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Luckily, besides the many books she published in her short lifetime, she left behind a rich trove of unpublished writings.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.

 

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

 

 

The Joy of Writing

We are in our final week of the Joy of Writing workshop here on Sanibel. I’ve appreciated the energy and enthusiasm of this group of writers as we explored the similarities between cooking and writing. Along the way, we definitely cooked up a good stew of writing.

Remember Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking—that classic cookbook from the 1930s?joy_stack_web

During the class, we talked about how this same joy can be found in writing. We’ve tried to counter the doubts, the fears, the negative emotions that sometimes creep into our writing lives. This is not to say that the writing itself need always focus on happy topics, but that even writing about pain and difficulty can lead to moments of joy.

We’ve talked about ingredients (telling details), recipes (structure/shape/form), heat (suspense, emotional sub-context, characters). One participant asked, “So if we have broth, soup, and stew, as a sort of continuum of complexity, when do we know to be happy with the simple broth?” When does a simple poem (that one delicious creme brulee), say all that needs to be said? Another writer asked, “How do we keep writing when no one is reading what we write?” Why do we cook when no one is there to eat the meals? Jan, who admitted she didn’t like to cook, responded, “I write for myself. I enjoy it. Besides, we never know who will read what we write.” Emily Dickinson comes to mind–or my mother, who along with her paintings, left me a huge stack of her journals.

We can always invite people over for a meal–which is what we will do on March 2 when some of us will read at the Sanibel Library and invite family and friends. Or maybe we write a letter to a person in our past, present, or future–the way we take soup and fresh bread to a neighbor.

We studied a short story, several poems, and an essay to see how other writers have cooked up a sort of meal or dish for us the readers. We talked about the opening or beginning of a piece of writing as the first taste we give our readers; and how as writers, we may have made that special sauce (the opening) much later in the preparation. We looked at the final arrival of the guests (our readers) when we put the meal on the table and remembered how the people at a dinner party are happy to enjoy the meal even if it’s not perfect.

Writing, like cooking, can be messy and creative. The meals we cook don’t always turn out the way we thought they would. Yet there is often pleasure and surprise in the process and the chance that a truly great dinner or that one amazing dish will make it worth all the effort.

And when all the work of cooking is over and the guests have gone home, we can sit back and enjoy a taste of coffee or a little brandy and reflect on what a good time we all had. What a relief that with writing, unlike cooking, we don’t have lots of dishes to wash!

In my next blog, I’ll share a recipe.

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Good news!  Red Bird Chapbooks has published my little book of poems, What Can Be front coverSaved. I’m so grateful to Dana Hoeschen and all the folks at Red Bird. This is a limited edition (100 copies. 44 pages, 8.5″ x 5.5″ single signature with hand sewn binding. End Paper and Cover Images reproductions of paintings by Vicky’s mother, Ruth Bethea Hodges).

Go to the Red Bird’s website to order and to see all the delicious chapbooks created by the amazing Red Bird press. If you’d like a signed copy, contact me.

Stop by Red Bird’s booth if you’re at the AWP conference in Minneapolis (April 8-11). I plan to be there some of the time.

 

Here is a sample poem from the chapbook:

My Mother

So many doors to walk through
each a little smaller
than the one before,
each asking that she leave
something behind.

First her coat
then the suitcase
finally her shoes.

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Writing Idea: Do you have a cooking story? Does it relate in any way to writing?  Stir it up for ten minutes and see what you can make. For another take on writing and cooking, check out this blog entry from Ploughshares.

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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