Sunday, July 27, 2014

To Go On

“Write while the heat is in you. … The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.”  
—Henry David Thoreau

I am in my last week at the Art Farm residency, and it's finally a nice, cool day. We had some days so humid they seemed to squeeze you like a lemon while multiplying the already-prevalent bugs and insects that seem to dive-bomb here. 

I wanted to share a writing prompt because it seems something that could cross over to other aspects of life and, more, it seems to be my first no-fail method to get something meaningful on the page. Of course it is simple:

Sit down with computer or pen and pad and cellphone. Set the alarm for 10 minutes. Open an old piece (something in-progress or old; or, if you have nothing, read a short story and pick up where the writer left off, keep going with the characters). The prompt is only this: write for the full 10 minutes. Nonstop. Set the alarm and don't allow yourself to move or stop. Then, if on a roll, reset after the alarm sounds. Simple. Works miracles.

I'm up to page 60 on the new novel, and I attribute this largely to this method because, oddly, I can feel very busy at Art Farm and get distracted. I have had work here and an odd allergic reaction to something that has given me bad hives... all these things could be excuses, but no. I wrote. And I did not make it negotiable. Here are a few more images from Nebraska...  

Back to the fun stuff for now... I visited Aurora for the first time yesterday and helped an artist friend set up at the farmer's market. There seems a dynamic community here, with a strong motorcycle culture, which is great for my character Rattle (who can plan these things?!). 

Other interesting new facts about Nebraska:

  • There is a town called Worms, which contains a bar called Nightcrawlers and a church.
  • Most of the corn around me is ethanol corn.
  • It seems, everyone loves the Cornhuskers.
  • North Platte has a rich history and a book about it, and I have met a lot of folks with colorful stories about it (too bad I won't get a chance to visit).
  • Marilyn Monroe and butter is all over everything at LuLu's Steakhouse in Chapman, NE, where the chicken friend steak is as big as the plate and a single waitress runs the joint on a Saturday night.
  • There is every type of tick known to man here.
  • Raccoons should not be out in daylight.

Have a great week, and I wish you phenomenal weather where you are. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A non-writing day at the writing residency

I’ve been at the Art Farm for six days, and I think I’ve seen every type of spider known to man. As of today, I have declared war on spiders, and after a nasty bite on my ankle I have no regret smashing one beneath my tennis shoe or even, since I’m a hardcore NE artist now, between my fingers if given the chance.

I’ve been walking the cornfields, on average 8 miles a day, and working the land. I haven’t been wearing any makeup, which is a sobering thing—amazing how ingrained that part of my routine was—and I’ve been making decisions based on the experience I’ll have, rather than the practical or easy thing to do (I don't have to squeeze twenty things into twenty minutes right now. I can do one thing, and that's okay.). There’s some life lesson here, I’m sure.

But I want to talk about Grand Island. I went into town with an artist-friend
who was planning to pick up two bison skulls that play some role in a traditional Native American sun dance, which, she says, she’s done ten years running. She invited me, but I don’t want to commit myself for so many days of my residency. That said, I was tempted and I was glad to spend a day with her to pick her brain a little. Experience is everything, and mine has been so limited in general.

We went to a thrift store that was open. The man who greeted us did so by saying they were closed. His wife yelled from the back, “Get them out of there! We’re closed.”

“But they’re just looking around,” he said in our defense. When I told the woman I was here from San Antonio, she softened and said that was a hell of a long way.

We went to more thrift stores after, then antique stores, metal recycling (see image), then plastic recycling (“1-7 only, not sure where you can get rid of anything but 1-7”), then the hardware, then Hi-V (the local grocery), and by the end of our travels I believe we may have seen all of downtown Grand Island.
One of the most notable stops was at Quality Industrial Sewing, where a man named Ron showed us a sewing machine that could penetrate eight layers of leather. My friend bought it, and in turn Ron showed us his back room, where he has restored three hot rods. He told us how the design for a bachelor’s car differed from that of a family man’s, and how his air conditioning was reserved for those cars, to keep them in good shape when we asked why it was nice and cool in that room but not where we entered (the official store part).

Finally, after some light grocery shopping, we went to an Antique Mall, where I bought a book that will find its way into my writing for many years to come, I believe. Here’s a short excerpt from the Manners at the Table section:

“Do not blow food to cool it. Do not pour hot drinks into saucers to cool them. Hold a bone on both ends with the tips of the fingers on both hands when it is necessary to pick it up. Do not let crumbs or liquids cling to the lips. Do not lick the lips conspicuously. Do not ask for something on another person’s plate…”

Or this one from The Attractive Figure:

“Our mode of living during this twentieth century has established the ideal figure for a woman as one that is slender without being scrawny; lithe, sure, and quick-moving. Women do things nowadays. They are champions at sports, they follow careers, they drive cars, they keep homes and personal interests thriving side by side. The fragile woman, or the woman with too much avoirdupois, cannot keep pace with the present mode of living.”

—Capper, Arthur (Editor), The Household Searchlight Homemaking Guide, 1937

This book tells one everything from how to properly eat vegetables to how to throw a successful “Hobo Get-together” party. My life is changed forever. (Talk about endless material!)

Verdict: Downtown Grand Island, which is the big city compared to Marquette, NE where I am staying, is charming. The people are kind and, more, content. I was struck, in fact, with how content everyone seemed, right down to the woman who didn’t want us shopping her thrift after-hours (but ended up letting us buy things after all). There are some parts of the US in which folks don’t always want to be elsewhere and where you can find antique gems and recycle with gusto while maintaining a slow and steady pace.

I enjoyed my non-writing day, my company, and the town of Grand Island so much, in fact, that I may have to have another non-writing day at some point during this residency.  

Friday, July 18, 2014

In residence

The Art Farm is its own world, one in which, I’m finding, artists and writers are forced to discover who they are and what they can handle. The owner, Ed, is an artist who spends half of his time in New York and half of his time here in Marquette, Nebraska, where the last census I could find put the population at around 226. Ed is stoic and hardworking, and his calm demeanor seems to quietly affect all of the residents here. So far, I have met musicians, painters, book binders, writers, and I will meet more artists over the next two weeks.

We work 12 hours a week, and so far my work has included erecting and moving scaffolding and helping to dig a hole for a new septic tank (glam-or-ous). I feel hearty. The landscape, however, is precisely as I pictured: rows of corn surround the art farm in four square mile blocks. I’ve taken to walk this four-mile loop mornings, before it gets too hot. I have a good chunk of my work out of the way for the week, so now I am digging into the writing.

I can’t say that I am uncomfortable, but it’s funny the things that I notice here I was not prepared for. One of my boxes hasn’t yet arrived, and it has my contacts and most of the food I shipped myself, and because I am one of the residents without a car, I have to rely on the kindness of others—and wise grocery shopping choices when I do go to town.

Survival aside, the social aspect is interesting. Everyone is nice, and the unexpected comes daily. There were a group of walkers led by “recovering politician” Ed Fallon, heading through yesterday. They are part of The Great March for Climate Action, and their route will take them from Los Angeles to Washington DC. They camped out on the grounds, all ages and shapes and personalities, all dedicated. They were very interesting folks, some of which gave up their jobs and even their homes to take this hike across the states to stand up for what they believe in. 

As for solitude, I have been finding it when I seek it out. The Farm House, where I’m staying, does not have internet, so staying there is a great place to work without much distraction. That said, I am staying on the second floor where there is supposedly and likely a ghost. She may prove a distraction.

I have been writing here and there. I wrote a piece about Rattle as an old man, an old man who walks around a park and who is covered in tattoos that tell, if not his life story, his life philosophy. He reconnects with some of his children in this piece. I am trying to revisit WE ARRIVE UNINVITED as well, since a few agents have been interested in it from reading the first 50 pages, then requesting the full have given me a "close but…" 

Writing is hard work, and there is little, if no, instant gratification. Likewise, restoring a 12,000 square foot family farm in rural Nebraska forces a person to slow down. In this way, both my writing and this residency demand that I stay in the moment and dedicate myself to the nature of right now. After all, when disconnected for the every-micro-second filled eWorld, one is reminded that nature ultimately rules, and we are the mercy of her rhythms and temperament. 

Enjoy your every moment in the week to come. -Jen

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Mid-week literary review

Two days left at work until my residency. Two stories published. Two updates. One review.

I will either have a lot to say next post, or I'll be in the zone, pounding away at the NEXT GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. A tad dramatic? Well, I can't help it. I'm thrilled. I have a lot to work on, and I plan to post more soon. In the meantime, here's a quick update.

I have two new stories out! They both appear in Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal. One story is about a nudist (based on the big naked guy in my neighborhood, whom I've had the experience of seeing three times now, at least I think it was the same guy each time), another is about a girl who is looking to meet her father. Both stories are well under 1,000 words. They were fun to write.

Also notable this week is a strange a very appropriate book for me to read right now. The author is David S. Atkinson, and the book is titled The Garden of Good and Evil PancakesI thought I'd share my review here because the book is just so interesting (this can also be read on Goodreads):

if space time folded us into an event or place, why not a diner with a nice breakfast menu? 

Just as anyone working a long-hour cubicle or factory job that requires repetition and, therefore, the ability to find stories and humor and purpose despite lack of diversity and minimal setting change, so this novel finds depth despite somewhat limited dimension. As fun and innovative as this book is, it is also fiction that examines what we don’t have time to think about.

Here, we have the Village Inn, which I imagine two parts Waffle House, one part White Castle. And our characters are seemingly indefinitely at this diner, so there’s the problem how to adapt and what to do? The narrator and her two friends begin their theosophical journey with philosophy and the breakfast menu. They define and analyze food and its worth in relation to other food. Then, they make table sculptures. Then, they play games, grow bored, wonder at the whys and hows. Their own stories are revealed in pieces, which add dimension that the reader so craves. We are what we’ve done, where we’ve been, what we think as much as where we are. We are also imagination. Time no longer matters and stories spiral outward and in, and the whole thing is damn interesting.

I really enjoyed the book. Check it out! 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Bottoms up

"Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life." — J.K. Rowling

Tell it, J.K. 

Image from the San Antonio Express News

I started writing this blog on the 4th of July. I started by saying: Break out the grill and loud colors and raise your flag. Enjoy your day off. Then I got distracted by other things, so here I am on the 5th of July. Happy belated Independence day!

I rarely read front page news because a. the stories are usually depressing and b. I usually don't have time. But, I had an extra day off yesterday, and I kicked it off by reading news. the top five stories were about Putin's kind words to Obama, a father who was sexting six women while his son died from heat exhaustion in the back of his car, F-35 war planes grounded for technical check-ups, and a mother and son who were trapped in a sinkhole. There's a little balance there, but I was quickly reminded why I don't make it a priority to read the news.

Next, I started writing this blog. Cue distraction: Homemade kimchi and a small cookout. Our veggie skewers tasted like lighter fluid but a series of successful food items followed, including veggie burgers for me (which could have been redundant) and a giant steak (see below) for my husband, along with a few gluttonously stuffed shitake mushrooms. We ate, we watched some fireworks on TV, we walked a block to watch fireworks in person and the rain tapped us on the shoulders until, finally, we turned back around and went home to watch more fireworks on TV. I consider that a successful holiday. Also, I came up with a writing prompt:

My husband's meal
before attempted theft.
(Note puppy face lower right.)
Scroll back up to the J.K. Rowling quote. This is the premise: a character who hits rock bottom. To make the plot a little more interesting, let's throw some karma in. What you put out, comes back is the idea here. Write a story in which the main character is going through a tough time, but his/her fate is determined with a simple action that seems unrelated (think specific). Resolve the story based on this small action. This could mean an act of kindness leading to another's act of kindness that resolves our protagonist's conflict later. Or, it could mean an act of selfishness leading to a dismissal when our protagonist is in need. Keep it to 1,500 words.

That's all I have for today, folks. If you write to any of my prompts, feel free to share the writings below. Or email them to me. I might love it an want to post it on my blog.

Speaking of which, I have a new story out that will be posted soon. Make that two, but I'll link them up later in the week. One's about a nudist who defines freedom a little differently than you and I (presumably); the other is about a dreamer who is disappointed in her dreams but realizes the reality she has is pretty good. I'll post these soon.



Saturday, June 28, 2014

Memory and distraction

Yesterday is but today's memory, and tomorrow is today's dream.
 --Khalil Gibran

Do you ever get creeped out by the fact that just about everyone around you is looking down at a cellphone with the glazed-eyed look of a Vegas slot machine addict? I do.

I was walking my dog the other morning before work, and I happened to forget my cellphone. I have been forgetting things a lot lately, but ordinarily I do not forget my cell. I felt a little awkward without it, as though I was missing something important--the house key, for instance, or pants. But then I decided to embrace it. There was life around me to soak in, after all. Thick heat, mosquitoes and loud trucks.

Actually, it was a beautiful day, if a little muggy, and with no headphones or potential calls or dings from texts, I decided to take in the world during a time I would usually be listening to an audio book or music. The few people I saw out walking that early were face down, absorbed in their texting or posting or quick news updates. In a way, it was creepy, yes, but it was also freeing. I kept thinking that I had the world to myself and I was safe because if someone were to try to attack or rob me, they'd likely first be interrupted by a text from a cousin or a Facebook post from that guy who lives down the street and forget about knocking me down for a ten dollar bill or a credit card. I felt almost invisible, but it wasn't me blocking out the world. It was the world blocking me out.

Don't get me wrong, I don't have my cellphone everywhere. I do have times when I run or do somehting consciously without it. But this routine was one in which I usually had headphones and was pleasantly distracted by an audio book or music. It was just paying attention to a routine route during which I am usually distracted. I remembered what it used to be like walking around the world without being so interconnected electronically and disconnected physically. The memories of this previous time were wearing thin. 

Back to memory. I have this theory that all this interconnectedness is killing my memory because it's killing my attention span. I'm so easily distracted. At a work lunch not long ago, a friend told me about a memory technique he'd read about called the memory palace. The basic principle is to associate a familiar landscape (a palace or a map or some other landscape) with what you'd like to remember. I have a pretty good memory for numbers but have trouble with names and faces, as well as remembering passages that I love from books. I remember how they make me feel, but am usually unable to recite or recall the actual words.

After reading about this technique in Moonwalking with Einstein, I set out to memorize "Spring and All" by William Carolos Williams.

"By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue..."

This was a tough one to start with, but I did it. I memorized the thing in a night using the techniques outlined in the above book by assigning absurd images to each turn of action or description. But more, I used focus. As I did other things: cleaning, grading, walking my dog, I kept bringing my mind back to the poem. I associated vivid imagery to all of the stanzas. "By the road to the contagious hospital/under the surge of the blue/mottled clouds driven from the/northeast - a cold wind" became the Mucinex man (from the commercials), standing by the road to a germy-looking cartoon hospital, beneath a blue race car surging in the sky, then models driving from the east coast, cold because they don't have any meat on their bones... and so on. It worked! After making all these wild associations, I had the poem memorized and then was able to really break down the meaning in my mind, allowing the images to become mere reference for the turns.

It is amazing what focus can do, even for the folks with feeble memories, such as yours truly.

So, this week's prompt:

Memorize a poem, a short one, and then write or paint or draw the story you find behind what you envision, no matter how wild and nonsensical. Find the absurd in the astute, and do so in less than 1,500 words.

We're at the end of June, so have a wonderful 4th of July and/or start to July.


Self promo (now a weekly event): Don't Tease the Elephants, available for Kindle for $2.99. Ways to consume: Buy it, then read it, send it to a friend, send it to your G-ma, read it again and aloud, on the bus, loan it to people who will disagree politically and emotionally and spiritually, argue with them. Maybe agree with them. Read the stories to get angry. Read them and write searing reviews. Write glowing reviews. Don't write reviews. Eat eggs while you read it. Drink coffee. Read it on the stationary bike. Read it at stop lights. Read it at the mall. More suggestions to come.   

Sunday, June 22, 2014


“You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise.”  
Michael Jordan

I've been digging Michael Jordan quotes lately. This one especially because it speaks to the spinning of wheels that happens when we plateau. This is relevant to me because have been feeling kind of stuck lately, frustrated that I have yet to find the right agent/publisher and have been unable to really work on my longer projects. Because I have a concentrated amount of time coming up for a writing residency this summer, I want to break this feeling. Now! 

This isn't the first time I have felt as though I should be progressing faster than I am. I have quite a few experiences with plateauing. I used to train for road races, for example, and I remember wondering why I could never seem to break the 40 minute 5-mile time. My frustration seemed to grow, but my times were not getting faster. Thing is, I was doing the same workouts every week, just trying harder. My training never seemed to get much easier, so I never moved beyond. I figured if I kept at it every day, eventually it would just feel more natural and then I could try a little harder. Doing the same routes again and again means getting stuck, and, more, it tends to mean my heart isn't in whatever I'm doing.  

Mastery is a slow process because a number of steps precede it. The 10,000 hours or so that make an expert, however, don't do it on their own. There has to be some deliberate methodology for all those hours, clear growth. This is something I've come to learn over quite a bit of failure and a few successes. The things that remain important day in and day out should be invested in. But, we also have to figure out how to best plan our journey forward. 

Over the last week, I have been reminded numerous times how important community is. Broadening our community is what helps us to push boundaries because it allows us to see things in new ways. We must continue to challenge ourselves, and if we can't figure out how to do so, look outside self. Inspiration is everywhere. See those who are doing what you want to do, and ask yourself what they're doing differently. This is something I have to remind myself of often. Appreciate, challenge self, and learn.

For me, a more varied and strength-based training session every week helped me to prepare. The day came when I breezed through a race, and reached my goal. I remember being baffled by how easy it felt once I reached it, and I quickly forgot how impossible it once seemed. Such things can happen again.  
I think the h is implied

This week's prompt:

Write about a character who feels stuck, in some respect. This could mean she's stuck in a dead-end job, or he's stuck in a pattern of over-consumption. Whatever's sticking in his or her life, this character needs change. Write 1,000 words about the attempt to break through. And whether or not goals are reached, the journey will encompass awkwardness, struggle and realization. Sometimes, we plateau because we're happy where we are. Sometimes because we're just not going about things logically. Many endings are possible, and I think this will be a fun one to write.

I'm personally going to torture this character, and I'll have fun doing it. Ah, the joys of writing. 

In a way, perhaps these prompts are going to help me to break through my rut, and, as I said earlier, so is community. Looking outside. For a long time, all I read was the type of stuff I wrote (literary fiction), but I have been using my nightly reading time to consume more poetry and nonfiction and have been challenging myself (as one must do post-schooling) to learn about new things. I started reading about memorization techniques, and a friend challenged me to memorize "Spring and All" by William Carlos Williams in a night--to put said techniques to the test. I'll talk more about my experience with this next week (I really will because I have a lot to say about it), but let me just say now that given my feeble memory with its sad track record, this was WAY out of my comfort zone, and it was comical but also rewarding. This is what community does. Little nudges.    

Have a great week all, and if you have the drive, drive yourself right outside of that comfort zone a little just to see. 


*Self promo: My new chapbook (available on Amazon in eForm) is on giveaway again at Goodreads. Check it out, if you want to win a free hard copy. It's short and sweet. Read it, add it, show it love. I appreciate the read and would love to know what you think.