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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Who Knew That "Arm" Was Such a Popular Word?

I was reading John Crowley's blog (author of Little, Big, one of my favorite books of all time) and he brought my attention to a new feature on Amazon.com, called "Concordance." I had never really payed attention to this thing before, and I have no idea what its purpose could be, but it goes through an entire book and pulls out the hundred most popular words. I saw that one of Little, Big's most popular words was "arm."

Then, out of curiosity, I "concordanced" (is that a verb? I doubt it) my own book, and found that one of MY hundred words is "arms." One of the other top one hundred words in my book is "Jill." That came as a surprise. I think there must be multiple stories with Jill characters. My one hundred most used words are:
again always another anything arms asked away baby bed better boy call came child children come day door down even eyes face family father feel felt find first get girl give go going good got hair hand head home house jill knew know last left let life little long look looked love man maybe might months mother mrs myself name new next night now old once own parents people place put really right room say see something still take talk tell things think though thought time told took turned two voice want wanted week went white woman words work years

Hmm! Strange to think that in an anthology about adoption, the words "adopt," "adoption" and "adopted" are not on that list. But "Jill?"

I checked my friend Masha's novel, The Distance Between Us, and one of HER popular words is also "arm." Who knew! Is "arm" some kind of weird default word? Or do people use the word "arm" a lot more than I'd realized? I was suddenly on a mission to find a novel that did NOT include that word in its top one hundred. Bingo. Gilead! Predictably, it includes many mentions of "god" and "believe."

In general, I think it is much, much better to support one's own local bookstore than to use Amazon.com, but they do have some interesting and intriguing new features. Amazon Shorts are short-stories available for forty-nine cents, a total deal, in my opinion. I just bought Caroline Leavitt's poignant and beautiful story, "Family Lonely," and it was quite a steal. I think I might submit a few things to Amazon Shorts and see what happens.

I was going to sit in my office and pay bills today, but I found a much more high-tech way to distract myself. Ahh, the 21st century.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Burning Up the Distractions

When we were at our writing retreat at Santa Sabina a few weeks ago, one of the things we did was to write down All the Things That Keep Us From Writing. We scribbled it all down on origami paper, and then folded them into paper cranes. Then we made a very impressive bonfire and tossed in the birds, which crumpled, turned colors, stood stoically without moving, jumped around and curled up before melting into little embers. All very dramatic.

But I've been thinking of it ever since. I am involved with so many things these days, all of them Good Things, but all of them things that I do Instead of Write. (this is why Novaren at Distraction #99 is my new soul sister!)

organize and host a regular author-reading series out of my home
teach writing
read other writers' manuscripts
write this blog!
coordinate a family camp for adoptive families with children of color
run a household with two kids, two dogs, a spouse and an 84 year old mother
edit fiction at Literary Mama
Sigh. I am loathe to give any of these things up. Which puts me in the conundrum of having worked on two book length manuscripts in twelve years, and completed neither.

When I was in my twenties and first moved to the Bay Area, my best friend printed up a set of 500 business cards and gave them to me. Each one featured a beautiful little frame of curling vines, and in the center, one simple word: No. The point of the cards was to hand them to Unsuitable Suitors, of whom I seemed to attract a lot at the time.

I could really use those cards now. But would I really use them? Do I want to? I thought of actually getting a teeny tiny tattoo, in the likeness of those cards, with that small but insistent word. Maybe on my wrist, or in the crook of my elbow. Somewhere tender, to remind me, and somewhere visible.

It's only one syllable, really, but it's the hardest one for me to utter.

In the meantime, I've decided to try my utmost to really only say yes to things that matter a LOT to me, and to really start using the N word on nonsense that I will only end up regretting. I've done a bit of that lately, regretting things, and wanting to tear my hair out over them, and I am going to try and really at least PAUSE-- at least to a count of ten-- before I say yes again.

Robbed, Again

So last night at the Shepherd Canyon Salon featuring Elizabeth McKenzie and Pamela Holm, I was having a great conversation with the wonderful writer Sophia Raday, and talk turned to adoption (she is awaiting adoption of an adorable daughter from Guatemala - I saw the teeny little photocopied picture she keeps in her wallet!) and she said, "I saw your quote in that cute little adoption book!" and she made her hands into a tiny square shape. Um, what cute little adoption book?!? "The one with all the quotes!"

Uh huh.

Long, awful silence. I wrack my brain to think of any such book and realize I have never heard of this, and that once again, my words have been stolen. Did I mention what happened a year or so ago, when my daughter's friend's big brother told her that one of my stories was part of the SAT Reading Comprehension exam!? Another thing they hadn't bothered to tell me, or ask me.

So today she emailed me with all the details, and yes indeedy, it is a cute little adoption book by one Nancy McGuire Roche. I'd never seen it or heard of it until last night. And yes indeed, it contains a quote by yours truly.

I just wrote a scathing little comment on her Amazon page. Next I need to find a copyright lawyer with a truckful of Dobermans. I hate this stuff. I mean I guess I'm flattered, and that is very nice that she wanted to use my words and all, but it would be even nicer if I could have been contacted beforehand, and compensated.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Say It Isn't So, Alice

I gasped out loud when I read this morning that Alice Munro may be giving up the writing life. Apparently she has cited her "advancing age" and is quitting in the "interest of a manageable life." This shocked me. Alice Munro is one of the writers I love and admire most, whose work I study, to try and absorb just a fraction of what she is able to do.

I guess I had assumed that writers just ... wrote until they died. And maybe some of their last works would eventually be published, and others wouldn't. I didn't imagine making this decision to just... stop. And what it this about a manageable life? Writers aren't supposed to have manageable lives, are they? But I suppose (sigh) at seventy-five, this is her due.

Her final story collection will be released in the fall. I intend to read it very, very slowly, and then go back to the beginning and start all over again. The wonderful thing about her work is that you can read a story twenty times and each time it will reveal something new and surprising. I'm just mourning the fact that it is all coming to a definitive end.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Virtual Garage Sale

Book Group Expo turned out to be a lot of fun, except for an unfortunate snafu regarding my book, which collided with some self-esteem issues and turned into a great big pile of humiliation.

So, the organizers told me to bring my book and that the book vendors – Keplers, Cody’s and Books Inc. would be “happy” to sell it on consignment. I explained that (sniff) my book is out of print, and that all I have left is half a garage full of returns. For those of you not familiar with the term, "Returns” are books that were purchased but then unsold by bookstores, and then returned to the publisher. They all have little gluey rectangles or ovals on them, which used to be where they slapped on the price tags or bookstore stickers. Many of them have ugly black lines along the sides of them, which = Utter Rejection. When the book went out of print, the publisher offered me to buy back the returns, or to allow them to be (gulp! choke!) shredded. I opted to buy them.

So anyway I rushed out of the house like a madwoman on Saturday, and forgot to bring a carton of my sad little books. When I arrived, the conference organizer said, “Where is your book?” and I said, well, they’re not in great shape, thinking of those horrible black marks and glue-gunk. But they insisted that I must have my book, and that possibly I could prevail upon a Famous Writer, who lives not too far from me, to bring the books with her when she came to the Expo.

So I called my wonderful Spouse and asked him if he, after his long hard day of working like a Dog, would be willing and able to transport a bagful of my books to the Famous Writer’s house. Bless his heart, he said yes. The FW said yes. They had a rendezvous and he handed over the books.

But this was the part I had not fully thought out. My panel, after which time the booksellers sell the books from a Special Table to the audience members streaming out of the panel room, was Sunday morning at 10am. The FW’s panel was not until 4pm. So when my panel was over, there were no books. The books arrived, in a grocery bag, looking sad and marked-up, in the Green Room around 3pm. I took my bedraggled little bag of books around to the book vendors, and none of them seemed particularly pleased or willing to deal with selling Returns (the scourge of bookstores). And since my panel was long over, the people who had been most likely to buy them, were long gone.

I came home with my bagful of books. I felt terrible. I felt ravenously envious of all the authors who have gorgeous, newly-minted, hardcover books that the conference goers were snatching off the tables and buying with their credit cards. I felt so sad for my poor book which we had such grand dreams for.

My co-editor and I were terribly inexperienced and quite naïve, as Carly Simon once sang. We had no big marketing plan other than sending postcards to a few thousand adoption agencies. We had no marketing or publicity budget, and a modest little website that was cobbled together by a friend’s 12-year old (I am not exaggerating). If we were to do it now, we would do things very differently. We had done our research before publishing the book, and we determined that 5 million people in the US had been personally “touched” by adoption (had adopted, been adopted, married someone adopted, given someone up for adoption or was a sibling of an adoption person). We figured, if just one percent of those five million bought our book, we would be doing great. Um, that did not turn out to be the case. Maybe we did not have enough publicity. Maybe we needed more advertising. We should have had a blog, but that was in the Time Before Blogs (1999). In any case, we never made back our little advance, we never went beyond our first printing, and we are now officially OOP (Out Of Print).

So now I launch my Virtual Garage Sale. These lovely books are available for the low-low price of ten dollars each. Including shipping and handling. It is a wonderful book. I still read some of the pieces and get teary.

If you would like a copy, or ten, of A Ghost At Heart’s Edge, please email me. I will send you a Paypal invoice and then you can pay instantly with a credit card. It couldn't be easier.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Why Writers are Insane

Thanks to Nova over at Distraction #99, who just wrote an absolutely brilliant post about writers who have a million voices, all telling them something different re their work:

Do you ever wonder what the correct answer is when it comes to revising a piece of fiction? In my case, a novel, my second, sitting in its little box in the dark, cluttered hole I call an apartment, waiting for me to decide its fate.

I'm hearing voices in my head, and they're all saying different things.

Voice 1 (literary agent): Book is missing its middle. Revise and call me back. [Unfortunately this was said six months ago. Will she still remember my book, my name?]

Voice 2 (literary agent): Book is not marketable with characters such as they are. People don't want to read about broken people who do not turn happy and good at the end. Sorry. Even if you revise, please please don't make me read it again.

Voice 3 (book editor): Answer tk. [Or is no answer the answer that means "fuck no" or "I hope to never hear from you again for as long as I live"?]

Voice 4 (film producer): It's almost finished, but a revision is needed.

Voice 5 (artist acquaintance): DO NOT REVISE JUST BECAUSE OTHER PEOPLE SAY YOU HAVE TO. Stick to your vision, self-publish if it comes to that, but never, ever compromise just to please someone else.

It goes on. It's fantastic. I was howling and cringing with recognition as I read.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I was worried that being at Santa Sabina, "leading" a group of writers, would feel too much like work, that it would somehow taint this lovely place that has been such a refuge for me. But it turned out to be one of the best times I have ever spent there. Being there with other writers only made it more inspiring, more productive and more nurturing, not the other way around. It didn't feel like work at all; it felt like... the best vacation ever.

One of the participants described it as "Disneyland for writers." Not that it's nonstop entertainment, but there are a hundred different experiences to choose from. Read in the library? Browse the books in the parlor? Write in your room? Make a paper crane or do some watercoloring in the art room? Nap in the Yurt? Be a hermit in the Hermitage? Light a candle in the chapel? There are endless opportunities for reflection, contemplation, quiet inspiration.

The weekend turned out to be such a success that I immediately booked the next possible openings for a group of writers: November 17-19th, and January 12-14th, 2007. Watch this space if you would like to join us.

Friday, June 09, 2006

I Love Beautiful Writing

I received a wonderful big box of BOOKS to prepare for my panel at the Book Group Expo next weekend. I pawed through them, happier than I would be than if it had been a big box of Godiva chocolates. They all look great -- but I kind of immediately gravitated to the haunting looking cover of Kim Edwards' book, The Memory Keeper's Daughter. I love the floaty, translucent baby dress - it gave me shivers. I opened to the first chapter and just got sucked in instantly:
The snow started to fall several hours before her labor began. A few flakes first, in the dull gray late-afternoon sky, and then wind-driven swirls and eddies around the edges of their wide front porch. He stood by her side at the window, watching sharp gusts of snow billow, then swirl and drift to the ground. All around the neighborhood, lights came on, and the naked branches of the trees turned white.
Reading that made me feel both excited and calm at once. I felt like I was in wonderful hands. I've finished the first two chapters now, and they have not disappointed. I am thrilled to be able to meet the author of this book next week, and to have a beautiful book to take on my writing retreat, and to remind myself of why I love words and writing and reading so much.

Monday, June 05, 2006

They Call it a Spa Day for the Brain

This weekend will feature a lot of words and silence. Next weekend will feature a lot of... talk! Talk, talk, talk. I will be participating (as a "salon moderator") at the Bay Area's first Book Group Expo, which promises to be fun, stimulating, and interesting. There will be over seventy local authors, some with Very Big Names, and others with Less Big Names but whom readers should really get to know, and thousands of books, and... chocolate! (a great addition, I think) There will be a hilarious skit called "The Book Group From Hell Discusses Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club" (including a Secret Guest Appearance!)

Moderators and authors will be grouped into living-room like salons, to discuss topics like "Hard Times: Testing the Human Heart and Soul," "The Lure of the Young Adult Novel: Mothers and Daughters Reading Together," and "Climb Every Mountain: Travel and Adventure." The panel that I'm moderating is called "Family Challengs: Tales of Affliction and Healing." (10am Sunday, come check it out) Should be very interesting. I am really looking forward to it and to getting a huge brain-blitz of literature, writing and authors. Come down to San Jose with your booky friends, either next Saturday (June 17th) or Sunday (18th) - it looks like it will be a fabulous time.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Writers - Come into the Quiet

Next weekend (June 9-11), from Friday evening through Sunday afternoon, I will be leading a much-needed and anticipated writing retreat at my beloved Santa Sabina - a time for quiet, contemplation, and... WRITING.

Here are the details. We still have a few spots available, so writers, if your life is not moving over enough to give you writing time and space, here's your chance.

You are invited to a quiet writing weekend away from responsibility, chores, driving, shopping and noise. You are invited to a weekend of quiet, of rest and contemplation, of writing and reading. Of letting the words find you.

This weekend, at the beautiful Santa Sabina Center in San Rafael, will allow each participant to use the empty hours in many replenishing ways: A nap. A deep, uninterrupted writing session. Time in the art room. Extreme solitude in the hillside straw-bale Hermitage. Reading without interruption. A private writing consultation or a massage. Each participant will have a private room, with bed and writing desk, overlooking a garden or hillside.

We will open with a silent dinner followed by a group gathering on Friday evening. On Saturday, after a brief meeting, you are free to create as you wish. We will meet again on Saturday evening to share a bit of our work with each other. (participation encouraged, but optional) Sunday morning we will have a brief group meeting followed by more quiet time. We we close the event with a group (non-silent!) lunch.

Cost for the weekend is $350, which includes five meals, two nights' lodging and a private manuscript consultation with me. Email me if you would like to attend without the manuscript consultation ($300).

Participation is limited and the time is getting very close, so please contact me asap if you are interested. Feel free to invite friends, too.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Happy Birthday to my Baby

On June 1st, 1994, at 8:50pm, my girl was born. It's been a very sweet twelve years. Happy Birthday Emma.