Literary Conference Wisdom

 At this year’s Literary Orange, I learned many tidbits to help inspire writers. Did you know that only 4% of people who start to write a book ever finish it? So if you have finished a book, congratulations, you are in rarefied territory.

Here are a few memorable quotes from the conference:

  • We write to make sense of the world.
  • We don’t know how strong we are until we need to be.
  • If you don’t work on your dream, someone else will hire you to work on their dream.
  • Stubborn writers make it.
  • If you write books about yourself, you have enough for one novel and three poems.
  • Nothing in fiction actually happens, but it’s all true—emotionally.
  • In a book you only have to give instructions to a kid once.
  • Everyone experiences a family differently. You and your siblings have the same parents, and yet you don’t.
  • Torture your characters without forsaking them.
  • Failure is the key to success.

I also learned to never give up. That seemed to be a running theme of the conference. Best-selling author Jonathan Evison, who was wearing a T-shirt that said: “Careful or You’ll Wind Up in My Book,” never did. He wrote eight books before being published, and continued writing despite a major setback– his agent quit to go to clown school. Mr. Evison was so desperate that he asked his agent if he could still represent him when he wasn’t studying pratfalls.

Keynote speaker Fannie Flagg had her own never-give-up story. She started by revealing that her real name is Patricia Neal, Patsy for short. (She had to change her name because the Screen Actor’s Guild doesn’t allow two actors to have the same name, and Patricia Neal was already taken.) Ms. Flagg then told this anecdote. Someone once said of her, “She writes those feel-good books.”

She smiled, but a friend told her, “I don’t think that’s a compliment.”

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Do You Know the Way to Cupertino?

 I just watched the National Spelling Bee and was mesmerized, no, the correct word is shamed, by the contest’s youngest-ever entrant, six-year-old Edith. She and her bouncy, blonde curls made it all the way to round three before being eliminated.

At our grade-school spelling bee I was always eliminated in the first round. I could never remember which letters were doubled or if it was supposed to be “intro” or “intra.” And to this day I still have to recite, “I before E except after C.” That’s why I rely so heavily on my computer’s Spell Checker to correct my spelling before my words go out into the world and embarrass me. Which, ironically, is one of those words I can’t spell. When I use Spell Check—that magical I-won’t-let-you-look-like-an-idiot feature, I only have to type in a close approximation of a troublesome word and a box comes up with alternate suggestions. And strangely, looking at the choices, I can tell which one is spelled right.

Spell Check became my best friend. But it also became my worst enemy when, one day, it said, “I’m tired of fixing your stupid-ass mistakes. Let’s have some fun.”

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How to Pick a Cat

Dogs are easy to pick. You walk into a shelter and all the dogs bark, which is canine for, “Pick me, pick me. Me, me, me.” Then the tails wag, which means, “I’m friendly. I can be your new best friend. Say, have you lost weight? Because you look like you’ve lost weight.” Next is the licking. And ladies, here is the short-skirt warning: Any exposed skin is fair game. So cover any lady parts you don’t want licked. Dog slobber says, “You are mine. Take me home.”

The final step in choosing a dog is to close your eyes and pick any one of them; you can’t go wrong. Now cats are a different animal. While you pick a dog, a cat picks you. You may think you have control of this process, but that’s what cats want you to think. Play along with their grand scheme.

Let’s examine three cats.

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Kitchen Rules

If you are what you eat, then I’m fast, cheap, and easy. But, I can live with that. What I can’t live with—yet have been forced to endure—is a messy kitchen. Every day I wonder how my sacred space ends up looking like a before photo on a hoarding show. Well, not quite that bad, but you get the idea. And the ironic part is that I’m a very neat person. Not up to the tidiness level of OCD—I don’t bleach grout with Clorox and Q-Tips—but I wipe counters, wash dishes, and scour sinks. So why is my kitchen always stained with a Rorschach test of drips, spills, and splashes?

Let me answer this question in one word: Husband.

My husband is a messy guy. He doesn’t mean to be; it just comes naturally, like snoring. I’ve lived with this for over thirty years—the messiness, not the snoring; that was cued with a C-Pap machine—yet still I insist on believing that I can retrain him when I know, deep down in my heart, that this bit of wisdom is true: Shoes don’t stretch and men don’t change. Continue reading “Kitchen Rules”

The Theory of Time

All time is relative, as demonstrated by one of its ruling principles, Tallman’s Theory of Relatives. It states that each day your relatives visit, actually lasts for 30 days. This explains why your crazy mother-in-law’s three-day stay feels like three months.

This abstract and somewhat fluid concept of time may confuse you; so let me clarify. Time exists on two parallel planes: real time and perceived time. This can be demonstrated when my alarm clock goes off at 7:00 am, and I close my eyes for five minutes. But when I open them again, it’s 8:45.

Perceived time is a paradox, as illustrated by this opposite example. At work when it’s 3:30, I close my eyes for five minutes, and when I open them again, it’s still 3:30. This sub-principle is known as The Microwave Misconception, derived from the doctrine that states: Microwave Minutes, or MM, are, in actuality, longer than Actual Minutes, or AM. So when expressing this mathematically, remember that MM is always less than AM.

For proof, I give you Tallman’s Theory of Toaster Waffles. I’ve viewed countless displays of this thesis, which states that, though it should take five minutes to toast a waffle, it will, in actuality, take one hour. Longer if you’re really hungry. Continue reading “The Theory of Time”

A Purrfect World

I’m young at heart. And I have a very youthful pancreas. In fact, my doctor said I have the gall bladder of a 20-year old. But though I think of myself as a kid, there comes a time to give up childish things—yet luckily for us, there is also a time to take them back. I think that time is around my age and the childish things I’m reclaiming are cat videos.

A few days ago this revelation struck me. I’d started to work on a chapter of my novel when a friend sent me a link to a cute cat video. This cat runs at top speed, dives into a box, slides across the floor and crashes into a sleeping dog. The dog wakes up and looks like, “What the heck just happened?” Continue reading “A Purrfect World”

Finding Doric

Being a bit obsessive, I unpack as soon as I return from a trip. After my last trip, I opened my suitcase and there it was, what we all hate to see: a TSA Notice of Baggage Inspection. Yes, strangers have pillaged my panties and bandied my brassieres. The notice said, “To protect you and your fellow passengers, the TSA is required by law to inspect all checked baggage.” Yet, this is not reassuring; it’s icky. No amount of Tide can wash away that violated feeling.

 The notice also said, “At the completion of the inspection, the contents were returned to your bag.” Really? I thought, picking up an unknown shoe. The TSA believes I travel with—not a pair—but with one gladiator sandal. Maybe they should amend that notice to read, “And if we can’t figure out where an item goes, we will randomly toss it into the nearest suitcase.”

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Library Rules  

Books-library rulesAs a kid I didn’t have many friends, but that was okay because I had the library. Every Saturday I’d walk gingerly through the stacks so my tennis shoes wouldn’t squeak and catch the attention of the librarian, who terrified me. She was about 900 years old and wore a jet-black Eva Gabor wig. When she raised a disapproving brow, her forehead wrinkled up under the hair. It was Creepy.

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The Pajama People vs. the Zombies

Early each morning, bleary-eyed, first cup of coffee in hand, we stumble into our home offices. We are the caffeine-fueled, hygiene-challenged, badly-dressed writers who slave at our computers for hours before finally deciding it’s time to take a shower and put on clean underwear. We are (cue ominous music) the Pajama People.

We work alone, sometimes in the dark while our minions sleep. (I’ve always wanted to say I had minions, but I don’t think my cats really count. They think that I’m their minion.)

Anyhoo, therein lies the real problem. We are alone. While we single-mindedly concentrate our gray matter on finding the perfect descriptor, without us realizing it, dark life forms creep into our workspaces and silently invade our computers. These creatures drain the life out of our writing, insinuating their soul-sucking passive voice. They are—the zombies.

A zombie invasion is a death sentence for us Pajama People, but we can thwart their advance by using an old trick to identify and destroy their lethal passivity. This simple technique is similar to that old favorite of feckless freshmen everywhere, the fortune cookie trick, where at the end of the fortune you tack on the words: in bed. “A lifetime of happiness awaits you—in bed. You will live long and eat many fortune cookies—in bed. You are a poor, pathetic, gullible fool who seeks advice from baked goods in bed.” Though, obviously, this addition is just for yucks, the zombie invasion is deadly serious.

At least it’s deadly to your writing.

Here’s how it works. Look at the following sentence lying there like a big, inviting bowl of brains, just asking to be eaten: “The house was haunted.” If zombies can hijack this sentence and it still makes grammatical sense, it’s passive. “The house was haunted by zombies.” Yes, it’s passive. The soulless brain-eaters have sucked the life from this sentence. But by using the active voice, where by zombies cannot be tacked onto the end, you write a death sentence. “Ghosts haunted the house” is a zombie killer.

Here’s another passive sentence and the easy fix. “The haunted house was opened at midnight by zombies,” can be changed to “The haunted house opened at midnight.”

Even buying goods on the Internet can be passive. “Your order has been placed by zombies.” (They’re probably ordering new shoes. All that foot-dragging takes a toll.) The lifeless passive voice creates a barrier that businesses can hide behind. I mean, who really placed my order? Identify yourself. Would a personal pronoun kill you? Some companies believe that the passive voice makes them sound important and official. I think it makes them sound cold and officious. I’d rather see: “We placed your order.” We meaning real live humans.

So Pajama People, go on the offensive and fight off the attack of the zombies. And remember, in this battle, fuzzy bedroom slippers are optional.

Island of Lost Ideas

Recently I was struck by an essay idea. I reached into my purse for my writing-ideas notebook, and couldn’t find it. Next, I searched my totebag, and still nothing. Then my car, hoping it had spilled out. It hadn’t. Like most of us, our ideas are such a part of who we are, that without them I felt bereft and oddly empty.

That notebook contained the outlines of a dozen new essays, hundreds of thoughts and insights that would one day wheedle their way into my writing. In other words—my literary life. And it was gone. I knew I must have left it at the library, but when I called, they said they hadn’t seen it.

That’s when I went into panic mode. Continue reading “Island of Lost Ideas”