Monday, December 22, 2008
Monday, October 27, 2008
On a book tour, you're likely to meet up with old friends and make new ones. Rick and Terry Grosvenor hosted me in Newport, RI, gave me their college-age daughter's pillow-top bed for the night, bought me dinner, gave me a tour of Newport mansions, and cheered me on at the reading at St. George's School. In Wellfleet, I went on a whale watch and saw 17 whales close up, cuddled up on author Bob Finch's futon, and had a cozy reading at the Wellfleet Library. At the arts center at Kennebunkport, Joe Crary and Becky Biggers, two Rosebud Farm alum, showed up, having driven eight hours to come meet me. Becky offered stories about a python in the Top House cupboard and her objection to laundering the farmers' clothes with a washboard and wringer. I had not met either Joe or Becky and certainly not Becky’s 26-year-old son, but they felt like family. They’d read the book and, having lived at the farm in Australia, knew exactly what I was talking about. I hated to say good-bye, but the tour was just getting started.
That night my mother-in-law put me up in her guestroom in Hamilton, MA, and fed me a nourishing brekkie before sending me off on a 10-hour drive to Chadds Ford, PA. It’s always fun to see her and Harry’s stepdad, Steve Parson. Steve is coming out soon with his own book, a history of his mother’s Lyman family, who started the mills in Lowell.
At his Chadds Ford farm, Hal Haskell treated me like a princess, welcoming me to the ice house guesthouse with its two-feet-thick walls and fireplace big enough to stand in. Tom and Lynn Blagden were up from SC and came for coffee in the morning. Hal had a big party for me, which included twenty folks who’d visited Rosebud Farm, and I sold thirty books that night.
From Chadds Ford I drove four hours to Fredericksburg, MD, to visit Edie Hemingway, who has a new book coming out next year, and we had lunch at a café in town. Then I headed to Falls Church, VA, where I camped out at my brother's house for a week for readings at Shirlington Public Library and Busboys and Poets at 5th and K Streets in D.C. I grew up in the area, and a couple of my high school classmates came to the readings. I hadn't seen them in (I hate to tell you) over forty years. How did they get so smart and so successful?
Since I don't know anyone in Richmond, I booked a cheap motel room just off 95. When I checked in and realized I was the only white woman within four square miles, it wasn't that I felt intimidated, but I certainly didn't know the social etiquette ~ eye contact or no? Say hello or pretend I was invisible? I pulled a bottle of zin from the back of my Subie, locked myself in my room and watched CNN analyze the plunge in the stock market. The next day I took a tour of the capitol building, wondered why the guide didn't mention slavery when he spoke about Robert E. Lee and the Civil War, and then found a cafe and treated myself to a latte and a salad before my reading at Fountain Books, which was a wash because the only person who showed up was a student at the university where I teach, and I'd invited her personally. On to North Carolina.
The Subie crossed the state in cruise control and we pulled into Ocean Isle under a drizzle. Jim Broman, one of the men in my book, took me to dinner and then to the camping resort he's about to launch to show me pictures of his days as a hard-hat diver for oil companies all over the world. The next morning we talked about writing a movie script together about his diving experiences, which actually sounds like it could work. With a promise to talk more about the project in the next months, I headed up to Wilmington.
Luke Wallin put me up at his house near UNCW and threw a good party with doctors and lawyers. I sold a dozen books and we had a lively discussion over key lime pie. The next day Caroline and Jeff Chase ferried me on their boat out to one of the barrier islands to wiggle our toes in the white sand. Then I drove to Myrtle Beach to meet a couple girlfriends for dinner and take a long walk on the beach. In the morning I drove back to Luke's to get ready for the reading at Pomegranate Books. The audience there was thin, but we bantered a while after the reading about the follies of youth. Then Luke, his wife Mary, and I found a sweet bistro near the river and ate like kings.
By the time I got to Durham, I was frustrated by low turn-out for the readings and got lost trying to find Duke University. Durham is impossible to navigate without a GPS, and if one more person had asked why I didn't have one, I was ready to cry. In fact, after several wrong turns and a horrible Taco Bell burrito which I could not eat, I did cry. Leah and Mariano Garcia-Blanco were wonderful, though, and gave me a room in their pretty colonial with bath ensuite, bought me dinner before the reading at The Regulator, and pumped up my psyche. In the morning Mariano made me a cappuccino and pointed me toward Raleigh, where I booked into a hotel and washed four shirts and several pair of Victoria's undies, downloaded half a dozen protest songs from the sixties, and watched the movie Bobbie, about the '68 assassination of Bobbie Kennedy.
When I got to Quail Ridge Books, I played the protest songs on my laptop, and several book browsers wandered over and sat down. I had a full house, one of whom turned out to be a guy I'd dated in college, Lou Fabrizio. The reading went well, and afterward Lou took me to his house to meet his wife and daughters. I hadn't eaten anything all day except the cappuccino and a banana Mariano had given me, and the glass of merlot Lou poured me went to my head so that I babbled nonstop for 45 minutes with no recollection of what I said. Lou's wife is a psychoanalyst, and I'm sure she's got me pegged for a kook. Lou must be counting his blessings that I dumped him sophomore year.
In Chapel Hill I had coffee and a muffin at Dawn Shamp's house. Her novel ON ACCOUNT OF CONSPICUOUS WOMEN came out this year with St. Martin's Press and is selling very well in hardcover. I suggest you buy it and read it and if you have a chance to meet Dawn, do so. She's lovely, and so is her writing. She sent me off to Carrboro with a goody bag of seltzer, grapes, chocolates, and a bottle of North Carolina salsa.
Author Louise Hawes and I had lunch at The Spotted Dog in Carrboro and then went to her house and opened a bottle of wine. She'd just gotten a True Mirror, and we unwrapped it and played with it for an hour, giggling and getting acquainted with ourselves. The True Mirror uses reflected light so that you see yourself as others see you, not in the reverse as in most mirrors, and it seems as if you’re looking at a moving photograph of yourself. When I looked into the True Mirror, I found a woman a bit older than I'd imagined, but I liked her animation and thought we might become good friends. Louise complained that her face was crooked, which I couldn’t see, and we took turns grimacing at ourselves while we put together a salad.
The next morning I slept until ten, had coffee with soy milk because Louise doesn’t drink cow’s milk, and ate the croissant and Greek yogurt with peach she offered. She came to McIntyre’s Bookstore in Fearrington Village with me and met up with several friends she’d invited. Dawn was there, too, and I was delighted to see the room fill up. After the reading I bought a turkey sandwich at the Fearrington café and a latte with real milk and started back to DC.
On the last Saturday of the tour my ex-husband had a party for me in Georgetown, and I reacquainted with people I hadn’t seen in decades. My lawyer son was there, too, and had brought a few friends. We gorged on cheese and organic zin, and folks lingered until too late to think about dinner. I slept on the pull-out couch in the room next to Jim and his second wife, hugging the flannel of the pillow for the final night.
At five I rose, crawled into my jeans and hit the road for the ten-hour drive back to Vermont. The tour had some disappointments as far as drawing crowds, but I have no complaints about the people. My heart is filled with their hospitality and generosity, and I hope if any of them comes this way, I’ll be able to offer the same in return.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
Let's give three huzzahs for my friend Kaylene Johnson for the astonishing success of her recent book about Sarah Palin. Kaylene was in the first class of Spalding University's MFA in Writing Program, and I was one of five faculty members that first semester. We all stayed in the now defunct Super Eight Motel in downtown Louisville, between a halfway house for recovering heroin addicts and the inner city supermarket, which we haunted to appeased our sweet tooths. Half the time there was no hot water in our rooms, and the continental breakfast consisted of Lucky Charms in a Styrofoam bowl. But it was just a short walk to campus, and we didn't know enough to complain.
I live in Vermont and had packed best I could manage for what I suspected was a stay in a sophisticated city, suede shoes, a little blazer, some pashmina scarves. Kaylene came straight from Alaska with a couple pairs of jeans, some tees, and a floppy but comfy flannel shirt. I imagine she brought carry-on for the nine-day residency, and I found her refreshingly beautiful. And real.
In the evenings, after lectures and readings, several of us gathered in Luke Wallin's room and listened to Luke play guitar and sing. He didn't know many pop tunes, but, being a sheep who had wandered from the Mississipi Baptist flock, had a good repertoire of hymns, and when he played them, we sang along. It was October 2001, just after 9-11, and we bonded, sipping Kentucky bourbon and expressing our good fortune to be safe and among friends. I knew then from hearing Kaylene read on open mike nights that she had something. There was drive, of course, but there was also talent with heart behind it. You'll not find a false word in her stories. At this writing, the Palin book is #17 on Amazon's bestseller list, and I hear the memoir Kaylene worked on while she was at Spalding has been accepted for publication. She deserves it. You won't find a false word in her articles. And you won't find a nicer person. Check out her site: www.kaylene.us.
I've been working hard to promote the new book, WHILE IN DARKNESS THERE IS LIGHT, which deals with Howard Dean's brother Charlie, killed in Laos in 1974. I figured Howard was in Vermont recovering from the convention over the long weekend and on Saturday morning emailed him to see if I could meet him in town for a photo, which I might use to generate some attention from glossies. He said sure, meet him at the nearby park at 10 a.m.
Saturday night H and I had friends over and stayed up late, and Sunday morning I got a cuppa coffee, crawled back into bed with the remote, and got engrossed in the 1967 movie, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, with a very young Robert Redford and Jane Fonda when she was cute and before she became completely obnoxious. I was entertained by the dialogue and the scene changes and, since I teach creative writing with some really fine playwrites, thought how the movie must have made a great stageplay.
At 9:30, when the credits rolled and my coffee cup was empty, I got up and strolled to the loft to check my email. There was a message from Howard saying to meet him at his house at 10 a.m. I was still in my sleep shirt, hair askew, teeth unbrushed, not a whiff of makeup, and it's a 45 minute drive to town. I dashed an email saying I'd be 15 minutes late, did what little I could in sixty seconds or so, grabbed my keys and flipped myself out the door. Then I realized I didn't have the camera. Where was it? Yelled for H, who directed me to the table next to his chair, snatched the camera, sped out the door again.
I used to jog past Howard's place when he was governor, so no problems finding it. It's the house in the nicely groomed middle-class neighborhood near the lake (you can't see the lake from his house) and the bashed up yellow mailbox. I pulled up under the basketball net and went into the garage, where there are no cars but stuff piled around the walls. The door to the family room was ajar, and I yelled "Hello?" Howard came out wearing a polo shirt and running pants, torn sneakers splattered with paint, one with a brown lace and one with an orange lace, his reading glasses hung over the front opening of the shirt.
He saw I was alone and said, "Who's going to take the picture?" "I thought someone from your family would be here," I said. It was Sunday, and his doctor wife was working. This is a family who takes their professions seriously. I said I'd seen a neighbor gardening down the road and maybe we could recruit her.
So we hoofed down the street, both of us looking pretty groggy, I have to say. Howard walked with a little limp, which I mentioned, and which he brushed off. "It's nothing," he said. I suspected it was something, but he didn't want to talk about it so I didn't press.
The neighbor introduced herself as Sue. She was a middle-aged woman in a sort of baseball hat, thin and healthy looking, whose husband runs an international school in Ethiopia, and they were about to head out for four months to live in Addis Ababa, the spelling of which I may have butchered. She fiddled with H's camera and managed to take a couple shots of Howard and me standing in the middle of the middle-class street, after which she gave us a tour of her yard, which was much spiffier than Howard's. It was evident that she'd invested much more time and effort in hers than he had in his. But he's got far less time and far more important matters to tend to. And I doubt he hosts many dinner parties or has many magazines knocking his door for photo opps. So I forgive him his lack of botanical aesthetic.
Anyway, we stood with neighbor Sue and chatted about the best material for driveways and drainage ditch depths and ice buildup in the gutters in winter and the quality of public schools in the area, and then Howard and I made our way back to his driveway and my car. The evidence is posted here. I wish I'd had time to do my hair. And maybe give myself a facial. And ironed my shirt. And lost five pounds. But, hey, it's the truth.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Monday, August 4, 2008
A shiny new anthology just released by Yarroway Mountain Press has one of my poems, "Welcome Dance," about a field of horses frolicking in winter up the street from my house in Lincoln. The anthology, Cadence Of Hooves: A Celebration of Horses, contains poems by Jane Hirshfield, Alberto Rios, Ilya Kaminski, Molly Peacock, and Maxine Kumin, to name a few. New poets mingle with the highly esteemed. Get your copy of this weighty tome before they sell out at the press's website: http://www.yarrowaymountainpress.com/projects/cadenceCont.php.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
I was at a League of Vermont Writers meeting last Saturday where four agents spoke about their businesses, each focusing on a different type of writing. One specialized in cookbooks, of all things. Another wanted good young adult lit. One handled only romance novels. The fourth was rather, well, vague about what she wanted. I have so many questions about agents: If I get an offer, how do I know I've got the right person for my book? How do I know the agent is legit and not a scam artist (all it takes to become a literary agent is letterhead). How do I know the agent is good at selling manuscripts? How do I know this is a person I can get along with?
I wish I had the answers to any of those questions. You can check AAR to see if the agent is listed, but some good agents are not members and, anyway, I'm not sure being a member of AAR is a sure bet that an agent can sell your book. Other than that, finding an agent is a crap shoot, at best. But there are some things to be wary of. Foremost, never pay an agent up front to represent your manuscript. An agent from Stylus Agency responded with bubbling enthusiasm to my query and sent me a contract which asked for a check for $2500 to "start the ball rolling." She must've thought I was an idiot. But do the math. If she gets four suckers a week to send her a check, that's ten grand without lifting the telephone. Times that by, say, fifty weeks a year, considering that she may take a vacation, and, well, not a bad racket. And her letterhead wasn't even that good.
The four agents I met at LVW did not lack for business. One said she gets 8,000 queries a year. Math again--that's 32 a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year. Each query has up to 50 pages of manuscript, and each needs a response--usually "sorry." A few might look good enough that she'll ask to see the manuscript. My eyes are burning just thinking of it.
I have a friend with a dynamite young adult novel he's trying to sell and is looking for an agent. I told him about the YA agent and gave him the link to his website. He sent a query and within hours got a negative response. Now, I know the agent is still traveling because he said he'd be out of town until August. He could certainly check his emails while he's away, but the rejection said just, "Dear Writer," which tells me that he has his email on auto response. He probably never even saw the query. Too bad for him.
For the time being, I'm not going to waste my time navigating through the wilderness of haughty and supercilious would-be agents. When my book WHILE IN DARKNESS THERE IS LIGHT hits the bookstores, I'll let the agents come to me. I've got a little novel waiting patiently for some attention.
Saturday, April 26, 2008
My new book, While in Darkness There Is Light, is now available for preorder from Amazon. Search Louella Bryant's books and you should find it. Here's the "position statement":
During the Vietnam War, a group of American friends carved their own path by dropping out of college and traveling to
Kathleen Norris says that writers "are people who believe in the power of words to effect change in the human heart." I think While in Darkness will do that for its readers. Check my website (http://www.louellabryant.com) for the latest news about publication.
I'll be starting a new project at Vermont Studio Center next week, mingling in easy moments with other writers and artists. The Center is in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, and the weather promises to be cold, rainy and miserable--just right for digging into a new pad of foolscap. There will be breaks for pear juice at Bad Girls Cafe, of course, and I hope the coffee is always hot.
Monday, January 21, 2008
I suggest you limit the size of your group to half a dozen writers so that everyone has a chance to speak. You can invite eight and expect that a couple won't be able to make every meeting. Four writers means that I'm getting comments from only three other writers, which doesn't offer enough variety of opinion for me. You might start with a larger group and expect that some will drop out. Committing to a regular schedule of writing is very hard for most people. The real writers will hang in there.
At your first meeting, make introductions and let everyone talk for a few minutes (keep time if you must) about their writing projects and their writing objectives. Then set up a schedule you can keep. Once a week is a whale of a commitment. Once a month is not nearly enough. My group used to meet once every three weeks, but we found that we wanted feedback more regularly than that, so we agreed to every other week, which works well for us. Make sure that everyone understands that being in the group means commitment, loyalty, and confidentiality.
All groups function differently. In my group, we have a rule that we email our work to each other by Sunday night before the Wednesday meeting. That gives us a few days to read and mark up the pieces. We also write a brief note of explanation for the reader and hand her the manuscript back after discussing the piece. Having the story ahead of time allows me to go more deeply into the spirit of the work and give the writer better comments. We have a length limit of 20 pages, double spaced. Often early drafts are less than that, and sometimes the pieces run over. We're flexible with the length rule. If a writer wants to send a huge chunk of, say, a novel, she needs to make sure it's okay with the group before she sends. Exercise courtesy. Don't take unfair advantage.
Make sure someone with a watch keeps time, and allow about a half hour for each piece or however long you need to fit in all writers within your time frame. When we discuss a story, we begin by having the writer read a paragraph so we can hear her voice and how she inflects. Usually she will pick out a strong section of the story, and we begin by talking about that. A "leader" generally emerges in each group, someone who makes sure everyone is involved and one or two speakers aren't dominating the discussion. You may become that leader.
Always always always begin on a positive note. There is something worthy in every story, essay or poem. Bring the strengths to the front of the discussion because once the train of negativity starts rolling down the track, it picks up speed and is hard to derail. Everyone needs to toss in a positive comment before questions and suggestions. We are all sensitive about our writing, and we all are trying to do our best. Be sure to acknowledge the heart behind the words.
While the work is being discussed, the writer is silent. The tendency is to defend our work, the precious offspring of our muses. Defense is a waste of time. The writer needs to hear what the readers like and don't like, what they agree or disagree about, what suggestions they have to make the writing stronger. Afterward, the writer can clarify, ask a speaker to elaborate or, yes, defend the piece.
I also exchange comments once a month with another writer. The two of us meet either at her place or mine, and we have tea and a snack and read our pieces aloud to each other. In a large group, I find I get distracted when I try to listen, but with one other writer, it's not a problem, especially if the meeting place is cozy and private. While she reads, I take notes on phrases that impress me and questions that arise about something in the story. Usually the pieces are no more than a dozen pages. When she finishes reading, we discuss her purpose, how well she had addressed it, and what she might do to tighten. Reading my own story aloud, I always "hear" things I miss when I'm just looking at the words on the screen or page.
I hope it's obvious that I enjoy my writing group. I even socialize with a couple of the members. But you don't have to be best friends. You just need to respect each other and honor each individual's best intentions when it comes to writing.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
If you do decide to go back and work with the draft, give it a solid rewrite. When you think it's ready, ask someone else to read it. Michael Chabon says you need a conscious critic, what he calls a guy on the dock. Writing a story is like designing a ship. You've got a good drawing and a pretty smooth idea of what the ship is going to look like. Now you've got to start building it, but in order to do that, you've got to go down into the boiler room. But once you're down there, you can't see how the ship is coming along. So you need a guy on the dock to tell you if the deck is level, if the portholes are even, if the mast is straight. For you, the guy on the dock is also a good reader.
So, how do you find this guy? In the last blog, I suggested you talk to your local librarian about good books to read. Now I suggest you go back to her and tell her that you need a reader. She probably knows people who like to write or at least people who like to read and know something about what they're reading. You don't need a Pulitzer winner to give you feedback on your story. Some of my best readers don't write at all, but they read everything they can get their hands on, and they read really good literature. They know when I'm off course, and they get a little thrill when they read a description that lifts off the page. Don't discount someone who hasn't published. Good readers are hiding in your neighborhood like gems in the cracks of the floorboards. See if you can dig them out.
You may have to do favors for a good reader, like bake her a pie or take her out to lunch. When your story is farther along, you may even want to pay someone to read it, but save that for just before you're ready to send it to a publisher. In the meantime, ask your librarian to put a small ad in her monthly newsletter inviting people in your community to start a writing group. My writing group is my most valuable resource. Two other members are published writers: one writes a weekly finance column for a women's newsletter; the other is an acupuncturist with a book about medicine and spirituality. Then there's a midwife, a retired elementary school teacher, a Buddhist nun, and a 21-year-old genius. They are each good eyes for my work, and I value every word of feedback they give me on my writing.
Next time I'll write more about writing groups. There are some things you should know before you hand your tender paragraphs over to outsiders. Stay tuned.
Monday, January 14, 2008
To improve my writing technique, I enrolled in the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College with a focus on fiction. During the two-year program, I worked with four instructors who looked closely at my work and gave me individual feedback. One of those mentors was author Sena Jeter Naslund. She must have seen something in my writing and in my workshop comments because she confided that she was going to start her own MFA program in Louisville and asked me if I would serve on the faculty. I didn't have to think long about my answer.
When Sena was ready to launch the Spalding University MFA in Writing Program in Louisville, she gave me a call. I took early retirement from teaching and began mentoring adult students in fiction and writing for children. And the longer I work with writing students, the more I learn about writing. So, let me give you some tips that might help you improve your writing.
First, writing goes hand-in-hand with reading. Ask your local librarian for tips about good literary books to read. Librarians love it when you ask about books because they became librarians because they love books, so don't be shy about approaching a librarian.. Start with the classics, like Tolstoy, Flaubert, Garcia-Marquez, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Faulkner, O'Connor, Cather and Wharton. Join a book group so you'll have someone to talk with about what you read. As you read, ask yourself questions about the main character. What is her desire? What stands in the way of fulfilling that desire? What conflicts does she face, and are they outside of her power or within herself? How does she go about getting what she wants? Does she succeed? What does she learn by the end?
Also pay attention to the passages in the books that you particularly like. Are they action or reflection? Are they simple phrases or long, looping sentences? Or is it the dialog that attracts you and what is it about the dialog that you like? It's a good idea to buy an inexpensive copy of these books so you can write in the margins and highlight passages that you want to come back to. Maybe you'll want to read a book twice, once for the story and a second time to study the story's structure and the author's techniques. Read as much
And read books about writing, like Ann Lamotte's Bird By Bird or Betsy Lerner's The Forest For the Trees or Stephen King's On Writing. For inspiration, I turn to Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, which was first published in the 1930s, although there are more recent editions. You'll find a whole section of books related to writing in your local bookstore. Browse and see what catches your eye.
Second, get writing. If you want to write, you must write. Flaubert wrote only a paragraph a day, but it was one fine paragraph. When I'm writing a novel, I force myself to write two pages a day, double-spaced. Some days two pages doesn't seem like much and I'll write five or even ten pages on that good day. On other days, two pages takes hours and hours and at the end of the day I feel as if I've given a quart of blood. Some days those two pages are pretty darn good, and other days they are nothing but drivel. On days when I can't stand my own story (and those days happen often), I write in a journal about the weather or what happened at the gym or what I had for breakfast.
I have a dozen friends who started out wanting to write, gave it a shot, and quit. That's tragic because if you want someone to read what you have written, you must have written something. As I have said, if you want to write, you must write. And if you must write, you must also be willing to plant your bottom on a horizontal surface for long periods of time. Without the television on. Without people talking to you. And, for me, without music blasting (although I know lots of writers who like instrumental music while they write).
Try writing in a variety of places. I have one writer friend who can only begin a new story if she is wearing her fuzzy pink bathrobe while sitting on her green couch with a dozen sharpened pencils and a brand new pad of yellow legal paper. And a cup of tea. Or a pot of tea. Some people like to write in the kitchen, where they can be near food. Writing and snacks make a nice pairing. Other lucky writers have an office or a studio all their own, and they write there. If I'm writing something new, I like to take pen and paper to the mall or to the airport or the train station where I can see people and hear snippets of conversation and look at what people are wearing and how they struggle with the ATM machine and watch how they scratch their noses or jiggle a crossed leg. Sometimes I go for a long walk with a voice-activated tape recorder and "talk" my story out. The rhythm of my pace on the dirt road helps me get a cadence, especially in dialog. But the editing takes place at home in total quiet in my writing loft. Find a place that works for you. Make sure it's a comfortable place because, as I have said, you should be there for a very long time.
Okay, that's a start for now. I'll give you more tips in the next blog. Good luck, and good writing!