Summer and Middlemarch

Here we are nearing the end of July…can it be?  Our California son and his family, who are headed to Ireland for two years, spent this last week with us. We enjoyed many fun days with our four granddaughters, our three adult off-spring and their spouses–plus four dogs! John and I have somehow expanded from a simple pair to a dozen individuals. Going out to eat now together requires a banquet-size table.

Summer twilight on the lake

Summer twilight on the lake

Our soon-to-be Irish family has gone on their way to begin a new adventure. So the house is quiet today and a certain let-down feeling has settled over me as I walk around picking up torn-out pages of coloring books, markers, dog toys, puzzle pieces, and plastic doll dishes. The freezer is full of all the ice cream bars that we didn’t manage to eat, and we have no lettuce. So tonight’s dinner will include an ice cream bar buffet!

Still I have lots to do: preparing for a week-long creative nonfiction workshop with Rebecca McClanahan at St.Olaf College, working on a family memoir, practicing the piano, and reading George Eliot’s novel, Middlemarch. Now this in itself is a huge undertaking–probably only begun because one of my book groups chose it. But it is making me slow down, way down, as I absorb the details of life in the late 1820s in a small English town, called Middlemarch. I don’t remember reading this novel in my college days, so it is pleasure to dive, or sink, into it now and savor the amazing prose of George Eliot.IMG_7027

People just don’t write this way anymore. I’m not sure readers today would have the patience for the slow pace, the complex sentences, the intrusive narrator. Yet readers in 1871 waited anxiously for the next installation of Middlemarch, the way viewers today anticipate a new season of “Orange Is the New Black.”

I’m also reading  Rebecca Mead’s  My Life in Middlemarch, a perfect companion to the novel.  Mead intertwines her own life and personal history with that of George Eliot as well as with the characters and events of the novel. In doing so, she shows how a single book can illuminate our lives. How often do we immerse ourselves in a book, then return to it at different points in our lives, and then reflect on how it shaped our life or the way we see the world? Such is the power of great literature.

Towards the end of her book, Rebecca Mead spends some time hovering over the last sentence of George Eliot’s novel–a sentence that resonates in my life as I tackle the writing I want to do about my family and especially my mother, Ruth.

Here is the final sentence of Middlemarch:

“But the effect of her being [Dorothea's} on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” 
― George EliotMiddlemarch

____________________________

(Non)Writing Idea: So it's summer--those lazy days (really?) when we have time to read big books and write (or not). Take a few minutes to pause and look out a window. File what you see in your memory bank. Write if you wish--or not. No pressure. Nothing to do. No historic acts. As we faithfully live our hidden lives. As did those before us. It is all so simple.

One more quote from an essay by Eliot: "Love does not say 'I ought to love' --it loves. Pity does not say, 'It is right to be pitiful'--it pities. Justice does not say, 'I am bound to be just'--it feels justly." No bright apothegms, George Eliot writes, they leave "little energy for simple emotion"--or for simple living, which summer (with all its comings and goings) is all about.  I hope you're having a good one!

She loves: Granddaughters at the pool

She loves:
granddaughters at the pool.

 

 

Spell “World” Backwards

Okay, everyone out there. You had better start practicing.  Someday in your distant, or not so distant, future, someone is going to ask you questions like this: “Spell world.”  That’s easy. “Now spell world backwards.” Don’t worry. They are just checking to see if you have dementia.

Can it be that we will live into our nineties only to be asked to spell world backwards? That’s all they want to know?lesleystahl-300x219

On a recent 60 Minutes show, “Living to 90 and Beyond,” Lesley Stahl interviewed Dr. Claudia Kawas and several of the oldest of the old. It seems that Dr. Kawas discovered a gold mine for her study on aging. In 1981, fourteen thousand people in a retirement community south of L. A., once known as Leisure World now as Laguna Woods, filled out extensive health and lifestyle questionnaires. Dr. Kawas was able to find 1,800 of these same folks, now in their nineties, still living in Laguna Woods–a perfect group of nonagenarians to study. Many also agreed to have their brains analyzed after death.

These men and women were gracious and willing to answer Lesley Stahl’s questions, as well as the standard ones for assessing the on-set of dementia. The ones without dementia laughed with her about being old.

There was a certain aren’t-they-cute-and-amazing tone to the episode–as if these people were a group of pandas or some adorable pilgrims sending messages back to those who haven’t reached the land of the old.

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

Ruth, my mother, in her 90s

I realize that all these studies of the oldest of the old are meant to help us understand the nature of dementia, but the program seemed self-serving and somehow reductive. When complicated individuals are reduced to objects of study, the world turns backwards.

____________________________________

Nonagenarians’ Lament

” …and pilgrimes were they alle, /That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”
–Chaucer

We were children once.
Our mothers took us shopping for spring outfits,
and we showed up at church
dressed in miniature suits,
white shirts with clip-on neckties.
Our sisters wore dotted swiss dresses
and patent shoes with buckles.

We were children who played roller bat
in the street and croquet and kick the can.
The girls liked jacks and jumping rope.
We learned the alphabet and sang it too
and made words from the letters in our soup.

Our hands curved around a pencil,
and we formed A’s and L’s with big looping arcs.
The Palmer method,
remember that?

We were children who fell asleep
hearing our parents laugh at oyster roasts in the yard
and rode home without seatbelts
curled up in the back seat of the old Mercury.

We knew our geography and the capitals
of all the states and the names of rivers too.
We studied chemistry and memorized
the bones in the body.

Ruth, in her 20's

Ruth, in her 20′s

We could recite in Middle English
The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
We sang in the choir.
We fell in love.
We taught school, wired houses,
became lawyers, waited tables.

Now we practice yoga, write,
eat fish and chocolate, shovel snow,
go to concerts, nap,
play the piano, walk,
paint the sunset
and palm trees in oils.

They seem surprised.
They study us.
They ask: Who is the President?
What is today’s date?
They say: Remember three words.
How did you live so long?
What did you eat for breakfast?
Blood pressure?
Did you smoke? Drink wine?
Did you enjoy sex?
If so, for how long?

As if what mattered could be
quantified, replicated,
extended, amended,
comprehended,
once we are suspended.

They study us.
And after we die,
they dissect our brains.

–Vicky Lettmann

________________________________________

Writing Idea/Jumpstart: What do you have to say about “the oldest of the old”? Or have you heard something in the news, on television, or in a recent conversation that caused the hair on the back of your neck to stand up, or prickle, at least? If so, write it down. It’s good to put some words on paper since I doubt our ideas, stories, bits of insight will show up under the microscope when our brains are dissected.

________________________________________

Tulips, Books, Gardens, and Dirt

I’m not much of a gardener. Yet when I return to Minnesota and look out at spring trying its best to happen, I want to help things along. The trees are working hard at their new leaves. They make it look so effortless. Mysterious green sprigs are trying to poke through the sodden mulch in our forsaken (for Florida!) flower beds. So maybe that’s why I think: It’s time to do something with dirt.

Good news! My friend Mary and I signed up for a special garden book discussion group with beloved teacher Toni McNaron. I was a student in Toni’s Virginia Woolf classes at the U way back! The group meets once a month at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

How delightful to talk about books and gardens in the glorious surroundings of the Arboretum–where other people create all that color and order! The tulips were absolutely astounding–announcing to the world: “Here we are. We made it through that bad winter. See how strong and bright we are! Can you believe it?”

Tulips at the Arboretum

Tulips at the Arboretum

So as much as I enjoyed the novel we discussed with its focus on Japanese gardens, I must say that it was the real, in-the-moment tulips that live in my mind. Their stunning display of exuberance rather over-whelmed the small brown Japanese garden tucked beside them. Color!

The book under discussion was The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Now if you’re looking for a carefully written novel about Japanese gardens, Malaya during and following World War II, internment camps, tattooing, communist guerrilla warfare, kamikaze pilots, memory and forgetfulness, all entwined around two amazing love stories, then you will enjoy this novel.

I certainly did. It is one that invites re-reading and lots of time to unravel a challenging, non-linear plot. I read it in three versions: Kindle, audio, and paper, but I most enjoyed the paper where I could flip back and forth and write in the margins.

Sam: "Which shall I read? Both!"

Sam: “Which shall I read? Both!”

For our next meeting, we’re reading Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, a collection of  seventy-two alphabetized essays full of practical, personal, and witty musings on topics like “Annuals,” “Earthworms,” “Mazes,” “Longevity,” and “Tulips.” This last short essay was one of the first I read after that lovely meeting with the profusion of tulips waiting outside our classroom door.  IMG_2165

After a long section on tulipomania, the origins of the name tulip, and certain tulip disease, Perenyi writes: “Linguistics and unclassifiable diseases aside, tulips are one of the gardener’s joys and I can’t imagine anyone with even a patch of ground not growing them. Unlike most northern gardeners, I’m not much moved by the first crocus, poking its brave little head up among the dead leaves….the tulips are what I wait for.”

So I’m going to search for Perenyi’s tulip reccomendatons in a few on-line gardening catalogs and order striped ones, Darwins, modern Ottomans, Rembrandts (great names) which follow a magical sequence of spring-time blooming. I’m going to dig down deep into the dirt and plant some tulips. Then sit back and hope!

If the tulips don’t appear next spring, at least I will have satisfied my urge to dig in the dirt.

______________________________

P. S. If you want to hear a young woman read “Night,” one of the essays in  Green Thoughts, click here. She makes one mistake: the book was first published in 1981. Eleanor Peyenyi, who passed away at age 91, was born in 1918.

_______________________________

Writing Jumpstart:

Here are a few gardening quotes. If you feel so inspired, take out your writer’s notebook and write about gardens, tulips, dirt, spring–whatever comes to mind.

To garden is to let optimism get the better of judgment.”                                                    – Eleanor Perenyi, Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden

“Then I went out for two hours late in the afternoon and put in a hundred tulips. In itself that would not be a big job, but everywhere I have to clear space for them. . . . I really get to weeding only in the spring and autumn, so I am working through a jungle now. Doing it I feel strenuously happy and at peace. At the end of the afternoon on a gray day, the light is sad and one feels the chill, but the bitter smell of earth is a tonic.”
— May Sarton, 1912-1995, New England poet, author, and feminist
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
— Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, poet, and environmentalist

 

The Size of My Life

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield’s poem, “My Life Was the Size of My Life,” (The New Yorker, March 10, 2014) begins:

My life was the size of my life
Its rooms were room-sized,
its soul was the size of a soul.
In its background, mitochondria hummed,
above it sun, clouds, snow,
the transit of stars and planets.
various airplanes, a donkey.
It wore socks, shirts, its own ears and nose. . . .

Some days, I look out from my body and forget it is the age it is. I forget the size of my life. That is until days like last Sunday when my five-year-old granddaughter, Lucia, and I were making funny faces at each other on FaceTime. Now FaceTime is great, but unfortunately a tiny square at the bottom of the screen shows you exactly how you look to the other person. So you see yourself talk at the same time you’re trying to focus on what the other person is saying. Very distracting. Lucia is much less critical of her image than I am of mine. I’m thinking: Who is that woman with several chins, lots of wrinkles, and big age spots? Lucia doesn’t care: she is busy looking at her own teeth, eyes, hair–all of which we talk about in great detail!  For a few minutes, my life is the size of a small square on the bottom of an i-Phone. And there, surrounding it, is the beautiful face of Lucia.

Roger Angell

Roger Angell and Andy; Central Park, January, 2014. (Photo by Brigitte Lacombe.)

Roger Angell in his wonderful essay, “This Old Man”(The New Yorker, Feb. 17 & 24, 2014), begins with a detailed description of his body at age 93. “Check me out,” he says. He then describes his arthritic hands, trying to find just the right metaphor to help us see them: “The top two knuckles of my left hand. . . if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.”

He goes on to catalogue a long list of what it is like to live in his ninety-three-year-old body. Besides the residual effects of arthritis, he writes about shingles, macular degeneration, arterial stints, shaky knees, herniated discs–not to mention the loss of his daughter and wife and many friends. Still he brings us the news that “the pains and insults are bearable” and that at the end of life he still longs for touch and love. “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. ” Yes, to deep attachment and love. Good that the size of our souls still has room for these–no matter our age.

Mary Junge

Mary Junge (photo by Joey McLeister)

When Carol Roan and I put together our anthology When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over Fifty, we were amazed at the stories we heard: so many of us out there writing and writing, about our bodies, our loves, our lives, our past and futures. We’re all on this march together, so hearing news of the terrain ahead is a good thing.

My friend Mary Junge recently sent me a poem she wrote in response to Jane Hirshfield’s poem. Thank you, Mary. (For more of Mary’s poems, click here to visit her website: birdloverpoet.com.)

My Life at Sixty

It looked foreign suddenly, and small, inconsequential.
Yet, it was all too familiar. It was surely mine.
As light as a wisp or shadow, an exhale.
The untied silk scarf that slips to the floor without notice.
I thought of my mother long ago, asking
How I’d spent the gone money. Now it was I who
Wanted an account of the gone dawns and sunsets,
The dreamless and dream-filled nights of slumber,
The days wasted in too much sadness or too much frivolity.
The meals carefully (or carelessly) prepared and eaten,
The love given and received generously (or begrudgingly).
Injuries to the body, kindness given and received—even the days of
Cruel insults I wanted back now.
Was it true? Had I spent it so soon?
I thought of my grandfather,
Illiterate, poor speaking German immigrant farmer,
Who hid his radio in the barn during WWII. After his passing,
The shy list of farm equipment, animals, and all grain on hand.
So I thought of the shy list that will follow my passing:
Quilts, poems, photo books, stories. Somehow I had expected more,
Yet there it was, the small life undeniably mine.

–Mary Junge

_____________________

Writing Idea:  How would you size up your life? Take a careful look at yourself at whatever age you are, in whatever place you occupy, in all shapes and sizes, on any given day, from any perspective. “My Life at Seventy-One” or “My Life on an Island” or “My Life as an Ant”  or “My Life on March 21.” Try it in several versions. Try it in prose and/or poetry. Enjoy looking around at your life!

_______________________

“It was clear when I left the party/ That although I was over eighty I still had/ A beautiful body. . . .” (“When I Turned a Hundred” by Mark Strand. For an outstanding essay about Mark Strand, see “Mark Strand’s Luminous Nostalgia” by Willard Spiegelman, Kenyon Review, Winter 2014).

I Come From the Sea

Where do you come from? Our origins make all the difference in the stories we tell.

I lived when I was young at the end of a long road, or a road that seemed long to me.

Thus begins Alice Munro’s story, “Dear Life,” the title story from her most recent collection. This autobiographical story and the three others which conclude Dear Life map out the contours of Alice Munro’s origins in rural Ontario where she grew up.

Here are a few responses from writers in the Sanibel workshop who wrote about origins:

I come from the sea...

I come from the sea…

I come from the sea.

Born beside the Atlantic on the west coast of Scotland.
I search for the sea.
Born on January 23rd, in the sign of Aquarius,
I look for the water.
Sand in my shoes a constant.
Pebbles and shells in my pockets, reminders of where I’ve been.

-Brenda Hunt

I come from a tiny state, a big Italian family, and a kitchen with wonderful smells.                                             -Arlene MacDonald

My two sisters and I were born in a small city, Utica, known as the gateway to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Seems romantic enough I know, but in truth it was a town cobbled together by Italian immigrants who settled here after building the Erie Canal in the late 1800’s. Yes, the city’s future on the cusp of recession in 1929 probably still looked good to my father and twin brother, Canadians eager to leave behind the prospect of socialized medicine for the greener fields of the U.S.  Not that they were money grubbers–far from it. They were lucky to be able to get through the University of Toronto compliments of their missionary great aunt (another story to tell) who was left a decent sum of money by her lumberman brother killed in a hotel fire on one of his properties.                       -Jill Dillon

I like the way each of these writers launches into story, poem, or memoir with confidence. We are ready to follow these voices anywhere they will take us.

Mahmoud Darwish, often spoken of as the Palestinian national poet, writes of exile and loss and home in his poems.

I Come From There

Marmoud DarwishI come from there and I have memories
Born as mortals are, I have a mother
And a house with many windows,
I have brothers, friends,
And a prison cell with a cold window.
Mine is the wave, snatched by sea-gulls,
I have my own view,
And an extra blade of grass.
Mine is the moon at the far edge of the words,
And the bounty of birds,
And the immortal olive tree.
I walked this land before the swords
Turned its living body into a laden table.
I come from there. I render the sky unto her mother
When the sky weeps for her mother.
And I weep to make myself known
To a returning cloud.
I learnt all the words worthy of the court of blood
So that I could break the rule.
I learnt all the words and broke them up
To make a single word: Homeland…..

In contrast, listen to country singer Alan Jackson tell us of his origins:  “…where I come from it’s cornbread and chicken.” Click here to hear him sing and see the lyrics:  Alan Jackson “Where I Come From.” 

_________________________________

The prompt we used in the Sanibel workshop is  from Bonni Goldberg’s Room to Write, a book I recommend if you’re looking for “daily invitations to the writing life.”

Today write about your origins. Start with the phrase, “I come from.” Include words and sounds you remember hearing, smells, tastes, and sights. Write about all those things which, had you not known them, would have significantly altered who you are.

You could also adapt this prompt to apply to a fictional character you are creating in a novel or short story. Where do your characters come from and how does that shape their stories?

____________________________

“Experience is not what happens to you; it is what you do with what happens to you.” Aldous Huxley

Jumpstart, Anyone?

imgres It’s that time of year again when I begin my Sanibel writing workshop. I’ve been leading this workshop for several years now and call it “Jumpstart Your Writing.” It’s for writers, beginner to advanced, who need a jolt to rev up their writing lives, the way a car needs a jumpstart when the battery is weak. Actually for those of us who write or who aspire to write, the battery is never really dead; it just needs a little juice to get it going again.

 

jump´start`

v. t. 

To start (the engine of a motor vehicle) using a temporary connection to supply electrical power from another vehicle or another source of current; – an emergency procedure used when a vehicle’s own battery has insufficient power to start the vehicle normally.

2.

To provide a speedy start to (an activity) using the assistance of some external impetus; to re-energize (an activity proceeding sluggishly); – accomplished by application of a stimulus not normally used in the activity.

The word can be a noun or a verb, but it is the verb that I like best. I also like the idea that some “external impetus” is needed “to re-energize an activity proceeding sluggishly.” What that external impetus is will vary from writer to writer, but for me, one battery charger is the company of other writers–not just any writers, but writers who believe in “the practice school of writing.” (See Natalie Goldberg’s chapter “Writing as Practice” in Writing Down the Bones.)

For several years now, I’ve been a part of a group of poets. We meet every Monday morning in the home of the gifted poet and teacher, Deborah Keenan. Without her gentle guidance, her selection of wonderful poems and poets and the writing suggestions she nudges out of the poems, as well as the inspiration of  the others in the group, I would have a very low writing battery. Bringing my poems to this group has nourished and enhanced my writing life, which was almost extinguished after the completion of my MFA. (That’s another story.)  I enjoy these opportunities to create and craft my poems. Somehow the ego washes away, and the little bubbles of writing that emerge in my notebooks become poems.

So as we start these next few weeks, here on Sanibel with this group of writers, I hope to re-create a little of the same spirit. We’ll use writing from others as models and inspiration and also create our own envelopes of writing jumpstarts. I’ll be bringing some of what we do to these blogs. So those of you not on Sanibel can take the workshop along with us.

There is always the question: Can writing be taught? Maybe, maybe not, but it can be practiced–the way one practices the piano or yoga.  And through practice in the company of others engaged in a similar practice, it is my hope that the writing becomes better–as the practice itself remains enjoyable and always challenging.

__________________

IMG_6241I like to re-read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones when I start a new workshop. Way back in 1985 or ’86, I took a workshop in Minnesota with Natalie. She had just sent the galleys of Writing Down the Bones back to her publisher. She was, and continues to be, an inspiration. “What are your deep dreams?” she asks in one chapter. This will be the way I’ll start the class on Monday.  “What are your deep dreams?” One of mine was to write a novel. So maybe it is time to go back to it and see what I still have to say. It’s never too late.

___________________

Writing Jumpstart:   What are your deep dreams? Go for ten minutes. What is that spark that ignited your desire to write? Ten more minutes.

___________________

Happiness Floats

Thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye for this lovely poem–and to all of you who follow Turtle House Ink.

I so enjoy your comments and mail.

Best wishes during this holiday season and for the new year…and…

Much Happiness

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.
But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything.
Happiness lands on the roof of the next house, singing,
and disappears when it wants to.
You are happy either way.
Even the fact that you once lived in a peaceful tree house
and now live over a quarry of noise and dust
cannot make you unhappy.
Everything has a life of its own,
it too could wake up filled with possibilities
of coffee cake and ripe peaches,
and love even the floor which needs to be swept,
the soiled linens and scratched records…..
Since there is no place large enough
to contain so much happiness,
you shrug, you raise your hands, and it flows out of you
into everything you touch. You are not responsible.
You take no credit, as the night sky takes no credit
for the moon, but continues to hold it, and share it,
and in that way, be known.

 

“And Have No Fear”

In my last blog, I wrote about using prompts or ten-minute jumpstarts to fire up our writing. Yet are we just filling notebooks with exercises? What can come of these jottings?images-2

In a Paris Review interview, Amy Hempel talked about an assignment (prompt) from her teacher, Gordon Lish. She said:

The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, dismantles your own sense of yourself. And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was.

And what was her worst secret? “I failed my best friend when she was dying,” she said. It became the subject of the first story she ever wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” one of the most anthologized stories of all time.

Darin Strauss’s memoir Half a Life: A Memoir (winner of The National Book Critics Circle Award, 2011) was built around telling his worst secret. In the first sentence, he writes: “Half my life ago, I killed a girl.”

One day in his last year of high school when he was driving his father’s Oldsmobile, a girl on a bike swerved in front of the car. He was unable to avoid hitting her, and she died. The girl was a fellow classmate, Celine Zilkes. Strauss buried the secret for years, not telling anyone. Until the birth of his own twins, when he says he felt “with new force that I’d never be able to feel it all—never truly comprehend just how awful the Zilkes’ loss must have been. I wrote merely as a way to take hold of my thoughts about this.” (See his interview with Colum McCann.)

Here are two writers who have written successful artistic accounts of “worst secrets”: one fiction, one nonfiction. Which genre do we choose to explore a secret? Fiction, nonfiction, poetry? In his workshop at the 2013 Sanibel Writers Conference, Strauss (who writes mostly fiction) told us that he chose nonfiction for Half a Life because he wanted to get the facts right. It was his answer to the news articles that reported the accident. Amy Hempel chose fiction for her elliptical, poetic story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.” Lucille Clifton wrote poems such as “the lost baby poem.” So . . .

Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Everything exists, everything is true, and the earth is only a little dust under our feet.                                  ― W.B. Yeats

And have no fear. After all, to begin we need only a pen and notebook and ten minutes.

___________________________

For other writers who have written about “worst secrets,”  see work by Susan Cheever, Jeannette WallsKathryn Harrison,Pat Conroy, Sharon Olds, and Nora Ephron (who kept her own impending death a secret while planning her Exit.) Also Nabokov’s Lolita,Sophocles’ Oedipus, and St. Augustine’s Confessions come to mind. In the current issue of The Paris Review (“The Art of Nonfiction No. 5″), the French writer Emmanuel Carrére discusses (among other things) his telling of secrets in My Life as a Russian Novel. 

__________________________

Writing Jumpstart: Use Gordon Lish’s assignment above. Or write about why you could never tell your worst secret. Or find the humor in a secret–and write that story or poem (maybe like Billy Collins does in “Forgetfulness” or “Writing in the Afterlife“–not exactly about secrets but about where “assignments” might take us.) Or invent a secret for a character in your novel or story. There must be lots of power in that word “secret.” Give it whirl for ten minutes. And another ten. That’s something about secrets that might keep you going for longer.

We Have To Do What We Have To Do

I’ve been thinking about the prompts (jumpstarts) I’ve been adding to these blogs. They are meant to be little exercises for limbering up the writing muscles. If I can do one of these a day for ten minutes, then in one week I would have seven pages of a notebook and seven more observations or details than I would have if I ruminated about my writing and waited for an inspiring idea to float into my brain.

Yet I often hear myself saying: “But I don’t really want to write about parakeets (see the last post) or whatever the prompt might suggest.” A little moment of rebellion starts up in my brain. Some voice is asking, “How is this going to help you write what you really want to write? That novel, that short story, that great poem?” Another one says, “It’s too late.” Another one says, “You have too much to do.”

imagesRecently I started taking piano lessons again. When I said to Hannah, my new teacher, “I don’t think I can play that. Maybe when I was twelve and just learning, but now my brain feels like concrete.” She stopped me. “All you have to do is try the six things I write down in your book each week. It’s my job to take you to the new place,” she said.

So where is that writing teacher who will take me to the next place? Right here, inside of my own head. There is another voice that says: “Tell me everything you have to say. I want to hear it. And by the way, hurry up! The clock is ticking.” That voice also says: “Once you get some words on paper we’ll work on it and get it to be that novel, that short story, that great poem.” That voice keeps saying, “You know you told me you want to do this. Let’s go.” (Maybe it’s my dad’s voice. He used to stand in the dining room listening to me practice the piano and then clap like crazy after each song.)

If we can listen to the voice that questions why we would write for ten minutes every day about some topic, then why can’t we believe in some of those other voices (like Hannah’s) that say, “Just do this. I’ll help you get to the next place.” All I have to do is try a prompt or jumpstart and write for ten minutes. It adds up.

It’s like practicing the piano, who knows where I will be able to go?  Maybe I can play “To a Wild Rose” for my brother by the holidays.

Wait! I can hear him groaning in the background. He had to hear me practice that piece for months for my first recital. I won’t let that stop me. It’ll be fun to torment him again like when I was twelve, and he was eight. Sorry, Glenn, we have to do what we have to do!

_______________________

If you’ve forgotten how “To a Wild Rose” goes, here’s a version played by someone who can really play.  (Just click on the highlighted song title.)

_______________________

Writing Jumpstart: For ten minutes, write down what all those voices are saying about how you shouldn’t be writing. Then rip up the page or mark through the words or simply turn to a new page. Now write down all those other voices that are saying, “Go for it.” Listen to them and write what they are saying, for another ten minutes.

_____________________

dirtylove_coverP. S. Also if you don’t really want to write, then go do what you really want to do. I had a chance to speak with Andre Dubus III at the Sanibel Writers Conference last year. When I told him that sometimes I’d rather just go watch the sunset on the beach and not write, ever, he said, “Well, do that. Forget about writing, if you can.” That last phrase says it all.

(Andre Dubus most recent book is on my list of books to read. Great reviews!)

The Parakeet Craze

Not long ago, my brother, Glenn, and I got to talking about parakeets and that time in the fifties when everyone had a parakeet. It was the rage.Unknown

Our Aunt Clarissa and Uncle Stamper had a blue one named Snookie. Since they never had children, they treated Snookie like their child. His home was an elaborate cage full of mirrors and every parakeet toy imaginable: little seesaws and bells and plastic balls to push around. He could whistle and say a few words like “Pretty Boy” and “Hello.”  Aunt Clarissa would let him sit on her head and preen her hair or on her shoulder where she would turn her head and allow him to kiss her, which all seems a little disgusting now that parakeets aren’t so much the rage.  But it was awful when he died, and they were not able to have another parakeet after Snookie.free vintage printable_parakeets and children

After I begged for weeks, my mother let me pick out a parakeet at the dime store. I  chose a green one and named him Petie, but he was not half as smart as Snookie.  His only claim to fame was his demonstrative shows of affection for his reflection in the mirror that charmed him and his ability to make an incredible mess in the bottom of his cage.

My brother remembered that back during the parakeet rage, our Uncle Hughie heard that parakeets would be a good business venture, so he decided to raise them. He had a little house full of parakeets who laid tiny eggs in nests. I don’t remember how well Uncle Hughie did at the business, but I never saw any baby birds in the nests.Unknown-1

Glenn told about how every now and then someone’s parakeet in our neighborhood would escape, and you’d see that person standing under a telephone line with the cage and the door open. There, balanced on the wire, would be a row of sparrows; and right in the middle, a bright green parakeet. The owner stood down below pointing to the open door of the wire cage, saying: “Here pretty boy, here, pretty boy.” He was attempting to lure the bird with a tantalizing cuttlebone. The bird, on the other hand, seemed happy enough trying to blend in with the sparrows.

I don’t know what happened to the parakeet craze, but I do remember our son, Mike, asking for a bird for Christmas when he was in the second grade. That was all he wanted. So we got him a parakeet. The birds must have evolved, or de-volved, from the time of the Snookies, or maybe we owners just weren’t willing to work with them the way Aunt Clarissa did. Our bird, Barney, was a mess. He never could get used to being out of his cage, so we could tame him. He would fly in big arching circles all over the house, and then cling, in desperation, to a curtain while our dog Max looked up at him hungrily.

Barney did have one major talent. He couldn’t seem to die. He lived on and on until we finally gave him to our daughter, who was living in an apartment. One day she came home to find him on the bottom of the cage, his two little feet sticking up into the air.

And that was the end of the parakeet craze, at least for us.

___________________________________

Writing Jumpstart: Think about some “craze” that has come and gone, at least for you. See how many stories you can string together. Go for ten minutes. Then another ten minutes until you have at least three stories to tell.