Let the Sun Shine In

I must have spring fever.

Or summer fever, since today is the last day of May and it’s finally summer in Laramie. Characteristically having skipped spring altogether.

We turned the heat off yesterday and took off the storm windows to replace them with screens, in preparation for our open house. A steady stream of people came through, our agent reported, while we were off hiking. It feels like the switch has turned on and we’ll get an offer soon. Apparently we very nearly had an offer before, but the woman decided against our house because she was afraid her grandchildren would drown themselves in the back yard fish pond. What? Oh, two feet deep. Yeah.

But my mind is quiet today.

I know, not like me. But it’s better than I was last week, when I posted on Facebook that I was “of two minds. Or three. Or four or more. Like a tree in which there is a flock of grackles.” Now the chirping and fluttering has diminished. Robins are singing in the happy warmth. A juvenile hawk whistles nearby. I feel good about my plans to revise Obsidian.

Apparently a storm hit Vedauwoo right after we were hiking up there: three to five inches of hail. But for us, the sun shone.

At Julianne’s birthday party last night, her photographer husband told me he’d hear our radio debate about the voice in my book. I asked what his vote was. He says he creates for the joy of it. If people like it fine, if not fine. He doesn’t worry about it. I’m not worried either.

But I do know what I want.

Selling Out

I’m not sure if I believe such a thing as “selling out” exists, even as I’m thinking of doing it.

Alas, the irony.

Over the past few years, I’ve desultorily pursued the history of the term. I wrote to The Word Detective about it. (He didn’t answer.) The Wikipedia article on the topic is tagged with warnings that its neutrality and factual accuracy are disputed.

The trouble with the concept of selling out is that it requires that you accept certain assumptions. If selling out is compromising artistic integrity for commercial gain, then you have to accept that there is such a thing as artistic integrity. And that making money automatically compromises it.

I had a great conversation last night, both on air and off, with two writers, Julianne Couch and Paul Bergstraesser. We were doing the final show of Speaking of Writing on our little community radio station. Julianne has been keeping the show going for five years now and I’ve been a co-host most of that time. Paul is a recent addition to the UW English Dept faculty and has been co-hosting also.

Julianne asked me to share my recent agent rejection. I thought it would be boring to read on air, but Paul — who I was meeting in person for the first time — jumped in and said I should, that “this is in the trenches stuff!”

I’ll just share this bit from the agent with you here:

I finally had the chance, over the long weekend, to give this manuscript my full undivided attention and see it through. You are such a terrific, vivid story-teller, and I really was absorbed by this fantastical world and intrigued by its bizarre rules and culture. However, though I could gush and say many wonderful things about this novel (and indeed I wouldn’t have kept reading at any point if I hadn’t been truly enjoying it) I want to say upfront that I don’t think it’s for me. I think that you are two kinds of writer in this prose. There is the Jeffe the Writer who is highly literary and has a beautiful, sometimes surprising turn of phrase that catches the reader off-guard, and there is the Jeffe the Writer who is more informal and intimate with the reader, with the classic approachable style that makes for great commercial fiction. I see both of these writers inside you, but they conflict pretty often on the page in this novel. You are clearly both versatile and professional, with a wide range and diverse capabilities, but I think that there’s an uneven quality to this prose that was disconcerting and sometimes distracting for me, as if you would have been better off sticking to one style or the other.

She went on to give me very specific plot critique, but this is the part that broke my heart. And caused my mini-crisis of this week. Plot stuff is an easy fix. My writing style though — should I consider altering the way I wrote this book to make it more commercial?

Paul stared at me like I was an idiot. “Of course!” he says.

After the show we retired to Bud’s Bar, official watering hole of Speaking of Writing, where they pour Jamesons with a very free hand. We wished that conversation had been recorded, too. We talked about whether there’s such a thing as selling out, as artistic integrity. We all agreed that making our living as writers is the brass ring — everything else is gravy. As Paul pointed out to me in a most pragmatic way, it’s still me writing it and, as authors, we often change our style depending on the audience, whether for a magazine article or an anthology. Then he asked what kind of fool was I to bypass an opportunity like this. Fix this to have a commercial style and I can write all the lyrical stuff I want.

Maybe it was the four fingers of neat Jamesons, but it felt like an epiphany.

So, I’m going to try it. The big question now is whether I can do it. I might have to look for a good critique partner(s) who can help me untangle the two voices from each other.

Anyone out there interested? I’m willing to trade anything but sexual favors. Even if you ply me with Jamesons.

Not Meant to Be

When I started this blog, I made myself a deal that I could blog about whatever was on my mind at that moment.

This was mainly intended to cut myself some slack and relieve some of the pressure that I imagined posting every day would create. After all, I have rules about my other writing: how much I need to write every day, what I can work on. All designed to keep me focused and moving forward. For the blog, while I keep a list of ideas for those days when my mind is blank, I thought it would be easier just to “let” myself write about whatever struck my fancy.

It’s become a very different exercise over time. Several times, I’ve hesitated to write what was on my mind, because I thought it might annoy people or because it felt too intimate to throw out there. At those times, I reminded myself of my rule, which now had a double edge. Not only could I write whatever was on my mind, I should. It’s been interesting, because those things I most hesitated to throw out there are the ones that people have commented on most. And usually not in a mean way.

My friend commented that this is like public journalling. And while I bridle at that idea, I think she has a point. Perhaps all personal essays are a form of public journalling. While I don’t regard myself as an especially confessional person, it is important to me to explore life through writing. My head is the only one I get to be inside, so I am my own experimental subject. Subject A. All of my observations are terribly subjective and I have an “n” of one.


A couple of readers have commented that lately I “sound” weary or stressed. My first reaction was to clean that up. Some of it is vanity, I suppose, wanting to present a good front. I also want this to be interesting and I suspect my angst isn’t all that fascinating.

But I go back to the rule. Life isn’t always about the perkitude.

Last night my dream prom date rejected me. I got The Email, which is the antipode of The Call. If it’s true that the agents call only if they’re interested, then it’s equally true that, once they have your full manuscript and are deciding whether to represent you, they only email if it’s a no.

It’s a long an detailed email, full of really useful feedback and some less so. This is one of the hardest parts of the writing business, deciding which criticisms to take and when to stick to your own belief in what you’re trying to do. It’s easy to be too stubborn, to refuse to change in the face of good advice. You also run the risk of trying to be everything to everyone, following everyone else’s direction until what you’ve written is, at best, no longer your own, and at worst, a muddled mess of nothing.

The wonderful author Cynthia Eden (who has a new book coming out that she’s giving away, so I’m giving her a shameless plug here) gave me some good advice. She said she uses the rule of three: that if she gets the same criticism three times from different sources, she takes a hard look at it. This is maybe simple advice, but it comes at a good time for me.

I still have my other potential prom date, so we’ll see how that goes. We’ll see what her criticisms are, as she did indicate she had things for me to fix. Which is fine, if they’ll really improve the book and if her plan is a good one.

The worst thing about not getting invited to the prom, is the fear that you’ll never get to go. Which is, of course, a complete loss of perspective. There are other proms, other dances. Hell, you can put on a pretty dress and dance in your living room. Just because you thought something was coming together in a seredipitous way, that it might be meant to be, doesn’t mean it is.

My friend, the writer Julianne Couch, says she doesn’t believe in “meant to be.” In the same breath she worried about a piece of carpet being unhappy, since it was uselessly stored in her garage. “You don’t believe in fate, but you believe in the sentience of inanimate objects?” I asked her. She blinked at me and said “Yes, I just don’t believe in the big animate carpet in the sky directing our lives.”

I don’t either. Carpet is carpet. I think it’s fair to say it’s “happiest” when its doing a carpet job. I write for much that same reason. And I’m reliably informed by writers who write for a living that I’m lucky that my salary is not connected to what I write; I have a freedom they don’t have.

Today, Subject A will revisit her goals as a writer. Interesting that my heroine is always seeking to answer the same question: what do I really want?

So many things.

Happy Bunny Trails to You

David never knows when Easter Sunday is coming, he says, until three or four people ask him on Friday what he’s doing for Easter. Of course we’re doing nothing in particular for Easter, since we never do. He likes to report the grumpy answers he thinks up, usually Easter-inappropriate activities. I’m the only one who ever hears them.

It’s not that we don’t like Easter. It just doesn’t mean anything to us. The kids are grown up, so we don’t do Easter baskets. We try to keep candy and refined sugar-somethings out of the house, so we don’t gnosh that way. It’s not springtime here, so there’s no celebration of that aspect. We no longer consider ourselves Catholics; arguably, we never did. And, for whatever reason, this is usually a busy time of year for us, so we almost always have Easter Sunday as a breather day — to catch up on at-home stuff.

Now, if we lived somewhere with a decent Easter brunch, I’d probably do that. I love a champagne brunch. But what I love best is the afterwards, the lazy buzz on a Sunday afternoon of bubbly in my veins and enough food in my body to last the day. Like this bit from Wallace Stevens:

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

There’s something to be said for the “just after.” Many of the people who ask what we’re doing for Easter are hitting the road to visit family. And they look pressured. It’s a difficult holiday, being confined to Sunday and working folks needing to be back at it Monday morning.

My friend, Julianne, just posted that it’s “an oddly gray sky in Laramie this morning. The grackles are puffing their chests and making that funny sqwak sound in the cottonwoods.”

What am I doing for Easter? I’m listening to our black birds. And to the moment just after.