The Wind of Destiny

“We are living in a storm where a hundred contradictory elements collide; debris from the past, scraps of the present, seeds of the future, swirling, combining, separating under the imperious wind of destiny.”

These words of a poet, published in a French literary journal more than a century ago, still seem exactly right, especially tomorrow night, New Year’s Eve.

Lift a glass. Celebrate. Bathe in the air of possibilities. Where will the imperious wind take you this year?

Wishing you all good things in 2012.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: vitaminsea.com. Quote by Adolphe Retté, La Plume, March 1, 1898



The Good, the Bad, and the Unclear

What went well these past twelve months, and what could have gone better? I’m supposed to ask myself this every quarter—it’s in the plan!—but that part of the plan, two years running now, has fizzled. Still, it’s not too late:

1.  TIME

On a good day, I can look up and be amazed that five hours have slipped by. But  I may not have produced much, as it can take me multiple iterations to figure something out. I hate this about my writing. And yes, I do know people who get it right the very first time. (Okay, only two people. And yes, they are MacArthur prize winners.)

2.  VOICE

But hey, not for nothing, all those hours this work-a-day writer has put in, for at least I have established a voice for this blog. That’s one part of the plan that went well. If you say soulofaword, you mean me.

3.  THE VISUAL

Every post, including this one, comes with photographs (part of the plan). And, as was true from the very beginning, trawling the photo sites and picking the pictures continues to be a pleasure.  It’s like accessorizing. The hard part—the writing—is done, and now we get to pick the shoes.

4.  COMPLEXITY

My sense is that these posts are growing in complexity, both in content and in language. This was not in the plan. Is this a good thing? A bad thing?  I’m not sure yet, but I will say that complexity doesn’t add to the ease or speed of the undertaking. And it takes up time that should be spent on other things, like the business of blogging.

5.  THE LISTS

The stories are one thing, and people have their favorites, but many of the most popular posts here deliver information in neat, tidy lists and/or have titles that begin “How to . . . ” What to make of this?  Are my readers pressed for time? Are they looking for instruction? Do they prefer to graze, not read?  And from a writer’s point of view, is it easier or more difficult to use this form?

These are some of the questions I’ll be answering as I make my year-end plan. For now, though, I’m off to gather the hard data, another something I’ve left for the very last moment, but oh well, it’s not too late.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit – Giacomo Lorenzo.

Open to Interpretation

We who write the words can entertain, confound, confirm—anything can be concluded from what we say, intended or not. Sometimes I forget this. Recently, however, I got a reminder, courtesy of a party game devised for the amusement of our guests.

At the heart of it were ornaments labeled specifically for each person, but by description, not name. The glittering and tasseled things were scattered throughout the house, and in between eating, drinking, and talking, the idea was for each guest to find his or her own and claim it.

Future poet laureate. Fresh from the hell, and better than ever. Most gracious woman in the room.

There were 120 in all, an array of miniature pickles, handbags, shoes, polka dots, petit fours, orbs, olives . . . It was remarkable to see who took what, spirits rising, and before long baubles hung from buttonholes and strands of pearls.

“Is this mine? Is this it?” What was not said, the implied question “How is it that you think this of me?”. 

Most beautiful woman in the world was coveted. So was the mock: Our boys, your girls, finished.

No one claimed Wicked gossip, reliably dispensed, but a few people wanted to meet that person.

And the competition was positively fierce for Get naked and light up a joint. (The ultimate taker proved his chops with the observation that I had the order wrong: first the joint, then the naked.)

Future mayor. The one I call when I’m in trouble. If only my hips could move like yours.

I was surprised at how much explaining I had to do. I thought people would recognize themselves. Some tags had direct quotes, no less. And though I knew there might be multiple contenders for things, to me, there was only one best answer.

Who’s a queen? Who’s a visionary? Wasn’t it obvious? And how about married to a peach? Apparently there was room enough on that one to drive a convertible straight through.

It probably shouldn’t have been a surprise that my guests wouldn’t necessarily see themselves as I saw them. But it was also a reminder to me: readers don’t always read things the way we intend them.  Five words—or even fifty thousand—and a reader will conclude as he chooses.

Partial to our own point of view, is there anything we can do to secure its adoption?

A few things, maybe. We can sharpen our words, of course, and think for a minute as well about how to build confidence in the reader that we have it right. And when we think we’ve finally got it, we can step away from the page, pretend we are strangers, and consider how we might be heard.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credit: moonstarsandpaper.

“Everyone came to the party . . . ”

“Everyone came to the party, even those who were not invited,” reads the line in chapter eight of my novel that introduces a pivotal scene.

It’s a line from real life. In fact, I’ve just uttered those same words, as I prepare for an upcoming gathering of friends. Of course, I used the present tense, and added in a passing moment of panic, “Where will we put them all?”

Now, lots of things can happen when people gather for pleasure, which is why I included the scene. My husband and I went, for example, from being friends to more-than-that at a Christmas party. My roommate and I had given the party in our college dorm room, a converted lounge. We hauled in a tree, strung it with lights, and hung chocolates from the branches. And there was my future husband, stretched out under it, catching the dripping chocolate in his mouth.

In the fictional party scene, I wanted all of it, the uncertainty and the possibilities, every party I’ve ever given pinned in words: the swish of taffeta, the crack of laughter, the indiscretions told in the corner. I wanted to touch it. And taste it. And smell the cologne and cigar smoke. If my characters were to confirm their love for each other, surely it would be in this scene.

Did I succeed in capturing this experience on the page?

Perfectly, or so the self-pitying me believed, for just when I’d finished, the entire file disappeared, snatched away by the computer Gods with the exception—true story—of one line, the opening line.

“Everyone came to the party . . .” The words just sat there, naked on the page.

“Don’t worry,” my husband said. “It will be better next time you write it.”

And it was.

The lessons here multiply:

1. Everything comes from real life, even the make believe. The so-called line between fiction and nonfiction is really just a piece of scrim, and you, the writer, can always see through it.

2. If you can possibly manage it, include a cheerful scene, pivotal or not, for even in the most serious stories, your reader needs a break.

3. If you have to start over, it might go easier next time and may even turn out better, as we tend to remember only the good parts.

Chapter nine begins “For the next few days we cleaned, coming across lipsticks and stained napkins under pillows and glasses tucked in odd places—even in the hen house . . .”

That part comes from real life too, only no hen house.  But the screened-in porch, the wood pile, the beach? Well, we’ll see what turns up in the morning.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: ornament by Burger Baroness/Jessica Rossi; bird by Vitamin Sea.

A Writer’s Influences

This blog took some months to conceptualize. These were some of the writers whose works I admired and from whom I took inspiration:

Seymour Britchky, for his tart, bright, and straight voice showcased in his restaurant reviews from the 1980s.

Richard Critchfield, for his nonfiction narratives, his roving, vagabond soul and his respect for humanity.

Dominick Dunne, for his reporter’s eye and novelist’s sensibility, and for how easily he moved between the gritty and the glitterati.

Joan Didion
, for her rigor and dead-on accuracy, and for her lack of sentimentality. Her memoir on the loss of her husband, for example, was the coldest and most clinical look at grief that I’d imagine possible.

My friend S, the most beautiful woman in the world as I think of her, for her precision with language, her storytelling arts, and her grace. Hers is an elegance so profound that she has been known—true story, I swear—to turn a blind’s man head upon her entrance at a restaurant.

Zenhabits, Copyblogger, and disciples, for their highly strategic, to the bone content, and for always testing, simplifying, improving, and playing it by the metrics.

Alice Waters, MFK Fisher, and Julia Child for being at the forefront of what was possible in the food revolution they birthed, and for mixing memoir with method in their work, a life and career available for inspection, nothing held back.

In thinking through this blog, I tried to meld what I admired from these writers into something fresh and distinctly mine. A little from this one, a little from that one, and I filled notebooks before my concept began to take shape.  But it all began with a study of my betters. I could triple this list, but you get the idea.

So, who or what influences you?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: reflection (left) and freedom (right) by evilkosmoz .