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The Kenilworth ovens - cooking young Howells for 25 years.

 

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Speech for NEC Conference 2005


When they asked me to do this, I was flattered. I was also terrified. As you may be able to tell, I am not very good at this, but this panic attack I’m enjoying right now should ease soon. I felt I had a whole year to work up the courage to give a speech and to think of something to talk about. Naturally, I started about two weeks ago. Denial is one thing I’m very good at.

First, I made an attempt to convince myself that I would not be nervous, but even I’m not that good at ignoring reality. Then I started trying to think of all the things I could do to either get over it or fake it. At one point I got the ingenious idea of making a picture of my face and sticking it on the top of my head so that I could keep my eyes fixed firmly upon the speech, but still smile at all of you. I presented this brilliant, cunning plan to my loving, supportive family when we were all gathered for a visit and was buried in ridicule. Loving, supportive ridicule, of course.



Next, I lectured myself. First came a round of ego-boosting. I have been at this writing business for seventeen years, not counting the five years I struggled to get a foot in the door. I have a few awards; get decent reviews, and so on. Next I told myself that I am a mature adult. I am now a grandmother. I turned, well, older, at the start of this month, and celebrated 34 years of marriage last week. Unfortunately, reminding myself of just how long I have been kicking around this place depressed me, so, I made coffee, picked up my crochet, and watched a few episodes of a British comedy called Black Adder to cheer myself up. Then I watched the movie Snatch. Then I watched a few episodes of another British comedy called Jeeves and Wooster. I needed a LOT of cheering up.

Deciding I would just pray that I wouldn’t faint, I turned my attention to what my speech should be about. Something life-affirming, wise yet humorous, I thought. Then writer’s block set in with a vengeance. I asked my friends and family what I should talk about. One told me to just speak from the heart. Very good advice, but I’m a multi-generation New Englander with English and Scottish ancestors. Not exactly a group renowned for being effusive or emotional. I could hurt myself.

Another person told me to talk about my life. Well, a few hours of thought killed that idea. I’m not sure if it’s a good or bad thing, but, while my life hasn’t been perfect, it’s been pretty ordinary. If I had any great revelations or the like, I missed them. Searching through my memories I decided such knowledge as – it’s not a good idea to run through your uncle’s cow pasture in your Sunday-best patent leather shoes, or, sand fleas can come home with you from the beach and live happily in the bathroom, or even when you’re coming in from water skiing and get a cramp so you can’t sit down and slow down – fall down – because taking out a section of a pier with your shins can be painful – doesn’t really count as a great life-altering revelation . Sadly, despite having come of age in the 60s, I can’t really say I even made a very enthusiastic hippy.

Then there was the suggestion that I talk about myself and my writing. That sounded like a bad idea, even a little vain, but I tried to think of some angle. I was getting desperate. So, I stared out the kitchen window at the birds in the back yard and tried to think of something. Then the hawk arrived. I watched the birds scatter and cheered on the poor mourning dove that was being chased by the hawk. The last I saw, it was still slightly ahead as the two of them disappeared into the trees. I like to think that dove survived to run away another day. I also realized that I’m easily distracted.

I blame the profusion of wildlife at my house for this problem. After five years of dealing with them, you would think I’d be accustomed, but I still allow them to distract me. At first, I tried to shoo them away. The huge snapping turtles that drag themselves up into my yard from the river every year refuse to be ‘shooed’. They just hunker down and keep digging up the rose garden. Deer ‘shoo’ fairly well, although there was one huge buck who took his sweet time about it. Raccoons need more than just turning on all the outside lights. For that, they just peer around the post they’ve climbed to get at the bird seed, and, when no one comes out, go right back to eating. The hawk allowed himself to be ‘shooed’ only a few times. Now he just stares at me with his red eyes. He is currently winning that contest. Wild turkeys can be ‘shooed’ away when there are five or six of them. When there’s fifteen, they seem to think that woman on the porch saying ‘shoo’, ‘go away’, is actually saying: “Please, come over here and peck me to death.” The groundhog allowed himself to be ‘shooed’ but only after he finished eating my nasturtiums.

I did think the fox was appropriately intimidated by me until the day I was walking back to my desk to face a particularly stubborn chapter and saw him chasing my cat. He stopped when I burst out the door and told him to cut that out. I also told him that the wildlife expert at the Audubon Society said foxes don’t usually eat cats. He stood there and looked at me, looked in the direction my cat went, then looked back at me before he ambled off into the tall grasses and wildflowers. I thought the balance of power had been restored and, feeling quite pleased with myself, was going to get back to work. Unfortunately, my cat, not the brightest thing on four paws, had obviously found no way into the house and just kept right on running, all the way around the house, back into the garden, and straight into the tall grass and wildflowers. There was a lot of swaying and rustling of plant life, but then the cat came flying out and went straight up a tree, the fox close behind. The fox looked at me, looked up the tree, and then looked back at me. I told him to ‘shoo’. He did. Slowly. And only after he left his signature on the tree.



Then there was the time I glanced out the window as I worked at the computer, trying to ignore all those little red and green lines Word was putting under what I was writing, and saw a black bear in the garden. I did have the good sense not to go outside and tell him to ‘shoo’. I called the police. The man there said there was not much he could do about it. If I wanted, he could come over and scare it off with the spotlight and the siren. Then he told me not to go outside and confront it. Fortunately, I had enough of my wits about me to realize it might not be wise to say ‘well, duh’ to a policeman. By then the bear had wandered off into the woods on the other side of the road. So, I thanked the man and hung up. Fifteen minutes later I called him back to report that the bear had returned and had just torn down my clothesline so could he come over and scare it away now as this was more wildlife than I wanted to deal with. By the time the policeman and the animal control officer showed up the bear was gone again. They viewed the destruction and gave us advice like don’t confront the bear and he’s more scared of you than you are of him. My husband and I doubted that, but just nodded and said thank you for coming. My husband told me that if I saw any of the neighbors the next day, I should tell them about the bear just in case he wasn’t just passing through. I thought that was a good idea as many of them have small children. He said that one of them might also have seen the police here and think we had a domestic dispute. I asked what kind of domestic dispute would require the animal control officer. He politely laughed but had that look that says ‘my wife is losing it’ and went back to watching his soccer.
I like to write at night – after supper, after prime time television, and after the hubby goes to bed. Fewer distractions. Unless, of course, field mice have decided that your house is the perfect place to spend the winter. It’s hard to concentrate when there’s a scurrying noise in the ceiling right over your head. That’s especially true when your cats hear it and try to find a way into the ceiling. Or when you hear your husband yelling and the sound of banging coming from upstairs. I went up and he was standing on the bed banging on the ceiling with this thick stick of wood he keeps by the bed in case anyone tries to break into the house at night. Personally, I don’t think a housebreaker is going to be too terrified of a five foot six Englishman in his pajamas waving a stick, but stranger things have happened. Anyway, I asked what he was doing. He told me to listen, and, sure enough, there was scrambling going on in the ceiling over the bed. Our house had become a field mice vacation spot. He said “The arrogance of them!” and returned to banging on the ceiling. I was a good wife. I only laughed a little bit, then, I went back downstairs to the cats and my writing. Occasionally a mouse appeared in my office or the kitchen, which truly livened up the evening. I tend to think it got depressed and was suicidal since it had just boldly stepped out into the land of five cats. Many hours of good writing time were lost trying to get that mouse before the cats did. We’re running about even.

The final humiliation came on one of those sunny, late fall days when the cats pestered to go out. I have deluded myself into thinking I have them trained to leave me alone when I write. Only sitting on my lap is allowed. One of them thinks draping herself over my shoulder should be allowed, but I was firm. I only allow her to drape herself over my left shoulder as I’m right-handed. When I try to ignore their pestering, one will come and sit on my paper. Lifting up a tail to finish sentence is severely frowned on. I think they have a conference and elect one to do it as each time it’s a different cat. So, I finished the sentence, endured the frown, then got up to let them out, knowing that, if I forget to check for when they want to come back in they will elect one to savage a screen to catch my attention. I have discovered it’s difficult to keep writing when there’s a cat splayed out on the window screen staring in at you. And they always seem to know what room I’m in.


Because I attract all these creatures into my yard by feeding them, I feel it’s only fair to step outside and warn them that I am about to unleash the predators. So, I went out, told everyone to ‘shoo’ because the cats were coming and watched the birds flutter up into the trees and the squirrels and chipmunks saunter off. I started to turn to let the cats out and heard peeping. I looked back to see a chipmunk on the woodpile and another on the rock pile watching me and peeping. I was being scolded, in stereo, by a creature I could step on. I marched over to the woodpile and told that chipmunk that, if he didn’t ‘shoo’, I was letting the cats out anyway. If they got him, it was his own fault. I wouldn’t chase the cat around yelling ‘drop that chipmunk’ and I wouldn’t run interference so that he could dash back to safety. I started to walk away and both chipmunks popped out to scold me again. Did I let the cats out? Oh, no. I got a handful of bird seed, tucked it down into the woodpile, then put up a little barricade so that the cats couldn’t poke at him while he dined. Did the same for the one in the rock pile. As I finally went to let the cats out, I realized I had just totally surrendered what few scraps of authority I had clung to.

There is a point to all of this Animal Planet style dialogue. At least, I found one, and it’s not the fact that the neighbors who can see me in my garden talking to woodpiles, chasing cats, and arguing with foxes probably think I’m very strange. Aside from the fact that I should have had the willpower to ignore these distractions and keep on writing, all this makes me wonder if writers are, naturally, just a little bent. I prefer to think of this as a widespread characteristic and not just my problem. Yet, who else but a writer would think it’s acceptable to go out to lunch with a fellow writer and sit there discussing the best way to kill someone off or the smoothest way to get two people alone together so that they could have at it. And, they don’t say hero, heroine, or villain. No, they use real names and talk about these characters as if they are real people. They are also oblivious to the people at the next table who are either leaning closer trying to catch every salacious detail or are wondering if they should call 911. And surely it’s mostly writers who have to sternly lecture themselves about NOT going to that bookstore again. After all, they only went there a little while ago and if they go again too soon they’ll have to get a second mortgage. Or who actually take an extra large suitcase on a trip, maybe even pack an extra bag, because they know they’ll need that room for all the books they’ll bring home.

I also think writers look at things in a different way than most people. While others try to ignore that couple arguing in the mall, a writer might chance a peek now and then to check out that body language or listen to the inflections in the voices. Could be useful in the next book. A writer can watch a movie or a TV show she loves, but there’s still that part of her brain checking out character development, looking for holes in the plot, and listening closely to the rhythm of the dialogue. A writer can look at something totally mundane and suddenly think ‘what if”. When we had an addition put on the house, there was the big cellar hole sitting in the yard for a while. At one point I saw two of the workers peering down into the hole and talking very seriously – and, yes, I was supposed to be writing. Well, it turns out that one of those stupid turtles had fallen into the hole and they were trying to decide who would be the lucky sod to go down there and get it out. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, hmmm? deep hole? Can’t get out? Would this work for a first meeting?

All right, so maybe it’s just me, but I really do think there is something about writers that makes them different. I believe it’s what’s up here (point to head) and what’s in here (point to heart) our heads are filled with ideas for a story and in our hearts is the need to write it.

That brings me to my final point. As you can probably tell, linear thought is not one of my strong points – but, onward - at these conferences you will hear a lot of advice on how to do things. There is certainly a lot one needs to know. But, try to think of all the workshops, as well as all of the books and articles on how to write, as a buffet. Pick out only what you like and what feels good.


When I went to my first conference, after I had sold my first book, I was completely overwhelmed. I wondered how I had lucked into getting published when I was obviously doing everything wrong. I didn’t do character lists. I’ve got a list of good qualities and bad qualities, as well as quirks one can live with and won’t make you suddenly snap one day and beat him over the head with a shovel, as well as the obviously irritating or disgusting ones. That’s all I’ve ever used. My back story is often very thin. Character’s likes and dislikes often just pop up as the story goes along. My synopsis consists of a very detailed beginning and ending, but – and those of you who know me will know this – the middle is very thin, sometimes only a sentence or two, such as – they fled across France. That’s because I only have a vague idea of what will happen. I don’t plot out everything. I don’t have a regular, set schedule. My desk is a mess. On the other hand, if someone asks me what curse words they used in the 1500s, I can get you a list in minutes. I misspell words, reversing letters, use the wrong words, put things in the wrong order, and so forth. When I went to school they called it being a little backward. Computers hate me. I believe there’s a gremlin living in my computer who delights in finding new and unusual ways to freeze me out, delay me, or make my stuff disappear. I still think it’s his fault my tooth fell out onto my keyboard one day, but that’s another story. I spend a lot of time ‘thinking’ about my story, and collecting up a pile of scraps of paper on which I’ve scribbled out possibilities and partial scenes. I write my story out longhand. To me that gremlin-possessed machine in the corner of my office is little more than a glorified word processor.

I have tried many of the ways people advise you to put your story together. Some have worked. Some have not. I even tried Pat Grasso’s excellent method of plotting, carefully breaking down each scene. It was a work of art and, some day, I’m sure I will remember where I put it. It’ll be fascinating to see just how much of it I actually followed. I continue to go to workshops and still try out new ways. I love it when I listen to another writer talk and a little voice in my head goes – Aha! That’s it!
Yet, along the way, I finally realized there’s only one thing that matters – getting that story out. Try everything, but don’t worry if it doesn’t work for you, not even if it’s a multi-published, NY-Times-bestselling, prize-winning, have-an-option-for-a-movie, author who gives you that advice. Never stop learning about the craft, but don’t try to force yourself into a suit that doesn’t fit. The only thing that’s important is taking what’s up here (point to head), combining it with what’s in here (point to heart) and creating a story that satisfies both you and the reader. How you get to that point is your own adventure.

Thank you for listening so patiently to my babble.

 

 

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