Sachiko: A Story of Hope and Peace

I recently had a conversation with Caren Stelson, the author of Sachiko: A Nagasaki Bomb Survivor’s Story (Carolrhoda Books, 2016). We had just learned that her book was on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. “I’m flabbergasted,” said Caren when I offered my congratulations. “This is so affirming.”

We met in a Minneapolis suburb at a Panera restaurant amid the big box stores of Home Depot and Costco, a place far away from Nagasaki and Sachiko Yasui. Yet as Caren and I talked, the incredible story of Sachiko began to come alive for me. It was almost as if Sachiko herself were the third person at our small table.

Sachiko, who is now 78, was six years old on August 9, 1945, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. Because she was a child on that day, she wants children everywhere to know her story. “I think it must be very hard for you to feel what happened because you are so very young,” she said to the children of a sixth grade class, “but I’ll try to speak about how strong you can be as a human being when you encounter difficulties in the future.”

Sachiko’s story is told in short chapters that cover fifty years of her life from the day of the bombing, when she went out to play with friends, to the 50th anniversary of the bombing when, at age 56, she was invited to speak to a sixth grade class about her experience as a hibakusha (“explosion-affected people”). Between Sachiko’s chapters are interspersed sections of supplemental material about such topics as the history of World War II, the bombing of Japan, and the long-term effects of radiation.

The writing is straightforward, never preachy, with quick, punchy sentences appropriate to the reading level of young people, yet not condescending, as readers of all levels can appreciate the concrete details that bring the story to life. Camphor trees, cicadas, and Sachiko’s grandmother’s green bowl found in the ruins of their home work as recurring motifs and metaphors to illuminate connections to nature, the past, and re-birth. They also serve as touchstones for the reader to navigate through a fifty-year time span.

The arc of this story takes readers on a journey from great sorrow and massive tragedy to incredible hope and the wish for peace. The story is personal and yet universal as Sachiko, who was inspired not only by her parents, but also by Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, comes to find forgiveness and the courage to tell others about the power of healing. Her talk on the 50th anniversary of the bombing was the beginning of many years of telling her story and advocating for peace. “What happened to me must never happen to you,” she said.

As Sachiko stood before the children on that day, she was reminded of her three brothers and sister. Toshi died the day of the bombing; her brothers Aki and Ichiro, who suffered from extensive radiation injuries, died shortly thereafter; and her sister, Misa, some years later from leukemia. Sachiko herself battled thyroid cancer that took her voice until she fought to regain it. Both her mother and father were gone. She alone had survived.

“This is an important day to talk about peace,” she said. “I hope to give you something to move your heart, to make you think of our peace for the future by telling you about the real misery that happened in the past. To make it happen, I have to share my heart . . . with you.” And so she told the children her story. It began the way this book opens with a six-year-old girl who was hungry because of the long war, who waited for the family hen to lay an egg, and then went out to play with her friends. Above them, the children heard the sound of a B-29. At 11:02 when the bomb exploded, they were just half a mile from the hypocenter. Her world was demolished. “Roaring winds ripped the bark off the camphor trees and split their trunks . . . .Dust erased the lines of the earth. Day turned to night.”

Sochiko lay under the rubble until her uncle found her and pulled her out. That evening the family buried her four friends. Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, who was killed by a sharp stick to his head, was dead in her mother’s arms. He also was buried near the four friends.

During our conversation, I learned that Caren was inspired to write about Sachiko after hearing her speak at a Minneapolis ceremony to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We talked about Caren’s five trips to Nagasaki to interview Sachiko and her extensive research (evident by the notes and bibliography in the back of the book). Sachiko came to find her own voice because of what she learned from Helen Keller, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King—and her father, who said to her, “This is the only world we live in, Sachiko. Never say evil words; otherwise, we’ll not see peace. Hate only produces hate.”

It has been a long time since I’ve been so moved by a story. The book, although written for young people, helped me to better understand a war I was born into. I would have been about the same age as Sachiko’s little brother, Toshi, when the atomic bombs exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

When we began our conversation, Caren said she had learned how much we don’t know or remember about that horrible day and how the national narrative we are told is not the only one to examine. “We have to be careful,” she said, “about the way we read our history because there is much controversy over the dropping of the bombs. It is relevant today. We must choose our leaders carefully.” By focusing on the story of one person, Sachiko, a habakusha who was shunned, Caren said she could explore how a child of war finds her way to peace.

“How does one get there?” she said. “How can this help our young people? I had to find the layers. What was happening in her life, the world, the war? I had to explore all the ways one person came to tell this story.” She paused and continued, “I don’t want this to be an apocalyptic story. I want it to be about a child, a story of hope. ”

One of my questions for Caren  related to the name of this blog, “The Joy of Writing.”   “Since I call my blog “The Joy of Writing,” what have been the joys (or not) of writing this book?” I wondered. Our time together ran out before we could talk about my question, but later Caren sent me this note:

It was a pleasure to meet you this afternoon to talk about SACHIKO. I never really answered your question about the joy of writing SACHIKO. The real joy of writing SACHIKO is connecting with others in friendship. I thoroughly enJOYed being with you this afternoon.

Then she added:

I forgot to say—now we have a child’s voice rising up through the three darkest holes of World War II. We have Germany’s Anne Frank and her diary. We have Hiroshima’s Sadako and her thousand paper cranes. And now we have Nagasaki’s Sachiko and her story. I feel in my bones if Anne Frank and Sadako had been allowed to grow to adulthood, they would have become wise peacemakers, like Sachiko, sharing love and hope with the world.

Thank you, Caren Stelson, for bringing Sachiko’s story, this beautiful book of forgiveness and peace, to us.

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

Sachiko Yasui and Caren Stelson at their first meeting. Nagasaki, 2010

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Writing Idea:  No matter what your writing project, try doing research or interviews to connect your story or subject to a larger historical perspective. Another idea: how would you write the story of a difficult time in your life (or another person’s life) for a child you know?

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“When you grow up, remember to tell my story.”  Sachiko Yasui

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

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A Hand Drawing a Hand: Writing about Writing

Today I decided to re-start my writing life. I told my friend, Mary, that I was going to commit to writing three hours a day for at least three days a week. “I’m going to get up early—6:00 am—and write.”

Yesterday I procrastinated all day and had the kitchen spotless. Then I removed a two-year-old coffee stain on the white shag rug under my writing chair. I also removed a macaroon that was stuck on the bottom of my sandals from the trip to Paris. Hmmm, I thought, you were a Paris macaroon, and now you are cement on the bottom of my shoe.

The whole day went by, and finally around 3:00 p.m. I made it up to my office, a place I had not visited all summer.

There on my desk were several piles of writing projects: poems, short stories, my collection of family stories and personal essays. So this is my problem, I thought, I try to work in too many genres. I even had a new novel percolating in the back of my head.

Writing Project Piles

Writing Project Piles

What about that other novel? I said to myself. The one you started years ago.

Well, maybe, I can fuse my idea for the new novel into the old one, I thought. So there emerged another writing problem: I’m always trying to figure out a way to work the old stuff into the new stuff.

Take the essays, for example. Years ago, I wrote a piece entitled “Long Distance to North Carolina.” I keep thinking that story, which could be considered a fusion of fiction and nonfiction, needed to make it into the world. So I revised it and used it as the title piece in a collection of nonfiction pieces that I worked on last summer.

When I presented this collection in the Madeline Island workshop Mary and I attended, the writer leading the group raised some good questions. “You need to know who your audience is,” she said. “If you’re writing these for family and friends—they will be interested in your work regardless, and you needn’t work so hard to gain their attention.”

That stopped me right there. Although I’d like my family and friends to be interested in my writing, they don’t seem to care all that much. Except, of course, Mary—who is a writer herself. I’m not blaming them. Mostly my family is busy living their own lives. And my friends? When we get together, it’s to enjoy each other’s company. My writing seems like a minor topic.

“If you’re hoping for a wider audience,” the workshop writer told me, “your work in revision will be bridging these personal narratives to universal truths or questions.”  True, who wouldn’t want a larger audience? Yet since I have neither an agent nor a publisher waiting in the wings, I see my larger audience as a misty cloud in some distant future.

Mary and I spent the rest of our spare time at the workshop laughing and trying to find our “universal truths.” I don’t mean to make light of this. I know exactly what the writer meant. I enjoyed writing those pieces; they meant something to me. But would anyone else care about them?

The workshop leader also questioned the fact that my writing is often also about writing. Just as I’m doing in this piece (the one you are reading), I write about writing in several of the pieces within that collection. “There’s little in your (sweet) moments writing with friends that hooks me,” she commented.

So here I am still sitting at my desk. Well, at least I’m at my desk. I’m writing about writing. It is like that Escher drawing of the artist’s hand drawing the artist’s hand. Is this a closed loop that no one else can enter? I don’t know, but it seems the best I can do today.

M. C. Escher, January 1948

M. C. Escher, January 1948

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Writing Talk: How is your writing life today? I call this blog “The Joy of Writing.” So why does writing seem not so joyful at times? Why do we avoid it? Where does the joy come from?

My mother was an artist. She seemed happy with the small pond of other artists in her community, with entering her work in local exhibitions, with taking part in art fairs. Is this where we writers can find our joy too?  Onward!

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Ray Bradbury, on curiosity and stimulating work, in his fantastic 2001 speech at The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea:

I want your loves to be multiple. I don’t want you to be a snob about anything. Anything you love, you do it. It’s got to be with a great sense of fun. Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun with it. Ignore the authors who say ‘Oh, my God, what word? Oh, Jesus Christ…,’ you know. Now, to hell with that. It’s not work. If it’s work, stop and do something else.  (I’ve checked this quote several times. I’m not sure if Bradbury said “word” or “work” in the quote, but both work!  -V.)

 

 

For the Love of Books

Sometimes I think that my love of books and reading can be a way to avoid writing. It’s so much easier to pick up a book and disappear into another world than it is to pick up my pen and create another world.

Every Sunday, The New York Times Book Review publishes a feature entitled “By the Book” where notable authors and other important people are asked several questions about their current reading. I enjoy the wide variety of answers to questions like “What books are on your nightstand right now?” and “What’s the last great book you read?” Sometimes I wonder how these authors find the time to read so widely and keep up their amazing writing lives at the same time. Maybe they don’t belong to three book groups!

I have to thank these book groups and my writer friends for inspiring me to read books I might not otherwise have chosen. There are also the books for upcoming trips (Hemingway’s A Movable Feast) and books by writers whose workshops I’ll be attending (Kate Moses’s Wintering), not to mention books written by friends (Marge Barrett’s Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun). I can hardly keep up.

The books stacked beside me today have given me so much pleasure this summer. As much I love each of them, I’m going to try to put them back on the shelf and concentrate on writing—as soon as I return from my next trip, that is!IMG_0623

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A sampling of my favorites from this summer’s reading:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

Wonderful exploration of four plants (tulip, apple, marijuana, potato) chosen by the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum garden book group led by Toni McNaron, one of my favorite teachers.

 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

This novel led to one of the liveliest discussions about a book I’ve had in long time. Tears and cheers for chimps!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Oh, the wonders of reading Jane Austen! This novel gave me so many ideas for the work I need to do on the novel that I’m taking out of the drawer. “Yes, I am going to do that,” she says to herself.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Somewhere along the line I missed reading this classic, which took my breath away. An amazing work of art.

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

Fun to see what a writer like Anne Tyler does with the original “vinegar girl,” Katherina, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of Shrew.

Called: The Making and Unmaking of a Nun by Marge Barrett

Hats off to my friend, Marge Barrett, for her lovely memoir! So proud of you, my friend. You inspire me to sit down and write!

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In the I-love-to-hear-from-you department: How does your reading affect your writing life? What are you reading this summer?

If (like me) your writing has suffered this summer for whatever reason, try writing three pages a day for the next week in your writer’s notebook. Record your day, your doings, the way the moonlight looks on a July night, your garden as it becomes robust or not, the storm that left you without power for two days, your trip (real or imaginary) to Paris. Three pages and stop. That is enough.

In these stressful times, I hope each of you finds a few hours each week to nurture a rich, creative life—as you seek solace and joy in both your reading and your writing.

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For a taste of Stegner’s profoundly moving prose, here is his narrator Lyman Ward at the end of Angle of Repose:

” ‘What do you mean, ‘Angle of Repose?’ she [Lyman’s estranged wife] asked me [Lyman Ward] when I dreamed we were talking about Grandmother’s life, and I said it was the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down. I suppose it is; and yet it was not that I hoped to find when I began to pry around in Grandmother’s life. I thought when I began, and still think, that there was another angle in all those years when she was growing old and older and very old, and Grandfather was matching her year for year, a separate line that did not intersect with hers. They were vertical people, they lived by pride, and it is only by the ocular illusion of perspective that they can be said to have met. But he had not been dead two months when she lay down and died too, and that may indicate that at that absolute vanishing point they did intersect. They had intersected for years, for more than he himself would ever admit.”

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Also the words on my cup (in the photo):

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble, or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”    (unknown)

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Before We Leave

It always happens. Just as soon as you think you’re ready to leave and go on to the next place, the one you’re in becomes incredibly beautiful. It happened to me this morning.

In a few days, I’ll be leaving this Florida island and going back to Minneapolis. I’ve told everyone I’m ready to go home: the island is too crowded with visitors, I say. I just want to go to my regular grocery store. I miss my Minnesota family and friends.

Then this morning as I sat outside reading the Sunday Times and drinking coffee, I dropped deep into the astounding beauty around me: the gentle air, the birds’ songs, the green of foliage, and the startling blue of sky and water. It all seemed impossible to leave.

The hibiscus and bougainvillea by our front door are putting on an incredible show saying to me, Don’t go. Stay and look. See what you will miss.

It also happened this morning that our radio was tuned to Krista Tippett’s “On Being” featuring the poet David Whyte.  April is National Poetry Month, so how pleasing to hear the musical voice of David Whyte read his poems and talk about poetry and the spirit.

                                                              Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice.

–David Whyte, “Everything Is Waiting for You”

The place I’m in now as I prepare to leave is the space of poetry. It is the time when you notice what you will miss, when you see all that you have not seen, when it will all go away in an instant. Poetry helps me see–if but for a moment.

The song of the cardinal is shriller than ever this morning. The pileated woodpecker searching the hole in the dead palm trunk is brilliant: red, white, and black, bright and clear against the brown. The sunlight through the blinds as I write makes a work of art of the keyboard and my desk.

I have missed much in the days before when I drove methodically down San-Cap Road focused on how slow the car in front of me was going.

My friend down the street created a delicious dinner for four of us neighbors on Friday night. How sweet to eat cooked-to-perfection lamb chops, to taste the caramelized walnuts in the strawberry salad, and to savor the beauty of her chocolate cake with its small lake of raspberry sauce and crown of piped whipped cream! All of this as the smooth words of conversation flowed around the candles; and there too, on the table, were three translucent pink hibiscus blooms to remind me of the temporality of all of this. They bloom for only a day.IMG_0030

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Writing Idea:  Look for something today that will be gone tomorrow. Go for ten minutes in your notebook. Try it again tomorrow. And the next.  It could be the last chocolate chip cookie in the bag. It could be that old shirt you decide to throw out. Is there a story or poem in the transitory? See what you have to say.

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“I’ll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.
The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
“That must have been the sun!”

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while
Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.

Emily Dickinson 

Putting the Meal on the Table

In our Sanibel writing class, I’ve used a cooking analogy to guide our thoughts about creative writing over the five weeks we were together. We started with a recipe and ingredients, mixed things up, and added heat. It’s all a process–sometimes messy, sometimes frustrating, always creative. Then last week, our final week, we put the meal on the table. We brought in one complete, polished piece to read to each other. We listened to each other and wrote comment cards while nibbling chocolate covered strawberries.IMG_0016

We heard about feeding sharks in the Tahitian Islands, the demolition of a neighboring house, a July Fourth celebration that began with an emergency trip to the hospital, and a South African wedding with the slaughter of a cow for the feast. Two people read letters they had written: one to her deceased parents telling them about what life is like now for their daughter and son; and another to a friend lost to death and dementia, updating her on how their gourmet club is doing in her absence.

Here are a few lines from the pieces:

“It was 4:30 a.m. when Roddy woke me up and said, ‘I can’t take it anymore. I have to go back to the hospital.’ ”                                           –“July 4th” by Wendy West

“We missed you, but your presence was felt in all those reminiscences. For the past four years of your life you had no memories. What a horrible disease. At the end memories are all we have and those were taken from you. Rest easy knowing we are remembering for you.”
–“A Dear Jean Letter”  by Bev Forslund

“The old gentleman comes to shake our hands, with a tipsy gait and a toothless grin. His whole right arm, all the way to the shoulder, is covered in dried blood. with flies buzzing around him. The action of slaughtering a cow is quite obviously thirsty work….”
–“An African Wedding” by Maria Bouloux

“The noise was awful. . .ripping, tearing. . .its massive motor making a thunderous roar! Watching from high on a balcony next door, looking down on this raucous mess, I clapped my hands over my ears. The ugly, dirty old house next door–once someone’s much loved white cottage– was being torn down.”
–“1160 Junonia Street” by Maryann Daly

“At a moment’s notice, seven reef sharks swim at a rapid pace within our circle. Smooth, sleek, and hungry, they move at record speed.”
–“Feeding the Sharks” by My St. John

“….But I know you can’t come, as much as I want you to. You’re in another place I know nothing about. I’m not ready to visit you, so the closest you can come to visiting me is in my imagination, as I write this letter.”
–“Dear Mom and Dad” by Lolly Murray

I’ve called this class “The Joy of Writing” like the famous cookbook, The Joy of Cooking, and it has been a joy to write/cook with these inspiring people.

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Note this change:  Because I like the idea of finding joy in writing, even when what I write about might sometimes reflect a darker side and even when the process is frustrating, I do believe there is great joy to be found in both writing and reading.

So I’ve decided to call the website, The Joy of Writing. This will better reflect the aim of what I record here. I’ll still use the URL of www.turtlehouseink.com. So all should stay the same for those who subscribe or seek out the site.

I hope you keep coming back to The Joy of Writing: A Home for Writers and Readers.  I always enjoy your comments and e-mail!

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“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.”
― M.F.K. Fisher

 

 

 

 

End-of-Year Reading Blitz

One of the pleasures of returning to Sanibel, Florida, where we spend the winters, is visiting the library here and coming home with a huge stack of books to read in the warm days ahead. I’ve given up trying to play golf and tennis. I’ve taken up yoga and walking–and now spend many afternoons and evenings in my chair by the window, reading with my iPhone tuned into Minnesota Public Radio’s classical station. “A winter storm is brewing,” says the Minneapolis announcer. “Expect ten to twelve inches of snow.” It’s almost as if I can be in two places at once: here in sunny Florida and back in snowy Minnesota at the same time.

The books stacked by my chair take me to more than these two places that my physical body now calls home–I should say three, since North Carolina will always be my first home. Right now I’m dipping into books by some of the writers who will be speaking at the 2016 Key West Literary Seminar. These books have taken me from NYC to China and from to Kiev to Montana and Mississippi.

KWLS '16 Writers

KWLS ’16 Writers

In a couple of weeks, my friend Mary and I will make our annual January  pilgrimage to Key West for a delightful feast of literary pleasures. The focus this year is “Short Shorts.” I’ve been reading Thomas McGuane (Crow Fair: Stories), Hilton Als (White Girls), Molly Antopol (The UnAmericans),  Brad Watson (Aliens in the Prime of Their Life) and browsing through books by Daniel Menaker (My Mistake) and Karen Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove). So I’m anxious to hear these writers and many others in person, particularly HIlton Als and Gish Jen (Tiger Writing), two of the most thought-provoking writers among those attending.

Yet there is one writer who won’t be in Key West. Her latest book was on the new books shelf of the Sanibel Library, and it is the one I’ve been enjoying the most over the past several weeks:  Shirley Jackson’s Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings.  Shirley Jackson, author of one of the most famous short stories ever, “The Lottery” (1948), was born in 1916, the same year as my mother, so Jackson will be celebrating her 100th birthday this coming year had she not died an early death of heart failure on August 8, 1965, at age 49.

Luckily, besides the many books she published in her short lifetime, she left behind a rich trove of unpublished writings. The new selections in Let Me Tell You (2015) were collected by two of her children, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt, and bring to readers more of the material found in her archives. Some are serious pieces; some light; some reflect on her life as a writer; many are about her family and children; some are lectures she gave on the craft of writing. In most of the pieces, you can see Jackson’s wicked sense of humor and her interest in the weird, uncanny, mythic elements of life.

One lecture, “How I Write,” contains a single paragraph that sets up how her story, “The Lottery,” came into her head. She writes: “I remember one spring morning I was on my way to the store, pushing my daughter in her stroller, and on my way down the hill I was IMG_9762thinking about my neighbors, the way everyone in a small town does. The night before, I had been reading a book about choosing a victim for a sacrifice, and I was wondering who in our town would be a good choice for such a thing.”

Thus began the kernel for a story that has been read by thousands. Shirley Jackson was simply pushing her daughter in a stroller and thinking about her neighbors and a book she read. She ends this paragraph saying how the story came to be published in The New Yorker and how she received many letters asking how could she ever “think of such a terrible thing.” She says that she was “just thinking about my neighbors, but no one would believe me. Incidentally no one in our small town has ever heard of The New Yorker, much less read my story.”

The importance of this “birth of a story” teaches me a good bit about the writing process:

  • Even when I’m not writing, I’m writing.
  • A flash of inspiration may come in idle moments when I put together two (or more) seemingly unrelated events.
  • So as not to disturb that jolt of inspiration, I can’t worry about where the story/poem/essay/journal entry will end up or how others will react.

Jackson was not thinking about publishing or whether her new story would be good or not. Nor was she concerned about future reactions to her story.

She couldn’t wait to get home to write it.

So enough of this sitting in my chair, reading. I need to put down this book and walk the dog around the neighborhood or clean the kitchen or get cracking on tomorrow night’s dinner party, while letting those writing ideas bang around in my head. Then back to my desk with pen and notebooks!

(P. S. I forgot to mention another great book I recently read and loved:  Euphoria by Lily King. But my favorite book of 2015 was Oliver Sacks’s autobiography, On the Move: A Life.) 

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Writing Idea 

Try taking an ordinary event from your day and kicking it up a notch or two by combining it with something else you’ve observed or you’ve been thinking or reading about.

For example:

In “Here I Am, Washing Dishes Again,” Shirley Jackson tells about how she imagines the lives of the glasses, forks, dish towels, steel wool, floor, curtains, as she cleans the kitchen. She sees the jealousy between her two forks: one with four prongs and one with two.  “My two forks are insanely jealous of each other, and I find that I must take a path of great caution with them. . . .I try to keep them out of their quarrels…but I am always fumbling the delicate balance of power that is all that keeps them from each other’s throats.” She lets her imagination go with this idea, and the short piece lifts off and comes to a revealing ending when she sees herself being flattened and drawn to the magnet that holds the knives in place.

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“One of the nicest things about being a writer is that nothing ever gets wasted. It’s a little like the frugal housewife who carefully tucks away all the odds and ends of string beans and cold bacon and serves them up magnificently in a fancy casserole dish.”
–Shirley Jackson, “How I Write” (from Let Me Tell You)

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Happy holidays to all you writers and readers out there! Here’s to a wonderful, productive 2016!  Stay well.  

Never Too Late

This week I’m re-posting a recent blog entry by my fellow writer and editor, Carol Roan, from her site, The Stage Fright Whisperer. Carol and I collaborated on the creation of  When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50. Her essay, part of a series she is doing on creativity, is inspirational for me because, like the anthology, it celebrates the life and work of older writers. Some of us have just been so busy living our lives that we haven’t always had the time to write and publish our stories. Yet it’s never too late–as the life of Smith Hagaman reveals.People-are-capable

The Creative Experience Has No Age Limits

by Carol Roan

Smith Hagaman died last week. Unless you’re from North Carolina, or are one of the too few people who have read his books, the name will mean nothing to you. But Smith is an inspiration to me.

He began to write at the age of 86. He had a story in his head, and he decided, “If not now, when?” He was a reader; but, other than a letter-to-the-editor or two, he had never written. He knew nothing about the craft of writing, only that he wanted to tell a story. He sat down and wrote for six months. He said later that if he had worried about how he was writing, he would have given up.

But then he took the crucial next step: He learned the craft. He went to workshops and readings; he joined a critique group and a marketing group. He hired an editor. Me, as it turned out. And what a joy he was to work with. “Why?” That was always his question. When he understood why his first scene didn’t work and what the reader would expect from a first scene, he rewrote it in a week.

And he researched the details. He had been involved in a plane crash during World War II, so he already knew what that felt like. But if his fictional crash occurred in the Arctic Circle, what would the survivors find to eat? He consulted the foremost expert on the flora and fauna of that region. I had a problem with the scene in which an Irish priest comforts a dying Jewish man. Smith consulted a rabbi and found a prayer that I didn’t know existed, even though I’d sung in synagogues and been fascinated by Hebraic rituals for more than 30 years.

Smith ended up with more than a good adventure story. Because he asked “why?” throughout his life, each of his characters is on some sort of quest. One of them—the Irish prist—questions his own faith. The laws of physics, engineering and mechanical problems, and an underlying spirituality all come into play. And he manages to engage the reader with the most unsympathetic character imaginable . . .Ah, I don’t want to give away the ending.

When Smith asked if I would write a blurb for the book and sent me the galleys, I truly could not put it down until 4:00 a.m. For a good read, do get hold of Off the Chart by Smith Hagaman.

A wannabe writer at 86, Smith published two books and was at work on a third when he died.

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About Carol: 

With graduate degrees in vocal performance from Indiana University and in business from Columbia University, Carol Roan has sung in the television premiere of a Ned Rorem opera and testified about esoteric gold trades before the CFTC. Her writing career began with the publication of her first nonfiction book at the age of 62. She has since authored two other nonfiction books and co-edited three anthologies, including When Last on the Mountain: The View from Writers over 50.

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For Writers or Aspiring Writers:

If you’ve been meaning to pick up a pen and write, well, pick up a pen and write–one memory, one letter, one observation from the day, one story. Today. It’s not too late to start or to start again. Just set aside ten minutes and write without judging yourself or what you write. Then try it again tomorrow–and the next. I’ll be doing that too. So you’re not alone.

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“Those who pass by us, do not go alone, and do not leave us alone; they leave a bit of themselves, and take a little of us.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

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Unblocking: Cleaning the Office

At the end of the summer, I finally cleaned out my Minneapolis office. I must have removed dozens of trash bags of books, paper, and office detritus. To make the decision of what to keep and what to toss, I picked up and looked at what seemed like thousands of pieces of paper that I had saved for reasons clear to me in some distant past, but fuzzy now.

There were notes from college classes and papers I wrote years ago, letters from my mother (every single one), copies of the syllabi of classes I taught, stories I started and never finished, unrevised stories with comments from readers, stacks of journals and diaries, drafts and research notes for a novel. I found finished stories (never published) that I barely remember writing as well as poems and essays in various stages of development. Other drawers and cabinets were filled with old photos, greeting cards from friends and family, our Christmas letters, manuals and discs for obsolete computers, mysterious cords and wires for lost electronic devices, staplers, labelers, notepads, and lots of fountain pens with dried ink.

 Paper and more paper

Paper and more paper

Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up helped a little as I weeded through all this. Tossing old staplers and computer discs and even books I would never read again was easy, but that poem I wrote in 1967 when I was living and teaching in western Pennsylvania, not so. “Do I love this piece of paper? Does it give me joy?” I asked myself trying to apply Marie Kondo’s simple logic. No, but I can’t let go of the moment it captured–the words that recorded a very specific time in my life.

All those words–what was I trying to say? Why did I hold on to them? Why can’t I let them go? Surely no one else would ever care to read the stuff, not even my own family,  but why was it so valuable to me?

I learned that many of my obsessions are still my obsessions. Reading through all those writings was like looking at a giant quilt of one’s past and seeing repeating patterns, colors, textures, that all seemed to fit together.

One of the essays I ran across was an annotation on writer’s block I wrote over twenty years ago. I don’t know why I thought I had writer’s block when I was creating so many pages full of words, but this strain of resistance within me around writing was something I worried about then and even now–a pattern that repeats itself in the quilt of my writing life.

Quilt/Guilt? Some of my fear of letting go of all those words was also about channeling those finished and unfinished pieces into  publication. I was that person who loved to write, but still the voices of others and the ones in my own head, said, “Publish. Publish.” Wasn’t there a reason for my desire to write and a place in the world for those words to land? If I were a real writer wouldn’t I also be diligent about submitting work and delight in publishing?

In that short essay on writer’s block buried in a forgotten file, I refer to two books and one story. The first is Eugene Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (U.S. publication,1953). While the focus of Herrigel’s book appears to be archery, the other key words in the title are zen and art. Herrigel, a German philosopher, writes about the ten years he spent training with a Zen Master in the art of archery. Substitute archery for writing and the message of the book (while not always perfectly clear to the my Western mind) helps me to understand why I thought my problem was as simple as “writer’s block.”

The second book I wrote about in my writer’s block essay was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1987). Natalie Goldberg studied with Dainin Katagiri Roshi at the Minnesota Zen Center from 1978 to 1984. “Why do you come to sit meditation?” Roshi asked her. “Why don’t you make writing your practice? If you go deep into your writing, it will take you every place.” In her book, Natalie relates her Zen practice to writing. “There is a Zen saying,” she tells us, “‘Talk when you talk, walk when you walk, and die when you die.’ Write when you write. Stop battling yourself with guilt, accusations, and strong-arm threats.” Stop resisting, I would say now, many years later. Stop resisting. Be myself.

The short story I wrote about in the long-ago essay was Bernard Malamud’s famous story, “Angel Levine.” I love Malamud and this story about the tailor Manischevitz who finds it impossible to believe that a black man who says he is a Jew and is found in Bella’s Cabaret in Harlem could be an angel. You have to read the story to get the full context, but near the end, Malamud writes:

 Tears blinded the tailor’s eyes. Was ever a man so tired?

Should he say that he believed a half-drunk Negro was an angel?

The silence slowly petrified.

Manischevitz was recalling scenes of his youth as his mind whirred: believe, do not, yes, no, yes, no. The pointer pointed to yes, to between yes and no, to no, no it was yes. He sighed. It moved but one still had to make a choice.

‘I think you are an angel from God.’ He said it in a broken voice, thinking, if you said it it was said. If you believed it you must say it. If you believed, you believed.

So yes, I have a lot of words. I have lots of paper. Is Levine really an angel? Or has Manischevitz been duped? Or all my words special and magical? No. Why some more than others?  Which ones to keep? Which to toss? How to tell?  What to believe? The pointer moves from one to another. Am I glad I didn’t throw this old essay away? Yes.

 

Tiny Turtle, Giant Tortoise

Since our return from a recent visit to the Galapagos Islands, where we swam with sea lions, watched the mating dance of the waved albatross, observed a frigate bird high above us show his red throat, and stood within a few feet of a giant land tortoise as she grazed on grass, I’ve come to realize how far I’ve traveled from those days in North Carolina when I was the proud owner of a green pet turtle that I cared for in a small plastic pool.Turtle12(1)

These tiny turtles could be purchased in the five-and-dime stores of my childhood. Such amazing stores for children! All laid out in rectangles of counter after counter: the perfume counter, the hosiery counter, the underwear counter.

Each counter was overseen by a single salesperson, complete with her own cash register. There was no central station to which you carried your merchandise, no credit cards for that matter. In fact it would have been unheard of to carry your merchandise from one place to another in the store. You chose whatever, paid for it with cash, and then moved to the next counter for your next purchase.

It was mid-July, 1950, I was almost eight years old, on the day my mother and I walked by the turtle counter. There they were, turtles. An entire section was devoted to these small green creatures, some swimming in their shallow tanks, others “sunning” on their plastic promenades. My mother, who was probably headed to the underwear counter, paused as I stood before the turtles. “No.” she said. “Absolutely not. No turtles.”

By my birthday in October, I had managed to convince her that a turtle was a small pet: one that would not track mud into the house, one that would be easy to take care of.IMG_8954 (4) copy

Fast forward to July, 2015, when our family of twelve visited the Galapagos Islands where we saw the giant tortoises made famous by Darwin on his visit aboard The Beagle in 1835. During Darwin’s time, these tortoises were captured and eaten by the inhabitants and visitors to the islands. Darwin writes: “It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship’s company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.” The giant tortoises were almost extinct until the islands became protected. Today we can stand by these large reptiles and watch them munch on grass unafraid like most all the animals, birds, fish, and reptiles in the Galapagos. It gives one hope.

From tiny turtles in a North Carolina five-and-dime store to giant tortoises in the Galapagos of Ecuador—from the 1950 to 2015—how far I’ve traveled. Yet these turtles and tortoises still tell me to slow down, to take my time. The turtle has become my totem creature. Can I slowly gain even a little wisdom? Can I carry my home wherever I go? Can I persist? Trust my path no matter what?

Oh yes, I’ve become a turtle. Wrinkled. Shell intact. Yet vulnerable. Like that tiny green turtle that sat in my hand so long ago. And even the large tortoises of the Galapagos. But, good news, turtles and tortoises live a long time. Lonesome George lived to the age of 102.  Plenty of time to do our work—slow but steady within shells/rooms/studies/homes. We write and read and move along.

Lonesome George (1910 to June 24, 2012)

Lonesome George
(1910 ?  to June 24, 2012)

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Writing Idea:  Pets–write about your first pet. Or your “totem animal.”  Is there some living creature to which you feel a special bond or identify? Or try to connect a small memory (those little turtles) to a more recent one (Galapagos tortoises). How do animals (birds, reptiles, fish) enter into your writing?

“Having the turtle as totem means that you have an affinity with the ancient wisdom of the earth. You are naturally tuned into the elements, land, plants, people and animals. You carry your home on your back figuratively speaking and feel at ease wherever you are.”   —-Elena Harris from “Turtle Spirit Animal”

“In modern China, turtle is one of the four divine animals along with dragon, phoenix, and chimera.” Turtle Symbolism 

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“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise -”
“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.
“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily: “really you are very dull!”
Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

 

 

The Quest for the Question

My friend, Mary, and I recently took part in a writing retreat at the Madeline Island School of the Arts in northern Wisconsin. We’re both working on book length projects and needed time away to focus.

Madeline Island School for the Arts

Madeline Island School of the Arts

“Write about your dark side,” says Mary one night. We are trying quick writing jumpstarts to make our way into the difficult work.

Earlier that day I said I was going to write about my dark side; and indeed, I had taken a stab at it. Now we laugh.

My dark side seems funny for some reason.

One  morning, the leader of the retreat, Elizabeth Andrew, asked us to frame the central question for our lives. She talked about how this central question will inform our memoir work. It will be the heartbeat.

Tonight, with a stricken look on her face, Mary says, “I don’t have a central question!” And we laugh again.

Mary and I are a little lost in the quagmire of finding our central question.

Elizabeth also asked us to think of a central image in our work.

“I don’t have a central image either!” Mary says.

That morning, Elizabeth suggested we dialogue with this central image. “Like Vicky’s telephone poles,” she said. The first day of class I had talked about how my memoir, Long Distance to North Carolina (tentative title), might use the metaphor of telephone poles and lines stretching across the country from Minnesota to North Carolina.

I glowed like a model student—the teacher’s pet—I had a central image!

And I set off writing a dialogue with telephone poles.

Mary’s face was puzzled. I could see her across the room. A little frown on her forehead.

Later as we sit in our cozy apartment, the same frown comes across her forehead as we talk about the day. “I don’t have a central image. Or a central question,” she says.

“We’re poets, “ I say, “Maybe we don’t think this way.” But now we’re trying to step out of our poet minds and write memoir. Maybe we have to go about it—this book creation—in a different way. We can try anyway.

But back to the workshop and the leader’s comments: she was saying, “Write out three central questions in your life. Then choose the one that stands out.” She listed three questions from her own writing as an example. It seemed easy.

I sat there like a lost sheep. My central question? All I could think of was “What will we have for dinner?” It is certainly the one most asked in my house these days. John to me: “What’s for dinner?” Me: Blank look. “Dinner?”

Finally I did jot down three central questions. But even now I have to look back in my notebook to see what they are—that’s how central they must be!

Here is what I wrote:

What does it mean to be here a short time?
What (where) is here?
What am I longing for?

The last one intrigues me because I love to listen to Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, and especially Leonard Cohen late at night—and go to some funky place—like I’m sixteen again or thirty-two. Am I this age, in a rather old body, still living in the romance of a much younger version of myself? Okay. Move on.

So I chose the first one: What does it mean to be here a short time? The short-time question brings to mind the theme of mortality and immortality, a theme rooted in my spiritual life as well. Life and death. Life after death. Birth and death. In the body and out of the body. Longing for another place and time. Pleasing decay. All big questions to infuse my writing. But what happened to my central impetus to write about my mother and her life? She was here such a short time–even though she lived to be almost 96.

Maybe what I have to say is bigger than her life or mine. Yet I can’t get to the bigger questions without being mired in the details–or enriched by the specific moments we live, even in this moment as I struggle to see beyond myself.

Maybe I’m getting closer–or larger.

Now for my second question: what or where is here? And where or who is she?

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Writing Idea: If you’re working on a book-length project (or even a shorter one), what is your central question? Central image? Try a quick free-writing about what you see as possible questions. Even if you draw a blank, write some of the questions you circle around in your work. Or question why you don’t have questions! What about the images that keep coming back again and again as you write? Is there one question or image that stands out above the others?

Thanks to Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew, the leader of our June retreat at Madeline Island School of the Arts not only for this writing idea, but also for an amazing, inspirational week.

Our Group

Our Group                 June 2015