Wednesday, December 22, 2010

At least there are still jobs for journalists...

Ever since I subscribed to Groupon a few months ago, I've been receiving short, witty blurbs in my Inbox everyday, each enthusiastically describing bargains and deals for restaurants, spas, and various types of instruction.

Little did I realize that the people writing those Groupon blurbs represent a new wave of journalism, and that Groupon itself is becoming one of the biggest employers of journalists (and creative writers) in the country. An article in the Dec. 20th The Atlantic ( Forget Journalism School and Enroll in Groupon Academy - Elizabeth Weingarten - Technology - The Atlantic ) states that "Forty percent of Groupon's writers have prior journalism experience, 70 percent were creative writers and 20 percent wrote marketing or business copy." Groupon's CEO even declares in the article that the "most well-read publication now might be Groupon."

Many of the Groupon "deal" blurbs are clever and cute, but a long and steady diet of what the article calls this "hybrid journalism-advertising prose" is getting a little cloying and wearisome for me. Each blurb is, essentially, a clever lede (journalism-speak for a catchy and/or mood-setting first paragraph of a story) that leads to a mere classified ad/description. Some recent examples:

Herbert Hoover won America's hearts and votes when he promised a college-educated chicken in every pot and a kayak in every garage. Get a taste of the American dream with today's Groupon...

Eating with your hands is a joy second only to playing a woodwind instrument with your feet. Dig in with all four hands with today's Groupon: for $15, you'll get $30 worth of Ethiopian food...

Defy the whitening forces of winter and transform yourself into a bronzed god, goddess, or Gilbert Gottfried with today’s Groupon...

Photographs provide a more concrete way of recording recollections than sketching portraits in sand or dictating memoirs to an empty jam jar. Preserve precious memories with today's Groupon...

Should I really complain? It may not be poetry or even good journalism,  but at least writers are getting work (and I am, occasionally, getting organic rotisserie chicken and other such succulent delights for 50 percent off...).

Friday, December 10, 2010

Suggested gifts for writers, or those who love good writing

Anyone who really knows me understands that I am not the biggest fan of the Christmas season. I dislike the annual frenzied, consumer-driven ritual it has become, and the constant, media-inflicted we-must-save-the-American-economy guilt.

However, if you love Christmas and/or feel the need to buy gifts, you might as well support good writing, and publications that deserve to continue. [Note: These are not paid promotions...]  Here are a few of the things I am giving to others and to myself:

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is by Writing Home friend, Kim Dana Kupperman.
    "In this collection of essays, Kupperman looks at major life events—divorce, death, falling in love—with a candor and wisdom that gently places the reader into scenes from her life. We experience her mother's crazed neglect, her father's distance, a new lover's exquisite beauty. ...Kupperman proves that she has found her own wings, and is soaring." [from my review]
     For more on this book, see the NYT book review and NYT Paper Cuts interview with Kim.

A wonderful surprise arrives in my mailbox every three weeks in the form of one story magazine, which provides just what it says—one short story—in a pocketbook-sized issue. While other short story markets continue to dry up, OS keeps plugging away, publishing more than 140 short stories since 2002. I have to admit that it's the size that prompted me to subscribe to it—it's just a little bigger than the early issues of my own (defunct) a very small magazine. But it's the stories that keep me reading and wanting more.

Amazingly, The Sun magazine has been continuously publishing intelligent writing since the mid-1970s and, in recent years, without the support of advertisements. What began for publisher Sy Syfransky as a venture put together in a friend's garage and hawked from his backpack on the streets of Chapel Hill, N.C., is now a respected prize-generating enterprise; stories and essays from The Sun are regularly picked for Pushcart, Best American..., and other publishing awards.
      The long interview, at the front of the magazine, is almost always provocative and interesting; "Readers Write," at the back of the magazine, offers lyrical glimpses into readers' lives; and the fiction and essays in the center of the magazine showcase some of the best writing around. My only criticism of The Sun is that is can veer toward the dark and depressing a little too often. But not to read it is to miss out on things that feel important and necessary.
    The Sun is currently struggling, it seems, to stay afloat, requesting contributions and suggesting that subscribers give friends gift subscriptions. So, if you subscribe to The Sun (as a present to yourself), consider also giving gift subscriptions to people you know who cherish good writing.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Yes I did!

Grab the time and do it—that's what I learned from NaNoWriMo 2010. Because of that contest, I wrote a 50,011 word novel in 30 days, a book that otherwise would never have been written.

I'm not sure that anyone can write a deeply nuanced and eloquent novel in a month—mine certainly isn't. But I didn't expect it to be. And that lack of expectation really gave me a wonderful freedom to write.

The other great thing about NaNoWriMo is that I could actually talk about it with people. I charted my progress on my profile page there (see chart from it, above), and put occasional updates on my Facebook page. It made my fiction writing visible, for once; I felt a part of a (temporary) community. And it made me write, no excuses. Dirty dishes, unmade bed, work deadlines—so what? I had 1,665 words to write each day and until they were done, I put other things aside. But, as you can see from the chart, I struggled to always find the time to write. Sometimes regular life was unavoidable.

In my novel, I wrote from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl, something I probably never would have otherwise attempted. It was the first thing that popped into my head on November 1st and I had to see it through, no time for redos or rewrites or more than minimal editing. I couldn't lose time to rethinking the plot or the characters. They were mine for 30 days.

Writing for the YA audience also required a more resolved and happier ending than the usual melancholy ending I fall into when writing for adults. I found the happy ending wasn't that difficult when it was inherent or organic to the story, so I hope I can write happier endings in the future even when I'm not writing for children.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An impromptu strategy session in the children's library

How cool is this—I visited a local public library this morning and mentioned my YA novel-in-process to the children's librarian. She got so interested in the project that she pulled another children's specialist from the back room and we sat around talking about it for a good 15-20 minutes.

I am at the point in my book where my heroine is going to seriously start "booking"—a verb I've made up for visiting scenes in books via a magic bookmark—through four books, and I hadn't finalized my list of books as of this morning. As I told the librarians, if I had a year to research this, I could take the time to read all the books (again) that I want her to visit.

She is booking through books that Ellen, another, older girl is supposedly lost in. My heroine, Sarah, and Mrs. Reid, the librarian who gave her the magic bookmark (and Ellen's mom), are trying to find a commonality among the four books. That's where I was stuck. I didn't want them just to be books that I knew about, but time is of the essence since I am writing the book for NaNoWriMo, and only have seven days left to finish it.

We finally determined that my original choices weren't so bad; the obvious commonality they share is water (though I also know that's not the reason that Ellen chose them).

I also asked if either of them knew of a book with the same kind of themes, characters, plot, etc., as mine. I have been worried about this since I have been so writing quickly and wondered if some of my ideas might be coming from something I'd already read. Fortunately, they hadn't.

How wonderful to have a fictional work taken so seriously—and what serious fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

NaNoWriMo Day 21

Today, on my 21st day into National Novel Writing Month, I am 28,499 words in—which might sound impressive until I hit the Stats bar on my NaNoWriMo Profile Page: I am 6,501 words behind. My suggested cumulative word count for the beginning of the day was 35,000 words.

It's not from lack of interest or idea on my part; life has gotten in the way. My kid's two full days and two half-days off from school this month, hubby out of town for consecutive weeks, and a half-day visit to the ER with E-girl for a broken arm, has meant that I haven't been able to sit alone and write at the computer for the two or three hours I need every day. Desperate, I have taken to writing paragraphs as multiple text messages on my cell phone or scribbling into a tiny notebook whenever I am sitting waiting anywhere or watching kids at play.

I have guiltily set E-girl in front of the TV on the schools days off, but I just can't put her there for more than an hour and a half. She needs fresh air and friends and interaction.

So I really want to write this book—all this time away from it has made me desperate to put it down, which is a wonderful thing, if you think about it. Without the pressure to finish it within a certain time frame, it might still just be another one of my good ideas I've never made time for. The less I am able to write it, the more urgent it has become for me.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Oh hi!" and other awkward ways to get your characters into a room

A chance encounter with the cult classic, "The Room," reminded me how hard it is to get fiction characters smoothly transitioned into a scene.

"The Room" is celebrated in various compilations and snippets all over YouTube for its poor acting, editing, and writing. In the 30-second edit above, someone has taken some of the most awkward entrance dialog from the movie. [This will probably be taken down from YouTube soon, so if it's blank, that's why.] I'm not sure that I'm not guilty of some of this in my current project, a hastily written novel for NaNoWriMo.

Another scene from "The Room" that is also available on YouTube (inserted below) should be Exhibit A for writers wanting to know which scenes to cut from their fiction. The scene—which zips by in 19 seconds!—lacks meaningful dialog and description, doesn't seem to move the story along, and doesn't give each character a distinctive voice.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How can we read good prose when we're reading so much junk?

As my daughter and I stood in line at the grocery store yesterday, facing a display of magazines including Us, People, and The National Enquirer, she asked: "Why are people interested in reading about all these celebrities and made-up stuff?"

"Well," I said, unloading food from my cart onto the conveyer belt, "I think people like to read about celebrities for a couple of reasons. Making fun of how the celebrities look or what the celebrities wear makes people feel better about themselves."

"That's not very nice," E-girl said. "And it's dumb."

"Yeah, it's dumb," I replied, "but what's dumber is when people read about celebrities and think they really know something. That's what they know and share with people."

"I don't want to read about it," she said simply. I would have given her a big hug and kiss at that moment if the cashier wasn't ready and the grocery cart wasn't between us.

Would it be hypocritical at this point to confess that I read People magazine whenever I'm sitting in a doctor's waiting room? Reading it occasionally is like a trivia challenge, trying to guess why people are it in. I can recognize rock stars and most actors. But Snooki and all these "real" housewives? I don't know why they are important enough to merit my time, or a magazine cover. What have they done besides appear on TV?

Women's magazines used to publish short stories, but now they fill those pages with celebrity profiles. Sigh.

I looked at the rack of magazines and wondered at how much effort had gone into producing them—the writers, photographers, editors—and how, as far as I was concerned, it was all for naught, for no real value. Was there one paragraph with valuable information, one sentence of beautiful prose, in the entire rack of them?

Where are the writers who once might have written the short stories and essays for national publications? The lucky ones have retreated to literary magazines, the luckiest to The New Yorker and a few other journals that actually pay. The rest of us, to blogs.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Things I've learned from NaNoWriMo, five days in

As promised in a previous post, I'm participating in National Novel Writing Month. Here are some things I realized in the last few days because of it:

• Writing under a timeline/deadline pushes words out of me. I am writing words I would never have put down on paper, in a genre (young adult fiction) I had never much contemplated before.

• When you're writing this fast there is no time for poetic description or nuance. The storyline is the thing, the pursuit of reaching the next page.

• Writing for a purpose, for a pursuit with a recognizable name, has brought my writing more out in the open. I am a participant in NaNovWriMo—I said so here and on my Facebook page. I rarely mention my writing in process.

• Since I must write at least 1,664 words a day, I can sit at my desk guilt-free, not worrying about the dishes in the sink, the pile of laundry in the corner. Otherwise, given my limited free time, it just won't get written.

• In an effort to reach my 50,000 word count, I'm already contemplating the longest possible way to describe and name things.

• I prefer writing short stories. I'm 19 (single-space) pages in already—a short story, done. And 25 luxurious days to edit it.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

What should I write about when there is so much to say?

As I said in my last post, I signed up for NaNoWriMo a few days ago, with the goal of sitting down on November 1st and writing a novel from scratch. It all sounded very spontaneous and exciting—I was going to start writing whatever popped in my head and see if I could carry on with it for 49,300 more words.

But then, after I signed up, I checked their web site more attentively. They suggest I have an outline in hand.

Outlines and plot notes are very much encouraged, and can be started months ahead of the actual novel-writing adventure. Previously written prose, though, is punishable by death.

Gulp. I am writing this post on Thursday, setting it to publish on Sunday, because I imagine I'm going to be spending Sunday night scratching out potential plotlines.

J.K. Rowling said that Harry Potter came to her in a vision and she knew she had to write it down. I don't think such inspiration works well under pressure, or within a three-day deadline. I've been touching my forehead with my fingertips the last couple of days, trying to coax out ideas, but it is starting to feel like a clean slate in there.

It's overwhelming to realize that I could write about anything. So right now I am in panic mode, trying to think of new ways of doing something that is already tried and true (giving me a new empathy for film producers!).  Here's what I've come up with so far:

• As people are gathered in a fallout shelter in London, they each tell a tale from their lives to get through the night. 12 tales, based on Grimm's Fairy Tales, sort of a Canterbury Tales in the 20th Century. [After I imagined this, I realized it was inspired by the film "Atonement" and recently listening to a lecture in my car called "Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind." Why 12? I figure I'd write each chapter would be 15 pages, giving me the necessary total.]

• A female Holden Caulfield makes her way through a suburban Maryland high school year. But what does her voice sound like (too easy to fall into Valley Girl speak—not sure there is a recognizable Maryland teenager sound...)? What is her quest?

• 10 stories about Santa Cruz, each story a different character's story. Last story, they all come together.

The older I get, the more I realize how hard it is to be fresh and new and not derivative. There's an overwhelming amount of life experience to try to compact into 200 pages. At the same time, there's that need to drive the story along with challenges for the main characters, while scattering mysteries or unanswered questions every few pages that will keep the reader turning the page—to manage that is the difference between writing fiction and typing. I think I will be doing a lot of the latter, as I make my way through the necessary word count.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Another monkey typing at the keyboard

Like hundreds of aspiring novelists before me, I, too, have signed up for NaNoWriMo. What, you might ask, is NaNoWriMo? According to their web site:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

Valuing enthusiasm and perseverance over painstaking craft, NaNoWriMo is a novel-writing program for everyone who has thought fleetingly about writing a novel but has been scared away by the time and effort involved.

Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly.

If a thousand monkeys can produce a Shakespeare play by typing at keyboards for infinity, surely hundreds of humans typing 50,000 words in a month's time can produce one good novel. The problem is that each of us may only be able to come up with one of the pages (or sentences) from that great work. Much of the rest of it will surely be crap.

I type, on average, 700 words per page, so I figure that I'll need to write 3.5 pages a day to meet the 50,000-word goal. But judging from past experience, I'm probably going to be holed up in my room in a desperate writing frenzy on November 28th. The evidence? My 63-page undergraduate thesis on the Aeneid produced in a week (on a manual Remington typewriter, no less); likewise, my 50-page Master's thesis, typed over five days and nights in a computer lab. A month, then, seems like a luxury of time,  or at least it will the first three weeks.

Is it physically possible to type 45,000 words in a day?

The alternative is to be left behind on the 5,000-word slope, telling myself that it didn't really matter anyway, while others with more passion or persistence make their way to the 50,000-word summit.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

56 drafts and three little kisses

After I wrote my post about Mary Amato's talk on revisions, in which she confessed that her last novel went through 56 drafts, I kept wondering—how did she keep track of it all?  Did she have 56 different computer files, 56 print-outs, or 56 of something else? So, I emailed her and asked.

Here is what she said:

When I'm writing, I don't print out until I'm "done" with a draft. After I'm "done" and I print out, then I read that draft and make notes in pencil about what I need to do when I revise. Then I go through the revising process and only print out when I'm "done" with that entire revision. So, when I say 56 revisions that means that I printed it out 56 times. Those revisions were not minor. Each one was major.

I haven't always used the most efficient titling system for my drafts. My suggestion for version management is to abbreviate the title and put the date that you're working on in the title.

Example: ILSept16.
If I'm working forward (writing new material and not revising old material), then I keep the same title and just keep saving the new material in the same file.

Let's say I work on that manuscript for a month. And after a month of writing, I realize I need to make a major change that involves revising from the beginning. Then, I will I save as a new filename: example: ILOct12 and use that file as the working file. If I decide to go backward and make revisions later on,  I'll rename it. That way I'll still have my old drafts saved (and not written over) in case I need to go back and look at an earlier draft.

How do you know where you left off? Do you make changes in (MS Word) tracking or do you write a sticky note to yourself about which page you stopped on?

I always leave myself three kisses... xxx. Then I go back and do a search for three xxx and find the place I left off.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The loneliness of the present moment

I have talked a lot recently about journal keeping, but I've never actually shared anything from my journal in this blog. What's the difference between a blog post and a journal entry? The journal entry isn't written for public consumption, but, at least during the moments it is written, for the pleasure of writing. Later, maybe, with editing, it becomes something else.

The paragraphs below are from my journal entry dated 4/12/2010. (These are unedited; I've only excised a few paragraphs in-between where I wrote more at length about having tendinitis in my thumb and the difficulty it creates for writing by hand).

I've explored the theme of writing out of loneliness before, in my October 1, 2009 blog post. Perhaps the other difference in writing for public consumption and writing in a journal is that you can indulge in a repetition of topics (like my perpetual prose on loneliness) without care that you are boring anyone; you are your own rapt audience (or not).

I realize now that when I was young, my writing came from unwanted solitude. Therefore, the reason I hardly write these days is from lack of solitude. It's ridiculous how many things take me away from writing when writing used to be my main identity/pursuit.

Even when I'm around lots of people, though, there's still that persistent loneliness, which only writing seems to appease. Saying something—putting an idea into words—feels like an accomplishment; it takes me away from the loneliness of the present moment. There's the possibility of touching the infinite, however momentary or fleeting.

I used to love the sensation of writing with a pen, but how it hurts and the pain detracts from what I want to say. How can an aching hand freely speak of joy?

It's nearly 11 p.m. I am sitting up in bed alone. I am not writing now because I am especially lonely but because I started to get that yearning that means it's time to say something, which I can only say with written words. I'd be tongue-tied if I tried to say any of this aloud. The paper is such an absorbent, steady listener—one couldn't ask for better.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Digging through journal pages, sometimes surprising artifacts are found

Looking through an old journal recently, I was elated to find a photo of my Aunt Stella's bedroom pasted into one of its pages. It was within a sort-of collage I'd made as a tribute to my then-boyfriend in California. ("Thinking of him in North Carolina," I wrote on the opposite page.)

Last spring, a writing teacher had asked me to describe Aunt Stella's house in greater detail in an essay I'd written about her, but I couldn't remember its layout, especially beyond the front rooms most often seen by visitors. I thought maybe the guest room was in an isolated back corner of her house.

And there was the evidence in the photo—next to the guest bed is a door that leads to the hall. It added another piece to the jigsaw puzzle her house has become in my mind, almost all the rooms filled in now except for the mysterious bathroom that I can't visualize at all, save for the white enamel, claw-footed tub.

This is the only copy I have of that photo, the negative lost as far as I know. I know it is probably of little importance to anyone else—who else would care if there was a door there? There are only a few of us who can still conjure up the memory of her house as it was this point in time.

The photo is a document of a place I can no longer visit, as the house was sold years ago to people I don't know. Looking at it makes me feel a little more whole, like a missing piece of myself has been found. In that moment I feel like I am back home.

The boyfriend? Long gone, his head folded down in the collage (as seen above) so I could get a better scan of the other photos. And yet he is what I thought was important the moment I glued them in; I thought he would be important to me forever.

A journal can provide accidental but valuable artifacts of your life, even when you don't realize you're placing them in there, the years like layers between the moment you write something and the moment you read it.

Perhaps it's best not to censor or edit yourself too much as you compile a journal. The future-you sometimes knows best what to look for, what has value that lasts.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Using WOW and other strategies to write and revise fiction

I went to a terrific workshop given by Mary Amato yesterday for SCBWI's Author Book Club. Her topic was Revision, specifically the 56(!) drafts she went through for her last book, Invisible Lines.

Mary spoke about all the levels of work she puts into a novel, from writing out all actions on wall charts, index cards, etc., to putting herself in the action she is describing. For instance, she had written a paragraph about a boy lying in the grass looking at the clouds, but it just didn't feel descriptive enough to her. So she got up from her desk, went to her backyard, and lay down on the grass. Just those few minutes gave her the idea of clouds imagined as graffiti, which became three pages of text.

Mary offered these 6 Things to Succeed with Revision:

  1. Fluidity: don't get stuck with ideas in your original draft (to divorce yourself from your own lovely prose, write out the actions as simple sentences to see if they work)
  2. Define yearning: every main character should want something (She suggests interviewing yourself as the main character, asking "Who am I? What is important to me? What do I want?")
  3. Define the story: use the WOW technique, e.g. Wants something; Obstacle; Win [for a description of this, see Mary's essay on How to Encourage Creative Writing]
  4. Get into character: literally act out the scene
  5. Use resonating motifs: make multiple story webs, if necessary
  6. Look at secondary characters and subplots: make sure they amplify the original theme
I didn't realize that writing a novel could be such hard work—which is probably why the only novel I've ever written is something I'm not even sure I want to re-read myself. But having this six-step outline makes me almost eager to revise it.

For more tips and recommended resources, see Mary Amato's Writer's Blog.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The super-absorbent writer

 As evident in recent posts, I've become slightly obsessed with journals, mostly because I don't know what to do with my old journals. I don't want to pitch them, but I don't necessarily want to read through them on a regular basis, either.  If you look too much to the past, how can you live fully in the present?

Maybe if you call a journal a "writer's notebook" instead, it becomes a source of material rather than mere documentation of one's life. But isn't there a distinction between a notebook and a journal? A notebook would aim to provide a ready source of material, a journal would aim to document moments or feelings, no thought for material purpose.

I suppose a good, or at least thorough, writer would keep both—the notebook aimed toward public viewing, the journal held more private.

What brings up this observation is a long piece on David Sedaris in the Washington Post Style section a few days ago. In it, the reporter, Monica Hesse, mentions that Sedaris keeps a small, spiral-bound notebook in his shirt pocket, in which he records observations of everyday life, with the intention of spinning them into stories. Hesse observes:

If your life, however, is writing about your life, then how do you find time to live in ways worth writing about? Does being a famous self-parodist make it harder to be a good self-parodist?

I don't want to end up as a caricature in one of Sedaris's stories, so I don't relish the idea of ever speaking to him. Surely, though, there are people with the opposite desire, who want to be granted some kind of immortality through his textual alchemy. Wouldn't this affect how they interact with him?

Maybe that's true for any writer. An acquaintance once told me that she had a friend who attended a dinner party with Joyce Carol Oates. The friend related an interesting experience and a little while later, like clockwork, the story had been turned into a piece of fiction by Oates. It was no longer her story.

Best to keep your lips pursed around those super-absorbent writers if you don't want your stories taken. Perhaps, though, such super-absorbency is the mark of a great writer, and should be the aim for any journal writer or note taker, to take what you need and make with it what you can.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Is time the best editor?

A tiny sketch of San Miguel de Allende, which I drew while living there.
As I quickly scanned through some of my old journals in preparation to write my last post, I was surprised at what caught my eye—not the dreams I wrote down in detail and tried to decipher, not the complaints about particular men, not the jejune explanations of what life is all about.

I mostly liked the things outside the usual text—quick sketches, found-word poems, photos glued in.
Almost everything that I like now was originally put in my journals in the spirit of play (maybe because I never thought of myself as an artist, I always thought of myself as "a writer"). Of course, skimming through many handwritten pages, it's easier to notice any visuals. But I began to hope for them as I picked up random journals; they were refreshing in the midst of so much dull prose.

And yet I once hoped that some of that dull prose was worthy of publication, in the footsteps of Anaïs Nin, et al. Back then, I thought it was all brilliant. I see now how pedestrian most of it is. I have the benefit of an inner-editor who is several decades older; she is better read, more experienced, a little wiser.

That's great, for all the stuff I've written at least 10 years ago, but what about the stuff I'm writing now? Should I put it in a drawer and not take it out for five years or more? Is time the best editor? Or is there a way to cultivate that wiser/older reader in the present?

Often when I write, it is like I am a child again, rambling through the woods, letting thoughts flow. Then the adult/editor comes along a little later to discipline her, to make her walk straighter and in a more perfect line.  Perhaps balancing those two personae, and knowing when to draw upon them, is the key.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The beauty of paper?

I wanted to write a post about the value of writing on paper—how it is preserved no matter the software system or hardware storage mechanism. So I started to browse some of my paper journals from 25+ years ago; I was going to boast about accessing them simply by opening a filing cabinet.

But opening this metal Pandora's box quickly led to the realization that most of what I wrote in my journal as a teenager and as a young adult is god-awful, self-absorbed slop.

I could have been capturing perfectly useful descriptions—of the houses I lived in, of the weather on a particular day, of my housemates'  voices, idiosyncrasies, physical appearances—but, no, I spent 90 percent of that space complaining about my boyfriend (or lack of a boyfriend), analyzing the particulars of why my life sucked, or writing myopically about my past.

If I had written more in the moment and about the moment, those entries might serve now as material for a short story or vivid memoir. But my old journals are full of dime-store philosophizing and repetitious ramblings.

Why didn't I write down names? What were the names of the people I worked and lived with, of the streets I walked, the songs I listened to? I want to shake them out of my younger self, but she has forgotten. Almost everything in these early journals is in non-specifics, so now I have to try to figure out which friend or crush I was talking about at any given time.

Perhaps when I was writing I thought I would always be able to clearly see that scene around me years later. More likely, though, I thought the feelings I was writing about were worthier of posterity.

If you are starting to keep a journal, learn from my disappointment—remember to occasionally look up from your notebook and describe the room you're sitting in, the texture of light outside the window, the smells emanating from the kitchen. Don't simply look up into a mirror and think you're describing the world.

The photo above was found pasted into my July 1979 journal.

Friday, September 17, 2010

More on Deborah Berger, the autistic knitter

After I uploaded my post on Deborah Berger, whose knitted pieces are on exhibit at the American Visionary Art Museum, I regretted that I hadn't contacted the museum to see if they could have provided more information about her. I'm glad to say that AVAM answered my subsequent email and sent me three photos of her pieces, as well as a short biography, which I'll include below. (As far as I know, this will post will contain the only information about Berger—other than my first blog post—and the only pictures of her work, available right now on the Internet).


Deborah Berger was born with autism in New Jersey in 1956. She attended residential schools for special-needs children in Pennsylvania and Texas, and graduated from Middlesex County Community College in New Jersey. Berger learned to knit while still a young child, and was soon a knitting prodigy. Before she was ten, she was able to create not only all her own clothing, but toys, games, and complex sculptural forms from yarn. As an adult, Berger was high-functioning enough to live on her own and keep an apartment in New Orleans, but she never held a regular job. She was often in trouble with the police for disruptive or inappropriate behavior in public. Most of her income came from her relatives, supplemented by work as a nude model for artists. A loner, she continued to knit throughout her life, developing an extensive wardrobe of colorful, idiosyncratic pieces in a style all her own, as well as a large collection of masks and mask designs drawn on paper. After Berger died in 2005, her family discovered that her living space was overflowing with her knitted work and began the process of disposing of it. A member of the Arts Council of New Orleans discovered much of it in a pile of trash and rescued it, saving it until a voudou historian helped her transfer it to the permanent collection of the American Visionary Art Museum. This is the first time Deborah Berger’s work has been presented in any museum.

Photos courtesy and Copyright, American Visionary Art Museum.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Writer Profile: Nan K. Chase

I met Nan Chase more than two decades ago, shortly after I’d moved to Boone, N.C., to run one of the Winston-Salem Journal’s Northwest bureaus. Nan, who worked for the local Watauga Democrat, invited me over to her house for lunch, a short walk from my downtown office. I was amazed that she could converse freely with me while she ate and ground food in a hand-cranked gizmo and fed it to her baby, propped contentedly on one knee. She had a big, old house with a garden, and a husband and three kids—comforts I sorely lacked in my tiny rented apartment.  That hour gave me a vision of what my life could be, and perhaps initiated my eventual departure from my lonely life as a solo reporter. We kept in touch over the years, a main point of connection being a very small magazine (which I edited and Nan, for some reason, admired). Nan wrote a short piece about AVSM for the Washington Post Magazine and later started appearing on its pages under the pseudonym “Anita Menendez.”

I’ve always enjoyed reading Nan’s journalistic work, from her opinion pieces in N.C. dailies to travel pieces in the Washington Post and the New York Times, and the ease with which she has tackled a variety of subjects, from furniture to football, gardening to the Jewish Sabbath. Nan has authored two books in recent years: Asheville: A History, and Eat Your Yard! and co-authored another, Bark House Style: Sustainable Designs from Nature. For more on Nan, see her web site for Eat Your Yard! 

We spoke recently at a Chinese restaurant in Maryland, a conversation that continued via email.

Why did you decide to study journalism and/or what led you to be a writer? Did you write as a kid?

It turns out that my father's side of the family has had many writers or storytellers through the years. For instance, I have a second cousin (never met him) who is an entertainment writer at the Orange County Register, and there are several other reporters in the family. My father is a wonderful writer; he provided the "big picture" perspective for my writing, while my mother was the grammarian. Together they provided me a perfect writer's education.

I got a lot of encouragement in high school from teachers who said I was a good writer. They said, “Don't stop writing.” So I didn't. I was very shy in high school and college, but did write for the high school paper. In college I pursued a double major: economics and journalism. I was terrified of the thought of conducting an interview, and somehow got through college without doing that. Then, when I had a newspaper job in Boone, N.C., all that reticence disappeared. I am a voracious reader, and ultimately that is necessary for a writer.

Would you say you’ve experienced a creative Renaissance since your kids left your house? You have published three books since they left!

No. That’s because I really feel I did my most honest and important work very early on, when they were quite young and I was still in my 20s and 30s, with “nothing to lose” in a small Southern town yet. I’m sure it’s true for many writers that their most powerful work comes right out at the beginning (and the rest of the career is workmanship). At the same time, once my children, and my husband and I, were established in the community, I had a natural tendency to pull back into less threatening, ”lighter” topics.

Now, it is true that I have written three books (co-author of one of them) in short order. I had never, ever thought of doing a book, before about 2005. It happened that my youngest child was 20 years old and didn’t need me in any way for transportation, etc. And so I did have the long stretches of time necessary for book research and writing. I did have the time not to cook or do many household chores. Early on, while I was writing essays and articles, and the children were young, I managed to create great quality time a few minutes or hours at a time.

Now time is a pressure in another way: one can only count on so many years of productive work capacity, and it just doesn’t last forever. So I suddenly have a brain full of book ideas and have to decide where to turn next.

Why did Asheville intrigue you as a subject?

My husband, Saul, and I found that we were spending all our weekends in Asheville, having fun, enjoying the architecture, the music and theater, the restaurants, even the shopping. So we bought a small condo as a weekend home (one benefit of cutting one’s children loose economically upon college graduation). After taking a walk in the beautiful Riverside Cemetery we stopped at Malaprops bookstore, where I asked for a book that would tell me why Asheville looks so distinctive, and why the downtown was enjoying a commercial and cultural renaissance after so many years of decay. The clerk said, “There isn’t one.” Shazzam! Instant topic.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The weird world of Nancy Drew

Assuming most young girls go through a Nancy Drew phase, I bought my tween the first two books in the series encased in a cute leather pocketbook set (seen above). She delved right in, working her way through the first few books without any problem.

But when she got to the sixth book, she said that she was having trouble keeping up with all the new characters and that, well, it was getting a little weird. So I volunteered to read it aloud to her, one chapter per bedtime; by the end, I agreed with her initial assessment.

If you haven't read Nancy Drew in a while, or if you never got to the sixth book, The Secret of Red Gate Farm, I'll summarize it for you:

Nancy and her cousins meet Jo, a young woman who passes out on their train; soon they decide to move to Jo's grandmother's farm as boarders—no explanation given as to how these young women can just uproot themselves like that. (Perhaps that is why these books have appealed to girls in the past; the girls are independent and of sufficient means, existing perpetually in the fleeting freedom between high school and motherhood.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010


When I was growing up, public radio was a lifeline to a world beyond the confines of my little town. When the NPR correspondents were in NYC or California, I was there, too, not stuck in my room worrying about cruel high school hallways. It helped diminish my adolescent loneliness.

So it pains me to admit that I've hardly listened to NPR for the last six months. That's because we bought a new car and got a gratis subscription to XM (which we extended for three months). It wasn't only free XM that hastened my temporary departure from NPR. My local NPR stations in D.C. are mostly either talk (i.e., politics) or classical music during the week.

But I crave narrative, not just people talking about the present moment or the current political scene.

And I got that on XM (ironically, of course, on their public radio stations, particularly PRX). Each drive offered me a delicious torrent of voices describing lives full of beauty and confusion and fear and joy, with stories so compelling I often wished for heavy traffic to delay my arrival. I especially enjoyed being surprised by shows I wouldn't have known to seek out otherwise—like Nate DiMeo's Radio Palace (particularly his The Brothers Booth).

Now, alas, my trial is up. Being the frugal person I am, I can't justify spending $160/year for radio when we have four public radio stations in the area. But the real reason I let the subscription expire is...Radio Disney. When my tween-aged daughter was in the car, that's all she wanted to listen to—an experience I have described as "purgatory on wheels."

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The nearly lost art of the autistic knitter

A couple of weeks ago, we went to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore for the first time. The museum features "outsider" art—art made, primarily, by people without formal training but with an intense need to create something unique or beautiful or visionary.

There were many things I loved at the museum, especially: the mesmerizing, kaleidoscopic paintings of Eugene Von Bruenchenhein, a baker who made paintings on his kitchen table after-hours (one of his paintings is shown above); the memoir paintings of Russian prince Andrew Romanoff, made entirely on shrinky dinks; and tiny paintings and sculptures selected from Richard McMahon's ongoing mini museum project.

But the exhibit that gave me the most pause was a block of bizarre crocheted pieces in the middle of the floor—a headpiece that looked like it was made for an alien, a striped, rainbow-colored coat, and more neutral-colored hats, all done with incredibly precise needlework. The plaque next to them said they were done by Deborah Berger, an autistic woman who was a knitting prodigy. Berger lived in New Orleans and worked as an artist's model by day, then came home and knitted nonstop for hours. After Berger died, her family threw out all her pieces, but someone from a New Orleans arts council rescued some of them.

Unlike the other artists I've described in this post, I cannot find a picture or even a description of Berger on the Internet. As far as I know, the most visible trace of her existence is on that block of wood in a museum in Baltimore. AVAM doesn't allow photos indoors, so I cannot show you what they look like (which is why Von Bruenchenhein's painting is shown above).

When she sat alone in her apartment, knitting furiously, was this her intention? Is a museum the ultimate destination, the best possible place for her work? Yes, probably, but still there's something a little lonely about it. One wishes that one of her subdued hats would grace the head of a distant cousin or great niece, that her family had wished to keep some part of Aunt Deborah's weird and wonderful art for themselves.

After I wrote this post, AVAM sent a short biography of Berger and photos of her work. See addendum post for September 17, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sew long summer

E-girl wanted to learn to sew this morning . We sewed a skirt for her and a doll out of scrap fabric, then an elegant skirt for her out of an old chintz curtain (Scarlett O'Hara redux).

I am too busy and impatient to sew these days, and usually only get out the machine to mend things that are too valuable to toss. And, since fabric is so expensive now, there's really no financial incentive anymore. I'd rather express my creativity in some other fashion.

But when I was in high school, fabric was cheaper than clothes (since they were still being made here and not in Third World countries), so the creative and/or poor girls sewed many of their own outfits. There were three or four of us in my group who would sew at night and then compare outfits at school. Even the girls who went on to college and graduate degrees sewed at home. How else could I have been able to afford an outfit designed by Betsy Johnson? I used Betsy Johnson Butterick patterns.

Sewing also provided an economic leveling—the poorest girl I knew, who lived up on the mountains in a two-room cabin (with eight siblings) still managed to look elegant, modeling at least a new outfit every week.

Maybe teenage girls now have some kind of shared, creative experience, but observation tells me that crafts have been replaced by texting and IM-ing. Of course, it's still a shared experience but I'm not sure there's any valuable skills being honed that way, beyond typing. Texting doesn't repair a curtain—or make a skirt out it either.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What a writer does

During recent bouts of insomnia, I've been reading through Alice Munro's Selected Stories. Unfortunately, the stories don't put me to sleep.

I'm always surprised when I mention Munro to people and they admit that they've never heard of her, despite her repeated publications in the New Yorker and her short story collections. (But I hadn't hear of her myself until John Morris, during a workshop at the Writers Center years ago, told us to read Munro to learn the craft of short story writing.)

Perhaps it was because I was reading at 2 a.m., but the description of what a writer does/is, near the end of the story, "Material," seemed so profound that I sat up in my recliner. In the story, the first-person narrator is looking back on her previous marriage to a writer/professor. He has taken a character they both knew during their marriage and turned her into a short story, an act, the narrator says, where the woman has been:

...lifted out of life and held in light, suspended in the marvelous, clear jelly that Hugo has spent all his life learning how to make. It is an act of magic... of a special, unsparing, unsentimental love. ...(She) is a lucky person... to have this done to her, though she doesn't know what has been done and wouldn't care for it, probably, if she did know. She has passed into Art. It doesn't happen to everybody.

(I would excerpt more from the passage, but I worry about Fair Use/copyright restrictions, and I don't want to give away too much of the story's end).

The wonderful irony of the story is that the narrator has turned the writer/ex-husband into material for her own story, transforming him into art as well.

Munro is a master of succinct, eloquent description, of writing about people you think you already know. "Material" includes an opening passage about writers/professors that, though published in 1973, still seems true today:

Girls, and women too, fall in love with such men; they imagine there is power in them.

(The wives of these men aren't in the audience where the men are reading, they)... are buying groceries or cleaning up messes... They have to remember to get the snow tires on and go to the bank... because their husbands are such brilliant, such talented incapable men, who must be looked after for the sake of the words that will come from them.

How wonderful that Munro, whether she had been one of those women in her first marriage (she divorced the year before this story was published) or had been feeling jealous of male writers—or whatever experience really spurred this story, she was able to convert those feelings into Art.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Web directories and resources for creative writing: Yahoo directory

I was excited recently to discover that Yahoo still maintains a Web subject directory (which, ironically, I found via a Google search); even more excited to see that one of its subject categories is Literature > Creative Writing.

[For those of you who don't know Yahoo's history, before Yahoo had devolved into a celebrity news port, its focus was on indexing the Internet—this was before the Internet got so crowded. I heard a Yahoo rep speak at librarian conference in the mid-90s about their subject indexing.]

But I'm not sure that I can trust this directory as being either comprehensive or unbiased. When I looked at the Yahoo sub-listing for Literature > Creative Writing/Blogs, I was puzzled that they list only 25 blogs, and wondered why they'd listed Neil Gaiman's blog first—which meant the list isn't alphabetical, but it didn't say if it was listed by popularity ranking either.

Of course I wanted to help them plump up the list, so I clicked on the top link that says "Suggest a Site"—this links to a page that says:

There are two ways you can submit a site to the Yahoo! Directory.

No time guarantee


Yahoo! Directory Submit
7- Day Guarantee (If you choose Yahoo! Directory Submit we guarantee that your site will be considered by our editors within 7 business days.)
US$299.00 non-refundable, recurring annual fee

So, writer beware. I'm sharing the link to this listing, but not necessarily endorsing it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The dark bookends of my reporting career

When I started work at the Winston-Salem Journal in the summer of 1985, a dark cloud hung over me, especially as I walked to work from the public parking garage that first day of work. It was an unease that was with me until I was safely inside the building.

The previous year, on her way to work, newly hired copy editor Deborah Sykes was murdered just a few blocks from where I was walking. (Sykes had just been hired by the Journal's then-afternoon paper, The Sentinel).

Although the circumstances were slightly different—I was going into work at 9 a.m., a busier time than her early a.m. entrance—I felt her ghost with me every morning and every evening as I walked to my car, even after I got to park in the closer-by company parking lot.

A few weeks later, I moved up to Boone to work at the paper's Northwest Bureau. I relaxed there, unworried about keeping late hours since my office was on King St., the town's main drag. I could park my car right in front at night and walk to it straight from my building.

But just weeks after I left Boone for graduate school in Chapel Hill, a young female reporter at the local Watauga Democrat was found murdered near the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Her first name was Jenny. She was young, sweet, dark-haired, still fairly fresh from college. The newspaper accounts at the time said she'd been on her way to work early in the morning, probably accosted in downtown Boone and driven out to the Parkway where she was murdered.

"That could have been me"—a whispered epiphany. Since then, whenever I've left work in the dark, I've enlisted co-workers or building guards to walk out with me, especially when the streets are quiet and empty. I don't feel paranoid, but cautious—a caution composed equally of regret and sadness and fear.

Is it the price women pay when we walk alone? If not death, then the persistent threat of death, no matter how undeterred or indifferent we pretend to be. It is the price two newspaper women in one state paid in the space of two years. Since men outnumbered women at newspapers at the time, imagine the statistics.

Maybe the worst thing about these murders was that they were expected, in a horrible, subconscious way—they were out when no one else was out, they were women, they were alone. Yet in that time period, as far as I know, no male reporter in North Carolina (or anywhere in the United States, as far as I know) was murdered or assaulted.

I put on a brave face, walking out of the Winston-Salem Journal and into the dark. I was one of the guys when I was in there, typing away, drinking coffee, slinging words around. But out there, in the silence, I was different from them, vulnerable in a way they probably couldn't understand, a vulnerability I probably would have denied, even to myself.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Follow-up: The unbearable briefness of a dance career

When I wrote about dance as an ephemeral art recently, I talked about how a dancer's career is shorter than a writer's because the body ages out of it. But I failed to mention the possibility of injury cutting that career even shorter. The near-constant possibility of injury makes dance even more precious and fleeting—something that viewers of So You Think You Can Dance have recently witnessed. Alex Wong, my favorite dancer from the current season, was injured last week during a rehearsal for a Bollywood number. He leaped and then crashed down, his Achilles tendon ripped.

The next night, Alex stood on crutches while judge/producer Nigel Lythgow told the audience that Alex will have surgery this week, which is predicted to be "80 percent effective." Then Alex must recuperate for three months. That means three months without work for Alex, who left his post as the principal dancer with the Miami City Ballet to be on the TV show and, in so doing, was told by the company's director not to come back. There's a 20 percent chance he may not be able to dance again, anywhere.

The audience gasped at the news and Alex wept, tears streaming down his face.

Alex was in two of the best dances in the past few weeks: a modern dance routine to Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah in the first competition broadcast; and a hip-hop number, amazing because he is a ballet dancer but still acquired hip-hop so quickly. (I can't embed the dances here because Dick Clark Productions is continually forcing them off of YouTube; I've done my best to find them on the SYTYCD web site, in the links above, but the clips I've found may not be exact. Each clip is probably also, unfortunately, preceded by a 25-second ad on their web site).

What if these are Alex's last two, best dance performances? Is it enough that they were seen be a national audience for those few precious minutes? Will they be the sum of his body's artistic work?

I remember what Joni Mitchell said in her "Miles of Aisles" live album: "No one ever said, 'Paint me another Starry, Starry Night, man'," referring to the impermanent art of the performer (perhaps one reason she retreated to painting).

If everything I wanted to say as a writer could be compressed into a three-minute dance, would I risk dancing it if it meant I couldn't express myself again? Of course not—my fingers ache nearly every day to say something, to put something down. But most professional dancers must face this question, however subconsciously, each time they perform; any dance could be their last.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Follow-up: The Last Page (one more thing I like about Smithsonian Magazine)

I failed to mention one of my favorite features in Smithsonian Magazine in my June 25th post: The Last Page, a one-page humorous essay that has appeared in the magazine for several years now. I often turn to it first when I pick up a new issue. Some of my favorite recent pieces include Green Eggs and Salmonella? ("Beware the hidden hazards lurking within popular children's books"); and Words to Remember ("Amanda McKittrick Ros predicted she would achieve lasting fame as a novelist").

I can't find a direct link to its archive on the magazine's web site, but you can hunt it down online two ways:
  • Go to the full issue magazine Archive, click on each individual issue, and look for The Last Page as the last listed item, or
  • Try your luck with an advanced search I devised on Google, searching for The-Last-Page as part of the URL (this may not bring up everything).
It's also worth noting that The Last Page is cited on many writers' web sites as an excellent potential market for humor writers and essayists—probably because, right now, it pays $1,000 for accepted pieces, according to the magazine's The Last Page Humor Column Writer's Guidelines.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The future of books

• NPR's "On the Media" devoted a full hour to the future of books and publishing in its July 2nd show, Book It. (This is an updated re-broadcast of a previous show.) The broadcast includes an interview with Neil Gaiman on what authors in the future will have to do to make money. According to this show, formats like the iPad or the iPhone will be how books will be delivered in the future. Drat!

• On the Media's information page for this show includes a link to a 2008 New York magazine article, The End, which is on the end and/or the transformation of the publishing business.

• Realizing this was becoming one of my Links posts, I googled "future of the book" and found:

Monday, June 28, 2010

Dance, the ephemeral art

Athough I normally avoid reality shows (because I'm not interested in dieters, dysfunctional families, or desperate "celebrities"), E-girl and I have been making our way through taped episodes of the current season of "So You Think You Can Dance" (SYTYCD).

Why? Because E-girl loves to dance. Even in utero, I realize now, she was trying to tap. She says she wants to be a professional dancer when she's older, for a few years, before she becomes a botanist and mom. She realizes there's an end to it already.

Is there any art more ephemeral than dance? Not just the performance, over in a few minutes. But the dancer's body itself—fleetingly supple and strong, particularly for ballet (and, probably, for break-dancing and hip-hop). Picasso was still producing art into his nineties, John Updike was writing and lecturing in his seventies. Old dancers can be teachers or choreographers, but if they still dance it's probably in solitude, without the audience they once hungered for.

Ironically, dance—the art form of motion—is the most static of art forms. It stays in place and can't be easily transported or transformed into another, more mobile medium. A painting can decorate a t-shirt or become a poster; a song can be heard while jogging or driving; words can become text which can become books or magazines or newspapers. Dance doesn't become anything else—it just is.

So the young people on SYTYCD may already be at their peak as dancers, or nearing it, which makes the dancing more precious and beautiful. You wish they didn't have to be judged and voted upon and eliminated, but could just be celebrated for their skill and enthusiasm.

I don't like the results show, the evening after the individual performances, where the dancers are lined up and told which ones got the lowest number of phone-in votes from the public. The bottom three are each given a minute to dance for their survival. I watch this part of the show with a finger on fast forward because it's too painful to watch, yet I still can't not watch it either. It's like a little death each week. And then the next week, the competition begins again and the cut performer is forgotten. The dance goes on.

(The illustration is a sepia-tinted snapshot of the "Hallelujah" dance from the first competition evening of this season's SYTYSD.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Magazines I actually read: Smithsonian Magazine

Those who are regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I've been referencing Smithsonian magazine in recent posts. The reason is simple—my in-laws give us a membership to the Smithsonian every year, and the magazine comes free with the membership. But only in recent months have I become a steady and appreciative reader.

Unlike the New Yorker, the Smithsonian arrives in my mailbox once a month—perhaps it's most important characteristic for this harried reader. But the magazine also features gorgeous photographs (which, yes, means less text to burn through in one sitting) and, even better, frequent articles on literature and/or authors.

One of its regular features, "My Kind of Town," invites prominent authors to write about their hometowns or adopted cities. (You can access the feature from this link, and search past articles both geographically and alphabetically, by author. From this site you can also upload your own "My Kind of Town" submission, both text and photos.)

Recent articles written by and about well-known writers have included:

Going Home Again (March 2010) - Joyce Carol Oates writes about the upstate New York town that influences much of her work;

Mark Twain in Love (May 2010) The woman who, for Twain, was like Dante's Beatrice;

Harper Lee's Novel Achievement (June 2010) [This was referenced in my June 21st post]

You can search its online archive for articles on:
A full electronic archive of the magazine is available, from 2007 to the present.

However, despite my promotion of the magazine's web site, for me it's still a publication that is best approached tactilely, letting the pages fall open to a beautiful photograph or an unexpected revelation.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Why it sucks to be a (visual) artist

"The Wilkersons’ costliest board was the 1972 painting Water Dreaming at Kalipinypa, a dazzling patchwork of stippled, dotted and crosshatched shapes, bought in 2000 for some $220,000—more than twice the price it had been auctioned for only three years earlier. The painting was done by Johnny Warangkula Tjupurrula, an original member of the Papunya cooperative and one of its most celebrated. Sadly, the artist himself had long been overlooked; in 1997, an Australian journalist found Warangkula, by then old and homeless, sleeping along with other Aboriginal people in a dry riverbed near Alice Springs. Though he reportedly received less than $150 for his best-known painting, the publicity surrounding the 1997 sale revived his career somewhat..."

From: Contemporary Aboriginal Art, Smithsonian Magazine, January 2010.

Monday, June 21, 2010

To overkill a mockingbird: fiction creates a new geography

This year is the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, which is getting a lot of press. Invariably, in the articles I've read so far, the authors lament the commercial enterprises in Monroeville, Ala., (Harper Lee's hometown) that have sprung up as a result of the book. These include: the Mockingbird Grill, Radley's Fountain Grille, the Mockingbird Museum, and all the Mockingbird trickets, t-shirts, hats and tote bags that are sold there at local gift shops.

I was going to join the tsk-tsking of this exploitation and then it struck me—it's actually kind of cool that what began as two-dimensional type (and fiction at that!) has now reshaped a physical environment. Admittedly, it's not what Lee might have wanted, but one still has to give a shout-out to the power of the word on the page. How many authors' works are celebrated this vividly and on such a constant basis? Those businesses sprung up because fans of the book continue to make pilgrimages there and obviously they want to buy a memento of their time there and relive moments from the book.

But my elation with fiction creating a new geography was only momentary. Lee still lives in Monroeville. When she steps out, she is confronted with what really is a bastardization of her ideas, a tacky echo of the decades-ago outrage and intent that went into her book. She is stuck in Mockingbird-ville, physically and intellectually. The success of Mockingbird also probably stymied her future writing, according to Harper Lee's Novel Achievement, an article in the June 2010 Smithsonian magazine.

Compare Monroeville to Asheville, NC (at least the Asheville I knew 28 years ago...)—the setting for Thomas Wolfe's early novels. The boarding house that Wolfe had grown up in and which he had featured in Look Homeward, Angel was still there. You could pay to walk through and see place settings, linens and furniture from his era (perhaps some actually original); there was a Thomas Wolfe playhouse nearby. That was it, as far as I remember. No gift shop selling plastic angels, no t-shirts with Wolfe's visage or quotations from his books. I sometimes drove over to the boarding house after-hours and sat on the porch, undisturbed. [I think the boarding house burned down a few years ago—I'm not sure if it was rebuilt...]

What's the difference? Look Homeward, Angel has never been as perpetually popular as To Kill a Mockingbird—as far as I know, it's not on any high school required reading lists as Mockingbird still is (perhaps it's never been a high school English assignment because of its length, or its lack of message). But the bigger difference, I think, is that Asheville had more going for it; it already had the Blue Ridge Parkway nearby and the Biltmore Estate, and lots of rich people retiring there. It didn't need Wolfe nearly as much as Monroeville obviously needed Lee.

I'm glad to see physical spaces that celebrate writers and writing, but it's probably better for the writers if the celebrations begin after they've left the town or the living—otherwise the celebration can become a trap.

* * * * * * * * * *

I was going to make a list of other destinations for literary pilgrimages, but of course someone else has already done it. I found a nice list, with additional recommendations from readers, on the Mental Floss blog: Book Your Trip Now: 12 Literary Pilgrimages.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The poetry of the dead zone

Many times in the past, I'm sure, I rolled my eyes if I saw an old person poring over the Obituaries section in the newspaper. I thought it was morbid, their trying to find a familiar face or life, perhaps also trying to see who among their elderly friends had made it through another week.

But more and more these days, my eyes are drawn to that section of the Washington Post. Maybe it's because I am getting older and I've begun to occasionally see the names of acquaintances and neighbors there. That's not the only reason, though. I've started to see beauty in the brief prose that sums up a life.

Read past the horrifyingly succinct labels in the sub-heads (e.g., "Teacher," "Jewelry Maker," "Guidance Counselor," "Church Member") and you can see a road map of a life in retrospect:
  • The "Church Member" assisted amputees for the Red Cross during WWII. (How?)
  • The "Jewelry Maker"'s first marriage ended in divorce. (Why?)
  • The "Guidance Counselor" danced professionally when she was young; her husband died 13 years before she did. (Did she miss him? Did she miss dancing?)
Most obits in the Post are written in the same four or five-paragraph format: (First p.) the person's full name, age, cause of death, and current town; (Middle paragraphs) significant events and achievements—jobs, degrees, volunteer positions; (Final p.) survivors. Were they happy? Bitter? Anxious? Regretful? Loved? The obits never say. The story, the poetry even, is in the words not written, the broad and full life that cannot be described so formulaically.

More distinct are the "In Memoriam" boxes that people put in the paper, usually on the anniversary of their loved one's death or birthday. The most heart-wrenching "In Memoriam" ads are those to children. On the first anniversary of an 11-year-old's death, her family ran a photo of her with the dates of her life beneath, and then the text of something she must have written shortly before she died: "If I were President...I would stop war. I would also want to try to stop pollution. If I can stop it, I will."... Is there anything more tragic than what is contained in these four column inches?

I still remember an "In Memoriam" I read a couple of years ago; beneath the photo of an ordinary-looking middle-aged man who had died five years before were these words: "I would give one year of my life to spend another day with you." That's a story there that could be written a hundred different ways by a hundred different people. Even the person who placed that ad could describe her life/their life a hundred different ways—and the story would never be completely and fully told.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Novel conclusions

That weird Lost finale a couple of weeks ago continues to spark my interest in how creative works reach a conclusion. I mentioned memorable TV show endings in my last post—but what about works of fiction?

Is there a written ending equivalent to Bob Newhart waking up next to the wife from his first show in his second show's finale? Or, would something like that come off too gimmicky or ridiculously absurd in a non-humorous way? (Because it really is a variation on the old "and then he woke up..." ending).

The story-with-a-twist seems better suited to shorter fiction than novels, perhaps because the reader is more invested with a longer work and would feel let down if the conclusion didn't spring somehow from all that went before. The unexpected ending works for O. Henry stories but after awhile the reader begins to expect them (making the surprise actually unsurprising). I love "The Twilight Zone" but I wouldn't want to watch it every night, nor would I want all shows (or written fictional works) to follow its usual be-ready-to-be-shocked format.

(Don't all good poems end with a little bit of surprise, though? In the best poems, the final lines can be astonishing.)

I know that the journey through a fictional work is as important, or more important, than its final pages. But there are endings I remember and relish remembering (from both novels and short stories). These are the first that came to mind as I began to ponder this topic:


He loved Big Brother. (1984)

His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. ("The Dead" by James Joyce)

I do. What a hat! I like it! I like that party hat! Good-by! Good-by! (Go, Dog, Go)

"I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea." ("Goodbye, My Brother" by John Cheever)

"I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray that you find a way to be useful. I'll pray and then I'll sleep." (Gilead)

"It is Clarissa, he said. For there she was." (Mrs. Dalloway)

There were many others that were too long to include, or which didn't end quite the way I remembered them (I thought Rabbit Angstrom's last words were about his dead daughter—but, no; I thought Madame Arnoux let down her white hair for Frederick in the last passage of A Sentimental Education, but that was pages before, etc.).

And now I come to a place where I must write a conclusion to this post—I've gone way over my usual eight inches of screen space, but I can't think of a graceful exit. The phone isn't ringing, no one is at the door, the tea kettle hasn't been put on the stove.

It is 9 a.m. and I must begin my day.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Memorable endings on TV

Since the "Lost" finale, I've been thinking about memorable TV show finales. Apparently I'm not alone. I googled "memorable TV show endings" and found links to lots of critics and bloggers weighing in on the same topic.

The freshest commentary on memorable endings that I found was on the NPR "Day to Day" web site and its related blog—that's probably because the show ends today and for the last few days they've been discussing endings there. One segment, A Critic's Favorite Final Episodes, discusses three memorable endings: from "Six Feet Under," "The Sopranos," and "Seinfeld." A related blog post, Final Episodes by Jason DeRose, provides footage to the last moments of the shows discussed. Again, "Six Feet Under" is listed among the favorites.

I also would list "Six Feet Under" among my favorite TV show endings—those brilliant last six minutes helped me forgive the screenwriters for the preposterous/maudlin storylines from its last two seasons. (However, if you watch it via the link above, you're probably not going to find it very affecting unless you've watched the show and are familiar with the characters and the fact that each one of the 63 shows in the series began with a death). After I saw it the first time, I rewound it and watched it over and over—the daughter driving through the California desert while each of the main characters lives' are summed up in moments of film was wrenchingly beautiful to me.

I applaud those writers/screenwriters who can create an ending that's innovative, especially when it offers a fitting conclusion and isn't just there to shock or dismay its viewers. Among the latter, I'd include "Twin Peaks," when Agent Cooper becomes Bob; the "Colbys," where Fallon is stranded on a highway and abducted by aliens; and "The Prisoner," where he lifts a mask off a man's face to find himself, and then he drives away... unless he's driving towards the same fate over and over.

In the fresh, creatively appropriate category I'd include "Seinfeld," "St. Elsewhere," and "Newhart" (which I admit I never watched except for those much-acclaimed last few minutes).

Of course, perhaps my list would be longer if I had premium cable—I've never watched "The Sopranos" and am currently, slowly making my way through "The Wire" on DVD via Netflix—and if I watched any kind of TV on a regular basis.

In a future post, I hope to look at both cliched and memorable endings—and beginnings—of fictional works.