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 

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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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