Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Chiseling Out a New Book

I had one of the most productive writing weekends in recent memory. 2,772 words between Friday and Sunday. Friday night, around midnight, I sat down to write. My husband had gone to bed, and Riley with him. Toby stayed with me in my office on the third floor. He never leaves my side. When I stopped writing, it was 1:30 a.m.

Saturday, the dogs needed walks, and I had errands to run and laundry to do. By the time I sat down to write it was after 4 p.m. The dogs, tired from our afternoon hike, fell asleep as I sat down at my desk. Everything fell away as I typed. The dogs woke and started whining. It was then that I realized I’d been “in the zone” for two hours and I’d missed their dinner time.

I’m not a very disciplined writer. My writing process is...chaotic. But it works for me. I don’t outline or create character bibles. My stories are more organic. I’ve heard sculptors say they didn’t create the sculpture, they simply freed what was already inside the stone. That’s how I feel about my writing; I don’t create stories, or characters, I just use words to reveal the stories and characters that are already there, waiting to be told, waiting to be seen. Thus, I am constantly surprised by the twists and turns in my stories and the surprising details my characters reveal about themselves. For example, I recently found myself researching Gershwin songs—apparently one main character plays the piano. His unforeseen talent added detail that led to him recounting one of his most poignant experiences in the book. Other characters revealed secrets that made me have to research garter snakes (often wrongly referred to as “garden” snakes), and Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales.

There’s a lot of me and my history in my books, and I suppose there is in this new one as well. Let me correct that: there is a lot of my history in this book but it’s not about me in the same way “Unbroken” is. When I went to college, I started a diary. I kept it up for about ten years. I no longer remember why I stopped; maybe I decided to devote more time living my life than documenting it. Anyway, I used those diaries to inform the emotional heart of the book.

In January, when my aunt was in hospice, I spent the day with her—it turned out to be the last time I would see her. While she was sleeping, I sat down to work on the book. I know that sounds strange but there wasn’t anything to do and I found I could write and remain in the moment with her. I had been struggling with a scene in which a character dies and for months I’d put off finishing the scene because it just never felt right no matter how often I rewrote it. I sat there five feet from her and just put down what I’d seen and what I felt and I think I got the scene exactly right, encapsulated in a single sentence spoken by one character.

Recently I was the guest author on The Read, Jarrod King’s wonderful YouTube video interview series. He asked me, “Usually, when people write their own story, they mention the difficulty of not being able to tell every detail of their life and experience; that it’s hard to craft it into a story the keeps the reader turning the page. Did you face any similar difficulties? And if so, what did you do to overcome them and create what I would say is a very riveting coming-of-age story?”

My answer was simple: When I write I’m always convinced no one will read the book so it’s easy for me to be honest. But this new book is different because it doesn’t just reveal my own truth but those of others. And that was probably the hardest part to write and get right.

Watch my interview with Jarrod King here

Connect with me on Twitter & Facebook.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Celebrating Love: Remembering a Beloved Aunt

Friday, January 20, 2017 was a dark day for many in our nation. For me it was even darker. Our beloved Aunt died last Friday. So while for many it was “The Inauguration of the Nation’s 45th President,” for me it will always be the day Aunt Terpe died.

Beloved aunt. Those words beggar description. She was so much more than that. She was a force of nature; she was unconditional love; she was a staunch advocate for those lucky enough to be loved by her.

Euterpe Cleopha Richardson was one-of a kind, as unique as her name.

Though, I never formally came out to her, she always knew; she was the first person in my family to implicitly acknowledge and support my gayness. She made me feel it was ok to be myself. She gave me advice, “Never move in with a man; he can move in with you, or you can move someplace together but never move into his place; that way he can never tell you to leave.” And this,” Never give a man a second chance; if he hurt you once, he will hurt you again.”

Whenever I showed up with a new boyfriend, she simply treated him as another nephew.

She read my books. And told her friends about them. I remember I kept ignoring her when she said she wanted to read “Unbroken.” It revealed too much about me, and there was sex in it. I was afraid she’d be appalled. But as I said she was a force of nature so I relented and sent her the book. Then I waited anxiously. She called me up one day in tears. I panicked. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “I never knew,” she said, “how hard you had it growing up. I am so sorry.”

In truth, I hadn’t thought I’d had it any harder than any other gay kid growing up when I did. And I’d certainly never expected anyone to apologize for my experience. Like I said, she was one of a kind.

She told me a story of two gay guys she became friendly with in the early 50s. They were a couple and lived together, most unusual at the time. To keep themselves, and their friends, safe, they often threw parties at their apartment. Aunt Terpe was a frequent guest, the only woman in attendance, the only straight person they felt they could trust. One day she answered the door and the gay guys on the other side quickly stammered, “Oh sorry we have the wrong apartment!”

“No you don’t,” her friend called out from inside the apartment. “It’s Terpe. She’s ok. Come on in.”

A part of me—I won’t lie—a big part of me worries that that fear and need to hide will return under a Trump administration.

When we got married, Aunt Terpe called me up and she congratulated me, and repeated what she always told me, “Live your life Lawrence, live your life.” Then she asked to speak to Stanley. When he hung up he had tears in his eyes. “What happened?” I asked him. Aunt Terpe had congratulated him and told him we needed to make sure we took care of each other—the same things she had told me. Then she had added, “If you hurt my nephew,” I will hunt you down.”

Yep, that was Aunt Terpe—a staunch advocate for those lucky enough to be loved by her.

I went to visit her in the hospital the Sunday before she died. When she saw me she said, “You came. I knew you’d find me!” I knew she was worried about the hospice we were transferring her to so, before I left, I promised I would come back as soon as she got moved to make sure it was ok. 

Thursday morning I woke up and made the drive to New York. All that separated us was 117 miles. In my head was one goal: shorten that distance as quickly as possible; on my lips one prayer: Please don’t let me be too late.

I pulled into the parking lot at 2 minutes to 11 and sprinted to the building. She was awake but couldn’t talk. “Aunt Terpe, I’m here. I’m here.” She looked me in the eyes and squeezed my hand to let me know she heard me, knew I’d come as I promised I would.

Later when she fell asleep, I sat crying quietly by her bedside. She must have awakened at some point and seen me crying because she reached out and took my hand and squeezed it with what little strength she had left. And I realized that even as she lay dying, she had tried to comfort me, as she had comforted me, and my brothers, her whole life.

We used to talk on the phone a lot. Still, I worried that I didn’t visit her enough but she insisted I had my own life and my own responsibilities. “I have done everything I wanted to do, went everywhere I wanted to go. Now I can’t do these things. But I have my TV and as long as you boys call once a week, I am content.”

I am content. And that was the other thing about Aunt Terpe. She was always content, always happy with what she had.

Lord, you but lent her to be our happiness.
You reclaim her, and we return her to you
without murmuring, but with a broken heart
—St. Jerome

Monday, January 2, 2017

A Writer’s Holiday

Because of the way Christmas and New Year’s fell this year, I found myself the beneficiary of a nearly two week holiday from my day job. And I needed it, too. Between my commute, the job itself and the people I work with, I was seriously burned out. But because I am not good at being idle. I decided to make my time off a “writer’s holiday.” I’m seriously behind on writing my new book, so a holiday during which I could just write made sense. Of course, I can never just write—we had friends coming for Christmas, so cooking needed to be done, and the house needed to be cleaned. And of course, the dogs needed to be walked—and spending time with them was a priority since we both work all week, leaving them on their own a good bit.

I realized for this writer’s holiday to work I would have to be disciplined—something I am not naturally.  I set two goals for myself: 1) write at least one hour each day, and 2) write 1,000 words each day. Modest goals I know, but no sense it setting goals I couldn’t reach. That would just make me feel like a failure and talk about demotivating…

Realistically, an hour or two was an achievable goal for me. My other goal, the word count was separate to it. So, that hour or two could be used for anything related to the book: research, editing what I’d already written, developing characters, naming them—which can be an ordeal. I read a blog post in which a writer mentioned using a random name generator. I’d never heard of such a thing but that wouldn’t work for me anyway. Each character’s names tells the reader something about him or her. So they often start out named A, B, or C; as I learn about them, they get names.

The word count was again something to shoot for—a ballpark if you will. I know there are writing coaches who recommend sitting down and just writing, then looking back over what you’ve written; goal is to reach your word count for the day/week, etc. That for me is a waste of time. I don’t want to write words just for the sake of counting them. My writing is more organic; it springs from itself—if that makes any sense. And as I’m writing, I’m listening for the rhythms of the words. Thus, each word is carefully chosen to fit. Free form writing robs me of that.

So how did I do? See the chart above. Most days I missed my thousand-word goal but I did write each day. And I loved what I wrote and the story started writing itself. I discovered new characters, one an unexpected ally; I wrote of a first kiss that made my heart sing; one character made me cry. One morning I sat down to edit a single sentence and when I stopped it was 40 minutes later and I had written a key scene that had been eluding me for weeks. And I figured out how to structure the book in a way that made sense for the story.

At the end of my holiday my WIP is just over 31,000 words. I had hoped to reach 30,000. Tomorrow, I go back to my day job and the act of juggling work and life and writing. Though for me, writing is life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Thanksgiving to Remember

Once again, inevitably, Thanksgiving is upon us. Now, I know common wisdom has it that Thanksgiving is a day to bond with family, and express thankfulness for the past year’s bounty. But to be fair, Thanksgiving isn’t without its pitfalls. Relatives for one (c’mon now, I know you’ve at least once looked at your family members and asked yourself, “How can I possibly be related to these people?”); politics for another. And let’s not forget football, which doesn’t even promise the relief of a half-time show!

We don’t do a full family thanksgiving anymore—the reasons for which are a whole other blog post; another time maybe. So, it’ll just be us, the dogs, my brother and his wife and their son, our good friends who used to live across the driveway from us, and my old, old, old friend Daniel. It’ll be nice. It always is. And for that, I am grateful.

Let’s face it Thanksgiving can be a difficult holiday—especially if you’re LGBT. So, to honor the day and the difficulty of family, I am sharing an excerpt from my semi-autobiographical novel, Unbroken. Naturally, it is the first Thanksgiving Lincoln takes Jose home for the holiday.


Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s was a ritual, an inescapable obligation. And a torment. My mother made it clear Jose wasn’t welcome, so we used to drive up from Washington together and he’d go to his mother and I’d go to mine. My mother didn’t want him there, mostly, I assumed, because she always invited the hapless daughters of her friends and various cousins’ friends to dinner. These poor girls were clearly invited for my benefit. Often the brighter ones looked unhappy, as if being brought together with me—this slightly effeminate, and wholly uninterested man, clearly an impossible match—was the best anyone thought they could do.
This particular Thanksgiving, Jose insisted on accompanying me. Given what had happened at his mother’s, and that we hadn’t been to Sunday dinner since, I wasn’t surprised when he invited himself along. Fed up with my mother’s treatment of him, and determined that if there was no place for him, then I would make a place for him, or give up mine, I agreed. I did not tell my mother I would be bringing Jose to dinner.
My father answered the door. He looked surprised to see Jose but simply said hello.
“Is that Lincoln?” my mother called from the kitchen. “Come in here. I have a special guest I want you to meet.”
“Oh good,” I called heading for the kitchen, Jose in tow. “I have a special guest, too.”
I walked into the kitchen. My mother’s expression immediately darkened when she saw Jose.
“I brought Jose along,” I said, and kissed her cheek. “I knew you wouldn’t mind.”
I glanced at the young woman beside her, who was bent over a bowl, her hands working furiously at some task. Spindly and hesitant, she looked like an exotic, upended bird in purple feathers and pleats, her upswept hair like a great bird’s nest atop her head. Silver bracelets striking, she perched on the edge of a stool. I realized she was shelling peas. My mother introduced us—she was aptly named Alouetta Byrd—then, grudgingly went into the dining room to set a place for Jose.
Alouetta looked at me carefully, through beady, mascaraed eyes, as if I were a plump worm washed up from the earth during the first heavy rain of spring after a long dry winter. Jose put his arm around me, his left hand clasping my right shoulder lightly, in a casual gesture that carried with it the possessiveness of long intimacy.
“Alouetta,” he said. “Is that French?”
She looked at him for the first time. Her eyes strayed back to where his hand lay on my shoulder. “Yes. I’m from Louisiana originally,” she said, shelling peas.
Later, on my way to the bathroom, I noticed my mother had produced place cards from…somewhere; her arrangement seated Jose as far away from me as possible. When I returned to the living room I whispered to Jose, “You will not be happy with the seating arrangements.” He immediately excused himself.
When he came back, he sat on the sofa beside me and smiled.
Alouetta, unnerved by Jose’s barely concealed hostility, and my own indifference, self-consciously wandered around the living room, examining the spines of the books on the shelves and picking up the family photos that dotted every surface like punctuation in a story of a family. She picked up a picture of me at age five.
“Oh! Lincoln is that you?”
“It is,” I said.
“Oh my,” she chirped. “Look at all those curls! You look like a girl!”
My mother tensed. My father and brothers, pretending to be engrossed in the football game on TV, acted as if they hadn’t heard her comment. Alouetta, realizing her mistake, put down the picture as if it had burned or bitten her. Turning to my mother she said brightly, “My, Mrs. de Chabert, there are certainly a lot of pictures of you!”
“What do you mean?” my mother asked darkly. “There are pictures of other people.”
“Yes, but you’re in those as well.”
I stifled a laugh. My father and brothers, refusing to get involved, without taking their eyes off the TV screen, talked loudly to each other about whatever had just happened on the football field. Jose looked at a picture of my parents on the end table beside him.
“Hey,” he whispered to me, “your parents look alike. Do you think we’ll begin to look alike?”
“No,” I whispered back. “They’ve always looked alike. They’re actually related somehow—though no one is quite sure how.”
“I can’t imagine marrying someone who looked like me,” Jose said. “What would be the point of that?”
Given my mother’s narcissism, I didn’t find it surprising she had fallen in love with a man who looked like her.
“I used to wish I looked like you,” I said.
“Me? Why?”
“Because I used to think you were the handsomest boy in the world.”
“And now?”
“Now I think you’re the handsomest man in the world.” I glanced around then leaned in and kissed him quickly. My mother caught the movement and turned her attention on us.
“Hey,” she said loudly, “What are you two plotting over there?”
Everyone turned to look at us.
“Jose, move over so Alouetta can sit down,” my mother commanded, then excused herself to return to the kitchen. Jose scooted closer to me, forcing Alouetta to sit next to him rather than me as my mother had intended. She perched on the edge of the sofa and leaned around him to speak to me. Jose sat back stiffly and, ignoring us both, stared at the TV. Suddenly he turned to her.
“Alouetta—such a pretty name,” he said. “It’s from that children’s song isn’t it?” He started to sing: “Alouette, gentille alouette, je te plumerai…”
Alouetta stiffened. “That song,” she said, “is horrible. It’s about a lark that has her feathers, eyes and beak plucked because she woke someone with her singing!”
Jose, leaned toward me. “Oops,” he whispered cheerfully in my ear.
“Dinner’s ready,” my mother trilled.
“It’s show time,” Jose said, rising and tugging me to my feet.
I was startled when he sat next to me. I looked at him questioningly and he turned the place card so I could see his name. Seated directly opposite me, Alouetta looked distinctly displeased.
My mother came in with the turkey and stopped short when she saw Jose sitting next to me.
“Oh dear,” she exclaimed. “My place cards must have gotten mixed up. Jose, you’re supposed to be at the other end of the table.”
“Oh, Mrs. De Chabert, everyone is already seated and comfortable. Let’s not make everyone move.”
Their mutual dislike was palpable. My mother, who does not like to be challenged, conceded victory and sat at her usual place opposite my father. My father glared at us as he carved the turkey.
“We should say grace,” Jose said suddenly as everyone started to pass food. He took my hand, and then grasped the hand of my brother who sat on his left, forcing everyone to stop passing and receiving food so they could take the hand of the person next to them. His mumbled prayer went on and on; went on so long, in fact, that I kicked him under the table. He mumbled, “Amen” and everyone unclasped hands and picked up their forks. He continued to hold my hand though, until I tugged it away as discreetly as I could.
Across the table from me, Alouetta continued to stare at the spot where our hands had been. Looking at Jose, she asked, “How do you two know each other?”
“They were roommates in college,” my mother quickly answered.
Jose cut a piece of turkey with slow deliberation, and brought it to his mouth.
“Yes, he said. “Also we’re lovers.” He began to chew savagely.
My father dropped his fork and my brother started to laugh, but caught sight of my mother’s face and quickly stifled his mirth.
We left before dessert. On the way home in the car, I said, “Well that could have gone better!”
“I don’t think your brother likes me.”
“Which one?” I asked
“I don’t know. I can’t tell them apart. Rosencrantz, I think.”
I wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart either, except one was vaguely hostile, while the other—the younger one—vacillated between indifference and aggressive neutrality. I thought of him as Little Mister Switzerland. Jose, however, always referred to them interchangeably as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“I think you mean Guildenstern,” I said, “but, it doesn’t matter. I like you.”
He flashed me a smile in the dark and reached for my hand, then brought it to his lips. “I love you, Spaceman.”
“Me, too.”
“I can’t believe your mother had the balls to try and set you up with that pathetic bitch right in front of me!”
“Hey look!” I pointed, hoping to distract him, “The Dairy Queen is open. Come on, I’ll buy you an ice cream.”
We parked and I got him a cone, refusing one for myself.
“I’ll just have a taste of yours,” I said on the way back to the car.
When he brought it to his mouth, I leaned in and licked it from the other side. His eyes danced in the dashboard light and we each licked the ice cream until our tongues met in a cold sticky kiss.
“Hah! I’d like to send your mother a picture of this,” he said.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Reluctant Puppetmaster

Yo, yo little brother, what you out here trying to discover

I’m working on my new book and as I was driving and thinking through a particularly difficult plot line, this song, “Yo Little Brother,” from the mid 80s came on the radio. (1984 to be exact and it hit #57 on the Billboard Hot 100.) It caught my attention—of course I remember when it came out. Now it resonated perhaps because at that moment, listening to that song, I was that little brother, out here trying to discover…what?

I suppose the short answer is I am trying to discover my characters—what their thoughts are, their passions, what drives them to behave as they do. What secrets do they hold, and keep from me? And I wondered, what, as I do with each book, writing this one, I would discover about myself.

I checked every place I thought he might of gone
Until I came across a house with something going on
I looked in the window there was brother and his crew
And he was doing everything a little brother shouldn’t do

My characters can be difficult, untrusting, closed, refusing to tell me much at least until we’ve spent some time together and they begin to trust me to listen and tell their story in the way it must be told. Until that time I stride along the edges or their world, peeking into that window, under that shrub, behind that door. Often, at first, I find nothing, but I keep walking and listening and looking until I come across that house with something going on.

I do a lot of research for my books and this new one is no exception. I like doing research. It frees my mind to wander while I learn something new—something that helps me put flesh on the bones of my characters, or shed a light in their situation. Having listened to the song on the radio, I tracked it down on YouTube to watch it. I vaguely remembered it. Then I found a loose thread that mentioned that the young blonde, oddly plastic-looking singer in the video, Nolan Thomas, was not actually singing the song. He was lip synching to the vocals sung by Elan Lanier, who, by the way, was black.

Apparently the video’s producers felt that Nolan would be more “marketable” than Elan. As I watched Nolan skipping through the video’s pastel, occasionally surreal, landscape like a fever dream, I watched his lips moving to another’s words, watched his mouth open and close to emit another’s voice. With his plastic looks and bleached hair he looked like an animated puppet, Pinocchio cast as a not quite real boy. And perhaps the absolute falsity of his looks, his singing, the trippy landscape, was all deliberate. But it made me reflect on the fear I always have with my characters—especially with this new book: How do I make them real? Make them themselves. I don’t want puppets lip-synching to me. I want their dialogue, their stories, to be their own, authentic.

I remember when I was writing Unbroken. I created the character of Maritza, Jose’s younger sister. Originally she was just supposed to show up at their dorm room, announce her hopeless and ill-fated crush on her brother’s boyfriend then, having discovered her brother’s secret, fade into the landscape. But Maritza had other ideas and a bigger story which she kept whispering to me until she became, in the end, a major character. And she made the book a better, more human, book.

I am a writer; I am also a reluctant puppet master. That may make me weak, but I hope it makes for better characters, and better, more honest, stories.

Watch the video for "Yo, Little Brother" here

Connect with me on Twitter & Facebook.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

A Gay Son's Musings About His Dad

My Dad, Ray
I love my Dad.

That’s probably not an unusual statement. But when it’s a gay son talking, there is often some history and work that went into making that a true statement.

I love my dad. I saw him two weeks ago when I drove up to visit. I hadn’t seen him in about a year and I realized how much I missed him.

When I was younger, my relationship with my dad was…strained. I think part of it was my own resistance to him, thinking he didn’t like the idea that I was gay. So for some years in there, I kept my distance. That changed one rainy Saturday morning in 1988 when I was racing to work outside of Washington, D.C. I was doing 80 when a car merged onto the highway in front of me. I would guess it was going about 40 miles an hour. I slammed on the brakes. I was going so fast and the other car was going so slow, it actually looked like the other car was moving backwards towards me. I’d decreased speed to about 60 at the moment of impact. My car started spinning and as it started to flip and the sky was suddenly below me, I remember thinking “I’m going to die without ever having been friends with my father.”

Next thing I knew I was standing on the side of the road, in the pouring rain, not a scratch on me, my little red car literally in pieces scattered across the highway. I remember cops and fire trucks and an officer asking, “Where’s the driver of the red car?”

“I’m here,” I said.

He stared at me.

“You were driving that?

I nodded.

To this day I do not remember getting out of the car.

I had a second chance and I used it to befriend my father. I moved to Philadelphia so I was closer to where my parents lived in New York. More than twenty years ago when I introduced my family to my now husband, my father pulled me aside and said, “I like this one. He is what I had in mind for you. Please keep this one.”

And with those words everything changed. I suddenly saw that he didn’t dislike me being gay, he just hated my choice in men thinking none of them were good enough for me (he was probably right.)

Fast forward to two weeks ago. I was watching my dad play with Max, my nephew, his only grandson. He and Max seem to have a special relationship. I was a bit jealous, I admit. And then I realized that my father and I have our own special relationship as well. And maybe that is my father’s gift—the ability to build a special relationship with each person in his life.

He has taught me so much in his quiet way. The dedication in Unbroken, reads in part “And for Space, who taught me the value of silence.” Space is my nickname for him, because he always seemed lost in his own world, kind of “spaced out.” I never thought we had much in common though, until I called him the other day. Hearing my voice, assuming I’d called to speak to my mother, rather than him, he said “Your mother and Vernon are at the chiropractor.” 

I could hear him rolling his eyes. 

Anyone who knows me knows I am prone to rolling my eyes, and in fact was doing that at the word “chiropractor.” It was delightful to discover that shared tendency.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

#ThrowbackThursday: The Power of Music

I’ve posted before about the power of books and music to not just transport us and teach us but to save us. It’s in part why I write. And while I don’t write music, or even play an instrument (barring an unfortunate pre-adolescent attempt to learn to play the trombone), I do hear a certain series of sounds, a rhythm as I write my words.

But back to music. I heard a song on the radio the other day that reminded me of the power of music. So for Throwback Thursday, I thought I’d share the song and how it saved me.
The song was “Groove me Bay.” The version I heard the other day on NPR was the original by King Floyd (1971). But the one that saved me was the later remake by Fern Kinney.

The song gave me hope, and while hope is not a strategy it is sometimes all we have. And it was definitely all I had then. Let’s look at the lyrics that were most meaningful to me.

You’ve become a sweet taste in my mouth, now
And I want to be your spouse.

Yep I wanted to get married. And gay as I was, I only ever dreamed of marrying a man. I believed one day, somehow, I would. Those lyrics reminded me of that determination and kept me believing.

So that we can live happily in a great big ol’ roomy house

Yep, we’d get married and adopt some kids and a dog and move to Connecticut to a big old farmhouse like Lucy Ricardo’s in Westport.

We don’t need no company
No other man, no other girl
Can enter into our world not as long as you groove me baby

And finally a promise of safety—at a time when I needed desperately to believe I’d one day be safe, and loved. Even if coming out, falling in love with another boy, caused the world to fall away from us, we’d still have each other and we would keep each other safe.

And now, some three decades after I first heard Fern Kinney sing “Groove me, Baby” I can look back at that time and remember the hope the song gave that boy who grew up to be me. And I can look at the man that boy became, the man who married one of the best men he knows, and bought a big ol’ roomy house…

Awww sookie, sookie now