Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Addams Family Exorcist

The most horrifying movie ever? The Exorcist -- scary on the surface and profoundly disturbing deeper in.

Still, I'm drawn to watch it.

No, it's too intense!

This year, I stumbled on the perfect solution: audio and video of The Exorcist via my TV's smallest picture-in-picture window ... diluted by full-screen images of an all-day Addams Family marathon.

With a nod to Joey Tribbiani, who kept his copy of The Shining in the freezer.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Two Newspapers

A Sunday paper and a daily paper, unretrieved. What's going on?

My mind's first three possibilities are obvious or cliche: 1) the paper boy delivered to the wrong address; 2) the household residents are away; 3) they're ill or dead or being held captive inside the house.

My second three: 4) a neighbor planted the papers there; 5) a tornado dropped them from a distant city; 6) squirrels dragged them into position along an earth-energy line.

What's another possibility?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Decades Ago

Okay, I’ll consider myself tagged by Dr. Dino’s meme: What were you doing 10, 20 and 30 years ago?

My old day-planners let me drill down to the actual days and their surprising details.

30 years ago, I was 20 and in my third year of pharmacy school in Michigan. I’d had exams four days that week and had worked the other three in a hospital pharmacy. Always the least boy-crazy girl in the room, I’m shocked to see notations that “Steve called” and “Jerry called” and I “sat with Al at the library” (ah, I remember them all); and that I “saw John!” at a bar (he got an exclamation point then but now I have no idea who he was). My planner: Hallmark’s “A Woman’s Year” with two-pages-per-week spreads.

20 years ago, I’d been married a day shy of 2 months and there isn’t an entry in my planner for weeks in either direction of this date. I’d moved from Michigan to Chicago, leaving my apartment, friends, some nearby family, and my job as director of a hospital pharmacy. Probably, my days were filled with sex, errands, museums, parties, and generally getting to know Chicago before I looked for work after the holidays. But it had been a lot of change that never felt adequately acknowledged, and I’m freshly stunned to see my response reflected on page after blank page. I’m desperate to peek into the next year’s calendar to be comforted that life did quickly pick up again. My planner: The New Yorker Diary with two-pages-per-week spreads.

10 years ago, I was free of an abusive boss, but also out of a job I’d loved. Considering paths for the next half of my career life, I had coffee with a hospital exec, lunch with a non-profit exec, and bought an LSAT (law school admissions test) review book. (In the end, I rejected all three.) My planner: FranklinQuest (now FranklinCovey) Seasons, Classic size, two-pages-per-day spreads. My penmanship was beautiful--the only time in my life I can claim that.

Wanna play? Consider yourself tagged!

Thursday, October 25, 2007


When you can't get out to observe people and gather up prompts from their interesting backstories and current conflicts...

...the Internet can bring them to you via Found -- a peek inside people's lives through their found notes, lists, and stray papers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Million Words

"They" say that career-ending disaster strikes when someone is promoted up to their level of incompetence.

But I think it’s less a case of rising too far and more a case of just too fast.

Consider this, from Buzz Bissinger’s New York Times profile of Chicago Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood:

"Although the act of pitching a baseball repeatedly is exceedingly stressful, doctors now generally accept that it is not the act itself that causes injury nearly so much as pitching while fatigued. …

"The tried-and-true method of preventing young pitchers from throwing when they are fatigued has been to keep them on strict pitch counts in the minor leagues -- 100 pitches per game has become something of an industry standard. ... [But] pitch counts prevent young pitchers from learning to pitch while tired, to pace themselves during a game, to get out of jams without simply handing the ball to the bullpen. …

"Instead, too many young pitchers, particularly those who have attracted media attention, come up to the majors too soon and feel an obligation to go full bore all the time. They are constantly reaching back for extra velocity, and if they are doing it as fatigue begins to set in, the possibility of their arms breaking down only multiplies."

Similarly, in the New Yorker article Fallen Idols (abstract online), David Denby makes a case for the 20th century’s movie-studio contract system over today’s free-agency:

"Seventy years ago, these actors would have been tested in a variety of small roles or B-movies -- tested to see whether both they could act and whether the audience perked up when they came onscreen. They would have been allowed to grow slowly. Now they are thrown into big roles in expensive movies, and they’re forced to overdraw on themselves before their temperament has found the right shape. They don’t know the camera yet, and the camera doesn’t always find much in their faces."

Reading two such similar cautions should perk up writers to the message for our own work. We learn the craft of writing; then we need to stay buckled down, doing the daily pages -- practicing the techniques one by one and in combination, practicing them when we're fresh and through fatigue, and noticing the effects on readers.

"They" also say that it takes a million notes to make a musician.

And a million words to make a writer.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

But It Really Happened, Part 2

I live a generally careful life, unwilling to give too robust a test to the down side of karma. Fine. But then I need to at least give my imagination free rein ... to somewhere near the realm of things that happen, one after another, in real life.

We cynics get a bonus in the last paragraph.

We realists get smacked by the more somber reportage here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Your Interesting Life

Inspiration from the November 2007 Shambhala Sun’s Q&A with director/writer/actress Miranda July (or treat yourself to her book website ) -- on what holds people back about making art from their lives:

There's not a lot of positive feedback, especially early on. You need people around you saying, “What happened to you today that was interesting?” You have to genuinely believe that there is something interesting and special about daily life and your experience of it. I think people feel this innately [… but …] you’re quickly told it’s self-indulgent or selfish or just so off topic.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Committed Co-worker

Prompted by the release of the film Michael Clayton,'s Juliet Lapidos writes that most anyone, including a co-worker, can petition a judge to involuntarily commit a person to psychiatric care.

So go on, indulge yourself. Draft the petition letter about some current or former co-worker.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Measuring Stick

This ruler seriously disturbs my brain.

Sci-fi and fantasy novelists could build worlds where its rules make sense.

But in my real world, when people's behavior seems as crazy-making as these markings, it's time to pay attention.

[Ruler is from a print ad for Accenture Technology Consulting.]

Friday, October 12, 2007

She Nodded

Characters tend to nod a lot in the first drafts of my stories. So I was delighted to hear Fred Shafer (scroll down) speak about gestures yesterday at the Off Campus Writers’ Workshop. His premise: gestures are useful not only in showing character and driving plot, but also -- during the story-drafting process -- in aiding a writer’s discovery of character and plot.

Shafer referenced Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer (Chapter 9) and echoed her advice to not use gestures merely to fill space on the page or as beats to alter the pace. But it’s no good to leave them out altogether, either.

Rather, writers must find the right gestures. They need to go beyond the first ones that come to mind -- the stereotypes, the cliches -- and be willing to discover the spontaneous / unusual / uncommon gestures that actually mean something ... that tilt the direction of an interaction (and maybe even the story) one way or another.

He acknowledged that it’s difficult for writers, alone at a keyboard, to think up gestures. So he suggested that writers be like actors, who observe people and then steal their gestures. He told of a director and actors in rehearsal, needing a meaningful gesture but not knowing what it should be. Eventually, the director called over a theater cleaning lady and offered her a sheet of paper. He got exactly the gesture he needed: before she took the paper, she wiped her hands on her uniform.

But what’s a writer to do without a notebook full of previously observed gestures, or someone upon whom to experiment? Use the imagination to experiment, Fred advised. Stay deeply within the scene and watch the characters. More importantly, watch them long enough -- often, what begins as a cliched gesture continues into something more telling. He offered examples from the short stories of Antonya Nelson to illustrate that staying with characters a moment longer leads to discovering unique details:

Abby grabbed Lucia’s hand and Lucia returned the squeeze.

Lucia leaned her head back, her throat moving with her last swallow.

“No,” she said, shaking her head, her hair loosening as she did so.

Edith put her face to his and kissed him, not on the mouth but around it, the way you might kiss an envelope containing a letter to your beloved

Monday, October 8, 2007

Morning Break

Quarterly Orkin pest-prevention service: $84.80.
Grande whole-milk latte: $3.68.
Side glass of ice-water: free.

An hour's escape to Starbucks to read The New Yorker while the house airs out: priceless.

Friday, October 5, 2007


I've been thinking about yesterday's post, which touched on my feelings about the preparatory stages involved in whatever I'm doing ... and my frustration when the preparations cause delays.

It reminds me of a passage from E. L. Konigsburg’s novel, "The View from Saturday", wherein sixth-grader Noah learns calligraphy from Tillie, a friend of his grandparents. But before the calligraphy, comes the intricate, six-step process of filling the old-fashioned pen with ink. Noah narrates: "When I told Tillie that six steps seemed a lot to have to do before you begin, she said, 'You must think of those six steps not as the preparation for the beginning, but as the beginning itself.' "

My frustration with delays leaks into writing, too, where progress is tracked mostly by word-counts or page-counts. It helps me to remember Jerry Weinberg's counsel that "Writing" involves many stages … and the "writing down the words" part is but one of them.

Good advice, both, which I am learning to follow.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Mending Kits

I traveled often in a previous job, and the only hotel freebies I routinely collected were shower caps and mending kits.

Last weekend, when I could no longer close the catch-all drawer of my bedroom dresser, I purged and reorganized its contents, including dozens of remaining mending kits. Those pictured here on the right surprised me in their sameness and now prompt some kind of story reminiscent of Groundhog Day.

But I remember the reverence I felt toward hotels that supplied the kits on the left, with their pre-threaded needles -- a requisite, I’d assumed, for male guests, and pure luxury for women. It’s not difficult to thread a needle (although I haven’t tried lately, with presbyopic eyes); it only requires a molecule of spit to seal the thread's flyaway end, and then a moment’s pause in breathing while the end is aimed to and through the eye of the needle. It’s the delay that frustrates -- the 10-second pause in the midst of getting on with things and out the door.

And now I notice the unique kit here -- with its 10 colors of thread and needle threader; buttons, needles and pearl-topped straight pins; scissors; and a tape measure! The tape measure -- a tailor’s tool, not a mender’s tool -- is what prompts this kit into its own story.