Archive for November, 2007

Fiends and editors

November 30, 2007

If you’ve ever worked with a “bad” boss, you know the worst kind is the superior who makes mistakes and attributes them to you.

So you can imagine that for a writer, the worst kind of hellish boss is a bad editor. These fiends rewrite your work and if that’s not bad enough, they suck every bit of creativity from it. Those turns of phrases you believed in, that gave your day a purpose and meaning — gone.

The worst are the editors who insert their own ideas into a story … their own made-up ideas, created facts, misconstructions and outright mistakes. While writers spend their days tracking down information and constructing a story that reflects accurately on the topic (and themselves) some editors feel the facts are just not interesting enough on their own. So they make up some more.

Of course, there are all kinds of “truth” and not every line must be attributed to a source. I read a news article yesterday that felt the need to cite a reference to the observation that drug users often crush drugs and snort them. I think that’s a safe statement without attribution.

Still, sometimes I use a flourish in my stories to convey a larger picture. You have to keep a reader interested. Sometimes what I describe may not have happened exactly as I describe it … or at all … it is an imagined scene, say in a feature story. Usually there is no harm there and the invention is stated or otherwise obvious.

No, getting the facts wrong is the stumble of arrogance and though I have many weaknesses as a writer, I have an allegiance to truth and accuracy above all else, even readability.

So now a pronouncement: For those editors who write mistakes into the stories of honest, careful and good-hearted authors, I hereby say, May your ballpoint pens always have a knobby clog that transfers to your white shirt. May your paper have a coffee spill. May your computer snarl at you unexpectedly when you are working all alone.

And may someone go behind you and edit your work … to remove the mistakes you thought were needed and restore truth and justice to all those honest authors you’ve wronged.

The Southern Manor

November 29, 2007

Most people who know me — the invented me — have no idea where, or how I grew up. I’d like to keep it that way.

I’m not a sociopath. I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s just that I grew up in one of the stranger situations you’d find in the modern world, a childhood that was darkened by leftover customs of the feudal South.

For four generations, my family lived in a home with a name … MacHaven. It was built by my great-grandfather, the “Ice King,” who built the Rocky Mount shops that served the north-south railroad line. He did quite well for himself.

My grandmother, his daughter, was named Marion and she inherited the house but not any money, really. The house was barren inside.

She married an ambitious young man, my grandfather Marvin, who was an American archetype in so many ways. Driven, hard working, silent. A Naval war hero who flew in WWI and was a communications officer and retired as a commander, in WWII.

I knew my grandparents as rather stern, formal people with a taste for things. I found boxes of new, unopened china in the attic after their death, gowns and fur coats stuffing closets.

Other aspects of my childhood were uncommon. My grandparents had full-time cooks, housekeepers and even a driver.

My mother, struggling with this burden of Southern stiffness, raised me to love dirt. She has always been a gardener and even today, at 71, she works in the soil as often as possible. I remember her clearly leaning on a shovel in the blazing August heat as a little girl. She still does.

Back to the invented me. I have little respect for money or riches and have never valued wealth above character. I have favored the so-called “marginal” and even consider myself part of that group.

So tracing a line through my own family history, you’ll find Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, lots of good taste. You’ll also find a large family home we no longer own.

These days, though, you’ll more likely find my mom working in her daylilies and me on a beat-up couch with my dogs and a book.

Running down the past

November 28, 2007

An interview took me to Rocky Mount, N.C., yesterday, about an hour from here — and my hometown.

I felt myself step backward as soon as I took the Church Street exit and drove down that street, where the first Hardee’s restaurant once stood, the restaurant we visited for hamburgers and fries after church on rare occasions.

My interview took place in the old People’s Bank building which has been remarkably restored. It was crumbling for decades, but now has been restored and is in use.

I walked up the five flights of stairs, the gray granite I remembered so well from my childhood when, in the late 1960s, I would visit my grandfather’s insurance office in that same building.

My interview completed, I visited the restored lobby. There was the large safe; the tall two-story ceiling, the windowed area where the teller counters once stood.

After the interview, I stopped in a restaurant near City Lake to change into running shoes and went for a tour-de-old-haunts.

I ran around the lake, saw the ducks and thought of the times Billie Thompson, a dear, late, family friend, took me there, starting when I was 3 years old. Once I waded in and she was furious!

I ran through West Haven, saw the lovely old houses, many of them washed away by the ’99 flood. I wound my way to Edwards Junior High, where I attended eighth grade. Not a bad year, but I enjoyed seeing the school robbed of its power over me, to stand in line, ask for permission to go to the bathroom, eat and leave by others’ schedules.

When I returned to City Lake, I had other feelings, some sadness for classmates who have passed, or whose troubles I’ve heard of. I also felt whole in an unexpected way, seeing my hometown’s natural beauty, the heritage trees, well-maintained yards and businesses that go on no matter what.

It was a treasured interlude to my so-called grown-up life in Greenville and all that means — e-mail and text messages, responsibilities, my sometimes inflated sense of importance.

Running through those streets I felt myself just a wide-eyed girl again.

Thinking & writing

November 27, 2007

If you can think, you can write. That’s always what I stressed to my writing classes at the community college, where mostly single mothers attended my remedial writing classes as they prepared for their first jobs.

No matter a writer’s training or experience, thinking is the first step. We sit down at a computer and peck before we’ve even thought through a matter, chiding ourselves because it’s not Fitzgerald.

Yet there is the very real challenge of putting thoughts into words. No matter how carefully thought out, however, plot cannot live without the fragile word body it must inhabit.

Breaking & fixes

November 26, 2007

Monday already. Lots of stories to wrap up in the next few days. Yesterday began in earnest overhauling my office. I have kept so many files and information from the past year … two calendar years’ worth of project fill this tiny office. It’s hard to let go of information because I never know when someone is going to ask, What did we include in the second draft of that brochure that was cut from the third draft? We can include it in the 11th draft. Being able to pull out those early drafts is a point of pride, but really, can’t the world survive with some improvisation instead? My office surely could.

Meanwhile, the Web site saga continues. This blog has served me well as a start, but I really need to move to a more advanced format. My Web site has also been a good start, but I am constantly bumping againstĀ  the limitations of my current Web program.

Web work though is a lot like a sail boat, which, they say, is like digging a hole and pouring money into it. Having a Web site is like digging a hole and pouring time into it.

On to the Monday projects.

Small upheavals-good news for writing?

November 24, 2007

If you’ve been reading a while, you know that for me, organization is a big part of writing. Whether ordering notes and ideas, or just clearing off my desk, it seems whenever I’m not writing I’m cleaning up.

So in preparation to get down to business on the novel, French translations, Buddhism and other projects in the new year, I am re-ordering my office. For a Christmas and birthday gift, my mom is having a couch recovered for me, which I will bring into the office sometime next month. There’s also an old art deco chair which she’s having redone.

Thinking about having a real couch and small table in my office is exhilarating. At last I’ll have a place to sit that’s not in front of a computer. A place to think and have stacks of books to read, big dictionaries, paper.

It’s also scary. I’ll probably have to move the large dresser that’s been in my family for decades out of here. It’s just too big. It will probably go into the bedroom, which is very light and airy. I don’t want that to change. I’ll have to clean out my closet to make room for clothes.

At the same time, the mandala I brought back from Atlanta after the teachings by His Holiness needs to be reframed. It’s just not big enough to hang over my desk.

Meanwhile, there are the notes, files, papers, old make-up, soaps, clothing and junk everywhere in my closet and under my sink. All this must go. Oh, the bathroom needs fixing and the attic and loft should be cleaned out.

So what does all this have to do with writing? Maybe a lot. Maybe I do need order for mental clarity. Or, maybe it’s just another delay tactic.

That’s what we’ll find out.

Big issues, little courage

November 23, 2007

I’ve always said I’d rather write about a crack in a sidewalk than just about anything else.

There are no expectations and anything I write will shine when compared with the lackluster starting point.

Then there are the great stories. The artist I interviewed who painted enormous canvases showing the suffering of Christ. The fisherman who devoted his life to performing the Carolina blues, and was eventually lauded internationally but still unknown here in the U.S.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Anything I write will fail. I have little courage for meaningful topics. Still, I have to try.

I am finding it impossible to write anything about His Holiness. Only when I write in medias res, starting right in the middle and not saying anything of consequence, do I manage to actually say anything at all. Forget trying to say anything meaningful.

I am trying to write a column about His Holiness. Do I talk about how scared I was to meet my hero? Do I mention that I feel sad about such a good man having suffered so much? Do I describe how Buddhism has colored my world, including my understanding of my Christian faith and scriptures?

I go back to the blank page, the square white judge. More tomorrow.

T’giving hike

November 22, 2007

We’re heading out as we often do on Thanksgiving … not to the grocery for cranberry sauce, but to Raven Rock State Park. Many years ago Greg and I discovered Thanksgiving is a wonderful day for hiking. Usually we both have the day off, the phone isn’t ringing, the weather is grand and the next day of the week is Friday anyway, so it won’t matter if we’re worn out.

We’ve met many people who hike on Thanksgiving. Sometimes, like us, they’re hiking all day. Other times, we see people who’ve eaten their feast and wanted to walk afterward.

Meeting others on the trail this day there’s a sense of a shared secret — that given a whole day we’d rather be hiking than anything. It’s as if we’re shunning what’s normal for an activity that seems almost subversive on this holiday.

We’ll head out in a few minutes for our holiday hike. Rain likely. Hope so!!


November 21, 2007

A physician friend cannot make travel plans for the next year because he wants to uphold a standing weekly commitment as president of a civic group in Greenville.

As a doctor, he spent his entire professional life going from one commitment, or appointment, to the next. I hold doctors in high esteem for many reasons, but their ability to live with their responsibility load is one of them.

For me, a single meeting in a day is a burden. That day will have little writing completed.

Writers, at least this one, need vast stretches of unbroken time. Not for sitting at the desk and cranking out sentences. No, the time can be spent all over the place — but it must be unclaimed time.

Weeks when I have more than four meetings are completely lost for writing. Those times, I complete my assignments, edit stories that are already written or work on short articles.

I am entering a time of re-organizing my office, my work and my life to focus on writing the novel. Old files are thrown away; even my metal file cabinet is going somewhere — else.

The empty days are filled with dreaming. Those dreams become a novel. There is also the struggle with the dream, to wrestle it into ordinary words, with only subjects, verbs and a few other parts of speech. That work is draining. That work means sitting before a computer or blank paper and scrawling phrases.

It’s a cumbersome, organic, disorderly, anarchic process. And it feeds on time. That’s what I have to provide.

Death of a pretender

November 20, 2007

A writer once said some good writing is sincere … and some is not … some very genuine writers are bad, while some shallow writers are very readable.

What to do with one writer, who wasn’t very good, who conned the world?

The courts have decided what to do with the author, Laura Albert, who invented a sad teen-age boy named J.T. LeRoy and pretended he existed, while penning “his” books herself.

She has been sued for nearly half a million dollars in court costs and damages for defrauding a movie company. She admits she can never write or publish again, because any earnings would be seized. This week’s Rolling Stone has a thorough investigation and interview with Ms. Albert.

I am generally unmoved by con artists of any kind. For some reason, this case struck a nerve. I imagine it’s because I felt from the start that “J.T. LeRoy” was a huckster who knew how to play the trend card, who was not what he seemed. It was eerie.

Starting about 1997, Ms. Albert began passing writings off as those of LeRoy, who was gravely sexually abused as a child and now worked as a prostitute. And he was HIV-positive.

Stars and literati flocked. “Sarah,” was the first novel by LeRoy. I once briefly thumbed through it back when everyone thought LeRoy was real. Even then, I found it repellent, contrived and mediocre. It also had an especially distasteful element of child abuse.

The whole shabby story struck me as something that shouldn’t be considered literature at all. I also had problems with “Lolita,” and still do. But good friends who are deeply engaged writers have defended it by saying, “Yes,the story is repugnant, but that it is done beautifully proves the art.” In the end, I had to concur. Though I still believe that novel would not be so elevated if women were making more decisions about what makes literature.

Back, then, to Ms. Albert. She has said that she felt no one would listen to her — a middle-aged, overweight, woman, so she felt she had to adopt a more acceptable, attractive, persona — a teen-age boy. She may have a point there.

Yet once she was heard, she should have dropped the ruse and let her writing stand up to the critics the way all writing must, eventually. It will either pass or fail on its own strength and not the deceit behind it.

In the end, she deceived people. Took their money, took their goodwill. For that, she is paying.

Having to pay such steep fines is bad … but to be robbed of the ability to write, to hope for future readers, could be the most terrible punishment of all.