To Be Continued

Aside: When last you tuned in, I was awaiting Brother while staring at the sublime shade of blue that perfectly complements my fake Monet painting. Here it is just for Melissa Scholes Young, who wants pictures:

Now, back to the metaphor: Writing groups can make or break a piece. Choose wisely.

Aside: I should be quoting some famous researcher here whom I studied during Northern Virginia Writing Project’s Summer Institute in 2002. Believe me, there is ample research, but I can’t drag my lazy ass down to my teaching files to look up names and quotes for these writing giants. Apologies to Bill McCabe, one of the instructors, and Pete Pazmino, esteemed editor for Journal of the Virginia Writing Project. They tried.

In truth, I learned just as much from my writing group at the summer institute. A woman in my cohort, whom I’ll call Bonita, latched onto my father issues and adopted them. For her, responding to my writing was less about craft and more about content.

Aside: I no longer feel the need to recount my power struggles with my father on the printed page. This has nothing to do with his recent inheritance. First, I exhausted that topic before I wrote anything saleable. Second, I became a parent with my own power struggles. Also, Bonita readily admitted to tripping on acid during much of her young adulthood, so cross that off your list of qualities to look for in writing group members.

Another group member, whom I’ll call Nick Maneno since that’s his name, taught me far more. I read aloud a piece that identified three classifications for married women: dual income no kids (D.I.N.K.s), minivan mamas, and cocktail hostesses. The piece elicited considerable laughter, yet Nick saw kernels of greater things to come: “I want you to focus on that moment when two minivan mamas lock eyes in the germ pit and explode that.” Potent advice. It’s what Jessica Rapisarda knew when she wrote that great piece about the runaway turd for LYTM DC 14 and suspended excrement mid-roll while she recounted a moment from her childhood that rendered me farklempt.

Aside: Yes, I did just shamelessly tag two different people in that paragraph in hopes that they’ll read. It’s called social media, people. For those of you reading the home improvement storyline, pay attention now and stop looking at the photo.

Brother and Brother’s Helper arrived early Thursday morning with tools and apologies. Brother pulled out his stain samples for the banister, matched the color, took notes, and then got to work on the details. I positioned myself at the kitchen table to write. Brother produced an unfinished oak spindle to match the missing one. Brother and Brother’s Helper took turns sawing portions off the top, attempting to wedge it into place, and returning to the swirling blade in my garage. Likewise with the bullnose tread for the top step and the piece of veneer they placed over the plywood on our landing. I lost count of their trips, but noted that they’d tracked in considerable debris.

Deputy and his posse arrived ready to prime and paint. While they set up, I inspected Brother’s carpentry efforts. The staircase’s appearance looked better, but the banister itself still twerked a bit like Miley Cyrus. Brother sighed and scratched his head. Sensing his dread, I went in for the kill: “Head Honcho said it’d be no problem,” I mentioned with a tone of sarcasm. Exploiting this sibling rivalry worked; when Brother was done nailing and screwing metal into that newel and volute (thanks, Wikipedia) that sucker didn’t budge.

Aside: I’m going to get literary now, so expect fewer references to pop culture and design terminology, but don’t bust out the MLA handbook.

We use the phrase “a fresh set of eyes” when referring to readers. It goes far beyond that. You need a fearless mechanic. I once disassembled my mother’s sewing machine, removed an errant thread, and reassembled the bad boy. Likewise, my memoir manuscript originally followed strict chronological order of events until I noted that the tone was inconsistent. There had to be some anchor story to explain the ambivalence I had about growing up as a non-Mormon in Utah. Out came a pair of scissors that I used to cut 200 pages into 24 segments. A present-day story line emerged, a banister to secure all of those individual spindles.

The manuscript was as close to perfect as I could achieve alone when I handed it off to Melissa Scholes Young last summer. She got out her saw, along with Brother’s array of metal pieces, a nail gun, some caulk, and sandpaper, and went to work. The result is a much sturdier, elegant memoir. Nonetheless, I am ready to hand this most recent incarnation over to yet another reader for advice.

I am hopeful that the scissors are safe in the drawer for this round. As for my home project, Deputy painted the stair treads and risers Navajo White as I had instructed, and left Thursday evening. Friday morning, he covered the Navajo White with a coat of White 914 because I changed my mind about the color. That afternoon, he packed up his drop clothes, painter’s tape, and brushes, and left with his posse making vague promises to return after our carpet runner is installed.

Aside: Dust will irritate your eyes and fumes from the stain striper will scar your lung tissue even with all of the windows open. If you are like me, you will subject yourself to this for ten days because you really can’t visualize the outcome and must stumble along blindly keeping your options open.

Aside to the Aside: Say tuned. The carpet is ordered, but the installation is not yet scheduled. It could be a few weeks. In the meantime, feel free to tune back in next Friday for something Off the Page. I’ll try to keep it under 1,000 words.

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Of Paint and Writing

Paint has redemptive power. My first experience of this came at age 16 while refinishing my dresser. I removed the burlap from the drawer fronts, sanded everything, used white paint to cover the dark brown, stained oak pulls and added them to the drawers.

Twenty-five years later, I hired painters to transform my entryway.

Maybe it’s the paint fumes, but damn if the whole creative process doesn’t apply equally to writing…at least in this post. I’ve broken it down here, so my readers get a primer for either home projects or writing. Choose your own adventure.

The Conceptual Phase

In writing pedagogy, “brainstorming” is the proper lingo. My friends in the mental health community might call this “mania.” At 2 a.m., ideas speed like whirling dervishes through my brain. This phase scares my poor husband. “Just let me know when you decide what you want,” he says.

I am fortunate to have a gifted friend @AlexandraDesignFinds. Within minutes of texting her about my design emergency, she called to ask it she should bring her paint samples.

Aside: Yes, I did just use a twitter handle instead of my friend’s name because social media will notify her that way. And this is all about getting you the reader to hopscotch around the Internet and follow her blog, and mine, but mostly mine.

Putting it on Paper

The blank wall, blank page, blank computer screen are sirens calling. When the dude arrives with a tape measure, shit gets real fast. Estimates, calendars, and deposits… the writing equivalent would be a pitch for an article and an advance. If I were the type of person who could come up with a thesis statement before writing the whole essay, I might be more successful at this. Being a customer, I dug out my wallet.

Aside: I married well. My husband jokes that he’s my sugar daddy. It’s true. Don’t think for a minute that I actually make money writing.

With the Big Start Day (B.S.D.) inching closer, I generated some “while you’re here, could you just ____?” requests. Hearing “Cha-Ching” instead of the specifics, the company president said, “Sure, we can do that.”

When asked about number of days that my family would be unable to climb our stairs and use our bedrooms, Head Honcho said, “Don’t you just want to go on vacation while we do the work?” What he meant was, “Oh shit, this lady is going to be trouble.”

B.S.D. and Subsequent Work Day(sss)

My first clue came when the company president’s brother, the carpenter/foreman, arrived. I took Brother on the tour. He scratched his head and asked how long Head Honcho had estimated the project would last. His forehead crinkled into a horizontal dash and his head bobbed in an impressive cross between affirmation and denial. I have that same response every time I look over my jumble of incoherent thoughts and realize that I need 1,200 semi-intelligent words by Friday.

Brother introduced Deputy along with a posse of two and left, still shaking his head.

Deputy spoke wonderful English with me before he turned toward the posse and let loose a stream of Spanish that might have translated to “This crazy bitch thinks we’re going to finish in four days.” Somehow, I worried as the tarp went up to cordon off the area. Would I wind up without any chair railing in the entryway and the wrong color on the walls? Two options came to mind: 1) stand over the crew of three men to convey that I didn’t trust them or 2) leave the house on an errand, but return before they had time to do irreparable harm.

Aside: Lest I sound paranoid or racist let me assure you that I’ve had a native English speaker crash through the attic floor causing bits of thirty-year-old insulation to snow from the ceiling. Incompetence knows no racial or linguistic boundaries. Sometimes, it’s best to walk away.

Inspiration

While they painted,the workmen listened to and sang along with Christian music in Spanish. For hours. With an iPod plugged into MY electrical outlets.

Aside: When I hear the first notes of gospel music or Barry Manilow-esque ballads to God while channel surfing in my car, I hit the “search” button faster than I do when inappropriate rap lyrics blare from the speakers towards my not-so-innocent children.

I didn’t complain for the same reason that I never send meals back at restaurants: someone might spit in my food, or worse. Annoyed but feverishly writing to a deadline, I blocked the noise. Or so I thought, until I found myself humming along to one song. Nuggets of memory stirred. But my deadline didn’t involve reminiscing about Amy Grant and my high school years when I loved Jesus like the boyfriend I didn’t have.

Aside: if I were a disciplined and organized writer, I would record this moment in my journal and find some profound place for it later on – an essay, perhaps. Instead, I’m going to exploit it here in hopes that I get a few laughs and followers.

A closet chock full of memories had blown open. That song reminded me that memory isn’t a sharp digital image that can be replicated on the page. Often it’s visceral: the stomach cramping that precedes a bowel movement (B.M., as my mother used to call it).

Can’t they work any faster?

I would have been more annoyed when the crew took one-hour lunch breaks each day if I hadn’t used the time to rest/nap in the basement. My husband pointed out that we were paying them by the job, not the hour, and that paint needs a chance to dry.

Aside: I now believe that writers like Hemingway drank and caroused so heavily to let the ink dry on the page. Time away is good. Ideas need time to marinate; writers need distance to gain some perspective. It’s also difficult to be uptight when you’re drunk and/or experiencing blood rushing away from your brain to erogenous zones.

Seeing Spackle on walls and sanded wooden spindles didn’t really WOW me. But when Deputy took down the plastic sheeting while packing up Tuesday afternoon, I admired the color. It was breathtaking; like that perfect paragraph in a draft that gleams while the rest of the pages belong in an overflowing trash bin. I couldn’t keep from staring, rereading it, and congratulating myself on my impeccable taste.

No Show Wednesday

There’s the need for distance and then there’s the day that the crew just doesn’t show. I’d cancelled with the cleaning lady to accommodate the workers (see Aside above regarding Sugar Daddy). Brother called at 8 a.m. to explain that he couldn’t make it until tomorrow, and the guys really couldn’t continue until he bought supplies and performed his carpentry magic.

Aside: Brother is my writing group in this extended metaphor. He’s the dude who assesses the work, replaces the wood trim that didn’t survive the carpet removal process, and drives screws into the banister so it doesn’t collapse when my kids use it as a launch pad. He’s worth waiting for.

Aside to the Aside: I have surpassed my self-imposed 1200 word max. This bad boy, like my home project, is going “To BE Continued.” In the meantime, share me with your friends on FB and Twitter. There are lovely little icons that you just click. See them? Thank you! Until next time….