Libraries and Iguanas

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

After a winter in Sanibel, we’re home in Minnesota now. While others might miss Florida sun, the beach, and golf, I’m going to miss the library. What, you say, the library?

Sanibel Library

I’ve always loved libraries. My first was the one on Market Street in Wilmington, N. C., where my mother took me when I was a young girl. Maybe she dropped me off or perhaps I was older because I remember being on my own in this wonderful old building where I first discovered my love of books and reading.

You entered through a big wooden door guarded on the outside steps by two huge sleeping lions. A shaft of sunlight fell across the wood floor from a high window. And there was that certain library smell—maybe musty cellulose. But still enticing, interesting, complex.

The librarian sat behind her desk to your left carrying out the ritual of stamping cards and inserting the due-date card in the pocket of every book that left her domain. To the right was a reading room with long mahogany tables, hanging maps, newspapers, and lots of large red encyclopedias, atlases, and other reference books.

Beside the librarian’s desk, in its formidable wooden cabinet of small drawers was the card catalogue. Every book in the library had its own card with identifying Dewey Decimal numbers and information about the book. There were no computers or electronic databases in those days. Everything was done by hand.

My favorite place in the library was the stacks. At the end of the hallway was a large room with rows and rows of metal shelves lined with books that stretched way over my head. There were ladders and step stools to reach them. The fun of the stacks was in the discovery. Even if I went in search of one certain book, it was often all those around it that most fascinated me.

I don’t remember a children’s room, but somehow, maybe on a certain shelf or two, I found Nancy Drew and Sue Barton. Over the years, I read mysteries and then later novels and adventure stories like Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki. I still remember my tears as I turned the final pages of Black Beauty.

In the completely renovated Sanibel Public Library, I can look out large windows onto a small brackish river. A reading porch overlooks the water. As I sat on the porch a few days before we left, two iguanas, a large bright orange and brown one and a smaller green one, munched away on the grass below until they heard voices and scurried toward the water. The week before, an osprey settled in the tree above looking for fish.

Sanibel Library
Puzzle Corner

I can easily be distracted from my writing and reading here. I might stop to chat with someone working on a jigsaw puzzle. Beside a shelf of books sit two chess boards all set up and waiting for players. There are no stacks to settle into in order to avoid distractions. In this library, low open shelves, some on rollers, sit next to comfortable reading chairs.

A few days ago, in the downstairs meeting room, I dropped in on a talk by Duane Shaffer, one of the librarians and a World War II historian. He brought to life the 1941 sinking of two WWII battleships: the Bismarck and the HMS Prince of Wales. I didn’t know that battleships could be so interesting—another example of the joy of discovery to be found in libraries.

Of course, not all libraries are like this one on a Florida island. Some metropolitan public libraries have become gathering places for the homeless. Many libraries today struggle with inadequate funding and the challenges of digitalization.

Yet libraries remain free and open, truly democratic places where anyone can sit and read–and maybe, if they’re lucky, even see an iguana.

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Writing Prompt: Take yourself to a library near you. Write and observe. Make a list of all the libraries you can remember. Then free-write for ten-minutes to see where you can go as you reflect on libraries. Maybe you will create an essay or build a story or spin out a poem about a library.

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Here are five wonderful poems about libraries for inspiration.

Also see Susan Orlean’s new book, The Library Book, for an extended work of creative investigation as she explores the role of libraries in her life and delves into the story of the fire that destroyed the Los Angeles Central Library in 1986. Neil Gaiman’s essay on libraries is also worth a look.

Blossoms: Consider the Lilies

It’s time to head back to Minnesota. The snows are over, so they say. The ice is melting. It’s mid-April, after all. About time!

Here in Sanibel, I look out the window on a brilliantly sunny day. Our amaryllis has surprised us with eight huge blossoms. Who knew that the ugly bulb I had totally forgotten about and left for months hidden under a palm tree in the shade could produce such amazing blooms out of nothing? Even the orchids that I tied to the trees have bloomed, thriving on air and humidity. I’m amazed that those scrawny plants that I had long ago written off have survived on nothing but air—especially considering how I had fussed over them when they tried to  live in the house. Sometimes it is good to just let things be.

Who knew these were hidden in that brown bulb?

And so we will leave Sanibel, Florida, and let it be for the next six months. I’ll leave my friends, who will head back to their respective homes too. We come here and take on new lives. No one seems to care who we were before we landed on this small island.

My “Joy of Writing” class this year was wonderful. So many writers willing to open their notebooks, uncap their pens, and write! I hope that whatever we started in the class will continue and that more blossoms (stories, poems, essays) will come. Sometimes it seems we try too hard to make things happen when all along within our bodies, minds, souls something quiet and alive is at work and just waiting for the right time to show itself.

As I write this, I’m remembering some of the writers who read their work during the last class. Molly Downing wrote about crossing the causeway bridge to Sanibel.

As I ascend the arc of the bridge to its sun-beamed zenith, I feel a palpable lightening of body and spirits. I inhale deeply the sea-sweetened air. Gentle warmth relaxes my shoulders, my neck, my face. An osprey soars overhead, flaunting the fish in his talons with loud proud whistles. Below, palm and pine lined white sand beaches offer previews of delights to come.

From “What is Paradise?” by Molly Downing

Wendy West told a childhood story about a time when she and her sister crashed a large funeral for an exotic Romany visitor to her Minnesota town.

I had never been to a wake or a funeral. I did see a dead priest once. My father had dropped me off early at school, and we had to go to mass every morning. As second graders, we sat right up in the front. The mass was going to be a funeral for the priest. I sat in the pew and looked over at the open coffin. He looked alive! I was all by myself. I stared at him for a long time and was sure I had seen him blink his eyes. What if he was still alive? Would they bury him anyway?

From “The Queen of the Gypsies” by Wendy West

Kathi Straubing’s essay, “Let It Be,” was about how so many words, sometimes meaningless, crowd our lives.

We write words. Embellish words. Impress with words. Delight with words. Dismantle with words. Curse with words. Accuse with words. Amuse with words. We read all night, rise with a crossword puzzle, talk all day, text forever. We never stop long enough to listen, to just . . .Let it be. Just let it be!

From “Let It Be” by Kathi Straubing

Speaking of words, My St. John wrote about how the single-word question What? is so prevalent among those of us who are now hearing impaired. She ends her piece with this funny anecdote:

Just the other night, I was sitting next to my friend Clare at a yacht club dinner, and I asked her who the man was at the other end of the table. I thought she said that he was an ex-convict.
“How exciting!” I whispered, “What did he do?”
Her answer, “What do you think ex-commodores do?”
This morning, I made an appointment with my ENT doctor.

From “What?” by My St. John

And so, the time has come to leave the island and our friends here. While I’m ready to go back to life in a metropolitan area, I’ll miss Sanibel, my friends, and the blossoms that surprise and inspire me.

Free to bloom on a tree

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Writing Idea:  During the Joy of Writing class, we use writing envelopes to jump-start our practice. Each person has her own envelope. Into the envelopes, we put slips of paper with a phrase, a quote, or a topic that could serve as a prompt to get us started. The idea is to pull out one or two slips and, without over-thinking, use the prompt to free write for ten minutes or to fill two pages. For example, in the envelope for this session, one slip says:  Write about pretending to like a certain food. Another says: Write about a childhood game that went bad. Another: Write about each decade of your life (or someone else’s) using clothes. The writing that comes from these can become fiction, poetry, or memoir. Anything.
Try it. Whatever happens, just let it be. Who knows what blossoms might emerge?
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“The nature of This Flower is to bloom.”  Alice Walker

“Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not…” Luke 12: 27

On its own…bougainvillea

“I Write Because” by Kathi Straubing

And so it began, that voice that nudges me to pick up pen and paper and write. It became relentless—that voice that demands time and space. And so I began.

I write because—because—?

“Why? Why do you write?” The voice would not let go!

I don’t know. I write because—because I have to!

I write because I have to!

I write because I want to understand life, my life and yours.

I write because I need to know my purpose and how dreams take wing and fly.

I write because I want to know where I came from and where I’m going.

I write because I want to know what lies beneath and what lies around and through and above. And is there a heaven? Filled with light?

I write because I feel the grass under my bare feet and, well, why is it soft and green? And why does the tree grow tall and straight?

I write because the bird’s song astonishes me. And I want to know how does a bird know how to choose a mate? And how to build a nest? And when is it time to fly away? And how does it know where the cat lurks?

I write because I want to know where God is and what God is. God is everywhere, in everything—or so they say, and how is that possible?

I write because I want to hear the voice of Spirit. Because I want to know its touch. Because Spirit must be one with poems and prayers and blessings. Oh yes! And in kind words spoken gently.

I write because I want to make sense of confusion, of madness. The world does seem maddening, chaotic some days—when simplicity would be so easy. Or not.

I write because words can be so quiet, and life can be so loud. And why are people afraid to touch or be touched? Why is everyone running so fast?

I write because I want to know why fear is so easy, and love can be so hard, since that’s what we want the most—love.

I write because I want to know how we ask for what we need. Why that scares us so! Knowing that you might say, “No!” because you may not understand my need.

I write because I want to know why it is so difficult to lay down judgment and criticism and just breathe for a minute or two—together.

I write because I want to untangle the knots of unknowing, of misguidance, and reweave the yarns into a tapestry of hope.

I write because I want to know, because I need to know. Don’t you? Because I have so many questions and, regrettably, so few answers. And because life is so damned short and what does it all mean anyway?

I write because I need to know that it is okay to be afraid sometimes, to not know the answer, let alone the right question.

I write because I want to meet my hunger, my thirst for life and love, for joy and beauty, and to begin to satisfy them.

I write because I believe—because I believe, that somewhere out there God is listening—that someone, somewhere feels my words, my longing—to be.

I write. I write because I have to! Because it is like breathing air. And so, I write.

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Kathi Straubing, the guest author for this post, has been a participant in my “Joy of Writing” class here on Sanibel these past six weeks. Kathi read this piece during our final class, and I asked her if she would be willing to share it on this blog. Thanks, Kathi.

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Writing Idea:  Using Kathi’s writing for inspiration, how would you answer the question: “Why do I write?” Or take one line from her writing and use it as a prompt for a ten-minute free writing to explore a story from your own life. For example, write about a time you tried to “untangle the knots of unknowing” or why “fear is so easy and love can be so hard.” These big, universal questions are often the ones that hover around and above our writing and bring us to the page.

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“Why do I write? It’s not that I want people to think I am smart, or even that I am a good writer. I write because I want to end my loneliness.” Jonathan Safran Foer

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”  Flannery O’Connor

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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.)

 

 

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.