Monday, May 26, 2008

Why the best narrators are sixteen

Why do you write? How do you get the ideas for your book? How much do you consider your audience? These are the questions we ask of writers, the truths we want writers to answer. And so I cannot help thinking about these truths. And refining the answers.

For a long time I thought I knew what kind of writer I was—or wanted to be. But to this day I can’t tell you who that was. I know I wrote stories that were always, inevitably, about sadness or solitude and the strength of a flawed yet perfect friendship and there were always self-consciously naked bodies and self-consciously whispered confessions and everything, I mean everything, had impossible endings.

When I started to write the story that grew into THIS IS WHAT I WANT TO TELL YOU it was a story about a single mother who had five year old twins and a newborn and a long-ago love affair she couldn’t let go and a fear of losing herself in her children. I couldn’t put myself inside her, though, not in the places I wanted to, I was lost in the story of her adolescent love affair. And suddenly, almost without my knowing, the twins grew up and the story became theirs. And I realized that, all this time, what I have wanted to write about is the beginning of things. In high school we are beginning to understand the world we live in in a brand new way, yet often being told we are not ready for it yet. The emotions and interactions we experience, however, can be intensely real and mature and so often teenagers handle all of this with a grace and an honesty we don’t give them credit for. I wanted to write about this.

The good news is, it seems to be the right time for this kind of storytelling. Recently Newsweek did a story on young adult readers, their literary interests and attitudes toward content. I think, in a way, teen readers—still at a place where they can read what inspires them and what strikes them—are speaking for another generation of writers, who are maybe too busy or too critical to let books do what they once did. One thirteen year old reader, in the Newsweek article, has it right on in my mind. “The great thing about literature is that it promotes the expansion of thought and the opening of minds."


Friday, May 16, 2008

The thing about being a writer. And a gypsy. And (theoretically) practical.

The thing about being all of these things, is that they constantly pull against each other. And that I find myself wanting so many (often contradictory) things at once. Upon writing and selling this novel that fills up so much space in my mind and heart these days, I find that the dream of being a real live writer suddenly seems just a little bit possible. And it is all I want. I’ve finished revisions on PI (for which the title has changed. More on this to come.) and my brain and heart, while still with the twins, is also filled and focused on Jacob and Rory and the twisting side streets of Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood… which brings me to the gypsy part. Because I lived in this neighborhood, and found myself quite ready to leave it a year ago for this beloved New York. And what I find now is this deep and physical longing for this Rome. And Berlin. And the Santorini hillside where I spent one of my very best weeks, and the thin crowded “beach” of Anguillara and a rainy camping trip to Monte Argentario and a strange and terrifying overnight bus through central Turkey. And the places I’ve never been. Baltic beaches and Bulgarian mountains.

I want to sell everything. How can I own a couch (quite practical) when I am quite incapable of staying still for more than ten months? (it used to be two years but, well, the older I get…) and where can I go next? But o. The practical. Because I’m not quite so young as I once was. And my resume is close to three pages. And each job—significantly different from the one before. And I’m not particularly good at any one of these chosen pursuits (gypsy-ing and writing stories don’t count) And shouldn’t I have a savings account? Shouldn’t I have a career? Shouldn’t I have a plan?

But really. The greatest feeling in the world is when I am writing a story (by hand. With a pen) and the sun feels hot on the left side of my face. I’m on a plane. I’m in the window seat. I’m going somewhere I’ve never been. It’s summer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The One Person

It's my mom's birthday. What I remember most about May 14th is the lilacs that grew up the side of our house and on the morning of May 14th, or Mothers day, whichever came first and they sometimes fell on the same day, we would make a breakfast of muesli and toast and orange juice (mixed with water, she always liked her orange juice with a little bit of water) and pick stems of lilacs and put them in a jelly jar of water and carry it all upstairs to mom, still sleeping, and the room smelled of lilacs.

"Are you hungry? Do you want a sandwich" my friends say when we talk about my mom. Because whomever walked in the door, she would feed her. Sliced apples and peanut butter and tuna salad with dill and apple pie and popcorn and chees and Stoned wheat thins and hummus sandwiches. She'd bring us trays of snacks and lemonade, whether we were 10 or 25, my brother and I and our friends, lounging with our feet on the round newspaper scattered coffee table.

Later, as I got older, my mom and I have sleepovers. We make big salads and watch movies (usually with devastating ending that leave us both red-eyed and sniffling). My mom calls me every Saturday and sometimes we talk for an hour and sometimes, by the way I say hello, she says "You're in a bad mood. I'm going to call you later." She has an instinct. There is an unspoken language between us that is perfect understanding. What I have with my mom grows and evolves every year of our lives, but we're some of the same person and some two parts that push each other and what she teaches me is pure love without boundaries and absolute truth and that if I just wait and stop and breathe, one breath slowly after the other, it will be ok.

When I gave my mom a copy of my book she printed it and tied a string around it and put it on her dining room table. "We just have to get used to each other, get to know each other a little bit before I start reading," she said. She knew the book was like a new person in my life, she just wanted to get to know him.

I love you, mom. Happy birthday.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

More birthday tales

Since the very first minutes I met J, he has proudly proclaimed his advanced years as testament to the wisdom he has to offer me. More years, more wisdom I suppose.

On that first night I met him, I was skeptical of his suntan and his his SoCal wit and his blonde streaks (all-natural of course. The OC sun). I was skeptical of all of my roommates, of moving to this strange city where the language felt so foreign I struggled to order coffee. At first, as these stories go, we fought. We still fight. But fighting with J made me less homesick. And in truth, there is something quite comforting about someone who knows all of the little details that will make you angry enough to yell or rage or just give up and laugh. There is something quite comforting, even, when someone knows you well enough that he will write you into vocabulary quizzes for the students you share. “Miss, they’ll say. “Mr. S says you never clean your bathroom and he always has to do it for you.” And you’re not sure whether to poison his dinner or laugh. There are some amazing things about J. A few months ago I told you how he forces me to tell the truth. He forces me to find humour when I want to be devastated. He always offers to do the dishes or take out the garbage. (okay. The last part is a lie). But in all truth, his generosity is limitless and shows itself in quiet and hidden ways. He is careful. He doesn’t want us to know this soft side of him, beneath the California blonde and the very hip t-shirts and the dozens of shoes—this side that I know I can rely upon, whatever it is I need. I’m just have to tell you its there.

My other favorite thing about J is his photo face. He poses. O yes he does.

Even when he's trying to make you think he's just being casual.

That’s why I love this picture. Sometimes at 244 we could all let our guard down and it was just straight up funny.

Happy Birthday, James.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mother's Day and Bob Dylan. Obviously.

It’s mother’s day and I just watched the strange and striking I’m Not There.

If you know me well you know that, well, you know about me and Bob Dylan. Why I love boys who play the harmonica and paint stories out loud and why I always secretly (or not so) wish I were born into another decade, why I wish everyone were honest about our uncertainty and our ego and our ambition and our desire to tell unforgettable stories. This film captures the many faces and sides of bd in somewhat fictional characters, by numerous actors, his music lacing through the film as one constant. It makes me think about the many faces of mom in my life. The so many amazing and loving women who play this role and give face and voice to what I know of being a mama. Happy Mother’s Day. I’m so constantly in awe.

I want to tell you some stories about my own mom, one of these many faces, who makes possible the stories I do tell… but the quite incredible truth is that she was simply meant to be a mom. Not everyone was, but mind and body she was born to do it and I can only hope I get some of that. This year my niece was born and now my mom gets to be a grandmother too. Wednesday is my mom’s birthday and I’m gonna tell some stories. But for now I’ll tell you this, my mom and I listen to Bob Dylan together and sometimes he makes both of us cry. I get it from somewhere.

And because it's mother's day, here's this perfect moment.

It’s one of my favorite pictures in the world. It’s just joy. And I love that my sister in law took it, because she just gets us, because everything about it is exactly how we are. And. Check my mom out. Isn’t she beautiful?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

It's in the details

I love research. Seriously. One of the best things about being in school is writing papers and the digging, reading, highlighting, annotating that is part of preparing to write papers. One of the best things about being a teacher is the reading, watching, noting marking that comes with preparing to teach a new text and developing context.

One of the best things about being a writer is research.

PERMANENT INK did not demand a lot of research. It was straight-up from the gut writing for the most part, with lots of experience and memory and conversation and imagination thrown in there. TINE, however, involves some research. The really fun kind. First of all, it takes place in two (maybe three?) countries. Luckily I’ve been to all three countries but still—perusing photographs, reading memoirs, travelling maybe? Second of all, my characters are multi-lingual. I am not. Third of all, it’s about graffiti. I am not a graffiti artist. And here’s where I have this little conflict.

I am a writer and a storyteller and I have an inherent need to write about this graffiti artist. He’s alive and kicking and bursting with details and so, I gotta get him out there. But what if I do it wrong? What if I have no business writing about this art and lifestyle that some people are passionate about and I have never lived? What if I bring him to life and he doesn’t feel real?

Does anyone ever feel this way—are you ever terrified of writing someone who you don’t know well enough to write? It’s such a bizarre feeling. I wrote this scene yesterday where Jacob is quietly explaining that graffiti originated in Rome—in wall carvings and political messages, just like he is doing in the very same city on some of those very same ancient walls, only in colors, only in vibrant style, only right now. It’s the moment where I first sort of fell in love with him, you know that moment, when suddenly your characters become people in your lives, people for whom you feel so deeply.

I just gotta get his art right.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Speaking of exercise and amazing people

Three things.

1. I started a new writing tradition on Thursday and it changed my life. I met DM in my old writing class-- and not only is she a design genius, she is crafting the most beautiful, magical, funny and captivating triology I can imagine. She is a stellar writer and a dream reader. We decided to be partners. We're going to meet every Thursday at an undisclosed location to go over each others pages. This Thursday was the first of said meetings. And seriously, it made everything snap into place. We talked about final revisions on PERMANENT INK and the opening pages of TINE and suddenly, thanks to the brilliant DM, I am on a roll... she called out the smallest details and helped me re-form them in exactly the right ways. I love Thursdays. You are going to be hearing a lot more about Thursdays.

2. I am trying to stop coffee. Ok, not STOP. But drastically cut back. One small cup in the morning and that's it. And it means I have pounding, drilling headaches. And the sight of this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.

And the sight of this is the most boring thing I've ever seen.

But seriously, I feel better. Or. Um. I will soon.

3. Since I started revisions for PERMANENT INK (which was about, oh, three months ago to be perfectly honest) I have completely given up all physical activity. Seriously. Yoga. The gym. You name it. And this week I realised I am all heavy, slow, mush. I must reclaim the exercise. So from now on this is back in my life.

And so is this.

And then there is no way I WON'T be more productive and, well, creatively driven. Right?