>Back in the Saddle

>It’s easier than I thought it would be. I sat down this morning, opened the file with my notes for the novel, and picked up where I left off a couple of months ago at page 156, with good old Fletcher about to visit David in prison for the second time. I remember these people! I know what they look like, I know what they want. I’m having a wonderful time. Is it possible that I can finish this revision by the end of February? God, I hope so.

The current Writer’s Chronicle (February 2005) has a terrific article by Frederick Reiken: “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists.” Exactly. That was the problem, and has been through the many versions of my novel. But abandonment isn’t the answer; it’s a good story. Turning Fletcher into a real person is what this new version is all about.


>And I ain’t talking about snow. Not quite ready to actually write anything, and still organizing the files and the desk, and unpacking, and shovelling (that’s a lie–for the inch and a half that accumulated I’m willing to let the sun and the wind do the work), and generally tending to business. I’ll write tomorrow. But the flurry: I have a pile of languishing flash fiction and prose poems that need to be out in the world. Snail mail submissions seemed like too much trouble for these little darlings, so I’ve targed several zines that seem creditable and I’ve made numerous cybersubmissions this weekend. One flash here, another there, two poems at a third place, five at a fourth. In the process, I discovered New Pages, a highly useful tool for both print and online publication searches, with hotlinks to websites. There are dozens of lists around, on and offline, but this is the best one I’ve seen.

>Over Under the Volcano

>I have returned home from Mexico, unpacked, gone through the stacks of papers and mail, paid bills, picked up Bhikku from the kennel, restocked groceries, caught up on sleep, and have generally settled in. Before I completely return to my regular schedule, though, I wanted to record some final thoughts on the workshop experience with Grace Paley.

Grace was wonderful, filled with honesty and directness, but not quite as teacherly as I’d expected. In contrast, Russell Banks last year used almost every paragraph under discussion as a tool of one kind or another, either to demonstrate a flaw or a strength, or to link to some relevant story from his own experience. Grace just isn’t that way.

Still, there were a few important tips.

“The short story is closer to poetry than the novel.” As practiced by Grace Paley, this is demonstrably so. As practiced by me, not so clear. But it is good advice to keep in mind.

“Write what you don’t know about what you know—what you don’t understand.” When she said this, I commented that it echoed the advice in her essay The Value of Not Understanding Everything.

“Dialogue is action, it moves the story.” Especially in a Grace Paley story.

Is the workshop a valuable experience? I was a bit frustrated by the reaction of the group to my stories, and probably they were to my reactions to their stories. As is often the case in these sessions, Grace was far less critical than the rest of us. Rarely did she point to specific language, but was more interested in character and thrust, in endings. With less confidence in our own critical abilities, we tended to look at the finer points for flaws. This was a talented group—the 4 more experienced fiction writers (including me) all had MFAs, and two of those teach creative writing. The three with less fiction experience all had considerable non-fiction credentials and interesting work histories. I duly wrote down everything that was said when my stories were workshopped, and soon I’ll need to begin the revisions. Again.

>Severed Heads

>It has been a pleasant morning in Guanajuato, despite occasional coughing spells and wheezing at the tops of hills. I visited a museum here with a sordid past–it was once used as a prison (originally it was a granary) and the walls still sport hooks where the heads of various revolutionaries were hung in these handy little bird cages. Grim.

Then to the birthplace of Diego Rivera, just down the hill from there. The family’s furniture was not as interesting as the large collection of Rivera’s works, from different phases.

Then on to the Cervantes (Museo Iconografico del Quijote) this afternoon. I’ve never seen a museum quite like this. It is filled with images of don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with a few of Cervantes thrown in. 800 statues, paintings and drawings. My favorite was a painting of Cervantes at his desk, quill in hand, with ghostly Quixote and Panza looking over his shoulder. I wanted to get print of that–imagine your characters standing behind you as you work?

I took a look at the weather back home–could it be I’ll be arriving in a snowstorm again?

>Frente Frio

>I already felt like crap because of my cold, and did myself little good by walking around the cobbled narrow streets of Guanajuato last night. When I gave up and went to my ancient room–is it possible that the ceilings are 20 feet high?–I could barely move. The wind screamed–these little streets create odd wind tunnels, I guess–and I could feel the temperature dropping (that is, my feet could feel it–my face was burning up). Thank goodness the Patriots/Colts game was on TV (in Spanish, but so what?) so I could just curl up and do nothing but wait for the fever/chills to subside. The Patriots looked great.

Before I collapsed, though, I went in search of dinner and ended up in a little loud college bar, La Botellita, decorated with, um, little bottles. Had a couple of beers and some tacos and tried to remember the story, mentioned in yesterday’s post. It didn´t come back, darn it, but I sketched a new one. Lesson: get up and write it down when the inspiration comes.

It is Monday, and most of the attractions I want to visit here are closed today–the Cervantes museum (Guanajato is the home of the International Cervantes Festival every October) and the Diego Rivera Birthplace and Museum. So I’m just wandering around. I’m feeling better, at least.

>It’s over–back to writing?

>The workshop is over. At our farewell dinner at Casa Bugambilia in Tepoztlan–a beautiful estate nestled in the mountains–there were hugs all around. Grace led the way. I’m hopeful to stay in touch with her–what an amazing person! She pulled me aside before the party and apologized if she was “too bossy” about the ending of my second submission. The truth is, that was exactly what I needed and I told her so.

Back to Mexico City yesterday where my incipient cold kicked in. I was reluctant to travel, but I got on a bus this morning and came to Guanajuato, an unbelievably beautiful, old city 5 hours north of the capital. I’m staying in the Posada Santa Fe, a 150 year old hotel. No arguments there, but it has character all over the place.

As I was thrashing in my bed trying to get to sleep–congestion and sore throat impeding the process–I wrote a story in my head. I, of course, forgot about it until I sat down to post this entry. Now I have to go back to the hotel and commit it to paper. Bye!

>Workshop winding down

>Cloudy and a little cooler this afternoon in Tepoztlan, and the week is almost over. Today my second story was workshopped. The reaction was better than to the first, and it doesn’t feel like it needs much work to be finished. (Ah, well, of course I thought it was already finished, but that’s a different issue.) Grace liked it.

Last night we had a wonderful party at the home of July Charlot. Google Juli and see what you find. She performed with the Marx Brothers and Xavier Cougat and, when she retired from show biz at the age of 23, became a dress designer. She invented the Poodle Skirt, whatever that is. Anyway, she has a fabulous house, filled with the memorabilia of a fascinating life, and also meticulously maintained gardens. The main event for the evening was a reading by Bob Nichols, Grace Paley’s husband of 35 years, who writes some very interesting fiction. A new writer for me, although he’s been around awhile obviously. We also heard poetry recited in Nahuatl, an Indian language spoken by more than 4 million people in Mexico, by Roberto Palacio. After he read in Nahuatl, he read in Spanish, which was translated into English. Then we walked home, with a stop at the barrio’s festival of their patron saint, Santo Domingo. Lots of fireworks. Nice ending to the day.

>Grace speaks

>I’ve missed a couple of days–too much partying and reading and workshopping. Yesterday we went nearly en masse to Guernavaca to visit the Cortes Palacio (where there is a fabulous Diego Rivera mural, among other things) and the Robert Brady house, which is crammed with the fabulous artwork he collected during his life. The trip included fine Mexican food and drink, of course.

We have been spending mornings with Grace, sometimes joined by her husband Bob Nichols (who will be reading from his work tonigh at dinner), pulling chairs from the dining room out into the sunny garden, with the mountains looming. We sit in a circle–Grace likes to sit in the sun, since the mornings are a little cool, and we discuss the stories at hand. I was workshopped yesterday, a story that I have written and rewritten dozens of times. I wasn’t too thrilled with the reaction of the group, but I had a conference with Grace today. She said she had reread the story last night and felt it was much closer to being done than she’d thought at first. I felt much better–she had some good suggestions for getting the rest of the way there.

She inscribed one of her books to me today (Just as I Thought): To Cliff, because the real and the imagined are what our work is always about, Grace Paley

>Magical Market Day

>Sunday is market day in Tepoztlan and the city is flooded with tourists from Mexico City. The place is hopping, festivals are noisy in most barrios, and I’m looking forward to them all hitting the road!

Last night we had the first reading of the workshop, in the very amazing Ex-convento, a 16th Century Dominican monastery that is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. First to read was Joyce Johnson, who is teaching the memoir workshop this week. She was unknown to me, but read some fantastic stuff from her latest book Missing Men. She may be known to some readers as the author of a memoir about her relationship with Kerouac. Next up was Magda Bogin, who read from her latest novel in progress, called Diva. Magda is the organizer of Under the Volcano, lives in Tepoztlan most of the time, and is known as Isabel Allende’s translator.

And then we heard from Grace Paley, who read an uncharacteristically long story that has not appeared in her collections, in which the father tries to explain to the daughter what it means to get old. (I know there are some stories where she’s touched on this elsewhere, but she said it wasn’t in the books, so I believe her. There was stuff in it I didn’t remember.) She followed that with some beautiful, tragic poems about war and storytelling. She tells us she’s mostly been working on poetry lately. I hope we can hear more before the week is over.

This afternoon we had our first real workshop session with her. Two interesting pieces were read, one by a woman who has lived in Mexico for 30 years, one by a New Yorker. The discussion was excellent and constructive, and Grace zeroed in on what the authors might want to think about in revision. I’m sure they found it helpful. I’m not up until Tuesday. After that part of the session was over we had a great discussion about our respective travels to Vietnam, and she wants me to talk to her and Bob more about that in the coming days.

>Meeting Grace

>We had a delightful reception in a private home last night, complete with strong cuba libres and made to order quesadillas. Meeting Grace, and her husband Bob, was a total delight. Grace isn’t quite the elfin sprite I’d heard about, but she is tiny and mischevious. And this morning we had our first workshop meeting, with participants introducing themselves. We have lots of manuscripts to review in subsequent sessions, so this one was more casual, with opportunities to ask Grace questions. She is self-efacing, but full of wisdom. Bob also is a writer, and Grace says he has wonderful work habits, writing every day. Of herself, she says, quoting Bob, she “has no habits whatsoever.”

I wanted to follow up on something I’d read in one of her essays about the novel she started once upon a time. She’d published her first collection, in like 1959, and her publisher, Doubleday, wanted her to write a novel. She felt obligated to try (Philip Roth and Tillie Olsen published collections at about that time and got the same instructions from their publishers, with mixed results), so she spent 2 years working on a novel that wasn’t working. It absorbed so much energy that it was another 10 years before her next collection came out.

More wisdom from Grace to come.