I am not a good photographer. I’m not even a mediocre photographer. I have trouble taking decent pictures of inanimate objects in natural light, let alone anything more complicated than that.
But I’m trying to make the effort over on Instagram to make worthwhile posts. Tonight I made a book post that I actually think might not be too bad. It took me a while. And since I don’t share nearly enough photos here on the blog, I’m sharing it with you here.
Earlier this summer, while I was in Maine attending an absolutely amazing writing retreat, my parents were in Lebanon. It has been a lifelong goal of my father’s to go there, to see his family there, to see the country his people come from. He was born here in the States, but he has always wanted to go over, and this year he finally took the chance to do it. He and my mom went with a handful of close cousins and a really big tour group.
For my father, this journey was a dream come true. He is a passionately religious man, so he loved that they visited numerous shrines and historical holy places of various faiths. He is intensely devoted to his family, so it was wonderful for him to experience it with his wife and cousins. We are deeply rooted in our Lebanese heritage, so going to see the country and its shores and its many important sites, and to eat its food at every meal and to attend a sahria at night and to spontaneously break out into dabke at lunch with many of the other tourists, was glorious. Two of our cousins occupied the presidency a few decades ago, and so to meet the current president was a little bit of a treat.
I’m happy for my parents to have made and enjoyed this journey, but what their experience taught me is that chasing one’s dreams — as hokey as that sounds, let’s be honest — is a worthwhile pursuit. Seeing the fruition of his dream inspired me to believe a little more confidently in my own.
I’m a hybrid author, as you may be aware. I’ve been published in a variety of ways, including independently, traditionally, and through small presses. One thing I’m still hoping to achieve, though, is agented representation for my literary fantasy novels. They are the biggest and broadest literary endeavor I’ve made to date, and I want to go the full traditional way with them if I can. And this week, that first novel is headed out my electronic door to agents. Wish it good luck, will you?
But it’s Monday. I’ve promised you an earworm.
This is probably my favorite Tom Petty song of all time, and I’m not gonna lie, the video reminds me a little bit of The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.
What dream are you running down right now? Share it in the comments, if you would, so we can all wish you well on your path.
Today I have a few announcements: some upcoming readings and a sneak preview opportunity for you.
The most exciting news here is my upcoming event at one of Houston’s most beloved independent bookstores, Blue Willow Bookshop! If you’re going to be in town, definitely mark your calendars now for Saturday, August 17th, at 3:00, when I’ll be reading from and discussing The Sharp Edges of Water. This promises to be a fun event with an author Q&A––that’s right, bring your questions for me!––and door prizes and books galore! Even if you already have a copy of my book, come and pick one up as a gift for a friend or family member who likes to read or write. You can check out Blue Willow’s site here for more details. Their address is 14532 Memorial at Dairy Ashford 77079. I don’t mind telling you that the Blue Willow event is a Very Big Deal, and it would be really helpful to make a strong showing there, so please come out for it and pick up one (or more) of my books there!
Finally, would you like a sneak preview of my next book? I’m offering my readers the chance to get a free advance reading copy of either of my next two books––one fiction and one poetry, depending on your preference––before they’re published. You’ll even have the opportunity to give me beta-reader feedback on it if you’d like to! In order to take advantage of this offer, just post a review of The Sharp Edges of Water on Amazon. Now, if you follow the writing/publishing industry, you might have heard that Amazon has been taking down people’s reviews in an effort to remove illegitimate ones, though some genuine ones have been removed inadvertently in this process. I have not experienced this (knock on wood!) and also know that all my reviews are genuine and not planted (except for one baffling troll who posted a weird review of Finis. back in the day). Anyway, Amazon has changed the rules for how reviews get accepted. Fortunately, we know how to navigate their guidelines. You can watch a full explanation here, but I’ve summarized the basics for you:
To contribute a review on Amazon, you have to have spent at least $50 there in the last year, not including promotional discounts.
Amazon doesn’t allow reviews to be posted from people in the author’s household, or from more than one person connected to any same household or bank account or credit card.
Amazon doesn’t allow paid reviews, so your review shouldn’t indicate that you’ve received compensation for it.
Amazon deletes reviews that come in under two days after you’ve purchased a book from them because they assume you can’t possibly have read the book so quickly.
Avoid sounding too chummy with the author in your review: in other words, please don’t ever refer to the author by their first name only, but by either both first and last name or just their last name or “the author”; also avoid sounding “unbiased” by not indicating in your review that you regularly see the author in person or are friends with them in real life.
Thank you again for all your love and support, and I hope to see you on August 17th at Blue Willow! Bring your friends. And if you take me up on the review/ARC opportunity, send me a screenshot of your review on Amazon, then tell me which book (fiction or poetry) you’d like to get a sneak preview of. Until then~
If you’ve seen any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, you know he earned a reputation for depicting violence in both gratuitous and necessary ways. What do I mean by that? The violence of his movies was both integral to the characters and the plot but also, some would say, extreme, stylized, over-the-top.
I will admit that I have never been his biggest fan, although certainly I have enjoyed some of his movies. My favorite was Pulp Fiction until Inglorious Basterds came out. I hated Kill Bill Vol. 1 and didn’t even bother with Vol. 2 because I didn’t see how any amount of brilliance in the second could make up for the ridiculous trash that the first one was.
Yesterday morning something happened that doesn’t usually: my husband called me on the phone to ask me on a date. He thought Once Upon a Time in…Hollywoodwould be a pretty fun movie and suggested we go see it.
“I’d love to,” I said, enjoying the novelty of the formal invitation. The trailer had made the movie look like interesting Tarantino fare without giving away the whole story. What we hadn’t realized is that the original trailer we’d seen––and even the synoptic blurb for the movie––really doesn’t tell you much about the movie at all that you don’t learn in the first fifteen minutes.
This film has violence, yes, including some of the bloody and incredible violence that we have come to know Tarantino for. But in this film, he’s experimenting with a different kind: emotional violence based on the audience’s expectations, targeted at a subset of the audience that is likely above a certain age. If you don’t fall into that subset of the demographic, it’s possible you won’t have any idea what I’m talking about. It’s possible you will have seen this movie and found it to be an entertaining romp, an occasionally funny look at some marginally likable characters, a meta story about a past-his-prime actor and his equally near-washed-up stunt double played by two actors who were hot leading men in their prime but who have clearly moved on past all that now. And there’s nothing wrong with that if this is your perception of the movie; it’s a fair read.
But if you’re like my husband and me, closer to fifty than we are to forty, if you know about pop culture history and the darkest stains of humanity that were left on it, if you have a sense of what Tarantino is capable of and was very wont to do in the early days of his career, then this movie might have made you stop halfway through and think, Oh no, this is the worst date movie ever.
Spoilers follow. You have been warned.
In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio plays an actor, Rick Dalton, whose roles have dwindled to being the “heavy,” a consistent and dependable bad guy itinerant all over the TV Guide listings whose subtextual purpose is to give new leading men a career victory over him. Brad Pitt plays his stunt double, Cliff Booth, who is also his employee and best friend, who chauffeurs him around and hangs out with him and watches his house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills and is generally cheerful about accepting whatever dregs jobs Rick maneuvers for him. Next door to Rick live Roman Polanski and his wife, Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie and arguably the most appealing character in the film, aside from one precocious little girl who is awesome.
For about the first half of the movie, there are multiple story threads that feel somewhat random, somewhat disconnected, but Tarantino is no slouch and we can expect that all these disparate threads and sketches of Hollywood circa 1969 will come together and mean something. And then they start to, when a hippie rings the doorbell at the Polanski home, and you realize where and when and who all of this is, and if you’re up on your mid-late-20th-century American history, you make the assumption that the stranger ringing the doorbell is Charles Manson.
And that’s when the movie becomes violent. Not in a literal, Kill Bill kind of way, but in an emotional, anxiety-riddled kind of way. Suddenly you realize that this movie has a long way to go, and it was made by Quentin Tarantino, and you know what happens to Sharon Tate because you remember what happened to Sharon Tate in real life in 1969. And then every part of you silently freaks out and you say to yourself, Oh shit. Suddenly this movie has become the worst date movie ever, and you’re stuck with it.
The movie then goes on to toy with your expectations further on a number of levels.
First, when Cliff ends up at Spahn’s Movie Ranch with the group of hippies and everything in their commune is Just Not Right, but he’s a stunt double who can fight and isn’t afraid of a bunch of teenage hippie girls being all weird, he goes in to find his friend George who works there, and you expect him to head down that dark and decrepit hallway and find either a dead body or a booby trap, but instead he finds George, in exactly the state the hippies said he would be. You breathe a sigh of relief.
But that’s not the whole experience, because you know that “Charlie” isn’t there and that spectre of who he really is reinforces the trauma you know is coming. From that point in the movie on, everything is tinged with this expectation that the end of the movie is going to hurt you. And that anxiety is what I mean by Tarantino’s new violence: anticipatory emotional trauma, a trigger warning of the worst kind — that comes too late — because the rest of the movie is actually good enough that you don’t want to stop watching it. Eventually, you begin to wonder what the hell Tarantino was thinking and why on earth is he doing this? Because you know what he’s capable of, and you still haven’t forgiven him for the awfulness of Kill Bill.
But remember what I said about defying expectations? This whole movie he’s been doing that, because it hasn’t been a literally violent film. It’s been hard to watch, maybe, filled with the grotesque. Seeing DiCaprio and Pitt as kind of gross has-beens defies your expectations. The crest and plummet of the suspense in some parts defies your expectations. The non-linear storytelling defies your expectations. And finally, what happens to Sharon Tate does too.
Tarantino gives us his characteristic over-the-top blood and gore when the Manson family killers show up on Cielo Drive. The documentary style kitsch of the filmmaking at that point mimics those true-crime TV shows. You feel every dreadful thing coming. And then, it comes in a different way. A bloody and crazy and even at times funny way.
A revisionist history way that you think might have been a better ending for the real story.
And then you sit through every last second of the credits to make sure Tarantino doesn’t take it back.
You call your kids on the drive home and make sure they’re okay. You tell yourselves, Wow, that could have been really bad. You remind yourself, Wow, in real life it actually was really bad. You don’t go to sleep immediately when you get home.
I won’t say that I loved this movie, or that I even liked it as much as Inglorious Basterds, which was absolutely incredible. But it was, on balance, a good movie. One worth seeing. A movie that might kick you in the chest like Bruce Le does to Cliff Booth. (Okay, that scene was really funny.)
I have no idea why “The Queen and the Solider” by Suzanne Vega is stuck in my head this morning, but please, share it with me. This is lauded as one of her most popular old songs, even though I don’t think it ever had a wide reception. (This particular concert clip has a bonus track afterward of “World Before Columbus.”)
And look, I like Suzanne Vega. A lot. Her music is really enjoyable. I don’t think she has the lyric genius or musical complexity of, say, Ani diFranco, but wow, I will almost never turn down Vega’s music in exchange for something else. It’s fun to listen to, makes an excellent soundtrack for driving across the desert southwest, and even works well as background music. It’s just good stuff.
Opinions on what the main theme of this song is are varied. What do you think it is? Leave your idea in the comments below.
Anyway, this one is stuck in my head. Maybe it’s because I’m finishing up edits on a novel in which a very young queen contends with power dynamics and struggles of agency and sovereignty in her relationships. Maybe it’s because I love Johansen’s Tearling trilogy, and this song reminds me of those books. No idea. But here, enjoy.
Two years ago I did something for myself that was so far outside of my self-care comfort zone it changed me: I attended a writing retreat. That’s right, I left my family for the better part of a week and went to Maine to focus entirely on writing. While I was there, I realized that I hadn’t done anything so expansive to nurture my creative self in…well, way too many years. Definitely not since before I had my own family, and maybe not even then.
Last month, I went back.
The Moss Wood Retreats on Penobscot Bay in Maine are a gift to writers. Run by director and author Patricia McMahon, this experience gives you the chance to escape from whatever nightmarish summer weather you’ve been experiencing and settle in with a handful of other authors and just focus on your craft for several days. Two years ago I attended a workshop led by Gregory Maguire, which was glorious, but this year’s retreat, led by poet Josh Kalscheur and Patricia herself, was really different and completely fulfilling. Patricia has moved to a generative format, which means that the bulk of the group sessions focus on the generation of new material.
So most mornings we would have four writing exercises which included excellent prompts and then writing time, followed by voluntary sharing. In the afternoons we were on our own and could work on the pieces we’d written that morning; in the evenings during our after-dinner salons, we would share what we’d worked on, if we wanted to, as well as other poems that we found meaningful or enlivening. I also found time outside of these, including at night in my room before I went to sleep, to work on my own other projects if I wished. (I’ve been editing one of my novels this summer.)
I can honestly say this year’s retreat might have been the most productive week of writing I’ve had in a really long time. Aside from the novel work I did on my own solitary time, I wrote so much poetry. Possibly eight or ten of the poems I produced that week will turn into something publishable.
One of the fun exercises we did over the course of the week was to produce a collection of centos. At its simplest, a cento is a type of found poem in which all the lines come from other places. So every person at the retreat anonymously contributed a page of their writing, either a poem or a page of prose. We then browsed these pages and harvested from them lines we particularly liked and then fashioned those seemingly random lines into new poems. We shared these on our last evening together, and the centos were all so very different in scope and tone and subject! They were also delightful; I really loved finding out which fragments resonated with everyone. Here is my poem:
Moss Wood Cento Moss Wood Writing Retreat, 2019
Carnivals always start the same way:
three boys, three sharp-rocked beginnings
grabbing clandestine hand-holds;
spirits of slain warriors speaking from open mouths;
a tarantula stabbed with a stick;
the occasional hint of cabaret music.
Between the border of yellow birch and
the far shore of rockbound pine,
the tether of some other-than-temporal sea
pulls and pulls with the urgency of future demands
on the boy-man stashed behind the garage,
dreadful poverty and sadness floating across his face,
a grunt-crank biscuit in one hand and
a two hundred-year-old scroll in the other.
The memory of children’s cotton candied fingers
keeps his brusque demeanor at arm’s length.
He works in the negative, his pattern
a mystery to me, but a crease between the bridge
of his nose and his eyebrows is the absence
of sailboats long since stored for the winter.
Will we learn something by the weight of them?
He and I will never be young enough
again to think that friends don’t die.
You can keep your emptiness;
all I hear is sirens and defiance,
loud as a burst of gunfire through ghosts.
I’ve stopped believing in magic.
We are all dodging death,
scattered, secluded, incidents of light.
The phrase “two hundred-year-old scroll” is from one of my novels, a work in progress, but everything else in this poem came from the other nine people’s fragments. I offer my sincere thanks to all of them for their contributions to my poem.
Late on the last night of the retreat, a bunch of us new friends put on temporary Sherlock tattoos as a lark. (Mine read, “I never guess.”) Then around midnight, when three of us in the upstairs bedrooms were still awake and packing for our departures the next day, some spontaneous slumber party fun broke out. Two of the other ladies decided they wanted to see how long my hair really was and flat-ironed it for me. We squealed like adolescents as we did each other’s hair and helped each other pick out the clothes we would be wearing to travel in the next day — clothes we would wear home to Houston, to Louisiana, to Scotland. We shared pictures of our families from our phones and promised to write. And to write and to write and to write.
If I could, I would attend this retreat every year. It happens in early June, so if it sounds like something you would benefit from, put it on your calendar now. And if you want to hear more about this retreat and its marvelous director, Patricia McMahon, I’ll be interviewing her tonight on the LivingArt show on KPFT; the show begins at 6 p.m. central time.
While you’re waiting for that to happen, please enjoy these lovely photos of the landscape I looked at every day I was there.