Saturday, August 30, 2014

Solitude in a crowded space

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”  —Mark Twain
 
 
The right word makes all the difference because there is always a right word, even though there may be many synonyms. I believe this to be true, and I know a lot of words (that happens to us readers), but sometimes that perfect word doesn't come readily. Sometimes lately, however, I have to go back to a piece dozens of times before that right word comes. I noticed this more in recent years, and it could be just that I am a more conscientious writer. But I can't help but wonder if this is, in fact, a result of knowing more than I used to. 
 
I first heard about the Internet of Things a year ago, but I didn't really care to understand it. Recently,  however, it seems to come up a lot, and now that I know what I do, I can't stop thinking about it. This concept is basically that any device can be connected to any other device, assuming both are connected to an internet source. This means the amount of connected data is so vast that its value is diluted, creating a problem for those looking to answer specific questions from unique connected devices. This is probably not the best definition. Wiki may do it better, but the basic concept is that if we have access to too much at one time, we become overwhelmed and have trouble assigning value to a thing.
 
I feel like much of our lives - being on Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram, while also streaming TV and chatting via work computer systems that have completely different rules and protocol than home systems, and playing games, even worrying about identity theft as we enter our credit card numbers into an online service while knowing that hackers are capable of pretty much watching our every move - is a balance between wanting to be heard and wanting to be left alone. It seems very few people don't want at least a little of both, and the way to accomplish that is to streamline what we do. Cut the social media to the bare bones and set time/day limits to use so as to, I don't know, live a little.
 
This is a topic I plan to explore more in a forthcoming blog post, possibly a blog post for Fiction Southeast, but I can't help but think about it as I pack my stuff, preparing for a move, as I realize how many physical objects are being replaced by fewer but more connected objects.
 
This is my prompt for the week (it's connected and a little more abstract than usual):
 
Write about a person who is lonely for whatever reason and reaches out online. Eventually, said person is so connected that he or she loses track of his/her individuality. But write about this person from either another character's POV or from a third-person POV. Write about this person's life as her/his identity fades and fragments, and decide if there is a solution that eventually brings solidification. Maybe this is a good thing, maybe not.   
 

I think this will be a particularly challenging one. I think I'll pack another box before I try it. :)

Have a beautiful weekend, all! And if you're in the states, enjoy the extra day.

xo Jen



Sunday, August 24, 2014

A few things I think I know about moving

We’re moving! Chris and I found a place that has a big backyard and just enough room for us, and we’re finally getting out of the mega-complex apartment living. No more creaky footsteps at 2 a.m., no more hearing the neighbor burp and cough and groan from the bathroom, and no more parking wars. We’ll have our own spot! Can you feel my excitement? Cause it’s there. Big time.

Though we’ll still be renting, this is a big move for us, and the quality of life factor will go from about 2 to about 8, assuming there are no angry ghosts or secret mold issues in this place that we haven’t realized. In preparation for our big move, I’ve learned a few things and I thought I’d share. Here they are:
  •  If you have a bunch of books to sell to Half-price or another such place, take them in installments. They will give you the exact same amount for two boxes (at least around here) as they will one.
  • Double-check the donation box for things you actually want to keep before handing it over. It’s really embarrassing to say, oh, actually, can I have that one dress back?
  • The unpacked boxes from the last move probably don’t need to move with you because they’ll probably remain unpacked. Unload the unneeded.
  • Try to get a lot done on the weekends and not continuously ask your boss to leave early during lay-off season.
  • Research the best set-top boxes and streaming for Internet and cable (there’s a lot of value variance).
  • If you write, still make time to write, even though you have less than half of half of the time you used to.

I’ll have more later, I’m sure. So. Much. Work. To. Do.

I have a writing prompt this week. A quick aside: I try to write to all these, too, so if you ever come up with something you'd like to share, let me know. I'd love to read it, and if you'd like, post it.

And... here it is...

A middle-aged character just moved and is shopping for the first time at the new neighborhood grocery. S/he’s loving it—just look at that organic section!—until s/he begins to feel as though s/he’s being followed. S/he imagines s/he’s being paranoid, jokes with the person offering samples of cheese, and hears someone laugh from behind. When s/he turns around, someone is there from a past the character thought s/he’d left behind.  

I wish you all a wonderful week. I have a few weeks yet till I move, but I’ll post pics soon. 


xo Jen

Monday, August 11, 2014

Uncertain

Life is uncertainty. That's a given. (Get it?)

I returned from Nebraska after a brief but great visit with my father and step-mom, and I feel renewed. To be completely honest, I didn't feel so great before I left. I felt numb a lot of the time, going through the motions. Not depressed, not sad. Just not much of anything. I explained this to a few folks, and they said it was likely burnout. Judging from the fact that the trip helped so much, I think they were on to something. I came back to some tough news, potentially scary news, but instead of feeling panic and instead of feeling nothing, I just felt okay. Some time to write: that's the cure.    

Below is a poem I wrote for and in honor of the Art Farm, a residency like no other. I recommend it to the hardest-core of hardcore writers (badasses only). Below that is some lit news and a short prompt. I wish you all a wonderful week.

BEING the FARM

We arrive, carry art on our backs or balance it on our heads
like books as we walk slow, sleepy circles in order to reach
the straight line time dances around, just ahead, and we

live in heat, for wind, with an ailing raccoon whose pupils
have narrowed with sunlight and the flies that clean their legs on our
swatters as they eye our compost—the mound of decay that gives life.

We work, painting walls, digging trenches, burying waste,
watching the leaking water with worried eyes and grubby
hands that, together, have raised a substantial roof; and we

wander, meeting those in town who know those
near town, who know those mothers and fathers of those
in surrounding towns, who know—all of them—Ed; therefore, us.

We live without time, find our way home, think back, send treasure maps,
reconnect and feel our roots pulling us back toward shared grounds where
Arctic winds, warmed by the reach to Nebraska, embrace and kiss corn 

as we remember walking the silky rows, beneath an expanse of blue and above
dust and clay that is thrust up by truck wheels and embedded beneath our skin as we
wave each other on by, growing smaller in reflective mirrors but no less a part of the farm. 


Here is a prompt based on my time at the Art Farm:

Write about excess. A character whose life is over-filled with stuff is forced to live without. How does s/he change? There is a lot of potential here to use humor.  

Literary news: New fiction is forthcoming in Per Contra (read the current issue for some great work!) and elsewhere. More soon... 

xo Jen 



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!