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Ann Patchett was sitting right in front of me last night at Parnassus Bookstore. We were listening to Meg Wolitzer read from her new book, “The Female Persuasion,” when Ann (I hope I can call her Ann since I see her so much around town) asked if the sum of a writer’s work isn’t simply an aria – one voice:

“aria, an elaborate accompanied song for solo voice from a cantata, opera, or oratorio.”

In other words, every book you write is saying something about you, about what’s really important to you. Your subjects may change, your place in time or your landscape may change, but your unique Voice, your Point of View comes through consistently, almost unwillingly.

And Wolitzer has written plenty of books, in fact this is her tenth novel. She notes that she actually started writing “The Female Persuasion” a few years before the #MeToo movement, but she has always been interested in female friendships, and the power dynamics in relationships. This book pivots around a college campus where a young female student, Greer with a streak of “electric blue hair,” is mentored by an older feminist writer, Faith Frank.

The audience last night was a mix of ages, young feminists with severely short hair, mixed in with my aging variety and a few men. One shop dog named Bear strolled around the room, while the smaller variety, Mary Todd Lincoln was cradled in a baby wrap on a bookseller’s hip. Wolitzer read from her opening chapter, where Greer is groped by an entitled frat boy at a party her freshman year. I wondered how many of us could relate to that!

I thought about a friend’s son, a quiet innocent boy, who went off to college only to be expelled after an episode with a girlfriend he dared to break up with – he was an unsuspecting sheep while she turned into a wolf. I thought about the UVA Lacrosse player who was killed in her dorm room by her off/and/on boyfriend. And that girl who was raped and left outside a garbage can at Stanford.

“Novels can be a snapshot of a moment in time, or several moments in time, and as a reader that’s what I really like, and as a writer, it’s what I’m drawn to also. It can’t be a polemic. I’m always saying, What is it like? That’s one of the mantras of writing novels for me. And then, in the game of musical chairs, the book is coming out now.”  

http://www.vulture.com/2018/04/meg-wolitzer-doesnt-want-to-be-tied-to-a-moment.html

Wolitzer would call her publisher and ask her assistant first, a millennial, “Before you put me through, tell me, what was it like being a feminist at your college?” 

And that was my question. At my Boston college in 1966 we didn’t have the word “feminism” yet. We couldn’t wear pants outside our dorm, we had to wear a dress or a skirt once we left the brownstone. We didn’t have birth control pills or roofies or mind-altering drugs, yet. There was obviously no social media, if a girl dropped out, you assumed she got pregnant. We didn’t wear bobby socks, we wore knee socks. We had no recourse, no defense; we huddled together and traded tricks sneaking into the Beacon Street residence after curfew.

We had a phone booth in the downstairs lobby!

Strangely enough, Wolitzer hits her mark writing about today’s college culture, about those times in our lives when we meet someone who will change our trajectory. Her generation is just behind mine, a decade younger – the second (or is it third) wave of feminism. And she mentioned that another Nashvillian, Nicole Kidman, has optioned the rights to play her character Faith in the movie.

My first thought was, so Kidman is playing a mid-60 year old woman? And I immediately slapped that thought away as too judgmental, the opposite of feminist, after all maybe Helen Mirren is unavailable!

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Last night I attended a course on “Writing and Publishing for Children and Teens.” It was jam-packed with good advice and important resources, but the most interesting thing to me was the “other” facilitator – an illustrator. Her name is Mary Reaves Uhles and I happened to pick up one of her picture books while waiting for class to begin – I absolutely loved it! Lots of shenanigans and different skin colors at a Grandmother’s holiday celebration:

“The Little Kids’ Table” by Mary Ann McCabe Riehle and Mary Reaves Uhles http://sleepingbearpress.com/shop/show/11704

At first I wondered if I should have been named Mary with multiple surnames, like all the nuns who taught me how to perfectly diagram a sentence, and probably set the stage for my love of reading and writing. Before popping into my class, I delivered two children’s books in Spanish to the Grands; one on Frida Kahlo and the other on Julio Cortázar! After all, they will be learning Spanish in school and why shouldn’t they think of art as a career choice? The Bride smiled at my obvious motive while she cooked up some delicious beans and rice.

One of the most important things I learned from Uhles is that when a manuscript is accepted by a publishing house, the writer has basically zero influence on the illustrator. For some reason I’d thought I would have to provide the artist along with my book, that writer and illustrator came as a duo, a married couple ’till death intervened. I might be able to suggest someone for the job, but nope, the editor gets to pick the person she/he likes. Uhles mentioned a friend who wrote a book about a family, only to find out it was finally published as a PIG family, which was not her intention, but hey…

I also learned I don’t have to rhyme, although I love reading aloud in rhyme to children. It’s like a melody that’s enhanced by harmony. But Dr Seuss seems to have cornered the market on couplets, still I’ll leave a bit of my idea for a another book on Buddha Bear. Y’all know Buddha was our wonderful part-Samoyed rescue who looked like a polar bear. One hundred pounds of pure love. https://mountainmornings.net/2011/11/03/to-a-good-dog/

Buddha Skates Across the Pond

Snowflakes settled on his nose

As Buddha stepped outside to find

A fox left tracks in the tall sea grass

And chocolate milk was on his mind

The school was closed, so back inside

He jumped to pull a crazy quilt

From Lena’s bed, “Up, up, up, sleepyhead!”

He begged with paws of icy silt

I envision a series, Buddha in the Morning, Buddha at the Beach, Buddha Gives Chase, Buddha on a Plane, etc. Which reminds me, when we arrived in Mexico, a police officer was strolling through the airport with a proud German Shepherd dog. who started sniffing all around my bag. Oh Oh, was I carrying some contraband into the country? We always thought Buddha was a drop-out from a K-9 program. It turned out this drug-sniffing dog had smelled my half of a ham sandwich from Starbucks. Needless to say, it was confiscated.

Our current combined pups:  Guinness, Ms Bean and Maple the newest IMG_2040

 

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The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Billy Collins was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. This may have been one of our country’s most fragile times, when more people sought peace from poetry. And he is a poet who gets us, and last night Bob and I had the distinct pleasure to listen to him read some of his poems at Salon 615. Everyone of a certain age has picked up a book in rapt anticipation, only to find a few pages down the line that it’s something we’ve read before. I admit it, and Collins makes it bearable in his poem “Forgetfulness.”

Like that moment when he realized he was older than Cheerios, at the age of 70, and so wrote a poem about it. He scatters serious sonnets in among his readings, so last night’s audience gasped and laughed in unison. Because poetry is “…a megaphone.” Because he loves to make up new words, like “azaleate” – which loosely translated means we’ve arrived at a place just before, or after, it’s signature event. Oh, it’s too bad you’ll be missing the peak leaf season here in Vermont, let’s say. Or:

Bob and I azaleated the lavendar blossoming in Provence this year. 

Collins writes about cats and dogs from their point of view. And he even writes about Tennessee Fainting goats! This type of goat freezes and keels over whenever it is startled or feels panic. It’s something I may be catching here in loud and noisy Nashville 🙂

What brought me nearly to tears was Bob’s reaction; he didn’t fidget or head for the bathroom. He actually loved listening to Collins, we poked and prodded each other at yet another small truth that bounced between the two of us. It was like going to Jacob’s Pillow when we were young and discovering that he enjoyed the ballet almost as much as I did!

Then, towards the end of the evening, he turned to that ultimate question all couples must grapple with, “Who will go first?” The universal hope that “…you will bury me.” But is that really true love, to want to go first and save yourself from grieving. Bob has told me so often that due to his genetics he will most likely go first, and I almost believe him.

But what if I were to get hit by a bus tomorrow? A very real possibility in this busy city. He would still buy peanut butter and jelly, he would still drive like someone from NJ. Maybe he wouldn’t search for a beach house, or maybe he would?

Collins recommended a book, one that had inspired him in his youth, by a philosopher named Gaston Bachelard, “The Poetics of Space.” And I remembered the Bride showing us her Public Policy building at Duke, the light pouring in through modern-Gothic arches. And just last year, pointing out her son’s little hidey-hole inside his closet in their new home.

In the first and last days of life, it is the cosmos of the home that takes on the full weight of human habitation, as retreat and space of belonging. Bachelard’s greatest work remains a compelling reflection on the enduring human need to find psychological refuge in familiar places and spaces, though its author admitted that poets and story-tellers got there first. 

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-of-a-lifetime-the-poetics-of-space-by-gaston-bachelard-1673212.html

Here he is reading from his book, “The Rain in Portugal.”

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You are either a reader of books, or you’re not. You might pick up a magazine now and then, or skim some article while waiting for the barber. You may be that young lifeguard years ago who told me, “No thanks, it’s the summer. I don’t read in the summer.” Meaning, if it’s not on his Fall reading list for school, it’s not happening. Reading became a chore somewhere along the way, and reading for pleasure an oxymoron.

As you already know, I’m a Reader. I like to read everywhere, especially on a beach. I can read on a train, a plane or even a boat. This type of reading makes Bob sick; if his body is in motion, he cannot read. I’ve been known to read while sitting on the floor next to a baby in a bathtub, though I couldn’t read while nursing. I’ve made some of the best friends through book clubs. So yesterday, I eagerly picked up the NYTimes article at the gym, “Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books,” by the book critic Michiko Kakutani.

I really love reading on the bike, while everyone else is plugged into some TV or work-out music playlist. And I love Kafka’s quote on reading: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

And what I took away from Obama’s love of books, is that books were a refuge for his childhood. He grew up a Black child in a White world, and even when his mother moved him back to Hawaii, he felt different because he had come from Indonesia. He always felt different. And I could relate to that, because I was the child with a different last name from my foster parents, I was the girl with flaming red hair who stood out in a crowd when I so wanted to blend in.

President Obama could time travel through books and find that all cultures touch on some of the same human conditions. And he learned to fit into whatever world he found himself in by reading about other people, that included Shakespeare, and forging his own unique identity. Because knowledge was portable in the form of a book…”from his peripatetic and sometimes lonely boyhood, when “these worlds that were portable” provided companionship, to his youth when they helped him to figure out who he was, what he thought and what was important.”

To this day, reading has remained an essential part of his daily life. He recently gave his daughter Malia a Kindle filled with books he wanted to share with her (including “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “The Golden Notebook” and “The Woman Warrior”). And most every night in the White House, he would read for an hour or so late at night — reading that was deep and ecumenical, ranging from contemporary literary fiction (the last novel he read was Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad”) to classic novels to groundbreaking works of nonfiction like Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction.”                    https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/16/books/obamas-secret-to-surviving-the-white-house-years-books.html?_r=0

I love the idea of a Kindle as a graduation present! We gave Great Grandma Ada one for her birthday once, and it’s the gift that keeps on giving – since every book she downloads, we pay for! She told me I must read “A Man Called Ove,” for fun and diversion, and I’m planning on it.

President Obama recently invited a number of authors to the White House, including Michael Chabon. I just finished his novel, “Moonglow,” which was mailed to me by my favorite place in Nashville, the One and Only Parnassus Bookstore, since Bob has signed me up to their First Editions Club. It’s a book of the month club for Literary Nerds like me. Moonglow is one of those books you never want to end, you savor the last pages, drawing them out over many nights. And it made me think about a new approach to the Flapper, because he was dealing with his grandfather’s hidden history. http://www.npr.org/2016/11/19/502581929/moonglow-shines-a-light-on-hidden-family-history

You see my Mother was a gun moll, who went to prison in the 1930s, and my book is very much about her. My writing is like taking an axe to my family history.

If I am arrested on Saturday, Bob swears he will bail me out, but if you don’t hear from me next week, I may just be reading in jail! Here I am reading Emily Dickinson during lunch:   “I have no life but this to lead it here.”

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Hold the applause and pass the champagne for our little coterie of writers in Cville. This past weekend I attended another writing workshop on Memoir at The Writer House. Our fearless leader, Sharon Harrigan, helped us dig into our past, crystalize our vision and discover a theme that might shape the story of a life. This town is a veritable estuary of literary types, it seems I have found my people!

Although I’m not crazy enough to think my life story gives me the right to run for President, for instance, I wondered if it’s worthy of a book, I thought that delving into my past could help me structure the fictional story I’ve been working on for years based on the life of my Flapper. You see, I didn’t really get to know my biological Mother until I moved in with her at the age of 12, and I never knew my birth Father. He died of a brain tumor when I was seven months old.

I could write a scene about the automobile accident three months later, on July Fourth weekend in 1949, our family’s Year of Living Dangerously, only through the eyes of my sister Kay. It might start like this scene in a drugstore in Scranton, PA:

Robert P. Norman’s name was emblazoned on the door and he was always happy to see us. I’m the oldest, and only girl at home, so I’m the sugar in his coffee. Only lately, Daddy was having trouble moving his left arm, and sometimes he had headaches, headaches that sent him stumbling towards his office in the back. I was heading there to see if he needed me when I heard my name.

She was fourteen at the time and is currently my living archive. She helped our Father pound chemicals into pills in the back of his pharmacy. After the accident, she was in a coma for a month. She had to care for me that summer and her brothers, and eventually the Flapper when she was discharged from the hospital, her dancer’s legs broken in so many places she would never walk normally again.

But first I had to get to know myself better. Sharon had us make a list of our quirks, which was a fun exercise and kept me busy jotting down things like:

  • “I need to keep my hair short, or I’ll twirl it all the time;”
  • “Small talk is painful, but I’m told I’m good at it;”
  • “Sleep will sometimes elude me for no particular reason;”
  • “I stop for stray dogs.”

I was getting discouraged, my quirks didn’t seem quirky enough. Then someone said we should ask a friend or family member to list our quirks. Genius!

“You have to load the dishwasher a certain way,” Bob said. Now that is true, and it did show up at the end of my list. I’ve even been known to return to a dishwasher only to reload it, if someone else was kind enough to “help” with the dishes.

I’m also pretty particular about hanging clothes out on a line. One of my very first memories is of getting stung by a bee under clouds of crisp white sheets floating above me on a clothesline.

And I love to dance. The Flapper signed me up for ballet at Phil Grassia’s studio in NJ. I chased a dream in high school and commuted to Martha Graham School in NYC to study modern dance. I continued to study all types of dance under Bill Bales at SUNY College at Purchase.

And when Bob, who never liked to dance, wouldn’t take me to our Junior Prom at sixteen, I asked our good friend Bernie. Because I was that girl who had two Mothers and was never afraid to ask for what I wanted. I guess that was pretty quirky in 1965.   Junior Prom 20151111

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take a picture of it! I’m guilty of wanting to document my life on Instagram, wanting to be creative and confounding, humorous and compelling, all in a few pixels. And the last few days were telling. Bob and I took a quick trip to NY via Amtrak, and despite fears of Legionnaires Disease, I found myself surrounded by unending vistas of wonderment. It is August in the City that never sleeps, native New Yorkers were gone, restaurants were semi-empty, and cabs were easy to find – especially with Uber drivers just a click away on Trip Advisor!

So there I was, in a tall office building, looking out a window towards the Hudson, and in one frame I could get a Little League baseball game, a big sailboat, AND a beautiful bridge. It was a sunny, glorious day, NY at her finest and I was feeling like Hooper, or Warhol, or somebody. I aimed my iPhone and darn if it didn’t work, it was trying to tell me something, in a message box…

My storage was seemingly full and I could “manage” this little snafoo on “Settings.” Why thank you cell phone, how kind of you to remind me.

But by the time I got to my Settings and deleted a few ridiculous Apps I didn’t need or use, my picture was gone. The game was over and the sailboat was probably in the Atlantic.

No problem. I still got a few nice pix of dim sum at Red Farm (a very trendy West side Chinese eatery), soaring skyscrapers, oh and I love signs. Not like a sign from above “Sign,” but a regular directional sign. The kind that tells us where to go, what not to walk on, or how many pounds a toilet seat can hold. I managed to snap a “Sabbath Elevator” sign. Once a wordsmith.

Isn’t writing just painting a picture with words? That’s what I try to do when I take fingers to laptop, or even pen to paper. I see something in my mind’s eye and a story unfolds. Maybe that is what makes some of us “Visual Learners” – I could always  remember a face, but rarely remember a name.

While we waited in Penn Station for our train back to VA, a PSA was on a continual loop on a monitor above our heads.

“If You See Something, Say Something.” http://www.dhs.gov/see-something-say-something

It was all about what to do if there was a shooter in the building – basically get the heck out of the building by the nearest exit. And If that’s not possible, hide. And if that’s not possible, it showed a commuter throwing his briefcase at the suspect with a gun. And it also tried to explain what suspicious behavior looks like – which if you know NY, is pretty much everybody. It was almost comical.

Until I thought about how our children are probably watching a similar video, in their schools. Our well meaning attempt at “managing” rampant gun violence in this country is a farce of epic proportions. When will we change our perspective, put on a new pair of eyeglasses, and see, truly see our national disaster for what it really is – a public health issue. Should we all now boycott public spaces to get our legislators to listen? Stop going to movie theaters, stop going to malls, stop going to college and just study online, at home?

Or should we stand up and say something – anything – like we’re mad as hell and vote the whole lot of GOP war mongers out of office? If you didn’t read this letter from Sarah Clements, the daughter of a Sandy Hook teacher, to Amy Schumer, here it is: https://medium.com/human-development-project/an-open-letter-to-amy-schumer-8f1fd3637d41

Women have truly begun to lead the gun violence prevention movement — and they are winning. Women are our teachers, our protectors, our shielders. Women weep in public and in private for the lives we’ve lost, and they’re not afraid to scream at the cameras and go toe-to-toe with monsters who perpetuate these crimes on the streets and in boardrooms. Women are very simply the ultimate moral base in our battles for peace and justice throughout the world.

Tonight I have a date with Bob, so I’ll miss the circus, the so called “cocktail hour” featuring Donald Trump in the great Republican debate. But I’ll stay up late to watch Jon Stewart’s last hurrah. Thank you Jon, for painting a very clear picture of American politics for a younger generation. Now if we can just get them to the polls, to say something.

Heading Uptown

Heading Uptown

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Today I’m off to take a workshop on Travel Writing! I’ve been thinking about the topic since I managed to find an email about the class yesterday. Bring “pen and paper” the instructor said, since we will be passing our work around the class.

Learn to write compelling and engaging travel narratives (personal essays, articles ,or memoir pieces), which combine the eye of a journalist with the flair of a storyteller. In-class readings and exercises will address pertinent craft issues, and we’ll also discuss the practical matters of how to submit your work for publication.

I’m off to a good start since I already have the “…eye of a journalist,” but what kind of stories should I tell? Should I write for the soon-to-retire Boomer generation, the grandparents among us with more free time and a long bucket list? Or should I focus on memoir, and write about our trips to Martha’s Vineyard with friends when the kids were very little?

After we moved back to NJ, and because we could never travel in the summer – all those newbie residents in July needed Bob’s attention – we fell into the habit of visiting one island in the French West Indies over and over again nearly every winter. It was perfect for Bob because he could lay on a beach and decompress from his intense and busy work life. It became less than perfect for me. Being Irish, with red-headed skin, I wanted to avoid the sun, and…

I wanted action! I wanted adventure! I’d listen longingly to friends who were biking in Vietnam, or hiking across Ireland. I know, complaining about going to the same island every year sounds like a First World problem, but believe me, I was done with the beach. Here are some of my ideas for our next chapter:

A riverboat cruise along the Danube

A cooking school in Tuscany

A photographic safari in South Africa

A hot air ballon trip over France

A writing workshop in Iowa (OK, that’s just me)

A knitting excursion to farms in the UK, or maybe Wales

And I just want to see Iceland!

But for now our next trip will be to Charleston, SC this Fall. Before the devastating mass shooting at the AME church, Charleston had been voted the best US city to visit in Travel and Leisure’s survey, and the second best in the world!! http://www.cnn.com/2014/07/30/travel/tl-worlds-best-cities/

We’ll be going with the Bride and Groom to check out the city and have some fun with the grandbabies. I’ve rented an ocean view home on Home Away, so I guess it will be cooking and sunscreen for me all over again. Still, I love to cook with the Bride and could never complain about combing sand out of the Love Bug’s hair. It will be like deja vu all over again.

The next island generation

The next island generation

may came home with a smooth round stone
as small as a world and as large as alone.

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

EE Cummings

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