The Writing life

Novel Matters

Being normal is highly overrated. Being a writer is nothing but cool. Embrace it. It looks good on you.

Everybody has a story

It seemed like it tonight anyway. So, I guess after reading several other peoples' I get to tell my own.

September 11 is the birthday of one of my son's best friends. In 2001 he spent the night before at his friend's house, so in the morning I was spared the joy of getting him a breakfast and off to school. As was my habit in those days I was downstairs in my home office early in the morning writing when an Instant Message from my niece in Buffalo fairly jumped off the screen telling me to turn on the television. The set warmed up and showed a picture just in time for me to witness the second airliner hitting the second tower of the World Trade Center. I had no idea whether what I was watching was real or something left over from an all-night terror movie marathon, but an announcer cleared that up as soon as he quit saying oh my god about a hundred times.

I knew pretty quickly writing was over for the morning and I sat, my full attention glued to the TV as I watched the horrors slowly unfold, sorting out the rumors every announcer seemed to report and trying to figure out exactly what happened, and what was truth and what was an overanxious talking head's imagination.

What I thought was I wanted to be with my son. At that time in life I taught a writing session once a week in his class for two hours. I thought about the kids and when it seemed a good time, I called his teacher to ask if I could help in some way, if only to be in the classroom with the kids and try to answer any questions they had and maybe just be a solid presence.
She said all right, so I did that. Knowing little more than they did, but helping them sort out what was fact and what was rumor and reassuring them that I was fairly sure nothing in Alaska was worth a terrorist's firepower. Of course we were three miles away from the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at the time.

When regular classes started I left hoping I had helped in some way.

Later in the week I think I might have. I was always looking for writing projects for the kids. I thought they would learn more writing than listening to me spout off so they spent most of their time in that class writing. But finding ideas for them was sometimes taxing.

No problem this week. I found a timeline of events on a web site and copied it, changed the times to Alaska time and then printed it out, later making enough copies at school. In class that morning I started by telling them that just about every generation has some kind of defining moment, something that happened where you never forget where you were when you heard it. I said my parents' was probably Pearl Harbor Day, My own was probably the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And, then I told them that 9/11 just might be theirs. So, I assigned them to write down everything they could remember from that morning. From how they learned about what happened, to what they had for breakfast; what did they wear to school, were they afraid; what did their friends think, any detail no matter how small, so that they could remember the day accurately. I gave them each a copy of the timeline to help out, so maybe they could compare events in their lives with those in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania.

This was a two hour class of fifth or sixth graders, but they were quiet for a long time, most of the first hour. I always started the class with an in-their-seats yoga exercise and when they got antsy later on, we would all stand up and do a sun salute. We did that, they sat and worked a little longer and when most had finished we talked more about the events until the end of the hour.

At some time they went to the computer lab and typed their stories into the machine and we printed them all out. Then I bought a bunch of nice folders and the teacher and I made a folder for each kid with their story and the timeline in it. I can't remember now but I think we might have put all the kid' stories in each folder but I am not sure. Anyway we gave those to the kids to save.

Today on the tenth anniversary, they are all in their early 20s and I would like to think at least some of them still have their folders and maybe can pull them out and read a little of what they thought about it 10 years ago. It is a strange coincidence that just this morning I came across a blog written by one of them and it is written beautifully. Another one of those kids is today a Marine in Afghanistan.

A comment from facebook: Betty Sederquist Powerful piece. I think we will all remember that day as long as we live. On that 9/11 day I had a photo job in nearby Folsom, just downriver from one of California's largest dams. A lot of money was at stake in my job. I had to get it done that day because a $10,000 project was at stake, with a strict print timeline. Do it or the money was lost. I was up early, watching the devastation on TV and packing gear for the big photo shoot. My husband implored me not to go, because terrorists could have bombed the dam or whatever. I went anyway. Everyone was in tears, just getting the job done. That night I had to teach my photography class at our local college. I figured no one would come, but EVERYONE came. Of course, they were zombies, but so was I. I am guessing everyone wanted the distraction of the class. Somehow we got through it. And I do remember when I heard about JFK, more intense remembrances.
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And then there is this about interpretation. Read any way you want to. Don't let a teacher  or a parent or a critic or even me tell you what something means, or what you are supposed to think after you read something. What's important  is what it means to you, the reader. What ever you draw from what you have read is all that matters at least when you are reading for enjoyment or enlightenment. (In other words not counting textbooks or scientific papers.) If what you take from a book is what the author intended then he or she has done the job correctly. 
Now the question, if you have read "Keep the Round Side Down," what do you think the killer whales symbolize? Hint: They are never referred to as "orca" in the book, only the boy is.

Comments from facebookBetty Sederquist Tim, when you were mentoring me as a writer, you didn't put up with any flowery BS from me in my writing. Lessons well learned, and now I know the origin of all that, those miserable literature classes. I would have majored in English, but found all those flowery metaphors in the classes a bit too daunting. I'm with Hemingway on this one. Interestingly, I think you and I have published WAY more than any of those English professors.

Jan Williams Simone Aw, I like a good metaphor once in awhile, not that I can come up with an example. But you two are my writing mentors. Even though I was not on the editorial side at ANWP, I picked up a lot from both of you. Every time I use an exclamation point here on FB I still can hear Tim's voice in my head saying (exclaiming?) to avoid them. If I were writing a blog or something more formal, they would be edited out. I wish I could go back and work there again, now that I have enough life experience to have something to say..

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OK, I lied

April 8, 2010
This subject just doesn’t want to go away, at least in my own mind, although I have heard from a couple good friends who are accomplished writers on this subject. As I have thought about “writing what you know” (and before Twisted River) I have questioned it before. Of course what you do know gives you insight, but still so limiting. One example I have, came through setting up a high school writing class.
A friend had told the teacher about me and she asked me to come talk about nature writing. It was a nature writing class, sort of aimed at observing and journaling, so I thought in order to say something new I would try how nature writing is used in fiction that is not particularly about nature.
My favorite example of that is Norman Mailer's description of the Connecticut salt marshes in Tough Guys Don't Dance. It was one of the best pieces of nature writing I have ever read. I remember stopping after being enthralled with how much the author knew about it, and when I came alert and realized it was Mailer I was actually surprised. Yet, do we think of Mailer as a nature writer? NO. Was he writing about what he knew? Not really. Did he do it well? Yes. 
Or, you could say we are always writing about what we know, as in looking at new things through our own old, tired personal perspective. Did Truman Capote know anything about cold-blooded murder? It goes on and on. And right now I apologize to all my students I told to write what they know, except I do remember telling them take what you know and expand it into new areas. So maybe I am OK.
Here is another voice on the subject, My friend and a wonderful writer, Patricia Monaghan:

"Your comments on Irving's questioning of "write what you know" reminded me of when Stanley Elkin came up to Alaska. He was brought up to do readings etc, and I got to drive him from Anchorage to Homer, or was it the other way around. Anyway, he was full of sage advice. Like, one time over drinks when I was complaining that my editor (I'd published my first book and really wanted to sell a second) wanted me to do something I wasn't very excited about. Stanley asked what I wanted to write about, and I said sun goddesses, but no one was interested. "Well, if you don't write the books you want to write, who's gonna?" he asked. I had no answer to that. So I spent years writing the sun goddess book which was in print for six months, but it was still the best thing to do.

"Anyway, over a dinner at some roadhouse, Stanley started talking about the "write what you know" idea. He said it was exactly right, because you would provide really perfect details that way. Like, he said, when he wrote about Chicago, where he was born, he could describe in detail the Guatamalan-Chinese restaruants. He then went on to expatiate on the perfect of this recipe and that recipe. And all the time I was thinking, "Guatamalan-Chinese?" I finally asked him if he was putting me on. He grinned. "That was fun. I was just making that all up," he said. It was weirdly believable stuff, except--Guatamalan Chinese?"
Incidentally, the teacher afterward told me she had never thought of including fiction and would I let her keep my teaching notes. I did. And, they must have worked for her because I was never invited back.


And I will make no more promises to stop talking about writing any more.



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Interesting quotations

"In the final analysis your life is only as good as the background music you dance to." – that was me

"Whether you think that you can or you think you can't, you are right." – Henry Ford

"You want to feel alive until the day you croak" – Frank Gallagher Shameless

"Smooth is good but sailing takes a brisk wind" – me

"I'm a drinker with writing problems." ~ Brendan Behan

"Religious Freedom is not about stopping persecution; it’s about being the one who gets to do it. Glory!" – Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's best Christian

It doesn't matter what you write, it only matters that you write.

"Give someone a book and they'll read all day. Teach someone to write a book and they'll spend a lifetime mired in paralyzing self doubt." – internet meme

"It's been a long time since I heard my backbone crack – Chuck Berry

“Don’t think you’re on the right road just because it’s a well-beaten path.” – JD

"I was the only person up on the hill with both racing numbers and a handicapped placard." – Kitty Delorey Fleischman, a grandmother who occasionally still races her Porsche in hill climbs.

Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day. – anon

"Religion was invented when the first con man met the first fool." – Mark Twain

Shit happens; you just come up with a different plan. – Kitty

Your body is not a temple. It's an amusement park. – Anthony Bourdain

Never too late for a happy childhood – Berkley Breathed

A real writer doesn't just want to write, a real writer has to write. – Internet meme

"It was like the aftermath of an orgasm with the wrong partner" – David Lagercrants, "The Girl in the Spider's Web"

The non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity. – Franz Kafka

If the muse is late, start without her – Peter S. Beagle

We never comprehend how heavy the things are we insist on carrying until we set them down. jd

Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. ~Mark Twain Actually you could do the same thing with the word "really" as in "really cold."

If you are looking for an experience that will temper your vanity, this is it. There's no one to impress when you're alone on the trap line. – Michael Carey quoting his father's journal

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s nervous work. The state you need to write in is the state that others are paying large sums of money to get rid of. – Shirley Hazzard

So far as I can remember, there is not one word in the Gospels in praise of intelligence -- Bertrand Russell

You know that I always just wanted to have a small ship to take stuff from a place that had a lot of that stuff to a place that did not have a lot of that stuff and so prosper.—Jackie Faber, “The Wake of the Lorelei Lee”

If you attack the arguer instead of the argument, you lose both

If an insurance company won’t pay for damages caused by an “act of God,” shouldn’t it then have to prove the existence of God? – I said that

I used to think getting old was about vanity—but actually it’s about losing people you love. Getting wrinkles is trivial. – Eugene O’Neill

German General to Swiss General: “You have only 500,000 men in your army; what would you do if I invaded with 1 million men?”

Swiss General: “Well, I suppose every one of my soldiers would need to fire twice.”

Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.—Gloria Steinem

Exceed your bandwidth—sign on the wall of the maintenance shop at the West Coast/Alaska Tsunami Warning Center

One thing I do know, if you keep at it, you usually wind up getting something done.—Patricia Monaghan

Do you want to know what kind of person makes the best reporter? I’ll tell you. A borderline sociopath. Someone smart, inquisitive, stubborn, disorganized, chaotic, and in a perpetual state of simmering rage at the failings of the world.—Brett Arends

It is a very simple mind that only knows how to spell a word one way.—Andrew Jackson

3:30 is too late or too early to do anything—Rene Descartes

Everything is okay when it’s 50-below as long as everything is okay. – an Alaskan in Tom Walker’s “The Seventymile Kid”

You can have your own opinion but you can’t have your own science.—commenter arguing on a story about polar bears and global warming

He looks at three ex wives as a good start—TV police drama

Talkeetna: A friendly little drinking town with a climbing problem.—a handmade bumper sticker

“You’re either into the wall or into the show”—Marco Andretti on giving it all to qualify last at the 2011 Indy 500

Makeup is not for the faint of heart—the makeup guerrilla

“I’m going to relax in a very adult manner.”—Danica Patrick after sweating it out and qualifying half an hour before Andretti

“Asking Congress to come back is like asking a mugger to come back because he forgot your wallet.”—a roundtable participant on Fox of all places

As Republicans go further back in the conception process to define when life actually begins, I am beginning to think the eventual definition will be life begins in the beer I was drinking when I met her.—me again

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison.”—a state department of Fish and Game official explaining why the state would not go along with a federal plan to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska because the agreement did not specifically allow hunting

Each day do something that won’t compute – anon

I can’t belive I still have to protest this shit – a sign carriend by an elderly woman at an Occupy demonstration

Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stared at walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing. – Meg Chittenden

Life should be a little nuts or else it’s just a bunch of Thursdays strung together—Kevin Costner as Beau Burroughs in “Rumor has it”

You’re just a wanker whipping up fear —Irish President Michael D. Higgins to a tea party radio talk show host

Being president doesn’t change who you are; it reveals who you are—Michelle Obama

Things sports announcers say

"… there's a fearlessment about him …"

"He's got to have the lead if he's going to win this race."

"Kansas has always had the ability to score with the basketball."

"NFL to put computer chips in balls." Oh, that's gotta hurt.

"Now that you're in the finals you have to run the race that's going to get you on the podium."

"It's very important for both sides that they stay on their feet."

This is why you get to hate sportscasters. Kansas beats Texas for the first time since 1938. So the pundits open their segment with the question "let's talk about what went wrong." Wrong? Kansas WON a football game! That's what went RIGHT!

"I brought out the thermostat to show you how cold it is here." Points to a thermometer reading zero in Minneapolis.

"It's tough to win on the road when you turn the ball over." Oh, really? Like you can do all right if you turn the ball over playing at home?

Cliches so imbedded in sportscasters' minds they can't help themselves: "Minnesota fell from the ranks of the undefeated today." What ranks? They were the only undefeated team left.

A good one: A 5'10" player went up and caught a pass off a defensive back over six feet tall. The quote? "He's got some hops."

Best homonym of the day so far: "It's all tied. Alabama 34, Kentucky 3." Oh, Tide.

"Steve Hooker commentates on his Olympic pole vault gold medal." When "comments" just won't do.

"He's certainly capable of the top ten, maybe even higher than that."

"Atlanta is capable of doing what they're doing."

"Biyombo, one of seven kids from the Republic of Congo." In the NBA? In America? In his whole country?

"You can't come out and be aggressive but you can't come out and be unaggressive."

"They're gonna be in every game they play!"

"First you have to get two strikes on the hitter before you get the strikeout."

"The game ended in the final seconds." You have to wonder when the others ended or are they still going on?

How is a team down by one touchdown before the half "totally demoralized?"

"If they score runs they will win."

"I think the matchup is what it is"

After a play a Houston defender was on his knees, his head on the ground and his hand underneath him appeared to clutch a very sensitive part of the male anatomy. He rolled onto his back and quickly removed his hand. (Remember the old Cosby routine "you cannot touch certain parts of your body?") Finally they helped the guy to the sideline and then the replay was shown. In it the guy clearly took a hard knee between his thighs. As this was being shown, one of the announcers says, "It looks like he hurt his shoulder." The other agrees and then they both talk about how serious a shoulder injury can be. Were we watching the same game?

"Somebody is going to be the quarterback or we're going to see a new quarterback."

"If you're gonna play running back in the SEC you're gonna take hits."

"That was a playmaker making a play."

Best headlines ever

Church Mutual Insurance won't cover Church's flood damage because it's 'an act of God'

Homicide victims rarely talk to police

Meerkat Expert Attacked Monkey Handler Over Love Affair With Llama Keeper

GOP congressman opposes gun control because gay marriage leads to bestiality

Owner of killer bear chokes to death on sex toy

Support for legalizing pot hits all-time high

Give me all your money or my penguin will explode

How zombie worms have sex in whale bones

Crocodile steals zoo worker's lawn mower

Woman shot by oven while trying to cook waffles

Nude beach blowjob jet ski fight leads to wife's death