Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Fan mail!

Dear Cartoon Girl,

Do you make up the questions, or do people really ask them?

– A fan in the fog

Dear Fan,

You're the first to sign yourself a fan, and for that I will hold you in my cartoon heart forever.

In answer to your question: my creator primed me with a few letters to get me started (sounds profound, huh?), but now my letters come from real people like you. I love getting letters, even if the questions sometimes make my head hurt.  Thanks for not sending one of those.

I gather from your postmark that the fog you refer to is one that rolls in off the Pacific. I spent the last week in the fog of a North Carolina mountaintop, at writing camp.  (Recognize my WILD hiking boots? Bestsellers!) We were called to meals by a clanging iron bell, and I made new friends and ran two pens out of ink.

Cartoon Girl


Thursday, September 13, 2012


You might not think so, but Cartoon Girl actually works for a living.  This week she is drowning in work and has no time to answer letters.  Poor Cartoon Girl . . . all that wisdom, all those bon mots accumulating in her big cartoon head -- which, fortunately, can be used as a flotation device.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Dear Cartoon Girl,

Writing – where do I start?

– Cold feet, cold fingers

Dear Cold,

Surprise! You just did!

You start by writing a letter.  It can be to anybody about anything. Write about your day, what you’ve done so far, what you mean to do. Write about something that’s caught your eye.  Write a childhood memory.  Write as much or as little as you like, it doesn’t matter, because you aren’t going to mail the letter. Not yet. You’re going to sign it and put it away.

Next day, write a letter to someone else. Don’t send that one either.

Let the letters sit in a drawer for a week, then take them out and see what you might like to change or add, and do that. Then mail them if you like, keeping copies for yourself. Or don’t mail them but keep them as material for stories.

Ta-da, Cold, you’re writing!

If letters seem daunting, try postcards.

Your letter to me is perfect: succinct and evocative. I can picture you at your kitchen table, chilly, bundled up, preparing to Write. Are you wearing those fingerless gloves? Your composition book open, your pencil at the ready, your head full of ideas, so many, all barking at each other like dogs. Like dogs trying to scare the mailman! You try to shush them. Finally you do. They stop all at once.  The roar in your head turns to silence. You wait for another thought to come. You roll your pencil between your fingers. You start to feel a tiny bit desperate. What do you do?

You write me a letter.

Cartoon Girl

Saturday, September 1, 2012

September 1: moving day

Dear Readers,

I've just moved all my old advice columns from my creator's blog to this one, which is why there are so many letters with today's date on them.  I'm sorry if your comments got lost in the move.

Keep in touch.

Cartoon Girl


Dear Cartoon Girl,

Once I wrote a short story. It really happened, but I pretended like I’d made it up. Then I took a nonfiction class and rewrote it as the truth. It’s about my high school boyfriend and me having sex and what happened afterwards.

When I read it to my husband he said, "You're not going to submit that to The Sun, are you? I mean, a story about you having sex? Do people do that?"

Besides suggesting that he branch out from American History and read some memoir and autobiography, what should I say to him about how I'm going to write my truths and try to share them with the world?

– Creative Exhibitionist

Dear Creative,

The answer to your husband's question is, "Yes, sweetheart. People write about sex all the time."

Of course, you and I know he didn't ask you his real question. Maybe he wonders why you’re thinking about the old boyfriend. Maybe he's afraid your essay isn’t ready for publication and doesn’t want to say so. Maybe he's afraid it will be published to great acclaim and your marriage will somehow be undone by your success.

What I think he's asking is, "Where does the nakedness end? Are you going to expose me?"

A fair question.  But let's be clear: it's not, you can't let it be, a question about writing. Nobody and nothing but your own heart can tell you what to write, as I hope your husband knows -- and if he doesn't, you should find a kind but clear way to tell him.  As a student of history, surely he'll appreciate your fascination with your past and how it's made you who you are.

I think this is a question about publishing. What happens when sharing your truths means exposing the truths of others?

I have friends who’ve written exquisite books they would not have dared to publish during the lifetimes of certain family members. Others take a more I’m-a-writer-first approach. (Remember the Joni Mitchell line, "Will you take me as I am?" Meaning, "even when I write sad confessional songs about you?") I don't know what your priorities are, Creative.  All I know is, when you publish – anything, but especially personal nonfiction – you need to be ready to live with the consequences. Some people will take you as you are: a writer trying to make sense and meaning and, oh let's just say it, art of your life. Some won’t, and of those, some will matter to you more than others.

Your husband, who matters to you, brought this up for a reason. Ask him what he’s worried about. Tell him what sharing your work means to you. Maybe he’ll calm down and trust you. Maybe you'll make a deal: you'll never expose his dangly bits without asking him first.

Whatever happens, I wish you good luck with The Sun. I have a feeling that once you've started publishing personal work, both you and your husband will get the hang of it. Wink wink.

Cartoon Girl

In the kitchen

Dear Cartoon Girl,

Every night I ask my darling husband what he'd like for dinner and he sweetly answers, "I don't care." Should I quit asking or stop cooking?

– Fresh Out of Ideas

Dear Fresh,

I like you. You're funny. Pithy like I wish I were. Have you ever thought of starting your own column?

So, you have carte blanche in the kitchen. (Can you tell I'm practicing to go to France?) I'm guessing your husband eats whatever you cook, and is appreciative or at least uncomplaining, and that you're doing the cooking according to some division of labor you've worked out that seems, on the whole, balanced oui?

This, then, is purely a problem of inspiration, one well-known to writers as well as cooks. How do we work when we aren't inspired?

We turn to our Lists of Favorites.

In the room where I write I have a special shelf of books whose language is so crystalline and compelling I need read only a line or two and, voilĂ !, my own imagination is fired up. James Salter, Amy Hempel, Angela Davis-Gardner, Wallace Stephens.

In your kitchen, keep a list of your favorite meals, dishes that are fresh and tasty and healthy and quick and easy. You can grab ideas anywhere restaurants, cookbooks, the newspaper, magazines in the checkout line at the grocery store (I'm a sucker for these), dishes your friends make, your own concoctions.

Use your favorites list to plan meals, keeping in mind what's in season. Take it with you when you shop. (If you don't have a garden or belong to a CSA, be sure your shopping includes a trip to the local farmers market.) Buy enough ingredients for several meals. If you're cooking something that makes good leftovers, cook extra.

Next, and no less important: tunes. Keep a music player in your kitchen, and make a CD or playlist of your favorite songs. Play it while you cook. Play it loud. Sing along. Dance! Have so much fun your darling husband gets jealous and wishes he were the one doing the cooking.

Finally, Fresh, if all else fails, consult the other list you should be making: favorite places to eat out.

Bon appetit!

Cartoon Girl

P.S.  I burned tonight's dinner while working on this column.

Going away

Dear Cartoon Girl,
Have you ever gone to an arts colony -- you know, one of those places where you have a beautiful, inspiring workspace and a big chunk of unstructured time and someone to cook for you, and when you're not working you get to hang around with other writers and artists and composers? This has always sounded like heaven to me, so I decided to apply for a residency and got one. I was all yay at first, but now, with the time approaching, I’m terrified of leaving my day job and my life. There’s so much to do before I leave. I’m overwhelmed, past the point of exhaustion, almost paralyzed. Can ANY experience be worth this much effort?

— Hyper-Responsible

Dear Hyper,

It’s a little like death, isn’t it, to imagine the world getting along without you. Sad. Scary. But liberating, too -- to be unmoored, away, incognito, invisible. To shake off expectations, think thoughts you might never have thought, write things you might never have written. Your every breath so inspired it needs its own exclamation mark!

That's why people go to arts colonies.

Arranging to take time off is always hard. It's especially hard for you because you're Hyper-Responsible. When you get to your colony, you may need to spend a few days sleeping. Then you'll wake up in that delicious, drooly, half-dream state that's so good for writing, and you'll have free time and no distractions, and whoosh! Yes. To get to that place is worth the effort.

You're still in the guilty-about-leaving phase, Hyper. Your guilt is a problem that, like most problems, can be cured by writing. Make a list of all the things you'll do (you promise!) when you get back home. Even if you never look at it again, the list will make it easier for you to leave. Think of it as your permission slip.

Cartoon Girl

Impetus to write

Dear Cartoon Girl,

What ever made you think you could write?

 – Curious and a Little Rude

Dear Curious,

Reading Raymond Carver.

I know, I know, it's such a common answer I'm almost embarrassed.

I wish I could give Judith Guest's answer. She says she picked up a book of poetry called Fruits and Vegetables by Erica Jong before anyone had heard of Erica Jong and read a poem about cooking an eggplant just after she'd spent the morning chopping eggplant for ratatouille. She says Erica Jong's poem gave her the epiphany that you can write about anything.

Isn't that answer swell? I wonder if Judith Guest made it up.

Anyway, I had the same epiphany, minus the eggplant coincidence, reading Raymond Carver that  you can make literature out of even the smallest things, the most invisible people. For me, writing is about paying attention to what others might not notice or think worthy.

Cartoon Girl

The five P's of attending a reading

Dear Cartoon Girl,

I will soon be attending a reading by one of my favorite authors. Actually his novels are just okay, but HE is absolutely gorgeous. How do I catch his attention without appearing over-anxious?

– Counting the Days

Dear Counting,

Remember the five P's.

1. Be purposeful. Show up for the reading like this is where you mean to be. Don't come dressed in gardening clothes. No tennis togs. Wear what you'd wear to lunch with a friend in a nice but not fancy restaurant.

2. Be punctual. Show up early how early will depend on the writer's popularity and get a good seat, not necessarily front-row but close enough so that the experience will feel intimate.

3. Be prepared. Come with an intelligent question in mind, one you'd genuinely like an answer to, and don't be shy about asking it but wait for the Q&A. Raise your hand politely; don't wave it in the air. Don't sigh aloud if someone else gets called on first.

Some good questions: "What gave you the idea for this book?" "All of your books are set in [Appalachia, the desert, the jungle, outer space, Michigan]; would you talk about the influence of geography on your work?" "How do you know so much about [taxidermy, geology, music, pyrotechnics]?" "How did you decide what form this book should take?" Writers love talking about these things. They love readers who give them a chance to.

Questions not to ask: "Do you use a pen or a pencil?" "Is this novel true or is it fiction?" "How much money do you expect to make?" "Do you ever worry your good looks keep you from being taken seriously?" "Does it bother you not to have won any awards?"

4. Be pleasant. As you watch him read, let your eyes be soft, kind, encouraging, forgiving, never hungry or crazed. Smile when you hear a well-turned phrase a slightly dreamy half-smile, like you're remembering some private joke. Laugh at his jokes, but not too loudly or for too long. Contain yourself.

5. Pay. Buy the book and get him to sign it. Thank him. Maybe as he's passing it back to you your hands will lightly touch.

Cartoon Girl

Substance abuse

Dear Cartoon Girl,

I drink every night. I smoke pot all day. I can’t write if I’m not f****d up. What do you say to that?

— I’ve Published More Books Than Anybody You Know So Don't Tell Me I Can't Drink and Write

Dear I’ve,

Why the asterisks? Don’t be afraid to use words. I know you're trying to be inoffensive, but I’m sure any word you might substitute would be better than asterisks. Fizzed, fecked, fogged, flumed, flared, fuffed — see? Words, even if they're plain, unpoetic, silly, or made up, are almost always better than asterisks.

About the drinking and pot-smoking: I suspect your problem isn't so much writing as everything else, I've, all the ordinary life stuff that has to be blotted out before you can get to the deepdown place you write from. Here's a trick I learned from an Amy Hempel character: listen to the song "Jesus Is Waiting" by Reverend Al Green over and over and over again. Addictive, but not so hard on your liver.

Cartoon Girl


Dear Cartoon Girl,

After years of toiling in obscurity I am finally getting some attention for my work — and not just in literary circles. I’m talking success beyond my wildest dreams. How can I appear calm and gracious when my insides are doing an all-out happy-dance?

— Unused to the Limelight

Dear Unused,

Well, la-dee-dah, aren’t you special!

Seriously, Unused, it’s okay to be exuberant. You just need to figure out which of your friends can stomach it and hang around with them as much as possible. It’s important (and not just for wildly successful people like you, but for the rest of us, too, still toiling in obscurity) to have friends who are willing to celebrate when good things happen so that we don’t end up exuberating all over everybody (remember poor Sally Field at the Oscars?). Or worse, acting modest when we aren't feeling it.

Here's what I say: Call up your old teachers. Take them out for drinks. Give them all the credit. They probably deserve it.

Cartoon Girl


Dear Cartoon Girl,

Does it ever seem to you that your life is not your own? That you’ll never have the time or energy or inclination to write again? Do you ever despair, Cartoon Girl?

— About to Give Up

Dear About,

I can’t count the times I’ve decided to stop writing and throw myself full-force into everything else — my day job, the garden I’ve always meant to plant, the rooms that need painting, windows that need washing, clothes that need mending, shoes that need shining, knives that need sharpening. All the movies I’ve never watched, the books I’ve never read. The family and friends I’ve neglected. My cat.

No one ever tries to change my mind. No one shakes me by the shoulders and says, Snap out of it, Cartoon Girl! Go back to your writing! The world is waiting for your magnum opus!

Somehow, though, I always do snap out of it. My day job wears on me. The garden — I forget how much more to it there is than planting. There’s also watering and weeding, and then what do you do with all those vegetables? As for housework, a single Saturday spent cleaning out closets can send me flying to my desk, pen in hand, my hair on end.

Remember that verse in Ecclesiastes, a time to take in, a time to write down? Declare this your time to take in, About. Don’t allow yourself to write at all. Do everything but. See how long you can hold out.

Cartoon Girl



Dear Cartoon Girl,

I've hit a rough patch in my writing. Meanwhile, my friend’s book is a bestseller being turned into a movie with a big star and a big director. I want to be happy for her but I’m jealous of her celebrity and, just between you and me, I’m not a big fan of her work. How do I keep from being eaten up by negative thoughts?

— Ashamed of myself

Dear Ashamed,

I bet she’s beautiful, too, with a nice narrow face, hair that does right, and long, shapely legs. I bet she has 20/20 vision and doesn’t have to wear glasses but does anyway sometimes, to make herself look smart. I bet she has a patient husband and well-behaved children and faithful, adoring pets. I bet she never gets lonely. I bet she’d kill for a little loneliness, in fact, now that she's famous. An afternoon or a whole day or even a week of being lonely, when she wouldn’t have to act humble and gracious all the time, when she could complain (if there were anyone to complain to) about how everything has changed so much she doesn’t know who she is any more.

As for you, Ashamed: I think you know the way out of your jealousy, the way through your rough patch, the way to become a famous writer like your leggy friend, if that's what you want. Keep your head down and keep writing. Try writing a paragraph that doesn't contain the word "big."

Cartoon Girl