Category Archives: Tim O’Brien

From Wordsmithing to Number Crunching – Whatever Happened to Whatever??

My ‘Whatever Clock‘ is a prized possession – the gift of a former mentee, who gave it to me just as I was embarking on a year off in September 2008, an unpaid sabbatical, where I would have to answer to no clock for 12 glorious months. It is still mounted in Texas, where I spent a large part of that year off, and now spend a chunk of every summer with my husband – and only set an alarm clock if I have to catch a flight. (for example, tomorrow I have a 5:38 a.m. flight to Portland, Maine, where I will be attending the Damariscotta Lake Writers Conference in its inaugural year – so, yes, I will definitely be needing the alarm for that, along with a 7:00 p.m. bedtime)

During that year off, I ended up writing two book length manuscripts, one clocking in at about 200 pages and the other a whopping 500. Clearly, words were flowing. I read at least two books a week during that time, on top of the writing, and it was all about the love of language, the storytelling, getting it all down, with just those 26 letters of the alphabet, which according to Tim O’Brien (who was a mentor at The Humber School for Writers – can’t believe it was just a few weeks ago), that’s all we’ve got, so we better get them write – oops – right.

I updated the appearance of my Blog, which was starting to feel a bit like shag carpeting, or feathered Farah hair compared to other people’s. I kept the blog title as Moving Meditations. Still seems apt, since I am always going somewhere – never staying in one place. Often those transitions between places provide the time to consider things. When I come to Texas now, it’s for shorter stints. I know the school year is waiting, growing impatient, and will soon take over my time, but I am always hoping to slip back into that unplugged ‘Whatever Clock’ mode, where the words take over. It’s harder now, because instead of flying through early drafts, I’m deep in revising/editing territory. Frankly, it’s less fun – and returning to the places I inhabited during that blissful year of full-time writing has, instead of immersing me back in the land of letters, gotten me somehow stuck in and worrying about the world of numbers, and wondering whatever happened to ‘whatever’?

Here are just some of the numbers that are sneaking in and wrestling far too much brainpower from my typically wordwise consciousness:

# How time on the clock is ticking by at an alarming rate
# How many days/hours/minutes/seconds of summer vacation are left?
# How many pages can I edit in one day?
# How many words can I cut from each page?
# How many pages can I cut in total and still tell the story?
# How many laps/lengths can I swim? (70 for a mile a few times this week)
# How many times can I make a wish because I catch the digital pool clock exactly as the numbers all line up?
(1:11, 2:22, 3:33, 4:44, 5:55, 11:11, 22:22, 33:33, 44:44, 55:55)
# How many reps/lbs can I lift on the barbells?
# How many minutes on the treadmill, at what speed, and at what incline?
# Is that really the size of my bridesmaid’s dress?
# How many inches will it need to be taken in?
# How many grey hairs are there now? Ok, at least I can still count them.
# When will the temperature drop below 100 degrees Fahrenheit so I can breathe?
# How many bugs will I have to encounter in Texas?
# How humongous will said bugs be?
# What is the IQ of supernatural sized bugs?
# How many hours of sleep am I losing to said gigantic bugs?
# How many American dollars are there in my wallet?
# How much have I racked up on my credit cards on writing retreats, books, gym, etc.?
# Do I have the numbers of my passport, bank, frequent flyer, etc. cards?
# How far from this city to the next one?
# How many more airplanes, and how many more minutes up in the air?

This last concern leads me spend most flights quietly chanting in a mantra-ish fashion a few lovely and lyrical quotes that seem tailor-made:
“Men weren’t meant to ride with clouds between their knees”
Five for Fighting ‘Superman’
“I’m up on the airplane, making a deal with God, inspired by gravity”
Indigo Girls ‘Airplane’
“What seems dangerous often is not – black snakes, for example, or clear-air turbulence”
Amy Hempel ‘In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried’

Ok, by recording all these number concerns, it is my hope to push them out of the forefront and get back into the story, the world of words. Achieve flow. Leave the number crunching for a future me to worry about. Wish I had a quote for that.

The Humber School for Writers

Tomorrow will be the last day of my full week workshop at The Humber School for Writers. They aren’t blowing smoke when they tell us how fortunate we are. I don’t think many of the close to 80 participants would find anything to argue with in that. Sure, we’ve paid for the privilege, but we’ve gotten incredible bang for the buck.

It’s hilarious to my group, being mentored each morning by none other than @MiriamToews, when she asks us if we aren’t exhausted and overwhelmed, and if we have actually attended any of the afternoon ‘extra’ sessions. We attend every last one, and with remarkably few dud speakers, we are indeed overwhelmed, but only in the best way possible.

This week, we’ve been lucky enough to hang upon the inspiring words of the likes of Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried), Richard Scrimger (Me & Death), Eva Stachniak (The Winter Palace), Bruce Jay Friedman (Splash, The Heartbreak Kid), Joe Kertes (Gratitude), Wayson Choy (Jade Peony), Johanna Skibsrud (The Sentimentalists), Esi Edugyen (Half Blood Blues), David Bezmozgis (The Free World), Alistair MacLeod (No Great Mischief), and finally, our mentor Miriam Toews (A Complicated Kindness, The Flying Troutmans, Irma Voth).

I should also mention the articulate and appealing Craig Payette, Nick Garrison, and Janice Zawerbny who come from the Editing/Publishing World. They gently hacked sample offerings to pieces and made clear what would make those samples better. Every morning we spend workshopping our works-in-progress with our small group and our mentor and after lunch, the afternoon involves talks from other incredible author mentors, agents, and editors.

I have filled pages and pages with helpful notes from these meetings, but just as worthwhile have been the interactions and connections with other like-minded writers. Our ‘student’ readings last night were impressive enough that three hours locked in the room (extending our full day to nearly 12 hours) frankly flew by. I feel privileged to have enjoyed this opportunity and am now ready to dive back into the main manuscript for what I sincerely hope will be the last summer. Thanks to everyone at the workshop for making it what it was. Sad that tomorrow is the last day!