Saturday, December 18, 2010

Revelations on a Tucson Saturday afternoon

Patio doors wide open today and the winter sun past its midpoint. The Gila Woodpeckers making a racket in the skinny palmtops just outside my 7th floor balcony, downtown. I should slide the screens shut on the patio doors--a fly has been harassing me--but I love too much the feeling of being outside. Traffic on I-10 whispers along, whooshing white noise.

Day before yesterday I closed the doors against the wind and rain, a blustery storm front having blown in from someplace. I was sitting at my desk and suddenly there was a red tailed hawk on my balcony railing, rusty tailfeathers backlit, astonishing wingspan.

My balcony is five feet wide. My narrow desk is pushed up directly to the the window. The hawk is eight feet from my face. He stares at me. I dare not move, not even to close my mouth. He tucks in his wings. He settles warily. For two minutes, a standoff. During which I convince myself he's not looking through the plate glass. The light must be such that he cannot see inside. This bird of prey attuned to the movement of a mouse from fifty feet above cannot see the wide blinking eyes of the awestruck human a wingbeat away. He shifts, he settles further, he seems to be looking directly at me still. Finally he turns away his gaze, rotates his head like an owl (they can do this?? I had no idea...) to check out the cityscape below him, and swivels his head back to look in the window some more.

Then he turns his back to me. He shifts his big yellow talons and he's looking at my view, the Arizona State Building and its parking garage in the foreground and beyond that the Federal Courthouse, the Greyhound Station, the interstate, the Santa Ritas in the distance and of course the huge open cloudy sky and the misty rain coming down.

Gingerly I go for the camera, moving in tiny increments when I believe he's not looking. Soon I realize he doesn't react when I stand up, move about the apartment, take pictures and even video from both windows, nor when I just sit there and watch him.

He stayed for 30 minutes. He finally left when I could not stand it anymore and human that I am, I pushed the boundary. I opened the patio door to poke my camera outside. He saw me, tolerated my presence on the balcony for a minute or so, and then he leaned forward and was gone.

Today on this beautiful Tucson Saturday I sit before my novel manuscript and consider what a reader told me about his first impressions of Virginia: that she didn't seem happy. It's true, Virginia is grumpy. She isn't, of course, grumpy throughout the whole novel. I know her as a fuller, more complicated character, but at this point the reader doesn't. Thank you to this particular reader, who happens to be affiliated with my favorite downtown pizza joint, for reminding me. And in turn for challenging me to think about Virginia's happiness. What brings her joy, anyway? Unlike Theo and Charlie, she doesn't have a passion. Theo is passionate about urban planning and Charlie is an artist.

I remind myself that we must give our characters' joys as much weight as their woes, otherwise the joys aren't joyful and the woes aren't woeful.

This realization collides with another: that all along I've been trying to get to a way to bring the desert more fully into the story. I keep thinking I've got to send Theo on some hikes other than those he takes up Tumamoc Hill. But for some reason I've resisted writing those scenes and I don't know why, exactly.

Today, a revelation. It's Virginia I need to send out into the desert. The desert is Virginia's passion. I didn't see it before because I've put her into a different mold. But she's offended by what's happening to Tucson ultimately because she sees what's been lost. She's been here all her life and she remembers. She's angry because she loves the desert. I've shown the anger, now I've got to show the love.

Because, really: that's the what's-at-stake of the novel, isn't it? The landscape, and the city we've put inside it. The conflict isn't anything new. It's humans versus nature, that uneasy relationship, that accommodation, that Red-Tailed Hawk who visits your urban balcony to say hey, Shannon: Don't forget about the desert.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Notes on a Work in Progress: A Huge Gaping Hole

You can write and write and write. The same scene, in fact, over and over. You can stare at the sentences, you can ponder the subtext, you can worry over the dialogue. You can practice reading it out loud in your living room. You can sit in the chairs at the council meeting as you wait your turn and tinker with the prose, adding a comma and then taking it out again.

And then you're at the podium and you realize there's a hole in the narrative. The part where Charlie is in her car, wondering why that woman from the fiction stacks has been spying on her? The part where she says hm, how odd and then just changes the subject so abruptly, without so much as a whisper of transition? That's the hole. That's the huge gaping hole that's crying out for a paragraph--even a few damn sentences--of physical description. What does Virginia look like, through Charlie's eyes? This is the moment, the only moment, where such a description would be possible (critical!), and for three years I've been skimming right over it. Missing the opportunity.

The act of revision means to see again, to see anew, to re-see. Reading the novel aloud to the people of Tucson has changed my relationship to the novel, just as writing it has changed my relationship to the city. I'm seeing them each differently now, holes and all.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Got the Grant! Didn't get to Speak!

Got the call from the Goddard Got Art people yesterday: I'm among the five recipients of a $1,000 grant to use my art to help elect Terry Goddard.

The inspiration for starting this oral serialization project was moral outrage over SB 1070, and now I get to use my art to help get Jan Brewer the hell outta office. How perfect is this collaboration? I'm totally stoked.

So yesterday I show up at the council chambers with my novel excerpt and my excitement, ready to jump back in after my summer hiatus, read the next excerpt, and make my elect-Goddard statement.

Agenda Item Number Six: Call to the Audience. A guy from the Teamsters speaks, then a woman from Access Tucson, and then another, and another, and before long it becomes clear that the mayor is not going to call my name.

I've been expecting this to happen. Sometimes the place is just full of people with something to say.

There were other things going on. Like budget cuts. In these moments--when the council chambers are packed with citizens with an opinion to voice about their bus service or their public access television--I question my project. Who am I to take three minutes of participatory democracy from a person whose story isn't even close to fictional?

But then: a rant from a guy who sounds like your grandfather on Thanksgiving after a several shots of Irish whisky. Stop spending so damn much money! Thanks, Grandpa, for your nuanced and insightful perspective on how to deal with the city's $51 million budget shortfall. Artistic/moral crisis averted: I now feel fully entitled to my three minutes.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Open Grant Proposal

Today I applied for a grant. In my life as an artist and activist and nonprofit administrator and fundraising consultant, I've applied for about four thousand grants. But never have I made my application public. I'm just so damn excited about this one, and whether or not I'm one of the five winners, I think the Goddard's Got Art project is brilliant. Creative thinking in politics: bravo.


TUCSON—The political committee, Goddard’s Got Art!, has been launched in Tucson this week to engage the arts community and the community as a whole to elect Terry Goddard the next Governor of Arizona.  The independent expenditure committee has created a competitive $5000 fund for the creation and production of new works of art by Arizona artists. The works are to be commissioned and will be premiered at an event in Tucson, AZ in October 2010.  Five artists will be granted $1,000 each for a political work of art that celebrates, motivates and excites the electorate with the purpose of electing Terry Goddard to the office of Governor of Arizona. 

Tucson, the Novel: 
An Experiment in Literature and Civil Discourse
A proposal to the Goddard's Got Art Committee
Shannon Cain, September 1, 2010
The vision.
It began with SB 1070. I thought, goddammit, for three years I’ve been writing a novel about this place, a novel that ultimately presents a vision for the kind of Arizona city, the kind of American city I’d like to live in, a place where the arts are valued, the environment is protected, civil rights are defended and the relationship between social justice and economic prosperity is understood. And then here comes SB 1070, as if to assert that my vision isn’t possible for this state. And indeed if it isn’t possible for Arizona than it isn't possible for America.

Artistically, this was a bummer. Morally it was an outrage. I sat at my desk, gazing across my balcony at the State of Arizona Building, whose wavy brick and mirrored glass began to exude a certain funhouse effect. This sort of shit ignites the literary activist in me. I sat there, looking out over the city I’ve been writing about. All this business about denying civil rights, all this business about banning ethnic studies? That’s not the city I know, not the city I’ve lived in for 30 years, not the city where I’ve raised my child and worked a hundred different jobs and grew up and got married and divorced and married and divorced again and drove the boulevards and hiked the canyons and experienced joy and betrayal and hope and fury and love. I know this place, and all that racist fearmongering is not who we are. Maybe that’s Arizona, but it’s not Tucson.

So I’ll just share my vision, I decided. I’ll read my novel to the city. My readings will spark conversations about civil rights, and democracy, and land use and water and immigration, all the concerns at work in the story. I’ll do it in a venue that doesn’t cost anything, and that reaches decisionmakers, and that has a huge audience. Like, thirty thousand people a week. I’ll give it an X-treme element, the kind of thing that calls attention to itself for its ridiculous height, or weight, or duration. An act of literary flagpole-sitting.

The project.
A novel-in-progress called Tucson, serialized as three-minute oral testimonies to the Tucson City Council. Readings at Call to the Audience every Tuesday for roughly six years or until the manuscript is published, whichever comes first. A companion blog for audience participation and civil discourse.

How the project will encourage the electorate to vote for Terry Goddard.
1.     During my three-minute literary presentation at Call to the Audience at the nine Regular City Council meetings between September 8 and Election Day 2010, I will speak for 20 seconds on the importance of electing Terry Goddard as Governor of Arizona. The content of these messages—which could change from week to week—will be developed in collaboration with the Goddard's Got Art committee.
(Mayor and Council meetings are televised on Channel 12. According to the folks on staff, the station reaches 200,000 households in Tucson, unincorporated Pima County, Green Valley, Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita, on both Cox and Comcast. The most recent breakdown figures they had were from 2007, but at that time the mayor and council meetings had 30,000 viewers per week.)

2.     Each week, my blog entry will include the Goddard for Governor message as well as a graphic that links to the campaign website.

3.     I will announce new blog entries on Facebook (651 friends) and will finally get my Twitter act together.

4.     I will be available for any public events the Committee is planning. This might include reading particularly appropriate excerpts from the novel, speaking about the arts and social change, and/or leading socially-inspired creative writing exercises or workshops.

5.     In addition to my own twice-weekly blog posts, I will invite guest bloggers and/or interview members of the Goddard's Got Art committee, and will welcome other creative ideas the committee might have.

I should acknowledge that this project revolves around an existing novel manuscript that the committee might not consider a “new work of art.” Yet as a work-in-progress, the novel is in a continual state of renewal and change. New writing will occur based on the experience of performing this serialization. New blog entries will be written as well. And the reading component of the project offers, each week, a new performance.

The budget.
Aside from some video editing software I’d like to buy so I can embed video of my weekly three minutes on the blog instead of naively linking viewers to the Channel 12 website and directing them to “forward to 14:45,” the only project expenses are for basic living. Rent, for example: 720 bucks a month at [an undisclosed location]. One bedroom, 7th floor, southfacing. Killer view of downtown and the monsoon thunderheads. At night the freeway is an electric river humming past my window. The project will require about 15 percent of my time for 9 weeks, so $972, prorated. Also groceries: dark chocolate covered edamames from Trader Joe’s ($1.99) and meals, specifically the Cast Iron Baked Eggs from The Cup Café—with cubed ham, leeks and gruyere cheese baked in fresh cream with fine herbs—(a couple of Sunday brunches at $9 each, plus tip & tax: $24). Add that video editing software ($50, more or less), and the total comes to $1,047.99. But I’ll round it down to an even grand.

There are no safety concerns, no space or insurance needs. The beauty of this project lies in its simplicity, and in its use of existing infrastructure and systems. 

Some civil discourse questions to be explored on the blog.
·      What is the relationship between art and politics? Art and commerce? Art and economic development?
·      How does my acceptance of sponsorship money from the Goddard's Got Art committee effect the perception of this project?
·      How would that perception change if the sponsor were a local business instead of a politician?
·      How does the acceptance of sponsorship money effect the novel itself? How slippery is this slope? (What’s next, product placement?)

The politics of this art.
The novel’s subject matter is controversial. It calls into question the status quo. I figure I might as well make this clear upfront, and also say that sponsorship of a work of art does not equal the condoning of its content. When City Council Member Regina Romero made me Artist in Residence for Ward I, she did not ask to read my manuscript in advance, nor did I offer it.

Still, I would be happy (and frankly relieved) to work with the Got Art committee on a disclaimer that makes this clear. In addition to the disclaimer, maybe the statement could say something about the role of the artist in a civil society. And something else on the direct correlation between the arts and a healthy economy. Some stuff about a measure of the health of a community being the vibrancy of its art and literature. Maybe a few words about the reliance of a functioning democracy upon an electorate that values independent ideas.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hi all,

The City Council is on hiatus, and so am I. Will return in September. Meanwhile, this from Artists Against SB 1070: a  Week of Solidarity against the anti-immigrant attacks in Arizona.  Please get involved! Click here for a list of events

Friday, July 9, 2010

Reading #3

Virginia leaves the armchair and enters the fiction stacks, trying to pretend she feels better. But the book titles are wavering on their spines, just a little bit. When she was a kid there was a Food Giant in this space. Her mother used to send her here for milk and eggs. Virginia would stand before the open refrigerator case, letting the air wash over her hot skin.

She gazes wearily at the books. She turns the corner into the next nook and becomes caught in a symbiotic browsing pattern with another customer. Together they make their way through the early alphabet, then the middle. The stranger moves to the next nook, and Virginia follows. The woman’s hair is pulled into a rubber band, a fringe of wisps curling at the back of her neck. She pulls a Kingsolver novel from the shelf and examines the back cover. Virginia wants to tell her it’s a good one, she should read it, but then she doesn’t. The woman carries one of the mesh shoulder bags provided by the store. Inside are cardboard infant books. Runaway Bunny, Goodnight Moon. Stories Virginia read to her daughter, Gretchen, years and years ago.

The woman returns the novel to the shelf—too bad, Virginia thinks—and with her high reach exposes a tiny belly-button ring and silvery remains of stretch marks on her abdomen. Virginia glances sideways at her face. Strong-featured, with a wide forehead and high cheekbones and full lips and a pointed chin, she’s beautiful in the way of those women who don't wear makeup. When they reach the end of the alphabet the woman gives her a little smile of farewell and wanders away. She looked like the sort of person Virginia might befriend. A person more interesting than a place like Tucson.

The movie starts in ten minutes. Going to the theater in the middle of the day is part of an effort toward marital rejuvenation. Virginia isn’t entirely on board with the philosophy that more time together is just the thing for a floundering marriage, but they’re in couples counseling and it’s bad form to resist. Their therapist has the creative spirit of a stripmall architect. She characterizes their marital crisis as a case of the doldrums, and cheerily prescribes matinees as a means to kick up a little breeze, to set the sails fluttering again. They’ve been in therapy for six months, every Wednesday, yet their situation feels less like a temporary stillness than it does a permanent dead calm.

As Virginia moves toward the exit she spots Theo, standing in the magazine section. He’s smiling into the eyes of the belly-ringed woman with the baby books. They stand a few inches too close, as if they’ve just hugged. On his face is an expression of delight and discomfort. He knows this person. And she, it is clear, knows him.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

A Roomful of Teamsters.

Agitated Teamsters, acutally. Last night's council meeting is packed with them. Spilling out into the foyer, the crowd out there so noisy their conversation breaks in distracting waves over the council chambers each time the door opens. Which it keeps doing.

And me in my summer dress and white sandals and pale skin (alabaster, let's call it, ok?) in the front row, flanked by serious-looking men. Big ones. I'm the girly pastel center of a Teamster sandwich. The place is mobbed. Three news cameras on tripods are set up inches from my feet, their operators standing over me, aiming their lenses as the podium in anticipation of newsworthy Teamster action.

I'm hoping for a little peace, some calm, and to get a bit of beauty into my head before it's my turn to speak. So I've opened a collection of stories by Paul Yoon. The title story, "Once the Shore," is doing the job nicely.

I always get nervous beforehand. All over again, I doubt myself and this project. The Teamsters--the union representing our local bus drivers--are here over their contract negotiation and a possible strike, a reason is far less frivolous than mine, this weird flight of hubris I'm calling performance art.

The mayor adjusts the agenda to allow the Teamsters to speak earlier in the meeting. A nice courtesy, considering these people need to get home to their families. Still, I'll be speaking before they do. I'll be reading the scene in which Charlie, the object of my married couple's love triangle, appears for the first time. It's a scene in which the two of them perform a metaphorical introductory dance together in the fiction stacks at Bookman's. It's meant to foreshadow the emotional intertwining to come. It's sort of subtle.

Out of context, my project is puzzling. Up at the podium, it's hard to ignore the bubble of confusion at my back. I read the scene over the waves of conversation from the lobby, which have now spilled into the room itself. The Teamsters are talking amongst themselves. I finish, thank the council, turn away from the podium and get booed.

There's applause, a little bit, I think...but I don't hear it. All I hear is that boo. Just one guy, somewhere in the back of the room. For the record, I don't think boo came from a Teamster. I think it came from one of the council meeting audience regulars. It was an anemic boo. Tentative, a little tired. When a Teamster is booing you, you know it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reading #2

Here in the air-conditioned bookstore, the nausea begins to recede. Virginia has endured this year’s hundred-degree May and hundred-degree June, and now the first week of July brings more of the same. Next will come another hundred-degree August and hundred-degree September. Yesterday at the office she blew an hour clicking wistfully through online real estate listings in the Pacific Northwest, where the sun has the decency to leave a person alone. 
She’s a fundraising consultant, specializing in multimillion-dollar capital campaigns for universities and hospitals, but these days she struggles to keep her tiny firm afloat. In this economy, nobody wants to build a new wing. In January she laid off two of her three employees, and yesterday her accountant said she has four weeks’ operating revenue left. The mortgage on their house is thirty days past due.

Head throbbing, she watches traffic through the front windows of the store. For as long as she can remember, the idiots in charge of Tucson have been letting it grow in the least attractive way possible. In 1972, LIFE Magazine named Speedway Boulevard the Ugliest Street in America. Eventually the city fathers planted trees in the medians and passed a sign ordinance, but on Speedway as everywhere else, low-slung stripmalls line the wide boulevards, as do massive parking lots and billboards that block the mountains.

She’d rather be sitting in a café in a truly interesting city, watching a weird diversity of people pass by. She’d rather be stumbling upon a troupe of street performers doing oddball dance maneuvers in a city plaza. She wants to wander down avenues lined with funky gift shops and gelato parlors and used bookstores crammed with dusty merchandise. She wants to puzzle over mysterious public sculpture, consume a designer martini in a boutique hotel lobby bar. She wants a district where art galleries line the blocks like storefronts of creativity. She wants urban schoolyards full of screeching happy children and she wants to ride modern mass transit to work and she wants civil rights activists blocking intersections and she wants lecture series featuring important global thinkers and she wants hip friends with tiny apartments over Cuban-Japanese fusion restaurants and she wants experimental jazz ensembles in the concert halls. She’s been waiting a lifetime for Tucson to deliver her these things, and she hates it for letting her down.  

To watch the video of this reading, click here and forward to 14:45.

Process Note: Something about the Pace

Whatever success I might have as a teacher is based almost entirely on repeating little bits of wisdom I've heard from other writers. On the question of pacing, I use my former teacher Jim Shepard's advice: we must make sure not to let any more than, say, two manuscript pages go by without letting something happen. Something like advancing the plot or revealing character.  This is the pace the reader demands.

There is nothing like serialization to bring this premise into shocking focus. As I chop this story into 3-minute, 500 word increments--which by the way translates almost exactly to two manuscript pages--I've got to make sure each week that something happens. Sounds ridiculously simple, but isn't that just how it goes with the best ideas.

But what do I mean by "something?" Luckily for me, "something" is generously vague. Wide open for interpretation.

Yet I also found myself recently repeating to a student a bit of wisdom I picked up who knows where: beware of the word "something." For example: In that moment, she felt something like loyalty for him. I've written countless awful sentences like this, in which a character feels "something like" an emotion, as if such vague nonsense made my sentences more oblique and therefore more literary.  But this won't do. We're writers; we trade in the specific.  If it's "something like" loyalty my character is feeling, it's not exactly loyalty, is it? If it's something else, then what is it, precisely? It's our job to know, and to describe it.

So, what do I mean by "something?" Plotwise, that's easy: a character acts, or an external force imposes itself, or someone makes a decision. Character development wise, "something" is also fairly clear: we might learn about a fear, or a desire, or a habit, or a memory. But what about description? Is description "something?" Can I spend two pages in rumination about the ugliness of Speedway Boulevard, or the ways in which Tucson fails to be an interesting city? I'm deciding that yes, I can...because that description comes through a close narrative stance and is filtered, heavily, in this case, through the character's desires. And with an attitude that illustrates her bitterness and disappointment. Description reveals character. That's the idea, at least.

But will I be able to keep this up? It's a lot of something. I welcome all ideas on the definition of something, not to mention how to make it happen every three minutes.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Reading #1

Chapter One

The rainclouds have bypassed Tucson again. They’ve released their blessed contents not on the hot city center but instead on the subdivisions, the stick-and-stucco tickytack. When Virginia Walker was a kid there’d be a monsoon every July afternoon at four o’clock. Now they don’t come until dinnertime, or in the middle of the night.

Here at the beginning of a new century, when she’s supposed to be filled with Hope, she stands nauseated on the hot sidewalk outside Bookman’s and watches another cool dark storm in the distance as it relieves the undeserving morons who settled in the sprawl: the transplants who warm the asphalt and the atmosphere itself with their cars, who create a shimmering island of rising heat that misdirects the storms, that changes the weather itself.

It’s the Fourth of July, 2009. Virginia’s heat allergy is acting up. She pauses queasily at the cement trash barrel outside the front door of the bookstore. Its metal opening is dotted with glistening gobs of chewing gum. On more than one hot afternoon, she’s lost her lunch into this garbage can. At six years old, her mother holding back her hair; at 17, a rum-spiked slushie from eegees exacerbating the heat nausea; and again at 29, caught by the shock of morning sickness as she came out of Walgreen’s with a home pregnancy test in a plastic bag. Now 45, she leans over the can, just in case. The woman who sells tamales out of a grocery cart lays a firm hand on her back. “It’s okay, mi’ja,” she says.

Virginia smiles to ward off the kindness of this stranger. It’s 107 degrees out here. As a kid at play in the baked backyard of whichever low-rent house the family was occupying, these summertime attacks would send her mother dashing to the kitchen for a baggie of ice, which she’d apply to the top of Virginia’s head. Her mother would fill a kiddie pool and the two of them would sit in the shade, dumping plastic cupsful of water over one another’s heads.

Virginia heads inside the store and lowers herself into a tattered reading armchair. She’s come to meet her husband, Theo, for a Saturday afternoon matinee at the Catalina Theater next door, but she’s arrived too early. She parked at the wrong edge of the lot and trudged through the heat under the white sky without her sunglasses. The glare off windshields sparked her headache, a warning she should have known better than to ignore.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Literature and Civil Discourse: Words Saving Lives

The postcard said:

I have lived in San Francisco since I was young. I am illegal. I am not wanted here. I don't belong anywhere. This summer I plan to jump off the Golden Gate.

And here's the response of a loving civil society. This video is a beautiful way to spend the next 4 minutes of your life.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The One I Feed: Civil Discourse and the Individual

Civil discourse does not mean a conversation in which people are nice to one another. Niceness is nice, but it's not going to bring us to a new understanding. Where there is no argument, there is no civil discourse. To engage in this form of participatory democracy, one must bring an earnest desire to learn from divergent viewpoints. To shut up for just a minute and listen. To resist the urge to formulate a rebuttal even as the other person is still speaking.

Our system of democracy as it was envisioned by the framers of the constitution depends upon a certain kind of talk: lively, honorable, respectful, deliberate debate and disagreement. Yet in this country at this moment, political disagreement comes to us in the form of talk radio shock jocks, town hall screaming matches, and hate speech. This kind of rhetoric compromises the ability of citizens to engage in critical conversation required for a functioning democracy.

Civil discourse thrives when we operate with a healthy sense of self and a strong moral center, by which I mean (among other things) a fundamental respect for others. So here's where literature enters the equation. Literature is nothing but storytelling, and the primary function of storytelling is to help us define our moral center.

A story from folklore:
A tribal elder told his grandson about a battle the old man was waging within himself. He said, My son, it is between two wolves. One is an evil wolf: anger, envy, sorrow, greed, self-pity, guilt, resentment, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is the good wolf: joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.
The boy took this in for a few minutes and then asked, Which wolf won? His grandfather answered: The one I feed.

With gratitude to Bill Moyers Journal "Rage on the Radio"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Racy & Wild & Political

Video now available of Councilmember Romero's introduction of the project: "I hear it's a racy and wild and political novel and will make our meetings much more entertaining."

I'm in conversation with Channel 12 to make the 3-minute video serializations available here; until those tech issues are worked out, here's a link to their website. Forward the video to 14:45 to see the councilmember's introduction.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Self-Centered Jackass

Nice mention this morning in the Arizona Daily Star.  Someone had fun with this headline.

In response, a certain Roy O. has this to say:
The author is a publicity hound, nothing more. She is wasting the council's time (as if they don't waste enough on their own) and stalling the meeting process. What a self-centered jackass!
Knee-jerk negativity notwithstanding--the Star's comments page is a haven for chronic malcontents--Roy's got a point. The hubris required to a) dream up this idea and b) execute it is sort of astonishing. I mean, why should I think that anyone cares?  I've got to accept, in fact, that maybe nobody does care. And to keep going back every Tuesday despite knowing that guys like Roy are yelling at their TV sets when I come on Channel 12.

But I'll betcha he digs the sex scenes. Stay tuned, Roy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dancing Crazily for the Man

At this afternoon's council meeting, Councilmember Regina Romero named me Artist-in-Residence for the Ward One City Council Office. Yikes, sounds official and governmental. How am I supposed to be a literary activist when I have the blessing of The Man?

Happily, Councilmember Romero ain't the man. She's got wisdom and foresight, not to mention cojones: she hasn't read the manuscript. She didn't ask and I didn't offer. All she knows is that it's political and "racy" and controversial. She gives her support to the project and hands me a fancy-sounding title under the simple conviction that the artist deserves the freedom to make her art in the public sphere.

Coincidentally, tonight's meeting featured two other artists, both performing on behalf of TPAC's Arts Advocacy Network. It was great to have members of my tribe in the room tonight.

So, I did it. I read my Artist's Statement and launched the project. The line about the thing taking six years got a big laugh. As I suppose it should, because this idea is crazy. But half the people testifying at Call to the Audience are certifiable. There's that crazy hater Joe Sweeney; there's the sweet and befuddled crazy homeless guy who rambles nonsensically except for tiny moments of breathtaking clarity and intelligence; there's the self-appointed crazy preacher dude with a wig made of soda can tabs who talks about peace and love; and then there's me, the chick who's spending the next six years reading her novel three minutes at a time. Maybe I've found another tribe. 

I'm grateful for all the "liking" and "following" going on around here already. Thanks, everybody.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Artist's Statement and Introduction

Call to the Audience Testimony
Tucson City Council Regular Session
June 8, 2010

I am a fiction writer. For the past four years I’ve been working on a novel about Tucson. It is a story of love and politics, of the landscape and its people, of marriage and family and of America at the turn of the 21st century.

I am here today to introduce the production of a new piece of performance art. The project is called Tucson, the Novel: An Experiment in Literature and Civil Discourse. The project is intended as a statement about art and community, and as a demonstration of the potential for literature as a tool for civic engagement. And it will use as its stage this podium, these meetings, that TV camera and this system of democracy. 

Beginning next Tuesday, my project will be to serialize my unpublished novel in progress, three minutes at a time, by reading the entire manuscript here at Call to the Audience. 

A guest reader or I will read at every regular council meeting until we reach the final page, or until the book is published.  Whichever comes first. Let’s hope for the latter, because the novel is just over one hundred thousand words in length; in 3 minutes I can read 500 words. So reading it in its entirety will take six years, more or less.

This project is literary activism.  The story I will tell at this podium each week describes that which is wonderful and that which is awful about this city. How we're doing it well and how we're screwing it up. How the individual is responsible for the world in which she lives. This project is my response to the shame that Arizona has recently brought upon itself through its state-sanctioned racism, and it is a rebuttal to those values. It is a reminder that here we don't live in Arizona; here we live in Tucson.

In its truest sense, the word “publish” means “to make public.” This project, then, is an act of grassroots publishing. It is a direct delivery of the product from its creator to its consumers. It is a call to my audience.

My novel is still a work in progress. One important goal of this project is to observe the impact on my revision process of reading it aloud to the city I wrote it for and about. I will document the project and invite artistic and civil discourse at

Tucson is my hometown. My family moved here in 1979, and that fall I began my freshman year at Santa Rita High School. I have been both a student and a faculty member at the University of Arizona. My first creative writing teacher was Edward Abbey. My second, and my most influential early on, is Meg Files at Pima Community College.

After college I lived in Manhattan for seven years but I came home to Tucson to raise my child. I have worked in Tucson as a cocktail waitress, a truck driver, a bartender, a receptionist, a temp, a salesgirl, a fundraising consultant, a grantmaker, a business owner, a nonprofit executive director, and now as a teacher and writing coach.

My work has been recognized with a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2006, the O. Henry Prize in 2008 and the Pushcart Prize in 2009. It has been widely anthologized, including most recently in a textbook of required reading for incoming freshman at the U of A. I have taught creative writing at the Gotham Writers Workshop, UCLA Extension, ASU and here at the U of A. I am the former executive director and the current fiction editor of Tucson’s own Kore Press. 

This novel is my love letter to Tucson. I hope you enjoy it. See you next week.