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.  

Going Home and Leonard Cohen

Last week our family, all twelve of us, returned to my home in southeastern North Carolina. We stayed at Wrightsville Beach, one of my favorite places in all the world. I grew up in Wilmington, N. C., only a few miles from this beach. So this would be a time to come together with family to celebrate my mother’s life and to scatter her ashes in the ocean.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

Wrightsville Beach, N. C.

She used to fish in the surf next to the house we would be renting. It turned out to be a beautiful, hurricane-free week. Yet as much as I wanted it to be the same beach, the same place–it all had changed. Now my mother was gone, and I had become the matriarch. I missed sitting around our dining room table eating her home-cooked food. I missed the house I always returned to when I came to visit.  I missed that sense of life going on forever in a certain way. Not to say, that we didn’t have a great time. We walked the beach, swam, laughed, and enjoyed a great week. But I had lost my anchor to this place I loved so much.

Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen

In his song/poem “Going Home,” Leonard Cohen lends his distinctive voice and intellect to the idea of home. Cohen, our Renaissance man, is still writing and singing at age 79. In this poem, another voice enters:  “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.” In the song, Leonard becomes a conduit for this greater voice of wisdom that says: “Going home/Without my burden/Going home behind the curtain/Without the costume/That I wore.” This voice takes the idea of “going home” and lifts it out of a literal place and out of real time. It made me think about how my mother’s ashes looked when we tossed them in the surf on a moonlit night. It made me think of home in a different way.

Here is Leonard Cohen’s poem as it appeared in The New Yorker (1/23/12):

Going Home

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He will never have the freedom
To refuse

He will speak these words of wisdom
Like a sage, a man of vision
Though he knows he’s really nothing
But the brief elaboration of a tube

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

He wants to write a love song
An anthem of forgiving
A manual for living with defeat

A cry above the suffering
A sacrifice recovering
But that isn’t what I want him to complete

I want to make him certain
That he doesn’t have a burden
That he doesn’t need a vision

That he only has permission
To do my instant bidding
That is to say what I have told him
To repeat

Going home
Without my sorrow
Going home
Sometime tomorrow
Going home
To where it’s better
Than before

Going home
Without my burden
Going home
Behind the curtain
Going home
Without the costume
That I wore

I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit

–Leonard Cohen

Listen to  Cohen sing/speak “Going Home” in his inimitable way. (Click highlight.)

 
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I wrote the following poem before my mother died. It is about an earlier visit home when she sat beside me at the same beach and sketched. I remember her saying that she needed an eraser. Even then I was feeling “erased” from this landscape that had been home to me as a child.
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Erased

“By now, I think I have been entirely erased.”
–Henri Cole, “The Erasers”

Time was when this piece of an island
(the blues of rolling surf,
the whites of shifting sand
its language with words like in the beginning
and holy, holy, holy
that stopped at that ridge of sand dunes)
owned me;
and I, it.

Today the dunes are feathered
with sea oats waiting
for the summer sun to fan their seed pods.
I smell fried chicken cooking for Sunday dinner
and hear Southern voices
and the birds—yes the birds.

I have forgotten this language, their language,
while these flitting, floating birds continue to speak
in the same codes—a genetic path that I cannot seem to find again.

I have been erased—the she who spoke this way
disguised now under a blue hat behind purple sunglasses.
I wear turquoise—only turquoise.

My mother starts her sketches in pencil
I need a good eraser, she says today.

And I am the one erased from this landscape
(the child running through the surf,
the young girl in love,
the good daughter,
who knew the language of wind
and of hurricanes and these birds.)

–Vicky Lettmann

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Writing Jumpstart: As you go about your life today, notice all the ways you see “home.” Then sit down for ten minutes and write as fast as you can using “home” or “going home” as your base. Try not to analyze or to write something “good,” just write first thoughts and observations. Leonard had to let another voice speak. It said, “He doesn’t need a vision.” Go.

Note about Jumpstarts: The idea grew out of my Sanibel writing classes: “Jumpstart Your Writing.” They are a way to stay in touch with your writing self. All you need is a notebook and a pen. Or use them as part of some writing project you’re working on. (For example, if you’re writing fiction, you could riff on a character who is going home or a character’s home.)

Matilda and Roald Dahl

When I read that Matilda was opening on Broadway, I knew I wanted to take my ten-year-old granddaughter, Ella, to see it. Never mind that it had been years since I had visited the Big Apple. Ella loves Roald Dahl, and so do I. Besides it was about time I visited my friend Janice, who has been living and working in NYC for the past seven years.

After the play

After the play

So off we went a couple of weekends ago to create the kind of adventure Matilda herself would have loved. Janice was a wonderful host and guide. And best of all, the play was outstanding. Milly Shapiro, our Matilda and one of the four girls who play the part at different performances, stole our hearts.

We can all identify with a child who goes against the forces of the dominant culture as does Matilda. She is a precocious reader in a household of lovers of the “telly.”  Her father, Harry Wormwood, and his disgusting wife can’t understand a five-year-old girl who, in six months, reads 14 library books, including Nicholas Nickleby, The Sound and the Fury, and Animal Farm. “There’s nothin’ you can get from a book that you can’t get from a television fastah!” Mr. Wormwood says.images-2

In the play, Matilda is not only a reader, but a magnificent story-teller. She spins a long, complicated tale (not included in the book) that parallels the early, tormented life of her teacher Miss Honey, who turns out (spoiler ahead!) to be the niece of the horrible headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, magnificently played by Bertie Carvel. At one point in the production, he/she stood behind our row, and we were scared!

Matilda was published in 1988 when Dahl was in his early seventies. In an interview, Dahl tells how he had to re-write the entire book. “I got it wrong,” he says. “I spent 6 or 8 or 9 months writing it; and when I’d finished it, it wasn’t right. So I started the whole thing again and re-wrote every word. I really had to re-write the whole thing.”  (http://www.roalddahl.com)

As a writers, we can learn from Dahl’s dedication to stories, reading, and the project he started. Thanks heavens, he didn’t give up on Matilda! She continues to live on stage and in our imaginations.images

“So Matilda’s strong young mind continued to grow, nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.”― Roald DahlMatilda

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Click below for an overview of Dahl’s life and books, as well as the interview.

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Writing Jumpstart: Take ten minutes today to write one story about a child (either you or someone you know, knew, or invented) who goes up against a big person (maybe like the Trunchbull).images-1