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I have a problem. If I were a chef or a visual artist, it might not really matter. But since I’m a writer, it’s a bigger issue. I’m homophone blind.
Waste paper basket? Or is it waist paper basket? Is it a bale of hay, or a bail of hay?
The first time my agent read my manuscript for THE SNOW CHILD, I’m pretty sure the first page had something about my main character “ringing” water out of a washcloth, rather than “wringing.”
Thank goodness, I have my mom. In addition to being an incredible poet, Julie LeMay is also a handy copy editor. She saved me on this last blog post when I wrote about planting “currents” in the back yard. “I think that should be currants, with an A,” she politely pointed out. All I could do was laugh, and count my blessing for her eagle eye.
Unfortunately, she wasn’t there the day of my downfall. Of all the homophone errors I’ve made, the most embarrassing went to print in our local newspaper, the Frontiersman. At the time, I covered the outdoors. Each week I would write articles and columns about the fishing season, great hikes, hunting opportunities and wilderness adventures.
I know next to nothing about mechanical things, but I decided to step outside of my comfort zone and write an article about ATVs (all-terrain vehicles such as four-wheelers.) They are popular in Alaska as a means to access remote areas.
I did my research – I visited a local ATV shop and talked with people who use them a lot. I wrote the article. It went to press. I was feeling dangerously proud. The next morning, the phone rang at my desk.
“Yeah, I was calling ‘cause I really liked that article you did on four-wheelers. Especially the part about having a wench on the front. Does she come with a six pack of beer, too?”
I had no idea what he was talking about, so laughed nervously and hung up quickly. Then I opened the paper on my desk. No less than half a dozen times I had referred to the need for a “wench” on the front of your four-wheeler. A wench, as in a flirty bar maid or something.
What I had meant was a “winch” as in a handy tool that you can use to pull yourself out of a mud hole. I could have used one right then, to pull myself out of the verbal mud hole I had landed in. A winch, that is. Not a wench.
This homophone blindness feels like a kind of dyslexia. If there are two words that sound the same I almost inevitably choose the wrong one. Each time I choose incorrectly, I have to commit it to memory, in hopes that I won’t make the same mistake again. But there are always knew ones to come across. Just kidding, I no that one.
P.S. Any homophone mistakes appearing in this blog are mine and mine alone, but words appearing correctly are thanks to my mom!
Dear dedicated reader,
When THE SNOW CHILD first began to move toward publication, I got two seemingly conflicting impressions from seasoned authors. Some told me that publication would change my life. Others warned me it would change nothing at all. After this past week, I’ve come to a conclusion — they were both right.
I spent several days in New York City during Book Expo America, one of the world’s largest publishing events. When I was first invited, I fretted over what to wear and what I would say. Once I got there, I was struck by an important realization – I was among my own people. People who love books.
During this whirlwind trip to New York, I talked with the editors of some of my favorite books. I visited with booksellers from around the country – Colorado to California, New York to Ohio. I talked with sales representatives, who help get books into stores. I met publishing CEOs and directors of publicity and marketing. I even had a chance to visit with Malcolm Jones, the book reporter for Newsweek Magazine,who had his own memoir, LITTLE BOY BLUES, published last year.
What did we talk about? Books. What books to recommend to middle school readers like my daughter. What book we had read most recently and loved wholeheartedly. What it’s like to have hundreds of books pass before you, whether you’re a reviewer or a bookseller, and know there is never enough time or space for all of them.
I also got to have dinner with some amazing authors:
- Pete Hamill. His newest novel is TABLOID CITY and he was recently interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air. His writing evokes a deep, loving knowledge of New York City.
- Josh Bazell. His second novel, WILD THING, comes out around the same time as my book in February. I recently read his first novel, BEAT THE REAPER, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so did both.
- Luis Urrea. The critically acclaimed author of THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER and several other books. His newest novel is QUEEN OF AMERICA, a fantastic, historical story of a saint making her way through the United States.
- Ayad Akhtar. He wrote AMERICAN DERVISH, a moving novel that I think will contribute to an important national discussion. Ayad also happens to be an actor starring in the HBO movie Too Big To Fail.
- Chad Harbach. His debut novel THE ART OF FIELDING is one of the most surprising and wonderful love stories I’ve read in a while, and I don’t even know anything about baseball.
And what did I talk about with these novelist superstars? Books, of course.
The truth is, if it weren’t for THE SNOW CHILD, I would never have had this opportunity. I had stepped into an entirely new, exciting world where you chat with renowned editors and dine with famous authors.
For about 12 hours. Then I got on an airplane, and I came home.
Where, thank goodness, everything is how I left it. My husband, Sam, is still working on our house, building walls and hanging Sheetrock. My daughters are still excited to see me and to find out what treasures I brought in my suitcase from the big city. The chickens are still clucking around the yard, and the tadpoles are still growing in the aquarium.
There are also still dishes to be washed and seedlings to be watered. The checkbook needs balancing, and no one did the laundry while I was away. My mom and I still talked on the phone at 9 a.m., and I still had to remember to get a moose roast out to thaw for dinner. The sun is shining, and will continue to do so until 11 tonight. The cottonwood trees are suddenly fully clothed in green leaves, and the snow is melting off the mountainsides. Yesterday, Sam spotted one of the first king salmon of the season while he was out on the river.
Everything changed, and everything is still the same. What a wonderful feeling.
Just a quick note today to say I’m back from my New York City trip. I had a fabulous, whirlwind visit. And when I got back home, summertime green had erupted all over Alaska. What a perfect welcome back.
I have lots to share with you, but right now I’ve got to unpack, water the garden seedlings, feed the chickens, and wrap myself in the comfort and quiet of my own home.
More soon —
Dear tweeting reader,
For years I wore a badge of honor – no social networking for me. I didn’t care how hard anyone, whether it be agent, editor, publisher, or friend, pushed me, I would resist. I would not become one of THOSE people.
Funny thing, no one pushed. So then, like a reluctant toddler with a strange meal in front of her, I got curious. I started poking around on Facebook and Twitter. “Well, maybe I’ll just try it for a bit,” I thought. “But if I hate it, I’m quitting. No one can make me eat this if I hate it.”
So here I am. Tweeting. Blogging. Facebooking. And I have to say, it’s a lot of fun. But of all the new avenues I’m exploring, Twitter is by far the most surprising and weirdest. You’re limited to 140 characters, so it’s like a social networking haiku. And there are thousands upon thousands of possible listeners and speakers.
I started tossing one-liners out into the fray, not entirely sure who might be listening. I began following a few people, a few people signed up to follow me. Before I knew it I had a little community that includes me, my editor, my publisher, some fantastic writers, a few old friends, my mom, and a brown bear in Denali.
Some of my favorite comments are funny. DenaliBear tweets about his life on the tundra, at least I think it’s a “he.”
And I also follow Conan O’Brien on Twitter, since I don’t have television reception.
Twitter is also a great way to find out what other writers are reading, including Alaska’s own Don Rearden.
Don Rearden @nprbooks Favorite short stories? I’m a big fan of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things they Carried”
But there is a surprising, heartwarming aspect to Twitter that I didn’t expect. Fellow authors are encouraging me, and I have a chance to speak out for authors I’m enjoying.
Urrealism Luis Urrea — Missing my newspaper days while finishing up @petehamillnyc’s Tabloid City. Also loving @EowynIvey’s The Snow Child. #beaprep #fridayreads
And in some small way I feel closer to the crew at Little, Brown & Co., my publisher.
One of the reasons I resisted social networking is because I didn’t want to do the hard sell. I didn’t want to be out there pushing my wares like a street vendor with a trench coat. “Pssst. I’ve got some books over here. Cheap books. Come on, take a look.”
But I see that I can come at it from a different angle. It can be about supporting other authors, cheering on other people, making new friends, and sharing a few laughs along the way.
As a part of a recent grant application, I had to come up with an artist’s statement. I decided I couldn’t do it. I’m not an artist. I’m a writer. A former newspaper reporter turned novelist. And even if I were to imagine myself an artist, what kind of statement am I trying to make? More importantly, what exactly IS an artist’s statement?
As is often the case when I want to avoid writing, I turned to Google. This was one of the first references that came up …
“Why do I have to write an artist statement? It’s stupid. If I wanted to write to express myself I would have been a writer.”
Ummm, wait a second. Somehow both of us, artist and writer, think we shouldn’t have to do this – the artist because she’s not a writer, and the writer because she’s not an artist.
But I was serious about the grant application, so I contemplated and typed and deleted and started over again. As I worked on it, I considered my roots. I come from two families of readers and writers. My husband joked when we were dating in high school that our house was like a library. When my parents did turn on the TV, we all read books and magazines even as we eyed the program occasionally.
So maybe my brain was preset to love the written word. My mom is a poet. Perhaps I inherited her ear for language, or maybe she taught me as she read me stories and poems.
Eventually I came up with a single page that described where I had been and where I hoped to go with my writing, with my art. And I ended with two sentences that felt right:
“As a writer, this is where I find the joy – in the work. I want to weave stories and sculpt characters. I want to put the world of my mind to the page, and invite others to inhabit it.”
It is true, and concise. My own statement as an artist.
“The fact is, if you call yourself a writer it’s because you quite simply don’t have a choice … nobody would willingly choose this kind of life. You spend years, working on something that sometimes you’re the only one who sees. You get very little support, and sometimes you’re outright told to do something “real” with your life. You have to work, very hard, for hours at a time, for no pay and with no promise of ever getting paid.”
Now there’s a true artist statement. I write because I have to. Because it’s who I am. Sometimes it’s hard, even frightening. Often it leaves me lonely and unsure. And every once in a while it offers a jolt of pure joy. Much like life.
Dear fashionable reader,
I was recently invited to a dinner in Manhattan with some other authors. It’s not very sophisticated or progressive of me, but one of my first thoughts – after “Yippeee!” and “Really? I get to go?” – was “Oh, no. What am I going to wear?”
I have come to discover that the rest of the world does not dress in rubber boots, holey corduroys, and fleece jackets, at least not all the time. Here in Alaska, at the opera you’re as likely to see blue jeans and Carhartts as gowns and tuxedos. Alaskans are known to be a lot of things, but fashionable rarely tops the list.
My obsession with choosing something to wear began to keep me up at night. A fellow Alaskan advised me to look at it as if I were traveling to an exotic country. I should research the culture and customs. So I asked some Manhattan regulars – my editor and publicist. I was advised that the dinner wouldn’t be an excessively dressy event. So my first thought was out …
I’ve also been told that while people may be charmed by a little bit of “rustic Alaska,” I should make sure to not dress like a hick. I’m assuming that means no fishing/hunting gear …
… which is too bad, because lifejackets and rain gear are so slimming on me, and leather work gloves are always an elegant accessory.
But I was completely at wit’s end when my publicist begged me to please leave the moose hat at home. Darn!
(This photo is actually from a blog called Heinous Hats. Who knew?)
But, seriously, I want to have some pizazz, to show people that Alaskans are creative, fun-loving people. So, taking all of this into consideration, I think I’ve finally settled on a look …
(Just kidding, Marlena!)