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29February

Elvis Is in the House

Elvis Is in the House

One of the most frustrating things about writing is chasing the elusive muse. Some days the ideas pour from my fingertips (okay, rarely), and some days the creative spirit seems to mock me from afar. There is no predicting whether tomorrow will be a diamond or coal. I’ve learned that it’s best to adjust my expectations after an hour of work. People sometimes ask if I push myself to write a certain number of words or pages a day, and the answer is no. This process, for me, requires flexibility and patience.

I’ve learned a lesson or two about the phenomena of chasing the muse from Elvis, the neighborhood cat. Barbie, next door, said she was adopting him when he showed up, a self-sufficient stray, on our street some months back. But Elvis belongs to no one -- and to all of us. He occasionally appears at our door and when we open it, he wanders in. He never stays long and he doesn’t let anyone get close. He’s not that kind of cat. He lived on his own long enough to be disdainful of cuddles and strokes. But if you’re really still and you leave him alone, he’ll grace your home with his presence just for a little while. We’re always happy to see Elvis -- a diligent enemy of squirrels and chipmunks -- in our yard, and if he chooses to come in, we welcome him and pour him some milk - which he drinks, or not. He roams around for a little while, then exits without fanfare through the door we leave open for his convenience.

The muse can’t be forced. The muse can’t be invited or cajoled. The muse is as elusive as February 29. But if you leave the door open, allow your mind to float free, he’ll often appear. And if you’re really lucky, he might let you get close. The good news is, even when he’s been gone awhile, he always comes back at some point if you let him in and treat him right.

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Posted in February, 2012

07February

Is Memory Your Enemy?

Is Memory Your Enemy?

I remember thinking, at some point, that I couldn't be a good writer because I don't have a good memory. My Aunt Betty used to say, when my family members were remembering a past event fondly, "Just tell me one thing. Did I have a good time?" But the truth I've learned is that memory can get in the way. If we're too literal about the way things were, we'll never find out how they might have been.

Most of us have had the experience of writing something exactly as it happened, only to have an agent or editor tell us it's not "realistic." But it actually happened, we protest -- pretty much exactly that way. John Gardner in THE ART OF FICTION says, "The fact that the story is true, of course, does not relieve the novelist of the responsibility of making the characters and events convincing."

If you're looking for a good writing exercise, try your hand at making a true story "truer" this week. Use one that's been in the family for years, but force yourself to take shocking liberties in the retelling. Change some of the details, add a few new sensory descriptions you might have noticed if you'd been there, make the dialogue a little more compelling by adding a comment or two. You might even add a character you've invented.

Can you place your reader there by fictionalizing the event - just a bit? Sometimes a good story is too dependent on the hearers' -- or readers' -- familiarity with the personalities involved. See if you can distance yourself from a story you've heard retold again and again and see it in a new light. You might just like your "poetic license" version even better. If you're a beginning writer, it's a great way to ease into fiction writing. If you're a novelist, it might become a scene in your next book. Either way, don't let memory become your master!

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Posted in February, 2012

21June

Talkin’ Yat

Talkin’ Yat

Every city has its unique pronunciations of street names, like Houston (called HOW ston) in NYC. Locals everywhere love to watch tourists trip over the strange place names that roll off the tongues of the natives. Oddly, much of the confusion in New Orleans comes when you TRY to pronounce names with a French flair. It works fairly well in some cases, like Vieux Carre (Voo kah RAY,) the Old Square or French Quarter and Treme and Dauphine.

But unlike the city in France, Chartres is pronounced "CHAR ters."
Carondelet is pronounced "Car ON duh LET," not "Car on duh LAY."
Burgundy is "Bur GUN dee."
Calliope is "KA lee ope."
Conti is "CON tye."
And I swear I'm not lying, in Algiers across the river, Socrates is "SO krayts."

As for the city itself, most residents say "New OR luhns" or possibly "New OR lee uhns," but never "N'AW lins" unless they're kidding around. It's only pronounced "Or LEENS" if you're rhyming in a song or if you're talking about the street or the parish (county, to us.)

Occasionally a syllable gets lost in the local dialect, like "MET ry" for Metairie or "VET ruhns" for Veterans Blvd. While we're talking about shortening things, CBD is the Central Business District – across Canal from the Quarter. Oh, and that median in the middle? It's a neutral ground, which goes all the way back to when the tiny strip of grass down Canal St. was deemed a safe meeting place for the French Quarter Catholic Creoles on one side and the Protestants on the other to conduct business without conflict.

Here's your lagniappe (LAN yap) or the little something extra you often get in the city:

A couple of food tips for ya. You'll hear muffaletta (the yummy sandwich) pronounced "Muf ah LOT a" instead of "Muf ah LET a," and if you ask for pralines, please don't say "PRAY leens." It's fingernails on a chalkboard. "PRAH leens," "dooah lihn," please! (That's as close as I can get to darlin; it's tricky - not dah-lin or daw-lin exactly.) You'll want to order your po-boy "dressed" which means lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise (sometimes pronounced MY nez.) And if anyone asks if you want "ersters," say yes if you like oysters. : )

It's fun to try to keep up with all the variations, but don't get wigged out about it. There's always someone to help you out, and people are very friendly. Don't be surprised if a total stranger asks, "How's ya mama?" as a way of saying hello. It's part of the local charm.

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20June

Favorite NOLA Food Tips

Favorite NOLA Food Tips

If you're headed for New Orleans and want to engage in a little culinary foreplay, try nolafoodporn.tumblr.com or follow them on Twitter. And make the decision now to leave your diet at home, because orgasmic cuisine is what the city's most noted for - for good reason. Here are a few of my favorite food tips:

Breakfast: If the line is too long at Café du Monde, you can join the quicker line at the back for to-go orders and take your coffee and beignets to Jackson Park to eat. I like the scenery better anyway.
Mother's at 401 Poydras across Canal has a good breakfast.
The Old Coffeepot on St. Peter - yummy creation called Calla Cakes (like donut holes, but better)
Clover Grill on Bourbon - when you want dive-y diner eggs 'n bacon to feed a hangover.
Sunday brunch – Brennan's or one of the many others; they're all good.

Best Lunches:
Po-boys: Johnny's on St. Louis, or Mother's at 401 Poydras across Canal.
Oysters: If the line at Acme is too long, Felix's across the street is just as good (both on Iberville)
Mufalettas: Central Grocery on Decatur; jars of olive salad ($10) to make your own at home.
Camelia Grill – take the streetcar to this classic diner for burgers at the counter, 50's style

Dinners:
Too many great choices to list but Commander's Palace (by streetcar) and Stella are favorites.

Bars:
The late night action on Bourbon is mostly in the street. Take your drink in a plastic cup, roam, listen to music coming from the clubs, and chat up the people you meet.
Pat O'Brien's is a tourist trap but it's a great tourist trap. Everyone should go once.
Jean Lafitte's, built in 1722, is the oldest bar in America. It's awesome.
Muriel's at the corner of Jackson Square has a very sexy red plush bar upstairs (buy your drinks downstairs) and you can usually sneak out on the balcony too and watch the action in Jackson Square.
Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone – where many famous authors drank.
Also, don't forget to check out the music on Frenchmen's Street in the Faubourg Marigny. Just stay on Decatur and cross over to find the neighborhood local college students patronize to get away from tourists. (You'll blend in, I know it.) DBA is a good one .

Other NOLA Treats:
Snoballs (Nectar with condensed milk on top is to-die-for.) Try Hansen's on Tchoupitoulas (cab ride) or Tee-Eva's on Magazine (streetcar ride). Best ever is Plum St. Snoballs but you'd have to ride streetcar all the way to end, get off at S. Carrollton and Plum and walk seven blocks to Plum and Burdette.
Pralines: anywhere in the quarter or Tee Eva's on Magazine
Sucre - delicious - and trendy - dessert and pastry shop on Magazine

By the way, NOLA servers are generally fun and flirty if you chat them up. If you're grumpy or demanding, you'll get attitude back, for sure. So start out on the right foot and let them know you're glad to be there. They love people who love their city. The ones who seem prickly at first are always the biggest marshmallows in the end. I love the way they call you, "baby," and "dawlin'," and "cher."

Okay, go hit the internet with these ideas as starting points and make a plan. Or just stroll the streets of the French Quarter and follow your nose (and the lines of people) to discover someplace new. It's hard to go wrong in New Orleans if you're adventurous and open-minded.

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07June

My Favorite NOLA Freebies

My Favorite NOLA Freebies

Just got back yesterday from NOLA and will be going again in two weeks to speak on a panel for the American Library Association. I ALWAYS have a good time in my hometown, so I thought I'd share a few "insider tips" for visitors. If you're seeing New Orleans on a budget (and who isn't these days!) you'll be happy to know that some of the best views of the Crescent City are free. Here are my favorites:

Morning: Shake off that hangover and stroll the Quarter before 9am to watch the buggy drivers whisper to their horses as they line them up and the French Market vendors call good-natured insults to their neighbors over produce they're artfully arranging (oh, those beautiful Creole tomatoes.) Polite older gentlemen will tip their hats to you as they feed pigeons in the quiet before the tourist mob descends, and the eccentric residents might nod as they rally for the day - like the guy I saw walking down St. Peter (no pun intended) with a coffee cup . . . in penny loafers and an open bath robe . . . and nothing else. And don't forget, it's New Orleans so you can probably order a Bloody Mary at a bar that's still open (if "hair of the dog" takes precedence over coffee) and drink it while you roam. It's a great time to learn the streets, but don't take a map; the goal is to blend in like a native and let the culture "adopt" you.

Afternoon: Catch the St. Charles street car at Canal and Carondolet (Bourbon's "cross-Canal" extension) for a relaxing, open air ride that sways peacefully through the Garden District. (Okay, it's not completely free - I cheated a little - but $1.25 each way is pretty close in my book; oh, and bring exact change.) The whole route's about 45 min. each way, but you can hop off anywhere and pick up a returning car back to Canal if time is short. It stops every two blocks, but pull the cord to let the driver know if you're getting off because if no one's waiting at a stop, they sometimes skip it. Tempting reasons to exit? Trendy boutiques, unique eateries, and great bars on Magazine St. and of course, Commander's Palace if you've made a reservation. Other fabulous foods near the end of the streetcar line: Le Madeleine (French country fare) and Camellia Grill (retro diner for breakfast or burgers).

Evening: For an unparalleled perspective of the French Quarter, take the Algiers ferry across the Ms. River and back at sunset or twilight. The 30 minute round trip is FREE for pedestrians ($1 for cars) and leaves from the end of Canal right next to the Aquarium from 6am –midnight at :15 and :45 past the hour (returning from Algiers on the hour and at half past.) I love the sound of it churning across the powerful river current, and the majestic view of the St. Louis Cathedral that slowly unfolds as you move out into the surging waters.

And the best part of "touring on the cheap": you can save your money for the outrageously decadent food choices you'll find on every corner. More on that later on the blog. : )

Anyone else have NOLA freebie favorites?

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