The Blue Chair Blog

It's not just about the novel


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Modern art in Oslo

I’ve been wanting to visit the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art ever since it moved into it’s new location on Oslo’s waterfront. Between this place and Ekeberg Park, Oslo’s access to modern art is off the charts, especially in proportion to her size.  There was one rainy day during my time in Norway, so off we went.  Besides the impressive permanent collection of modern art, there was an exhibit of works collected by the explorer Erling Kagge’s called Love Story. The Astrup Fearnley’s location on the peninsula of Tjuvholmen is dramatic, and the two museum buildings provide a soaring backdrop for the art. I liked a lot of what I saw, was challenged by some pieces, and thought a few were in the category of you’re-pulling-my-leg. That’s modern art for you, but in particular I am still haunted by Damien Hirst’s Eulogy, constructed with butterfly wings, and to which no picture can do justice.


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Exploring Ekeberg Park

Oslo has long had one of the most impressive sculpture parks in the world in Vigeland Park. In the fall of 2013, the city of Oslo opened Ekeberg Park as a “people’s park,” which is a quintessentially Norwegian way to do things. It is a “sculpture and national heritage park” with a strong international art collection, including works by Rodin, Renoir, Dali, Vigeland, Botero, and Damien Hirst.

Most of the sculptures are figures or representations of women. They are surrounded by beautiful scenery with many spectacular views out over the city and Oslfjord. Traces of some of the oldest settlements in the area, such as petroglyphs and dry stone walls, are also found in this fascinating cultural landscape.

After quite a few visits to Oslo over the last 15 years, it was a deep pleasure to discover something new and inspiring and to spend an afternoon walking through beautiful Ekenberg Park with family. The park is free and always open. There is a nearby campground, too.

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In the wake of a tumultuous week

I’m still reeling, to be honest, from A Week That Was, especially Friday, June 26. I can’t help feeling that the United States at last sat itself down at the same table as other progressive nations when the Supreme Court ruled, in a divided but decisive opinion, for marriage equality. In the same week, many people in this country were reeling from a horrific terrorist act – the murder of nine African-American members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina. I was driving home on I-5 Friday and heard the last part of President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was not only a pastor of that church, but a state senator — someone who had dedicated his life to serving others. In retrospect, all of these people seem remarkable, their lives thrown into scrutiny and stark relief by their deaths. It just tells you, I think, how remarkable many people are when you look below the surface. We need to be looking at those around us now and not only when they are dead.

The President spoke eloquently and then to my stunned surprise he began to sing Amazing Grace, in a voice that was heartfelt and not completely in tune. My sense is that this was spontaneous. I don’t think it was in the order of service or that the congregation was expecting it, though they soon joined in. I was listening to this live on the radio as I drove, singing along with the President and that stricken congregation and community, and trying unsuccessfully not to cry. For me, it was a transcendent moment. Those healing words are apt after centuries, and incredibly moving.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Behind these stirring and hopeful words from 1779, as many people know, is the story of a man who had the scales fall from his eyes — who had been the captain of a slave ship, became a Christian, an ordained minister, and an abolitionist. I believe some folks have finally had their eyes opened by this hideous event, to the extent that they can now see it is an injurious travesty to fly the Confederate flag over a government building. The original title of Amazing Grace was Faith’s Review and Expectation.

I’m hoping my eyes, too, are more open than they were, that I can become more aware to all the privilege that has been bestowed on me by an accident of birth. There is no beginning and no end. This is part of the fabric of our nation, part of being human in the Twenty First Century. If we don’t do one other thing, we can examine our assumptions, and we can pay attention.

Allow me to leave you, dear reader, with a little quiet beauty.

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Not so secretly, I admire you (repost from NaNoWriMo Blog)

A  few weeks ago, NaNoWriMo solicited folks to write “not-so-secret admirer” notes to people who have inspired them as writers. For my money, writing as part of a community is different, and better, than writing in total isolation. A lot of people and organizations have inspired me from afar and supported me up close, including Kamy Wicoff and Shewrites.com, Russ Cahill, Deborah Harkness, Meagan Macvie and Off Point Writers, Hedgebrook, NaNoWriMo, personal friends who keep low profiles, and at least half of those I follow in my Twitter feed.

First and foremost are the five remarkable women who make up WISH, the Wild and Inspired Sisters of Hedgebrook. Here’s the note I wrote to them, which was published on the NaNoWriMo Blog today:

Dear Colleen, Kay, Niki, Teresa, and Traci,

Yes, my wild, inspired sisters—you are the reason I am able to write, not just reclusively as writers must, but also as part of a small but vibrant writing community. Aren’t I lucky to have this opportunity to write out loud about what a difference you have made in my life! 

How could we have imagined when we first met at Hedgebrook, a retreat for women writers in Washington state, that we would still be in almost daily contact over a year later? We were together in a historical fiction master class for only a week, learning from the phenomenal Deborah Harkness and reveling in Whidbey Island’s magic. Although Hedgebrook and its dedicated staff remain close to my heart, you are the gift that keeps on giving. Even now that we are scattered from the West Coast of the US to Germany, thanks to technology we are there for each other almost every day, and sometimes even in the middle of the night.

What we have in common connects us — our obsession with historical fiction, alternating fascination and frustration with the writing process, and a passion for red wine with salt and pepper potato chips. I have seen most of you at least once in the intervening year and I cherish those times, too. Only with true friends can you meet and take up the conversation again without missing a beat. And what conversations! Encouragement, sympathy, understanding, humor — each of you has these things in abundance and shares them unquestioningly.

Thanks for always being there, convincing me I can succeed, and cheering me over all the hurdles. Maybe I could do it alone, but I’m glad I don’t have to try.

Love,

Suzanne

After telling the NaNoWriMo folks about WISH, I was excited to receive an invitation to write the note for publication and absolutely thrilled to wake up this morning and learn that it had been published. The blog’s headline writer got it exactly right. Here’s to writing groups who become true friends!

The original text of my note is here.

Hellebore on the farmhouse table


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Joy and thievery

Because I’ve just seen Far From the Madding Crowd, I’m temporarily wandering through a pastoral, gilded version of England that probably never existed outside of fairy tales. All the same, I expect the visual experience of the film will inform my writing at some point.

Quay in Flusing

Research visit – Flushing, Cornwall

There are literary types far wiser, better read, and better educated than me to inform us about the possibilities and the impossibilities of reproducing the past. I may or may not be doing it “right” but here’s what I think: Writing a novel set in the past calls for imagination, interpretation, taste, and a dash of common sense. And a lot of information — historical fact, literature and essays of the time, fiction and literature set in the time, paintings, films, music, and — if possible — site visits. This research (a word that sounds far too scholarly for what is, after all, quite a bit of fun) is a kind of immersion, I suppose. And because research is so much fun, it’s a principle reason why I am writing historical fiction.

I am an unabashed magpie. Thomas Hardy comes after the time period that currently engages me, but no matter. His novels are closer in time to the late Eighteenth Century than my experience. So was the span of my grandmother’s life (1875-1967). To employ an expression my grandmother might have used, it’s all grist to the mill.

At the moment, I’m re-reading Persuasion in an annotated version, as well as one of Anna Dean’s Austenesque historical mysteries, A Woman of Consequence. My writing-related TBR list currently includes:

At some point, I will watch again the lovely 1995 film of Persuasion with Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds as well as Emma Thompson’s tender realization of Sense and Sensibility that same year. Scenes from these films have stayed with me for years and I have cribbed from them liberally. What I steal, however, tends to be atmospheric inspiration, so even with this confession I don’t think I’ll be caught red-handed. The films helped me understand how much in Austen translates directly to the present. In Sense and Sensibility, think of Robert Hardy’s character, Sir John Middleton, and his mother-in-law (played by the redoubtable Elizabeth Spriggs) arriving for a visit with a carriage full of yapping little dogs. I have seen these same gregarious, oblivious people drive up in a camper van with the same yappy dogs and get ready to settle in for an extended stay.

Fitting music, whether for background listening or to enhance a setting, is essential. I love the way music is immersive without distracting attention away from writing. Eighteenth Century music and earlier, especially dance music, is with me constantly. This version of English Country Dances, or this one are good examples and you can’t go wrong with Mozart or Purcell. It’s all part of the game. What would your characters have been listening to or reading? Do they go to the theatre? What would they see?

And back to Austen, who is a touchstone: More people should be writing as she did. The Internet says so: See The Jane Austen Manifesto: How we can save the world by writing like Austen by Ian Flitcroft, from The New Statesman via Poets & Writers. The article, which I intend to print out and might very well memorize, also shares a Jane Austen thesaurus (free online) and a related Twitter feed @WritelikeAusten. You can also follow the author, my new hero, @IanFlitcroft.

Back to the coalface, inspired.


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A different kind of connection

I just got back together with Natalie Goldberg. Even though I don’t know her, she changed my life.  At some point last year, I ran out of steam on my current work in progress. (I got back to it — all good for the moment, thanks.) Still, I kept on writing almost every day, thanks to Natalie’s sensible and transcendent first book, Writing Down the Bones. Because of that book and her wisdom, even in the throes of a creative dry spell, I developed a writing practice that got me through that fallow period and that has also has stood the test of time. The practice brought me a connection to Natalie — I often addressed what I was writing directly to her — and also to myself.

She can tell it better than I can, but what she has to say kind of boils down to this:

  • Find a cheap notebook and a fast pen
  • Write every day
  • Keep your hand moving
  • Don’t edit, don’t censor yourself, just write
  • Be specific

This approach appeals to me in part because I enjoy writing longhand. I think differently when I do. Yes, I use a computer for blog posts and book drafts, which suits the purpose but is not the same. Possibly the single best piece of advice as it applies to the content of writing is Natalie’s direction to “be specific.”  For whatever reason, I’m pretty good at not editing on the first pass. The rest is more about process and process is highly personal. This is what works for me.

I went through that book at the rate of about a chapter a day. When I finished, I decided to try a different author as my writing guide.  She’s as well-known as Natalie, maybe more so, and I believe her approach and techniques have been successfully adopted by many writers. But I found out, after working through a few of these new chapters and exercises, that I could not make a connection with this other writing guru. As a result, my writing practice fell off. I regretted that and felt guilty about it. I went back to my manuscript and let my writing practice become intermittent. Then one day not long ago, I picked up another of Natalie’s books, Wild Mind, which is about the writing life as well as writing practice. Or so it seems; I’m not through it yet.

What I can say is that beginning to read the Introduction to Wild Mind felt like a homecoming. Not so much the kind where you are greeted with open arms as a long lost relative, but more the kind when you walk in your front door, slip off your tight shoes,  sink into your most comfortable chair, put your feet up, and silently shout, “Hallelujah!”

I’ll certainly explore other writing books and teachers, but I think I’ll always come back to Natalie. Thankfully, she’s given writers quite a few resources. Even if she hadn’t, I bet I could pick up Writing Down the Bones and work my way through it again one chapter at a time to find new insight, inspiration, and encouragement along the way.

It’s Natalie who speaks to me, but the list of writers and teachers sharing their gifts is long, varied, and rich. I would love to learn about your favorites in the comments.


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Into the watery world

Cape Disappointment from Long BeachThis is the week I left home with my manuscript to hide myself away and plunge into editing and revising. I had the generous loan of a cottage in Long Beach (Washington), so I loaded up a few clothes, a lot of paper and pencils, my MS in a box, some food items and my Macbook, and headed for Southwest Washington. Here’s how that trip starts — out Highway 101 and Route 8, past the Black Hills towns of McCleary and Elma, then down to Satsop and Brady. Turn left at Monte (Montesano) onto Route 107 —  not toward Cozzie (Cosmopolis) and Aberdeen. Join 101 again and turn south for North River and Artic. No, not Arctic, Artic.

I have driven this way many times before but I think never just at this moment, in the heart of springtime. The route traverses only three counties — Thurston, Grays Harbor, and Pacific — but as I always said back in those far off days when I lived and worked in and around Westport, Grayland and Tokeland, this part of Washington isn’t really part of the United States at all. It is Other. This is especially true at some nebulous point south of Raymond and South Bend, maybe around Bay Center or the three-forked Nemah River. Even before you hit South Bend, there are piles of oyster shell and no immediate signs of prosperity.  The landscape bears the scars of rapacious clear cutting. The fishing hamlets, the rivers and sloughs, the glimpses of Willapa Bay, the few cars, and the terrifying logging trucks are telling you something: Pay attention. This is different.

By the time I turn west for Long Beach Peninsula and begin to skirt the southern edge of the bay I am in the Willapa Wildlife Refuge, where my jaw drops and I begin talking to myself and threading descriptive phrases together in my head. This is a world of fir-covered hills, lingering mists, solitude, distance. Everything is green or gray. Forest and water. Hill and meandering slough. Out on the bay, broad expanses of silvery water, low hills in the distance, mysterious castle-like wooded islets just offshore. What you are seeing tugs at your heart. This is Lewis and Clark country. The Corps of Discovery saw this! Sacajawea saw this!

There is not a straight line in sight. The road curves, the leaves and branches curl and turn up. The streams and rivers and sloughs meander and play out. There are more shades of green than can possibly be named. Hemlock and Doug fir, the occasional cedar, are standing sentinel upon the hills. Pearl gray clouds hang above slate gray water. The world is water — the bay, the placid streams smooth as a plate winding through mounds of sumptuous emerald green rushes. There are mists that hover in place and mists that float away, palest gray. The local government appears to be made up of herons, gulls, ducks, geese, and crows; deer, elk, and fox are probably just out of sight. Who knows? Who named all the wetlands or backwaters, known here as sloughs (pronounced “slews”)? They are called Preachers, Greenhead, Teal, or family names like Johnson. Were all those rotting pilings once used for log rafts? It’s all part of the mystery.

I have many rivers to cross on this journey. The North, the Palix, the Nemah, Naselle, Bone, Bear, Wallicut. I know stories about some of these places from when I lived here years ago — storms that bent tree trunks above the Palix to a frightening angle and, from my personal testimony, the possible sighting of a UFO in the Nemah River estuary. In 1893, a group of brazen businessmen stole the county records from Oysterville so they could establish the county seat at South Bend, a location more to their liking.

Upon turning onto the peninsula, I encounter at last another color, the pink of cranberry bogs, along with the barest hint of civilization. No Starbucks, though. No supermarkets. No traffic jams. I have come through the watery world and now I am at the beach. My racing heart slows down. There is peace and quiet. Time and space to breathe, and to work.

IMG_5062The beach beckons from time to time, but iffy weather and dedication keep my head down for the next couple of days. A good start. Thursday, on my way back home, I drive out to Bay Center and back, looking for a spot called Rhodesia Beach. It’s on the bay, but used to be a good spot for beach combing. The old Blue Heron Inn is now called Dock of the Bay. More tiny oyster companies and giant piles of shell. Wikipedia says the population of Bay Center (a “census-designated place”) is 174.

People do physical work in this part of the world. They raise oysters or gillnet or run crab pots. Work in the woods (meaning, they are loggers.) Build things. Maybe they have to do too many things to make ends meet.  Their spirit is unbeatable, but they are often insular. You see the same family names over and over on mailboxes, businesses, and campaign signs.

The tide is high, so I give Rhodesia Beach a miss this time. I have no photos of Willapa Bay or the wildlife refuge to share with you. I was mesmerized and took a hundred shots in my head but couldn’t bring myself to stop. Oh, I want to go back!

Recommended reading:


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Only connect

If the online world sometimes seems both a blessing and a curse, this morning I know it’s a blessing because it connects me to other writers. In the real world, even. Like anything else, the more you sow the more you tend to reap. Writing comes first and reaching out does take effort, but it is SO worth it.  I’m still a little high from a terrific book event I attended yesterday evening at Third Place Books up in Lake Forest Park. The event was part of She Writes Press spring book tour and featured Kamy Wicoff, author of Wishful Thinking; Leanna Lehman, author of Vote for Remi; and Celine Keating, author of Play for Me.

It’s a bit of a haul from where I live up to Lake Forest Park and Puget Sound traffic is a bummer. Also, the weather was dark and stormy. Before I left, it hailed. Hard. And there were a million other things I could have been doing, including putting my butt in my seat and writing a few hundred more words.  But writers need to put some balance in their lives (at least I do, constantly) and they need to feel connected, because writing can be a lonely enterprise.

I was so happy to see a familiar face when I arrived — Louise from Hedgebrook, along with Bre, whom I had not yet had the pleasure of meeting. Pretty much everything Hedgebrookian brings me joy and of course there is a natural, sympathetic connection between She Writes Press and Hedgebrook. Finally meeting Kamy after reading and reviewing her book was a genuine pleasure. She, Leanna, and Celine gave delightful readings and of course I had to buy all three books. (An extra Wishful Thinking can’t hurt!) Writers are readers, too, and I imagine we all have tottering To Be Read piles, but isn’t that better than the alternative?

These warm, bright, and interesting women also know how to engage an audience!  All of  us (maybe 40 — I’m bad at estimates) introduced ourselves and shared what we were currently reading or writing. How much there is to learn this way! People were reading everything from mysteries to the sciences and writing about everything from nonfiction about serious illness to fantasy fiction. I was excited to meet the triple-threat writer, editor and instructor Lori A. May and hear about her book The Write Crowd, Literary Citizenship and the Writing Life (arriving on Friday, thanks to Amazon Prime).

Here’s to community and connection among writers. If you have suggestions for how to expand our connected universe, please do share them along with any other thoughts in the comments!


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I went camping for a whole month

Do you all know about NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month? The idea is to write a new novel of at least 50,000 words in the days from November 1 through November 30. That’s an average of about 1667 words per day. If you get ahead of schedule through diligence, inspiration, or staying up all night, you can even take Thanksgiving off. What you get out of NaNoWriMo, if you finish, is a first draft and a feeling of accomplishment — you started and you finished. Nano calls you a winner and gives you badges and certificates, which is quite nice. I’ve done that once, back in 2011, and produced the first draft of a mystery (working title: Hazard Bay), which I haven’t done much with. That’s because I’m perversely obsessed with the historical novel that’s been in my head, on scraps of paper, and committed to various electronic files over a number of years. One of these days I’ll get back to that mystery.Camp-Winner-2015-Square-Button

This year, I took my work in progress to camp — Camp NaNoWriMo, naturally. Now, Camp Nano is a little different than the big push to draft a new novel during November. You can work on whatever you like — revisions, short stories, another novel — with a word count anywhere between 10,000 and 1 million words. Camp NaNoWriMo meets in April (another 30-day month) and July.  I’ve got to hand it to these folks, the whole scheme is very well thought out. For Camp, you can join a virtual cabin to interact with fellow writers, either with people you know or by asking to be assigned. And a count of at least 10K means you are serious, right? My cabin had a couple of others in it, but because life tends to get in the way, I ended up pretty much on my own. I understood, and I felt their presence anyway. I also met some swell people on Twitter.

Going to camp worked well for me because I love external encouragement and accountability. I signed up for the modest 10,000 word minimum goal so I could build on a renewed commitment to writing every weekday. And I wanted to give myself every chance of success. Just about the first thing every morning on weekdays, I wrote 500 words or so and updated my word count. I only missed three of those days and one of them was because I was sick (turned out to be nothing). I hit 10K on April 29.

While at Camp, I was working on what I have come to call the “dreaded middle section” (once upon a time the “dreaded final section”) of my novel in progress. I had already written a detailed outline for that part of the MS, but needed to get it fleshed out so that I could stitch the entire thing together and start polishing. And guess what? I am about one day’s work away from finishing up that section. Very soon, I’ll be able to see the shape of the whole, which is such an exciting prospect. In addition, I have learned that writing 500 words first thing in the morning is very doable and has a big pay off. I intend to stick to that practice.

Thanks to Camp NaNoWriMo, its comfy cabins and all of the encouragement, I had a great time at camp. I can’t make it in July this year, but maybe you can. Highly recommended.


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What’s up with that blue chair?

“Reading, writing, and thinking aloud from the house with the blue chair in front. Sometimes I sit in the chair.”

wisteriaIt’s early spring here in the Pacific Northwest and the weather is . . . changeable. Yesterday, which was Easter Sunday, I put the blue chair back in its accustomed place underneath wisteria blossoms that have yet to unfurl.

I write in earnest now. I think of myself as a writer. A part of me wishes so much that I had headed down this road sooner, my earthly goods tied in a bandana and suspended from the end of a stick. I would have set off whistling (except I can’t whistle) and never looked back. The novel that’s been in my head for all these years — I’d have leaned into it and at least had a manuscript by now.  I’d have been engaged in a writing practice that was meaningful and fulfilling, writing essays at least to myself. Perhaps I would have tackled memoir. I would certainly have had more time to read — classics, junk, the latest, whatever I wanted. Instead, I have most of a first draft, written over a ridiculous amount of time. But I do have that and I’m working consistently to move forward with it, too.

I’m taking myself as I am. I am sitting in the blue chair in my tiny front yard. I’m there almost every day if the weather allows, just as I was last summer. It’s comfortable, it’s symbolic, and I love the view along my curved sidewalk and over the bronzy-red Japanese maple to the tall hemlock spruce trees beyond. It’s a sheltered spot. I can daydream there, and I do, looking up at the clouds, and the tree tops, and the blue sky. Eventually, I will turn to the book I’m reading, or to my notebook, grateful to have this spot that grounds me. This year, when fall comes and the days are shorter, cold and damp, I will miss my spring and summer days in the blue chair, but what it gives me, a specific place in which to read, write and think, will linger on.