Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lightning Strike

Most days, writing feels like a whole lot of heavy lifting. Write a sentence. Delete it. Write a slightly different one. Delete that. Put the scene together, bit by bit. The character enters, and…then what? She looks around, oh, that’s good. And sees…what? OK, think about where she is. What does it look like? Sounds? Smells? What is she feeling? For that matter, why is she there at all?

*Sigh* Delete paragraph. Start over.

But then—sometimes—lightning strikes.

It happened last week. I’d already written one partial scene that didn’t work. I went back to my notebook, scribbled some thoughts, drew arrows from one note to another. (Drawing arrows always makes it seem like I’m in charge. Like I know what I’m doing. It’s an illusion…but one I cling to).

I started the scene again. And this time…it flowed.

Some people call it being in the zone. Some people call it the Muse. I call it Thank you, God, and I write as fast as I can. Don't stop to look stuff up. A character needed a French surname; I threw together a bunch of letters ending in "ier." Fix later. Write now.

When lightning strikes, the characters take on life. They’re no longer mannequins, waiting for my direction. Instead, they’re moving, talking, acting, often with no regard for my original intentions for them. I feel like a reporter, looking through the characters’ eyes, feeling what they feel, scribbling down everything. The internal editor stops squawking (awkward sentence! bad phrasing! how run-on can you get?) and quiets to a hum, reaching in only now and then for a fast tweak. The scene unfolds; new people appear; characters say and do things I didn’t anticipate. It’s like watching a movie for the first time, with all the surprise and delight of the unexpected. I’m no longer eyeing the clock on my computer taskbar, wondering when I can legitimately take a break for lunch… check the mail…move laundry. I get hungry, but the scene isn’t stopping, I can see what’s coming around the corner, let me get just this bit down and then I’ll go eat.

The scene comes to a close. Last sentence, final period. I stretch, and the animals leap to their feet. It’s past their dinnertime. I never stopped for lunch. Wet laundry is still in the washer, the mail is still in the box. My shoulders ache, and I feel a little buzzed, a little disoriented. I’ve just spent ten hours in an upscale department store salon in 1944. My kitchen in 2008 seems strange. I find myself looking at a can of cat food like I’ve never seen it before.

I feel fantastic.

All the writers I know live for days like this. They don’t come often. The only way we know to make them appear is to do the days and weeks of heavy lifting. If you choose not to write until the lightning comes...well, you’ll be waiting a long time.

Sure enough, since that one great day, it’s been nothing but more heavy lifting. That’s OK. The lightning has struck, for the first time, in this newest novel. It’ll strike again.

We’re on our way.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


This past Sunday, my sweetie and I were standing in line for coffees when I smacked my forehead (this isn’t just a literary conceit—I really do smack my forehead when I’ve forgotten something) and said, “The Obama rally!” A co-worker had told me about it the day before, and it had clean slipped my mind. We looked at our watches. I thought it started at noon; it was already ten A.M. “No way we’ll get in,” we said.

When we got home, I checked online. Turned out the gates opened at 12:30; the rally didn’t start until 2:30. Sweet! We hopped on our bikes and pedaled downtown.

Portland on a sunny spring day is like Cinderella at the ball: once the overcast gray gloom is banished, the city sparkles. We rode along the Willamette River, then joined the crowd pouring over one of the ten bridges linking east Portland with the westside. Once across, we started looking for a place to lock our bikes…and looked…and looked. The railing along the entire riverfront spanning downtown was packed with thousands of bicycles. In fifteen years in this town, we'd never seen anything like it.

(I should note at this point the regrettable lack of our own photographs. I forgot my camera. My sweetie—ever prepared—brought his, but the fresh battery he took out of the charger was inexplicably dead. I will skip over the bitter gnashing of teeth.)

Bikes finally secured, we walked to Waterfront Park, the site of the rally. You know how you read in novels: the mood was electric—well, this actually was. The air practically crackled with an optimistic, buzzing energy. We came across an event organizer; she waved at a queue of folks and said, “Go to the end of the line.” So we walked, past hundreds and hundreds of people, past folks selling bottled water, ice cream, Obama T-shirts, looking for the end. And looking…and looking…

Six blocks later, we looked at each other. “No way we’re getting in,” one of us said.

“Lunch,” we both said.

When it comes to crowds, I admit it—we’re weenies.

After lunch, we headed back to the Hawthorne Bridge, thinking we’d watch the rally from there. No such luck—the west end of the bridge rose just above the rally point, and not surprisingly, the police weren’t allowing anyone on the near side, within sight of the grandstand. But we were allowed to queue up on the far side. No visuals, but we could hear. A heavy, steady tide of people was still pouring over the bridge into downtown. In the river, dozens and dozens of boats arrayed themselves in a rough half-moon close to shore. The electric mood heightened.

And then, from the park: “Please welcome…the next First Family of the United States!” A roar boomed from the crowd inside; on the bridge, cheers and applause. Then everyone quieted.

Wow,” we heard Obama say. “Wow. Wow.” And then, “This is the most spectacular crowd, in the most spectacular setting, that we’ve seen in all the months of this campaign.” Another roar. Yay, Portland! Then he began his stump speech. No one talked on their cell phones; nobody chatted with each other. We all stood listening, quiet, for the forty minutes Obama spoke. We couldn’t catch everything—wind snatched away some of the words, buses drowned out others. Then another roar from the crowd inside the park, and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” jazzed through the air.

Later, we found out that the official crowd estimate was seventy-two to seventy-five thousand. The queue of people waiting to get into the rally was estimated to be over two miles long. Sixty thousand made it into Waterfront Park; the rest, like us, gathered outside. It was Obama’s largest rally by far, and, we heard, one of the largest for any primary election event in American history. (Blogger, that silly creature, isn't letting me post any pictures at all--go here for some eye-popping ones, and here and here for great videos.)

It was amazing to be part of, and something I will never forget. Not just the crowds, but that optimism, that incredible energy crackling through the air.

Today, Oregon votes. Usually, by this time in the primary season, everything is wrapped up and tied with a bow, and our poor state is like the smallest kid in the class jumping up and down with her hand in the air, squeaking, “Me, too! Me, too!” But this year, for the first time in decades, Oregon’s vote actually matters.

So if you’re an Oregonian—no matter what party, no matter whom you support—get that ballot delivered! *

*Oregon is the only state which votes exclusively by mail. At first, I was unsure about it. Now, I think it’s the most civilized way to cast a ballot. There’s simply no lovelier way to vote than at one’s own kitchen table, with a cup of coffee, music of one’s choice, our state’s wonderful Voter’s Pamphlet (which furnishes information on all the candidates and ballot measures—in plain English) a black pen, and a ballot. No standing in line, no trying to cram it in before or after work, no having to remember which candidate is who and which ballot measures I’m for or against. I’m telling you—vote-by-mail is voter heaven, complete with a paper trail. Y’all should try it sometime. And maybe some year we'll take a cue from you other states, and do away with not allowing ourselves to pump our own gas.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Will 2008 Be the Year of Big Brown?

So-o-o-o-o, after…

…1 veterinary staff retreat at the beach

…1 massive spring housecleaning

…1 fantabulous visit with brother-and-nephew unit (many games of Scrabble, played to cries of “That is not a word—I challenge!” followed by “I can’t believe that’s actually a word!” heh heh heh)

…1 author visit to Longview Public Library (thanks to super-librarian Jan Hanson, Tallulah fan Liz, and all the teens who came out on a Tuesday night to hear me read—you guys rock!)

…1 Kentucky Derby that left me in tears (RIP, beautiful, gallant Eight Belles)

…1 busted-up car that left us stranded

…and 1 major breakthrough on the new novel I’m writing

…I’m back.

I’ve blogged before about watching the great horse Affirmed fend off his archrival, Alydar, to win the Triple Crown. The thirty years since then have been the longest stretch ever without a Triple Crown champion.

This year, will Affirmed finally have a successor?

Watching Big Brown gallop away with the Kentucky Derby, and then yesterday’s Preakness Stakes, it’s hard not to get excited about the possibility. What a powerhouse of a horse! Big Brown makes a charge to victory look easy as a romp in the park on a summer’s day.

But eleven times in the past thirty years, horses have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, only to get foiled in the infamously grueling Belmont Stakes. Eleven oh-so-close…and then we sigh, and say, Maybe next year.

Smarty Jones, you broke my heart. Dare I love again?