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On Chuck Palahniuk, with love.

Published March 4, 2020 by mandileighbean

This blog post is going to serve as nothing more than a thinly veiled love letter to Chuck Palahniuk.

This week, I devoured his book on writing titled Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different. Simply put, this book was amazing. You know I’m always looking for signs from the universe, and I firmly believe that the cosmos put this book into my hands at the right time for the right reasons. One of my favorite passages reads:

Was it Kierkegaard? Was it Heidegger? Some egghead pointed out how people decide the nature of their world at a very young age. And they craft a way of behaving that will lead to success. You’re praised for being a strong little kid so you invest in your strength. Or you become the smart girl. Or the funny boy. Or the pretty girl. And this works until you’re about thirty years old.

(64).

Damn, Chuck. Just @ me next time. I think a lot of the uncertainty in my writing life comes from uncertainty in life in general. Last year was tumultuous; I lost friends I thought I’d have forever and essentially had to find my new identity. It was never a good idea to allow myself to be defined by other people, but I did it and here I am, reconstructing myself one piece at a time. I’ve finally come to accept that people will enter and exit my life at various times for all different reasons, and every entrance and exit does not necessarily have anything to do with me. “Through our lives, our relationships are based on proximity. We attend the same school. We work at the same company or live in the same neighborhood. And when those circumstances change, our friendships dissolve” (146).  Those changes and dissolutions do not have to be earth-shattering. They do not have to be moments after which everything is different. But when they are, I think it’s more than important to stop and take note. Losing my friends and thereby upending the woman I thought I was led me to the dream of Ireland.

I want Ireland to be a part of my rebuilding, maybe even the foundation upon which I can build my writing life, and though that journey has been delayed, the desire is there and it is as strong as it ever was. Palahniuk writes, “Perhaps this is why people dream of traveling a lot at retirement. Seeing the world and recognizing one’s own insignificance makes it okay to come home and to die” (117). That’s depressing as hell, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. To be comfortable with myself, and that includes being comfortable with my mortality, I think I have to be uncomfortable first. I’m happy to admit I’ve been uncomfortable as hell for nearly four years. So something’s gotta give soon, and I think this book by Chuck Palahniuk has prepared me for the moment I’ve been waiting for: the moment after which everything is different.

So much more than some bestselling author pontificating about craft, Palahniuk’s book is entertaining as hell. He includes entertaining anecdotes from his writing life that validate a writer’s many insecurities and intuitions, balancing humiliations with small victories. For example, Palahniuk recalls when he was a participant in Tom Spanbauer’s writing workshop and Tom gave him a book to read after his “…work had been rejected by some magazine or ten magazines or yet another agent had written to say he only represented ‘likeable’ fiction” (57). Tom chose the book and told Palahniuk it would help his work “enormously” (57). Palahniuk writes:

The following week I read and reread it. An easy job because it hardly topped a hundred pages, but a tough read because the characters were hard-pressed and put-upon cornpone hound-dog types just scraping by in the burnt-over backwoods hills of wherever. They lived on a farm, eating the same grits for breakfast every morning. They did nothing exceptional, and nothing happened to them. Each time I finished it I felt angry about wasting more time for so little return. I hated the author for wasting my time. But mostly I hated myself for being too backward to appreciate this work of art documenting the lives of folks interchangeable with the folks I’d been raised next door to

(58).

So when Palahniuk brings the book back, he’s hesitant to admit he hated it because he’s afraid that makes him dumb, too stupid to appreciate a book praised by anyone and everyone who knows anything about literature. Palahniuk lies “to fit in with the smart people” (59), which is a pressure I completely understand and have barely survived. I usually do the same thing Palahniuk did. “If all else fails among the literati, always claim the language is beautiful” (59). Throughout the course of the evening, however, Palahniuk finally cracks and admits he hated the book and that he’s probably stupid. But Tom smiles and reveals his true intentions. “This book is awful…. I wanted you to see how terrible a book could be and still get published” (59-60). I give Palahniuk credit for not naming the book and shaming anyone (“If you don’t have anything nice to say…” and all that) and for being honest. He’s acknowledging that being published and successful can have very little to do with talent. And I think it’s important to note that Palahniuk found his writing tribe, a suggestion stressed by all different kinds of authors time and time again. Writing is a lonely job, so it is crucial to find people who share your writing philosophy and tastes and work ethic. It’s crucial to have a community, and I think Palahniuk is starting one with the publication of this book. In a cosmic coincidence, I am in desperate need of a tribe, so let this book be my calling card/open invitation.

I wrote a somewhat scathing review of John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction because it wasn’t accessible. It was condescending. It didn’t inspire me. Palahniuk echoes these sentiments and goes on to explain, “I’ve found that most writers fall into one of two camps. The first rise from academia and write gorgeous stuff with very little plot momentum or drive. The second camp of writers emerge from journalism and use simple, clear language to tell stories rich in action and tension” (192). I think, organically, I come from the first camp. I was an English major, am now an English teacher, and will earn either my Master’s or MFA in the near future. But I’m drawn to the second camp. A perfect paragraph or scintillating sentence is great, but I’m afraid that’s not what sells. Readers want stories rich in action and tension that are also accessible because they use simple, clear language. That’s why Her Beautiful Monster was a joy to write and earned positive reviews, I think – because I enjoyed writing it. I think I need to get back to basics and not overthink my creative process.

Palahniuk does not spend valuable space romanticizing the writing life or going on and on about some abstract, academic approach. He gives real, practical advice. For example, he writes, “Once you’re published and trying to scratch out a living you’ll find these regional bookseller associations are a great ally” (1). First paragraph of the first page, and I’m learning something new. I was so disappointed when my first novel didn’t go flying off the shelves, but in hindsight, I realize I was doing nothing to help. To be fair, I didn’t know where to start. Thanks to Palahniuk, now I do.

He does discuss the act of writing itself and gives great tips and tricks without singing his own praises. For example, he suggests that “Instead of writing about a character, write from within the character” (47). He recommends avoiding common units of measurement and instead, using units of measurement unique to a character, like “a man too tall to kiss” or “a man her dad’s size when he’s kneeling in church” (47). This idea may not seem revolutionary, but it hit me like a ton of bricks. This is a wonderful and unique way to give a story texture and to really develop my writer’s voice.

Palahniuk attributes some of his most followed advice to other writers, and it lends him a great deal of authenticity. That was my favorite aspect of the book, how real Palahniuk is. It reminds me of a sentiment expressed by Stephen King, that all writers come to drink from the same pool, so it’s only natural that all writers beg and borrow and steal from one another. Hence why I salivated over this book from one of my most favorite writers.

Palahniuk writes, “If you’re dedicated to becoming an author, nothing I can say here will stop you. But if you’re not, nothing I can say will make you one” (xv). Palahniuk shares advice he received from Bob Maull, founder of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association. Maull told him, “If you want to make a career out of this you’ll need to bring out a new book every year. Never go longer than sixteen months without something new because after sixteen months people quit coming in that door and asking me if you have another book yet.” Fuck. Shit. Balls. My book came out nine years ago. Is it too late for me? Do I not have enough time to write because I’m a full-time teacher? Palahniuk doesn’t think so. He describes, in detail, how one writing approach solves the struggle for time. For all the dark human truths he exposes or touches upon, he is not a fatalist. He writes, “But if you hold a full-time job, have a family, and have to juggle every other duty in life, this scene-by-scene experimentation will keep you sane” (135).

So where do I go from here? I become a fucking writer. I carve out time for writing. I truly and fully believe I am one. I get to work.

On mediocrity … especially in thinking of titles.

Published February 20, 2020 by mandileighbean

So I’ve neglected this blog for two weeks. I wish, I really, really wish I could tell you it was because I’ve been furiously working on a new novel or that it was because I’ve been off having all sorts of romantic adventures that I will fill you in on. Sadly, neither one of those excuses presented as valid, interesting reasons is true. We started a new semester at school on Wednesday, February 6th and ever since then, I’ve been pretty much consumed by work. That coincided with a last-minute visit from my sister and her four kids, so I was swamped with family and work obligations. I haven’t written anything, haven’t been taking care of myself or my house. I’ve barely been reading. To be honest, I haven’t been doing anything to inspire my writing life or my Bohemian endeavors. I’ve been mediocre, limping through the daily rat race.

It sounds overdramatic, but that’s the only way I know to make things interesting.

Anyway, here’s a short story I wrote based on the following prompt:

 

“Mom, you’ve got to stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

The glass of chilled white wine was sweating in front of me. I hadn’t had a sip. I wanted to walk outside and have a cigarette, but I couldn’t leave Mom alone at the table. And she’s a smoker too, so I couldn’t go without her. She’d be pissed. I had to just sit there in nearly unbearable silence and take it.

“You’re not going to say anything?”

I blinked. “About what? About being a child of divorce at 31?”

Mom rolled her eyes. “Don’t be dramatic.”

I laughed even though nothing was funny. “I think taking me for lunch to tell me you and Dad are splitting up is dramatic.”

“What? You wanted me to tell you over the phone? Should I have texted you?” Mom rolled her eyes again and shifted away from me in her seat. She took a long swallow from her chilled glass.

I rubbed my eyes. “What do you want? For me to go to pieces? For me to ask why when I don’t want to know why?”

Mom still wouldn’t look at me. She wrapped her arms around herself and just sat there, breathing. I finally started drinking my wine. I took a long, slow, deliberate swallow so I wouldn’t have to say anything. I couldn’t think of anything to say anyway.

“I want you to talk to your sisters for me.”

I choked on my pinot grigio.  “What?”

“Please. I can’t -”

“Mom, you’ve really gotta stop dragging me into the middle of things.”

“I’m not-”

“Yes, yes you are! That’s exactly what you’re doing! That’s what you’ve been doing my whole life!”

Mom looked like I’d slapped her. I was disappointed when she didn’t grab her face and turn away. She didn’t say anything, so I kept going. “When Cora was sleeping with Mr. Slattery, you told me to tell her that you knew and that she needed to stop because it was shameful to have a slut in the family.”

“I never said that,” she lied. Mom started blinking rapidly.

“Okay. When Timmy was hiding the empty vodka bottles in his closet and the maid found them, you sent her to me. I found the rehab, I packed his bags, but you dropped him off at the airport.”

Mom shook her head. “When I left my therapist’s office and I couldn’t breathe because I was crying so hard, I called you. I didn’t want to drive because I couldn’t see the road for all the tears in my eyes and I wanted to talk to you, to hear your voice, so I called you.” I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back in the chair, away from her. “What did you do?” She looked away, shook her head once, quickly. I asked my question again. “What did you do?”

The complete silence that followed let me know I had been talking too loud. The complete silence meant that conversation had stopped, forks had stopped moving, and that everyone was listening. I leaned closer to Mom and lowered my voice. “You didn’t answer. You never called me back.” I was speaking through a clenched jaw. I was gripping the edge of the table so hard my fingertips were white. “You need to call your daughters and you need to tell them. Your divorce from Dad has nothing to do with me.”

Mom cleared her throat. She reached up and delicately brushed the single strand of pearls hanging around her neck. “I just thought-”

“What if they ask me why, Mom? What if they have questions?”

Mom paled. She looked away from me. Her face turned red.  “I guess I didn’t think at all.” She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

It was the first time my mother had apologized to me for anything. Naturally, I felt inexplicably and incredibly guilty. “I’m sorry, Mom. I should-”

“No, no, you’re right,” she said.

I wasn’t sure what it meant that we rarely let each other finish our sentences.

Sheepishly, I stabbed at my salad with a fork. When I looked back up at my mother, she was crying silently.

It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry. I watched the tears roll down her delicately powdered cheeks, leaving sparse but unmistakable inky black trails from the mascara she always applied in generous layers. Her hair was moussed, blow dried and then sprayed so it wouldn’t move, not even in a hurricane. She was wearing a smart looking pantsuit with a ribbed turtleneck, all in safe, neutral colors. And she was crying.

I didn’t say anything.

 

On the end of a decade (dramatic though it may sound).

Published December 4, 2019 by mandileighbean

Not only is it the last month of the year, but everyone seems to be harping on the fact that it is the last month of the decade. I don’t remember people being this pumped when 2009 was drawing to a close, but truth be told, I don’t remember much about that time in general. I know I was in college, I know I was student teaching, and I know I had a lot of plans. Looking back, I realize I had a pretty fantastic decade.

  • I graduated college magna cum laude.
  • I lost nearly sixty pounds … and then gained it back. But then I started losing again, so let’s call this one a draw, shall we?
  • I bought a convertible, my dream car! And when the water pump somewhere in Pennsylvania and left me stranded on the shoulder of a steaming highway, I bought a Jeep! And when the Jeep was too expensive, I bought a brand new car, the first one I’ve ever owned.
  • I met Andrew McCarthy and Gary Sinise. And I yelled to James Franco that I liked his collection of short stories, and he mouthed “thank you.” I don’t think he was allowed to talk to anyone outside the theater after the performance of “Of Mice and Men.”
  • I published a novel (the first of many, let’s hope)!
  • I traveled to places I’d never been before, specifically Colorado and France.
  • I attended seven weddings and eight funerals.
  • Three of my loved ones deployed and returned home safely, but two made the ultimate sacrifice.
  • The New York Giants won a Super Bowl with Eli Manning as quarterback.
  • I worked my ass off and earned my dream job.
  • I finished the manuscript for a second novel and started the manuscript for a third.
  • I attended three absolutely wonderful writer’s conferences.
  • I bought a home.
  • I fell hopelessly, irrevocably, and dangerously in love.
  • I had my heart absolutely decimated. But hey; that builds character (Jane Austen wrote something like that, I think).

I’ve seen a lot of lists like this while scrolling through social media and “decade challenges” and similar sentiments. Recently, I was on LitHub and read an article titled “26 Books From the Last Decade that More People Should Read” (which can be found here and is definitely worth more than just a scroll-through) and it got me thinking: what would my reading list from the last ten years look like? I went over to my Goodreads page (and you should visit it too so we can be friends!) and scrolled through to revisit some of the titles that came along for my journey into the woman that sits in her kitchen, typing furiously on a cheap laptop that needs to be wiped down.

So here’s my list of ten books (with accompanying reviews I previously posted on Goodreads (except for my comments on The Spinning Heart)) that I read in the last ten years that molded me into the woman, writer, friend, lover, daughter, sister, aunt, teacher, human being I am today:

  1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguroneverletmego
    “I absolutely adored The Remains of the Day. Thus, I had very high hopes for Never Let Me Go, and I was not disappointed. The story was completely original and the novel’s structure served it well. I appreciated the real human elements of the characters and it was those elements that made the story as engaging as it was. I am a huge fan of human drama, and this book offered me all of that in a new and interesting way. Pondering what to do with one’s short and limited time on earth is not a new concept. However the way the author investigates what that means to the particular set of people with extreme circumstances is breathtaking.”

  2. American Pastoral by Philip Roth
    americanpastoral
    “I loved this novel I am going to begin by imploring anyone reading this review to take my comments with a grain of salt, as I now realize I have a rather bizarre emotional connection to this novel. I believe I read this novel at the exact time I was supposed to; its plot, which focuses on the varying tragedies of the ‘everyman,’ relates to one and all. The prose was engaging and layered, so that every phrase contained a superficial significance and a deeper message that reveals itself in time. I loved this novel and highly recommend it.”
  3. Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
    mebeforeyou
    “Romance is usually never my genre of choice. It’s my literary snobbery, but I’ve always assumed romances left nothing for the serious reader to sink her teeth into. I’d just always assumed romance novels were nothing more than pages torn from some woman’s diary, some woman desperately trying to recreate a forgotten relationship from her past and doing her utmost to make sure she gets it right this time. All of those assumptions and assertions are insulting and unfair, I know. This novel, ME BEFORE YOU by Jojo Moyes, helped me to see the error of my ways.

    The characterization is outstanding. No aspect is obviously conveyed or conveniently created for the reader; there’s some work involved, but man oh man, is it worth it. These characters are developed and authentic so there is a genuine emotional investment in how this particular story unfolds. It’s not just the romantic relationship that has longevity with the readers, but all the friendships and familial entanglements. The characters were lovingly crafted and it helps the reader to stomach an unbearable plot.

    What I mean by that seemingly harsh phrase is that Moyes is not in the business of granting wishes; she’s being real. This novel is not what you think it is in the best of ways. I was very pleasantly surprised and intend on picking up the sequel soon. Definitely recommended.”

  4. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto
    galveston
    “I purchased this book for three reasons: 1) I love ‘True Detective (particularly the first season which is absolutely flawless),’ which Pizzolatto created and wrote; 2) While binge watching the first season of ‘True Detective’ for the thousandth time, I finally watched an interview with Pizzolatto where he discussed his writing process and talked about illuminating the characters through nuances, and I thought that was just brilliant; 3) I spent a lot of time in a bookstore and would feel like a total asshole if I didn’t buy something.

    This crime novel is entertaining. I kept having to turn the pages to see what was going to happen next. The pacing was maddeningly appropriate, but this novel is so much more than a hard boiled crime story. Similar to ‘True Detective,’ Pizzolatto uses a fluid narration to not only blend the present and past to keep readers on their toes, but to develop characters in that subtle, illuminating way. Sure, the troubled hero and grizzled damsel who still needs saving are somewhat stock characters, but Pizzolatto’s talent and attention to detail creates living, breathing identities for those characters. They can’t just be compartmentalized or written off; they’re complex and layered, and engineer a real attachment. I wasn’t reading just to find out what happened to satisfy curiosity; I wanted – needed – to know if they made it, to know how they made out in the end.

    Highly recommended if you enjoy crime thrillers and/or good writing.”

  5. The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King
    bazaar
    “Stephen King at his best … Some stories were downright delightful and ultimately satisfying, but most were disturbing and unsettling and masterful. There were rare moments when the voice seemed stale and archaic, but King’s power comes from his knowledge of human nature. He gets it, man; and whatever that is, it’s terrifying and funny and entertaining and beautiful. Some stories in this collection are undoubtedly better than others, but King is a master storyteller, so each and every yarn is undoubtedly worth the read.

    I’ve been a longtime fan of Mr. King, and have suffered through some of his recent work (which feels awful and unkind to admit), but this collection felt like a return to what made me fall in love with his prose in the first place.”

  6. I’d Die For You and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    dieforyou
    “Fitzgerald is a brilliant writer; I did not need to read this collection of short stories to learn that fact. The greatest thing about this collection, then, is that it shows Fitzgerald as an artist and a man. He truly believed in artistic integrity, and was brutally honest with himself about many things, including his talent and his drinking and his relationship with Zelda. The stories in the collection are evidence of Fitzgerald growing and evolving with the times, with his own life, and with his own interests. This is a must read for any and every Fitzgerald fan.”

  7. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
    birdbybird
    “As I start taking my aspirations to be a successful published author more seriously, I find myself attending conferences that assign required readings. Some are pretentious, some are obvious, but few are as practical, helpful, honest, and entertaining as BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott.

    I felt validated and challenged and, most importantly, inspired to really write and give it all I have all the time. Lamott’s advice and insight are not meant to placate or manipulate aspiring writers into following her footsteps or buying more of her books or anything so capitalistic or self-serving. She talks about the reality of being a successful published author and how the realization of that dream still leaves something to be desired because it is human nature to never be satisfied. That truth, crushing though it may at first appear to be, makes the whole endeavor more manageable.

    I am forever indebted to this book, to this absolutely wonderful author. I also plan on reading more and more of her work.”

  8. The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall
    phantomprince
    “I can’t remember the last time I read a book in two days.

    The honesty of the author’s account of her life with Ted Bundy is remarkable. Kendall freely admits her own shortcomings which may have attracted Ted to her in the first place. She does not deny any facet of her relationship with Ted and while some readers have found her to be irritating in her inconsistencies, I felt it made her human and actually gave her credibility.

    Unfortunately, now having read the source material for the wildly popular Netflix film starring Zac Efron, I dislike the film as they weren’t true to the material.”

    *A new expanded and updated version of this book will be released in January 2020.*

  9. Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell
    lonesurvivor
    “This book was profoundly moving. I will not entertain anyone’s opinion about war or the military unless they’ve read this book.”
  10. The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
    spinningheart
    “This is one of the most gorgeous novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of devouring. Achingly beautiful and haunting, there was not a single wasted sentence. Remarkable. Powerful.”

On writing reunions and summer reading.

Published July 18, 2019 by mandileighbean

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The beginning of July has been wonderful. I love the intense, dry heat as it is an excuse to be lazy and spend hours floating in a pool with a book in hand. I’ve had a slowly but surely diminishing pile poolside, and I’ve been nearly perfectly happy. It’s been difficult for me to carve out some time for reading during the school year that’s not dictated by my professional obligations. I’m hoping the I’m instilling reading habits in myself over the next two months or so will spill over into the Fall.

Nora Ephron wrote:

There’s something called the rapture of the deep, and it refers to what happens when a sea-diver spends too much time at the bottom of the ocean and can’t tell which way is up. When he surfaces, he’s liable to have a condition called the bends, where the body can’t adapt to the oxygen levels in the atmosphere. All this happens to me when I surface from a great book.

It’s been a long time since I’ve joyfully suffered from a literary case of the bends, far too long. I need to rediscover my love of reading and read in the totally immersive way I used to. Like in college. I always try to tell my students that they’ll never have the kind of time they have in college ever again to encourage them to use it wisely and selfishly. I read and read and read. I always had my nose in a book, whether it was for class or for pleasure. And I didn’t care if people thought me lazy. I didn’t feel a pressure to be doing something more constructive. Hell, if I’m being honest, I didn’t feel a pressure to do anything. While it’s true I had less responsibilities and was physically located in an atmosphere very much conducive to my bookworm lifestyle, there was something else at play that’s harder to articulate, a kind of freedom I worry I might never find again.

Anyway, while I was in college, I was reading A LOT of Stephen King. I had gone to see him read once or twice, had forced all my roommates to watch adaptations of his novel, and was head over heels, exclusively reading King. My love affair turned intense during my freshman year. I was living on the sixth floor of an older building on campus with four other young women. Our dorm room was huge; it was two large rooms (one for our beds and one for our desks) and there was a private bathroom through the room with our desks. It was also across from the laundry room and was where all the other Honors students stayed. There were parties and fun, but for the most part, the people I saw on a daily basis had their heads on straight.

I came home after class one day, super excited to continue reading Lisey’s Story by Stephen King. It was engaging and enthralling, and I was hooked. All I wanted to do was lay in bed and read, and I had been looking forward to doing so all day. But when I entered the dorm, I couldn’t find my book. It wasn’t where I had left it, which was where I always left it: on my pillow. When I turned to circle dramatically in despair and disbelief, I found my book in the clutches of my roommate Charlotte. Charlotte was a talented, gorgeous, intelligent, and wonderful young woman, one of the best roommates I had at college. I loved her. But I was pissed she had my book (but not as pissed as I was when she ate my cookie and left a note saying “Sorry, but I needed it,” but I guess that’s a story for another time). When I told her I was in the middle of reading it, she asked to finish the page she was on. I consented, and she placed a bookmark in the book. Charlotte assumed we’d be able to read the same book at the same time. I had my doubts.

But what a wonderful experience. I was ahead of her, so she and I could talk about what we were reading while I did my best not to spoil anything. She used a bookmark and I dog-eared my pages (I’m a monster, I know). When Charlotte had a bad day, I set up a “bool” hunt for her just like the ones that appeared in the book. It was a radical, inclusive way to read to literally share a book with someone, and I cherished every second of it.

Reading, though a solitary activity for the most part, can be an impactful and communal activity (hello, book clubs!) and I feel the same way about writing. Last week, I was able to catch up with elegant, fashionable writers I met a few years ago in St. Augustine, Florida at the Algonkian Writer’s Conference. We talked about our triumphs and tragedies pertaining to writing, and discussed why we keep going despite the disappointments and rejections. It was a much needed afternoon and I cherished every second of it.

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Joanna Elm

Joanna Elm, accomplished author and one of the attendees, chronicled the excursion on her wonderful, absolutely wonderful blog which you can read here.

So, I’ve been reading and I’ve been writing. I’ve sent a finished manuscript to five literary agents and five small presses. I’ve also begun working on entering a few contests.

And I’ve reached out to the University of Limerick and am still gathering all the necessary information to live and study there for a year.

Hope all is well with you, readers. ❤

On adventures, especially the small ones.

Published July 3, 2019 by mandileighbean

ulfrankmccourt

I didn’t write a single entry for the month of June. I had drafts, but I never published a single entry. June was a rough, tough month for me; the end of the school year is always a hectic time, and there were financial and personal woes that kept me distracted, but the adventure – albeit a small one – I was psyching myself up for at the end of the month was a real blessing and a real game changer. Essentially, I’m saying that I’m glad I held off so I could post a love letter to The University of Limerick/Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School. It’s been about a year since I left a writing conference brimming with such admiration and inspiration and affection, and I’m excited to tell you all about it.

I attended the conference with a colleague who was my former English teacher and is now a very good friend. We headed into New York City during the later hours of Thursday morning. We checked into our hotel and spruced ourselves up before heading to an exclusive, invitation only reception at the Irish Consulate. I can’t remember feeling as privileged and elegant as I did that night. On the seventeenth floor of an intimidating building on Park Avenue, we were treated to passed hors d’oeuvres and wine and the wonderful joviality that seems to be exclusive to the Irish. Ellen and Malachy McCourt were present, relations of the Irish writer Frank McCourt, in whose honor the Summer School was started. Frank McCourt and his book Angela’s Ashes hold very special places in my heart because his book was the very first, and perhaps the only book, I remember my entire family reading. I’m talking my grandparents, my parents, my siblings, my aunts, and my uncles, and maybe even some cousins. Discussing that book with my extended family is one of my most cherished literary and familial memories, so to be in that elegant room with windows overlooking Park Avenue and rubbing elbows with the Irish literary scene was surreal.

The school really kicked off on Friday afternoon, where all attending gathered at the Glucksman Ireland House for registration and orientation. We were split up into three seminar groups (A, B, and C) and each group took each Core Workshop. My colleague and I had the good fortune of being in the same group, group C. But before we split up, we all remained in the main lecture room for an introduction that outlined the aims of the weekend, and for a lecture by Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald that included writing exercises and covered self-motivation, plot, structure, and story.

sarah-moore-fitzgerald-407653063 Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald was an incredibly warm, energetic and passionate woman. She was an absolute joy to learn from. She told us all that “There really is no expertise … everyone comes to the blank page” and that blank page is a “real leveler.” The inclusive atmosphere she created was crucial to establishing the camaraderie that gradually built over the weekend between the attendees and the faculty. Her knowledge and encouragement will stay with me for a long time. Her author profile is here, on her publisher’s website.

After Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s lecture, my group and I traveled down a short, creaky staircase for our first Core Workshop: All We Shall Know: Short Stories to Novels, led by Professor Donal Ryan.

donalryan Professor Donal Ryan was just … cool. He put us all at ease with his humor but simultaneously managed to keep us all on our toes with his wit and insight into the creative process. He was honest and open and completely generous. He really drove home the point that the best kind of stories are character driven and beautiful in their simplicity, meaning just tell the story you want to tell. He played songs that captured this idea and pointed out how they did it in just a couple of verses and a chorus. He said, “Infinity is there for us as writers” because anyone can write about absolutely anything, and that can be overwhelming. So the key is to keep it simple: read and write to hone your craft, and to be almost mathematical about plot, pacing, and structure to sort of rein yourself in and not succumb to “the oppression of infinity.” Professor Donal Ryan’s author profile can be found here, on his publisher’s website. And this is a link to a wonderful article about Donal Ryan, which really captures the spirit of his approach to writing.

I was on cloud nine leaving the building after the first day, and things were only made better by having a delicious dinner at “Eataly.” The writer’s life is definitely the life for me, and I am forever indebted to my colleague for bringing this experience to my attention. I feel like a different person, and I feel like a better writer.

Saturday was a full day: we started earlier and ended later. We began again as a large group with Professor Sarah Moore Fitzgerald discussing plot, the importance of conflict in the plot, and she shared intimate details of her process as a writer of books for young adults. Again, she was passionate and vibrant and full of knowledge. I filled pages and pages of my notebook with notes; amazing.

After the main lecture, my group shuffled over to the second Core Workshop in the seminar room just inside the front door of the house. The workshop was titled Poetry in the House of Prose, and it was led by Dr. Martin Dyar.

M-Dyar-by-Fran-Marshall-1-960x675 Learning from Dr. Martin Dyar was an incredible experience, so much so that I find it difficult to put into words the transformative magic that occurred within the room as he spoke. Before the workshop, we were to read “The Swimmer” by John Cheever and a collection of poems curated by Dr. Dyar. He explored the connection between narrative writing and poetry with examples, and spoke so eloquently about the importance of both and how using them in tandem makes the beauty of the written word and of abstract thought more accessible to the reader. Like Professor Dolan Ryan, he talked about compression and how with writing, and especially with poetry, less is often more. I annotated all over the poem we focused on and was inspired not only as a writer, but as a teacher. His workshop was so important on so many different levels, and it’s always wonderful to talk with brilliant people, and he is absolutely brilliant. Dr. Martin Dyar’s profile and brief biography are featured on the Poetry Foundation’s website.

We broke for a quick lunch. I had ice cream. What an amazing, incredible day! And I was only halfway through it.

After lunch, my group had our final Core Workshop with Dr. Kerry Neville, titled Writing Memoir and Longer Fiction.

kerryneville Dr. Kerry Neville was beautiful and honest and brave and vulnerable, and just an artist in full. She had us write a story about ourselves to introduce ourselves and really demonstrated the magic in a good story and what it can do to create an understanding and a sense of community between people, specifically between an author and her readers. She really emphasized the point that no matter what you write, it’s your job to get it right, to give the story the dignity it deserves. Dr. Kerry Neville also had us bring in important photographs and write a sentence or two about why there were so important to us. I had a picture of my maternal grandparents celebrating St. Patrick’s Day some years ago, and I wrote about the connection between them and Frank McCourt and sharing literary aspirations with my grandfather. I was honored and blessed to have the moment to give credit to Grandpa, who left us far too soon and was always so supportive. I like to think that he would be proud and we would have been incredibly close as I got older. And I owe Dr. Kerry Neville for sharing her knowledge and passion, and for allowing me a platform to do the same. She is a wonderful woman. Dr. Kerry Neville’s website is here.

We ended the day at the Swift Hibernian Lounge, where we were treated to an intimate concert with Pierce Turner.

Pierce-on-puck-fair-counter WOW. What a performance. What an experience. Pierce Turner’s lyrics were poignantly beautiful and incredibly intelligent. As I sat beside an Irish filmmaker, across from a woman who had studied at the University of Limerick for a year, and next to my colleague, I was perfectly in love with my life. It was amazing and wonderful, and I – again! – am struggling to find the right combinations of words to do the magic of the evening any sort of justice. It was actually as close to perfect as I think an evening can get. Pierce Turner’s official website is here. And this is my favorite song that he played that evening.

Sunday was our last day, and it was bittersweet. New York City always exhausts me and while I was excited to unwind at home, I knew I had been a part of something truly great and I would miss it dearly. I miss it right now.

Our last day started with an awesome lecture by Professor Eoin Devereux, called Waltzing Back: The Cranberries’ “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?”

eoindevereux The lecture was awesome. Professor Eoin Devereux was passionate and knowledgeable, but managed to make everything so accessible. Professor Joseph O’Connor kept calling him a Renaissance Man, and it’s true; he was a treat to listen to and my only regret is that his lecture wasn’t longer. Professor Eoin Devereux’s impressive faculty page is here.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of The Cranberries in my life. When I was a miserable teenager hell bent upon making my mother’s life more miserable than it needed to be, when her and I were at our worst, we could somehow manage to sit together and still share a love of music, particularly that of The Cranberries. My mother introduced me to Dolores O’Riordan’s haunting voice and stunning lyrics, and she played for me her favorite songs.  There’d been several signs from the universe indicating I was right where I was supposed to be, and Professor Eoin Devereux’s informative and entertaining lecture was definitely one of them.

The conference ended at McSorley’s Old Alehouse with a simple brunch. Each of the faculty members read a little something they had prepared and after some merriment muted by the knowledge it was the end, we parted ways. McSorley’s was the perfect establishment for the send off; rich in history and with stories of its own. One of my closest friends in college (whom I named one of my characters after in my novel) worked there for a long time, and her family still owns and operates it. I reached out to her and we reconnected briefly and everything just felt right.

It’d be a horrible, terrible mistake if I didn’t acknowledge Professor Joseph O’Connor, the man who led the way and endeavored to put the whole conference together.

profoconnor His humor and warmth and knowledge set the tone for the whole weekend. He was incredibly gracious and kind, and remarkably talented, and inspiring. Professor Joseph O’Connor’s author website is here.

He spoke about the possibility of studying at the University of Limerick, and encouraged us to reach out to him if we were interested. So I did.

I guess what this whole post has been leading up to is the revelation I came to: I want to study for a year in Ireland. I want to live and write there for a year. And I’ve begun planning to do so.

I’ll keep you updated, as always.

On interpretations and story lines.

Published May 9, 2019 by mandileighbean

The other night, I had a dream that I was in the shower and all my nail polish washed off in the water. I was pissed because in real life, I had just had a manicure and a pedicure and it totally stressed me out. When I woke up, I had forgotten the dream until I saw the red polish still on my fingernails as I reached for my phone (a terrible habit I need to break – summer objective #1!). I Googled “dream symbols nail polish” and as you can imagine, an overwhelming amount of information popped up. Some of the interpretations claimed to see nail polish in a dream meant the dreamer was focused on beauty and attention to detail. Other interpretations took it a step further and said that if the polish was a unique color (like blue or green or purple) then it showed the dreamer’s free spirit. But the interpretation I found that made sense to me was about how seeing nail polish in a dream meant the dreamer was dealing with rumors and “dirty words.” In my personal life, I’ve lost a close friend recently because this person told others that I hated them and said horrible things. I’ve been bitter and angry as a result, so the dream makes sense in that context.

But does that make the interpretation accurate? Does it have any merit, or am I just choosing what applies to me because I can only really look for what I am already seeing?

More recently, I had a dream where mice were running all over my feet and I was beside myself. I took to Google once again and was met with many different interpretations … again. But the website I settled on readily admitted that there are many unique interpretations for seeing mice in a dream, but that seeing mice in a dream was more often than not a bad sign. It mentioned mice representing feelings of inadequacy and of not being good enough, and the fear of being used, all of which are currently extremely relevant to me and what’s been going on in my personal life.

Are these really signs, or do people really only see what they look for?

I don’t know. Personally, I’m always looking for signs and I do believe there are miracles. But as I grow older, I find I have more and more trouble trusting myself. It is an incredibly frustrating sensation. And when it happens, I like to imagine I’m someone else to rectify the situation. I’ll ask myself, “What would Carrie Bradshaw do?” or “What would Harry Potter do?” or “What advice would Jane Eyre have?” I think of characters I admire and go from there. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing because maybe, just maybe, ink and pen and paper are stronger materials than blood and bone.

I bring up characters to ask about story lines. My prompt for this week is to: “Ask for fans’ favorite story lines and see if they have ideas or suggestions regarding what should happen next.” So for the next post, I’ll share more of my current project and ask for thoughts on what should happen next. But for this week, just tell me some of your favorite story lines. One of mine is from the SyFy network’s show “Haven” (based on The Colorado Kid by Stephen King … no surprise there, right?). The show was filled with “troubled” people, whose anxieties and fears and desires manifested into supernatural abilities. I thought it was a clever spin on the whole “sheriff in a small town” trope. And I fell in love with the character of Duke Crocker, played by Eric Balfour. (I should mention that I’ve always been attracted to men, both real and imagined, that have dark hair and dark eyes, and who are mostly assholes (from Michael Scott in “The Office” to Duke Crocker on “Haven,” and despite both shows being on Netflix, they couldn’t be any more different in plot and theme and genre. I hope that illustrates the depth of my issue)).

So let’s get talking! Please comment about your favorite story line from books and/or movies and/or television, and maybe it’ll be inspiring for all those aspiring writers out there (myself included!).

 

On the ups and downs that inevitably come with change.

Published April 24, 2019 by mandileighbean

Hello, readers! I am super elated to be writing to you from the Sunshine State when I am taking in copious amounts of Vitamin D and time with family, both of which are essential to maintaining good health.

121419-Life-Is-Ups-And-Downs

I know I am not telling you anything that you don’t already know, that you haven’t already experienced firsthand, but the universe in an incredibly fickle place, my friends. Like the late great Frank Sinatra once crooned, “You’re riding high in April / Shot down in May…” because that’s life. I was feeling optimistic about my life and the direction it is heading in until I tried to be honest with someone I loved and the person was dismissive and manipulative, and then I attended a beautiful wedding where I had so much fun I am still sore (and maybe even still drunk), but there was an empty chair beside me. I am on vacation but flinch when I pass a mirror. This all may seem melodramatic and stylized, but E.L. Doctorow once said, “I am led to the proposition that there is no fiction or nonfiction as we commonly understand the distinction; there is only narrative.”

So what’s a girl to do?

Life changes moment to moment; nothing lasts forever and the trick is reminding myself that I believe that’s a good thing. There needs to be some kind of karmic, cosmic balance. You take the good, you take the bad, and then you have the facts of life … right? As corny and clichéd as these quotes may seem, I really think it’s an essential part of survival. People grow and change, so why shouldn’t circumstances? Why do we have this desire to nest and be stuck and comfortable and complacent? Isn’t the discomfort with the progress?

I’m thinking about change (and by extension, the lack thereof, I suppose) not only because of events in my personal life, but because of happenings in my professional life as well. This blog post is supposed to be all about change, like I’m supposed to discuss how my writing has evolved. I had a really wonderful conversation with my creative writing students a couple of weeks ago. It ended with a student-teacher they are convinced is a pimp and a werewolf with some stunning and compelling evidence (he was in a three-piece suit with a pink shirt underneath, with impossibly voluminous hair, and his hands were covered in silver rings which, according to my students, kept him from changing into his true self, a werewolf), but we also talked about scrutinizing our past selves. One of my edgier and more alternative students shared photos on her old social media accounts, where she constantly wore beanies she now dislikes and drew cat whiskers on her face with eyeliner. She was absolutely mortified by the fact that she had gone out in public like that, that people had seen her. I confessed some of my more embarrassing juvenile blunders (as in dressing and looking like the lead singer of My Chemical Romance for an entire year, on purpose) but luckily for me, there was no social media. I think there was MySpace, but everyone was new to pasting ourselves all over the internet so none of us really had anything to be proud of, and now, we all have something to be ashamed of.

But the conversation got me thinking of how we change as time marches on and how more often than not, we’re embarrassed by our past selves. Is it because we’re older and wiser? Or are we just adapting to the social norms and continuing to conform? Don’t you think there’s a certain kind of fleeting bravery in teenagehood, where we truly don’t give a shit and are thereby truly free? Either way, I believe it’s a universal experience to look back at something you were super passionate about and cringe. It happens to the best of us.

This happens when I look back on my first novel, Her Beautiful Monster. That does not mean I am not proud of that novel, because I most certainly am. I think it’s entertaining as hell and there are some turns of phrase in there that are beautiful and fresh and remind me that I have talent. However, at the same time, there are passages that embarrass me. I was so naïve to the whole business of writing, and as far as my personal life goes, I had yet to experience any of that character-building stuff known as heartbreak. I was too young to know better, and sometimes, I catch myself believing that ignorance really is bliss. The more I read, and the more I get to know other wonderful writers, I can feel defeated, like it’s never ever going to happen to me. On my worst days, I tell myself my first novel was a fluke, that the publisher was young and desperate like me, and it was good for the moment but that my writing career has no real longevity. I don’t have any real talent and people were just being nice.

My writing since that first novel has evolved, and that makes me happy and proud. I’m not looking just to entertain, although I hope that will always be my main objective. I have some important things to say, some wisdom to impart, and I’m more cognizant of my process and choices. That last bit is a double-edged sword, though, because I can get in my own way. Instead of letting my hands fall to the keyboard, or instead of just putting pen to paper, I overthink it and make my storytelling more complicated than it has to be because of some critique someone offered years ago.

“Moody Blue,” my second completed manuscript, might never be published. And that would be my own damn fault. I sent it out too early and without any real revisions. The first draft was a god-awful mess. This summer, I might change the title and send it back out, see what happens. Or should I just focus on this new story that I’m working on? It’s so hard to tell and on any given day, I can convince myself that either option is best.

I am so fucking annoying to myself.

But let me end on the positive: my writing has evolved to become more unique to me. My plots are better developed and my characters are more authentic.

Will it be enough to get published? I wonder…

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