Writing Process

Talking shop: fiction’s missing girls, writer v. author, small towns, lyrics, + more

Happy to have had the chance to talk about writing and Sycamore with E. Ce Miller at Bustle and Sam Hankin at The Avid Reader Show (a podcast); Sam also owns the Wellington Square Bookshop (shop local and indie, y’all!). Many, many thanks to both E. Ce and Sam for taking the time to read and discuss and for their excellent questions.

Read and listen to the interviews here:

Bustle

The Avid Reader Show

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How to Write Suspense (subhed: Wait, I Write Suspense?)

Delighted to have a short craft essay, “How to Write Suspense,” up over at Publisher’s Weekly Tip Sheet related to Sycamore. Thanks much to PW for having me.

Back when PW asked if I could write it, my first response was to laugh. How to write suspense? I have no idea. Is that what I just did?

I mean, I  didn’t set out to write a mystery. I mainly thought I was telling the story of people’s lives in a small town, though yes, of course I knew I had a plot with unanswered questions to resolve. When I see the word “thriller” attached to Sycamore, I’m like, wait, what? Not that I’m not happy. Honestly, the fact that I apparently managed to pull it off both delights and baffles me. Then again, the process of writing always baffles me a little.

Anyhow, hope my own wrangling with suspense is of some use to others.

Q&A: On being haunted, small towns, and cats in boxes

Was happy to do this interview with the wonderful novelist Caroline Leavitt over at her terrific blog, CAROLINELEAVITTVILLE.

Imaginary Soundtracks, Vol. 1

Mixing it up here at the old blog by, you know, actually writing on it.

“Mix,” in fact, is the word on my mind today. As in, “Get ready for a mixed-up, mixed bag of a post.” Or, “How many mixed metaphors can I throw into the mix today?” Or, “Our reckless, moronic loon of a so-called president and his spineless minions in Congress have really got us mixed up in some sh*t.” You choose.

Or, okay, more gently, mixtapes.

My beloved TW still makes these for me. Though technically we could share our music libraries through the click of a mouse, he still takes the time to select songs, create an order, and then haul out the CD drive and burn them (or at least download them on a memory stick). Long gone are the gritty little cassette tapes, pressing the recorder’s clunky Play and Stop and Eject buttons to fill the A and B sides, but the sentiment remains. Other dear friends also have shared so much music this way, and I treasure both the objects and the songs.

The first mixtape TW made me landed in my mailbox fourteen years ago in May, two months after we met (we were long distance). He called the disc “Imaginary Soundtrack No. 1” and handwrote the list of songs. The second volume followed the next month.

Here, take a look:

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I was already half in love with him at that point, but these pushed me right over the edge. I mean, good heavens, handpicked music, with handwritten liner notes—songs he loved, songs he hoped I would love? What a gesture. I can still feel the heat in my cheeks when I opened that envelope and it dawned on me: he made this for me. I played those discs in the quiet space of my central Phoenix living room, by daylight, by candlelight. I played them in the car, zipping along Seventh Avenue and down the wild curves to Canyon Lake. I played them while writing emails to him, while writing stories. The soundtrack of early summer, of early love. Many of them made it onto the wedding mixtape we made for the ceremony and reception.

I still have the objects, of course, but those songs—as with other art and literature—became part of me. In my inner ear, I can still hear the haunting plinking and lyrics of “Song of the Siren” (Long afloat on a shipless ocean…) and the buoyant, exhilarating drums of James’s “Sometimes.” They have become part of me, as have the words of countless stories, poems, and plays and the images of art. When we listen and view and read, we absorb those works, take them deep inside, into the intimate space of our imaginations. And they linger, emerging sometimes in unexpected ways and times (I wrote here about how art sticks around). Looking back at those Imaginary Soundtracks, I can recall the music itself but I’m also back in my house in central Phoenix with the smell of phlox and fading orange blossoms, pool-bright skies, the jacarandas in bloom. I’m in my early thirties, falling in love, aching with it.

And here I come to writing because I create mixtapes (okay, playlists—whatevs) for my writing projects. Soundtracks for the Imaginary, I guess you could call them. My (embarrassing) habit is that I play these mixtapes on repeat so they become entwined with my writing time; hearing those familiar chords and lyrics lulls me into and keeps me inside the story space. I don’t really have a plan or design when I create them. For Sycamore, I built the list out of works I’d been listening to and enjoying that had a certain mood and emotional resonance. Here it is (don’t judge me):Sycamore playlist.png

Many of these came from TW’s mixtapes, along with a couple from my BFF’s roadtrip mixtape (“Going to California”). The one at the top, John Doe’s “Golden State,” ended up being really influential in the writing; something about the juxtaposed voices, the opposing lyrics, the jangly, bittersweet sound, helped me open up the novel. In fact, I used the lines, “We are tangled/we are stolen/we are living where things are hidden” as the epigraph to Sycamore (with endless gratitude to John Doe for permission. Sidenote: I might have a done a giddy little omg-omg-it’s-john-doe dance in my office when his email popped up).

I have always thought of these lists as using music to help me write—because they do.

But I’m seeing now that I’m also giving this music to my writing. As an offering of love. In hopes that my writing will love me back.

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Lost and found

THE SHEEPISH RETURN
Act I, Scene I.
Setting: Desk. Chair. Computer. Writer (ME) in mid-40s, hunched, hair frizzing to high heaven. Lights up on ME typing on BLOG.

ME: Hey, Blog. ‘Sup?
BLOG: New phone. Who dis?
ME: Come on, baby. Don’t be like that.
BLOG: Don’t ‘baby’ me. You’re the one who hasn’t come by in six months.
ME: Please, I’m sorry, I can explain.
BLOG: Six months, and all I get are comma splices. Wow.
ME: No, I missed you–
BLOG. (Snorts) If it were the ’90s and I had a hand, I’d tell you to talk to it.
End scene.

Okay, okay, okay. I’ve been away. I have excuses, none of which are particularly scintillating. Finishing draft + new job + travel + househunt hell + general existential angst = blog neglect. I’ve never professed to be good at this (and by this, I mean blog/social media/communicating with humans). But I also have missed my ramblings, this strange private-public sphere that lets me barf up my mushy writing-life hairballs in the ill-lit hallways of the interwebs. (Reminder: Wear shoes around here, people.)

Chapter XIVVLQ of Bryn’s writing life: No Writing Is Happening (subtitle: I Don’t Understand Roman Numerals). The fiction writing is on pause right now, primarily because I’m wrapping up the semester but also because I’ve stumbled into a bit of a creative dead space. Finished a big draft three months back (good) but have been foundering since, poking at one beached jellyfish of a story for three months with no end in sight (blerg). To mix my metaphor further, basically I cleaned the creative cupboards right the hell out. Didn’t even leave myself a dusty ol’ can of Spam.

The truth is, as I cried to my BFF the other day, I’m feeling somewhat lost, creatively, humanly. That nagging sensation of going in circles, of uncertainty, of being untethered. There are real-life capital-R Reasons, no question, but as BFF reminded me as she talked me off the ledge (again!), this feeling is also capital-N NORMAL in the writing life. We’re always kinda lost as we write, wandering around the spongy, shifting tundra of a story, in the erratic unknown of  the imagination.

This led me to thinking about the Lost and Found — as in a place, or rather, usually a box. In my mishmash of a memory, I have two bins: one at my hometown community pool, where I worked as a lifeguard, and one at the college bar where I worked as a waitress and bartender. What a collection of weirdness in those boxes: smelly damp towels, neon goggles, a lone flipper, broken necklaces, single earrings, sunglasses with loose lenses, left-handed glove, jackets that smelled of cigarettes and sweat and with wadded wrappers in their pockets. The flotsam and jetsam of sun-drunk children and drunk-drunk adults.

As a writer, of course I’m fascinated by such objects: all those potential stories tangled in one stinky box crammed in the bowels of the break room. To whom do these items belong? Who’s missing them? A popular writing exercise is to imagine the drawers and pockets of a character and then to write the story of one of the objects discovered there. Objects accrue meaning. Things can do story-work. And good grief, what heightened emotional stakes in those words, the Lost and Found. To be lost. But, oh, to be found.

But today, as I squirm around at my desk with my dulled mind and rusty fingers, I am most fascinated by the nomenclature: The Lost and Found. Not Lost or Found. And. Small distinction, big effect. An object can be both lost and found at the same time. Not opposite, but circular, entwined.

Time and again, the act of writing is my own Lost and Found. In writing, I am both missing and present, confused and precise, insecure and safe, stumbling and stumbling upon.

If I extend this circularity to myself, to my metaphoric sense of being lost, does this mean I also can be found at the same time?

Well, duh.

Takes me writing to remember it.

The girl on the wall

A guest post in which I attempt to answer the question, What is the source of your impulse to write stories?

Spoiler alert: Things get messy.

http://thestoryprize.blogspot.com/2015/11/bryn-chancellor-and-girl-on-wall.html?spref=tw

Here’s a .pdf of the post, too: TSP: Bryn Chancellor and the Girl on the Wall

Marking time

***

Is it okay to be me? … the answer was yes often enough that I went ahead and became her: the writer of plainspoken prose who would not shut up about her grief.”–from Dear Sugar, “The God of Doing it Anyway”

***

Today is the day my father died. On this day, twenty years ago, his heart up and stopped in the ICU, four days after falling ill with what we thought was the flu. Today, like every year, I mark it by the markers of fall: porch pumpkins, yellow and red leaves rusting on still-green lawns, yards trumped up like graveyards, cobwebbed and skull-strewn. Today, as every year, I wonder what to do or say with this private grief that spans two decades, that morphs with each year, rising and falling like a tetchy barometer. What’s there to say about it after all this time? And who wants to hear about it again? Not me. I want to be done.

But that’s not how it goes, it turns out. It turns out, the grief sticks around, showing up on my doorstep each year, holding out its pillowcase, begging me for an offering. Many years, I don’t open the door. Turn off the porch light, hide inside.

Today, because it’s a “big year,” a big fat marker, I suppose I feel obligated to say something, to commemorate, to note it officially: today he would have been 72, he would have been gray and bald and funny and irritating and argumentative and giant-hearted. He would have been fixing things, always fixing, Mr. Fix-It, as it says on the bench that commemorates him at the ballpark in my hometown, where new generations of Little Leaguers dart past with their stale nachos and sodas from the snack bar whose finicky ice machine he fixed and fixed and fixed.

But he couldn’t be. Every year, that fact stays fixed.

And I can’t fix it, either. Not with words, not with stories, not with memories.

But here I am, anyway. Trying to make sense of the insensible through words, through the world of language.

This year, I am struggling to find my words. All I can get at are questions: Twenty years–how is that possible? Who would he have been now? Who would we have been together?

Next year will be better. No milestone, no marker. I’ll open the door more easily, hand out Dum Dums to baby superheroes. I won’t have to think yet of the next marker, five years from now: the year I’ve lived longer without him than with him. I have some time to forget.

Today, twenty years on, stumbling to find words of my own, I thought I’d let poetry, quotes, and images do the talking.

Here’s to you, Alan Lee Chancellor (1942-1995): Beloved Father and Husband, In Our Hearts Always, as it says on your grave marker, our final note, as if that could capture all the wondrous, confounding, unknowable parts of you. Our Mr. Fix-It: hope things are good in the Big Garage in the Sky.

***

Dad, 1965

Dad, 1965, at a house in Berkeley, CA (I think).

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same.—  from “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

 ***

Dad and me, 1993 or so, rockin’ the outfits, at home in Sedona, AZ.

…This morning I couldn’t get up.
I slept late, I dreamed of the single
sheet of paper, which I never managed to reach
as it stuttered and soared over the grass
and a few flowers, so that I woke
with a sense of loss, wondering who
or what I had to mourn besides
my father, whom I no longer mourn,
father buried in the earth beneath grass,
beneath flowers I trample as I run.
— from “In Dreams,” by Kim Addonizio
***

Dad, 1995, his final Father’s Day. We made the tie with my nephew’s baby footprints. (My nephew, now a gorgeous, brilliant junior in college.)

I buried my father

in the sky.

Since then, the birds

clean and comb him every morning

and pull the blanket up to his chin

every night…

— from “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

Maps and legends

Oh, little blog, I’ve neglected you so. If you were a garden, you’d be a shriveled, gasping mess of brown stems and dry soil that loose cats have turned into a litterbox. Oops.

As usual when I sit down here after an absence, I’m all over the place, squirming and twitchy, struggling to make order out of my disordered thoughts, coherence from chaos. My tumult this time is in part because I have literally been all over the place of late. This year has thrummed with newness: new job, new city, new book coming out, new draft of new book under the belt. Since May, I’ve traveled across or touched down in eight states, including maneuvering a clodhopper of a moving truck through rush-hour Atlanta traffic during record heat. All of this has been wonderful, fortunate news, every last crumb of it, even the ATL at rush hour.

But I’m also reeling, disoriented. In my new city, I have to map every errand, every restaurant outing, and even my walks around the neighborhood. I’ve taken more than one wrong turn (even though we adopted the motto “no wrong turns”). When I get lost, I pull over and pinch back tears at the frustration of missing a turn AGAIN, of not recognizing street names or buildings or skylines. At the same time, my internal map is something of a palimpsest, onion-skinned, with scratches and traces of my past rising beneath. In my new streets, I see the places I know, where I’ve been and what I’ve left behind. I sink colorful thumbtacks into their familiar, soft cork spaces to make myself feel lodged, safe. Simultaneously I miss them, wistful and melancholy for what is no longer there, for what I have to let go.

Come to think of it, the whole moving-to-a-new-place thing feels a little like — wait for it! — fiction writing.

At first, every story is a sprawling unknown, a big blank page of a world. You land in this alien story place because something good lured you here: a voice, maybe (As a child, she slept with the cats), a word (gristle? apple butter?), or an image, say of an old woman digging in her garden and cursing at the neighbor’s cat. But who the heck is she? Where is she? What the hell kind of tree is that? Who knows! Not you! Nothing makes sense. You have no idea what you’re doing here or how you’ll ever figure it out. You drive in circles, spin your wheels.

But then you spend a little more time in the story. You get out of the car, shuffle down the avenue of its particulars. You look around. You look closer. The tree, what could it be? Mesquite? So maybe we’re out West — maybe northern Arizona again. Look again. Look closer. That woman digging in the garden next to the mesquite and cussing out the cat? Let’s see. Maybe she’s recently retired from her job as a grocery store manager and lost her own cat recently. You notice her hair, yanked back into a messy bun. She’s younger than you first thought. Late forties, early fifties. Why is she alone? Where’s her family?

You wander around in the opening scene, getting down the details of the yard, the physical struggle of digging in dry dirt with a bent spade splintered along the handle. You’ve done this before, this wandering, in the last story, and the story before, and the one before that. You know these mean streets. It hits you then: Daughter, gone. Dead? No, not dead. Just grown, moved away. Empty nest for a single mom. Okay. Okay. Recently retired woman who’s newly grown daughter has left her alone, feral cat driving her nuts. Thumbtack there and there. What else? What’s the engine? What could happen? What about that next door neighbor, owner of the cat?

New scene: Woman — at wit’s end because of cat, lonely, hands covered in garden soil — bangs on neighbor’s door. The door opens. And who might this be?

There. You’ve got the barest sketch of a map, a legend penciled in the corner. Fold it, put it in your pocket, and take it with you when you step out the front door and explore more of this place. Soon you won’t need it. Soon you’ll walk out the door and know where you’re going. Eventually, you’ll find your way.

Final days at Jentel: Draft 1, Done!

Yesterday, in my fourth week at Jentel, with three days left in my residency, this happened…

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Draft 1: Done! Clocking in at about 250 pages (77,500 words), about 150 of them written at Jentel. It must be official if it’s in dry-erase marker.

…while I was working here:

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The Sunset writer’s studio at Jentel.

So today, I did this to celebrate…

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Lake DeSmet, about 5.5 miles from Jentel up Lower Piney Creek Road. That fine little bike’s name is Genevieve; she belongs to the awesome writer and artist Jill Foote-Hutton, who was kind enough to let me borrow her.

…knowing that I still have lots and lots of work to do to before the book is actually finished.

Still, this place…

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View from Jentel, looking toward Lower Piney Creek Road.

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The endless permutation of clouds and sky.

…has been a little bit of magic, and I…

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Walking out on “The Road.”

… am forever indebted and grateful.

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My view from Jentel

I have arrived at the Jentel Artist Residency for my May 15-June 13 writer’s residency, and all I can say is: Holy smokes.

I’m attaching some photos to give a sense of the place; I will try to post more in the next month although it might not be until I’m home because I’m going to keep my head down and write as much as I can on this book thing I’m trying to make. Right now, I’m about doubled over with gratitude for the chance to be here. Thanks again to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for this tremendous opportunity.

Here’s a look at where I am:

My beautiful writer’s studio:

Jentel writer's studios

Jentel writer’s studios

The writer's studio where I'll be for four weeks

The writer’s studio where I’ll be for four weeks

The view from my writing studio

The view from my writing studio

The living quarters, a gorgeous space that houses six residents:

Jentel living quarters

Jentel living quarters

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Jentel shared living room, with views–and a telescope!

 

Jentel kitchen

Jentel kitchen

Jentel residents' shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

Jentel residents’ shared living space. Stairs go up to a loft library and sitting room.

View from the bath

View from the bath

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.

The Somerset Maugham room, with a view of Lower Piney Creek.