Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Keeping My Clothes On

I am happy to report that I’m in another production…and this time I keep my clothes on! (If you’re wondering, “huh?” please check out the previous post “Costumeless in a Costume Drama” from September). I’m thrilled to be part of the ensemble cast of The Hallelujah Girls opening at the Dayton Theatre Guild on Thanksgiving weekend.

My character, Sugar Lee Thompkins, is fully clothed in every single scene. That’s a record for me! In one scene she wears a salon robe and scuffies to go into the sauna, but that’s as racy as it gets.

I gotta say, it’s kind of a relief.

I also have to say that I am loving my life right now: writing all day, then playing in shows in the evening. Live theatre is the exact opposite of the writing life—I go from ultra-focused solitude, to extreme extroverted collaboration. Heading to rehearsal is a wonderful way to “get out of my head” after a writing day. My two passions give my current life some lovely balance.

And there’s nothing lovelier than studying lines with a purring cat in your lap. Ahh...

If ya’ll are in the Dayton area, I hope you’ll consider coming to check out The Hallelujah Girls. Described as a “rollicking Southern comedy,” the play takes place in SPA-DEE-DAH!, the abandoned church-turned day spa. It follows five close women—motivated by the loss of one their dear friends—as they try to “fix” their lives while battling several hysterical obstacles (which include—among many other things—probation officers, stagnant marriages, a reputation as the Black Widow of their town, loser children, the unwelcome re-appearance of a sexy ex-fiance...and most of all, the evil, nasty, social-climbing Bunny Sutherland).

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Zombies Cause Poison Ivy

I recently got a bad case of poison ivy.

Because I was distracted by zombies.

While “stealing” plants.

Let’s back up. There are a few things you need to know: I’ve been gardening like crazy, so plants are always in my mind. I notice what’s growing and what’s flowering more than I used to. It’s rather obsessive, the way I hone in on a new plant and want to know what it is...and want to have some, of course.

Well, I started noticing this gorgeous purple wildflower on the sides of the highways. I pointed it out to various people who all identified it as ironweed. I’d like to stress that point: it’s a weed. Not a wildflower. A weed.

There’s a cement company near me that has a quarry full of rock remnants that they allow people to come take for free. I’ve been taking trips out there since June, filling my trunk with rocks to border my garden beds and to make pretty stone paths through all my gardens. One Saturday, while selecting perfect flat paver rocks, I noticed that the quarry had lots and lots of vibrant iron weed growing all around it—surrounding the entire perimeter of the quarry. I decided to come back the next day with a shovel and dig some up to plant in my yard.

That’s not stealing, right? It’s a weed! A weed growing in a quarry where anyone is allowed to haul away what they want. It’s not like this was a landscaped garden in a park. I just want that to be clear.

All would’ve been well, but that night I went to see the movie Zombieland with my friend Rachel. Rachel and I love zombies. We see all the zombie movies, good and bad.

Zombieland was a comedy. It was fun, then immediately forgettable…or so I thought…

I headed to the quarry early Sunday morning and kept running the scenario of the movie through my mind as I drove the deserted interstate. Because I passed no other cars, even when I got on the side roads, it was easy to imagine that I was perhaps the only human left alive since whatever horrible outbreak of virus caused most of our race to become the walking dead. I imagined that I wasn’t driving to get rocks and some ironweed; I was on a mission to get much-needed food from the only place I knew where to find it. I had to go this quarry. My life in zombieland depended on it.

Maybe it was the fact that I’m a fiction writer and in fiction the worst case scenario is always the most interesting. Maybe it was the fact that I’ve always had a vivid imagination. Maybe it was the fact that from the moment I began to pretend my own community was a zombieland I hadn’t seen a single other person.

Or maybe I’m just a big ol’ freak.

Whatever the reason, by the time I wound my way down the deserted country road to the secluded quarry, I had myself in a jangling ball of nerves. I tried to joke with myself that I was just passing the time, as I thought things like, “Okay, I’m going to park REALLY close to this patch of ironweed. I’ll keep all the doors locked, but the driver’s side open. I’ll leave the trunk open, but not all the way open, because I want to be able to see over the car…” I could envision it clearly: the snarling, furious zombies hurtling through the cow pasture, stumbling over the loose rocks as they came for me, the way I’d whack one in the head with my shovel, dive into the driver’s seat, lock the doors, and speed away— zombies trying to cling to the car, falling away one by one.

I was jumpy as I waded into the waist-high weeds to tackle my first batch of iron weed. When three deer leapt out of the brush and dashed across the road, my pulse raced away along with them.

I hurriedly dug up three big clusters of the purple flower—again, I feel the need to tell you that my three extractions were not even noticeable in the ocean of ironweed surrounding the quarry—and put them in my back seat, checking over my shoulder often. Then I limited myself to looking only at those picked-over rocks near my car (instead of climbing over the mounds of rocks to the farthest piles where the real treasure are found, like I usually do). Once my trunk contained the ten or so pavers it’s capable of holding, I breathed a sigh of relief as I locked my doors and drove away. Mission accomplished: I was still alive.

Alive…but itchy.

Oh, it took about twenty-four hours. The ironweed was planted and thriving in my yard when the first unmistakable blisters appeared inside my wrists.

Then on my fingers.

And one especially aggravating patch on my ankle.

I know poison ivy. I watch for poison ivy. My allergy to it is especially bad, so I’m always on the lookout, and I knew there was none in my yard. Just to be sure, I walked through my yard, all around my house, peering closely at every weed in every garden bed.

Along my back fence, near the flourishing rich purple ironweed, it dawned on me: the way I’d wandered into deep weeds to dig these flowers. How I’d reached down through the weeds to pick up the root balls.

That damn ironweed better come back next year in my backyard! Because that “free” weed cost me: $28 worth of cortisone cream and Domeboro at CVS, a $31 prescription of steroids, and a doctor’s office visit fee for an injection.

I met my friend Rachel for coffee a few days later and as I scratched forlornly at the now disgusting red clusters, I told her, “I’ve got poison ivy—bad— and I deserve every oozing bit of it.”

“From your yard?” she asked.

“No. Remember how I told you I was going to dig some up at Cemex? It must’ve been from there. I wasn’t paying attention.”

She shook her head, smiling. “You were distracted because you were stealing,” she teased me.

“No, I was distracted because of the zombies.”

She is the only person in the world who would totally understand that statement without another word of explanation. She took a sip of her coffee and with genuine sympathy in her eyes said, “I’m so sorry.”

I knew she meant it.

If the zombie apocalypse ever happens, I hope I get to survive with Rachel.

And if the world as we know it has to end, I hope wild ironweed will bring beauty to the devastation.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Gardening/Writing Connection

I’ve always contended that a writer is always writing, even when she's not sitting before the computer. Certain stages of the writing process can’t happen in front of the computer...for
me, anyway. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a stickler for discipline and I show up at the desk for my allotted time every weekday, but a lot of my writing happens at other times, too.

A lot of my writing happens in my garden.

Deciding to land in a home base and have a garden may be the best thing I’ve done to boost my writing life in a long time. Here’s the thing: when you’re discovering the story in a first draft, or stuck in a scene of a work in progress, or contemplating the next move for a tricky character, it’s nearly impossible to just sit at the desk and think, “Okay, what happens next?” I mean, of course, you CAN sit there, but it’s usually very frustrating. For me, those ideas flow when I’m doing something else, especially something mindless with my hands—mowing the grass, driving a long distance, washing dishes...and gardening. It's as if I get out of my own way, and the idea sneaks up on me while I'm distracted.

Gardening is perfect for my writing. Gardening is creative in its own right and therefore highly satisfying, but it also doesn’t take a huge amount of concentration. Digging in the dirt, weeding, deadheading, picking vegetables, and watering—oh, especially watering, which is such a meditative, Zen-like practice to start with—my mind is free to wander and explore all kinds of plot possibilities.

When I first bought this house, I fretted over how much time I spent in the garden, feeling guilty that I should be in my new writing office instead, until it dawned on me how much the time in the dirt fed the time at the desk.

For me, too—not to stretch the metaphor too thin—novel writing takes the same kind of tending and patience as gardening does. It takes a vision and some faith. It takes watering and fertilizing, even before you’re certain anything is going to take root. It takes time before anything fruitful begins to emerge or flower. Weeding, pruning, and cutting back spent growth is a lot like editing—attention to small detail that has such a cumulative effect on the overall beauty.

Now, instead of feeling guilty that I’m “cheating on” the novel, I’ve embraced some daily puttering in the garden as part of my writing routine.

My garden helps me grow books.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

BLOW Book Club

First of all, is that not the best book club name ever? It stands for Book Lovers of Westchester (New York). Believe me, they have the sense of humor to match their name.

They've been together 18 years, in their own words, “through babies, divorces, death, marriage, and grandchildren.”

They contacted me about a Skype book club. Just in case you don’t know what Skype is, it’s like a “video call” where both parties can see and hear each other. It’s free! And it’s wonderful—it means I can meet with book clubs anywhere, even in other countries. I used to do a lot of speaker phone calls. Skype is better, but it does change things—they can see me after all! I can’t do a Skype call in my jammies or with bed head, for instance. So, after leading my fiction workshop last Wednesday, I rushed home, brushed my hair, set my laptop up in a relatively clean part of my home and called the BLOW Bookclub.

The BLOW women like to pick a theme from their book pick for their menu, and they said The Kindness of Strangers made it easy. They had challah bread, pizza with roasted vegetables, and chocolate-raspberry-caramel frosted cake. They each frosted their own piece of cake and adorned it with vanilla ice cream and raspberry sauce.

Let me just savor that image a moment.

Have I mentioned how much I adore a book club that gets into food? This group is really creative—sometimes the hostess decorates her house according to some theme of the book, and at times they’ve dressed up as the characters. I love it! (Reminds me of my own book club—we humbly call ourselves the Goddesses—and the time we met in the Yellow Springs Cemetery for our discussion of The Lovely Bones).

This was a wonderful discussion. They brought up something no other book club or reader ever has (and this book has been out since 2006)! They commented on the choice of the name Laden for the family, how not only was The Laden Table a great name for Sarah’s catering business, but how each member of the family was laden with a heavy burden. I wanted to jump up and do a little dance! Writers spend soooo much time mulling over names. They’re never arbitrary choices. So I was so grateful to these insightful women for this pat on the back.

The time flew by—we talked for nearly an hour and I enjoyed every bit of it. Skype worked just fine and other than my cat nearly knocking over a vase of flowers on my laptop, all went smoothly.

With the next book, I’ll do my best to take a train from NYC up to meet these fabulous women in person....and there’s plenty of good food in the upcoming novel that maybe they’ll make for me. (Hmm...I see a new motivation to include food in all my future writing!)

The group sent me a photo of them from the night of our chat. And Julia emailed this, which I think sums up beautifully why I love book clubs so much,
“Being that we have been together for 18 years we are so fortunate and grateful to be part of this amazing group of women who love and respect each other. We have had many wonderful experiences together. Thank you for giving us another great experience it put into our memory bank.”