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hope! it's our j.o.b.
Barbara Kingsolver has something to say about responsibility, + the joy of haircut pictures, + potatoes!
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The world reminded us (again) these past weeks that everything is tenuous. People in Gaza and Israel are suffering. The way I choose to help is by donating to World Central Kitchen whose mission is to feed humans in times of trauma. Wishing you all peace, good company, and comforting meals.
Now, a confession. I read two-thirds of DEMON COPPERHEAD, Barbara Kingsolver’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel which is an homage to both her Appalachian home, and to Charles Dickens’s DAVID COPPERFIELD. I put it down because I knew what was coming, opioid addiction, and more pain, sorrow, loss. Forgive me, but I didn’t have it in me to continue.
Last week I went to hear her in conversation with the (also terrific) writer, Jess Walter. I’ve changed my mind. I’m going back in. Kingsolver spoke of many things. I’ve got some of them in the reading section below (+ an invitation to YOU!). But what I want to share here is her response to Walter’s question. Are you hopeful?
“I’m hopeful because you have to be. We cannot give up. We must work at it. Hopeful is something you do. It’s your job.”
Which got me to think about where I witness hope in action. I think people are super hopeful when they volunteer, when they vote, when they donate. If we didn’t have hope for change we wouldn’t participate. But what about tiny, everyday gestures that show and inspire hope for a tighter community? Let someone ahead of you in line, pick up trash, check in with a neighbor, say something kind, go ahead, leave a big tip.
Okay, stick with me, what about the gesture of posting a picture of a new haircut? Don’t you agree that shows hope for, at the very least a good day? We love to show our shiny faces, our sleek coifs, our spiffy selves after we’ve left the groomer/stylist. We’ve been made new! Ready to face the world and do our best! A quick peek at #newhaircut has 2.7 million posts on instagram. (Full disclosure, I’ve contributed.)
Kingsolver tells us it is our job to move through the world as hope-in-action. Obviously that means be outraged, and work to make change where you can. It means be generous in spirit and with aid, where you can. It also means, show your hope, show your haircut, the best pie you ever made, your new pet.
Shoot me a picture of your #newhaircut! I could use the hope boost!
Kingsolver and Walters talked about many things. How and why she was inspired to write the novel. The hardships and concerns she felt she needed to expose. The daunting task of writing about injustice. Her crie de couer. The internalized shame which makes it hard for people in her part of the world (and everywhere) to tell their stories.
“The worst part of writing is the first draft,” she said.
And then, she shared about how she made it through.
Dickens’s ghost giving her guidance.
How to go into dark places without losing the reader.
The anguish of putting your characters through hell.
How novels erase otherness.
Finally, she noted the magical power of the novel. When we lift one up off of our bedside tables, we are setting our life down and picking up the life of the characters. Novels help us make sense of our lives by showing us how these other people make it through their messy, painful, big, and beautiful lives.
If you are one of the ten people left who haven’t read the book, and you’d like to participate in a read-along with me, let’s do it! Let’s read DEMON COPPERHEAD together and talk about it. Reply below to let me know. Starting in mid-November we’ll give ourselves six weeks as it’s a busy time of year. I propose we meet over zoom two times, breaking the book into sections. Honestly, I was so inspired by the conversation and by what Kingsolver did with the cash-money Demon brought to her! Hope-in-action for certain. I can’t wait to share conversations with you. (Free of course!)
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I just finished up a six week improv class and OMG! It was so much fun to go play with other people for a couple hours on a Sunday afternoon. Please know I have zero interest in performing, only in the play. And, value add? I learned a ton that is relevant to writing.
Be open to what your scene partner brings. (Remember that when you’re writing. You are your own scene partner! Pay attention to your writerly instincts. Trust that you may be on to something even if it takes a minute to get there.)
Enlarge! If the scene partner says it’s raining, then damn well believe them! It’s raining and we have no shelter. It’s raining and I’m wearing clothes that dissolve in water! (In writing this means build the tension, expand.)
Solving a fake problem, like looking for an imaginary wrench to fix an imaginary tire, is boring! Don’t make the audience watch. The interest lies in the characters’ relationships. (Obvi for writing too.)
Causation is essential. If Thing One is true, what else is true? Build from what you have already brought to the scene. Compound the story. (If the waffles are burnt, then mom must be preoccupied, dad is gone, divorce in the offing? You get it. Use the gestures, the actions to build more, go further/farther—I get those two mixed up.)
Proprioception is essential. Notice how your body, your scene partner’s body moves through the space. (Same with your characters on the page.)
Use strong, specific details to build the scenes. (Enough said.)
Maintain an attitude of fanning the flame! Find the fun. (This just makes everything better!)
Listen well to your scene partner. (Your characters should do this as well. Though sometimes they may choose not to hear each other.)
Use objects! Use props. Give them to your characters. (Enough said.)
Play with all that is available. Voice. Emotion. Physicality. Space. (Enough said.)
Environments bring expectations. In a library we behave one way. In a mosh pit we behave differently. Play with that. Push against it. (Make your character head bang in the children’s section! This could be great to push tension into your writing, no?)
Here’s a prompt:
This is from a movement exercise/game we did in class. The teacher said, “The world is a place where _________________.” And, depending upon the second half of the sentence, we moved around the space through that lens, creating our reality through our expectations.
For example, “The world is a place where people are kind to me.” How would a person who felt that way view the world? How would they move? What expression would show up on their face, what gestures?
Now try, “The world is a place where you have to fight to get your due.” How does this character move, see, think, act? (This brings to mind a fantastic short story by John Cheever, “Goodbye, My Brother.” Seek it out. Please.) Try this exercise with your characters. How do they see the world? How would they finish the sentence? What are the consequences of their belief?
News from my teaching world!
You can find out more about the Grub St. class and sign up here.
Also, I’m cooking up a 2024 writing reset in early January. For Portland people, I will be offering an in-person one-day GENERATIVE WRITING HAVEN. Think of it as a day spa to get your writing back on track after the distraction of the holidays. Stay tuned for more information. And again, you can let me know if you’re interested. It will be a small group.
Curry & Honey Roasted Potatoes (Enough said, right?)
1 lb new or fingerling potatoes, cut into 1-2” cubes
2 T +/- olive oil
2 T butter
2 T honey
1 T curry powder
1 T chili crunch (I like this brand)
1/4 c chopped flat leaf parsley
2-3 T plain yogurt
Lemon juice to taste
Toss the potatoes with oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast at 400 degrees, on a sheet pan lined with parchment for about 25-35 minutes. Check to see that they are tender and have a slight crispiness and browning on the outside.
Meanwhile, in a small pan, melt butter and honey together over medium heat. Add the curry and chili crunch. Taste to determine if you’d like it hotter. Make it zingy! Off heat.
When the potatoes are cooked to your liking, remove from oven. Pour the glaze over them and toss. Pop back in the oven for about 3-4 minutes more.
Scoop them in to a bowl. Add yogurt and parsley. Squeeze on a bit of lemon and serve. I made these last weekend and we ate them so fast I failed to get a photo. Just saying, perhaps a great addition to your Thanksgiving table!
Stanley! Working the Autumn thing, and clearly in need of a haircut!
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Remember to tell your people you love them, and take good care of your skin.