Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Talent and Temperament

I’m a member of several on line communities whose main topic is writing. The on and off line behavior of authors, and other people in the art community, has recently been a topic of discussion. Mainly, if an artist’s behavior has influenced whether or not we purchase their art, books, movies, music, etc.

Morals and behavior of that sort, while important, may not have so much to do with the business end of writing. When I have a relationship with an agent, or a publisher, I want them to know I’m professional enough to respect a deadline, be willing to listen to their ideas, and accept their vision of my work.

On the other side of the coin, I expect them to respect my time and know that my ideas are important to me, and to understand that I, too, have a vision for my work. This is what I would call a good business relationship.

This has nothing to do with being taken advantage of, either. Standing up for a story I believe in is something I would do. But listening to suggestions is a must.

Now, when it comes to readers who hopefully turn into fans, the people who will actually buy my books, it becomes another matter. While this is a business relationship too, it’s a bit more personal.

It has nothing to do with whether or not I walk into a book signing wearing a huge pink hat and a purple dress. That’s a “personality” or a “quirk” or a fashion nightmare. It has everything to do with how I treat people, and just like with agents and publishers that I hope to work smoothly with in the future, it should involve respect, willingness to listen, and vision.

I recently blogged here about having an “artistic snit”. These happen, even to the best artists. It’s a time when we doubt ourselves, or feel underappreciated for the hard work we put into our art. I keep these unflattering episodes to myself and may, on occasions, share them with my husband. (Which is what a spouse is there for, ranting to and receiving moral support from.) And, on very rare occasions, I might snit to my writer friends. But to continually do this, and worse, in the public eye is counter- productive to developing the kind of relationship that we all want with business partners and fans.

On line or off, our behavior tells people who we really are and, like it or not, it makes a difference.

So, I’m saying that artists certainly have a right to be “artistic” but to define bad behavior as “just being an artist” is wrong. It’s a cop out. Courtesy isn’t that difficult, and moreover it’s required in the business world. Art of any kind is a business.

I hope that any agent or publisher, or potential reader reading my blog, or my myspace page, or who may wander through an on line community I participate in, would find my behavior there to be such that they would want to have a business relationship with me.

It seems as though my muse is the only one in the position to be temperamental and moody and get by with it.

Until next time.


Sunday, July 13, 2008

My Muse and the Origin of a Story

It's funny where ideas come from. I can't control how my mind will take a seemingly simple thing and run with a story idea.
Back in April, I attended a one day writing seminar. The guest speaker was Ron Rozelle. He was an excellent teacher and I learned a lot about writing that day. But the biggest thing that happened was I got an idea for a story just from one sentence. Before the day was even over, I was jotting down notes about this idea.
Since then, some parts of the story have changed a little and I've thought about it and sort of re-directed it, but it's one of those things that can't seem to leave me alone.
I thought it would be a short tale, a short story, but so far I've written three parts to it, each about three or four thousand words long.
I've let my wonderful writer's group read them and they have given me suggestions that have ultimately made it better.
So, my muse and I would like to share Part One of my story. The working title is "Promise Me" I would appreciate any comments, too, as I'm always looking for ways to make my writing better.

Theresa Laws

There was too much blood. Maddie’s mind took it in, but that wasn’t what made her stop half way across the kitchen, her hand outstretched toward the screen door. It was the expression on Joe’s face. His eyes were fixed, and they focused on hers in a gaze that seemed to be contentment. If the situation hadn’t been desperate, she might have mistaken that look for love and longing. He stood there, just on the other side of the sagging screen, transfixed and unable to move. Behind him, Maddie could see the yard, with its pale, dry grass, the tumble-down fence, and beyond that, the dusty farm road bordering an empty field; the scene she saw every day from her kitchen door. Now her husband stood there, filling up the foreground of that scene, his shirt dripping with blood. Too much blood.
She covered the distance across the kitchen before she could even call out his name. “Joe! My God! ”
The door hinges screamed a dry, rusty sound as she pushed it open. Joe swayed backwards, and the expression in his eyes flickered between the dazed look and one of exhaustion and pain, but he said nothing. Maddie slipped her arm around his waist and pressed her shoulder into his arm pit. For a sickening moment, she felt his full weight and staggered under him. Then, somehow, he managed to regain his footing, and they moved forward through the door and into the kitchen.
Blood fell in slow, wet droplets, splashing onto the linoleum and making bright, uneven, red blooms where the pattern had long since worn away. The screen door banged shut and bounced once, twice before coming to rest. They stumbled through the kitchen and into the tiny front parlor. Maddie’s eyes had to adjust to the dimness, but she guided her husband to the sofa and tried to carefully sit him there. As she eased him down, he let out the first sounds she had heard from him.
“I’m sorry… Maddie…”
Maddie began fumbling with his shirt, trying to pull it out of his waistband. Sticky, red blood instantly coated her fingers, and, mingled with its coppery scent, was the smell of sweat and dirt. The buttons were impossible to manage with her shaking fingers, so she gripped the shirt and yanked. Every button flew off with a popping sound that was nearly drowned out by Joe’s scream.
“Joe! What is it? Oh, God, Honey! What happened to you?” Joe’s chest was covered with blood, dried and crusted into the hair, and new, seeping from a hole just below his left shoulder. The edges of the wound were jagged and blackened. She pulled away from him and drew in a sharp, involuntary breath.
“Oh, Joe! I’ve got to go get the doctor!” Maddie was already in flight for the door, only to be brought up short by Joe’s bloody hand entwined in her skirt.
“You can’t.” He looked at her with vacant, fading eyes and slowly reached around behind and underneath himself.
Maddie recognized what he had immediately, but it looked somehow strange. He drew out his hunting bag, the one she had made for him out of left over ticking. It was soaked, too. And full of something.
Joe tried to lift the bag, to hand it to her, but his strength was gone. It fell from his hand and landed on the threadbare carpet with hardly a sound. “I’m sorry…” he whispered again, and then he passed out.
She had wanted to keep him from going. It wasn’t that she was afraid to be left alone, and it wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the few farm chores that were left to do; she and little Johnny would be fine alone for two or three days. It was the wear and worry on Joe’s face that had frightened her. And his anger. Not directed at her, never at her, but at the situation, the Depression that wore on and on. And at himself.
Four nights ago, he had pushed himself back from the kitchen table, flinging his fork onto his plate. Cornmeal mush flew and landed in gritty, yellow blobs on the table top.
“I can’t eat another bite of this shit.” His chair scraped the floor and nearly tipped over as he stood up, grabbed the plate and marched toward the screen door. He had thrown open the door and sailed the plate out into the yard. Maddie heard it shatter and then heard him stomp off the porch. She would have gone after him if the baby hadn’t started to wail at all the commotion. It was just as well, the tension had been thickening for weeks, their relationship strained to the limit with bills and bad luck, no money and no work. And no end in sight.
When Joe finally came back into the house some thirty minutes later, his mood had changed from desperate anger to one of determination. Maddie had seen the firm set of his jaw, his mouth pulled into a straight, hard line, and she had known that whatever he had decided to do, he would.
“Joe, honey,” she had told him, “It’s not just us. It’s like this all over. We’re not the only ones eating mush. Be grateful we’ve got that. We’re the lucky ones.”
For a moment Joe’s expression had softened. He had taken her hands, and Maddie remembered the tears in his eyes.
“I’m tired of not being able to take care of you and the baby. I’m tired of us not having anything. Maddie, we’ve got nothing left to sell, and even if we did, nobody’s got any money to buy it. I’ve made up my mind. I’m going to the Thomas place to see if he can hire me on to work the hay, or something. He’s about the only one around who might have work, and I’ve got to get my ass over there if I’m gonna have a chance. Trust me.”
The next morning, just three days ago, she had trusted him as she watched him walk away, headed for the main highway to hitchhike his way to the Thomas farm some twenty miles from home. She had trusted that he would come back soon, or send word, and things would be better for a while.

The water in the tin dish pan was just a pale crimson now. Maddie had made many trips to the kitchen to pour out the old and refill it with clean, and her arm ached from working the pump over and over. At first it had seemed as though she was literally pouring Joe’s life down the sink, but finally she was making some progress in cleaning him up. The wound in his shoulder was clean through from back to front and still seeping, but she had managed to bind it with one of Johnny’s diapers. After about the fourth or fifth trip for clean water, Joe had roused a little, but not enough to talk. He wasn’t able to tell her anything about being shot, and he wasn’t able to explain the bag of money - still soggy with blood - that now lay at the foot of the sofa.
His jeans and what was left of the shirt had several torn places, and his boots were crusted with mud and leaves. Maddie gently removed her husband’s clothing, slipped a pillow under his head, and carefully covered him with a quilt. Next she brought the bottle of corn whisky from the kitchen and set it close by. Her chest tightened at the thought of actually having to use it for those ‘medicinal purposes’ they kept it for.
The small parlor she and Joe reserved for the occasional guest grew dark quickly. They hardly came into this room, and now Maddie looked around at the shabby furnishings, noticing the worn places on the sofa arms and the scuffed wooden floor broken up by the thinning rug. She went to the window and pulled back the curtains that she usually kept drawn. The sun was setting behind the house and this side was in deep shadow already. The tiny front porch needed paint, and the small yard beyond was just as dry and pale as the rest of the landscape. Out there was a view Maddie had thought she would never tire of: a pasture that rolled gently away from the house and, in the far distance, a grove of trees that extended from the property far enough to be called a forest. Lately she had come to despise that view. It represented a prison she and Joe were locked in with no escape, no other place to go.
Joe stirred, but settled again. Maddie let the curtain fall and turned back to her husband, the person she had trusted, the man who had vowed to do whatever was necessary to take care of his family. She laid a hand on his forehead. It was damp and clammy, but there was no fever. From upstairs, Johnny was beginning to stir. He wasn’t fussing yet, but Maddie could hear him whimpering.
In the kitchen, she poured out the last of the water from the dish pan. It made a pink tinged swirl as it went down the drain. Next, she picked up the oak rocker that had been her mother’s and moved it into the parlor. She tried to remember if it had ever been in that room before, but her memory was fuzzy about that. She liked to sit in it in her sunny kitchen, rocking her baby boy. Now tonight, she would need it in the dark, cramped parlor. Just another sign that all her world had gone wrong. Finally, she lit the oil lamp and set it on the table near the sofa. Joe’s face looked waxy and smooth in the yellow light it cast. When she finally climbed the stairs to the baby’s room, it was nearly dark inside the house, and Johnny was screaming now, demanding her attention. At last she settled into the rocker next to her husband, unbuttoned her dress and offered her breast to the baby. He looked up at her and grinned.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Muse and The Question

My muse has posed the age old question – are you good enough?

I have a good friend who is a very talented playwright. He is funny, articulate, moody sometimes and at an impasse. I’ve received several e-mails from him asking my opinion about whether or not he should pull up stakes and head to L.A. and the movie business.
I sympathize with him. I think he should. I think he can make it. I think if he doesn’t at least give it a try, he will always regret it. It doesn’t matter one iota what I think. What matters is what HE thinks.

There is always a little voice in my head asking me “Who do you think you are, a real writer?” “What are you doing wasting your time on this drivel? Don’t you have some housework to do, or something more worthwhile?” Much to my surprise I’ve discovered that sometimes I succumb to that voice and wind up in an “artistic snit.” I never thought I would be one of those artists. Why, even a member of my writer’s group told me that they expected it of some of the others, maybe, but never me. Why not?

When that voice pops up, it’s difficult not to listen. And, when others pick apart something I’ve written, or ignore it, (as has happened lately) then that voice gets louder and louder.

I’ve discovered that every artist I know has that same voice in their head. The trick, I’ve found, is to have a support group to help drown it out. So, I would ask my friend, “Who is your support group? Who can you turn to when you hear that voice asking if you’re good enough?” If he has someone, and he believes in himself strongly enough, then he can make it.

Everyone who knows me very well at all knows I’m a perfectionist. And, that carries over into my writing. There are so many rules. Make your manuscript this way, or that way. Use this font, or that one. Space it just so. Use the right amount of words, not too many, not too few. What? Look, I know there have to be rules, but shouldn’t the content matter as well? And shouldn’t that be the main thing?

We writers struggle with every word, we agonize over what we’ve written. I don’t see any way to get away from that. I don’t have a way to block out that inner voice telling me I’m wasting my time. I can only turn to my support group, my fellow writers who hear that same voice and understand.

Until next time.