Starting All Over: Spiders, Webs, and a New Year

Here we are ready to start again. A new day, a new calendar, a new year. A few months from now we will have forgotten how fresh our world seems today, but for right now all is well.

One of my friends sends out a poem every Monday. I particularly like the one she sent this past Monday, January 1, 2017.

New Year’s by Dana Gioia

Let other mornings honor the miraculous.
Eternity has festivals enough.
This is the feast of our mortality. . . .

The new year always brings us what we want
Simply by bringing us along—to see
A calendar with every day uncrossed,
A field of snow without a single footprint.

As the new year begins, we see “a calendar with every day uncrossed/ A field of snow without a single footprint.”

My January calendar already has a few prospective footprints. In a few days, my friend Mary and I will head to Key West for the much-anticipated writer’s workshops, sponsored by the Key West Literary Seminar.  Mary will be working with the poet, Rowan Ricardo Phillips; and I, with Dani Shapiro, who has written novels and several memoirs. I’m hoping to take a few small steps toward the completion of a collection of short prose pieces I’ve written over the years.

Key West Schooner

While we will be going to Key West for the workshops, we will also stroll along Duval Street, eat fresh fish in our favorite restaurants, enjoy the people we always meet at the Key West Bed and Breakfast, watch spectacular sunsets, sail on a schooner, and maybe even leave a few footprints in the sand. Going to Key West is truly “a feast of our mortality”–a carpe-diem sort of place.

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On another carpe diem note, I’ve resolved not to watch (and read) so much news this year. Alain de Botton concludes his 2014 book, The News: A User’s Manual (a serendipitous find yesterday at the Sanibel Library book sale) with these words:

We should at times forgo our own news in order to pick up on the far stranger, more wondrous headlines of those less eloquent species that surround us: kestrels and snow geese, spider beetles and black-faced leafhoppers, lemurs and small children–all creatures usefully uninterested in our own melodramas, counterweights to our anxieties and self-absorption.

Our Spider: Crab-Like Spiny Orb Weaver (Wikipedia)

His words make me think of the spider I have been watching build her sturdy web across the corner of our deck here on Sanibel. The web is an engineering marvel spanning a five-foot corner. It has withstood rain, wind, and my sometimes awkward maneuvers to water the plant that anchors one of her filaments. I accidentally knocked it down a couple of weeks ago, but the next day she started all over–swinging on her almost invisible silk threads, like a tiny, skirted acrobat in mid-air.

 

And there are our five grandchildren: each one a delight–any day spent with one of them is the best day ever. They help me see an ordinary spider web and lots of other small (and large) wonders I might not notice. With them I also do things I wouldn’t ordinarily do, like trying to fly a kite with Lucia in Dalkey, Ireland, on a cold, not-so-windy December day.

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On Writing:  Here’s hoping that you will find new life and happiness in the words you spin in the coming year. You never know what you might catch. An idea you didn’t know you had? A moment easily forgotten?  A story to hold onto? A sense of your own self?  Maybe we can forget the news for a little while each day and settle into a chair with a notebook and a good book. Or take a walk in a park. Or by the beach. Or watch a spider. Or talk with a child. And then come back and write about it.

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“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider’s web?”
“Oh, no,” said Dr. Dorian. “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”
“What’s miraculous about a spider’s web?” said Mrs. Arable. “I don’t see why you say a web is a miracle-it’s just a web.”
“Ever try to spin one?” asked Dr. Dorian.”
E.B. White, Charlotte’s Web

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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.  

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.