Monday, November 1, 2010
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
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
Oct. 28, 2010
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.
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?
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
"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:
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 mine...so 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
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
The cottonwood trees are taking off
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
Oct. 24, 2010, Ucross, Wyoming
Saturday, October 23, 2010
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 thesaurus.com 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
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?
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
"All I want is to be a cowboy and wear my own pants." ~ From the movie "Destry Rides Again." Mischa Auer makes this comment to his wife after losing his clothes to Marlene Dietrich in a card game.
I am wearing my own pants but I'd like to try the cowboy thing. And I'm in good company. Guess who has been a resident at Ucross not once but twice?
Elizabeth Gilbert, who has practically owned the Nonfiction Best Seller Page of the New York Times for the past three years for her blockbuster memoir about eating pizza, kegeling, and schtupping across three continents. Bless her heart! Can we get an amen? No? Well, anyway...
She came here first to write "The Last American Man," which I thought was really good (although I think she and the guy she was writing about probably had sex even if she didn't cop to it in the book).
She came back a second time to write "Eat, Pray, Love."
Am I just a skosh jealous of La Gilbert's phenomenal success? Let me put it this way: Does Oprah wear Spanx?
Hell, yes, I'm jealous. I'm just praying that Liz left a little pixie dust on the sheets. Maybe I've even got "her" room.
The weird thing is I'm reading her very first book, a collection of short stories, "Pilgrims," and it is REALLY good. E. Annie Proulx (I wonder what the E. stands for) wet all over her knickers about this book and I can definitely see why. Here's what she wrote on the back of the dust jacket: "Elizabeth Gilbert is a young writer of incandescent talent. The stories in 'Pilgrims' flash like mirrors, cut like razors."
What I find interesting is "Pilgrims" (1997) is a lot like some of Proulx's Wyoming stories: pared down, funny, minimal, wry.
It's no coincidence that Proulx also did a residency here at Ucross and also served on the Board of Directors. I'm a huge fan of Proulx.
I can see that I've drifted from my earlier attitudes of nun-like gratitude about being here in Wyoming. (And I am! I am!) I should be getting more and more Zen-like, the longer I'm here but instead I've developed this potty mouth and a bit of an attitude. I put this down to a lack of alcohol, television, and small dogs I can cuddle with in bed.
For the record, I went back in Buck's cabin today and the vibe was a little mellower. Maybe learning he had a glass eye took the edge off things.
I've been working hard. Week two and I'm in the groove of things. Tomorrow night is a full moon.
Remember what Telly Savalas used to say on that TV show "Kojack"?
"Who loves ya, baby?"
Me. I do.
Monday, October 18, 2010
Today is Oct. 18 and I have 18 days left of this residency before I fly home to Ohio. I'm sitting in Buck's log cabin at Ucross. The internet has been very spotty in my studio and here at Buck's, well, this is internet central. Computer-wise, this is the G-spot, the eye of the perfect storm, the hole in the donut. Who in the hell is Buck? Well, he was a local character in this part of Wyoming. A hunter. A drinker. A guy who liked women and guns and must've been a real hell-raiser. A throwback to a time I can barely imagine.
I'm creeped out by Buck's cabin. There are photos all over his little cabin featuring photographs of him and his buddies hunting. In one photo, Buck is smoking a cigar and holding a woodchuck over his shoulder. It looks like he's about to toss it like a football. In another photo, a badger (stuffed?) sits at a table, smoking a cigarette, a can of Budweiser between his paws.
There are lots of black and white photos of Buck posing with dead animals like moose, deer, elk, elephants, and other animals I can't identify.
The picture that really gets to me though is of the bear. Buck, rifle in one hand, stands next to this big bear. The bear is seated on a chair and there's a rope muzzle looped around his jaws. Buck looks like the master of his domain, exuberant, proud. Maybe the bear was a pet. But I don't think so. The bear looks helpless and sad. I feel really sorry for the bear. Considering how Buck's walls are plastered with photos of animals he blasted from here to Kingdom Come, my bet is he killed the bear.
There's some weird mojo in his cabin. Seriously. I get a bad feeling there. Or, maybe not a bad feeling per se, but a sense that normal dimensions are porous, that the regular rules of time and space didn't necessarily apply in this one particular location.
Nosing around his cabin, I noticed a pair of stiff leather chaps nailed to the wall. There was a dusty black piano built by Vose & Sons (estab 1851) and a peace pipe. There were also lots of deer antlers and a framed document stating that Lloyd "Buck" Bader was a member of Buffalo Hunters of America. This organization, the document states, was composed of men who were "boys at heart. Men who, while shooting a buffalo, were probably thinking of early history." The document was dated Nov. 9, 1955.
I don't mean to sound judgmental. Buck donated his cabin and the land surrounding it to Ucross. Here's another thing. I think Buck was from Ohio.
On his library shelves (in the kitchen) there were dozens of books, including "The Outdoor Life Bear Book (50 Great stories! Terrifying Attacks! Exciting Hunts!) and "Fix Your Chevrolet." Also "Scrub Dog of Alaska" and "The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures."
At dinner tonight, I learned that Bucky had a glass eye (like my literary hero Jim Harrison), and that he had lots of women in his life, some, maybe, even his wives. In one picture of Bucky, where he looks old and frail, he sits in a chair surrounded by four little boys. There's a bottle of Early Times Bourbon at his elbow. I wonder if those are his grandsons. I wonder where they are now.
Can you tell I'm just a little bit fascinated by this bad boy? Ah, life, Ah, time.
I could tell you lots of stories the other residents have told me about things that go bump in the night, but let me save them for another time.
I had a good day today. I'm making progress. I miss the boys and I miss the dogs and I miss TV (but not that much, TV, that is).
If you are reading this, thank you. It's a little lonely out here sometimes. And Buck, if you're out there, I'm sorry if I upset you by nosing around in your cabin. I just couldn't help myself.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
It's Saturday night at Ucross; the foundation staffers have the weekend off. It's been a strange day, kind of lonely actually. It's 6:40 p.m. right now and I've been in my studio most of the day, "writing." All day I've been writing about two people who love each other but are essentially mismatched and drifting apart. No wonder I feel a little blue myself. I have never had this much time before to myself to think and write and ponder and try to figure out character and plot, at least not in a meaningful and sustained way. Before I came here I wasn't sure what the trajectory of the story was, what would happen, what plot points were important. I worried that I didn't have enough. Now I think I may be juggling too many balls, character and action-wise. Or maybe not. I'll just have to see.
I called home tonight and talked to the "boys"--husband and son. It sounds like they've been holed up in the house since noon watching football game after football game. The Missouri Tigers won today so they're both happy about that. They sound cheerful and glassy-eyed and a little slap-happy. I miss them. But. The last thing I want to do is watch a football game.
I slept in until 8 a.m., read in bed until 9 a.m., and then headed over to the School House for breakfast. (Yogurt and Grape Nuts.) After infusions of strong French Roast, it was back to the studio. A couple of residents had talked earlier about a field trip to the Big Horns, but I decided to pass because I screwed off a lot yesterday (Friday). Some of us had gone into Sheridan to stock up on personal items like aspirin or snack stuff. (Beef jerky and a pound of wasabi/soy sauce almonds for me.) We stopped at the Salvation Army Thrift store and Molly, a Ucross intern who likes to swing dance, bought a sexy black sleeveless dress with a fuchsia net petticoat for $5. She looks delicious in it. (Molly is pictured in the photo at the beginning of this post.) Yenta, a nonfiction writer from Holland, bought a pair of ostrich-skin cowboy boots and I bought a purple cloche hat that reminds of the hat Norman Maclean's Presbyterian mom (Brenda Blethyn) wears in the Redford movie "A River Runs Through It." It's a little flapper number, silly but sweet.
A little while ago Cindy, the cook, brought her dog Toby by so I could meet him. He is the strangest dog I have ever seen! (And I have seen and owned my share of strange-looking dogs.) This dog looks like he was drawn by a 7-year-old. He seems to be part Rhodesian Ridgeback (the hair on his spine stands straight up like a cowlick), part Briard, and part Australian shepherd. He looks like he got his paw stuck a light socket. He's all wiry fur that stands up on end, and huge triangular ears the size of oven mitts. He has a brown eye and a blue/gray eye and his coat is mottled black and gray. You look at him and have to laugh. I wish I had taken a picture of him.
I have this fantasy that I'm going to get a rough draft of this book done before I leave on Nov. 5. Am I on drugs? No, unless it's the Helium of Hope. I'm averaging about six-seven pages a day. That feels incredibly slow to me but it's all new territory and I'm in excavation mode. Does this process sound like a terrible waste of time to you? It's the only way I know how to write.
I'm having terrible insomnia. There are thousands of little bugs around here; they look like beetles, only they are black with red markings and they can fly. They're trying to come inside for the winter and they are everywhere. I am not squeamish about bugs, but I hate to feel these things on my body. For the past few nights, every time I drift off to sleep (light on, book in hand, 1 a.m., 3 a.m., 5 a.m.), I'm jarred awake by one of these animals crawling on my neck or creeping up my arm. At first I tried to be Zen about it and not kill them, but now I don't care; I squash every one I can find with impunity. Reincarnation be damned! A girl needs her sleep.
Tomorrow, in honor of Sunday, I will honor the sabbath by reading the New York Times online.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
"When they are alone they want to be with others, and when they are with others they want to be alone. After all, human beings are like that." -- Gertrude Stein.
One of the characters in my novel is a Gertrude Stein scholar. I have a friend, Sara Kirschenbaum, who wrote her creative thesis on Stein. I must confess: I don't get Stein. But maybe there is a lot more to her than meets the eye. (Sara, feel free to weigh in here anytime.) It's easy to mock things or people that we don't understand.
I like Stein's quote because it expresses how many of us feel so much of the time: neither really here nor there. We can't wait to go somewhere, and once we're there, we wonder what's next. Writer David Brooks calls this "the paradise spell"--the idea that true happiness is in the future, just over the next rise. I can relate. I spent my entire childhood and adolescence on the move, moving from state to state, country to country.
But I can honestly say I don't want to be anywhere other than right here, right now.
"I vant to be alone," Garbo said. And I vant to be distracted too. (I've just glanced at my watch. Dinner is 4 hours and 45 minutes away.) Lunch, by the way, was a very intense mozzarella and basil sandwich with vinagrette on a sourdough roll, and a juicy apple. So even though I'm happily here, my mind is a jungle gym full of swinging thoughts.
Here's another quote of Stein's:
"You'll be old and you never lived, and you feel kind of silly to lie down and die and never to have lived, to have been a job chaser and never have lived."
I am here at this retreat, and for the most part, I am alone, except I'm talking to you electronically. Isn't that what we're all attempting to do? Reach out? Connect? Make a statement? Say, "I lived. I am alive. Listen to what it's like to be me. See the world through my eyes."
One of the bracing, uplifting things about this particular group of residents at Ucross is their dedication to their art. I've been told that a previous group, several years ago (all men) just sat outside on the deck all day getting smashed on beer. They didn't do a damn thing! Didn't lift a finger, didn't wash a dish. The mom in me gets mad at that.
The work ethic of this current crop of residents is s-e-r-i-o-u-s. That's not to say they're lacking in humor in the least. We have good times at breakfast, getting jacked up on our coffee before heading off to "work." I like them all.
Can you tell I'm having a hard time settling down this afternoon? I'm writing completely new stuff, trying to feel my way, trying to get to know a certain character who is mean, scared, lonely and vindictive. I'm trying to suss out what makes him the way he is and to do that, I've got to become him and discover those mean, scared, lonely and vindictive parts of myself too. I don't have to like him but on a deeper level, I must love him and understand him.
As I write, I keep glancing up at the books on the bookshelf by my desk, all the fabulous, intriguing, compelling books that have been written by people far more talented than I will ever be. And then I feel tired and have to resist the urge to go upstairs to my little bedroom and lie down.
OK, here's the deal I'm cutting with myself: I'm going to work for three more hours, then I'm going to take a bike ride and enjoy all that golden light.
Thank you for listening. How much do I owe you? Peace.
Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Very cold this morning. The russet-colored grasses wore swirls of paisley ice on their leaves. Remember how I said the altitude wasn't bothering me? I was wrong. This morning I woke up with a massive headache. It felt like I'd been knocking back merlot milkshakes all night. I am drinking tons and tons of water and trying to chill my jets a little, but it hard for this anxious little person to relax and take things as they come. Wyoming isn't going anywhere. Neither am I.
In the kitchen next to my studio, there's a plaque on the wall. Here's what it says:
NO ONE MAY INTERRUPT YOU WHEN YOU ARE IN YOUR WORKSPACE UNLESS THE BUILDING IS BURNING DOWN OR SOME OTHER TRUE EMERGENCY EXISTS.
COMPLEMENT: YOU MAY NOT INTERRUPT OTHERS IN THEIR WORKSPACE."
I like that.
The folks at U-Cross are taking very good care of us, seeing that we're fed, warm, and given lots of uninterrupted time to do what we've come here to do. All they ask is that we respect the land, their rules, and each other. With that kind of generosity, how can one do otherwise?
Tuesday, October 12, 2010
Oct. 12. That was how residency manager Ruthie Salvatore described some of the land outside of the U-Cross Ranch this morning during the newcomers' orientation meeting. Let me explain where I am, my darlings.
The U-Cross Ranch is perched on the western edge of the Powder River Basin, about 25 miles east of the Big Horn Mountains. I realize this probably doesn't mean much to you geographically. This is the high plains, with elevations ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 feet. Some of the residents have complained a little bit about altitude sickness. Acclimation can take a day or two. Solution: drink a lot of water, take naps. Me, I feel fine.
If you were to ask me how I am, I would start jabbering like a monkey and things would come spilling out of me in a jumble: white-tailed deer/big studio!/nervous/grateful/finally got a good night's sleep!
So. I'll try to slow down. Three words come to mind immediately in describing this part of Wyoming: Exquisite golden light!
I've been trying to post some of the pictures I took yesterday but the internet connection here is a little spotty and it takes an eternity to upload images (and I'm not a patient person). I was able to upload them on Facebook, so you might want to take a gander there until I get them up here.
The food here is terrific. Breakfast is a fix-your-own affair. Lunch is delivered to your "studio" doorstep in an insulated bag. And my studio is really spacious, with a comfortable desk, lots of windows, a well-stocked bookcase, and a deep green couch for lounging on. Yesterday for lunch: a fat green apple, two coconut raisin cookies, and a hot Ruben sandwich. The chef, Cindy, is some fancy schmancy gourmet cook from Mill Valley, California, so she whips up meals that are nutritious, visually appealing, and fabulous. Dinner tonight was Thai noodles, coconut shrimp, bok choy, homemade bread, a big salad (pine nuts, fruit, veggies), and homemade biscotti dipped in chocolate.
Like I said, lunch is delivered to your studio at noon. Dinner is six hours away, and boy, that can be a long time. By the time 6 p.m. rolls around, the natives are restless and hungry. It's not like you can slip out to the 7-Eleven for a bag of Doritos if you want a snack between lunch and dinner. We are WAY out there. Not that I get starved for food, but for company and the sound of a human voice.
I'm staying in a building called The Depot, which used to be an old train depot located in Clearmont, about eight miles away. The founder of the U-Cross Foundation had it loaded it up and moved here. My bedroom is cosy, clean, and very bright. I have a firm bed, a chest of drawers, a desk, a sink, and a closet. It is everything I need. Outside my window I can see white-tailed deer, wild turkeys (I'd love a glass of that right about now), sheep, and cattle.
There are four of us writers here, aside from two composers, one painter, and two photographers. One thing I've been heartened by is being able to meet artists who are able to sustain their artistic visions without compromise, without having to slave away at Burger King or work temp stuffing envelopes. Yes, it's not easy, and yes, money is always tight, but it can be done.
Today was my first "real" day here (yesterday was spent traveling to get here, and I was exhausted). After breakfast, there was an orientation for the newbies (four of us). I took a few notes.
Some of the rules of the place:
* No laptops at the dinner table. This is the only time when everybody comes together and dinner time is sacrosanct. Ruthie said a guest or two in the past has actually been known to whip open their laptop during dinner. After she lifted her jaw from the table, she explained to them that this was very bad form.
* No overnight guests. Of course, I had to press Ruthie about this. What, pray tell, did she mean? Was she referring to fraternization among the residents?
Ruthie just raised an eyebrow.
The woman sitting next to me said, "That means the cowboys from town!" In the deep, dark distant past, a few residents were known to go bar-hopping and pick up some nighttime companions for a sleepover. I'm not even allowed to have my husband here, much less my dog.
* Please clean up after yourselves. "No exploding food in the microwaves."
To me, this place has a zen feeling to it. While residents in the past might've been rowdy and randy, this batch of artists is congenial, industrious, and very polite. If the other residents are getting it on right now, I am oblivious.
Today was a full day. How many times have you said to yourself, Oh, if only I had all the time I needed to write? I said that, and look what happened. I ended up here! But writing for 10 hours straight is not do-able for me. I've been writing in bursts, an hour here, two hours there, etc. I spend a lot of time thinking, taking notes, even walking. But time is slower here because there are few distractions.
* I am making headway on the novel I'm working on and I have a very strong suspicion that one of the characters--who desperately wants to publish a novel--is going to wind up at a writer's retreat.
That's right...Wyoming! And yes, I think she might do some misbehavin' too.
With that, I will close. I am so, so, so grateful to be here. Wherever you are, I hope you get a chance to come here too.
Saturday, October 9, 2010
In two days, I will be in Wyoming...where the men are men and the sheep are scared. I've been given the gift of time. Thirty days, to be exact. Time to write. Time to think. Time to create. Am I up to it or am I just a big fraud? What will happen out there?
I'm on sabbatical this fall semester--my first ever. I teach Journalism and creative writing at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. I've been at Witt since 2004. Before that I lived in Colorado for 14 years. So the west--the real west--has a special place in my heart.
I will be staying for the next month at the U-Cross Ranch near Sheridan, Wyo. The U-Cross Foundation has kindly granted me a month's stay at their ranch, all expenses paid except for my airfare. What an incredible, incredible gift! I am humbled and grateful. No TV, limited internet access, and no car. Aiyiee!!
Confession: Part of me is a little afraid I'm going to get to Wyoming, see those plains, that magnificent horizon, and never want to leave. I might just have to quit my job! But I'm getting ahead of myself. I could also go absolutely bonkers at the ranch, sneaking off for carnal, time-wasting infusions of People magazine and Twizzlers. I guess I'll have to hitchhike into town for my candy fix.
I will try to post updates every day of what it's really like being on an artists' retreat. I hope I write like someone possessed and come back from Wyoming with a clear idea of what my novel is REALLY all about. Although I haven't been teaching this semester and I have been doing some writing, I've been distracted too, I must admit.
My 22-year-old son has recently moved home after graduating from St. Louis University last May with a degree in Political Science. As he likes to say, "I'm living at home in my parents' basement." It makes it sound like we're feeding him through a trap door or something. I mean, it's very dramatic! I love Joel madly and this has been such a sweet time in my life because I'm getting to know him as the smart, funny adult man that he is. But somehow I imagined on my sabbatical that my life would have the quiet of an asylum, everything very hush-hush. My biggest decision would be whether to have the lime or the cherry JELL-O for desert. And it hasn't been like that in the least. Joel is trying to find a job, trying to figure out the next stage of his life, trying to write himself. As his mother, I feel intimately involved in all of his ups and downs, mood swings, little victories, and melancholy moments.
I really need to get to Wyoming. I need to disconnect, just for a little while, get quiet, roll up my sleeves and enter the asylum.
Here's a little thing I wrote about trying to get in the right head space for a sabbatical:
Sabbatical (How to Have One)
First, cease. Second, desist. Third, resist.
If you are a tightly-wrapped, highly-strung person, winding down is hard. It's like going under anesthesia. You don't want to—succumb. What if you don't surface? But you are so very tired. Drugs are required. Go on. Roll up your sleeve. Stick out your arm. Make a fist.
Wait! Part of you doesn't think you deserve a sabbatical. You can't believe your incredible luck and keep expecting someone to inform you that it's all a big mistake and that you should report to work. Immediately.
It's here. Don't waste it. Turn off the TV. Unzip those pants. Breathe. Stop shaving your legs. Let your hair go gray. Let it grow out. Wake up. Smell the coffee. Go for a walk. Throw the dogs some bones. Throw yourself some bones. Look up at the sky. It's blue. Look at the trees. They're swaying. The leaves are golden, orange, red. They're falling. So are the nuts. Hear the big heavy hickory nuts ping-ponging on your metal roof. Bonk! Bonkbonkbonk!
Bake a pie. Peel potatoes. Make some salsa. Can the salsa. Hear the pleasing thock! the lids make when the seal smooches the jars. Write on the little white labels with a fine-point pen. Admire your spidery handwriting when you pen the date: Sept. 24, 2010.
Shit! The clock is ticking. It’s tocking. You can hear it. Time is passing. What are you doing? Are you writing? Is it meaningful? Or are you just screwing around as usual? Luckily, there's that writing retreat in Wyoming. On a ranch. On the plains. You are going to lock yourself in a cabin for a month, chain yourself to the desk and write. If it kills you, you will write. Write like a mofo. Bear down. Push. Put your pussy to the keyboard! Squeeze out that little masterpiece. Put a hat on it.
Someone will bring you a sack lunch and quietly place it just outside your door so you won't be disturbed. Because you're creating. And that's sacred. But you're scared. What are you birthing? What's inside you? Shhhh. Get quiet. Be still. My beating heart.
Close your eyes.
All the way.