Apr 23, 2015

Jogging Writer: No Sprain, No Gain?

It finally happened. I'm running along, happy as can be, and the goats are up on the hillside doing their goat thing. They meeaa-aa-aa at me. I meeaa-aa-aa back at them. Around the far side of the barn, I see Bang Bang, one of two billy goats on this particular farm I run past. He's aptly named, but not for the typical goat behavior of ramming into things, rather, for his two distinctly curled, blond tufts of hair that arc like styled bangs over his big, batty eyelashes. Yes, Bang Bang is named for his hair.

"Hey Bang Bang!" I shout. Goats have facial recognition. I love this fact. "How's it goin'?" I ask. And that's when my foot falls down on the pavement. But not the pavement exactly, more like that awful edge where the pavement ends and the grass starts. On this particular curve, the height difference between the two surfaces is nearly two inches...enough to make me roll my left ankle fully, stumble for several steps, nearly fall to the ground, then regain balance.

How bad it is? I run a few more paces to gauge and I can't tell. Experience has taught me that "no pain" means "masked pain" and so, although every cell that ever played sports or trained hard is telling me to go-go-go, I stop. Look up at the sky. Let out a growling yelp of exasperation, and turn around.

Up on the hillside, Bang Bang comes around the other side of the barn. Spring-green grasses trail from his mouth, tangled in a prize branch. I look away, mournful. Already, I've gone to a dark place. Already, I've leapt to conclusions--no training for months, pounds of weight gain, permanent chair-butt. I have experienced so many foot and ankle injuries in my life, I know this dark place well. It lacks the voice of reason. It's a well of stagnation. And it's horrible for my writing, too.

I limp back to the car, stumble into the house, and eat two pieces of gluten-free cake left over from my Bridal Shower. I lick the plate. The cats stare at me, an inanimate object in the kitchen. That's when it hits me--I haven't stopped. It's two weeks until the wedding and I've been go-go-go. I'm trying to work ahead so that my time off can be fully covered. I'm trying to finish the novel, too. I'm trying to journal and meditate and schedule massages and do it all right. But in my hustle, I've been doing something wrong.

Within a few hours, I'm clear-headed enough to see there's not much swelling around the ankle joint and bruising is unlikely. I treat it according to Tom Bisio's Chinese medicine approach for sports injuries, a text that has saved me many times before. I rest. I elevate. I use moxibustion and trauma liniment. I call Shihan Baker and tell him I can't come to class--weight bearing is too painful, let alone rapid movement--and he calls me off Mercy Me Hill anyway, saying he has a salve for injuries that increases healing time. Brad takes me to town, I bow into the dojo and to my teacher, he dabs the ankle, and I go back home.

For the next two days, I try hard to ignore email. I try not to overeat, but fail. I forgive myself. I eat some more. I don't forgive myself. But through it all, I've finally pushed through the dialogue scene in Chapter 17 of the novel. I've figured out how to deal with the flashback in Chapter 18. I've fully revised Chapter 19. And although every page I've touched will need to be looked at again, this is still something I can call progress.

Or maybe slowing down is a better word for it.

Brad brings me flowers in a vase. He sings me ridiculous, rhyming songs about ridiculous things. The cats sleep on my lap. I watch a movie. I watch another movie. (This happens approximately once ever 24 months...a big deal!) By the end of the week I'm walking with a bit more ease. There's still a limp. Still pain. But I'm here. I'm breathing. I'm slowing down.

Apr 21, 2015

Revising the Novel: The Comfort of 1st Person

I have written about 170 pages of the 4th revision of my novel and put about 3 years of work into the project as a whole. If I had to guess, I'd say that about 40-50 pages need to be written to get to the conclusion of the book. My aspiration is to get that done by the first week of May, when the manuscript is due to an editor I've hired. But in my naivete, I failed to understand the amount of time wedding prep would take (and Mom is doing most of it!). That, plus travel, scattered my mind more than I prefer.

All this being said, I was able to make five small additions to the novel last week that I hope make it through to the final version. While I've been writing in limited 3rd person point of view for every single chapter--sometimes focused on the American soldier Nathan, other times focused on the Afghan characters Aaseya or Rahim--this hasn't come easily to me. Much of Flashes of War is, in fact, 1st person and involves only momentary scenes or clips of narrative. The exhaustive focus and exhale of a 3rd person novel length is humbling. 

The additions came in the form of a peripheral character named Shanaz. She's an old Afghan woman who has made a dire mistake. She's devout, stubborn, uneducated, and speaks her mind. I've known this about her all along, though she only appeared for one chapter in the early drafts of the book. She is mentione--without appearing--about 4 times, though, because Aaseya has to walk past Shanaz's house en route to the bazaar. In my new rendering of this woman, each time Aaseya walks past, Shanaz sees her and shouts something or glares. This provides a much more realistic rendering of Shanaz later, in the chapter where she fully appears as the focus of the action.

I thought about the changes I had made and knew I was heading the right direction, but something hadn't fully clicked. I still felt I needed to build up to Shanaz's chapter somehow, and I had some backstory about her that could increase tension in the novel, but Aaseya wasn't aware of it so I didn't know to include it without a point of view violation.

How to get that information into the story?

1st person flashes, of course! Thanks to author and friend Abigail DeWitt, who I meet with monthly to trade chapters and talk shop, the backstory came out through conversation. As I spoke to Abigail at length, I realized how fully I knew Shanaz and her story--separate from the main thread of the novel--but confessed I didn't see any way to include it. Abigail suggested 1st person and my heart leapt at the thought. 1st person writing, fiction or nonfiction, is a "home place" for me. It flows more readily than any other point of view. Once I put my mind to it, I wrote five separate 1st person flashes in Shanaz's voice and positioned them between chapters of the novel to increase tension and slowly reveal a side story that will hopefully add a layer of meaning and entertainment for readers.

Now, back to the final chapters...onward, toward May!

Apr 17, 2015

Get Flashy in July

I'm pleased to announce that the next offering of my popular Weekly Flashes program will be this July. I'm taking sign-ups for this program right now, which involves 1 prompt (plus sample texts) per week for an entire month, and then feedback on each of your 4 pieces of flash writing. This program is for flash fiction or flash nonfiction writers and the prompts are varied, unique, and customized. Returning students won't get repeat prompts.

How it works: In short, you get a prompt from me every Friday, have 1 week to respond, and then get feedback from me within a few days (and your next prompt a few days after that). We do this for one month and it establishes a fine balance between discipline, inspiration, accountability, and the habit of writing.

Bonus: This July, I'm adding a Google Hangout component at the end of the month where all Weekly Flashes participants will "sign in" for a live video reading, q&a, and celebration lasting about 1 hour.

Cost: $120. As of today, if you sign up and you bring a friend who is new to my services, you both get to register at a discounted rate of $100.

Next steps: Email me and state whether you're interested in flash fiction or flash nonfiction. Details about the program can be viewed in this handy PDF download.

More: Info on services from my Writer at Large business is right here.

Apr 14, 2015

War Lit Wrap-Up at #AWP15

#AWP15 was a whirlwind in the best possible ways, as I found myself in a family of more than 30 war lit authors, veteran authors, veteran bloggers, and veteran teachers. In contrast to Seattle's AWP, which was great for connecting with my PacNW crew but horrible for women war lit authors, this year felt like one, gigantic bear hug.

Author, veteran, and former West Point Professor (now at Rutgers) Peter Molin organized this war lit authors dinner. A pretty happy bunch, eh? Peter blogs at Time Now and it's worth the read. He'll be posting a discussion of the #AWP15 war lit panels soon. Bonus: the adorable blond at front/center is Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone), who came all the way from Abu Dhabi to be on a panel with me and who also blogged about war lit.

A few other folks have been blogging about their experiences, and author Christopher Meeks published his summary of the war lit panels he attended in great detail. Conversations touched on authenticity, authority, trauma, beauty, imagination, research, craft, and radical empathy. Read his full blog post here

An incredible bunch, left to right: James A. Moad II (who has been instrumental in getting Veteran Voices Month written into the MN State Legislature), nonfiction writer Brandon Lingle whose pub list reads like a dream come true, the one and only Benjamin Busch (Dust to Dust, The Wire, Generation Kill), Jesse Goolsby (whose novel I'd Walk with My Friends if I Could Find Them hits stands this June), and the ever-gracious Brian Turner.

It's hard not to get a little glossy-eyed looking a photo of fellas like this. Flashes of War could have gone wrong in so many ways. Having people like these five gentlemen in my life means that it did not. In fact, their openness and kind praise has helped me feel more connected and welcomed by the veteran community than I ever would have imagined. I'm lucky, and can only hope the work I'm doing on the novel now will live up to the expectations of these people who I have so come to adore. And speaking of adore...

The "Women Writing War" panel organized by author Emily Tedrowe made a great showing and had about 80 folks in the audience. My sincerest regret is that there weren't any female veterans on our panel. But our conversation was not intended to represent those voices, rather, to contemplate what it means to be a woman writing about war. We touched on interactions with the public, as well as ideas of identity and authority. Female veteran writers such as Jerri Bell (O Dark Thirty editor), Kayla Williams (Love My Rifle More than You), and Teresa Fazio were in the audience. I would have given up my seat, my microphone, and my best set of shoes to hear their thoughts on this topic.
Over the years, I've learned that the true spirit of AWP is to further the conversation--whether we're talking about similes and sensory detail, about independent presses, or about war lit and authenticity. Indeed, the two panels I served on were sparked because of gaps in previous years' proposals. In coming years, I suspect we'll see a panel of women veteran authors and a panel of male military spouses, and perhaps even a panel of publishers revealing the hard truths and critical questions they have to field when publishing war lit in particular.

Meantime, if you're inspired by what's happening in this crucial field of literature, please enjoy any of the above links for more information about the movers and shakers of war lit right now. These are people who've paved the way for me, and I couldn't be more grateful.