Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Art/Craft of Persona development

I read an article last night about a fashion designer. The author made an interesting comment, saying that this man was "more of a craftsman than an artist" in his approach to creating new fashions. I've been wondering what that might mean ever since.

As near as I guess, a craftsman takes things that already exist and makes them into something different, whereas an artist puts words or color or shape onto something that was blank or formless? I'm not sure.

I'm a little uncomfortable with words like this, to be honest. Of course, I'd be delighted to be called either an artist or a craftsman at pretty much anything; it they're terms of honor. But maybe that's why the words make me squirm: they carry so much heft in terms of expectation. Doesn't it feel like artists and craftsmen should have more of a persona than the rest of us? That they should know or have access to hidden realms of creative power or something?

Most of the writers I know don't orbit in this rare air. We're more like worker bees, putting word after word on a page, trusting that over time it will amount to something. I guess that can become a persona of sorts, but not in quite the same way. It's not a fun persona...

I love to read about folks with big, fun personas (personii?)...I think I'd like to have one. As I read this article (it was in the New Yorker, about the creative director of Burberry) and another one about the genius/lunatic designer who is decorating Gwen Stefani's new house, they both had this ambiance about them that set them apart from the rest of the world, like little kids playing dress up or something. It looked fun. I mean, who wouldn't want to go through the whole day being melodramatic and demanding that bold splashes of color be tossed across the room?

I'm not sure if I buy it, though. I wonder if maybe they really ARE like little kids playing dress up when they're interviewed, when they're in public...but when no one is watching, they're just gifted people who work really, really hard at what they do?

Okay, I'm rambling a bit here. Let me get to my question: If YOU could have a persona (and I'm pretty sure that you can) what would it be? If someone from the New Yorker showed up today and asked you where you were taking your inspiration from in this season of your artistic development, what would you say?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

History: The Musical

I wrote ten pages yesterday to Paul Simon's Graceland. I was vaguely aware of this album when it first came out back in the late 80s--I spent as much time as anyone else back then bopping along to the radio as he sang, "You can call...meeee...Al..." But it wasn't a pivotal landmark of time and place for me, the way it was for some folks.

My pivotal landmarks are far more embarrassing, but it's all coming out now that I'm writing a novel and need to imagine characters in earlier parts of their lives. And I'm finding an eclectic playlist as I take this little jaunt down memory lane.

I started listening to romantic music with themes of love & loss as soon as I was old enough to spin the dial on my Dad's beat up old radio. So far before I had any idea what I was singing or what it meant to be "lost in love," lyrics by Styx, Air Supply, and Journey filled the room as I belted them out into my hairbrush. They mixed in with the tunes from the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills & Nash drifting out from under my brothers' bedroom door, and my parents' steady rotation of The Captain & Tennille, Tony Orlando & Dawn, and the Mamas & The Papas. (To this day, I equate having an ampersand in your name with musical success of a certain sort...)

Eventually, I moved on to REM and INXS...even an embarrassing phase with A Flock of Seagulls. And I'm not sure how it happened, but I know every word to every song on at least two different albums by The Who.

When I read Jancee Dunn's novel, Don't You Forget About Me, I realized how powerful songs can be in acclimating a reader to a certain time and place. So that's what I'm trying to do. It's fun, and embarrassing, and dredging up all sorts of random memories I'm not sure what to do with. So I'm trying to capture it on paper, seeing what sort of scenes result that I probably wouldn't have come up with except for this infusion of musical memory.

How about you--what are your musical landmarks?

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Trees in the Forest

We're settling in: we've found most of our underwear, acquired internet access and groceries, and THAT DOG is in a standing feud with the pigeons on our next door neighbors' roof, daring them to land on our windowsill one more time. So far, it's the start of a good life :)

I'm reading Donald Miller's long-awaited new book, A Million Miles In A Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life, where he talks about thinking of our lives in terms of story: are we living a good story or a bad one? Are our lives dull, or filled with fake drama, or stuck in some other predictable rut that keeps us from really living? It's making me laugh and think at the same time (no small feat; I'm not really a multitasker...)

I've been blessed with enough wild ups and downs in my life that I've rarely been bored or felt like things weren't interesting. But I'm not always sure what to make of what happens--it's only in hindsight that I can see how things have fallen together to propel me towards something (or away from others). In the meantime, I just try to notice what's going on.

Reading this book reminded me of a conversation I had with my editor as we worked on my first book, as we considered a chapter about why I quit my career in law. It was a longish tale that included a partner in another firm jumping from his 37th floor office window, two associates running away in the night and stealing a bunch of clients, and even a murder-suicide. "It's quite a story," my editor said. "But it has nothing to do with you finding the right guy, or the right God." She was right, and we pulled the chapter. I thought it might fit into my second book, but it didn't make the cut there, either. But someday, somewhere, the story will fit perfectly and I'll be glad I waited, and glad I wrote it all down.

I'm working on a novel now, and slightly overwhelmed by the task of creating lives for characters, rather than just recording my thoughts on how real life events unfolded and what happened as a result. It's a huge responsibility, creating people and lives and actions that have consequences no one imagined or intended! I'll confess that I'm cowed by the magnitude of it. But still, I'll write ten pages of SOMETHING, knowing that it may end up in this book or it might get filed away for another project. One thing I've learned about writing is that if you get an idea down on paper, it becomes part of your story you can go back to at any time.

Before The Enormous Debacle (which I will hereinafter refer to as "TED") and our resultant move, I was thinking a lot about how in the arts, discipline gives us freedom. Hard work produces options and flexibility later on down the line. I want that. So today, I'm going after it. Not just saying, "Hey, I saw this forest!" but doing the hard work of remembering and writing out each important tree.

How are you feeling about your story today?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Grateful Girl

It's been a week of packing, goodbyes, awkward conversations, and running off to Target at least three times every day for more bins and boxes. I'm exhausted.

And yet in the heart of my exhaustion is a little beam of excitement. I'm not sure where it comes from--it could be having my sister fly out for 36 hours to pack our entire house and share glasses of wine as we chatted late into the night. Or receiving emails from friends in Cambridge (and friends coming to visit Cambridge this fall) who don't even care what happened to us here, but are just glad we're coming back. Or having a few key friends here tell us that our relationships are worth the effort of continuing. All those feel like so much more than we could ever hope to deserve. And yet they're ours--they're real and they've happened. I'm awed, and grateful.

It makes me think of a passage in the Bible that talks about how when you've received a lot, a lot is expected of you; that all of this love is in our lives for a reason: so we can love other people even better because of what we've received.

I'm excited to start.

Tomorrow: a long drive, a new home, and a fresh new chapter of our lives. I've had a line from the Grateful Dead circling through my mind all week:

Sometimes the light's all shining on me
Other times I can barely see
Lately it occurs to me...what a long, strange trip it's been.

I think that about sums it up.
Yay for new beginnings in familiar places :)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A.J. Jacobs is back!

The awesome A.J. Jacobs has a new book out! It's called The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment. You should buy it, both because he's one of the best writers I know (in his last book he somehow managed to make pithy, funny, heartfelt observations about everything from ritual bird sacrifice to the challenge of stoning adulterers in this modern age) and because he's one of the best all-around people I've ever met.

Last year when my book came out, A.J. was on the list of authors I contacted in the hopes that he might write an endorsement (or "blurb" as they're known in the biz). His book about obeying every rule in the Bible for a year hit stores at about the same time, and even though he was in the throws of his own publicity push, he was astoundingly helpful and encouraging to me, the newbie author. He wrote an amazing blurb. We had coffee after his appearance in Boston, and did an event together in New York. He could not have been more supportive, or generous. I kept saying to my husband Steve, "I know he seems like a normal guy, but trust me, he's a BIG deal!"

So it's with great delight that I say: Run, don't walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up The Guinea Pig Diaries. You'll get both entertainment AND the great feeling of knowing you've done something to cheer on one of the coolest author/husband/dad/writers out there.

Just this morning I had a conversation with a friend about how great it is to have a book to escape into when life seems overwhelming. This, my friends, is that book :)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Keeping your eye on the ball

I'm still thinking about the U.S. Open. About Kim Clijsters, to be specific, and something she said about how she managed to hang in there against some pretty tough competition to with the tournament. I can't quote her exactly, but it was something to the effect of, "I just focused on each individual point--putting whatever just happened behind me." She described how even though the goal of winning is always on her mind when she plays, she had to focus on each point, one at a time, to get there.

That's a great description of where I am now.

As I mentioned, we've taken a little vacation to catch our breath--so far we've gone to the beach, enjoyed lots of hugs and long talks...and taught my niece to jog! (She and I determined that the secret to running a long way is making sure you have a swingy ponytail and relaxed thumbs...)

Today I got the cool news that my editor loves my new book (!!!) which is a great way to kick-start a new chapter in life. We've found a new apartment back in the Boston area, and have been welcomed home most enthusiastically. We're starting to feel like ourselves again, which is good. We just keep focusing on the next point.

How about you? How do you put the past behind you and keep your eye on the future?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Our new life, so far

We're catching our breath. We've spent two days at the beach, watching THAT DOG dig giant holes in the sand and watching waves crash around our feet, and three evenings introducing my nephew and niece to U.S. Open Tennis (the niece: "I just LOVE Melanie Oudin, Aunt Trish!...wait...which one is Melanie again?") I read THE HELP which provided an unexpected reminder that sometimes you do the unpopular thing because it's the right thing to do, and AFTER YOU which was a great escape into another world (and had me thinking of my potato chips as "crisps" as I munched away yesterday). I'll be grateful to both authors when I see those books on my bookshelves in the days to remember the things that get you through life's complicated patches.

And what's helping the most are the waves of supportive emails and phone messages from friends near and far, along with our families who are rallying around us like champions. It's hard to express gratitude for all the little bits of support that keep us propped up, and yet it feels extra-necessary to try. So THANK YOU, everyone.

We'll have a family lobster dinner with my parents tomorrow, and then head down to Cambridge to reunite with our church family and give a lot of people some big, heartfelt hugs. Life is, as I mentioned, complicated...but there are silver linings and patches of sunshine everywhere. I hope they're shining through in your world, too :)

Monday, September 07, 2009

Putting "Believe" to the test

So last week I mentioned that I had to eat a frog. I've been silent all week trying to figure out how to explain everything that happened without crossing the crazy tangle of invisible boundaries that have popped up all around me. Life gets messy sometimes.

The frog was actually a meeting I had to go to. Steve and I had some concerns about some things where we worked, and I sensed that perhaps it wouldn't go all that well--that there would be conflict, rather than conversation. I'm not a big fan of conflict, so I was dreading what I feared would be an awful meeting.

It turns out I had no sense of what awful could look like before that meeting. But now it's been quite well defined.

To make a short story even quicker (and there is something to be said to ripping the whole band aid off at once rather than dragging things out) Steve resigned from his job, and I resigned from the odd assortment of responsibilities I'd been given to go along with it. We'll be moving back to New England in time for football season, which is good because I can't even imagine Sunday afternoons in winter when all that is on the TV is the Jets and the Giants.

We're a little banged up emotionally, and it might take some time before we get back to the place where we can believe people when they tell us things. Hopefully not too long, though. As my sister reminded me yesterday, I have quite a history of bouncing out of awful situations and landing in good places. We're excited about how that will unfold here. Let's just say there's lots of room for God to do cool things.

I've been watching the U.S. Open this week, a welcome diversion. The announcers talk again and again about the difference between the players who have a positive attitude and the ones who get down on themselves. It's good to hear. Unexpected breakout Michelle Oudin has the word "BELIEVE" on her sneakers. I think she's onto something :)