Monday, November 1, 2010

Trick or Drink

Dear Ones -

Last night for Halloween some of us made apple and sweet potato pies, under the tutelage of culinary chef/artist Teresa

Booth Brown of Longmont, Colorado.
(Sexy town slogan: "Be Alive in Longmont.") Sure beats being dead!

It was a sweet time and I think I know what I've been doing wrong all those years with my pie crusts (sawing at that dough instead of stroking it gently like a baby's freshly powdered bottom).

True confession: Until last night, I had never eaten sweet potato pie! Teresa makes a killer sweet potato pie, as well as a no-fail recipe for Pate Brisee Fine (AKA pie crust). I'll post the recipes at the bottom of this blog.

A friend who works here said that one Halloween a couple of years ago, residents dressed up like the wives of former U.S. presidents and went knocking on the door of Ucross's facility manager, a friendly guy whose house abuts the Ucross property. Instead of saying "Trick or Treat," they said, "Trick or Drink." I'm told they were invited in for some liquid "candy." Compared to them, we were downright saintly last night.

Today is Monday. In just a couple of days I'll be leaving Ucross and making the two-plane trip back to Springfield, Ohio. I have very mixed feelings about that. Back home, there are people and pets I need to do some serious cuddling with, yet I will miss Wyoming's ever-changing big, wide sky.

I realize this sounds like a terrible cliche but in many ways I feel like I just got here. At the same time, I have absorbed this place's rhythms, learned some of its spoken (and unspoken) rules, and gained confidence and momentum with the story I've been trying to get down. I've been given the gift of time, undisturbed time, and I have tried to make the most of it. I have met kind, talented artists, and I have been taken care of in the most loving and conscientious ways imaginable. I am so grateful. Thank you, Ucross Foundation!

I had hoped to finish a complete rough draft of this book before leaving on Friday. I don't think that is going to happen, but I'm closing in on page 200 (okay, page 180 but it's only Monday) and I have a very clear idea of what the book is about and how it's going to end. (Which I didn't have a month ago.)

My characters have escaped from the tidy margins of this story and gone off on their own (like sheep without a Basque sheepherder!) and at some point, I will have to gather this unruly flock and herd them into the barn. There, I'll have to get out my extra-strength clippers and do some serious shearing. It's not quite time for that yet. Right now they're out in the tall grass browsin' and carousin'.

I remember writing to you a couple weeks ago about how scary Buck's cabin felt to me. I'm sitting here now writing in his cabin and I've got to confess Buck's ghost is about as consequential as the fly buzzing at the window.

Oh, and remember those bugs that were disturbing my sleep a while back? They're box elder bugs and I've gotten somewhat used to them. On Saturday morning I woke up to one of them crawling on my lip. Whatcha gonna do? I flicked it off and the thing went sailing.

"Trick or Treat"?

In a pig's eye!

Try "Flick or Treat."

Sometime this week we're going to have a "salon" where we will share our work. I will read the first chapter of the book. I hope people like it. It will be strange to have an audience after living alone in my head for a month.

Thanks for checking in with me. Save me some of that Halloween candy, will you?

Teresa Booth Brown's recipe for pie crust:
(makes two crusts)

1 1/2 cups of white flour
1/2 cup of cake flour
1 tsp. salt

Mix these ingredients together,
then add in a food processor or mixing bowl:

2 oz. shortening (like Crisco)
6 oz. cold butter (have butter cut up in small pieces)
Add these ingredients to the flour mixture in a mixer with a bread paddle on a low setting just until the mixture begins to clump together. Do not over mix.

Then add (very slowly) 1/2 cup of ice water, mix on low with your food processor. Then work the dough lightly with your hands. Again, don't handle too much!

Refrigerate dough for at least 30 minutes in the refrigerator.

Here is Teresa's recipe for Sweet Potato or Pumpkin Pie. Yield: two pies

6 eggs
4 cups of cooked sweet potato, pumpkin, yam or a combination
1 1/2 cups of cultured cream
1 cup of buttermilk
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ginger
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. cloves

Hint: Teresa scrubs her sweet potatoes real well and then oils them up so they can really caramelize in the oven. She bakes them at about 425 degrees until they're cooked through.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Basque Sheepherder Hijacks Story!

Oct. 28, 2010

Dear Ones,

Oh my. I am obviously not getting out enough. In fact, I'm not getting out at all. Later this afternoon, Ruthie the residency manager/goddess is going to take us for a tour of the ranch and this little tenderfoot will be going along, taking pictures.

But back to the headline for this blog. NEVER EVER trust a reporter. EVER. Even one who once was a reporter in a former life. Because we are all magpies. We will dive after any old tired piece of tinsel, foil, frayed ribbon or dirty shoelace to line our nests with. Last week I posted a picture of a loyal border collie named Pippin who followed his owner with fervent adoration. Ruthie said the man was probably a Basque sheepherder. Which makes all kinds of sense.
Wyoming=Basque sheepherders.

Think of all those sheep in Brokeback Mountain. Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger obviously weren't Basques (unless it was the Beast with Two Basques) but the Basques have been living in Wyoming (and other parts of the West) for nearly 100 years.

But here's the deal. One of my characters, Misty Cotton, the world's neediest, mouthiest, most insecure student in the universe, has somehow wrangled an invitation to an artist's colony in Wyoming. She's staying at The Double DD Ranch and she's supposed to be working on a series of "linked" short stories set around a bar.

Backstory on The Misty One: Misty and her husband, who runs an up-and-coming real estate company, are having marital problems. He's fed up with her self-dramatizing; she knows he's got a thing for his assistant, Carla. He doesn't understand her need to get published, her desire to turn their front yard into a labyrinth, or why her office has become a shrine to Billie Holiday.

Oh, relationships are all so complicated, aren't they?

Misty has recently had a big fight with her creative writing teacher, Rory (the main character), and has since decided to bag writing classes and strike out on her own. Now she's in Wyoming. It's January. Her muse has taken a vacation in Florida. Misty is struggling. And that's when she lifts up her eyes unto the hills and spies...Sebastian "Sabie" Messalina and his dog, Sparky, no, I mean, his dog, Pippin.

Is it The Silence of the Lambs meets Heidi?
Stay tuned.

Should Misty trash her short stories, which are going nowhere, and aim for a little New Journalism with the sheepherder in the red woolen cap? Honestly, I don't know. I guess I will figure it out.

And no, I never did get back to that sex scene on the prairie with Rory and Nils. His lower lip is still trembling. Rory is still wondering when he's going to pull his hand out of her bra and make his move. Maybe that is the move. Lower lip action.

Now I've got to contemplate a possible romantic scene in the barn. With sheep and a Type-A border collie. And a man in a cherry red cap. And with Misty, who is overdue for something big in the Wild Thing Department. I'm telling Misty keep her powder dry--but let's face it--the woman has terrible boundary problems! In fact, most of the people in this book have terrible boundary problems, which is why they're getting into trouble all the time.

In the real world, I have eight more days of this residency. Eight days. It's going really well, for the most part. I'm contemplating a trip into Sheridan tomorrow for, um, supplies.

I miss Ohio and am looking forward to re-entering the world of family, dogs, Jon Stewart, people who like me, students (yes, they're out there), and many many leaves in the front yard.

Dear ones, wherever you are, remember: no one will ever walk in your moccasins but you. Sorry to go all Sherman Alexie on you. But. You know what's going on. Walk in it.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Hitting the Wall With Turkeys And A Sex Scene

"I hate straight singing. I have to change a tune to my own way of doing it. That's all I know." ~ Billie Holiday

Oct 26, 2010

Dear Friends -

Tornado warnings in Ohio, high wind advisories here in Wyoming. I am hunkered down in my studio watching the wild turkeys in the tall grass. They are trying to get over to the next field but there is a fence in the way. Some of them are trying to climb through the fence, but the mesh is too small. So they run back and forth along the fence perimeter, back and forth, crying and clucking and waving their stumpy little wings. Poor things. They have inspired a very bad poem. Here it is:

Turkey Poem

I feel sorry for the turkeys.
They aren’t very smart.
They’re destined for the butcher
Dinner as art.

They taste good at Thanksgiving,
But they want to be free.
If you were a turkey
How would you be?

I am obviously hitting the wall, creatively. This is the Marlo Thomas "Free to Be You and Me" version of a poultry poem. Stop me before I write again!!!!

Oct. 27, 2010

Since I've been here I've written about blow-ups in the classroom, student mutinies, lost children, someone driving a bookmobile and loving it, Halloween, and intoxicated people in a hot tub. I just pray to god there's a connection between all these things. I have even attempted to write a sex scene. I have only gotten as far as someone cupping someone else's breast. She puts his hand there. His lower lip trembles. They're on the prairie. In a field of wildflowers. But I can't seem to go any further south than the navel. Fade to black. Am I a prude?

Sex scenes are hard! Although I have a very imaginative mind and frequently swear like a stevedore, I have a hard time writing in a true, authentic and naked way about people actually taking off their clothes and getting down to bidness. When you think about it, sex is pretty preposterous. It's like, you want to put that ... where?

It's not dignified. It's unseemly. It's outright ridiculous. There are all those body fluids. It's messy. It's noisy. Yet people do it. It feels good. It is good. But writing about it?

It's like, look away, look away, look away, Dixieland!

Case in point: Consider Scarlett O'Hara the morning after Rhett Butler carries her upstairs in that to-die-for dress of hers and has his way with her...why, goodness, Miss Melly! She wakes up in a very good mood.

Why, shut my mouth!

So back to my sex scene. What do I want the scene to accomplish? I want it to show character. I want my readers to feel close to these people. I want them to care about them. I want them to identify with the characters, see themselves in them, feel tenderly towards them. I might even want them to get a little turned on by the scene, as I would be. I want them to be real, and sex is about as real as it gets.

But I'm not D. H. Lawrence. I'm not Anais Nin.

No, my sex scene is going to have to be if you'll excuse me, I've left two people fumbling in a field on the prairie in a partial state of undress. The wind is blowing. And there are turkeys, turkeys everywhere. I better go rescue them before things get out of hand...

I guess that's what Billie Holiday meant about changing a tune to her own way of singing. She's got to do it her own way.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Halfway there

Dear Friends -

It is incredibly windy today. I feel like I'm being pummeled, brushed, and buffed by an enormous electric toothbrush all over my body when I go outside. Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh. It makes me high, just looking at the way the trees are bending and creaking and the leaves go rocketing by. Wyoming is recognized as one of the windiest places in the country, or, as the wind farm people like to say, "a premiere wind site."

I've been sitting at my desk for six hours, more or less. Every now and then I'll look up and see herds of deer running by in the next field over. They leap. They bound.

The sky is an intense iron bluish-gray. The wind is howling. The atmosphere is fraught. It feels like something is going to happen.

Should I expect Mary Poppins or Jack London?

One of the residents here has generously downloaded a movie for me, "Sylvia," starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath, the bi-polar poet who committed suicide by gassing herself. I can watch it on my computer with earplugs. My son tells me it's probably not the best viewing material on a windy day in the lonesome middle of nowhere.

I've been re-reading Elizabeth Gilbert's book "The Last American Man" and it's pretty good. She's is a lot looser in this book, not so self-conscious or precious. She's having fun. She's found her subject. I take back what I said about her in an earlier post. I don't think she slept with Eustace Conway, the iconic mountain man who is the subject of her book. But I do think she slept with his younger brother, Judson. Or wanted to. And who wouldn't want to?

Here's how she described Judson, whom she met when she was 22 and working on a ranch in -- where else??-- Wyoming:

"I met Judson Conway the first day I came to the ranch. He was the first thing I set eyes on after that long drive up that big Wyoming mountain, and I kind of fell in love with him. I didn't fall in love with Judson like 'Let's get married!' I fell in love with him like 'Mercy!' Because here was Judson Conway at that moment: slim, handsome, hidden slightly under a cowboy hat, and appealingly dusty. All he had to do was stroll by me with his sexy swagger (classically executed, in the Hollywood manner of Pardon-me-ma'am-but-I-just came off-a-long-ride), and I was believer."


That narrator is so much more likable and trust-worthy to me than the one in "Eat, Pray, Love," with its movie-of-the-week epiphanies and neat little observations.

As for my own writing, it is inching along. I still hope to have a draft finished by the time I leave Ucross.


Horoscope for today: "Your ability to get your point across is sharpened right now, although you may have a hard time finding people to talk to." Ha! Ha! Ha!

I haven't talked to a single soul today except the answering machine in my Ohio home. Dinner is in two hours. New people have come today to Ucross. I can't wait to meet them.

Thank you for reading my blog. It makes me feel a little less OUT THERE on the prairie. This blog is a tumbleweed and I've pinned a note to it, hoping it rolls its way up to your door.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Caught in the Act

Caught in the Act

The cottonwood trees are taking off
their clothes,
dropping leaf after yellow leaf,
performing a slow striptease
this Sunday morning.

Snow is predicted
on Wednesday but
for now the sun peeps
through a torn petticoat
of clouds.

Oct. 24, 2010, Ucross, Wyoming

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Sweet Saturday and The Fruits of My Labor

Dear Friends, wherever you are...

There are just a few of us at Ucross this weekend.

The others have left. More are coming. (Wait. That sounds Cormac McCarthyish. Like we're the last people on the planet.)

I like the weekends here because they feel lazy, even though they're not really that different from the rest of the week as far as my routine: Get up, check e-mail, make some coffee, get some breakfast, then head to the studio. (My studio is right downstairs from my bedroom.) If it's sunny, I"ll close the blinds because the sun is so bright. I'll kill a few million box elder bugs that are crawling around on my desk. Then I'll try to immerse myself in another world, this book I'm trying to write. Sometimes immersion works and I'm transported but a lot of times as I'm writing, I'm thinking, this feels mowing grass by hand--uphill.

Then I'll kill a few more bugs and get up and have another cup of coffee. I'll look at my watch. I'll wonder what kind of leftovers are in the kitchen fridge for lunch. I'll chew on a piece of beef jerky and worry about the high sodium content. I'll check my e-mail. Then I'll try to get back to work. Maybe I'll call my husband on my cell phone. We'll talk for a couple minutes. (I'm not a phone person.) Maybe I'll call my son. More work.

Self-talk: No, you may NOT check your e-mail again. No one could've possibly sent you anything important in the last five minutes. Sometimes I'll pluck a novel off the bookshelf and page through it, trying to see how other writers describe their characters without being too damn intrusive. Sometimes I'll check online to see if there's a better word for "shadow."

I might check on the history of Basque sheepherders in Wyoming. I'll look for the name of a male Basque character. (We like the name "Gorka." Sounds like a Croatian brand of granola.) I might check out real estate prices in Sheridan (waaaaay too high by Ohio standards). Then I'll yell at myself again. I'll look at the lone box elder bug bravely trekking across my desk, its splindly legs going step-step-step. Should I kill it? I feel powerful. I'm the Emperor Nero. Thumbs up. Let the creature live! Roaring cheers from the amphitheater! Release the doves! And the panthers!

Today I feel like I'm chopping wood. Write a page, there's a stick. Write another page, there's another stick. Write, write, write. Stick, stick, stick. I hope this kindling catches fire.

It might be time for a nap. Wait, it's only 2:20 p.m. The others are going hiking in Crazy Woman Canyon. I should go but I'm too busy. You know. "Working." And so it goes on this quiet Saturday. Right now my mind feels like a very small room with no windows. There's only one thing to do: Get outside.

One great thing about Ucross. There are lots of great books to read. In James Galvin's wonderful novel, "The Meadow," he quotes a poem by Robert Duncan, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to A Meadow."

Here is my favorite stanza:

It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun's going down

That stanza makes me think of the west, the wonderful long tilt of the sun when the shadows grow long, and the prairie and the trees and of course, the wind.

Writing is such a solitary act, and yet it's a conversation too. I love how those words, written so long ago, have the power to move me in many different directions.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Duncan, The Dog That Ate Sheridan, Wyoming

Dear Friends,

Pictured above is Duncan, Ruthie Salvatore's 180-pound St. Bernard. He is VERY big, even by St. Bernard standards. Ruthie (Ucross's residency manager) keeps slobber towels stashed all around her house in case anybody needs a wipe-down. If things get too messy, she'll run you through a car wash.

This is my 11th day at Ucross. I am now on page 135. I cannot tell if what I'm writing is hot stuff or not. That's what happens when you're in a room by yourself for hours at a time.

"Uh, waiter, can I have the check, please? The reality check?"

Dinner was sweet tonight. Six of the residents are leaving tomorrow.

It's so strange to be here. We connect and then we say goodbye. It's like a really good interview.

On Monday a new crew of six comes. We will make them feel as welcome as the old-timers made us feel. I feel so very grateful to be here and to have had my life enlarged by such dedicated and caring people.

This is almost half over. I can't believe it.

Goodnight. Isn't the moon pretty tonight?