Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Balancing a Writing Life

So, today is the last day. This residency went by all too quickly and I have loved every minute of it. I was here at the Marion Davies Guest House almost every day of my tenure. This was a perfect residency for me because it balanced my two sides: the introvert and the extrovert. I love to spend hours alone – and here I was able to look at the ocean while working, a definite perk -- but I also enjoy getting out there and sharing my love of fiction with other people.

Being asked to plan and run two community events when you usually spend most of your time at home in yoga pants can be challenging, but thanks to this residency, I got into the habit of suiting up every day and taking the introvert outside to play.

I think of myself as a commercial writer. I describe my book as light, but not so light that someone will have to scrape you off the ceiling. It may seem antithetical to artistic or literary purists, but I aim to please. I want people to enjoy my work. I love to make people laugh.

I don’t often have much control of a first draft and that drives me crazy. There are two sides of writing for me. The first draft makes me think that I’m either brilliant or insane. Then, I am comforted when all the revisions shape those initial ravings into something that might be conceived of as art.

For a writer, I’m a pretty outgoing person. I see myself as an entertainer, albeit not one who jumps around singing and dancing. I tell tales and I do it on the page and though I’m glad when I amuse myself – which is pretty often – I’m thrilled when I amuse others. I believe that my literary heroes: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Somerset Maugham, George Orwell, E.M. Forster, Elizabeth Von Arnim, Dodie Smith, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Boyd, Ian McEwan, Nick Hornby, Raymond Carver, Toni Morrison. Truman Capote, Grace Paley, and so many others (okay, I realize that the majority of these are English) all wrote to be read. Many of them wrote for money and they weren't ashamed of it. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol because of a pressing need for cash. He loved to perform in public, but when you look at how many hefty tomes he produced, you have to acknowledge that the guy spent plenty of time alone at his desk – and he was writing with a quill. Dickens balanced his extroverted and introverted sides and it worked for him. I would not compare myself with Dickens, but what I would say is that I, too, have been able to exercise both sides of my personality during my time here. This particular residency encourages community interaction; and, for me, that was a bonus.

One of my favorite moments came last weekend when a nineteen year old woman (we'll call her Zoe) came to the guest house with her parents during my office hours expressly to meet “the writer in residence.” We talked for about forty-five minutes while her parents toured the house. We covered why, in the story Zoe was currently working on, her character runs into the Devil in a dark alley and then we segued into whether Zoe had ever written with a pen instead of a computer.
            “A pen?” She looked at me as if I had just asked her to write with a dinosaur bone dipped in blood.
            “Well,” I explained, “sometimes the action of using a pen and moving your arm can quiet the mind or just give you a different perspective.”
            On the first day of the residency, I bought myself a neon green pen holder and a dozen matching pens. I took one out and handed it to her. “Keep that,” I said. “Try it.”
            After a while, Zoe’s mother, a lawyer, dropped in and since I secretly believe that all lawyers are closeted writers (since I was one myself), I asked her if she was interested in writing.
            “Oh, no not me,” she said and she went away so Zoe and I could finish our conversation.
            It was then that I explained how writing was like the Vulcan Mind Meld, guessing that everyone, even nineteen-year-olds knew about Star Trek. Zoe gave me an odd look. I pointed to her forehead and then to mine. “Writing is like communicating brain to brain. Anything that enhances that communication is probably good writing and anything that makes you wonder if you should go get that piece of chocolate cake in the kitchen probably doesn't work so well. Sure, there are rules and there are tricks, but they are all to send you in the direction of the Vulcan Mind Meld.”
            Zoe nodded, thanked me heartily and walked off with her pen. A few minutes went by and her mother popped her head in.
            “Could I have one of those pens?” she asked, as if this particular bunch of neon green pens had something special about them.
            “Of course,” I said, handing her one.
            Maybe that was my favorite moment in the whole residency, the one in which I seemed to have been able to convince this mother and daughter that there was power in these pens, even something magical about them.
            And by convincing them, I convinced myself. After all, one of these pens can create a whole world.

            I am extremely grateful to everyone who made this residency possible. If anyone would like to contact me in the future, please do so at inklingslit@gmail.com.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Mystery Panel -- Feb. 10/ 6:30

Don’t forget to sign up for Tuesday night through the Annenberg Website.
I am thrilled to be hosting the mystery panel at the Annenberg Beach House tomorrow night. Part of it is selfish. When I sent  my application to the Powers that Be to get this residency, I sent in a piece of a mystery, so I am poised to ask the panelists a million questions. Tell us your tricks. Reveal how you pull rabbits out of hats. Show us why you love Los Angeles as a setting. Do you revel in this place as much as I do.
At the moment, I am sitting here, watching the sunset over a rough ocean. The sky is strange tonight. It’s pale blue at the top, then fades to white, to yellow, to orange, to a layer of clouds that drop into a roiling sea. The colors are pastel, quiet; the vibrancy isn’t going to arrive tonight. The sun will go down without fanfare.
But back to tomorrow and the panel: All four of our panelists have experience in film, television and fiction. Richard Rayner has also written non-fiction about LA crime and has a thorough knowledge of all the true dastardly deeds that gave rise to the noir of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hamett, and others. Southern California, despite the complaints about traffic and superficiality, has traditionally offered great riches -- gold, oil, entertainment, weather, breathtaking landscapes. It’s a place where the Bird of Paradise and Hibiscus are ubiquitous enough to seem like wild flowers (are they?). LA has enticed strivers and dreamers to come here. What sometimes looks ordinary in LA, appears extraordinary in those places from which many of us have come (writing a book. making a movie.). When I first moved to California from Boston, I heard, “LA? Why would you go out there? There is no culture.” I don’t think anyone could say that with any conviction today. And if they did, they would be showing an ignorance that comes from not knowing who we Los Angelinos really are. Our culture does not just exist in our theaters and museums (which rival the best in the world), but in our out-of-the-way galleries and in our unique stories.
The Marion Davies Guest House (where I am lucky enough to have an office during this residency), is a place where docents volunteer time to explain the history of a building that originated in a love affair. These docents revel in the history of their city; they understand well that culture is contained in everything from a city’s history to its commitment to contemporary artists. Sometimes, I feel that Marion Davies is wandering the halls, looking in on us all, and smiling.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Room with a View

So, I am sitting here on an overcast day. The sky is white, and the sea is a different shade of white. I’ve always had fantasies of sitting by a window writing and looking at the ocean, and now here I am. Is it as wonderful as I imagined? Oh yes. Even better.

I have many writing fantasies, but none include a computer or even a typewriter. Perhaps, the warp and woof of my dreamscape is a product of my place in time. The electric typewriter was invented in my lifetime. The widespread use of the personal computer didn't happen until after I was out of law school.

When I imagine myself writing, I am doing it on smooth paper with an expensive fountain pen, yet I have never been able to write even so much as a short story that way. I typed even my first terrible attempts at fiction.  

Jane Austen wrote on a small table in the corner and hid her work when anyone came in. Edith Wharton wrote every morning on lap desk in bed. She tossed her drafts onto the floor for her servants to collect. The prolific Anthony Trollope wrote on a desk he contrived to use on the train. All of these rituals appeal to me more than sitting behind a computer screen. Computers no longer make much noise, but the pure sound of a pen scratching a page has nothing click-clacky about it.

When I edit, either my work or other people’s, I come up with different comments depending on whether I’m using track changes or a pen. So, the question is: does our equipment affect our thoughts? I am writing this on a computer. I write almost everything on a computer, but I still dream of pen and paper. A pen never talks back or changes a word without your knowledge. A pen doesn't encourage me to roam the wilds of the Internet or check my email. And, as for editing, I cannot see the same things on the computer that I see on the page. Maybe, my eyes just get fed up with the screen, and want to range over a piece of paper and see white space.

There are those writers who claim that they need to sit in a basement and stare at a wall, that a view distracts them. I am not one of those. I think I have always been searching for an ideal writing situation: a Motel 6 off the highway, a generic room in a Las Vegas hotel, a cabin on the coast, a desk under the eaves of a barn in Vermont, a guesthouse in Montana. I think I should be able to settle down anywhere to write – no excuses, but my imagination is a wanderer. When I was a child, I wrote on blocks of colored paper. I wrote my published novel on a laptop at a desk in my living room while staring at the wall. I still don’t know what is the best writing process for me, but I have learned that having an office to come to every day enhances both my mood and productivity. So, a big thank you to the Artist in Residency Program. Check out the opportunities on the website.