The Mother/Daughter Artist’s Retreat Returns; Writer’s Block, Why the Novel is Like a Lover, and Conclusive Research Demonstrates that Walking on the Beach does not Solve your Problems

Since Friday, I’ve been in Morro Bay, California, on our annual mother-daughter artist’s retreat, in which I try to write and Scarlett paints and draws. On the one hand, we’ve been having a great time. On the other hand, as I’ve noted in the past, going on a writer’s retreat doesn’t always result in getting everything done you hoped for.

The truth is, I’ve been struggling with the rewrite of my WIP that was indicated by my last bit of agent feedback. I know I have to revise again, but it’s the very last thing I want to do. I’d rather do anything, whether it’s walk on the beach, make sandwiches and tea, take a nap, or ride bikes across town, than revise. And now, thanks to using my best discipline, I’m on page 144 out of 320 pages and I’m sick of it.

Sick of it.

Sick of it.

This book is awful! I think to myself. Awful. What did I ever see in it?

I read Alexander Chee’s essay, 100 Things about Writing a Novel, and it helps. The novel wants to be written. It’s not a thing, it’s a character in your life. It’s like a lover you’ve had a fight with. It argues, it cajoles. It takes up more of your time than you wanted to give. It is an interloper, an interruption.

It will not be shut up. You have to finish it or you will not have any peace. You can go walk on the beach but that will not get it written any faster, it will just keep you from writing for the time you were on the beach.

Alexander Chee: The conclusion to 100 Things About Writing A Novel.

Writer biographies I read talk about this: the taking of time you don’t want to take. The discipline to write when you don’t want to. Hemingway dealt with this, it’s why he said you should always stop somewhere when you know what happens next so that you can start again the next day.

Yet in the end Hemingway was brought to despair by writer’s block.

I write a poem about horses. I submit some shorts I wrote last year to literary magazines. I look at the novel itself. It rises like Morro Rock in front of me. I believe it can be finished. I must show up to the computer. I can do this.

Morro Bay at twilight last night.

Online Memoir Summit from Village Writing School: Going on now, and it’s free!!!

All right, if you don’t have something to do this weekend, and you’re interested in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction, or you just want to listen to  some very cool and inspirational writing videos by some knowledgeable and admirably-published writers, MFA teachers, and industry insiders, here’s your gig.  And you don’t even have to pay for it.  Unbelievable.

What: Village Writing School Memoir Summit

When:  This weekend

Where: Your home computer

How: By Youtube video

Why: Because it’s the exact same type of presentation you get from going to a writer’s conference, without the travel time and the price tag of $100 to $400.

Marcel Proust on the writer’s creation of fiction through fact and memory, and also, incidentally, rejection

The move to Colorado has left me absolutely busted, financially and to some degree emotionally, even as I feeimg_20181104_0706181487267935.jpgl a sense of victory and liberation to relocate to “the freedom lands.”  To sooth my jangled nerves, I have taken up listening to a biography of Proust while knitting.  Although admonished by a Facebook friend that doing so was “ like [reading] a Cliffnote’s version of A La Recherche du Temp Perdu (more conventionally known as Remembrance of Times Past).” I couldn’t find a full copy of the famous memoir-novel for free online listening, so I had to make accommodations.

The act of knitting while listening to a book is both relaxing and an extreme meditation on the writing.

Important writer’s knowings from Proust:

  1. “An I that is not I:” Proust created this formula for his masterpiece. It was at the time a new innovation.  First person narrators had been used before, such as by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, but it seems that no one had yet created what I might called a semi-memoir:  A work which is partly factual, and partly fictional.
  2. Finding material: Proust handily changed a young man, Albert, into a young woman, Albertine, for the purpose of his love story.  Masking real people into characters, he combined others and renamed still others, basing whole families of characters on their real counterparts.  The anger and objections of people involved were predictable. Yet in this way he was able to write the semi-memoir and claim it to be fiction. It seems few were fooled.
  3. Rejection.  Proust was devastated when the first part of his work, Swann’s Way, was rejected by the foremost French publishing house of avant-garde works at the time.  But it seems the rejection was personal: the editor had met Proust and was offended by his social climbing and his dilettantish ways as a young man.  Thus the work didn’t get an unbiased reading.  This rejection occurred even though Proust proposed to pay for the publication. Proust was crushed and had to go with a newbie publisher.  This reminds me of how much matters extraneous to the work, such as personal impressions and thematic or subject specifics, can impact the reception of one’s writing.

A muse over my muses

Who or what could be my muse? A real person whom I love? A saint? A creature I believe exists in the spirit realm?

Could a type of event be a muse? Hemingway was inspired by war and by bullfighting. Zelda was Fitzgerald’s muse. Sylvia Plath had her father and Ted, and even her college boyfriend was used to fuel her art. That brings us to Ezra Pound, whose true Penelope was, he said, Gustave Flaubert.

Could your muse be a crime? I’m reading a true crime book, “I’ll be gone in the night” about the East Area Rapist, and it seems that tracking down a killer is author Michelle McNamara’s muse.

How about place? I’ve been inspired by place more than once, writing about California and about Rome.

Now, in the distance, I hear a train whistle moaning, crying. I imagine it rocking past the prairie dog town. Fort Collins is a place with much placeness. One could write about Fort Collins, with its bearded men, many looking marginally educated but then doing complicated paperwork correctly, like the guy at the U-Haul place. The men of Colorado are a study. I get the impression there’s a lot going on underneath the surface.

In Texas I learned how to find other writers. Texas has an active and well-developed literature and writing community but but I never found I wanted to write about Texas. But Colorado is something else entirely.

Yesterday I was driving home from work and as I came across the very last miles of the Great Plains, driving west up to the Front Range of the Rockies. The haze of September had been rained down earlier in the week. And I saw, for the first time, the real mountains themselves. Not the rolling hills I’ve seen before, but mountains, far into the sky, higher than what seemed possible, their peaks unreachable, their slopes laid out in silver granite ridges and saddles filled with snow.

This must be what my grandfather felt when he became a mountain climber, when he with ropes and clampons went climbing the Matterhorn and the Grand Teton and I can’t remember what else.

Half of Colorado is wilderness and mountains. And mountains speak to me of the ineffable, the truth beyond what we know and see …

I wonder if the mountains could be someone’s muse.

Mini Memoir: In which Leo and I don’t agree what “right away” means

img_20181009_2009341895993173.jpgSo Leo wanted to know if I would hem his cricket sweats.

“Yeah sure.  But do you need it done right away?”

“No, no, by first thing tomorrow morning will do.”  It’s 6:00 o’clock p.m. It’s a work night.



“By bedtime tonight is right away.”

“Oh.  Well, then, yes right away.”

A very abbreviated sigh. “Okay.  I’ll do it while I rewatch Maniac on Netflix.”

I fought the Muse and the Muse Won …

Nine Muses card by Emily Balivet

I’m building on a blog post from Unbolt Me here in which Tony Single is discussing the question of what the writer’s muse really looks like, and whether you can create your own, and whether you should trust the @#$%^&** muse anyway. I claimed in the comments thread that in the past I never got past the idea of the nine muses of classical myth. I claimed that the idea that I might have my own muse, a sort of personal creative guardian angel, hadn’t yet formed. Actually, that’s inaccurate. My muse was forming years and years ago and I throttled it for personal reasons.

Yet this week, again, it is re-forming.

To understand why I tried to kill the muse, you have to go with me back to college. I am reading Adrienne Rich’s poem “Snapshots of a Daughter in Law,” the lines of which have echoed in my head ever since, in which the young writer hears the ‘angels (her muse) chiding’ her:

“Only a week since They said: Have no patience.

The next time it was: Be insatiable.
Then: Save yourself; others you cannot save.”

In my mind, as an undergraduate reading Rich’s work, I thought ‘yes, yes, the poetry is good, but Rich’s husband killed himself after she left him. Her liberation killed him, Her muse killed him.’

The muse was telling her to destroy her family. But maybe I misunderstood.

Rich wrote of the struggle to be a woman of letters while caring for small children, one of the great paradoxes of our age, since there’s no reason these days you can’t be a woman of letters and a mother, it’s just the hour-to-hour process of doing it is so damn difficult and intimidating, it feels like sitting in the landing craft the night before D Day waiting to land on Omaha Beach. From the same poem, Rich encapsulates:

“Reading while waiting
for the iron to heat,
writing, My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–
in that Amherst pantry while the jellies boil and scum …”

Back then, Adrienne Rich was telling me my life and it terrified me. Right away, in seconds, I rejected Rich’s rejection of domesticity. I asked, ‘how can we abandon the men and children to get time to ‘actualize’ ourselves; men and children do horrible things and become horrible things in our absence?’

Details on that will have to wait for another blog post.

Her muse was too close to my own, with whom, back then, I had written a novel about adultery which I then foolishly showed to my family, who luckily misinterpreted it as being about my parents’ divorce. But my mother-in-law saw through the hoax.

“This book isn’t very good,” she told me, giving me the eye of accusation. In her view it was worse than not good. It was subversive.

“That’s it,” I thought, terrified of what family and others might do to me if the rest of them realized what the muse and I were cooking up. “Now I will stuff my muse and all the impulses that led to the adultery novel in the secret bag, which I will hide under the dresser.” For decades. I did get away from the marriage and among other things my original mother in law, ultimately. But that muse was never allowed back out again. I had conflated her voice with all the disasters of those years.

But now, the idea comes to me: If I let the muse out again, now that I am (I hope) a stronger, different person, what would the muse tell me to do say or do this time? What would he or she look like?

More on the muse to follow. I’m wondering: how many other writers think about the muse?

Book Review: Educated by Tara Westover

I finished Tara Westover’s book Educated and I enjoyed every minute of it, though the story’s villains — Westover’s parents and her brother Shawn — were unpleasant in the extreme, and slippery to the end.

The story, which at the outset appears to treat mainly of the academic success of a child of radical unschooler parents, is more a family drama and, if you like, a battle between good and evil. The larger part of the book is the war Tara fights with her parents and their unusual parenting practices, which are based in a (mis?) interpretation of Mormon doctrine. The Mormon faith that emerges in her parents is one of justification of neglect and violence, under the heading of a search for purity.

Westover’s agon is how she can become a member of an educated world without losing her family. I am reminded of the fate of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man of the New Testament, who after death faced off over a divide between heaven (for Lazarus) and hell (for the rich man.)  The rich man begs to be allowed to go where Lazarus has gone, but he cannot. With the same plaintive cry, the educated Westover wishes to cross back to her parents’ world, but it’s impossible.

There are chilling moments all through the book. The family business, a dangerous junkyard in which the children are forced to work as young as ten, occasions multiple potentially fatal burns, falls, and impaling-type injuries. Later, the mother’s naturopathic herbalist and oil business takes off and the junkyard is abandoned, but not forgotten, at least by Westover, who has made it a setting-character of remarkable malice.

But it is the behavior of certain characters in the family that gives this memoir its seering tone.  We’ve all seen violent men and women in fiction before. There’s more than a little of Captain Ahab in Tara’s father, though instead of a fixation on killing the White Whale, Father Westover is obsessed with fighting a government and medical establishment with “religious truths” such as eschewing milk and refusing all contact with schools, with doctors, with insurance companies.  Of course the family collects guns for the end times, or for self-defense if the government attacks them.  But what really shocked me, and gives Tara the strength to stop returning to the family farm, is her mother’s duplicity when it comes to opposing Tara’s violent, almost murderous older brother and his serial abuse of his two sisters, his girlfriends, and finally his wife.

This abuse is not the usual, sexual kind you hear of in memoirs these days, but a combination of physical violence and verbal degradation that I haven’t heard of before among siblings, simply because even in “bad” families parents would be able to see that putting someone’s head in a toilet and screaming “whore!” is too much. Her brother justifies the abuse by saying Tara was being “uppity.”  Her very soul is in danger, he claims, so what’s a little violence?  What begins to surface, though it isn’t ever called by name, is a type of radical patriarchy where a woman’s value is less than a man’s, and thus her word cannot be believed when she confronts him.

Her mother watches all this but her efforts to defend Tara are minimal.

Westover never talks about belief in God or Good and Evil.  She says her father may have bipolar illness.  But for me, her diagnosis of her mother’s weakness as coming from brain damage during a car wreck is too simple, and unfair to mental illness sufferers.  (The car wreck was caused by her father’s penchant for bizarre safety breaches during the family trip to Arizona, driving all night and insisting no one wear seat belts, then refusing to stop during a blizzard and literally driving off the road in a fury.) Her father’s cruelty does not line up in my mind with bipolar.  Plenty of people with brain damage or bipolar don’t do or tolerate things like what goes on at the Westover home.

I spent a great deal of time two years ago in company of Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie. It had been recommended to me by a friend who was using it to understand and heal from a birth family with poverty and sexual abuse issues.  Peck’s thesis is hard to simplify, but it involves the idea that most evil that is enacted is enacted to protect a foundational lie; in other words, that the wrong belief or lie is first, and then comes evil.

I had never heard of the Precepts of Abraham, a book of false propaganda claiming Jewish plans for world domination published by a Russian anti-Semite in 1903.  But when at Brigham Young University, Westover discovers this book, and the Holocast it helped create, she is getting close to the lie that must be protected.  Idaho, where the family resides, is a land of white supremacist currents, and Mormonism is a faith that historically admitted only whites.  The root is long, but this is possibly why, for Papa Westover, the U.S. government is suspicious; it is possibly the largest entity in the world with a nominally pro-integrationist bent.  This could also be why the Westovers study, in home school, the Founding Fathers, but not FDR and Lincoln.

We stand on the shoulders of those who went before, and their beliefs seep into our own. The World and White Supremacists are at war today and we should be grateful. Westover’s book, a phenomenal document, is remarkable as a memoir.  But it’s also tremendously valuable as a primary historical source, a document which shows what one homeschooling Idaho family on the fringe really did, said and believed, in the observation of one family member.

Meanwhile, her parents have engaged their lawyer to problematize the veracity of Tara Westover’s story.

In which Scarlett and I discuss the Internal Editor and how to shut it up when you need to

vole sleeping in flower
This image has become the logo for the mother/daughter artist’s retreat

This morning Scarlett and I, the two participants in the mother/daughter writer’s retreat of last January, had coffee. She wanted to discuss the script she has been working on for an animated fiction short about a family of dragons.  Scarlett wondered if adding another character was advisable or not.  Clearly it would broaden the tale, but on the other hand, with animation, every second adds work to the process.

I agreed that the new character would add a desirable depth to the dragon family’s situation, but her concerns about extra time for animation on an already challenging project were valid as well.

“You just have to decide whether, in your vision, the addition is worth the extra development time,” I reasoned.  “Use your judgment.”

“Sometimes I just don’t feel like my judgement is that good,” she said.

“Ah, the Internal Editor,” I replied.  “Yes, Judith Cameron talks about that person.  Sometimes it’s good to have an internal editor, but sometimes it gets out of control and destroys or causes you to abandon good ideas.

“You need to believe in yourself, and also you need beta readers or a writer’s workshop, to shut up the Internal Editor sometimes.  And sometimes you have to just accept that not all of your work is going to be first rate, and that sometimes the only way to find out if it is, is to write it, let it cool off, and then decide.”

I asked her if she’d read Charles Johnson on the Craft of Fiction from this blog.  He says that the fiction structure is in all of us, it’s our job as writers to work until the structure develops its complete shape.  For Middle Passage, Johnson wrote about 3000 pages, but only kept about 300.  He said it took years.  Then he finally had it done, and it won the National Book Award.

Meanwhile, Scarlett asked me why I’d taken out one of the characters in my novel.  She thought the character added something important.  “Oh Scarlett, the way I had it was too close to home,” I said, referring to the real life murder that had inspired the novel.

“Maybe so, but there’s an important doubling between the two murder victims and your protagonist and her boyfriend,” Scarlett said.  I began to think that, regardless of the extra work, I might have to put the character back in.

Beta readers.  There’s indispensable.



Of the Long Distance Drive and Easy Rider

We just drove back to Texas from Florida over the last two days, a drive of 17 hours made worse by the fact that the battery needed to be replaced in Port St. Lucy.

Yesterday, as we powered through Alabama, Leo made a comment about traveling on I-10, and Easy Rider.  Adult daughter Tiara asked “What is that?”

“It’s this movie with Henry Fonda,” I say.

“Peter Fonda,” Leo corrects.   Easy Rider is an interesting case for writing reflections because Peter Fonda cooked up the concept and then they shot, basically without a script, using people they met on the way.  It’s an interesting idea for how to spark creativity:  Get yourself on location, and record.

“What happens?” Tiara wants to know.

“Well there’s these guys, hippie guys, they go on a road trip.  There’s Peter Fonda and this other guy … ”

“Jack Nicholson,” I say.

“No, the other one.”

“Dennis Hopper.”

“Yeah.  They made a cocaine deal.  They stuff all the money in the American Flag gas tank of a chopper … ”

“A helicopter?” asks Tiara.

“No, like a motorcycle with ape hanger bars … ”  Leo demonstrates.  “They go east until they get shot in Alabama.”

“For what?”

“Flipping some guy off, one of those red neck guys.”

“That’s all?”

“Well, yeah, that’s the movie.”

“You really only have to see it once,” I chime in.  “They do meet some people on a commune, and a guy who married a lady who won’t use birth control … and then they pick up Jack Nicholson but he gets killed pretty quick.”


“It’s not clear.  He’s a lawyer in the movie so maybe that’s why.  Or maybe it’s just the lifestyle … waking up and someone’s dead.”

Leo tells Tiara about when we were in New Orleans, when we went on the cemetery tour.  The guide said when he started doing the tours, he had never seen Easy Rider.  People kept mentioning it, asking about it.  So he watched it, and told the story, “So they’re right here, in the cemetery, and they’ve picked up these prostitutes and Dennis Hopper is shagging this chick right here in this alcove.  And then I’m like whoa,  what is this, and I ask ‘how’d they get permission to shoot this in the Catholic cemetery? And then I find out the Archdiocese of New Orleans says ‘we never knew they were in here.”  And that’s why to go in the cemetery now, you have to have a licensed guide, and pay an entry fee.”

Well, the movie was shot in 1969.  What do you expect?

Leo loads up Easy Rider on the cell phone, the opening credits.  “Get your motor running … head out on the highway … “sing Steppenwolf.

“Why are they dressed like that?” asks Tiara.  “Look at that fringe on his jacket!”

“Yeah, they’re hippies,” says Leo.  “Peter Fonda admitted that he couldn’t remember most of the shooting of the film.”

“Why, because he was taking so many drugs?” Tiara asks.

“Yeah,” Leo concluded.

“It was the time.  That was the way it was,” I finish.  “it’s lucky your parents survived it all.”

And we get the motor running.  And we head out on the highway.


Day 30 of the Bikram Yoga Challenge

Today at 8 a.m. it was the last day. The heat in the room was off at first but then quickly the owner got it turned back on and the heat zoomed from 90 to 104 during the standing series.

“If I can just make it through locust pose,” I mused to myself.

The teacher was the demanding N. As locust came, I saw her coming over. “Oh no,” I thought. She stood next to me.

“Get the knee up,”she said.

My knee is up. I thought.

She put her toe underneath my leg to make sure. Thank God. My knee was up.

The rest of the postures are easy now, except for camel. I went into camel, a deep backbend, all the way back, saw the baseboard behind me, a dark line along the floor. Breathe.

Change. Said N. I come out. Such a feeling of relax.

Afterward the owner, A., congratulated me. I got my 30 day yoga challenge shirt. I wrapped my towel around me and realized I don’t want to stop my daily hot yoga practice. But I have to go on vacation now so I can’t get to the studio.

I have been caught by the lure of asceticism.

It’s like what Hemingway said, Nietsche too: What I think is going to kill actually me made me stronger.

Well okay that’s a misquote. But you see my point don’t you?