion—on and freedom and the way I wanted to live. He taught me how a classroom should work. But mostly, he taught me U.S. History. And our textbook, while our peers were preparing for the AP, was A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

My mind was blown. There was not enough time for me to fight for all of the justice I needed to fight for. There were not enough words for me to tell all of the stories that had been silenced. There were not enough hours for us to talk about the things we read in that book. Mr. Betterly was a teacher in the truest sense. Recently, I have become a teacher. And I strive to live my life and my classroom with the same peace and challenge and humour and inspiration he did.

Mr. Betterly passed away last week and I found my sadness heavy and overwhelming when I read the news today. I had just visited my high school this weekend, and walked its quiet Saturday halls. That was always my favorite classroom, I whispered to Kristen pointing to the corner first floor room where Mr. Betterly’s voice still echoes over the opening pages of A People’s History.

Mr. Betterly, I thank you—with my heart and my words and my mind. I will always remember you as inspiration.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Why not to show your writing to your friends and family until it is published

Disclaimer: no one in my life should take any offense to this. Please. Read item #5 on the list.

1. Because everyone will say “send me your novel! Send me your story! I’m dying to read it!” And you will say ok then, and send it along (blood,sweat,tears,etc) and, for the most part, no one will actually read it. Which wouldn’t be a big deal because your friends and family are busy and have the best intentions. Except said piece of writing is probably your heart and guts so it feels like a big deal and you will take everything personally and feel depressed.

2. A few people will read it. Some will say nice things, some will say helpful things, some will say things that completely contradict what you meant to do and show an absolute misunderstanding of who you wrote your characters to be, and exactly because this is your heart and guts on the page, you will take this super-personally and not be able to sleep.

3. Your book will change SO much between sale and publication. All of the things you try to explain to your readers may be irrelevant by the time it hits shelves.

4. Um. Nobody should ever have the chance to say “o, I read that. I don’t need to buy it."

5. Mostly, you should not show your writing to friends and family because if you have just sold your first book and are in any stage of pre-publication, you are probably highly unstable. And maybe slightly irrational. And re-read reasons one and two.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Three things not at all related

I know I’m certainly not the first person to talk about this book but… you should read it.

It is somehow one level deeper than first person because not only is Clay talking to you—painting the terrifying (and in such a physical and mental way) picture of his night and his life and his slow-moving realizations, but Hannah is talking to you and Clay—who sometimes feels like you—at the same time. Jay Asher has done this fantastic and inspiring job of bringing his readers into this fictional world, this frightening reality, and at the same time asking his readers to quietly examine our own motivations.

And from a completely other angle, I also suggest you read this.

Because right now Simon Van Booy is the master craftsman in my mind. His stories are sharp and spare and clear and a little bit strange and sensual and sad. He writes sentences like

“The man who sells garlic comes from the south and doesn’t sip coffee with the others at dawn.”


“I have always been attracted to the idea of heaven, and that’s why John F. Kennedy International Airport seemed like a good place to live out the last of my time.”

Also, please save this show. PLEASE.

Go here.

I don’t even have tv. But I faithfully watch this online every week—or I did. And yes, I even own season one on DVD. This show is so amazing. The New York Times even thinks so (not that their endorsement is any more valid than anyone else’s. I’m just saying. The appeal is broad). This show is funny—I’m talking laugh out loud funny. And it does a rare and wonderful thing wherein it leads you to care just as much about the parents as you do about the kids. And yes it is about football, wow, I never thought I’d love watching football so much, but it is about everything else too. Gaius Charles as Smash will break your heart—and so will Taylor Kitsch as Riggins but in a completely different way and Zach Gilford as Matt Saracen will make you have a little crush (ok. I do) and Adrianne Palicki as Tyra will make you wonder WHY you didn’t play volleyball or go out with the kind of dorky guy who made you laugh and was nice to you and Coach Taylor. Well. He’s Coach Taylor! I can’t even say much more than that.

So, read some books. Or check out the best thing on tv.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Are you an out-loud? Or on-paper?

I don’t really know anything about hip hop and as a writer I am the opposite of a performer and I have never been a poet or a lover of the stage.

But I saw the most incredible thing on Saturday night.

These guys host free workshops for teenagers all over the city—on community building and spoken word and performance and DJing. I’ve seen their Executive Director in action, as he used to teach poetry workshops for my program in South Central LA—and his energy and language and ability to make his kids dream so big is inspiring. When I heard they were hosting the city-wide Grand Slam finals—not to mention one of my amazing students was a finalist—I convinced my friend Charlotte to spend a Saturday night in the auditorium of Washington High School watching 23 teen poets (and then some) spill their hearts out. Loud.

And here’s the thing. These kids blew my mind. They were so brave and fierce and confident and powerful and elegant and loud. They gave each other so much support and love. When one finalist walked onto stage and froze, all 23 finalists stood up and cheered and said to her you have this, you can do this and they didn’t sit down until she lifted her voice to the mic. Nobody edited or cut their words. Nobody said you can’t say that or that doesn’t sound right. They just put their words together and threw them out to us. I couldn’t believe how brave and intense it was.

You won’t see me competing in poetry slams any time soon. Nor will I ever teach spoken word and performance well. But I’ll never question its power. And it has me thinking— what are the best ways to teach story-telling? To teach confidence and to develop our own language and voice? Is it always on paper? Or is it sometimes out loud?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Some nights it all sort of feels right, right where you are

Last night I went out with Joy.

I have to admit that the older I get, the fewer single people I know and sometimes I think, wow, where are all the people who want to hang out? But really, the older I get, the fewer people I know who will leave their houses on Friday night. But thank god for Joy. First of all, Joy is just about the coolest person I know. Last night she was wearing silver leggings and a giant red ring that I swear has super powers.

Also, her shoes make her six feet tall. And her laugh makes her six feet tall.

She used to take flowers from the tables at restaurants and put them in her hair. I don’t think she does that anymore. But sometimes she wears a feather. Like Steven Tyler.

Aside from STYLE, Joy has it all over everyone you know when it comes to fun. She makes me laugh so hard, and something as simple as crossing the street or buying a shrimp pattie becomes just about the most fun thing you’ve ever done. Last night, after a series of cab mishaps, we went to see some music. It was really really good. Among a lot of his own stuff, Damian played one of my favorite songs by him.

And I decided that if I ever get married it will be my wedding song. (I’m not going to tell you which song. I feel like that might jinx something) But I kept saying to Joy, this is really good. Why didn’t you tell me? I love seeing music. I just love it when people write songs and then sit down in front of you and kind of spill their hearts out and then you can’t stop humming their spilled hearts for days.

And then we went to a party. We were apprehensive at first because we thought we might not want to see all of the people we’d gone to college with. But we went. The party was at a place that looked kind of like this from the outside.

But behind the gate and, um, courtyard? the inside was sort of amazing. The floors were made of concrete and the ceilings were 50 feet high and there wheelchairs in place of furniture and lots of art—some of it made of Styrofoam and a really cool loveseat made of blown glass. I’d love to see how that is done. And the whole time we were there there was a band setting up drums and amps and threatening to play. And it was actually really fun. But then it was way past my bedtime. And the band was still hanging out with everything sort of half set up. So we left before the band.

And outside it was a rainy New York almost spring feeling night and we were cold and kinda sleepy and had to wait a long time for a cab. And then when the cab driver dropped Joy off and started to my house he took 6th avenue all the way and hit about 47 red lights and it took forever. But I noticed my gypsy soul was really quiet. I think she’s sleeping. I think she’s feeling like maybe she can be gypsy right here in New York.