Thursday, January 21, 2010

Shoring Up My Roots

Like some of you, I’ve been concentrating on staying in the “now.” But over the last year or so, I’ve felt a strong pull to look in my rear view mirror and revisit the people and events that have made me who I am today. I don’t consider this wallowing or staying mired in my past, but a reminder of how far I’ve come. Sometimes I need that. When I’m bemoaning where I am or feeling discouraged, I like to look at that cosmic bar graph and see the progress I’ve made. And I love catching up with people who’ve nurtured me and either thank them or find some way to give back for all they’ve given me.

Today I give you Laura Jan Shore. In my early thirties, I started writing my first novel. I knew nothing about writing novels, and the variety of short essays and stories I already had in my portfolio hardly prepared me for the depth and fortitude writing long fiction required. Except for acing the essay requirement in college English (get three As and you can skip the rest of the semester), I’d had no formal training. But I stumbled forward anyway, mostly on the back of a dare from my husband. When I told him about an idea I had for a novel – I’d read enough of them to get the gist of major plot formats – he said, “You can’t write a novel.” That was enough to make me get serious. I read a bit about fiction writing, and several experts recommended joining a writing group.

The trouble was that I had no idea how to find one. But one day soon after this revelation, the stars and fate aligned. I was at work (then, in an ad agency) when a copy of the Pennysaver (a weekly newspaper filled with classified ads, in the days before Craig’s List) landed on my desk. This in itself was an odd circumstance, because the mail always went directly to my more senior colleague, who, in another odd circumstance, because she never took sick time, happened to be home with the flu. Usually, at lunch, I read the newspaper. That day I picked up the Pennysaver. Opened it to a random page and found a small ad looking for writers to join a writer’s group.


I called the number, and heard Laura Jan Shore’s sweet, breathy voice for the first time. At the time, she was the published author of a young adult novel, was writing her first adult novel, and also wrote poetry. She led three groups - Monday mornings and Tuesday and Thursday evenings. She asked about my writing experience, which amounted to a decent-sized chunk of a REALLY shitty first draft of a first novel. I was afraid she wouldn’t take me on, as such a newbie in a world (I imagined) of “serious” novelists. But Laura told me that yes, there was room for me in her Thursday night group, which would be starting up again in a couple of weeks.

Woo hoo, I was in!

When I drove up to her Gothic Revival-style home, as spooky-looking as anything from any number of horror films, my stress level mounted. Could I do this? With a published author? I’d never met one before. And I’d have to read my work in front of strangers. But Laura turned out to be an authentic person who instantly put me at ease. I liked the other members of the group as well. Each meeting began with a writing prompt (much of it spiritual, based on native cultures or on other ways of “cracking open our heads”) and freewriting in our journals about what that had inspired. Then we segued to her dining room, where, over cups of hot herbal tea, we’d read a chunk of our projects and take turns critiquing each other’s work. Laura had (I assume she still has) this way about her…spiritual, almost ethereal, she’d encourage our efforts yet (in her own gentle way) deftly cut through the crap and let us know what wasn’t working and where we were taking the easy way out. For years I kept coming back to that spooky house on the hill on Thursday nights. Acting as creative midwife for my first three novels, she engendered in me a love for the process of writing, a love affair that still beats in my heart.

When she decided to uproot her life and move to Australia in order to be closer to her oldest son, I felt happy and excited for her before the realization hit me that this meant she’d be leaving us.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fully express in words how grateful I am for having her in my life at just the right time, for walking me into the creative journey with an arm around my shoulder and her gentle voice in my ear, and for that day when the Pennysaver landed on my desk.

Apparently she continues to sprinkle her creative glitter among lucky writers Down Under. She tells me, in a recent e-mail, that she’s gone back to her first love – poetry – and has been building a collective dedicated to poets and those who love poetry. I hope you’ll visit and support her site, Dangerously Poetic, and read for yourself what a marvel she is. The first collection she published with Dangerously Poetic is “Breathworks” (unfortunately I don’t know how to order it outside of Australia) and here are a couple of reviews:

"This passionate and spirited collection of Laura's is not only a great start for Dangerously Poetic, but it is also a fiery riposte to the general community view that poetry is stale, obscure, irrelevant, and boring. Breathworks has spark aplenty. May the Goddess, who has clearly been called on a number of times in the writing of these poems, bless this book and its passage."

--Dorothy Porter

"Right from the beginning, from the first poem, there's the breath and the trees, the spinning earth and revolving time, the mirror held up to the self and to others, the delight in the rainforest, the fecundity of nature and the ambivalence of passion, the cycle of song that is life. A book rich in sensitivity and experience, poems negotiated through pain into acceptance and love. A wonderful first book from Dangerously Poetic Press."

--Ron Pretty, Five Islands Press

Her second collection is due out later this year.

Monday, January 4, 2010

International Brotherhood of Wild Rodents, Local 305

Living out in the country means that a plethora of germy little dudes wangle their way into our house every winter. Since I’m the first one up in the morning, I’m the one who – joy of joys - finds the evidence of their nightly raids on the kitchen counters, behind the cookbooks, in the sink, and in especially cold years, in the silverware drawers and the pantry. Nothing like cleaning up a load of poop to brighten your morning routine.

Since we don’t have cats like the rest of our neighbors, we have to rely on the next best thing. But since we also don’t have the stomach to kill the little guys outright with contraptions that snap their necks, we’ve been using have-a-heart traps. Theoretically, these allow mice to enter, which trips a little door, leaving them harmlessly captive until you can get in your car and drive them at least a mile away from the house, where they become someone else’s problem.


Seems that our mice have been taking a correspondence course in Trap Evasion 101. They can now enter the have-a-heart, scarf the bit of cracker or peanut butter or potato chip we bait them with, and leave.

Yep. Leave.

The inequities in this action are unacceptable. We go out of our way to use the kindest traps possible, always release our captives in lovely fields with ample cover, waterfront views and food potential, and they’re taking advantage of us.

So I lodged a complaint with the local wild rodents’ union, and to date, have received no response.

We offered to bargain regardless. If we kept our prisoners of war enemy combatants in small holding pens replete with clean wood shavings, fresh water and adequate food until the most auspicious weather conditions (say, daytime temperatures above freezing), would they then allow that trap door in the have-a-heart to close?

Still, no response.

We implemented our proposed work action regardless. And voila, one mouse complied. From the trap he went quietly into the holding pen, and seemed to be tolerating, if not at times enjoying, his slices of Granny Smith apple, bits of sesame cracker, and diced carrots. Organic carrots, mind you. Nothing but the best for our prisoners of war enemy combatants.

We would have released the mouse on a nice day, keeping our end of the bargain, but we hit a stretch of frigid weather. While we argued about the cruelty of setting him free when it was so cold out (Husband) versus the cruelty of keeping him in a pen about as big as the average lunch pail (me) and the general creepiness of having a wild rodent sitting on the bookshelf next to his mother’s ashes as if he were a pet (me) even though it has fur and would survive being out in the elements just fine (me), “Mousie” continued to live with us, day after cold day, and morning after cold morning I’d wake up to find my little pink-and-blue striped hand towel wrapped around the pen to keep him warm, and new bits of food dripped into his habitat. When it got especially frigid, “Mousie” got to come upstairs for the night, where it was warmer.

Today was supposed to be Amnesty Day. With temperatures topping out at 30 and the sun shining, Husband was going to put Mousie et al in the back seat of his car and drive him to the rodential equivalent of Disneyland.

The plan would have been executed as designed, except that Mousie had escaped. Flown the coop. Chewed his way to freedom, gnawing a mouse-sized hole in the hard plastic ventilation grating at the top of the pen.

Little bastard.

OK, I know that we didn’t have an official union-sanctioned bargain, but we’d made a tacit agreement with that mouse that would have held up in any labor arbitration.

And now he’s probably wiggling his way into the cereal drawer.

That’s it, we said. No more Mr. and Ms. Nice Guy. If we can’t get the union to back us up, we’re going to get tough. We’re going rogue.

No, that doesn’t mean waterboarding harmless coercion tactics.

But no more Granny Smith apples.

No more sesame crackers.

And definitely, no more organic carrots. We have to draw the line somewhere, after all.

(Image found on

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Bring On The Birthday Cake

I’ve been picking up romance novels on and off ever since my teens. Yes, they’re not exactly “Pride and Prejudice,” and my father cringes whenever he catches me reading one, but they’re fun. Potato chips for the brain, I call them.

Right now I’m calling them excellent healing tools. Specifically, I’ve been smiling my way through a series of twelve short comic romance novels, written by Janet Evanovich before she reached the bestsellers’ lists with Stephanie Plum, Jersey-girl bounty hunter. At the end of each is the following quote from Evanovich: “Romance novels are birthday cake and life is often peanut butter and jelly. I think everyone should have lots of delicious romance novels lying around for those times when the peanut butter of life gets stuck to the roof of your mouth."

But comic romance novels, or at least the kind that Evanovich writes, are not your mother’s bodice-ripper. Don’t expect purple prose here. No ripping of clothing (unless it happens during a slapstick-y accident), no larger-than-life heroes or swordplay or round-the-world epics. What I’ve found are smart, feisty, modern heroines and the men who fall helplessly and hopelessly in love with them. Sometimes the falling part is literal. Okay, they’re a bit formulaic. Fate throws the couple together by the end of the second page. Maybe they’re not Johnny Depp or Angelina Jolie, but they’re very attractive, fairly ordinary people. Point of view switches back and forth every few paragraphs, keeping the action rolling fast. The two fall for each other instantly, often to one or both character’s dismay, which creates terrible, funny (and eventually surmountable) complications. A romantic cat-and-mouse game ensues, sparked with fast-paced, witty dialog, and they end up in bed, in some books more quickly and more frequently than others. One or both of the pair have been burned before by love – some are divorced, some have children – so although even in their hearts they know they belong together, the commitment part is slow in coming and possibly may be their undoing.

Plum fans will recognize the roots of her now-famous characters in these practice runs. There’s often a scrappy older woman who stirs the pot – a grandmother, great aunt, housekeeper, boarder – often named Elsie, who usually drives a ’57 Chevrolet.

Yes, Dad, I’ve got a shelf full of more substantial fare waiting – and yes, a balanced literary diet includes whole grains and vegetables. But now I could use a few slices of birthday cake – multi-layered, with fluffy pink frosting and sprinkles.

Come on, I know you have them – what are your literary guilty pleasures?