Half the Whole of It

skitzy writer (1)

I posted a new food debacle on my other site, icantbelieveididthis, in which I confessed to the latest kitchen horror involving meatloaf. Maybe the suspense was too much about how I salvaged this hot mess:

meatloaf 3

Or, perhaps, the blizzard conditions outside kept people inside bored crazy and reduced to scrolling through the internet for anything at all amusing. Whatever, I received a ton more likes from this than most of the Scraps postings concerning all my hand-wringing over writing and the story I’m working on now. Not only is the subject matter on I Can’t Believe This  different but the voice and style is, as well. If I’m honest with myself, these are factors in why my food writing found an audience while my straight writing remains obscure.

What can I say…both writings and blogs are equal halves of the whole of me. Every time I face the blank screen/page it’s like putting me in a paper bag, shaking me up, and be surprised at what tumbles out.

Moral of this story: Lighten up. Enjoy everything I do. Find humor after a day of slogging in the trenches. Not everything I write has to be serious.

Dunce

dunce_cap_mode_by_severinearend

So…how many of my 5 readers, you happy few, caught the mistakes in the post “Dating Mr. Strunk and Mr. White” that I put up last night? First, I misspelled Mr. Strunk’s name in the first sentence (Srunk) and then went on to misspell tore (torn) in the next to the last sentence in the last paragraph?

Turns out even one of the best guides on writing does not help a dyslexic writer…nor did the proofreading/editing feature provide any assistance. Just so you know, I wasn’t intentionally careless.  I finished writing it at noon and posted it in the evening after proofing the damn thing seven times! Not just on-screen but in hard copy.

Don’t go looking for them now. I’ve corrected both, thanks to the husband who just walked away laughing, wondering why the hell I don’t let him read my stuff before going public (because he barely looks up from his own writing–which is beautiful and error free–I loathe him).

Anyway, onward and upward as they say out there. I’m going down to the kitchen and making myself a nice cold martini.

P.S.: If you find anymore in the S&W post…or any of my posts for that matter…go ahead and twitter, facebook, blog about them. Pathetic, true, but good for a laugh. I don’t mind and we could make a contest out of it!  The one who finds the most errors will be baked a really great pie–any kind at all: at least I’m a damn good pie maker. Plus, you know, you have to have a sense of humor when you’re a dyslexic-challenged writer.

A Quandray Over a Video or I Don’t Want to Be Noticed! Damn It I Do!

saffron image

I honestly don’t know how or why I got involved in this video from Food Crimes, a part of Anthony Bourdain’s vast endeavors, but here I am in it talking about saffron because I happened to have written a book full of stories about saffron and the reporter who contacted me was charming as well as a voraciously expert reporter. You’ll find me mostly in the second half, not at all as serious as all the other talking heads, babbling along, sweaty and frizzy haired (it was a humid 96 degree in my house made worse by all the lights they carted in), with bags down to my chin.

When the book came out it gathered a lot of notice because saffron is so mysteriously exotic.  I cook with it a lot  so it wasn’t as much a mystery to be explored but the stories I uncovered in my research from which I realized I could compose a string of stories that would allow me to stretch as a food writer.  It was short listed for Best Literary Cook Book by the International Association of Culinary Professionals and included in a volume of Best Food Writing.

Here’s the thing: this is my least favorite book of mine. The writing embarrasses me for being stilted, even a little pompous. After publishing two books I really loved and proud of (Pie Every Day–which did get a lot of notice and I still earn puny royalties from; and A Soothing Broth,  the one I really have a sweet spot for), I had an ulterior motive in writing this: I meant it as my bid to become the new M.F.K.Fisher.  If I was any smarter, and certainly less ambitious, I would have known that the results would lead to being too aware of the writing in a way I wasn’t with the others. The stories failed to take off and be, well, entirely like me.  In other words, I am no M.F.K. Fisher.

However, it’s the one I receive the most fan emails for (and let me be clear–my fan emails amount to maybe 2 or 3 a year, at best). But it’s for the spice and not the writing. The general public like the history but often complain about the lack of recipes. Culinary writers, historians, and academics, including students writing their dissertations, want my research and sources (there isn’t a bibliography–it’s a book of STORIES, God damn it, and did M.F.K. Fisher ever include a bibliography? No!). I politely respond with something that translates to “Do your own damn research.” Mine took a whole year of daily digging through all kinds of books and documents in many different places, that now fill two boxes down in my basement: Everyone else can go ahead and do the same thing.

This is not a complaint–I realize I’m so lucky to have this tiny trickle of notice and bless the few readers it may lead to me. It’s complicated, though, because if I feel this way, why am I sharing the video link?  Ego, I suppose, and eagerness to be at least out there at a time when I’m quietly writing the Clare stories.

I’m slinking back into my room now…..

Roadrunner Vs Wile E. Coyote

Roadrunner and Coyote help

The last Clare story, posted four months ago, landed me at a crossroad. Some things weren’t working, starting with maintaining the point of view of two teenage girls living now. The unnamed narrator was beginning to feel limiting and a little hokey. Most of all, because it’s based on a true story, whenever I tried to fictionalize things, I stuttered to come up with a better alternative than what really happened.

Should I stick with the original conception: YA fiction told in the present with all the details about the girls following current trends? Or settle for past tense and take the story to when the friends would be 28, the age when, in truth, the world changed for the characters in real life.

I really longed to write fiction. I wanted to stretch into a form I haven’t tried in years and the story lent itself to YA–a popular genera that maybe meant it would sell. I’d already done non-fiction and a full memoir and I honestly did not want to drag up heartbreaking details and incidents about myself and the Clare character.

I struggled back and forth this way for a couple of angst-filled weeks. I outlined, jotted notes, drove and walked around to think, and stared at the blank page on the computer screen. Fiction vs. memoir, or Wile E. Coyote vs Roadrunner. Wile was crashing again.

Finally I called in professional help, Maya Rock who, after working at a literary agency and writing a terrific YA novel herself, founded an editorial service. She agreed to take a look and I sent Clare off to her. A month later I received 11 single-spaced pages containing detailed notes, starting with an overview, then diving into each story. Interestingly enough, she judged the weakest story to be “Faith” as well as parts of “Moms at Rest.” “Faith” is entirely fiction; “Moms” is about 65% fiction. What worked in the other stories centered on a believable realism, an intimate voice, adult observations and descriptions, and a more comfortable point of view reflecting backward. Forget YA, Maya said because the last story, when the girls are 19, demanded follow-ups that would age them out. Finally, Maya mulled over whether I should go for fiction or make it a memoir.

“I’m leaning toward memoir,” Maya said.

Writers use their own and everyone else’s lives as bases for fiction all the time. Maya’s opinion underscored that these writers obviously possess a talent I don’t have, if only because I found it hard to come up with realistic alternatives to real events. When I did, the stories collapsed. Worse, I admitted the fictionalized Clare didn’t half compare to the real Clare, starting with failing to convey the complexity of her personality and its effect on everyone around her, most especially, and lingering still, me.

A day doesn’t go by when I don’t think about the girl who is Clare, and that I don’t feel guilty and lost because of what happened between us. The idea I had when I sat down to write the initial story was to use her ghost. But in subsequent stories, she insisted on being brought back to life. I fought it but, once more I followed her the way I always did when we were 16. And in the next stories I found the heart of what I wanted to explore–the true nature of friendship between two teenage girls–a time when you don’t know who you are but begin to make the choices that will inform your life. Our friendship was feverish, fervent and in some way savage. We couldn’t imagine anyone knowing or caring about us as much as we did each other. Clare and I stayed together until we couldn’t anymore and when our paths strayed apart something in us broke and, as is the nature of girlfriends, never quite mended. Then it became too late.

Maya and I exchanged a handful of emails in which she patiently talked me through things until I confessed: Clare is a memoir.

Where does that lead me now? Pretty much looking a lot like this:

remington-typewriter-advertisement (2)

I’ve begun to go back over the stories and replace fiction with truth. I have journals, letters, photographs, and pieces of Clare’s art to draw from. I have friends to check with, maybe her sister if I can find her and she’s willing to talk to me. I have enough drugs stockpiled to unearth the necessary feelings and events that haunt me and bring them back up again.

No longer at a crossroads, Clare takes my hand and pulls me into remembering when she and I lived for each other. We decided our fates long ago and a memoir won’t change that. But it’s real and maybe that brings peace.

P.S.: The first story I turn into memory is The Fashion of the Day. It is now Barefoot Girls. I left Fashion up in case anyone is interested in comparing them and telling me which one you think is better.

The Secret

Scan3

We are sitting in Margie’s small living room that looks over the morning shadows across the lawn, through the cedar trees to the wild place that gives the residence’s its name, The Meadows; another cursed dry, beautifully warm sunny day in Napa. It’s around 9:30 and nothing much is going on except drinking coffee, reading the news, the busy birds outside a counterpoint to the room’s quiet comfort. 

I don’t know why but my aunt mentions Stewart, their best friend and one of the reasons they settled in California. She first met him in Berlin when he was dating her roommate and she introduced him to Frank.  The photo she gives me is of a military man in his mid-twenties with a long masculine face—high cheekbones, sharply cut chin, sensuous lower lip, almond-shaped eyes. Margie adds that he was six-three in his stocking feet.  I’m pretty sure both men and women raised their heads when he walked in.

The romance ended with her roommate but his friendship with Margie and Frank deepened.  Stewart served as the procurement officer for the American sector of Berlin until he was called back to Washington.  Margie and Frank began their Far East postings but, in-between their assignments, the three conspired to hook up for various adventures.

Margie brings down from a shelf a book of Stewart’s many casual, Ogden Nash-like, poems (upon Eisenhower becoming ill: Now I lay me down to sleep/I pray the Lord Ike’s soul to keep./If Ike should die before I wake,/I pray he also Nixon take).  In addition to the poems he composed every day, he wrote letters to Margie and Frank. Three, four times a week, they received one and she answered back wherever they might be living at the time—necessary witty news, both trivial and profound, about everyday life.

“He signed, ‘Love Stewart’, and I would sign back ‘Love Peg…and Frank’,” she says. 

I ask to see the letters and she says “Of course,” but doesn’t move to find them.  It’s early in the day and I bide my time.

My social life has tripled since coming to the Meadows. I gather dinner and lunch dates, invitations to art shows and brunch.  It’s an enormous advantage, of course, to be the youngest person in the dining room.  But that wouldn’t count for much if I wasn’t connected to Margie whose gracious good humor is honey.  Tonight we have a date with a very charming man who just returned from a boating trip, starting in Normandy and ending in Aix-en-Provence. In celebration and because Margie hasn’t had a good pate in some time, we make a reservation for a tiny French restaurant in one of the few old buildings not destroyed in the earthquake last fall. He orders a bottle of wine from an unsung vineyard for our dinner and, from then on through dessert, gives a fine lesson on the region’s wines. He’s not a snob. He has his favorites (Powderkeg wine where they are in the habit of taking him downstairs to a private tasting room). He’s horrified when I ask him what vineyard Margie and I should drive to tomorrow. On a Saturday?! With all the tourists?! We won’t survive the murderous tour buses and despicable limousines disgorging drunks in every parking lot. Instead, he offers a small sampling of his own in his apartment.

“We may scandalize the lot,” he says, clearly relishing the possibilities and, yes, it’s near ten when we emerge from his apartment after finishing a bottle a 2012 Scuppernong—a sweet thick golden dessert wine–from Spiriterra Vineyards.   I startle him in the hall with a long hug and then we totter back to my aunt’s apartment. She settles into her Danish wing chair, I lounge across from her in the curved Victorian rocking chair. Our shoes are on the floor and our pretty dinner outfits are loose and wrinkled.

“Stewart asked me why I stopped writing him,” she says.

It’s the same as the morning—Stewart’s name mentioned from nowhere. When did the letters stop, though?

“He reminded me: ‘For two years, I didn’t hear anything from you.’”

“What about Frank? He didn’t write, either?”

“Not him, either.”

“Why not?”

“I couldn’t tell him what the matter was. I didn’t know myself.”

“What was the matter?”

“I don’t know,” she says and, while I believe she means it, I’m pretty sure she does know.

“Something happened,” she says.

“What?”

She studies a point on the carpet for a while. “Some things are too private.”

“But you mentioned it,” I point out.

“I don’t know why.  But I couldn’t even tell Stewart about me, about that time. I needed the years. And it was traumatic and could be damaging, you understand, to people around you, people you love.”

“But if you want me to write this story, you need to trust me about these kind of things.”

I’m slightly astounded at how hard my words sound. If this was a usual interview I would press on even harder. But it’s not, so I lean forward to explain why she must tell me about those two years.

“Things maybe like this shape you.  Events lead up to them and you go through them with what you have until then, and afterwards you’re different because of them.” I hold my arms out, the palms of my hands parallel, as a crude illustration of time, with the space in the middle standing in for the event (or series of events) that create the whole of a life. 

What could my aunt have done? What atrocity could she have committed that wouldn’t be understandable to anyone but her?

“I can’t say,” she insists.

“I won’t be able to write about you, then. No one will really care, or understand, about you and Frank.”

I settle back into the rocking chair, sure I’m going to hell for the defeated sadness on my aunt’s face and the way she is now slumped against one side of the wing chair.  

Then it comes to me. “You were in Indonesia, weren’t you?”

She sits up straight and smiles, no more exhaustion or defeat. “How did you know?”

I don’t, really, but I remember a scene she told me in another talk when she and Frank were walking into a ball at the Embassy and, in a blue silk gown and with her red hair piled high into a French twist, she suddenly sank wordlessly down on the step. She didn’t hear Frank’s pleads to stand up, nor the concern of their friends, or even the Marine guards coming down behind her. She didn’t move until she was carried to a car. Afterwards, as she told me then, Frank arranged for her to stay a few months at a coastal resort being waited on hand and foot.  Back when she told me this, it was with the decided implication that it was a lovely way to receive a vacation.  Now I know it was not.

I remind her of the Embassy’s steps and the blue silk gown.

“Oh.”

“So what happened, Aunt Margie?”

She doesn’t say. The wine and the charming company, this roundelay song about her past, has worn us both out: It’s late and I’m not cruel.

I gather my things and go over to kiss her.

“Let’s think about going to Paris in the fall,” I say, immediately astounded at the idea, like Stewart to her, popping suddenly into my mind.  Then again, wouldn’t it be a wonderful kind of ‘before and after’, a change in both our lives?  And it would be a gift for her to be in Paris once more.

“Oh yes, let’s talk about that tomorrow.” She finds her memo pad and a pencil on the table beside her. “I’ll need to renew my passport.”

I leave her planning Paris, but I walk down the empty hallway back to the guest room thinking only of Stewart and the two years of silence.

We will go on a long drive tomorrow taking the back road of the Silverado Trail where there’ll be few tourists but pretty fields and, somewhere along there, without a thought, the secret may be revealed.

 

Revision Obsessions

word jumble

 

The new Clare story–Life Right Now–is the shortest of the bunch, yet it took two months to write. I have three slightly different versions on my desktop, each representing several print-outs scrawled with edits, major and tiny. I put it up Sunday and have already fiddled with it again.

All the Clare stories are obsessively revised–even after I post them. I know this is the worse, most unprofessional, thing to do in web publishing and it doesn’t let me off the hook that I obsessively rewrite whatever I do–including emails and casual notes. (This particular blog posting is in its four rendition.) After all the time spent in drafts, the Clare narrative and character development are right. But once they’re up I start catching spelling and grammar errors that slipped through and scream more horrifying on-line then in print. That starts me fussing with individual words or descriptions. I change a verb to make it more active and untangle weird sentence structures. I take out a line of dialog that is tripping up the pacing. Maybe I change the way Clare looks and act, or clarify her friend’s thinking about what’s happening to her to make it a little more sharper.

Whatever it is, I realize I’m tinkering with them in a very public arena that I wouldn’t do in print, if only because I know I can. It’s the ease at which these changes can be made. I feel anonymous enough to take them down, then put them up again, since I’m convinced that no one is paying much attention to them, anyway. The site, itself, plays into it. The Clare stories are serious work for me but I’m using their current venue as a workshop. That doesn’t do the site much justice but I feel it allows me space and time to get them right until I figure out a way to push them truly out into the world.

Wait, this is hogwash: If I am so serious about Clare, the mistakes weaken the experience of reading them. They are embarrassing. They make me cringe. I fault myself for being unprofessional. I can’t even blame the fact that I am profoundly dyslexic, which makes grammar rules, not to mention spelling, a life long challenge.

The habit of obsessive revision won’t budge much. It’s my process of writing. What should happen is to find a way to improve proofing and editing or, at the very least seek out a good pair of eyes (help!). Then, when they are about as perfect as possible, I need to let go and find them somewhere to live.

Getting It Together

tatoo girl

This is the cover of the Clare and I collection on wattpad.com.

Publishing the book on-line has been a pain in the neck. I love the opportunity and the possibilities digital printing offers but, for each site I’m on, there’s a whole new layer of technical capabilities/directions/rules/kinks.  There’s probably very easy ways to do the things I want to do in these stories (see post below where I bitch about it).  I’m just not finding things as intuitive as I personally, in my very stubborn idiotic way, think they should.

All of which is to say–publishing is never easy.

I read an obit recently of a mystery writer who for most of his life had incredible success–big publishers, huge following, awards, etc. Fifteen years ago, he started to branch out, wrote scripts for his books, thinking they’d be a breeze to sell to some movie producer: didn’t happen. Meanwhile, he decided he was going to write something other than  mystery novels–no one bought them.  He never published again.  He shot himself.

There’s a lesson here to remember. I suspect I may never be commercially published again. I’ll never make my long-suffering agent ecstatic, never get a contract, another advance, an editor who loves me, a galley to proof,  the weight of a physical book in my hands, the readings and fan letters. For a length of time, these things were the measure of my worth and then, like any other job, something happened. Things changed. Passed me by.  I wasn’t able to figure out what was wrong.  Maybe it couldn’t be figured out. It just was, and everything I did before appeared to be a mirage, at best a fluke.

I know what that guy was going through.

There were at least two times when I either symbolically (i.e. threw/burned manuscripts) or in reality (drinking; a lot of pills; walking into the ocean off Brighton Beach)  was going the way the mystery writer went.  The first time was after eleven long years where I couldn’t for the life of me get published–rejection letters; phone slamming down; editorial laughter abound concerning nearly everything I sent out into the world.  The second was a year after finishing up my last book, with three well received books before it.

Since then I’ve sent handfuls of proposals to my agent and talked up a lot of ideas with friends. Nothing panned out and another darkness was always hovering two inches away.  There was nothing artistically romantic about all this. My writing was pretty much all I hung my hat on. Family, friends, all of the rest of life didn’t matter at all–useless to them, useless in the world, a walking illustration of a foolish dud. I was coming up against what we all come up against–the limits of our youthful beliefs and the discovery of what we will, or will not, endure.  Eventually the good husband kicked me  to someone who knew what to do, who gave me the drugs I faithfully take every morning. It took six wobbly months for my head to clear and begin to find a worth beyond a book with my name on it.

All of which leads to Clare and her friend. The stories are coming at a pace of once a month, including obsessive polishing, although my husband says they need more proof reading, too. There’s no vanity in putting them out.  For all the hard work I’m putting into them, they could all suck, but perhaps they don’t,  even though the average number of readers hangs around 20.  About That Night, though,  got up to 35–but there’s graphic sex and a suggestion of incest in that one, which always helps. I think maybe my sister may briefly check in but I’m pretty sure my agent or any editors haven’t.

What the hell, though.   The girls are out there.  Last week, I even decided I’m going to start sending them out to magazines of all kinds. I haven’t received rejection letters in a while so this should be fun. The difference is, they won’t matter.

And you never know.  It’s better than the alternative silence.

Just for fun, here are the stories.

The Fashion Of the Day

1950s-felt-party-halter-dress-size-extra-small_5

 

Swans

swim rope

Parallel Dilemmas: The Things We Have to Do to Get Out of Here

_Math-Equations1.large

About That Night

alone girl

Moms At Rest

table glass