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.)