Tag Archive | "Pema Chodron"

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A Thousand Words and Ticking Time Bombs: Notes from a Wedding

[NOTE: The GIVEAWAY is located in my Oct. 21 blog, below.]

Lately, my sons have taken to picking up the books I am reading. Leo seems particularly drawn to A Spot of Bother (by Mark Haddon), which I have floating around the bed in hardback. “That’s Mommy’s book,” I say.

He looks through the pages.

“There are no pictures,” I tell him. “The pictures are in the words.”

This is a key point in writing. It’s not that we move beyond pictures; it’s that we find them in the lines that we read. I am working on this is my class right now: you have all these wonderful ideas about your characters and your plot. How, when you sit down to write at a fast pace next month, will you turn those thoughts into pictures, into scene, into physical actions and details? This is probably the number one issue I tackle in editing, too. I want to see see see (taste, touch, smell and hear) the world you are giving me. I don’t want to have to trust you and your understanding of the characters and their choices. I want the evidence laid out before me so that I can decide what’s going on for myself.

Here’s an example: your friend is dating someone new. She tells you about him. Do you really want to know if she thinks he’s nice or smart or considerate? No, you want to know if he arrived on time and where he took her to eat and what he looks like and what they talked about and why he and his ex broke-up . . . You want no abstract ideas. You want physical evidence. CSI style.

There’s another quote whose originator I don’t know: “The more he talked of his honesty, the faster we counted our spoons.”

Let’s face it: We don’t trust people’s opinions of themselves. They’re telling, but not in a one-to-one translation of idea to fact.

Scenes from a wedding:

We have seconds to spare when Angie, the boys, their stroller, snacks, diapers, my extra shoes and alternate outfit and I roll up to the San Francisco City Hall. The over-loaded stroller goes through a special gate, but we, in our fancy clothes, go through the metal detectors. The building is paved in marble, with statues of mayors scattered throughout. We dash along, past the grand staircase and under the chandeliers. We wait in a line, fill out a form, are given a number (A110), and wait in another line. Quickly, we are called forward to present our IDs. The woman takes a look at mine and hands in back. “This expired yesterday.” Yesterday! My birthday. Of course.

Our options: go to the SF DMV and try to get a renewal or drive home and hope that my passport is where it should be and is not expired. Well, you’ve been to the DMV. I take my long white dressed self and drive back to Berkeley. I pray to the parking goddess that my passport–unlike anything else in the house–in where it should be. I listen to the radio. I think about the class I am teaching tonight. I receive an angry call from the place where we’d made a reservation for lunch.

We are getting married this day because it is the very last appointment available before Nov. 4, and on Nov. 4, there is the possibility that we will no longer have the right to be married. In fact, Oct. 22, 2008 is the four year anniversary of my father’s death and the day after my birthday when my license expires and a day I teach at 6 p.m. and we haven’t had time to plan anything or create a real wedding or even to learn–as I did as soon as we signed up for it–that I really wanted all of that. But there is a ticking time bomb: if this doesn’t happen now, it may never happen. And for the sake of my children, not to mention my relationship, it needs to happen.

I rush into the house, slide a box of toys and a folded rug back from where they’ve been pushed in front of my filing cabinet. I kneel down in my white dress and fling open the top drawer and being to file through the neat tabs that someone helped me put together a couple of years ago but which I rarely actually use. Bills and Insurance and this and that and then Official documents. There are the boys’ birth certificates. I lift them out and there, at the bottom of the folder, is my passport. I fumble it open and look closely: it expires in 2013.

We meet again at City Hall and feed the boys some apples and plums babyfood. Some San Francisco friends show up. Shilla brings a beautiful bouquet for me and a boutonniere for Angie. Katia brings lavender that smells wonderful, and strongly enough to cover the smell Leo brings right as our second number (B263) is called. Thea comes from work nearby, and brings joy and tears at all the right moments. Jennifer brings a fancy camera and her son Jacko, who had to leave chess early, and who consents to bear the rings.

A woman named Noni marries us. She wears the officiants’ outfit of long black robes and her head is shaved. She looks like a Buddhist monk, as if we are being married my a young Pema Chodrun. She zips us up the elevator to the rotunda. Charlie hates the elevator and Leo wants “more” elevator. Instead, we stand in a circle of darker marble, Angie and I. Charlie is on her back in the Ergo, and Angie has to bounce throughout the ceremony to keep Charlie on this side of the contented/ hysterical line.

Then Noni is speaking, about grace and love and commitment, about the honor she has of being vested by the State of California with the power to declare us “spouses for life.” And we?

We do!

It was rushed and crazy, but in that moment, I was fully present. I looked into Angie’s beautiful blue eyes, and I heard every word I was being asked, and I could agree to all of it, willingly. Really, what more could I ask?

But for purposes of today’s literary lesson, I want to bring you back to that moment when I did not have the correct ID and this was possibly the last possible chance to get married ever. This is what is known as a ticking time bomb, something in the plot that is set to go off at a certain time. It raises the stakes, ups the ante and puts all kinds of pressure on the obstacles that create a story.

When you get married? Check the expiration on your ID and bring an extra one just in case. But when you write your novel? Make sh*t happen, make it matter, and make sure it will explode, turn coaches into pumpkins and horses into rats, just at midnight and not a second later. And make sure that I, your reader, can see it with my own eyes. Don’t make me trust you. I’m saving that for my spouse!


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Turning Tricks and Other Important Notes on Scene

Writing about writing can be as racy as the next blog-worthy topic. Hey, I weave in cute stories about my kids and moving tributes to my past and even some political panic. (Okay, political panic is only the subtext. See if you can pick it out.)

So: you meet a friend for coffee. You chat, have a brioche, catch up on who she’s dating and what she doesn’t like about her job and what your kids have learned how to do (oink in a grunty little way when you ask, “What does a pig say?”). You get a refill of chai latte to go, exchange hugs, and leave to go grocery shopping.

This is not a scene. Nothing happened.

I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t meet your friend for coffee or that she shouldn’t complain about the people she’s dating (new people, same complaints). It’s true that I did have a wonderful wise friend who advised me at one of my birthday parties to get new problems every ten years. However, one can live a perfectly decent life–maybe even a better life–with very little scene. (See my very first blog, which is about plot and how unavoidable it becomes over a lifetime.)

No one wants to read your everyone’s-happy-and-nothing-changes book. Even you.

Tell me if you’ve managed to sustain your everybody’s-happy-and-nothing-changes life for very long . . . Or do you go in and mess that up just for excitement? But sure, we WANT things to turn out well. That’s what keeps us reading as the characters get into deeper and deeper s***. We hope that the terrible thing that’s coming won’t come; as the good people that we are, we are rooting for these characters. But if it doesn’t come, if nothing comes, if everything gets better and everyone is out of danger, we’re going to put that book down and never look at it again. Harsh but true. If it’s the last page of your book, then you’ve done your job, and you can let us put it down and go on our way. But if it’s page fifty or page two, go back and stir things up, people.

Even Pema Chodron’s books are full of the struggles she faced and still faces, from her husband leaving her to her monastery disciples or whoever fully rebelling against her leadership style. How do you think she learned all those coping mechanisms for dealing with pain and suffering?

So open those plot-veins and keep that blood flowing.

I was a kid who, on the one hand, frequently put on original theatrical productions, rigging costumes out of the bizarre items the seventies left in my mother’s closet while, on the other hand, spending significant time sitting on my front step filling in workbook blanks. Loved those. I suppose (sorry to Felicia who wanted me to change problems every ten years) that I have been struggling with this creativity/ order dichotemy for a long-a** time.

But in writing, the two come together–or at least they take turns . . . So if you have that mechanical inclination, here’s what you can look for:

Go to the beginning of your scene. How’s everybody doing? Give them little emotional tags: happy, sad, scared, confident, proud. That sort of thing. Now go to the end of your scene. How’s everybody doing now? Are the happies still happy? Have the proud been humbled? Are the frightened still banging knee-caps? Are the confident all shook up? In other words, has anything happened?

If not, you’ve got some work to do.

If you are frightened of work, go dig outhouses in the desert. Don’t be a writer. Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, talks about the physical labor that is writing, walking around a nine-foot table until you have to go home and soak your feet. She says (and I’m working from post-partum memory here), if you want to be metaphysical, throw pots.

So you go back and you make sure your scene turns. Let those suckers (your beloved characters) wander unsuspecting toward what is about to happen. Surprise them. Mess with them. Change them.

You cannot do this in real life. In real life, somebody else is in charge, and while I am praying all the time now, for one little boy in particular and the world in general, I feel like an editor who can’t convince my client that something different needs to happen in this book. Of course, the stuff I’m praying for doesn’t offer the best plot choices. I want “hope” not “change” and healing not drama and for the happy to stay happy and only the scenes that are going badly to turn.

So I am going to try to make a deal with this writer-client I’m talking to in my head about what’s going on around me: if I convince writers working on the page to inject some really terrible events into their fiction, to turn lives upsidedown and wring the fates like so many dirty rags, how about you lay off the drama-trauma out here in the world for a while, and I promise, I promise, we’ll enjoy the heck out of it in books.

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Related Sites

  • 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started See my blog about the wonderful Meg Clayton. The blog is guest authors’ tales of their tales
  • A Bit of This, A Bit of That Prolific, intelligent and quirky blogger and lover of all things bicycle . . .
  • Jamie Ford: Bittersweet Blog The author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (2009) shares the journey; lots of fun.
  • Koreanish A wonderful, helpful blog by the great writer Alexander Chee
  • ReadingWritingLiving Susan’s Ito’s wonderful blog on “trying to do it all: reading writing momming daughtering spousing working living” plus great insights into adoption and other stuff
  • SethFleisher.com Seth is a very good writer–and he’s got content: international politics, being a dad, and, of course, writing . . .
  • Sports Race Politics America Gretchen Atwood is working on an exciting book about the integration of pro-football. Here’s one to watch.
  • Towers of Gold Frances Dinkelspiel’s engaging web site about California history, economics and other important ideas.