Tuesday, August 31, 2004

I just clicked (via a link from Maud Newton) on an article by Chris Dalton about all the ways in which he, as a fiction writer, earns a little extra income (most of which keeps him from his real writing.)

I had resisted doing outside work for many years. I was so worried that teaching, or doing other writing-related jobs, would detract from my own work. I wanted to keep my writing pure. Reality has since set in. Income from books, when it comes, is wonderful, but it's sporadic, unpredictable (same with income from articles and stories). Any dreams of huge royalties have been tamped down, at least for now. At some point, it dawned on me that I should find ways to help ease our financial stress on a more regular basis. So I've started teaching, and I've found that I really love it. It doesn't detract from my work--it inspires it (although the time juggling thing can be a challenge on occasion.) And I just signed a contract to do some freelance editorial review work. I'm a little bit concerned about biting off more than I can chew (but I also know that in biting this off, I'll make it possible for us to go out for a bite more often!) It should be fun. We'll see how it goes...

Monday, August 30, 2004

I got the weirdest phone call tonight. A private investigator from Oklahoma (his name was Ken or Kent; I wish I had written down his last name) just called to see if I had given up a child for adoption in 1985. He said that a guy was trying to find his birth mother; supposedly the mother's name is Gayle Brandeis and she lives in California. So now my mind is doing all kinds of strange flip flops. What would happen if I had given birth in 1985 and had somehow erased the memory of it? Of course the fact that I was still a virgin that year makes it pretty unlikely, but what if I only think I was a virgin that year, what if my brain has been injected with fake memories of my earlier life? What if I had some sort of wild past but it's all been washed out of my head? I know this isn't possible, but those "what if?"s are spinning around in my skull like crazy. It's those "what if?"s that give birth to stories and novels, I think. What if I wrote a novel about a woman who gets a call from a private investigator who asks if she gave a child up for adoption and she later finds out this is true even though she has no memory of it? Food for thought...
A fun synchronicty: I am starting a unit on revision in my UCLA class today and am embarking on my own revision at the same time.

My friend Laraine gave me some amazing feedback about my new novel (especially the ending, which is very problematic in its current form.) I've been mulling over her suggestions, waiting for the right ending to reveal itself to me. Then my husband, who hasn't even read the novel, made a comment that crystallized everything.

Matt has been reading The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander (my birthday present to him), which is all about finding patterns and "the quality that can't be named" (it's ostensibly a book about architecture, but has been adopted by software designers as a revolutionary text, as well. It's a very cool looking book, originally published in 1979.) With just a little bit of information from me about the story, Matt was able to find some hidden patterns in my novel and suggest an ending that would bring these patterns to light in a satisfying way. It all makes perfect sense now--I'm very excited to put his ideas into action. I am so not a pattern person, and am very grateful for his inspired left brain approach. I am also so grateful for Laraine's beautiful feedback--she has always been such an important and right-on reader of my work.

Back to my UCLA class--I am sad that we are in the final two weeks. I have such a wonderful, talented, interesting group of students. I'll miss them! If anyone out there is interested in taking Writing the First Novel online, I'll be teaching it again in January.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

There is a lovely article in the paper today about my Family Voices workshop at the Mission Inn. Thanks to everyone who attended yesterday (and thanks to those who came to Casa Blanca the week before.) I was touched and inspired by all of your writing.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

I coined a new word, yestoday, for The Future Dictionary of America published by McSweeney's. If you order it through their website, every single penny will go to progressive organizations. It even comes with a nifty cd (which includes, among others, the incomparable David Byrne!)

Friday, August 20, 2004

I mentioned awhile ago that I still gravitate to articles/poems/bizzare facts about birds long after writing my bird-centric novel. I also continue to be drawn to fruit-centric writing long after writing Fruitflesh. And I just found a bounty of it in Aimee Nezhukumatathil's first book of poetry, Miracle Fruit. You can read some luscious examples here. Beautiful, mouth-watering writing.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The body of the man who tried to break into our house was found yesterday. Our part of the story is not included in this article. As scary as our experience was, I'm feeling such a flood of sadness for this poor lost soul.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Thanks to the divine MJ Rose for posting my (mostly) tongue-in-cheek essay about novel publicity at her new Publisher's Marketplace blog: Buzz, Balls and Hype. MJ rocks--she is such an amazing advocate for writers (plus she is an amazing writer,herself. Check out The Halo Effect--it will keep you up all night!)

And happy 40th birthday to my beloved, funny, sexy, wonderful husband, Matt!

I am still reeling from yesterday's drama, but can already tell that today is going to be a good day.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

This afternoon, a shirtless, shoeless guy tried to break into my house. He hovered in the driveway for awhile. My friend Wendy and I watched him; his jeans were held together by a twist of plastic bag. That's what I remember the most. He looked out of it, confused. Then he walked up onto my porch. He stayed there for awhile, just standing there. I couldn't see him. Wendy looked through the small window next to the front door.

"Should I do anything?" I asked her. Neither of us knew what to do. Our daughters played nearby, oblivious.

Then he started testing the front door. It rattled, the doorknob jangling. I was relieved to see that the door was locked. It soon began to thump inside its frame; he seemed to be tossing his whole body repeatedly against the door. Adrenaline ran cold through my whole body. The girls, no longer oblivious, raced out of the room; my daughter--her head clear--ran to make sure the back door was locked. The man muttered something. Wendy yelled "This isn't your house! Get out of here!" She pushed her own body against the door to try to stop him from breaking through. I called the police.

The man left, wavering down the street toward the park, before the officers arrived. A few hours later, a neighbor came by. It turns out that the guy went down to the park, stole a hammer from a fisherman and banged himself in the head until he was bloody. Then he banged his head on a rock for awhile before he jumped into Lake Evans (a slimy man made body of water) and swam toward the palm tree covered island at the center of it. When the police showed up and started yelling at him, he jumped from the island, swam toward some floating docks, and disappeared into the water. He never came back up. A team of divers is still looking for him. I am getting chills just thinking about it.

I'm so grateful our door was locked. I can't even imagine what would have happened if he had gotten inside. At least I don't want to imagine. This whole experience reminds me how life can change at any moment, how random forces can come and disrupt everything in the blink of an eye. It makes me appreciate each beautiful normal moment of life all the more. And it makes my heart ache for this guy, and people like him, who are so disturbed, so wracked with pain, so out of their heads, that they are driven to such self-destruction. What a day. I am very happy to be in one piece, to have my family intact, to be able to sit here and tell you this story.
A reminder...

I will be teaching a free writing workshop this coming Saturday, from 2-3:30pm at the amazing Mission Inn in downtown Riverside. It should be a lot of fun (plus, if you haven't been to the Mission Inn, you have to come see it. It's an architectural marvel.) Writing materials and snacks will be provided and you'll even get a copy of the wonderful Family Voices book.

I had a great phone chat with a group at Antigone Books in Tucson this Sunday. I have heard such wonderful things about this bookstore--it was good to connect with them over the wires. And I was tickled to discover that I recently made their bestsellers list (my first!) A funny aside: the paper places the list in July, 4004. The Time Traveler's Wife is also on that list, so maybe some chrono-displacement was involved...

I've said it before, but I'll say it again--independent booksellers rule! Please support them, treasure them, keep them alive.

Monday, August 16, 2004

I just got the loveliest email from Sandra Tsing Loh! Not only is she a fabulous writer, performer, and radio commentator--she also happens to be the namesake of Ava Sing Lo, my main character in The Book of Dead Birds.

In 1996, when I first started writing the novel, all of my characters, don't ask me why, had punny names, like Justin Case (happily he ended up on the cutting room floor.) One day, I saw a mention of Sandra Tsing Loh's name in the newspaper out of the corner of my eye. I don't think I even read the article; I had never heard of her before at that point; her name just jumped out at me, and Ava Sing Lo's name was born.

It didn't take long for me to discover who Sandra Tsing Loh was, and I quickly became a fan of her hilarious and honest work. I also felt a growing, gnawing sense of guilt over the fact that I had stolen and revised her name. When the book first came out last year, I meant to send her a copy, but I felt too embarrassed about it. Then, when the paperback came out this year, I was still feeling a bit nervous, but I worked up the nerve to send it to her with a note explaining my name choice. I needn't have worried. She was, in her own words, "stunned and thrilled" and very generous in her response. Yay! This makes me more happy than I can express!
Even though I am no longer writing about birds (at least for now), I still find myself hording avian articles and information, creating my own mini book of live/dead birds. Here are a couple of intriguing pieces I've come across recently:

Lights-Out Policies in Cities Save Migrating Birds.

Diving Pelicans Plague Arizona Streets.

I continue to be fascinated by the Salton Sea as well. For updates on the area, you can visit the The Salton Sea Authority.

For an artistic view of the Salton Sea, you can visit Kim Stringfellow's wonderful interactive piece, Greetings from the Salton Sea. I had the pleasure of reading from The Book of Dead Birds at one of Kim's gallery openings. Her images and my words worked so well together. I hope we'll be able to do similar events in the future. And I can't wait to see the recent documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea.

Some day, I would love to host a Salton Sea festival exploring the region through an environmental, literary, and artistic lens. It is such a fascinating landscape.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Just a reminder...

I will be talking about The Book of Dead Birds today with the wonderful Barbara DeMarco-Barrett at 5pm PST. You can tune in online at KUCI.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Some very cool news:

I heard back from Mary Becker, the executive producer of Original Child Bomb. She is going to send along a copy of the film for the family. I am deeply grateful for her generosity and can't wait to see the movie. I have been finding out more about Monkle over the last few days, and am eager to keep digging into his rich and amazing life.

I spoke about Monkle before I read some of my poetry at the peace conference on Saturday. What a beautiful night that was--a gorgeous outdoor amphitheater, a loving and committed group of people. The evening was full of surprises, too--I had the chance to help out with a performance art piece (something I haven't done since my experimental theater days in college), and even got to act as a back up singer during the big concert finale! And the editor from the Mississipi Review came up to introduce himself, which was so lovely and unexpected. We had corresponded via email--he is publishing one of my stories in the next issue (an all-political edition that I can't wait to read)--but I never imagined I would have the chance to meet him in person.

Other cool news:

I finished a new draft of my novel Self Storage two days ago. I'm sure I have a bunch of revision ahead of me, but it is a huge relief to be done with this draft. A couple of trusted and beloved friends are reading it now, and I'm both nervous and excited to hear their response. I so want this novel to work, and I'm not quite sure it does yet (although I know it is a huge improvement over my sucky first draft.)

I should end this post with a quote from Walt Whitman, since I've been spending so much time with him lately. I'm going to open Song of Myself and point to some lines at random. Here goes...

This is the breath of laws and songs and behavior,
This is the tasteless water of souls...this is the true sustenance

Walt's words are always true sustenance for me.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Yesterday marked the 59th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. I am so glad that today I'm going to be at a peace conference; it will be nice to be among others who hope we'll never have other similarly horrible anniversaries to mark.

As I was doing some websearching about the anniversary, I came upon an article about a recent movie, Original Child Bomb. The article ends with this passage:

>>But the most touching detail regarding religion and the bomb, in this reviewer’s opinion, comes early in the film. (I could not find it in Merton’s poem, so its inclusion is a masterstroke). It seems to sum up everything this votive, compelling, cautionary work attempts to convey about the suffering nuclear weapons hold in store for humanity: “U.S. airman Matthew McGunigle photographed the Hiroshima blast. After the war, he entered a monastery and took a vow of silence.” >>

Matthew McGunigle was my husband Matt McGunigle's great uncle (and namesake.) The family called him Monkle Matt. Monkle died before I was born, but I feel as if I know him--we have his collected letters from Gethsemane, which are amazing--funny and wise. We also have a small leather box filled with his various military pins and ribbons, and a collection of poetry that Monkle gave my husband upon his high school graduation.

Monkle asked before his death that the family keep his letters unpublished, which of course I want to honor, but at the same time, I wish his voice, in its silence, could be heard. He had an important message to share--he had witnessed the darkest side of human behavior and countered that with his own light. I am glad to know that his actions have been documented (or at least acknowledged) on film. I contacted the filmmakers to see if we can get a copy of the movie; it would be an amazing thing for the family to watch together, for the family to hold on to. Maybe we can view it while we eat the cheese the family orders from the Gethsemane monastery every year (those monks sure know how to make cheese!)--we could taste the milk of Monk's human kindness as his name flickers before our eyes.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

I have a few events this month (I can't believe it's already August!)...

I don't have anything scheduled for August 2nd, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the date. It happens to be my sister Elizabeth's birthday, her daughter (my niece of the shared jellyfish sting fame) Mollie's birthday, and my grandmother Molly's birthday (it would have been her 120th if she were still with us.) Happy birthday, wonderful women!

Saturday, August 7th, I will be reading from my work at the Fellowship of Reconciliation Conference, a peace, justice, and non-violence event held at Occidental College in LA. I will be part of an evening of entertainment that begins at 7:00pm--it sounds like a great line up of musicians, storytellers and multimedia artists.

Thursday, August 12th, at 5:00pm, I will be a guest on Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's wonderful show Writers On Writing at KUCI. I look forward to talking with Barbara again (this time about my novel.) Barbara has a fabulous book about writing coming out this fall--Pen on Fire. Be on the lookout for it!

Saturday, August 14th, I will be teaching a free writing workshop from 2-3:30pm at the Casa Blanca Branch of the Riverside Public Library. This event is co-sponsored by the library and the Mission Inn Foundation's Family Voices Project.

I will be offering a similar free workshop on Saturday, August 21st at the San Diego Room of the Mission Inn (also from 2-3:30pm.) I am so delighted to be part of the Family Voices Project; this year I worked with 150 high schook kids, helping them research and write family stories. It's amazing to see what happens when kids realize that their stories, that their families' stories, are important, that they are part of a larger story of community. If you visit the Mission Inn Museum this summer, you can check out this year's Family Voices exhibit, see the video, and pick up the book. These are all stories worth preserving, stories worth sharing. If you come to the workshops, you can share some of your own!

I don't have much scheduled for September, but I have several fun events coming up in early October. I'll keep you posted...