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 cafĂ© 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.