Archive for November, 2009

You’re washing dishes one evening after work, when you look out the window to see a man allow his two Great Danes to squat on your lawn. While the dogs hover over the grass, the man looks up and sees you. Without changing his expression, he glances away to study the coniferous something or other by your driveway. You watch as the dogs poop and he gathers up their leashes, continuing down the sidewalk. You think, “What the hell?”

But then, it’s time to sit at your computer for your allotted two hours to work on your novel. Yes, look at you, balancing writing with your job, or rather, making this relatively tiny concession after an eight-hour day at the office. Except that you’re too numb from sitting at a desk all day to write. After your two hours are up, you think, foggily, “What the hell?” and go to bed.

The most frequent advice I hear about writing might be summed up as follows: “Evaluate what you’re willing to do and don’t compromise unless absolutely necessary.”  Basically, to have any kind of success as a writer, one must make it a major, if not her main, priority. The fact that this is difficult to do with an ordinary person’s schedule means that many choose to leave writing behind for the stronger allure of regular pay and health benefits.

The tortured poet of our collective imagination leans back from his typewriter, takes a pull from one of the bottles weighing down stacks of papers, and begins to read aloud from the page he just typed. As he speaks, his lips reveal jagged, grey teeth, and we feel certain that the hard alcohol must burn on his gingivitis. No matter how romantic writing may seem, at the end of the day, dental and vision coverage will always be sexier. Maybe you’re not willing to give those things up, and there’s no reason you should have to.

You can be a healthier, happier writer with a few lifestyle changes.

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a diverse group of writers over the past three months, including Billings journalist Anna Paige, and Danell Jones, author of The Virginia Woolf Writers’ Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing.  In the process of restructuring my life for writing, I found their experiences inspiring and helpful. Though their work has taken them in different directions, most of the people I spoke with discussed a few main points:

1. Look at your job. If it’s getting in the way of your writing, consider reducing your hours or trying a completely different workplace. For instance, if your desk job is killing your back and your writing work ethic, switch things up with a new position that requires you to be physically active so that you can come home ready to put in those long hours at your own desk.

2. Revise your lifestyle. Stress, too little exercise, watching an excessive amount of TV– these are all things that can drain you of creative energy and deaden you to the sense of awareness that you probably need if you want to write well, if at all. By taking care of yourself, you should enjoy a boost to both your writing and your overall quality of life.

3. Recharge your batteries by returning to school. Many graduate schools in the West offer a small environment where your work is more likely to stand out, and great funding packages that enable you to devote your entire energy to writing rather than agonizing over how you’re going to pay for it. Also, an MFA program will give you a chance to focus on your writing for two to three years at at time.

4. Support writers whose work you respect. Watch them on Facebook. Attend their readings. Help spread the word by recommending them to friends. Developing a strong, personal connection with your writing community is a great way to make contacts, stay motivated, and advance your own professional writing career while helping others succeed.

Whatever you do, find a way to make that time at your word processor count. Because one morning you’ll be late for work, cutting across the lawn to your car, when your foot sinks into a massive, glistening turd, and your automatic response will be that weary blend of confusion and despair, the “What the hell?” that might as well be “I give up”–and even a first-class set of teeth can’t make up for that vague sense of having come so close to something better, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the crap on your shoe.


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Movies in which the viewer is assailed with rapid-fire shots of a car chase from every possible angle seem to be losing momentum, replaced by more controlled, some even say, more “sedate,” editing that utilizes the art of the long take.

This was the case with the 2005 film, Capote, a part biographical, part imaginative rendering of the famous writer’s trip to Kansas to research the murder of a family for his nonfiction novel, In Cold Blood.

In “The Making of Capote,” the director, Bennett Miller, talks about the film’s distinct style, describing it as anything but sedate.

“It’s controlled and composed,” says Miller. “It’s designed to sensitize you and bring you to the edge of your seat.”

The long take, expertly utilized in Capote, is an excellent device in portraying the spacious plains of the West and Middle America, which are often overlooked in favor of the more grandiose “purple mountain’s majesty.” Indeed, not every view of my particular region of the high plains is greeted by a swell of trumpets. From the windows of the school bus during my hour-an-a-half commute to a low, penitentiary-style school, I saw pieces of a world both profoundly ugly and cruelly bland curving around the road like the ash-flavored shell of particularly foul, yellow candy that was the bus and its passengers. But then, I wasn’t in the mood to appreciate beauty.

The aesthetic of the West requires a highly sensitized appreciation of space and of long, quiet vistas.  Sometimes, awe for such places takes time to cultivate.

Tourists stopping at the Crowheart Store on their way to Yellowstone Park often ask the clerk, “When does it start getting pretty?” I’d guess that to the 100 residents of my hometown of Crowheart, it had been pretty all along. More accurately, they were alert to the type of beauty that, in a movie, might be accompanied by a few soft piano notes if anything at all.

Juxtaposed with the New York party scenes in Capote, the Kansas footage (actually shot in Canada), with its metal skies and silent grain elevators, seems especially beautiful. But maybe it’s just me.

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When I sit up in bed, I see the low red dome of moon blazing between snarled shapes of dead trees with all the wrath of an African sun.

 It’s 10:30 at my parents’ house in Wyoming, and I can’t sleep. I see a dark shape—maybe Rowdy—slip hyena-like through a patch of light by the backyard fence; I hear her pass beneath the window. The grass makes the sound of fire.

 A single cloud, low in the sky and lit by the blood-colored moon, looks unreal and too close, like a prop made of paper-mache. The stars seem less than a mile away. They shine, undiminished, through the leafless trees, which glow in the porch light, every limb white and striking. Nothing moves.

 I put on a coat and shoes on the porch and go outside, walking up the dirt road until it’s too dark and I have to stop. Out here, the sky reveals its true color—not black at all, but a deep blue against inky shapes of mountains. The darkness seems to amplify the sound of a coyote barking from a distant part of the woods. Our three dogs pile around me, whining and pawing at my shins, and don’t seem to hear it.

 Beside me, a low hill rises from the pasture like a rounded loaf of bread. If I stand here long enough, the shapes of animals might be viewed as they slip over the horizon or stand like tin cut-outs for long moments before dipping into the darkness. When I was in high school, the dogs startled a herd of deer out of the woods on the way to the canal one night. I heard their hooves and saw antlers flash against the sky as they bounded past me, and I recalled a video of a hunter being gored by a mule deer; a moment later, six or seven figures shot over the hill in a tight bunch.

 I don’t walk far tonight. The road, somewhere in the darkness, is rocky and uneven, and all I really want to do is look at the stars. I’d wait for my eyes to adjust, but there’s nothing to adjust to—the ground is black, no matter how long I stare at it.


Map of artifical night sky brightness

A few years ago, I found a map illustrating the level of artificial night sky brightness in different parts of the world. Coastal cities and islands vary from neon green to white at the brightest end of the spectrum; Africa’s vast center reflects the impenetrable darkness of Joseph Conrad’s Congo, while a few lights cluster at its edges like a spray of pimples. With the exception of isolated cities and nearly the entire Pacific-West, the United States emits only a weak grey glow beyond the Mississippi—a likely by-product of suburban sprawl. At a closer look, one can make out black blobs scattered throughout the grey, probably marking mountain ranges and places like this—the sticks, the boonies, the middle-of-nowheres of the world that appear as abysmal pits amid an increasing array of shinier, more lively regions.

 I remember studying the clusters of light and tried to determine what they were made of. In Billings, Montana, I know that these lights represent at least two Denny’s restaurants and the LDS temple, which glows like a mythical white castle below the bluffs and the large houses that line them. One of those specks down on the bottom marks the house I rent with my boyfriend, near the lights of the strip-mall where we buy coffee and rent movies. It’s a comfortable enough life among the lights, but there’s mystery in darkness, and real, non-fluorescent beauty–especially on a cold fall night when everything seems stretched tight, brittle and sharp, pulsing with life from unknown sources. Animals respond to each other in the darkness; our single porch doesn’t phase them. In fact, from a quarter-mile away, it appears to be nothing more than a lower, lesser star.

 Tomorrow or the next day, I’ll head back to the city—a small city, just a dusting of light, but a city, nonetheless, with casinos and restaurants and thousands of vehicles driving to them.

 Back inside, I relax into bed, finding myself squinting into a beam of light. Out the window, the moon has risen, and looking at it surface, still unmarred by outrageous steeples and McDonalds signs, I guess I should feel lucky to have a clear view.


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Bone Thugs -n- Harmony

I tried to recall who I was when I burned the CD–what my hair looked like, how I did my make-up–and concluded that, though I don’t recall huffing paint in high school, the evidence not only points, but sets itself on fire and starts sprinting, in the direction of the contrary.

It was an unmarked silver disc that looked innocent enough in its plastic sheath. I didn’t remember making it, yet I knew it was mine–the equivalent of  an unflushed turd.

Thirty minutes into my six-hour drive to my parents’ home in Wyoming, I realized I’d forgotten my Ipod, and so, after one of my audiobooks started putting me to sleep, I decided to dig out the CD case I keep hidden under my passenger’s seat like a clandestine box of tampons. Most of the CDs are of the writable multi-colored variety, with titles like “Winter # 3” or “Stuff I forgot to burn a long time ago.” Because I can usually recall at least one of the songs scrawled into their shiny rainbow undersides, I went with one of the unlabeled CDs.

My car’s CD player rejected it twice, making unhealthy churning noises, as if it tasted bad. I should have taken this as a sign, but eventually, my persistence won, and the first track sputtered on–“Ace of Spades.” I punched the skip ahead button, its plastic coat beginning to flake off.  A nearly identical riff announced a second Motorhead song. Skip forward to one of the worst Ramones songs in history, “Poison Heart.” I listened to this one, watching the arid Pryor Mountains roll past in my window like a vacuous eighties wasteland.

Next, “Thunder Kiss 65,” a few Rammstein songs in a row, more awful Ramones songs (with the exception of “Beat on the Brat,” which always makes me smile), Prodigy, a splash of Marilyn Manson and Flogging Molly, finally culminating with Bone Thugs -n-  Harmony.

The CD shut away in the dark recesses of my case, I finish the rest of the drive in silence, reflecting on what had surely been a wasted youth.

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