Space

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A room without books is like a body without a soul.
– Cicero (106 BC – 43 BC)

Readers, I apologize for the 10 day lapse in blog postings. I hope some of you are still hanging in there with me. I did not have the baby, as some might have wondered, but simply have not had anything to say for the past week or so.

This weekend, just three weeks away from D-Day, we put the finishing touches on the nursery, which used to be my office, and transformed a corner in our guest bedroom into my new workspace (see above photo). In the past, I’ve had grandiose ideas about the place in which I might best write, imagining a small, sparsely-decorated shed in our back yard with French doors, a lot of sunlight and fresh air, or a nice, bright corner room (in some other, bigger house) with ample desk and bookshelf space and inspiring prints/quotations/magazines/journals/art strewn haphazardly around the place.

While I recognize these imaginings as pure vanity, the thought of cramming my beloved books and necessary files in this tiny guest bedroom corner has still depressed me. I knew it was coming, but hadn’t had the energy or the strength to face it. I’ve been using our living room as an office, perching myself Indian-style on the couch (with Ivy by my side) for hours on end, covering our too-large coffee table with reading materials and the Mac, cluttering the biggest room of our home (which is still rather small) with papers, receipts, and whatever shoes I might kick off in the throws of creative process.

This weekend, APK put an end to all that nonsense. He claimed his own nesting instincts with such enthusiasm he really could have been in his own male-style pregnancy trimester. From the glider in the nursery, I watched as he cleaned out closets, shoving two bags of golf clubs, old briefcases, keepsake boxes and random junk into unspecified locations. He artfully reorganized my bookshelf, rearranged furniture, created a make-shift file cabinet for me out of a little table with hidden trunk-space. By the time Andrew was finished, the guest bedroom corner looked way more professional and organized than my previous “office” (a real catchall room) and was far cozier. Thanks to his efforts, I’ve spent the morning comfortably confined by a real desk in front of a window with a hot cup of tea, plenty of books within reach, and Ivy still beside me.

Throughout my pregnancy, I have been the uneasy recipient of well-meaning ladies’ commentaries on how “life will never be the same” once the child arrives, and intensely annoyed by other misguided attempts at humor in which young mothers claim I’ll want to “put the baby back in the womb” once I’ve had it at home for a few days. Gee, thanks – all that sounds like a lot of fun. (To which these people would respond, “Oh, it is fun, so much fun. It’s just a different kind of fun.”)

So it’s no surprise that fixing up a permanent space for my pre-baby self – the self with a writerly bent and time for creativity – has made me feel as though I am claiming a space, however tiny, that will remind me of what I feel called to. It was silly of me to think that a tangible space would make or break my creativity – a means of procrastination I relied on too easily – or to fear that having the baby take over my old office was a metaphor for him/her taking over my brain space/life/general sense of sanity.

In the end, after all this dithering about where my “stuff” would go and where I might be inspired, I’ve discovered that my physical space could be a table at a coffee shop, or a local library carel, or underneath a tree. As long as it feels like it’s “mine,” the details don’t matter much. The more vital lesson here is that I (and any other writer, regardless of motherhood or other life swings) give myself to the mental space of the work, that I make wiser use of my time, that I hole up in whatever sliver of space exists, do what I have been trained to do, and enjoy it.

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Narrative – A Magazine Review

I’d planned on reviewing Special Topics in Calamity Physics, a novel by the young and talented (and beautiful) Marisha Pessl, but I couldn’t get through it in time. I blame this not on the writer, but on my own brain’s current fitful, circuitous state. My mother-in-law and mother, two women whose literary opinions I hold in high esteem, both thought the book was brilliant. It just wasn’t linear enough or short enough for me right now and I needed to give myself permission to put it down.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with magazines lately, both as a means of planning submissions and as a source for inspiration. Narrative Magazine is an online literary journal; in its five years of existence, it has blazed a path of great prestige in the online world. To say you have been published by them means that you are Well On Your Way (if you aren’t already There); in the journal’s current issue are essays by Gail Godwin and Bill Barich, both Guggenheim fellows, fiction by a woman named Ann Pancake, who I happily discovered a few years ago, and poetry by Ted Kooser – the US poet laureate from 2004-2006 – among others.

Whether the writing featured in Narrative is by Guggenheim fellows or by up-and-comers, I’ve found it is consistently engaging, moving, solid and smart. Yesterday, I read a piece by Wendy Sanford called “Bodies.” It depressed me. In fact, it depressed me and the depression stayed with me – which is always proof of good writing. This morning, I read the magazine’s excerpt of Gail Godwin’s “Solo Notes,” and got inspired – and the inspiration has stayed with me. I will feast upon Narrative’s pages until I’ve read each piece even if its writing makes me angry for an entire day, or wistful, because there is such joy and satisfaction that comes from reading good sentences, such affirmation to be found in reading about Things That Matter.

In my opinion, there are few magazines – in print or online – that offer readers such fine work with such consistency. The Establishment once dismissed online publishing as unsophisticated – akin to self-publishing and self-promotion – but we are living in a digital age, and digital media has begun to become very sophisticated, indeed. Best of all, Narrative is free!

The Writing Life

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“Freedom lies in being bold.” – Robert Frost

When I tell people I’m a writer, they get very excited. I’m not sure what they imagine when I tell them about my profession, but the reactions I’ve received imply something really dreamy – as if my days are filled with the kind of exhilaration also known by Arctic explorers and trapeze artists.

The truth is, when I am actually writing my days do sometimes feel bound only to creativity and adventure. When I am plowing fields of words or walking uncharted terrain with a new character, life really could not be better. But given the way most of my days shape up – the query letters, mostly bound for rejection, the internal and external land mines I must navigate, the “writing jobs” that pay only $10/hour – I find these strangers’ enthusiasms mystifying.

I wonder if I have somehow missed out on the hidden magic that lies within a writer’s life. I envy those who think for me a life of full-time reading, creativity, bliss. I wonder if it wouldn’t just be better to imagine myself a writer, and this edges me closer to the other side: the side that believes in practicality; the side that heralds the decision to become a bank teller, a Jeanie, or a dog walker. (I have considered, at one point or another, all three.)

Yet, if there is truth to Robert Frost’s quote, above, then I am on a path to freedom, allbeit crooked and kind of muddy. Claiming space for myself as a writer – despite what the world would like to tell me about other, more practical, “worthwhile” professions – is one of the boldest things I’ve ever done.

I’ve been reading Annie Dillard’s The Writer’s Life and have been so encouraged to learn of the land minds she, a Pulitzer-prize winning author, navigates as she writes. She must have a room without a view; she questions the accessibility of her work. She wonders why she spends her time doing something that she dislikes so often, and why she didn’t choose to be a ferry operator or a wood splitter instead.

I haven’t made it all the way through Dillard’s book to know her answer yet, but I think it must have something to do with Robert Frost. There is freedom in being bold, in taking the risk on oneself — just as there is freedom to be found in the knowledge one pulls from themselves or from their subjects as they’re writing.

Donald Hall has said, “Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing,” and I think he could not be more right. The people who make it at this job today have a mental and emotional toughness I am only just now coming to realize. The industry demands that writers have it, demands that they be able to maintain artistic integrity AND sell out the shelves at Barnes and Noble.

While on a recent road trip, Andrew and I popped Thoreau’s Walden into the tape player and listened as his beautiful language rolled past. I began to wonder what his book proposal – had he written one – would have looked like, what sort of marketing spin he could have offered to an agent, how he would have convinced him or her that at least ten or twenty thousand people would want to buy his book, if not more. The sad truth of the matter is that beautiful writing and timeless, overarching themes (alone) don’t appear to sell books anymore, and I wonder how many Thoreaus the world is missing out on.

This, in practice, is not a very good thing to think about, and I do not encourage it. However, it’s worth mentioning in a public forum because I want to urge people – not just other writers or teachers, etc. but regular American people – to look beyond the bestseller list, to explore a book or (!) a literary journal (!) or a magazine that might be intriguing and/or delightful, but just slightly off the beaten path.

Oh, does everything come back to Robert Frost? Go take the road less traveled by …

Great With Child – A Book Review

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** I’ve decided to take my friend Richard’s advice and begin reviewing books on my blog.  I’m hoping that this will motivate me to read more voraciously.  ** 

There are a lot of books on the market about pregnancy, and even more, I’m sure, about parenting. I dislike these books. I say this a few weeks into my third trimester after receiving (from well-meaning friends and acquaintances) a stack of them almost as tall as my bedside table.

Of these many texts, the ones I’ve thumbed through have left me feeling somewhat uneasy, or alarmed, or angry.  I nearly threw one across the room.  The marketers of these books impose a sort of moral authority over pregnant women, suggesting through various means that one will be an unfit mother unless she reads What to Expect When You’re Expecting from cover to cover.  The books also appear to be written by people who might also, say, have too-strong opinions about things like the NRA, or taxes, or the space shuttle program. Like heat-seeking missiles, the writers target with remarkable focus expectant mothers’ unique vulnerabilities, sending already tweaked-out hormones into a new and utterly unpredictable frenzy.  The authors of these books take on the sort of know-it-all tone that used to make me want to hit someone hard with a kickball when I was in middle school.

My doctor’s first word of advice to me, when I was just eight weeks along, was to rely on her when I had questions or fears and to avoid all books and web sites concerning pregnancy and childbirth. She needn’t have worried.

But among the stack of pedantic, agenda-driven pregnancy books there is one shining gem: Great with Child by Beth Ann Fennelly. Fennelly is a poet and professor of writing at Old Miss who wrote a series of encouraging letters to her friend Kathleen during K’s pregnancy. In Great With Child – the book that resulted from these missives – Fennelly, who herself has two children, gives pregnancy and parenthood its due while celebrating (and sometimes bemoaning) its mysteries and its madness. She offers Kathleen both grace and freedom, covering topics from miscarriage to the administration of pain medication to work/life balance with a calm, supportive, reassuring voice.

Great With Child will not tell expectant mothers when their babies’ ear drums are forming, this is true, but Fennelly’s poetic sensibilities offer readers a broader, more literary and more powerfully feminist view of what it means to be “expecting.”

Time Out

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Since so many of you offered me helpful feedback on my manuscript/book proposal, I thought I’d take a little break from my travelogue to give you the latest update on my agent search.

Prior to leaving for Italy, I sent four chapters of my much-revised manuscript to JW in New York City. For those of you who don’t have the pleasure to experience this, sending out a manuscript feels a little like sitting in a quiet room while watching someone else read writing you’ve bled onto the page. So, I decided that abiding the silence while in Tuscany was one of the best lines of defense ever. If JW hated my newest batch of writing, it wouldn’t hurt so much to hear about it while in, or shortly after returning from, Europe.

As it turns out, I didn’t hear from JW during the two weeks we were gone, but got a lovely email upon my return to the States. He’s not interested in selling the Bluebird, but he is interested in my writing and would be interested in working with me on something else – if the muses stirred. A mixture of relief and slight (really only slight, much to my surprise) disappointment washed over me when I read his email.

If JW had decided to sign me up and shop the Bluebird around to publishers, I’d begun to wonder how I would get the writing done, and if I would, in the end, be a huge disappointment to him and to myself. Plus, with the impending arrival of Baby Kintz in February, and at least 4 or 5 months more of reporting and research to do on the Bluebird as a whole, time felt incredibly slight. In the face of all this my energy for the project was beginning to lag, and I wondered if I’d be able to revive my passion enough for a publishing deal.

Don’t worry – I have had moments when I’ve felt my writing career might be over, and that I’ve already written my one good idea … I’m not that abnormal. But there’s also a part of me that’s keen to embrace the possibility of a new adventure with my writing, and my hope was buoyed by JW’s affirmation of my work as a writer, if not the “salability” of my idea. Now, if only those Southern muses would stir!

Gradually, I am learning that this thing I’m doing takes more faith and passion than it does ambition, and since I can’t seem to do anything else with my life other than write, I might as well keep at it …

Curious

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As many of you may (or may not) know, for the past two years, I’ve been working on a manuscript about songwriters in Nashville. It started out as a thesis for my MFA program, but since I graduated I’ve been thinking of it more along professional lines. I haven’t mentioned it here because I tend to be fairly quiet about such things, and because it makes me nervous.

The inevitable rejections a writer faces privately are tough enough, so you’ll rarely hear me or any other prudent writer I know touting the fact that she has just sent out seventeen book proposals to agents. The truth is that I tend to be pretty hesitant to send anything out (nothing’s ever perfect, you know) – which means that I’m often spared rejection, but also sparsely published. But, this summer, at the urging of a persistent advisor, I wrote a book proposal for Bluebird (see Jupe’s awesome book covers!) and sent it to one agent.

I got an email from him the day the FedEx hit his office in NYC. He asked me for three weeks’ exclusivity (pretty normal, from what I understand), to which I happily agreed. After his deadline was up, JW called me and asked me on what I imagine as the literary world’s equivalent of a second date. He said he liked my writing and that he liked the manuscript’s subject, but that he wanted to see a different chapter excerpt – preferably something more character based.

Now, because I was so sure that JW was simply going to send me a letter that said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” that he asked me out on a second date felt nothing short of miraculous. But, as second dates go, anxiety and intimidation set in; I realized that to give JW what he really wanted meant having to rethink the structure of the whole manuscript – 225 pages of which I meticulously stitched together over the course of my two-year graduate program. For reasons I won’t bore you with, I believe that taking the whole darn thing apart is the right thing to do. But I have been stalling, unsure of how to proceed.

This week, however, I gave myself an October 1 deadline. Whether JW wants the second date by then or not – he said there was no rush – he’s getting it. Otherwise, Bluebird will never be heard from again.

Now – I’d like to ask a favor of you. I’m curious to see if any of you would read the attached document (lorna-revised.doc, below) and tell me – honestly – if you’re intrigued. I need this thing to jump right off the page; I need you to be hungry for more of the story. If it doesn’t, and you can’t get past page two, please tell me. Thanks!

A date! A date! A very important date!

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Today, I did for the first time what I hope will become a habit: I took myself on a date. I did this at the urging of The Artist’s Way, a book written by a woman named Julia Cameron for people (artists and non-artists) who want to augment their artistic lives. Cameron writes, “We forget that the imagination-at-play is at the heart of all good work … in order to have a real relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to cultivate it.” I took her at her word.

My date was to the High’s Annie Leibovitz exhibit, something I’d been meaning to get around to, but for which I had somehow never found the time. After a bright, breezy morning with Ivy and Andrew at the park, I showered quickly (who was there to impress, after all?), threw on my flip-flops and the most comfortable dress I own, and drove to Midtown.

Immediately, I savored the freedom of all this; the bold stroke of life on my own schedule. And it’s not that anyone in my life demands so much of me that it is a burden, but there is something deliciously indulgent about not having to apologize for parking a mile from the museum (in 90 degree weather) because you are too cheap to pay for parking, of walking through an art exhibit alone without feeling the need to respond to anyone’s opinion or curiosity, without worrying whether you’re spending too much time at each photo or not enough. Add to this the fact that I have been waist-deep in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and the freedom tasted that much sweeter. (I am so moved by this book, I can’t even write about it yet. If you have not read it, you must.)

My experience with myself and Annie Leibovitz’s photographs (from both her personal and private collections) was filled with both a thrilling appreciation for beauty and startling emotion. I stayed there for two hours, looking for stories in every photo.

I became fixated on one photograph of Leibovitz’s parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, on another of a pool of blood beside a fallen bicycle in Sarejevo, and another of two circus performers: a woman was strapped to a massive red and white bullseye – on her face was a look of total boredom and resignation; a man stood in front of her and took aim with a dagger. I cried at the sight of Johnny Cash, June Carter and Roseanne Cash playing music on their front porch in Kentucky. I cried again when I came to Leibovitz’s photo of bloody footprints left from the massacre at a schoolhouse in Rwanda. Again, I cried at the photos preceding Susan Sontag’s death, and the death of Leibovitz’s father. Leibovitz captured each scene, each tiny moment, with curiosity, dignity, a raw and naked tenderness.

This afternoon, while standing in the High Museum, where everything is brilliantly white and crisp (its design reminds me of what it might be like to live inside an iPod), it struck me that all art – drama, visual art, music, writing, etc. – is connected by that which is alive in all of us. The spirit of great art is the thing that moves us from hope to despair and back again. It leans in to curiosity — not just to beauty and freedom, but also into ugliness and rage. Art is always looking for answers, retribution, a kind of hope that sees clearly the pain and unfairness of the world but continues to demand more of it.

After leaving Leibovitz, I wandered into the High’s museum store and was overcome with the urge to buy something beautiful. I recognized in this a desire to bottle my experience, to bring it home with me and put it on a shelf – as if a painted porcelain bowl or a coffee table book would somehow infuse my living and work space with a better sense of purpose, or some higher plain of artistry.

But the truth is that such things can only stretch so far. Eventually, I would flip through the $75 coffee table book out of moral obligation, would, at some point, pass the beautiful serving bowl and think, with disdain, that it needed dusting. I’m all about cherishing beautiful things, but then again, we have museums for a reason. They show us what to look for and help us to see. They silence the noise in the background and force us to take notice.

To make some odd purchase – a postcard? a High Museum pencil set? a brightly painted umbrella? – would have cheapened the experience for me. As if I’d won myself a stuffed panda by playing skee ball at a country fair. So – the beauty will have to wait for my next artist’s date. Luckily, Cameron prescribes one per week.