Easy Steps to a “Quick Write.” (Borrowed from Mary Allen.)

As the title of this post reveals, I am sharing a technique that I have borrowed from memoir writer Mary Allen: the “Quick Write”.

I alluded to this technique in my last post, and it’s both simple and effective. Instead of an old fashioned writers group (I have experienced a couple go sour, for various reasons) she suggests finding a writing partner.

This method is useful when you want a writing accountability partner, when you feel stuck, or when you just want to have a writing jag.

Some commonsense tips for before you write: Get something to drink. Turn off your phone. Eat if you haven’t. Be sure you have everything you usually need when you write.

Here are the quite easy steps:

1. You and your writing partner contact one another via email, phone, or ideally, face to face and agree on how long you will write. While writing beside one another is perhaps the best method, it can also be done at your respective desks and you report back to one another.

2. Set the timer for the allotted amount of time and start writing. NO TALKING!

3. Write until the timer sounds.

4. Contact one another again to (this is the scary part for me) read your work aloud.

Caveats: NO criticism is allowed. These words are newly hatched and fragile; treat them with respect. Praise one another for having made the time and effort to write.

That’s pretty much it. I think she says you can tell one another ahead of time what you want to write about — a scene, an idea, whatever. And that’s usually what I do, just to clear it up in my mind a bit before I write. But otherwise, there are no rules.

As I said in my last post, Barry is my writing partner. We have amended the rules a bit: because we are both on deadlines, we will sometimes ask questions after we read our work: “Is this too long?” “What do you think of the POV?” As long as we are respectful and kind, we allow ourselves to ask and answer these questions.

I’ve used this technique when I have thought I have nothing further to say on a subject, only to discover I have plenty more to say. I enjoy that I can just hit “delete” if I don’t like a scene, though oddly enough I haven’t done that yet.

Writers produce at very different speeds, of course. I find that an hour’s write (and for us, an hour seems right: less is too short, more and I get antsy and want a snack or a stroll) usually yields between eight and nine pages for me. Which is something, because on my MOST productive days I have only ever written 24 pages before.

Maybe I should mention that those quick write scenes tend to be ones long on dialogue, which, of course, means tons of white space, so please don’t get upset if one only gives you two or three pages. Even if there’s a nugget in them that you can use, it’s totally worth the time.

And how precious to have someone write alongside you, and listen when you are finished, knowing you will be praised, even if you have just written drivel. Equally lovely to be able to hear someone’s brand new thoughts.

Should I admit that I don’t spend the whole time writing? I occasionally sneak a look at my partner to enjoyed how engrossed he is or, if we’re writing outdoors to admire how the sun lights his eyes. That’s part of the fun of the writing process.

Inspired? I hope so. I know I am.

P.S.: Since I don’t have a photo of us writing, here’s one of us goofing around at home:
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Honor Your Process: Know When to Write and When Not to!

Saturday Barry and I spent a luxurious two hours eating breakfast…unheard of for us! We drank two pots of tea, sitting and chatting, and finally we decided it was time to get on with our day.

A wonderful benefit to me of Barry becoming a Spalding MFA in Writing student is that he has writing deadlines. Which, of course, encourages me to write when he is writing.

Better yet, I have discovered a writing method called “Quick Write” that I will write a post about later. We have been indulging in them, and we had promised ourselves one this weekend. But.

But, when Barry asked if I was ready to write on Saturday, I said no. Yes, his face looks just the way yours does if you know how much I love to write. We were both afraid we were coming down with colds, and I just didn’t feel well all the way around. Writing was not appealing just then.

Also, the night before we had begun watching a documentary on Vermeer. Those of you who know that one of my life’s goals is to see all of Vermeer’s work will not be surprised that I really wanted to finish watching the documentary that I had fallen asleep trying to watch the night before.

Before we turned the program back on, I asked my dear husband if he minded if I applied my hair treatment so I could let it work its magic while we relaxed. Of course we became so fascinated by the video that my hair “marinated” for probably an hour longer than it was meant to! It took two days to get my hair normal again. Thankfully I am not a priss about my hair. 🙂

Watching the Vermeer segment meant we rolled into the next one (hence the prolonged hair marinating), which featured the work not of the artist I am writing my novel about, but that of one of his influences. We were only a few minutes in when my eyes widened. Though I had known of the connection between the painters, it wasn’t until I saw the highlighted painting that I realized my painter HAD to have seen that painting.

In fact, I have been writing extensively about a painting that I now know I haven’t been seeing correctly at all because I didn’t know this new-to-me painting.

NOW I was ready, to write, or so I thought. While Barry did a Spalding assignment to free himself for a Quick Write, I wrote a brief outline of what the painting meant to me, what it meant to the artist’s work, and how I could prove it, if I could.

I should have been ready to write at that point, right? Except I wasn’t. This is where you have to dig down and ask yourself if you really shouldn’t be writing, or if you should press on.

When Barry set the timer I put my fingers to the keys and tried to write. About five minutes in I was fiddling with my phone, trying to pull up a photo of the painting. “Research,” I mumbled while he valiantly wrote on.

I wrote one scene, and then I felt as if I had finished what I had to say. I consulted my outline. I wrote a bit more. It was an effort. But finally, I realized that even though I wasn’t feeling it, what I was writing was important. It expressed some things about the artist that I hadn’t been able to articulate in the over two years I have been writing this novel.

I still wrote slowly, leisurely, compared to my usually feverish style.

The result wasn’t brilliant; it wasn’t polished, but when Barry called “Time,” I wasn’t totally embarrassed.

Honoring my process, allowing myself NOT to write when I didn’t want to, and yet pressing through when I really felt I should, opened a new door in my novel. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

As I always say, creative writing is not widget making. There are not definite steps to take to get out what you want to say. Please, honor your process. Whatever it is.

Care to share what your creative process is? I’d love to hear about it!
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Guilty Secret: I Like Editing!

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Some people hate editing. I don’t. Now I’m not talking about that prissy brand of “You really need a comma here” editing. That’s important, and it can certainly be useful, but people who like that sort of editing tend to be those who are less involved in creative writing and more all about the rules. That’s the sort of person who makes me more than a little cranky to be around.

While there’s nothing like writing twenty-four pages in one fevered sitting (my wrists ached, but I did it), there’s something even better about slowing down and reading and tweaking what you wrote.

With a rough draft, you have to get intimate. You stare at each sentence. You make every word explain itself, sometimes repeatedly. You ask it how it has earned its place. If it hasn’t, out it goes. There’s nowhere for a word to hide, no fig leaf you won’t pull away from it.

Oh and that’s just each word. Now what about POV? If you are using multiple points of view, you have to demand to know why the narrative is shifting. What’s gained? What’s lost? If your text can handle that, move on to:

Scenes. Is every scene necessary? Are any gratuitous? Have you mentioned your pet pig collection just because you like pigs or is the collection integral to the story?

Will summary tell more with less belaboring? Then summarize away!

What about half scenes? If you have half scenes, do you have good reasons that they aren’t full-blown affairs? Why are they hybrids? What’s gained? What’s lost?

Those are the two questions, actually, that you must ask yourself all along the way, no matter what you do to your pages. What’s gained by this choice? What’s lost?

I just finished (another) read through of my manuscript with a pen. Trust me, it is quite marked up. Next up will be to put in the changes and to write the missing scenes…or locate them in a previous draft and reinstate them! (The nice thing about changes are that they don’t have to be permanent. You’re allowed to change your mind.)

In multiple spots I noted “you’ve already said this.” Apparently I wanted to get those points across! I am merciless with myself. I will make fun of myself in the margins while editing. I just today wrote “Zzz…” at a particularly “talky” part. Nothing is allowed to escape the heavily wielded pen. That’s as it should be.

While I may be proud in many areas (just ask my husband), when it comes to my writing, I am egoless. Anyone may say anything about my writing, and I can remain objective. If there is a grain of truth to the criticism, I will know it. I will grasp onto it and not make that mistake again.

This is, of course, because I have confidence in my writing abilities. If you don’t have that, keep writing, keep reading, until you do have it. I’m not sure editing tips are going to help you if you don’t believe in yourself. (See Anne Lamott’s “Sh*tty First Drafts” in Bird by Bird if you need permission to not write perfectly. Then come back over here.)

When it comes to writing, you’re going to have to be totally convinced that you know how to write to edit as harshly, as lovingly, as you need to. Perhaps “harshly” is the wrong word. Be solidly sure that you know how to write, if not perfectly. Demand of yourself that you keep going until the words say exactly what you want them to say. Don’t allow less.

Here’s what I do: I read through the passage I’m editing until I catch a “ding.” I stole that from someone. My apologies because I don’t remember who said it first, but it’s true. Keep reading until you hit upon a word, a phrase, or an idea that just doesn’t sit right. Then see if you can get rid of what doesn’t work. Unkink the syntax. “Verbify” a draggy sentence.

You do know to use vivid verbs, don’t you? If you have not read Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch by Constance Hale, please stop reading and go order it. Now. (Unless you are my husband who is one of the most vivid “verbers” I know. In everyday speech, no less.) Seek and destroy passive sentences.

By the way, I will not be able to come even close to saying in one post everything there is to know about editing. There are editing checklists out there, some good ones. I’ll let you find the one that speaks most to you.

Editing shouldn’t take place until the bones of the piece are there: the basic plot has been settled and you likely have a pretty complete rough draft. If not, you might as well get your beginning, middle and end finished first. That’s another reason I don’t like those schoolmarmish editing types: they always want to edit your work too soon. Don’t do it. Don’t let them, either. Many a fine story or novel has died due to early, undue criticism. A flower just emerging from the ground does not yet bloom. Don’t expect more of your work. Not yet.

Beware plot/logic jumps. Sometimes you mention something in chapter one and contradict yourself in chapter eight. Yeah, I’ve been known to do that. Honestly, I’m not so great at catching that stuff. Perhaps you can guess that I’m a pantser, not an outliner. Although after my tortured reworking of this novel I keep saying I’m going to become an outliner in the future. Uh-huh. And I may also shave my head.

For me, those issues are easiest fixed by asking others to read it for me. Another way to do it is for me to read the work all the way through a couple of times. The problem with that is that I become self conscious and only half pay attention as I read because I feel shy of my own work. It feels immodest to enjoy it. I do note high points, but anything that wobbles at all makes me despair. Just for a moment, but enough so that I honestly can’t keep the whole flow in my head at once. I suspect that is a singular failing of mine.

Don’t confuse quantity with quality. I recently lopped over fifty pages off my WIP. I don’t mind that at all. It’s a stronger story for it. Now, that said, I will likely continue to warp and weave another block of pages back in because I got rid of a character who wasn’t working. She just couldn’t convince me that she lent anything to the party, so O-U-T and out goes she.

When you can read through the book more than once and nothing sticks out, nothing stops you, chances are any changes that you make at that point will be nervous tics. Stop. Hit “print.” And consider your work edited.

I will be a happy camper when I can do so with this novel. But I am also enjoying the journey, every syllable of it. Because to me, editing is when you get to sit back and enjoy your work, knowing you can still change things that don’t please you. Once your work is in print, it’s no longer just yours. That’s the beauty and the sorrow of it.

Shh…I am reading! Lisette’s List

After waiting ALL DAY, while I was on my walk my husband texted to let me know that UPS had been. So I am happy to report that I am now blissfully reading Susan Vreeland’s newest book, Lisette’s List.

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Shhh…you may not hear anything from me for quite some time.

Ah, writing about art. Is there anything like it? Reading about art.

Literary Term Larcency: the Co-opting of Narrative

In “The Cognitive and Anthropological Origins of Narrative,” Richard van Oort argues for the “coeval origin” of narrative and language. If that’s true, maybe I have no business complaining about this, but I’m going to anyway.

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As a writer, we have certain literary devices and terms which we call our own. They are the tools in our proverbial toolbox, and they are ours. Here’s my issue: I don’t like hearing the word “narrative” used outside of literary circles.

My husband is a political enthusiast. I am not. Our compromise is a Netflix marathon of “Scandal,” a White House-based drama. While the show isn’t the first place where I have heard the word “narrative” used to describe something quite unliterary, its repeated use in a political context unnerves me. It angers me. Our pure tool, so beautifully designed to shape truth by fiction, there means nothing more than “make the story palatable and helpful to our political aims.”

It’s unforgiveable. It’s outright theft, and I’m angry.

I suspect I am not the only one who is angry about this perpetual (in my view) word/device abuse. Did you catch Sam Lipsyte’s story in the May 5, 2014 issue of The New Yorker called “The Naturals”? He speaks of a company who wants to create a lakefront development but the area needs a “narrative.” “The main thing is we’re trying to tell a story here. A lakefront narrative,” says a consultant. Huh? His main character seems just as puzzled as I am by that usage.

Throughout the story the main character, Caperton, encounters people who openly admit to being storytellers: a wrestler, his stepmother who works in “narrative medicine” helping patients tell their stories, and his dying father who tells him that “Death is just a part of the story.”

While I think Lipsyte’s claim is a bit different than mine — I believe he’s complaining about everything needing a story and I’m specifically complaining about the misuse of the word “narrative,” our beefs may not be so far apart. Why must politicians have a narrative, which implies a purposely crafted and presented tale rather than a strict presentation of the facts which would allow a person to decide for him or herself what happened?

Okay, there may be some writerly ego involved here: I want to be the one who tells the stories, who explains through fiction, which means admitting that my story, although true, is based on a narrative created by me.

“Stories were devices for deluding ourselves and others…” says Lipsyte’s truth-disguised-as-tale. Sometimes. Sometimes our stories make the world a much more beautiful place. Sometimes they make a hero of someone who is not. But when we admit to shaping the, yes, narrative, that’s fair, not manipulative. At least not a veiled manipulation. To hear riverfronts and politics using it, well, that’s just dishonest. Give me back my narrative, you hear me? Or at least find another word to call it.

A Writer’s Retreat…in Changzhou, China!

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Until recently my body was in China, my mind in France, and my heart in the United States. Let me explain.

I apologize for having been silent for some time. My last post was actually written while in Changzhou, China. Drat these days of having to be so careful when one travels that one can’t shout from the rooftops “I’m in China!”

This post is not meant to be a travelogue. I’m sure stories of my time in China will come out in my posts, but I wanted to deal more with my writing while I was there. If you’re truly interested in more about our time there, may I refer you to an article I wrote about it for glo Magazine? http://www.the-papers.com/OnlineIssue.aspx?pub=glo  (It’s on page 42.)

“How do you think your writing was affected by your trip?” I have been asked multiple times since returning. One of my friends has given me the perfect reply: “We’ll see.” She’s so right. How anything changes us often takes some time to reveal its effects. But I can say how lovely and fantastic the experience was!

The beauty of this retreat:

1. I did not have to do laundry.

2. No cleaning house.

3. No cooking. (That was a mixed bag as I actually like to cook.)

4. Naps!

5. Staying in a five-star hotel.  Very posh!

6. Being treated as if we were royalty by the hotel staff. They gave me a private writing space complete with an attendant who brought me drinks and snacks! Weekly fruit selections delivered! Nightly cookies! Surprise cake and desserts!

7. Amazing food generously supplied wherever we went. I now adore seafood and eating with chopsticks!

8. The gift of not being able to speak the language. This allowed me to focus on my writing, even when I was in a teahouse full of chattering people. The sound was mere music because I couldn’t understand a word! It also forced me to find other ways to communicate: hand gestures, drawings, etc.

9. Being fully appreciated by very sweet people for…well…everything! That I am a writer. That I am an American. That I am a blonde.

10. Sightseeing! Beijing. Shanghai. The architecture was spectacular. Always something new to see. Everywhere.

11. Buying pearls. In the above photo I am standing in front of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower…my favorite building in Shanghai, and I’m wearing the pearls Barry had newly purchased for me. (I’m having a hard time not wearing them every day! I’ve always been a fan of pearls.)

Clearly, I could go on at length. Let me shift gears.

My goal for writing in China (other than accompanying my husband, who was there for work) was to write a new section of my WIP. I had hoped to add 50 to 75 pages. I ended up writing over 100 new pages. There was something about writing in another country that allowed me to tap into something I did not at home. The section that I had no clue about in the States came to me bit by bit, then page after page. I wrote with pen and paper, something else I don’t usually do. It was wonderful to look up form a long morning’s writing only to realize that I was in China, not France.

Barry and I spent many fun evenings out with new friends, but we also had not only private evening dinners or room service, but we also had cherished hour-long breakfasts. We would sit and drink cup after cup of tea and talk, which thankfully emptied my mind for my day’s writing and energized him for the work day. It was perfect.

You wouldn’t think it would be any different, writing at a desk, sitting in a chair, or on a couch or a park bench, no matter the country, but it was. I honestly haven’t had much time to look over the new material I wrote while I was there, but I’m eager to see how it was different. In part I think there’s a real difference in writing not in stolen moments or almost as a hobby, but instead writing because the day was created for you to write, and everything in the universe confirms that, down to the weather. Everyone and everything seems as if it’s your handmaiden, your doula.

If you ever get the chance to take a writer’s retreat — even if you have to steal a weekend and go to a hotel, do it. There’s something special about purposely created moments. The muse, I am firmly convinced, is ever with us. (S)he’s just waiting for us to say hello, no matter the country in which we find ourselves. There’s something very comforting about knowing there’s a whole other world ever present, ever ready for us to tap. Here’s to catching buckets full of rich writing.

Telling the Truth About Art By Lying About Paintings

I’m writing about paintings that don’t exist. Let me back up. I’m writing about an artist whose work has largely been lost. When a trusted mentor read my work, she suggested I write about the artist’s paintings. “Make them up,” she said. I was fascinated and daunted.

I’ve since gotten over my fear and have discovered that it’s freeing and fun to imagine what an artist’s work looks like. We only have one of her paintings to go by (as of yet, though I am hopeful that more will come to light), and some titles of her paintings that I fervently believe will one day be returned to the art world, so I do have something to guide me. And there’s my imagination, of course.

It starts with an image. I imagine her painting en plein air, and I look around and ask myself what would interest her. Or I think of where she is and what is happening. Is she in the city? Then she would be fascinated by the building going on. In the country she would adore the sheep, or so I tell myself. Then I allow the image to focus. I ask myself what the weather’s like. I try to “become” her: what is she seeing? Feeling? Smelling? What direction is the wind coming from?

I take it a step further by framing it. It’s not enough that there’s a girl with a lamb. I need to zoom in on one aspect, one angle.

The advantage to this, of course, is that I don’t need to ask the child to stay still. I can force this through my imagination. If the wind needs to blow in another direction, I can do that, too.

It’s powerful and great for imagination-building skills. I dare say it is probably helping my painting skills, though I haven’t painted for some time.

I have seen people become totally paralyzed when asked to use the imagination. It’s only by exercising it that it gets stronger, so if you need to apply this technique, just give it a try with confidence.

Let’s try an exercise, shall we?
Close your eyes. See a simple shape — a high-rise building, a four-leaf clover, or even the moon. Now build a painting. What color is the building? What do you see through the windows? Any signs on it?

That clover, where is it? What is of interest around it? Is a chicken about to eat it?

The moon…is it a full moon or a half? How bright is it?

To properly “build” a painting in your mind, you need to tell a story about it, so let’s keep going.

Go back to the building. What do you want to say about the building, or what story do you want to tell? Are you making a statement about how it looks just like the ten around it, or that it is different? Is it a monument to civilization, or is it competing with the tiny tree below?

The clover…are you highlighting its shape and the luck it supposedly gives, or that the chicken (if your picture has one) is about to eat luck, making itself lucky, or that the chicken doesn’t know that she is eating something “lucky”?

That moon…is it a persistent light despite a smoggy atmosphere, or is it clear and beautiful with the magic that only night can bring, the kind that makes you fall in love with yourself and everything that breathes just by seeing it?

Once you know what your CHARACTER would say about it, that makes things easier. For it’s not your painting. It’s your character’s.

My character equally loves progress and the country, so very likely her paintings would reflect the conflict between these worlds. How could I show this? I could have her painting a pastoral scene with the train running in the background. Or the smoke of a factory could waft above a lake on which a couple is rowing a boat.

Even if you’re not writing about art, this will serve you well when writing description and deciding what’s important to write about. Pretend you have a camera, and use it. That’s all.

Happy Lying!

My Top Ten Tips for Organizing and Writing About Art: A Sneak Peek at my Ebook.

I’d already read Susan Vreeland’s books, and Tracy Chevalier’s wonderful Girl with a Pearl Earring. I fell for Of Human Bondage as well — it remains my favorite novel, even though I did throw it against the wall when I finished it because I was so distressed at Philip’s decision. But it wasn’t until I took a college class called “The Painted Word” that I considered mingling my twin loves of writing and art.

When we students were asked to write about art, I wrote a short story based on a painting that turned out to be my first work of fiction ever published. The person who published the piece said I should write more about art. An agent who read the story agreed. So I’m fond of writing about art.

Writing about art shares skill sets with all writing, of course, but I do have some tips that can help you make the journey from yearning to write about art to actually doing it. In fact, I’m so convinced that there are hints and tips that can help that I’m writing an Ebook about it. Until it’s out, here are my top tips. While they can be used for writing in general, they are more art writing centered and because I write about historical art, can be applied to historical writing as well.

1. Print eight by ten photos of the main paintings you are writing about and put them in a binder. Print them on photo paper, not on regular paper. It will be so much more inspirational. Trust me.

2. Break out the old school notecards and rubber bands. There’s nothing wrong with using typical research recording methods for fiction. It just likely will not be enough.

3. Have a binder for essays as well. While you’ll make your notes on notecards, sometimes just revisiting old territory will yield a little gem you missed the first time around. Or perhaps you just want to capture the tone of the essay.

4. Keep a record of all of the books and websites you consult. You may not end up citing them all at the back of your book, but then again…in any event, you can always include them on your website. (You do have a website for your book, don’t you?)

5. Draw your notes, to make sure you keep your novel image driven — you’re going to want to do this with art, right? Seriously. Even if you’re not a great artist, try it. Bonus tip: as you read, pick out startling or vivid images to open and close your book with.

6. Google “art terms.” Learn them. Use them liberally in your works. Those who know them will respect you, and those who don’t know them will learn and be in awe of you. 🙂

7. Make timelines of art and artists during the time period you are writing about. Because no one (or at least I can’t) can keep all of those dates straight without a little help. This is also a bit of an outline, brought to you courtesy of history.

8. Dig into all the key players and some who aren’t. While I’m certain that your main character is fascinating or you wouldn’t be writing about her, be sure to delve into the background of secondary characters to complicate your plotlines.

9. Consult any surviving family. It’s a longshot, but maybe…while the last two artists I’ve written about sadly did not marry or have children, you may have better luck. Even a cousin could be a great resource for family lore.

10. Make things up if you don’t contradict facts. I was actually told this in a workshop where I was gently chided for writing too timidly in spots where I had no information. I quickly realized my workshop leader was absolutely right, and I now make up anything and everything with abandon if there isn’t contradictory evidence. It’s quite freeing.

These are only ten of the top tips I have to share about art writing. While I don’t have a definite release date for my Ebook, I’m guessing it will be within the next three to six months. Look for The Grammar of Painting coming your way in, say, September. Or sooner! If you’re an art writer (or just a wannabe!), what do you need help with? I’d be glad to take a try at addressing your need in my Ebook.

P.S. Clearly the photo on this post is not of my forthcoming book. But it’s cool, because it’s a book from 1891 that shares the proposed name for my book.

A Backrub Book Review: Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement

Valley of Amazement

I adore Amy Tan. There. I said it. Call me biased, but there isn’t a word she has written that I don’t just love. And in case you doubted her coolness ratio, she’s also in a rock band!

Her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement was a Christmas gift from my husband, Barry. We were lounging in bed when I finished reading it, so I rubbed his back and talked about the book. I giggled and said I had just given a “backrub book review.” Alas, Dear Reader, I have no backrubs to offer just now, but I will gladly tell you what I told him.

As always, Tan wraps her readers immediately in a nimbly crafted world. She is a story teller bar none. Her prose is dainty and well conceived, but also rather invisible, as it should be. Her threads are silken, fine. While a large part of Tan’s appeal is the exotic nature of her tales, happily she addresses the universal.

Set partially in Shanghai in the early 1900’s, the book was particularly charming to read because I will be visiting Shanghai (accompanying my business-traveling husband) this year.

The main character, Violet Minturn, is brought up in her mother’s high class courtesan house, until circumstances cause Violet to be separated from her mother and forced to become a courtesan herself. (I can’t say too much more about how they become separated.) Violet, half Chinese, learns to embrace that newly discovered side of herself in order to survive the horrors of her life.

In this story of tragedy, misplaced trust, and, finally, quiet hope, Tan gives Violet a substitute mother, Magic Gourd, a woman Violet’s mother kicked out. Violet ends up at the house where Magic Gourd has gone, and the woman takes her under her wing, making her a well-sought after courtesan.

The story is nicely paced, beginning with a first person section in which we hear from a young Violet. This shifts to a clever second-person POV chapter titled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir.” It gives us all of the background information we would like about courtesans and their ilk without info dumping or trying to artificially fit it into dialog.

I must admit there was one spot where I stopped and shook my head a few times and asked Barry if he thought it was fair of Tan to reintroduce Violet’s mother after page 400 and tell us her backstory. For a few pages I fought it, but soon I was immersed in her story, and was rather sad to leave it to return to Violet.

I was also concerned that with only about two hundred pages left, Tan wouldn’t be able to satisfy her reader if she wandered away from Violet, but she did. I should never have doubted her.

Although he appears to be a shadow of a character in this book, I am more than a little interested in the artist Lu Shing. So forgive me if I shift now from a traditional review that you could get anywhere into a meditation on Lu Shing.

Violet’s father (a man Violet knows virtually nothing of), Lu Shing, is a second-rate artist who basically copies the work of masters and adds a detail or two, often at his customer’s request. Violet, having come into possession of two of his paintings, doesn’t like his work, but Magic Gourd keeps rescuing the paintings.

He figures into the story when Violet’s mother, Lucia, at the age of 16, falls in love with him in the United States, seduces him, and follows him back to China, while he protests continually that though he loves her, he will never be able to marry her or be with her.

Here’s the thing: Tan’s women are strong. They survive the grossest indignities, but they are their own worst enemies when it comes to loving men. They love unreservedly and ill-advisedly. In fact, their greatest passion in life seems centered around men, and it always causes them and those they love immeasurable pain.

In fact, these women often fall in love much more so of the idea of these men than the men themselves. That’s the case with Lucia and Lu Shing. We know before Lu Shing ever tells Lucia that his passion is for art, and that his passion even for that is pale.

The book’s title comes from one of Lu Shing’s paintings. The painting makes Violet feel uneasy when she finds it: “I felt certain now that the painting meant you were walking into the valley, not leaving it.” What she doesn’t know is that Lu Shing paints this same scene again and again, altering it at the whim of customers. She also doesn’t know that while the painting is a copy of an old master, the place is real, and it is a place she will visit and will have to escape.

Lu Shing seems muted, even when he paints. The women in the book ultimately take on this same muted quality when they are older. True, they survive. But they do so at the cost of vibrant feeling.

When Lu Shing is still in the United States he is asked “How do we capture the emotion in art?” His answer is telling: “The moment is altered as soon as I try to capture it, so for me, it’s impossible.” It’s also telling that he comes to the States as a young man to study with a landscape artist. There’s a stark, uninvolved, observer quality at work here that is, nevertheless, not without its own beauty.

There is no easy, happy ending to this book. Reunions happen, but not rosy, tearful ones. The strong women remain adamantine, and because of that, emotion is not something that they can afford to spare.

Just as Lu Shing has only walks through a life of shame at his weakness, so the women survive, but their connections seem both strong and tenuous. They are fiercely independent and yet devoted to the idea of one another. While we believe they stay in touch, the infrequent nature of their contact makes us believe they would survive just as well without one another. And yet this is a novel well worthy of a second read. What better message than that while we are connected, we are also strong enough to survive on our own?

Did you happen to catch the short story “The Frog Prince” by Robert Coover in last week’s New Yorker? What he writes toward the end of the story is true of this novel: “…and they found a certain contentment, living more or less happily ever after, which is what ‘now’ is while one’s in it.” I couldn’t sum it — or life — up better myself.

There is so much more to this book. I wholeheartedly recommend it. In fact, perhaps it’s time I read it again. Have you read it yet? Do you intend to read it? What else of Tan’s have you read?

P.S. I anticipate revisiting this book once I am back from China, so look for an update then.

Published, but not in a “flash”!

When I first became a student with the Spalding MFA in Creative Writing program, I quickly became enamored of flash fiction. It seemed to fit my terse, plain style, and I liked that there was no room in it for over explaining.

About my writing: I had never really written a short story until I took a creative writing course during my second round of college. Before then I had plunged right in and written two pretty bad novels. What made me think I could write a novel, I don’t know. I like to call those early efforts starter novels.

Once I discovered flash fiction I wrote maybe three stories. One of them turned into a novel which shrank to a novella. One of them was accused of being poetry(!) during a Spalding workshop. The third is a piece called “Drinking Ghosts.” I read it at our local university’s poetry reading a few years ago. (It’s not poetry. It’s not! It was just the shortest piece I had available.)

I have spent maybe three years sending “Drinking Ghosts” out to various publications. I have, alas, expanded it at the request of readers who thought I didn’t say enough. I have mentioned that darn fork three times, and yes, specified that it was plastic, lol. (I personally liked the ambiguity of the piece as it was, but maybe that’s just me.) One editor asked me just what that woman was doing alone in the office. Uh, has she never been asked to “hold down the fort”?

While in Italy with Spalding’s program I spent some early morning hours before a computer in a darkened room sending that blessed story out, sure at core there was something in it to be heard.

So when I was notified today that Yahoo accepted this story for publication, I was elated. It’s not a perfect flash fiction piece (re-reading it makes me wish I had tightened it back up), but it’s mine, and, thanks be, it has finally been published. Check one more thing off my writing goals list.

What’s that, you’d like to read it? Please do, here: http://voices.yahoo.com/drinking-ghosts-flash-fiction-12490386.html

Feel free to comment, either here or at Yahoo. Or both!:-) halloween2011_crop