Monday, November 30, 2009

First Draft Completed!

November is National Novel-Writing Month, a month when crazily dedicated people who write far more quickly than I pledge themselves to completing a novel of at least 50,000 words. I make no such claims. But, I did write 10,386 words this month, which is pretty darn good for me. And, I'VE FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!

In the summer of 2007, I realized that the short story I was working on really wanted to be a novel. Crazy. I was pursuing a degree in poetry. But there Renata was, fairly fully formed and talking and waiting for me to write it down. From the start, I've figured I was on the 5-year plan. I wrote two-and-a-half chapters in the fall semester, then took a break that spring to write my thesis and get married, but I've been working regularly on it since August of 2008. It was my 2009 New Year's Resolution to complete a draft by the end of the year. Today, the last day of November, I wrote the last scene, linking (I hope) all the pieces together. It's rough in places, and in the second draft I'm going to be combining some of the characters and selling off their scenes to others. Dear Guisy, Renata's innocent, homely choir partner who wants to be a nun when she grows up, is getting written out, as is her rebellious older sister. Tired Sister Maria Clara and her nursury will both be gone. Too many characters. It does feel a bit like I'm shoveling them under. Sigh.

But that's for tomorrow, when I copy into a new document and label it Draft 2. Right now, I'm done! I've written 286 pages. I'm flying high...which is a bit unfortunate since it's nearly 10:30 PM and I have to get up tomorrow at 6. But nevermind that. Woo hoo!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

pumpkin cheesecake recipe

Check out this recipe for amazing pumpkin cheesecake here.

Hunting Season

Michael Perry a wonderful writer and graduate of U-W Eau Claire, called this week "Holy Week" on his blog. Which is to say, shotgun and rifle hunting opened this week and continue through Thanksgiving. For at least one family I know, this overlap between the time you're supposed to be sitting down with family for turkey and the time you're allowed to be sitting in a deer stand is a big conflict--and hunting wins. Minnesota's hunting season does not overlap with Thanksgiving. I could draw all sorts of speculations about who wasn't thinking when they picked Thanksgiving week, but I'm sure there are others who would say this is the perfect time for family sport. I work with a woman for whom hunting time is family time.

(Don't let the picture throw you off: turkey hunting season isn't until spring. But, even though I'm preparing to eat turkey tomorrow, somehow the average non-hunting person is less bothered by looking at a cartoon turkey and talking about food than looking at Bambi...)

Fun fact: this blog is being read by people in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Panama. Four continents, baby!

Monday, November 23, 2009

down town Menomonie

I am coming to love my small town's down down. The buildings are mostly brick and coordinated, with little shop fronts and rooms above. (Typical, perhaps, but I grew up in a suburb without a "downtown," so this is new for me.) I thought from the beginning that it was "so cute," but now I try to get different places to sell my chapbook, I am walking the area more and more, starting to get to know people. I love that there are six places within a 3 block radius that support local artists: two book stores, a theater, the co-op (which will have my poetry and photos on display in March--woo hoo!), and two cafes. What a privilege to be able to walk into town and say "I'm a writer and I live in town" and get a welcome response. The owner of the Rose of Sharon Christian bookstore cleared shelf space for me on the spot. I had a pleasant 10-minute conversation with the owner of the other bookstore, Book Ends. I only wish that customers had come in during that time, that the customers who flood Wal-Mart at all hours of the day would come flooding in there. But, Main Street continues along. Soon, there will be window decorations and lights in the shapes of Santa and stockings, etc, hanging from every telephone pole. In December, we'll have our own version of Minneapolis' Holidazzle Parade, with floats and free hot chocolate in the Mabel Tainter Theater.

Here are two things I love about down town:
-Last weekend I went to the winter farmers' market (churches take turn hosting this once a month, with vendor fees going to charity) to buy local veggies, lamb, and ground flour; I stopped in for supplies and/or to inquire about selling my book at the quilt shop, the book store, the theater, and the co-op. Then I went to the library. And I was able to do it all on foot, within view of the lake most of the time. (I did, however, pass up buying 5 pounds of apples or potatoes for precisely that reason.)
-There is a sign in front of the consignment shop that reads "Hours of Intent" 10 - 7, "For Sure Hours" 10 - 5. I don't precisely remember the times, but that was what the sign says. I love it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

feeling fortunate

I would like to go to Venice. My novel is set in Venice, and I am determined to visit and absorb the atmosphere and make sure I imagined everything accurately before I publish. What's more, I am determined to be funded to go. Plane tickest to Venice are astonishly expensive, and I don't expect prices to drop once I show up in the city. Having been in academia in one way or another for a while, I know that there is always money floating around somewhere if you know where to look. I suspect it might hurt my case a little bit that in order to support my scholarly endeavor of writing a novel, I need to go somewhere so darn beautiful and fun. (Hey, wait: I think I've stumbled upon something. Maybe I should set the next one on a tropical island...)
Here's why I feel so fortunate. I asked if I could meet with the people at the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs to see if they could suggest funding sources I hadn't thought of. Three people met with me. They suggested three funds through the school as well as a few national foundations. They offered to do more research and get back to me. I am blown away. You sit there on your couch, chunking out your 500 or 1000 words, trusting that the dream of this book is beautiful and putting in the work to get there, and suddenly other people are willing to help you make it happen, just because you asked. Of course, I have to write the application and get accepted, etc. But still. I feel so fortunate.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Yogurt Making: Entering a New Culture

Apparently, one of the things Matt has "always" wanted to do is make yogurt. Intrigued myself, we decided to give it a try. Hey, I figured, it's a new craft (science?) project, I like yogurt, and I like the idea of having half a gallon of yogurt for the price of half a gallon of milk. There are ample resources on the internet giving you instructions for how to do it yourself without a kit, though most of them disagree with each other. Our first batch came out better than expected, which is to say it was edible. Though it did rather look like viscous milk.

But here's what I've find intriguing. I suppose I'd already entered into a certain category of "like to bake, time to bake, frugal, homemade kind of people" because I make my own bread--in the bread machine, of course--and granola (less sugar). But once you start playing with cultures (beyond yeast) friend, you've entered a whole new realm. Since moving to this small town, I've met people who make their own kambucha, a fizzy, sugary tea that's supposed to help your digestion and possibly save the world; people who make a kind of fermented vegetable salsa, which involves sitting and fermenting on your counter for at least 2 weeks and has similar proposed properties; people--several people--who brew their own beer. I have yet to try those first two. Once you enter the world of foodery, you just keep going deeper and deeper, it seems. I find that delightful.

If you're interested in making yogurt, a google search is all you need. Here are the basics:
1) Heat milk without boiling it until it is 175-180 degrees. You may want to add milk powder or even gelatin to thicken it.
2) Cool milk down to 130 degrees. Add 3 or so tablespoons of plain, store-bought yogurt (for the first batch) that has live culture in it. Pretty much all yogurts do.
3) Stir it up, and place it somewhere that it can stay at 110 degrees for the next 7 hours or so, longer if you like more bitter yogurt. Every site has its own recommendation, from crockpot or oven (if you can keep it warm enough) to wrapping it in towels (which we tried and doesn't stay warm long enough) to setting it on a medium-setting heating pad (which sounds like a good idea but calls for lots of electricity), etc. A friend from Indian said you could just set it on the counter for a few hours. Then again, where he's from, it's a lot hotter. I'll bet, if you keep it in direct sunlight, it might be almost warm enough. November in Wisconsin, not so much.
4) When it's done, stir it up to stop to bacteria from doing their thing and leave it overnight in the fridge.
5) Eat and enjoy. Don't be scared of greenish liquid. Just mix it back in.

What a fascinating world.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: Strength in What Remains

Tracy Kidder came to speak at the University of Minnesota about two years ago, while he was working on this book. He's a wonderful speaker, a very personable guy, and as I drove him to and from his radio interview with MPR, he told me he was working on this book about a Burundian refugee. One of the challenges he was running into, he explained, was that he did not speak French. I do speak French, and I worked part-time in refugee resettlement at the time. If I had not also been in graduate school, or if I had been less attached to finishing by the planned date, I would have followed my instinct to beg him to hire me on as an intern/researcher/translator. Alas, alas. Not that he would have necessarily taken me up on the offer. And, clearly, he did fine with out me.

Strength in What Remains, the final product, received the kind of New York Times review that writers dream of. It was a rave, and it was deserved. The book, particularly the first half, is hard to put down, as we follow Deogratis on his flight out of chaotic Burundi and into New York on a false business visa. He arrives with $200, little English, and no connections...and winds up homeless. Kidder artfully moves us between the despair of that situation--poor in a wealthy country--with the Tutsi genocide that erupted in Burundi 6 months before neighboring Rwanda. Why have we never learned of that? We read knowing that Deo, who was a third-year medical student in Burundi when the world fell apart, eventually does make it medical school (after first repeating his undergrad)...eventually heals and returns to his country to build a medical clinic in a remote area of his country. We read, wanting him to make it, unsure how it would be possible, yet of course this is a true story.

Kidder's storytelling is deft and moving. In the first section, Kidder stays out of the story entirely (after the prologue), allowing us to walk alongside Deo. In the second section, he reappears, and we see him revisiting with Deo all of those places where he almost didn't make it--Harlem tenaments, Central Park, Burundi--as well as the places that turned his life around: the home of the American couple who took him in, Columbia University, Partners-in-Health. It's impressive that we readers have nostalgia for these places, having only spent 100 pages there, though it comes close to being repetitive. But, Kidder has a reason, and we need to see much of that to feel the full weight of the final chapters, to understand how far, with loving help, a person could come.

Highly recommended.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I've asked my creative writing students to keep me accountable on my novel, and when one of them asked me for the first time on Thursday how the writing was going, I was proud to say that I'd written 10,000 words in October. That's about 40 pages. Draft one of The Violinist is nearly done, which is good, because I'm itching to get going on draft 2. The difference, you ask? Fewer characters and a hopefully more streamlined plot.

Speaking of writing, if you're in the Mpls area, I'll be reading with poets Luke Pingel and Francine Tolf at the Loft Literary Center this Wed. (2/4) at 7 PM. There will be chapbooks. There will be cookies. Fun will be had. 1011 Washington Ave SE.