DETOX 101 for this grad student on spring break

Detoxing is never easy. This is what happened to me.

Advertisements

Essay: What am I doing? Why does anyone really choose to limit themselves in the name of detoxing? No different from most, I don’t like my body. I’m stressed at graduate school, and getting cranky with my dogs, self, and cohort. Something has to change. I reckon it starts with me. Doesn’t it always?

Food is energy. Funnily enough it was when I was a twenty year old at undergrad this concept really took hold. Food is energy. If I ate something that made me sluggish, tired, sleepy, then it wasn’t energy. It was taking my energy. No no no.

My energy at grad school is flagging right now. Too much sitting around on the computer, too many grey days in Vermont. I’m not doing well. I’m hoping this will help.
DAY ONE:

This morning, I took the dogs for a walk around Montpelier. Saturdays are quiet here, the traffic is light, and I can count the cars passing on one hand. Three of them. I know the driver of one, Stef; she stopped to set up a coffee date for later this week. I let the dogs off leash in the kid’s schoolyard, a big no-no probably, but they need to run. I need to hike open mountaintops, away from the sound of voices and vehicles. There are limited options here, nothing we, the dogs and I, can hike outside our back door. And so, we walk less.
Combine that with the educational pressures, a winter of sub zero temperatures, and a heavier diet of snacks and carbs, I’m not feeling great. I don’t like my body. I don’t like my low energy or the beer belly.
Stacy and I chatted on the phone earlier this week, one of my closest friends in New Mexico. She’s just finished a ten-day detox. The focus was on cutting out all sugars, grains, caffeine, dairy, caffeine, and alcohol. Blah blah blah. No, seriously, I get it. Veggies and proteins. Simple as that. It really is simple, buy fresh food, cook it yourself and avoid all those addictive extras. Can I do a week though? Ten days?

“By following my scientifically proven diet and lifestyle practices, we can reset your metabolism to function as it was designed to. You’ll lose weight without going hungry. It’s not how much you eat, it’s what you eat.”

Sounds easy, right? It’s spring break. If not now, then when?

I have no external pressures on me, no other students to be nice to, no co-workers to snap at as the caffeine withdrawals hit. I’m game. I haven’t told Stacy yet. I probably should to keep myself accountable to someone.
I make a cup of coffee. With cream.

Walk dogs.

For breakfast, I had sautéed veggies and salmon. A bottle of water. Okay, I’ve started now. I need to go to the store and buy a bunch of veggies, fish, organic chicken, and nuts. Okay, I’m doing this. I’ll let you know how it goes. Ten days. Ten days. I can do it. Well, apart from all ready messing up, improvising I like to call it, the first cup of coffee was with cream it’s true, the second black. I’m going to buy some decaf coffee and teas this morning, honest.

Knowing I’m on detox diet: I’m hungry constantly. Sheesh.

DAY TWO:

Headache. Slight cough. Low energy, but I blame that on yet another grey day in Vermont. Winter here is dull. I’d thought of snow and sunshine as in the Southwest, no, it’s snow, freezing rain, grey days, long nights, dirty sidewalks, and well, you get the idea. It’s not the best place for me. So, yes, back to the detox. Apart from the headache, I feel pretty good. It might be just that I went a whole day without gluten, dairy, or alcohol. As simple and as huge as that.

My usual daily fodder would be coffee, eggs, cheese, tortillas or crackers or sandwiches, veggies, tea, beer, snacks, stuff like that.
Yesterday was a bit of a stressful day too. The dogs ran after a doe and Bambi. I lost them in the woods. For over an hour, I walked, calling, yelling, and whistling. Finally Rosie, a normally white dog, came back pink. Ten minutes later Harold turned up, shaking with adrenelin, and his white snout was covered in blood.
I wasn’t happy.

Still, I didn’t turn to a malty beverage, no, I brought them home and fed myself a bowl of green chile stew, followed by a cup of peppermint tea.

Today’s challenge will be that I get bored in the afternoons, I do. And Sundays for some reason are the worst and usually I head out to the local pub for a beer and a burger. Big no-no on the detox. What will I do? A movie?

I’m making egg and veggie frittatas for breakfast. I stocked up on raw nuts, dates, bananas and Satsuma’s for the sweet tooth. Decaf coffee, no cream. Humus and snap peas. Stew. Carrots. Oh, yes, I baked carrots yesterday for a snack, drizzled in olive oil, a sprinkle of pepper, and a little salt, perfect treat.

My head hurts.

DAY THREE:

Did I mention the headaches? It’s a killer. I went to bed at three pm yesterday and only got back up to take the dogs out for a pee break. I couldn’t read or write or look at anything on screen or paper. Throbbing headaches, muscles aching, low energy, this is not fun.

I ate well, no cheating, more water drunk, and feel like shit. Everything shrank in the wash. My clothes don’t fit right. My head doesn’t fit right. My skin is tight. Ugh. My head still hurts. I’m glad I’m doing this now on spring break, as I’d be a shitty student if we were in class. Oh, and yes, I’m doubting myself as a writer, seeing all that’s missing in my novels, can’t face the short stories, and yes, well, one of those days. Ah shit.

The mechanic needs me to leave the truck there. I head over to a cafe to sit and read for an hour. There are pastries. I eat a croissant. I hardly notice it though. Isn’t that sad? I break the detox and didn’t even appreciate it. Oh one of those days. I did only have decaf coffee though.

Back to bed, headaches, impatient, bloated, knackered, cranky. This is great. Why am I doing this again?

The mechanic found a broken radiator. The taxes went through. The same amount, close enough, but I was up $55 and so I went to the pub for a pint and bumped into a friend and had two pints.
Ah sheesh, so much for detox. I tell myself it’s still worth carrying on. Cut the carbs, the sugar, caffeine, alcohol (hiccup) and I’m doing better than I was, right? Right.

DAY FOUR:

Useless, I’m useless. I gave up today. Or my rationale is that I’m adjusting it to suit my lifestyle because I just can’t do it. Headaches, leg muscle cramps, all of the signs that I’m seriously crashing too hard and too fast. So, the plan is to not so much De-tox and Less-tox. The next week will then be caffeine less, dairy less, and gluten less. That’s enough for now. So what have I been eating? Well, I had another croissant this morning. See, I’d had to drive to Burlington for an interview, me interviewing them, and so I stopped for a decaf coffee and snack for the drive in the snow. It made me happier. Then work went well, good profile written now, and I came home to make a beef and veggie chile stew with corn chips on the side. Humus and snap peas. Bananas. A salad each lunchtime for the last week. Satsumas. Almonds. Not bad, right?
The headaches have lessened but still there a bit. The muscle cramps linger so I’m going to stretch after a good hot shower. Then read and write and go to bed early again, because I can. And it’s snowing.

A glass of malbec sounds darned tempting.

DAY FIVE:

Well, that helped, taking off the pressure. So what did I eat? Have been eating? Breakfasts are made of eggs and sauteed veggies, such as onion, zuke, kale, mushrooms and a topping of green chile. Lunches are salads. Snacks are nuts and fruit. Dinners are veggie and chicken or beef stews. It’s simple food but it’s working, full enough to keep going.
But. Something is lacking in my diet. Last night I had such bad muscle cramps, in my feet mostly. The arches to be precise. Agony, the kind that throws your whole body into a tense needle of pain. Waves on and off and on again during the night. I didn’t sleep so well. I’m trying not to be a crankshaft with the pups. It’s hard work. They see me sitting down and figure, if she’s sitting, she could be walking. The static non-smelly metal thing in front of me can’t be as fun as another walk in the snow.

I’m trying to be nice. I’m glad I’m not in class this week. My natural sarcasm would have free reign. Instead, I’m on the computer, writing and revising work.

Another observation from this week of changing diet and no school or outside responsibilities, mid-afternoons are such a time of crashing. Emotionally hard on me. It’s been an issue for a long time, most of my life, but I had other things I had to do and it’s only when I’m completely self-employed does it become an issue. I’m not sure what to do when I’m in a town that isn’t where I want to be. There are no public lands for us to hike free of leashes with big views and no people. I hadn’t realised how spoilt I was in New Mexico for that freedom and headroom.

DAY SIX:

Well, the headaches are lessening finally. Caffeine is a bitch to get over. Pounding tight headaches all day long. Muscle cramps at night. Something has to change. Bananas will help the muscles, kale too as apparently it’s a lack of potassium. I need to do more research to find out what else could help. But coffee, even though I’m on decaf, and soy milk, it’s tempting to walk down the hill and buy a ‘real’ coffee. Mind games, strong stuff these addictions. Talking of which, beer, wine. Yes. I am giving myself a beer at the pub, cabin fever demands I talk to someone and the bartender’s a good fella, chatty and open and interesting. Pubs are community centres for me, the place to meet and decompress. That then is where I’ve gone to find conversation that I can leave at any point. Somethings don’t change, it’s a habit of a lifetime. I’m okay with that.

More snow. More grey days.

The atlas demands my attention. Perhaps planning a trip away would help? I did. It does. In April, I’m heading out to Cape Cod for a few nights. I’ll have to take in the truck before as the check engine light is on. In May, what can I do in May? Where can I go? Hmm. I’m not sure. Let’s see what I can do. I have to get out of here though. It’s driving me nuts.

DAY SEVEN:

Eating well. Sleeping lots. Writing. Revising. Editing. Reading. Walking. And super fucking depressed.

Is this part of detoxing? Less-toxing? It’s not nice. Let me tell you that, it is not very nice.

My emotions are wrecked. When I broke down at home with head in hands, Harold started whining and crying on the sofa and Rosie sprang up and got her favourite toy and gave it to me. Even Cat Stephen strolled over and sat nearby.

It’s rough. They are good. That’s about all I have to say.

IN CONCLUSION then, there is no conclusion. At least I know I’m eating well. I’m walking the dogs repeatedly each day, but even that’s not great as they have to walk on leashes everywhere here. It’s not like in NM where they could run free for miles at a time and not bump into, let alone see anyone the whole time we’re out and about. No, this is a small town in a wooded state full of people and their own dogs. It’s not the same. My energy is still flagging it’s true, and I didn’t really detox it’s true, but I tried. I’m eating better which means I’m not beating myself up for eating filler only. I’m watching and waiting for better weather to go out and camp somewhere. In the meantime, I’m home, still on the computer, less addicted to caffeine, missing my cheddar cheese, and wondering what’s next.

Some would say I’d failed. And yes, they’d be right.

Has it helped, to change up my diet? Yes and no. Would I do it again? Sure, why not? Maybe if the rest of my life is smoother, the detox will help even more? I don’t know. I’ll have a cup of ginger tea though and get back to work.

 

Craft: Finding your characters

I’m working on a couple of projects and it’s been hard to stay with each character. I knew that I needed to dive in deeper to each first draft. This questionnaire helped me focus and know each of my friends better. It’s a cheat sheet in a sense. It might help you. If so, use it, change it to suit, pass it along.

CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIRE

  • Date of birth: when and where were they born?
  • Astrology! Why not, eh?
  • What do they like to eat, drink?
  • Favorite clothes
  • Favorite music
  • What do they do on their time off?
  • Where did they grow up?
  • Who was a best friend and why?
  • What mischief did they get upto?
  • How far did they get in school?
  • What are the priorities? The goals?
  • What are they scared of doing?
  • Being?
  • What is the social place (class, access) your character lives in?
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Find a specific gestures, walk, or look for them
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves?
  • To others?
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • A memory from pre-teens
  • A memory from teens
  • From twenties
  • What will they sacrifice for dreams?

Print out copies for each character, and scribble down ideas and play with it. Find them. They’re sticking around until you tell their story so you might as well listen to them. Have a chat, why not?

MFA: well, I’d wanted a challenge

“Those blanks to be filled are like the variables in an algebraic equation, a network of complex relationships, their meaning determined largely by superposition, juxtaposition, and a literary order of operations that requires the computation of successive disparate parts individually first and then in small groups, and finally as one large whole-a lyric equation of the quadratic order, the results of which depended upon the data provided by the reader, but which all reside on the same curve of meaning, subjective iterations of the primary form envisioned by the author.” Joey Franklin. (An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay.)

Oh boy…

Flash Fiction: Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you

Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.

 

(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)

Writer’s Craft: On Fiction and Character Development

On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story. 

It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.

Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.

The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.

  • Trust the magic
  • Let the story out
  • Trust the characters
  • Write everyday
  • Get it out, remember?
  • Drop in deep
  • Fall into the spell
  • Trust your intuition
  • What’s the reason for living that lfie?
  • Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
  • Ask questions of your characters
  • Follow those questions in each chapter
  • Access the urgency
  • Create a playlist
  • What do you have to say?
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Trust intuitive structure
  • Write what you should write, what you know
  • Don’t worry about externals
  • Don’t be in good taste
  • Let the characters act true to themselves
  • Don’t censor them
  • Or yourself!
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • Poignancy, find it in each character
  • The story is its own editor
  • Do you know enough to tell this story?
  • Commit to writing two hours per day
  • Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
  • Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
  • What are you interested in?
  • Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
  • Research the context, era
  • Find those odd details
  • Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
  • Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
  • What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
  • Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?

If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.

Book Review: The Collected Works of Billy The Kid by Michael Ondaatje

What is it about this book that is so timeless? The Collected Works of Billy The Kid takes us inside the life, thoughts, desires, rationalisations and memories of this iconic character from the American West on the 1880s.

It’s called a novel on the cover but Ondaatje plays with structure by mixing poetry, prose, photographs and historical accounts. Ondaatje flows between forms to create an in-depth collection. Ondaatje does this so easily, so beautifully that I kept turning pages, and on my second cup of coffee, I was still in bed reading while it rained outside.

Ondaatje researched The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, turned to photographs, dime novels, contemporary newspapers and accounts from all those who came across him. What he gives us is a narrative, a memoir in a sense, one that shifts perspectives and forms, interior and exterior worlds, and all in a concise precise lyrical language. It’s amazing. I loved how each page took me to a new experience or incidence. Part myth, fiction, history and storytelling, The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is restrained but energetic.

He captures the language of the 1880s in the syntax and choice of words. Poems are often short and immersive.

MMMMMMMM mm thinking

moving across the world on horses

body split at the edge of their necks

neck sweat eating at my jeans

moving across the world on horses

 

Each poem or prose stands alone on the page. There is a lot of white space. They are tidily written, aligned at the top and left. He adds photographs. The style of a dime novel. Newspaper cuttings. He plays within the poems, one echoes nicely from the first stanza to the last one that is written in reverse of the first and is as stirring in both.

Garrett was “the ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a Doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope” and “everything equiped to be that rare thing” Ondaatje finished the two page portrait the writing sane assassin five times with no punctuation and ending with sane.

Is it possible to understand the violence of Billy the Kid, one so young, and where did the need or ability to kill come from. “A motive? some reasoning we can give to explain all this violence. Was there a source for all this? yup – ” Billy and Brewer watched a friend murdered horrifically from a nearby hillside, one that stuck with the boy of eighteen.

Or so says Billy half way into the collection.

With the gentle yet graphic build up of Billy’s story in part written from his perspective and at other times from the women and friends around, I’m there. I trust Ondaatje completely. He writes with such empathy and the internal worlds are fascinating and lyrical. It’s an addictive journey. I couldn’t put the book down. The pauses between moments build up the tension and the desire to know more kept me there. The bite-sized stories, the form, isn’t just a recent invention, which is what I’d thought, it’s timeless. This book is from 1970. So what is it that carries so well? Ondaatje plays with form to suit the needs of each piece. It makes sense to write in broken and disjointed poems for Billy’s emotions as when he takes a woman to bed in the middle of a storm, or to write a simple shorter prose piece about the setting of the barn at the Chissums’ while waiting out a fever with the farm animals and rats.

What am I left with? As with all these reviews of mine, they are more of a personal response. Think of me as a hungry reader and writer looking for permission to write as my instinct demands, always reading as much as possible to find others who have played and experimented in ways, tones, forms and language. This book then is perfect for me right now. Why?

The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is immersive. The language is lyrical, poetic, and detailed and not just for understanding that era. Mixing up structure and form gives an added depth to the content and is not just for show. The emotional strength of the poetry is fed by those changes in form, rhythms and syntax. The combination of styles here works so well that the story affected me deeply. Ondaatje is such a master with words. There is no doubting him. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid kept me turning pages, taking notes, pausing to breathe in an image. I was invested, engaged, and curious. At times I had to put the book down and stare out the window. What more could I ask for as a writer or reader?

 The Collected Works of Billy The Kid

Michael Ondaatje

(Vintage Books, 1970. $11)

81OcdYOKRlL

Writer’s Craft: Revision

A few suggestions for revision. It’s the biggest challenge to me, or rather it has been. This last year though, I’ve found the process less overwhelming. Breaking it down into parts, into giving myself a different focus each run-through takes the pressure off and makes it more enjoyable. What do I mean? I’ll pick one of these points in the list below, and look for that idea alone. Read the essay looking at verbs specifically, what did I overuse? Which verbs could be more dynamic?

Or for settings, I’ll read the novel chapter by chapter focusing solely on the settings, the physical descriptions of rooms, landscapes, homes, streets or towns. I’ll look for ways to capture the sense of the place, the sight, sound, textures and influences on that space.
I’m working one aspect at a time, there’s less pressure and it’s easier for me to find the details lacking or needed. This list is my way of approaching revision. I hope it helps you too.

  • First line: what does it do? Cut it, try again
  • Physical descriptions of people, the narrator, everyone, give the visuals as soon as possible even if indirectly to let the reader imagine what you see.
  • Context and physical settings: let the reader know where the story is set.
  • When, where, why, who: give information so the reader trusts you and then they’ll go with you anywhere.
  • Risks: raise the stakes constantly
  • Choices: give the characters choices and unpredictable responses
  • Find the magical moments of change, shifts, ideas, memories, actions
  • Go with your instincts
  • Generate new ideas when in a good mood
  • Edit when cranky
  • Verbs: highlight your verbs for a page or two and you’ll see which ones could be made more active, interesting, unusual – within reason though. Said/ thought etc are needed, a simple identifying verb also has its own place.
  • What is the story within the story? (the situation and the plot with the plot being the process or goals or development of the protagonist)
  • What secrets are lingering underneath the spoken?
  • What will she sacrifice to reach her own goals?
  • Will she give up her own dreams for another?
  • What’s the fear?
  • Active choices: stay engaged and less at the mercy of life, let her take action
  • Stay physical, keep the characters doing, acting on their worlds, moving, changing, shifting on the physical realm
  • Senses: address them all
  • Backstory: understand each character’s back story whether it’s mentioned or not
  • Motivations, drive, goals, intentions: ask what each one wants and why
  • Trust the story to tell itself, especially on the first draft, write it out, let it out
  • Contrast the mundane with the mad
  • Remember your stuff: when she mentioned a favourite shirt, or a mug, or a person, come back to those details, use them later on.
  • Go deeper into the psyche of each character
  • Rhythms and musicality, repetitions, refrains, use the language to set up a movement with your words and not only the storyline
  • Surface tension: what’s going on behind the main conversation?
  • Uneasy pairings: actions and unexpected emotions eg a nice swim and screaming fit at the public pool.
  • Chronic and acute situations: Chronic is the ongoing longer lasting situation and the acute is what drives the action in that very specific moment
  • Specificity: if you refer to a bus, call it by number or route name
  • Expectations: set up point of view, characters, setting etc quickly
  • Scene: mess with the predictable and those expectations
  • Stain: what then lingers from that scene or interaction?
  • Escalation: character driven, keep building the tension or drama with how your characters work or avoid their own stories
  • Dialogue: each voice has its own syntax, words, rhythms
  • Names: full names give authority and weight
  • Movement: find the grand movement forward as well as the little whirls and loops within
  • Set designer: write as if you are directing the playhouse, the stage, and moves of each one who steps on your stage. Claim it and enjoy the details.
  • Tenses: check consistency
  • Is the reader in the story or being told a story?
  • Use music to influence your rhythms when writing, create a musical playlist for the era or culture you’re writing about. Immerse yourself in those sounds
  • Research the slang, politics, news, weather, culture of the time period
  • Tension: drives the story without it, oh well, who cares, right?
  • Storyboards: write up what happens and when, see what can be moved, or to check the flow of actions, steps, tension, what’s missing?
  • Breathe in, hold it, hold it, hold it, release = Act One, Two, and Three
  • Sentances: vary length, tone, rhythms, paragraphs, white space.
  • Physicality of characters: who do they move in their own bodies? In their clothes?
  • Faces, bodies: be specific, really see each character, the shine of skin, greasy hair, frizzy or dried with split ends? Get into those details
  • Backstory: be juicy and play with their backgrounds
  • What if: add absurd ideas, fabulist, magiacl, trippy. Play with it
  • Threads and throughlines: feel them, create them, follow them
  • Wordplay: it’s your language so mix and match your images to suit your sense of play
  • Bird’s eye view: what’s going on around the main characters?
  • Add more weirdness.
  • Oh, and ENJOY YOURSELF!