Monday, December 19, 2011

Another woman's work rescued from the trash

The December issue of Smithsonian Magazine includes a short article on Vivian Maier, whom it calls a "photographer of consequence." Never heard of her? That's because Maier, who worked as a nanny, didn't sell a print in her lifetime and rarely shared her photos with friends and neighbors. Her photos came out in the open only because she could no longer pay rent on the storage unit where they had been kept. A stranger, John Maloof, bought a box of 30,000 negatives for $400 in 2007.

By the time Maloof began sifting through the negatives, Maier was dead. Fortunately, Maloof liked what he saw and started posting her photos on a blog. He also has issued a book of her work (which, probably due to the magazine piece, is out of stock at Amazon right now).

You have to wonder how many other female artists haven't been so lucky—lacking any kind of postmortem discovery or champion.

How much work by women has simply been thrown away? Perhaps this is true also for good and even excellent work by male artists and writers who have had the misfortune to remain unknown. But from all of antiquity we have one complete poem from Sappho (and a few other line fragments), and a handful of lines from other female writers—compared to the multiple volumes by men that are arranged in the Loeb Classical Library.  There is little or no female perspective remaining from those centuries—the voice of all those women is eerily silent.

The above photo is from a direct link to a page on Maloof's blog.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Once upon a time—The End

I actually got excited when I first read about the new ABC show, "Once Upon a Time." Critics lauded it as a return to the family hour, comparing it to the old Sunday night standard, "The Wonderful World of Disney."

That's because there is nothing on TV currently that our family watches together. We usually don't even channel surf in front of our kid in the evenings, since we don't know when a simulated murder, rape, or assault might appear. Of course there is "children's TV," but it's a parallel world/ghetto of silly Disney Channel shows or oft-repeated Sponge Bob episodes—the type of shows that my tween-aged kid despises or is tired of (she outgrew PBS a few years ago). When we occasionally sit down in front of the TV together, it's mostly to old TV shows and movies.

"Once Upon a Time" promised to bring fairy tales to life, with storybook characters exiled to modern-day Maine. I imagined it was going to be a TV version of "Enchanted," which we all found charming and funny (though just a tad scary at the end).

But E-girl watched most of Sunday night's episode behind a blanket raised over her face. She couldn't stand seeing the hunter kill the deer, or the queen tear out his heart, or the mayor/queen crushing the heart of his modern-day sheriff counterpart.

And then there were the nightmares afterwards... I dreamed of deer being slaughtered, of hearts ripped out and dripping blood, of people chased by an evil presence—the type of dreams I rarely have and certainly never relish. E-girl is still upset about seeing the queen murder her own father a few weeks ago. It has affected her dreams, though not as a nightly occurrence.

Of course, we'll get over it. Neither of us will become serial killers as the result of watching this show—the argument that always seems to be trotted out whenever a parent or anyone else tries to explain why they are bothered by screen violence that (they or) their kids are exposed to: "TV violence doesn't correlate with real-life aggression..." And real-life is full of violence, blah, blah, blah.

But why should I want my tenderhearted child to become callous now (or ever)? Or why would I want her to watch something before bedtime that will give her insomnia?

With a title like "Once Upon a Time" you keep hoping for a happy ending at the end of each show [and not at the end of a five-season series—although, given that its producers also did "Lost," there may be no real resolution]. But each episode has seemed increasingly grim (pardon the pun).

So we'll go back to our DVD player and our Netflix Instant queue. As E-girl put it at the end of it, "I think I'd rather watch 'Rocky and Bullwinkle'."

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A mission of salvation in a dark basement room

Yesterday I scavenged through a dead woman's bookshelves. Although I don't know her name, or anything about her except that she was a former school teacher and a survivor of the Holocaust, I came to admire and like her in the couple of hours that I was there in her dark, empty house.

The books we found there gave evidence of an intelligent person with eclectic tastes: hardcover, first-edition novels (from Lolita to Star Trek), a collection of Samuel Beckett's work (in English and French), travel books, cookbooks and issues of Bon Appetit, humor, biography, and trendy psychology—written in English, French, German, Spanish and even Russian. She had been a voracious reader—there were stacks of books in other rooms of the house,  and they obviously had been read because almost every one contained scribbled comments on the inside front page that summed up her reactions, e.g., "...highly amusing" and "...a suspenseful read."

My companion and I were there to take out what we could for the local high school's annual book sale because no one else wanted her books. She had been single, childless and elderly, and after she died in that house, no one came to claim her books. In fact, the realtor who bought it was just going to throw them away. We were there on a mission of salvation.

Looking through her collection, I was reminded of the autistic knitter. This woman's book collection also represented a kind of art form or life's work. And all of it, including her tiny commentaries, had been destined for a garbage can. Perhaps there was other evidence remaining of her life beyond that quiet house—art works or crafts or letters she had written, still preserved by companions or the sons and daughters of her companions—but I doubted it. With a sinking feeling, I felt like I was deciding what part of her would go on, even if only to strangers that won't know her name.

But what struck me more was the sudden realization that if everything she had read had been on an e-reader, my friend and I wouldn't have been there in her house in the first place, and I never would have spent those few moments in her lingering presence. All those titles, the odd juxtapositions of Art Buchwald and Ferlingetti and science fiction paperbacks, gone in a blip.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Create something in 30 days (more or less)

NaNoWriMo didn't work for me this year. But that doesn't mean you or I have to wait until next November to work under an artificial, Internet-based deadline to complete some type of creative work.  Below I've compiled a list of web sites that encourage "high-velocity prose" (as NaNoWriMo bloggers call it) of any type within certain time frames:

FebruaryPicture Book Marathon - Write a picture book every day of the month in February

March:  NaNoEdMo - 50 hours of editing one novel

April: Script Frenzy Write 100 pages of original scripted material in 30 days (includes TV scripts, screenplays, stage plays and graphic novels)

May (1-7):  NaPiBoWriWee - Write 7 picture books in a week

WNFIN (Write NonFiction in November) - Write 50,000 words of nonfiction
• NaPlWriMo (National Playwrighting Month)
PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) - Create 30 picture book ideas in 30 days
• and, of course, NaNoWriMo

For a list of additional contests [I didn't list them here because some seem less official] see:
  NaNoWriMo-Style Events

Friday, November 18, 2011

The most comforting sound I know

What is keeping a journal but a need to talk with myself and make sense of things? As I sit here trying to figure out what to do with myself, what else to write, I am comforted by the scratching sound of the felt-tip pen as it moves across the page and back again. Perhaps it is the most comforting sound I know. It is the sound of my silent voice, the one that isn't heard in usual conversations.

Spoken words vanish, unless remembered, and then memory often fades. Things said/written here have the potential for some kind of permanence (even if only for this audience of one).

Maybe writing like this, without a title or format or specific intention, shares a kinship with dance—the brain choreographs and five fingers move in rapid obeisance.

(from journal entry dated June 11, 2011)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

NaNoWriMo Fail!

I have written approximately 250 words, by hand, for NaNoWriMo this year. And while it is possible that I still might catch up—my expected word count should be around 15,000 words at the end of the day—it's looking pretty hopeless at this point.

My excuse is that life got in the way. An unexpectedly complicated bathroom repair (somehow a leaky faucet and vanity replacement evolved into a big renovation because of rotten floorboards, which has required multiple trips to hardware and paint stores), as well as paid work took a big chunk of my time.  But I was busy last year and still managed to pull it off. The last straw/nail in the coffin, etc., was that I caught a bad respiratory virus last Tuesday, the first day of the contest, which has sapped most of my energy.

Of course a contest that starts on November 1st (for which there is no prize and no consequence) is arbitrary anyway. Why not November 15th? or January 1st? I could set my own deadline and start a new novel, for fun, at any time. Yet it's harder to get excited about me-set deadlines. By myself, I am not part of a broad community—there is no peer pressure, no one to share my triumphs with.

And there is something magical about pulling a novel out of thin air, which is what NaNoWriMo represents for me. Last year I had to keep writing because I wanted to meet the goal I had publicly set even though I didn't always feel a need to write about the things I was writing about. The result was a children's novel I wouldn't probably have otherwise written. This year, I have a new bathtub and bathroom vanity to account for half of that time. I'm not sure which will prove longer lasting.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A realistic NaNoWriMo goal?

Late last night, in a fit of exhausted inspiration, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, even though I questioned recently whether I should attempt it again.

This year I am being realistic—that is, not very ambitious, since it doesn't look like I'm going to be able to carve out enough time this week to start it off well.

The working title of my forthcoming work: (NaNoWriMo insists that you provide a novel title in order to register): Whatever I Can Think of to Write in Any Given Moment.

The genre: Memoir/Stream of consciousness (a genre I may have made up since I had to write it in under the category of "Other").

I'm aiming for 10,000 words this year, one-fifth of the official NaNoWriMo goal, or around 350 words a day (not the 1,667 words that the contest suggests). I've decided to write about the people and moments I've wanted to recall over the years, to remember them more vividly, to recreate and then ameliorate the past. This may only last through the first five days before I go on to something else I've always meant to do.

So I say am trying to be realistic, but I confess there's some tiny glimmer of hope inside me that Whatever I Can Think of to Write in Any Given Moment eventually will be considered a ground-breaking, creative masterpiece marking a new and unforeseen category of memoir-ish fiction.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The economics of the creative life

Occupy Wall Street resonates with me because I was once young, out of college, and unable to find work. Even then,  it was hard to find gainful employment with a humanities (Western Civilization) degree.

But, in retrospect, things were easier three decades ago.  I moved from California to Idaho and soon found work at a local bookstore. My top salary there was $4.65/hour, which allowed me to pay my rent ($160/month including utilities for a one-bedroom apartment), buy food from the local food co-op, buy clothes and shoes, and go to movies and eat out occasionally.

I had no health insurance so, of course, I was one accident or serious illness away from debt. Still, I was able to go to the doctor for check-ups on my meager salary. The cost of my last doctor's visit in Coeur d'Alene, at a specialist's office, was $20—my insurance co-pay is more than that now.

Most importantly, I graduated from UC-Santa Cruz virtually debt-free. At that time, there was no tuition charge for state residents, only a quarterly fee of $300. My rent—in houses ranging from shabby beach cottages to elegant Victorians downtown—was never more than $160/month. My total debt after I graduated was around $1,500.

Now UC-Santa Cruz costs $26,000/year for room and board—just tuition and fees is around $13K. The average rent in Santa Cruz is around $800 for a studio apartment and $2,500 for a three-bedroom house. There used to be students living in makeshift tree houses and teepees in the woods—I imagine the woods are getting pretty crowded now.

And local bookstores are virtually gone, as are all the other former fall-backs for the well-read and over-educated—video stores, comic book stores,  etc. But even if they were around, and still paying a buck or two above minimum wage, I can't imagine how a graduate would be able to work there and live independently while paying off thousands and thousands of dollars of student loan debt.

Perhaps it is cruel to allow students of small means to continue to graduate with English and other types of humanities degrees, especially to take on massive debt in doing so. It was short-sighted when I graduated with no marketable skills—but the world was more welcoming then. I could make and live on a small salary without the despair of being indebted and stuck in my indebtedness. I went on to graduate school specifically to get a better paying job.

But I also don't want to imagine a world where only the rich can study literature and brilliant students with limited incomes must go directly to fast food or retail or whatever jobs will still be left in this country for non-math majors (or skilled laborers) in the near future.

I'm not sure that drumming and singing on the sidewalk is really helping. Yet, at least, it is giving voice to the discontent that has been welling up for years—a frustration that could, still, turn to rage.

Photo above: Lake Coeur d'Alene, circa 1984. Back then, the lake was just a few blocks from my cheap digs. Now houses along the lake go for more than a million bucks—so this is no longer an easy visage for the poor.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

NaNoWriMo or NaNoWriNo?

A friend asked recently if I intended to do NaNoWriMo this year. I said I wasn't sure. Since that time,  my potential answer has swung daily between "How could I?" to "How could I not?". That's because I'm in the midst of revising the middle-grade novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo last November.

Without the pressure to write a novel in a month, I probably wouldn't have written this particular novel—so I'm thankful to NaNoWriMo for that. But writing that fast, without any time for revision or reflection along the way, also means that some of the resulting text is extraneous, to put it politely.

I had to try to meet my 1,800 word goal every day, so I often wrote about whatever popped into my head. New characters would appear and speak their minds, whether they needed to be in this particular book or not. One description (not five or six) about how much my heroine loved to read would have been sufficient.

The hard part now is figuring out what is worth keeping. I've realized that good prose doesn't necessarily mean good fiction—hence, many well-written sentences need to be deleted. I've spent as much time now hacking through my second draft as I did writing that first draft last year.

If I attempt NaNoWriMo again, I've decided the best option will be to try to write interconnecting-stories-as-a-novel. That way, I can choose the best stories to keep, hacking away without the worry of any visible scar tissue between chapters or even paragraphs.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Despite my earlier disdain for Twitter, I have begun to tweet a few times a week. It has helped ease my withdrawal from Facebook. And, unlike other social networking sites, it's surprisingly easy to do from my non-smart cell phone. But the real reason I like Twitter is: subject headings.

(Once upon a time, my dream job was to be a subject cataloger at the Library of Congress. It was a vision of putting the universe in order, one subject heading at a time. Alas, it was dashed when I actually took a cataloging class. Cataloging is a precise art, particularly the assignment of call numbers. The Dewey Decimal system drove me up the wall with its long strings of numbers. One number off in a class assignment meant that it was all worth zero points, even with perfect subject headings.)

But I still like labeling things. Hence, my new-found (and probably temporary) love of Twitter. The hashtags (#) mark the searchable phrase—the creative part is in coming up with new phrases. I've been thrilled to discover that I'm the first to type in: #5wordTVreviews (based on an earlier blog post). I'm planning to also start #literarymaps, to mark any new ones I find. The possibilities of new, searchable phrases appear to be endless—though, the downside is that no one will know to look for them if they're not already well-used (and that most Twitter users are not looking for insights from the middle-aged anyway).

So, for whatever it is worth,  I add my voice to the narcissistic hum, in as few characters as possible.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Four days into my Facebook fast

I vowed on my Facebook page (where else?) four days ago that I was taking a break from Facebook. But I have found it difficult to entirely avoid it because: people use to to email me; I get invites to local events sometimes; and not wishing a friend "happy birthday" seems rude when their birth date is noted there.

Then there is the difficulty of communicating to/with live broadcasts.  The Kojo Nnamdi radio show did an interesting story on the survival of newspapers yesterday (Rebuilding the Newspaper Pay Wall) and I wanted to share my thoughts with the guests about the Washington Post. I emailed the show, but realized it wouldn't be read immediately, so  I surrendered and went to its Facebook page to post a comment.

Still, I haven't written a status update since that vow I made Sunday. But I'm itchy to answer Facebook's "What's on your mind?" as soon as I think of something wry or descriptive. It's become a habit or even an addiction, describing my life by the moment, in the moment. Equally addictive, the need to know what other people are doing and observing on any given day. But I've mostly let the "News" stream/ticker go by unread, accumulating.

So what am I doing with the extra time I have now? I'd like to boast that I am writing more (I am), but I might as well also confess that I've begun to tweet.

Monday, September 26, 2011

"I want real people!"

When my son was a toddler, he didn't want to sleep in his own room. While the family bed concept might work for some people, I needed my sleep and found that hard to achieve with three bodies in a double bed, especially with a child as intellectually energetic as he was. He could easily stay up to midnight with only a one-hour mid-day nap at preschool. So we would tell him, "Go to bed, you've got Mr. Bear and all your stuffed animals with you."

"I want real people!" he would shout back.

(Eventually, we fashioned a solution for him. Whenever he was lonely, he could come and get into the sleeping bag we left for him beside our bed. With just a rug beneath it, it proved less comfortable than his own bed and he would return to it after an hour or so. Soon, he stopped coming to it all.)

The other day, in the midst of writing all day by myself, I took a break and opened up my Facebook page. It was the day that Facebook launched its new everyone-everywhere-has-something-to-say format. I couldn't pick out anything interesting or important from the chaotic stream, so I closed it quickly. But I still had a need to communicate and let someone know I was alive.

"I want real people!" I said to the empty house.

I know that such quiet is necessary to write (and to do my other, editing work), but my days have a lot of quiet to them. For me, too often, Facebook and a full Inbox have become substitutes for real encounters. And by opening them as much as I, often necessarily, do, I am keeping myself from the potential for such encounters.

The new Facebook format that I loathe has given me an excuse to wean myself from electronic forums. Unfortunately, at least right now, there is nothing to fill the void I thought I was filling with them.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Necessary and unnecessary gestures

I am finally revising my YA novel, moving from first draft to a sort-of second draft. This is where I am rewriting my too-much-telling-not-showing first chapter; cutting unnecessary adverbs; and starting to add "texture" and "layers."

One of my attempts at texture is to add gestures to my characters. I figure when they're talking to one another, the reader should be able to know what they look like in that moment—otherwise, they're just mannequins with dialog coming out of their mouths. But this is so much harder than I had imagined it would be. In rereading what I've written/recently rewritten, I've found at least two characters who tap their feet when they talk. Yikes!

So I tried to think about recognizable fictional characters and what their signature gestures might be and all I could come up with is Harry Potter rubbing his scar. Surely other characters in Harry Potter had recognizable and repeated physical gestures, but I can't think of any. Maybe the gestures become so much a part of their whole physical portrait that nothing particular can be pulled out. I can envision Ron slumping around and Hermione intently studying, but if they tapped their feet or rubbed their faces, I don't remember it.

The problem with Harry Potter is that the characters in my mind are often replaced with the actors who played them in the movie, e.g., Dolores Umbrage is now Imelda Staunton cruelly strutting around in her pink suit, wand ready to inflict pain.

Perhaps I should try to imagine actors playing my novel characters to see what gestures and other stylish flourishes they might take on.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

More literary maps (paper and computer-based)

Illustration of the voyage of the Pequod, from Moby Dick, one of a series of 12 literary maps produced as a calendar by the Harris-Seybold Co. in the 1950s. From American Treasures of the Library of Congress.

Often in the past, I've needed visuals as an aid in fully understanding a story. When I took a class on Dante's Inferno in college, I kept finding myself lost in the circles of hell until I drew them all out on a long scroll of paper. I glanced at it under my desk during class. In the years since, I've yearned for a laminated, fold-up Streetwise-like map to accompany books I was reading—not just for Dante's Inferno, but also for Huckleberry Finn's Mississippi, etc.

Of course, fantasy novels often have accompanying maps on the inside pages.  (The Map Room: A Weblog About Maps has a great round-up of maps for Imaginary Places, including both books and movies).

After I wrote my post on creating a geographic map for Alice Munro, I googled around for examples of other Internet-based "literary maps." Here's what I found:

• Google Lit Trips - developed "as part of the Google Certified Teachers program," it offers free downloadable files "that mark the journeys of characters from famous literature." One problem I have with it is that you have to download a separate file for each book and you have to use the Google Earth application to run it.  Another problem is that, compared to a map put up on Google Maps, the files are relatively static. They're files versus something more akin to a fluid web page.

Wikimapia - According to Wikipedia, this is a "privately owned, online map and satellite imaging resource that combines Google Maps with a wiki system, allowing users to add information, in the form of a note, to any location on Earth." There are some literary places marked, but they're noted individually. For example, search for "F. Scott Fitzgerald" and you'll get a map that marks his grave site.

The Atlas of Fiction - This site uses Google Maps to mark real locations mentioned in selected, singular fictional works. For example, the map for Jane Austen's Persuasion marks "The Cobb, Lyme" where "Anne meets the Harvilles and Captain Benwick; Louisa's accident." Also offers a World View, where major sites in fictional works are offered as a group.

• Finally, the New York Times produced a Literary Map of Manhattan in 2005, with quotes from the books noted at selected locations.

I'm sure there's more out there, but this is all I've had time to find this afternoon. Happy mapping!

A different kind of literary map: the USA Literary Map features a "total of 226 geographically connected authors." (Click on the link to see a larger image of it).

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Geography of Alice Munro (Literary mapping with Google Maps)

One of my goals this summer was to read Alice Munro's Selected Stories in sequential order, to get a better feel for her evolution as a writer.  Unfortunately, being an American, all the stories seemed to me to take place in that amorphous area called Canada—I imagined prairie-like towns with long winters and too-brief summers. Then I realized one day that perhaps I should look at an atlas to get a sense of how far her characters were traveling on trains, when they moved, etc.

Of course I was stunned at how far it is between Wingham, Ontario, town of her birth, and Vancouver, BC, where she moved with her first husband—a distance of some 2,500 miles*—and how different the terrain is between the two places. Also surprising—how close to the U.S. border many of these towns are. The book, Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives, was an excellent source for charting the real places in Munro's life, as well as cluing me in that Wingham is probably the town she fictionalized in many of her stories.

I wanted to dig a little deeper, to see what the streets, lakes, and mountains might have looked like to her characters, so I looked around to see if anyone else had created a visual representation of these places. Since I didn't find it, I created a quick Google Map marking some of the major sites in her life and fiction:

(Please realize that this is a work in progress).

You can click on most places and zoom in until you can get a street with all the businesses marked on it. If you're able to put the little golden man on the spot, he can show you geographic features, buildings, even people walking on the street. For example, if you click on Munro's Books, you can put the little Google man there on the street to find charming, European-style buildings, with mountains in the distance.

If there are other, literary, publicly available Google Maps available, I'd like to find them and will eventually list them here. I imagine, like everything else Internet, I am not the first to try do this. Soon, I imagine, nonfiction authors might create a public Google Map to use alongside a modern history or biography.

* I know this because I used the Google Map "Get directions" feature.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Bertie Wooster plays the blues

I gave my hubby the complete PBS "Jeeves and Wooster" series on DVD for our anniversary earlier this month. We just watched the episode where Bertie (Hugh Laurie) plays "Forty-Seven Ginger-Headed Sailors" (excerpt above).

Then, only a day later, Laurie appeared on the "Today" show playing a song from his new blues album. (I couldn't link to it directly, so enjoy the YouTube video that Blogger only allowed me to link to):

I have nothing significant to add here—I just liked the contrast between the young and old man, the simpleton and the serious blues musician. And I'd like to express my admiration for Laurie's ability to reinvent himself in a different country, with a different accent and different dramatic intent. (Still, I have to admit, I really miss Bertie Wooster).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The dream of dictation, slightly dashed

For a long time, I've had the fantasy that I can find software that will allow me to take long walks and write at the same time—a program that will convert my speech into typed words. It would be like having my own secretary/transcriber (or wife... see Tolstoy, et al.).

So I downloaded a popular dictation app for my iPod and tried it the other morning. The results are mixed (see below). While some phrases and even sentences are nearly intact (i.e., "as I write this I'm jogging with Wii fit"—true!), there is a lot of gobbledygook (i.e., I'm sure I've never spoken the word "equestrian" out loud). One big problem was the lack of punctuation. Perhaps another use for this might be to create inner dialog for mentally ill characters:

wondering if I should write something about who wants to be a man they're equestrian with the Manale for Steve's angle and also the fact that I'm doing it everyday of the Lycan I got for now as I write this I'm jogging with Wii fit actually I not writing or typing I'm dictating to something and my iPod you'll see the results after I e-mail it to myself and put it up here so the question is is it possible to ride and walk or exercise at the same time and end up with a readable text. I'm not sure it is but it sure would be great if I could walk in right same time I'd like to try to write dialogs or to speak dialogs without typing get this evening sounds like him and everything will be in my own southern accent elk characters perhaps we'll something

I later realized that I might create punctuation by simply saying "period" and "comma," etc. This worked, but it's a little awkward (and a lot like that famous Victor Borge routine). I read out loud a paragraph I'd written by hand:

Earthlings are strange Megan G-alt. Perquimans in to take a lot of time with her hair. She talked about hair and her earth here have her hair may Chun. Men seem to think about Paul's throwing and kicking and hitting. The women through their hair up and divided and shaped and Minka for sure. Women had around breasts and then didn't, the sept the fact ones. Lemon tart around in high heels and then more comfortable shoes with socks, get both expected to walk next to one another as equals,

I know that "G-alt" is actually supposed to be "thought" since that's what I had written down. But if I had taken a walk and talked out a story, I'm not sure what I would end up with if it was the only copy of it that existed later. Of course, I could use this method to come up with a surprising phrases, e.g., "Lemon tart around in high heels" might be a line in a surrealistic poem (it was actually dictated as "Women walk around in high heels").

So my dream of cheap/free dictation is slightly dashed, for now, but I'll probably use this app when I do a phone interview for work, hoping it might cut down even a slight bit on all the transcription I usually do afterwards.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Nostalgic for the dark

We went without power for a total of five days after Hurricane Irene. It wasn't a totally bad experience. In fact, the first couple of days after the power came back on, I felt nostalgic for the dark.

Around 7 p.m., it would start to get dark inside the house and we would light candles at the dining room table, eating dinner and playing board games.  Later, we each read by flashlight or lantern, cozy in chairs or our own beds. All was quiet save for the loud hum of neighbors' generators and the song of cicadas, heard through our open windows.

I would have been glad for another few days of it—it felt romantic to read by candlelight, even to boil water for morning tea on the camp stove outside. And I could have withstood even the increasingly cold and quick showers. It was almost like camping, taking us from our normal electronic realities. Even better, I read a short story every night without worry that there was something else I needed to do because there was nothing else I could do.

But while we read and talked, our freezer was slowly defrosting its contents. The 7-lb. bags of ice from 7-11, replenished each day, did little to stop the sickening descent of frozen food warming to room temperature. After the power came back on, I spent half a day wiping out the refrigerator and the freezer and throwing out two big garbage bags of food. 

With electricity there was suddenly laundry to do, email to be answered, bread to be baked, gadgets to be charged. I haven't managed to sit down and completely read a short story in one sitting since then.

Of course, the next time we lose power (we seem to lose it at least twice a year), it may be 20 degrees outside. This bit of nostalgia was possible only because we had beautiful weather and easy access to restaurants/food. Still, I wonder how I might recapture that lovely, justified feeling that no matter what I was doing then, it was all that I could and should be doing.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The continuing joy of paper

Hurricane Irene passed through this weekend, hurling branches against our house all night into early morning. Acorns rolled madly across the roof and deck. In the morning, the yard was a chaos of oak leaves. And we were without power.

No power means no Internet for us since it comes via FIOS (fiber optic lines). But, out on our driveway to greet us the next morning was our Sunday Washington Post. God knows what conditions our newspaper delivery man had driven through--we later found out that there were two big oaks down across our road. We sat down to cold, milkless cereal and read the Post in the dim quiet of our house.

What a miracle that throughout the storm, the Post's writers and production staff had continued to labor and were able to get it out to the suburbs in a few hours. Without that paper on the table in front of me, I would have had no local news, save for what we could catch on my portable radio, between endless ads.

The next day, I tried to make calls on my cell phone to see what was open. But I had thrown away the phone book when it had arrived a few weeks ago, thinking I could look everything up on the Internet. Fortunately, I had written the number for the county library reference line on my paper Rolodex and called it for the number of the public library (wanting to check on whether it had power or not)--where I sit now, on a borrowed terminal, writing this post.

Last night I read an Alice Munro short story ("Dulse") by lantern light. If I'd had it on a Kindle only, it might not be accessible anymore, the power given out.

I could live this way for awhile, I think--we have books and flashlights and (cold) water (I have taken one-half of a cold shower so far, the hot giving out before the end). There is a sense of contentment and calm, save for the sound of the dripping freezer, letting go of its frigid interior and all the good food therein.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Publisher Profile: Sy Safransky

The following interview was 23 years in the making.

In 1988, while taking a graduate-level journalism course at UNC-Chapel Hill, I interviewed three local small press publishers for (what turned out to be) a never-published story—one of them was Sy Safransky, publisher of The Sun. In retrospect, I’m surprised and honored that Safransky took the time to speak with me, given the fact that he was, at that time, putting in more than 60 hours a week at The Sun’s offices, doing everything from answering the phone, reading the mail, and talking with and giving advice to writers, and I was without press credentials and assured publication.

In case you don’t already know, The Sun is a monthly, ad-free magazine that publishes “thoughtful and authentic” interviews, stories and essays. It publishes some of the best literary work in the country; several of its pieces have been chosen for the Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories collections and the magazine has won the Pushcart Prize. It began life as a self-published magazine that Safransky sold out of his backpack on the streets of Chapel Hill. When I began reading it in the late 1970s, it still had a funky, homegrown feeling (it used line drawings by local artists and stock clip art). Today The Sun reaches more than 70,000 subscribers and is printed on glossy paper, with beautiful black and white photos featured in each issue.

Back in 1988, The Sun had two full-time staff members with additional volunteers helping to get it out. Today it has 13 full-time and seven part-time staff members. It has moved from the small, sun-yellow house on Rosemary Street, where the initial interview took place, to a house around the corner that a staff member in an email said is still “quiet and homey… with creaky hardwood floors, warm colors, photos, and old magazine covers adorning the walls” but which has enough room to accommodate its larger staff.

Note: Unlike other interviews that have appeared on this blog, this is not in a straight Q and A format since the original interview notes are gone, converted to newspaper-style write-up. Instead, it’s a hybrid of (excerpts from) the original write up and years-later follow-up questions.

[May 1988]

The Chapel Hill-based The Sun is so much a part of Sy Safransky's life that it is sometimes hard to separate the man from the magazine.

"I print what seems important to me, what moves me, what honors the human heart,” he said in interview at the magazine office. Safransky, a tall and lanky man, sat crosswise in his chair, speaking in thoughtful sentences, pausing to stroke his beard.

Safransky said he is more concerned about the honesty and feeling a writer is able to convey in a ·piece than he is about writing technique. In the past, that kind of heartfelt sincerity often was expressed in reference to spirituality and mysticism. Safransky said that the magazine is moving away from the self-conscious spirituality that used to characterize it.

"I believe that the less you announce yourself along those lines, the more effective or persuasive you're able to be," he said.

For him, the magazine doesn't fit any particular genre. It is always evolving, always open to new ideas and possibilities, he said. Its identity is made up of its writers and its readers, its time and its place in the culture, he said. Many readers write in to share their opinions on a prescribed topic, such as "Obstacles to Peace" or "Taking Risks."

Safransky was drawn to the idea of publishing his own magazine because he thought that it would allow him the freedom of expression he had missed while working as a journalist for a Long Island newspaper for three years after graduating from Columbia University with an M.S. in Journalism. Quoting Ben Bagdikian, he said drolly, “Trying to be a good writer on the average newspaper is like playing Bach on the ukulele.” Writing for The Sun allows him the time to be the kind of writer and editor he always wanted to be, he said.

"There's nothing I'd rather be doing," he said. "I feel tremendously blessed. I am always challenged and always rewarded."

[Interview by email-May 2011]

When I interviewed you in 1988, you had 5,000 subscribers; you now have 70,000. To what do you attribute the growth? Do you think going ad-free helped?

The magazine’s growth was due largely to our direct mail campaigns. Thanks to a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, we were able to market the magazine nationally by sending out brochures to potential subscribers. We continue to do this today, always aiming to be conscientious with the mailings by using recycled paper and keeping the materials to a minimum.

The readership has also grown by word of mouth. Many Sun readers are fiercely loyal to the magazine; they share the magazine with friends and family and colleagues, who become readers themselves.

The Sun discontinued carrying ads around the time our readership reached 10,000. This was when we could have raised advertising rates and really started profiting from the revenue. But the possibility of publishing a reader-supported magazine with absolutely no advertising was far more intriguing to me. After all, ads interrupt the emotional current of the magazine and clamor for the reader’s attention, distracting from the heart of the writing. Dropping advertising allowed for an uncommon atmosphere of intimacy in our pages. I think that also helped The Sun’s subscription base grow.

You also said in the prior interview that the magazine was moving away from the “self-conscious spirituality that used to characterize it.” Would you say this has happened and, if so, do you think it has attributed to the growth in readership?

Yes, the magazine has gotten away from the kind of self-conscious spiritual writing that wears God on its sleeve. But we still run philosophical and metaphysical work that’s thoughtful, well tempered, and emotionally evocative, and occasional interviews with spiritual teachers and thinkers. In fact, we now have a section called the “Dog-Eared Page,” which consists of a short but uplifting excerpt from a classic work of literature. Often this section will feature one to two pages of writing that is overtly spiritual – by teachers and preachers and spiritual luminaries – but it’s just as likely to feature a literary excerpt. Our Sunbeams page – the last page of the magazine, featuring quotes arranged on a particular theme – often includes quotes of a transcendent nature. So while the overt spirituality has been toned down, the deeper intention is the same: to honor the mystery at the heart of existence.

I’m not sure how this has affected our readership. We very rarely hear complaints about the content being “too spiritual” or “not spiritual enough,” and the Dog-Eared Page and Sunbeams pages are usually well received.

How do you know when a submission is right for The Sun? Is there anything particular that you expect from a writer/submission, or do you like to be surprised?

I’m drawn to writing about love and loss and betrayal and compassion, writing that honors our fundamental connectedness. I like writers who are brave enough to be honest and vulnerable. A unique, accessible, engaging writing voice can also be important. If a manuscript stays with me long after I’ve read it, that’s a good sign. But I don’t have a list of qualifications or some rubric that I expect writers to stick to. I do like to be surprised.

Is there a common trait that characterizes the pieces that run in The Sun now? Would you say you’re still looking for writing that “honors the human heart”?

Yes, I’m still looking for such writing. Most pieces in the magazine read like a meaningful, heartfelt conversation with an old friend.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

A mostly lazy, lollygagging summer

My daughter wanted a mostly camp-free summer and I have granted her that wish—one week of art camp (which she requested) will be her only camp this year. This means that I am the default activities director for what has become our two-person camp.

I can grant her that wish because I work from home as a part-time editor. I know most parents can’t afford this luxury of time and must put their kids in a long string of camps to cover their time at work. But I’ve observed kids getting camp fatigue after a few weeks of it, begging and whining busy, stressed parents to give them some kind of reprieve, and the parents left to cajole or threaten them into going back.

I tell myself that kids need time to lollygag around and find ways to entertain themselves, that over-structured activity time suppresses creativity, and that sometimes it’s best to focus on one thing at a time. But I’m not sure that I’m really good at this—or that a real camp director couldn’t do a better job.

In an effort to help her earn the Junior Girl Scout Sew Simple badge, we spent nearly a full day cutting out and sewing a Butterick “See and Sew” dress pattern—which I soon renamed “Scream and Sew” after ripping out many wrong seams. I’m sure a crafts teacher at a real camp would have shown more patience, would have made it a more fun activity (since she would have hopefully known what she was doing).

And our little camp comes at a price. I have mostly quit writing; any free time has been spent on paid editing work. I find myself sometimes secretly counting the days until summer’s end.

Then I remember how wearying and over-scheduled the school year was last year. And I see E-girl happily writing books and drawing in homemade sketchbooks, without any prompting on my part. She also reads books, makes videos, and hangs out at the pool (and, yes, she plays computer and video games when it's too hot to go outside). Earlier in the summer, before it got so hot, we gardened together in the mornings and managed to re-landscape the side yard.

I’m not sure we’ll do this again. Next year, I’m already eyeing away camps and more structured activities. But this year, we have this temporary luxury of time and, sometimes, it seems like we aren't entirely wasting it.

(Photograph Copyright 2011, Beth Blevins)

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The electronic rewriting of history, email by email, page by page

Earlier this summer I visited my hometown of Moravian Falls, N.C., and discovered it has become a point of pilgrimage—some newcomer ministers are proclaiming its falls is a portal to heaven.

The obvious image here is of people eager to slide down the falls to their deaths, but what they are saying is that you can talk to angels if you hang around there.

Yes, the falls where teenagers once swam in the muddy lake it fed, the falls where my great-grandfather ran a grain mill, is now suddenly an angelic chat room. The idea is being promoted via  web sites and YouTube videos as well as some local pulpits.

OK, whatever, maybe this will bring some much-needed tourist dollars to the area. But the same fellow who told me the falls is a heavenly portal also told me that there is a prayer rock in the nearby Brushy Mountains where the Moravians who founded the town prayed 24-hours-a-day for 100 years.

I'd never heard this before even though some part of my family has lived in the area since at least the late 1800s. I'd always heard that the Moravians were there only a few years before giving up and moving to what is now Winston-Salem. So, when I got home, I googled "Moravians and prayer rock" and found new web pages mentioning this as fact—a history quickly being rewritten. Only when I went into Google Books and looked at pages in an actual history book (the only one I could access online) did I see references to the Moravians' short stay in the town.

The book was the authoritative source—well researched, edited, verified. But I had to dig to find it and if I wanted more on the topic, I would have had to make a trip to a North Carolina history collection. When it comes to research these days, how many people would make the trip, or any kind of effort to consult a book? Most would just go to Wikipedia, or use whatever first pops up in a Google search.

There is a danger that whatever is most accessible will become the truth, repeated and repeated until it becomes a fact, or even part of the historic record. Crazy email rumors can be checked on (although, obviously, a lot of people don't bother to verify them, given the multiple layers of email addresses in some of the emails I've received lately). Put something on a web page and it seems even more valid or authoritative, perhaps because it is more static, more "there."

My son told me a while ago that it's a game among quiz bowlers to go into Wikipedia and create false citations, sometimes even false histories, to see if anyone notices. So far, almost no one has.

(The photo above is of a painting, done by my great aunt Maxie Pardue many years ago, of the Moravian falls, where her family lived when she was young. Any appearance of angelic halo or aura is caused by my camera's flash.)

Monday, July 11, 2011

Where The Wire was

The Onion's AV Club is posting a two-part series on locations in Baltimore used in The Wire. Given my reluctance to visit Baltimore (post-Wire), I'm not sure I'll be making this particular pilgrimage.

If the video doesn't show up above, go to: Baltimore: The Wire locations, part one

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Just saying ‘No’

A couple of years ago I read an article about Karen Zacarías, a local playwright and mother of three, who confessed that she was only able to write (and be a good mom) because she had quit being a volunteer. The article struck a chord with me because I was at the start of my tenure as a high school PTSA vice president. Much of my free time was being spent in meetings, running events, and creating web site content—all adding up to more than 300 unpaid hours in 12 months.

[Maybe you’re wondering how it’s possible a school organization could suck up so much time. It's mostly because, in my experience, there are few parents left who will volunteer for high school PTAs. Their cute elementary students have become sullen teenagers, or they're burned out from past volunteering, or they don't feel as connected to a big school. The result was that, in a high school of 2,000 students, and potentially 4,000 parents, there were maybe seven or eight people who ran the PTSA and did most of its committee work.]

It took me a good part of this school year to catch up on all the things I had put aside the year before. I found unanswered correspondence, piles of papers that hadn’t gotten filed, even sheets that hadn’t gotten washed for a year, hidden away in the laundry bin. And I erased more than 1,000 email messages I had written as a PTSA VP.

This year I set out to just say ‘No’ if anyone asked me to help out. And, other than managing to do a few things for E-girl’s GS troop and serving as a room parent and occasional volunteer at her school, I’ve mostly accomplished this. But it wasn't without some degree of guilt. The year before, when I went to PTSA meetings I'd rather have skipped or worked to near-exhaustion, it was because I knew that if I didn't do it, one of the other seven or eight people would have had to shoulder even more work; the naysayer I am now would have pissed us all off.

There’s something callous and selfish about not offering help when it is needed and yet, if I said yes every time someone has asked me to volunteer in recent months, I wouldn’t have been able to write a novel last fall. As it is now, too often I feel like I am feeding the creative person inside me crumbs of time. When 20 minutes is all you feel you can guiltlessly spare in a day (or week), you get a blog post, not an essay or story. Perhaps if I can see my need for self expression as another child that needs to be nurtured, I can ease the guilt a little.

Postscript: In preparation for this, I googled "women writers volunteers" and mostly got articles about female writers serving as mentors to younger writers. But this blog post from Feministe popped up, which I thought was apt: Over-booked moms opt out of volunteering.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Too many TV shows with predictable outcomes

My spouse was watching a movie a few weeks ago (on the small TV in the kitchen that we use when washing the dishes), in which a group of teenagers were riding a school bus on their way to an non-school event. I could hear them making mindless chatter from another room of the house. I wondered why he was watching such a silly movie until I walked in the room and saw the Syfy logo in the bottom right corner.

"Oh, they're going to be attacked by aliens," I said. "Or ghosts. Or the hotel bathroom is a portal to another dimension. Or all of that."

If it had been Chiller I assumed the blonds/cheerleaders among them would be murdered by the end of the movie, probably by a backwoods miscreant. If it had been Lifetime, one of the girls would be pregnant and determined to raise the baby on her own. If it was CBS (other than on one of the nights it shows silly sitcoms), one of the boys would murder one of the girls or one of the girls would murder another girl and the bulk of the show would be about the murder investigation, with gruesome details. On Style, they'd be going for a group, pre-wedding makeover.

There used to be a time when you could be surprised by the outcome of a movie on TV, when labels/logos weren't stamped on every screen. TV has become so predictable and so segregated now. I have access to hundreds of cable shows now and yet I rarely watch TV (unless I am washing the dishes)—none of it really appeals to me anymore, perhaps because I am rarely surprised or excited by anything there.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

There are some deaths that obit writers must look forward to...

"As a writer, director and producer, Leonard Stern was a legendary (noun) in show business. He had an (adjective) career that took him to (geographic place) with (celebrity name). Fond of (article of clothing), standing (a number) feet tall with a gray (body part), he (verb) more than a share of (noun), including (liquid)."

[from the obituary,  Leonard Stern, TV writer and producer who co-created Mad Libs, dies at 88, in today's Washington Post]

Friday, June 3, 2011

The writer plants a garden

I haven't written much in the last couple of weeks because I've been spending all my free time trying to create a garden (or a few reasonable facsimiles of such).

It's been so hot here lately that I race against the impending sun, working steadily from 8:00 until about 11:00 am—and then the sun rushes out of the shadows. Immersed in the heat and humidity (we've had several 100 degree or near-100 degree days), I retreat to the house, busy with necessary work.

Yet the sun is coy—it hides behind tall oaks in the neighbor's yard at key times throughout the day, depriving edible plants of sufficient light to thrive and grow in open spots. So I tore out part of my backyard where the sun lingers longer than anywhere else and put in a tiny garden —and doubled up use of that space by hanging homemade upside-down planters above it (see above—no it doesn't look that pretty). Elsewhere, I've put in shade-loving plants, nurturing them with composted manure, mulch and water.

The urge to do this is greater than the urge to sit at a keyboard right now. I know that July is coming, too late for most planting (though it's already too late to plant most things—any new plant in the ground requires a pledge of sufficient watering).

I suppose I could say at this point how gardening is like writing, in that, you weed out the unnecessary, you focus on one project at a time, you nurture what you've written/planted. Maybe how you garden is comparable to how you write. I hate to weed—specifically, I hate to take out seedlings even in a crowded pot, a Sophie's Choice decision for which plants get to survive. So, sometimes, my plants choke together, all surviving but none thriving exactly, until I finally snip off seedlings to eat or, worse, transplant a select few with a teaspoon, urging them into new ground. I simply cannot tear out a seedling and throw it away.

I've got lots of words in notebooks everywhere. Some have been transplanted and have grown to full size, but most are crowded together, static and puny. They'll have to stay that way for a while longer, I've got thyme to transplant and a blueberry bush to put in.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Writer Profile: Pam Smallcomb

I met Pam Smallcomb at a SCBWI-sponsored ABC (Author Book Club) event in March and liked her good humor and practical advice so much, I asked her for an interview.

Pam is the author of several middle-grade novels including The Trimoni Twins series. She has recently begun writing picture books—I’m Not was published in January of this year and Earth to Clunk was published this month. Pam was an art major in college who later became a computer programmer (after growing weary of being a starving artist). Later, while raising her children and reading to them at night, her love of children’s books was reawakened. For more on Pam, see her web site.

Why did you decide to write children’s books? Was there an a-ha moment for you or did it come as a slower realization of something you could and wanted to do?

Actually, my initial interest in children’s books came from my art background. I thought I wanted to illustrate children’s books; hopefully my own children’s books. However, over time, the words took simply over, and the illustrating desire fell by the wayside. I love art, and it is big part of my life, as big a part as writing, but for me, the two have not yet blended. So not so much an “a-ha” moment, as it was that I found the words calling my name more than the pictures. For now.

What did you do to prepare? Did you take classes?

Although I took one children’s literature class in college, I think most of my preparation has been slanted toward what I could learn while I was at home with four small kids. I did take a picture book writing class with Deborah Nourse Lattimore through UCLA Extension. It was on Saturdays, and it was bliss. There was a Starbucks next door! Child-free for the morning AND I had coffee!. I have also attended writer workshops and retreats (through the SCBWI) when I could.

I spent a lot of my time reading. While my little ones grabbed their favorites at the library, I loaded up, too. I read books on writing. I read books written for kids, of all genres, but I was initially drawn to middle grade. Before I published my first book, I had read a ton of early readers and middle grade novels. I was also very lucky to have a group of friends that were interested in writing for kids. They were my first critique group.

How did you get the idea for the Trimoni Twins books? Do you think magic is a universal theme in children’s literature?

Yikes. Let me think. Some part of it had to be the triplets that attended my grade school in California. I was fascinated with them, and completely jealous that I didn’t have two identical sisters. For one thing, they never had to worry about who to play with at recess! As for the setting, I have always loved the artwork in old circus posters. I love those black and white photos of traveling circuses. Some part of me has romanticized that life. Later, in college, I actually knew a few magicians. One of them was very good at sleight of hand. I thought it would be fun if sisters that knew how to perform magic were also in possession of some actual magic as well.

I think magic appeals to kids because, for the most part, they are powerless in our world. Magic literally opens up portals. It throws them into adventures, and changes their surroundings. A little magic can make a kid the equal of an adult and then some. The concept of a real magical object appeals to us all. Who wouldn’t want to get their hands on one? I sure would. I think another aspect of magic that appeals to kids (and one that writers need to be careful to respect) is that magic always has rules. A magic spell can’t work one way one time, and then do something completely different the next time. Harry and Hermione know exactly which spells to use under the circumstances.

What have you done to market your books? Of the time you devote to being a writer, how much do you devote to marketing and publicity?

I have to confess that I am not very good about marketing my books. The truth is I would rather be writing than marketing. The majority of my time is spent on writing. I know this is not the popular (or even wise!) view, but there is only so much free time in life, and I would like to spend it creating, and not selling. Of course, the paradox is that if you don’t keep trying to sell your books, then editors might not be that excited to get another one from you, so I do try and get out there and do presentations. I have done SCBWI presentations, geared toward writers. I like talking to writers. I know some of what they are going through, and I like to share my own experiences and thoughts. I do give presentations to schools, although I really prefer to talk to one class at a time. I have more fun if I can ‘get to know’ the kids a little. I have also done book festivals, and presented to students at a local college. I think the trick is to not spend so much time doing all these events that you are no longer writing on a regular basis.

How did you find a publisher for your first book?

I heard that Bloomsbury US was looking for “humorous boy books.” At about the same time, my then-agent heard the same thing, and we decided to send in my manuscript for The Last Burp of Mac McGerp.

What’s a typical day of writing like for you? Do you keep to a schedule every day, or concentrate on writing only when you have a project already defined?

I try very hard to keep to a schedule, but as everyone knows, life sometimes has other plans. I know from experience that writing every day has many benefits. It is easier for me to look someone in the eye when they ask “What do you do?” and I answer “I’m a writer.” If I write every day, I make some progress, however small, toward my writing goal. If I write every day, I don’t lose the thread of my story. More importantly, I don’t lose the passion I have for my story.

I always have more than one project going, with one project taking center stage (being written) and the other one being in the planning/plotting phase. Or maybe I have a novel I am writing, and a picture book idea going at the same time. If something comes up, and I know I won’t be able to work on a project for a few days (or weeks!), I spend some time making notes about what I thought I was going to do next (in the plot, etc.).

Do you keep a writer’s notebook? If so, what do you jot in it?

I have a notebook that I call “The Brain.” I am hoping that this notebook will become an iPhone with all sorts of apps on it that I can use to stay organized. But for now, a spiral notebook is cheaper. The Brain is next to me most of the time, and I jot down all those things that keep you from concentrating. Things like “remember to set up dental appt.” I also write down ideas, or names for characters. Sometimes I write down a title, or a first sentence that pops into my head. It’s a real mish-mash of stuff. I also doodle in it while I am thinking about my story.

You’ve made the switch from writing middle-grade novels to picture books. Was that a difficult transition? What did you do to prepare for it (did use any brainstorming techniques)?

I think all writing is hard, so whether you are writing a picture book, or a novel, be prepared to sweat blood. Or maybe that’s just me. My preparation for writing a picture book was the same as I used to write middle grade. I read lots of picture books. I wrote lots of really bad picture books, and eventually I learned how to spot the bad ones earlier. I wish I could tell you that now I write really good ones all the time, but that hasn’t been the case, darn it.

I always use brainstorming techniques of one kind or another. I was just trying to think of a picture book idea the other day, and I found myself making lists of opposites. I looked up Romanian names. I looked up good luck charms. I think that I brainstorm in a fiddling fashion. I look up stuff, and make notes in The Brain. I sip my tea. I think about what I have written down. A new thought pops into my head and I look up something else. Hopefully, the seed of a story starts to form. It seems to be how I work, not just with picture books, but with novels, and with art, too. The idea is to tickle your imagination into connecting some of these things. Once you’ve connected them, then you can start moving the pieces around, and try and make them more surprising.

You’ve had two picture books come out recently—what are you working on next?

I’m working on a fictional memoir, and I am trying very hard to get one of my picture book manuscripts to behave. I am also plotting some chapter books that have been swirling around in my head for a while.

When/how did you realize that writing picture book text is a lot like writing ad copy (as you discussed at the SCWBI ABC event)?

My husband and I are one of those nerdy couples that loves a good commercial, or a print ad, or a clever viral YouTube. It was pretty easy to draw a parallel between the goals of a good advertisement, and the goals of a good picture book. You are trying to tell a story in a very short format. You want to grab the attention of the reader right away. You are trying to be original, and say something that has been said a million times before in a new and fresh way.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Molly Bloom sings

As I confessed in a post a while ago, I've never made it entirely through James Joyce's Ulysses. After a few futile attempts to get past the first section, I gave up—but that didn't stop me from reading Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy at the end, a passage that has become a cultural reference (Molly Bloom is the name of at least one bar and one band, and the speech has been widely quoted/recited, including in a Rodney Dangerfield movie).

An NPR segment last week on Kate Bush has me delving back into Ulysses-world, or really, Molly/Kate-world. Bush recorded a song in the late eighties, "The Sensual World" that paraphrased the famous passage (the Joyce estate wouldn't give her permission to do the text verbatim). She has now re-recorded it on her new album, Director's Cut as "Flower of the Mountain" with the original text intact.

I found Bush's video for the original version online and keep listening to/watching it over and over (see below). I can't say why I find it so appealing—it's not got a beat that I can dance to and, even after repeated listening, I still can't sing along with it. Maybe what's gratifying is seeing her attempt at making a literary passage come to life; it's also nice to see a female singer who isn't groveling for approval, but making a video that is a kind of performance art.

To hear the new version, see the NPR segment's track list. (It's not available for purchase until May 31st).

Monday, May 9, 2011

Rediscovering the charm in "Charm City"

As I confessed in an earlier post, I am slightly terrified of Baltimore, based on its fictional portrayal in David Simon's TV shows. Yet I know its reality is far broader and more welcoming than that narrow, menace-filled vision.

So it was with gladness and relief that I attended the American Visionary Art Museum's Kinetic Sculpture Race on Saturday. There I saw families and friends working together to pedal and push giant creations across the city of Baltimore and into its harbor (on a short circuit to prove the seaworthiness of their crafts). Racers were dressed in wacky costumes, matching their sculptures, such as the Amish racers wearing suspenders and fake beards, pedaling their float-able buggy away from the water (below).

Six people dressed in lab coats, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, piloted the Lobe Trotter (below).

And the museum brought out its Fifi le Poodle—a sculpture on permanent display in one of the museum's annexes—to race again.

Many in the crowd dressed with the same panache. There were men and women in tutus, glitter pants, colorful wigs, and wacky hats. There were more normal types, too, parents and kids, couples, groups of friends.

Even as we walked around Canton, the nearby neighborhood, there wasn't a Stringer Bell or Marlo in sight. Just people walking, sitting on park benches, drinking beer, eating Italian pastries. It was all so normal—and beautiful in its normalcy. It made me realize that any fictional description of a place or time is always going to be limited, no matter how many characters or scenes its features.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Invisible words, written in the ether

My iBook has been in the throes of death for years. First, keys became stuck until their covers were discarded (thankfully, I rarely use "~"). Then Internet pages stopped loading. Finally the screen started to flash and sputter if not set at an exact 40 degree angle.

So I began to eye other Apple laptops on eBay; after a few mornings of watching bids flash by, I grew weary of the whole exercise and, on impulse, probably paid too much for an old MacBook Pro.

Although the MacBook loads Internet pages and offers an unblinking screen,  I have yet to fully adopt it. Four weeks after its purchase, all my writing from the last five years still resides in my iBook.  The writing is already backed up on flash drives and external hard disks, so I know that it can be somewhere else, but I can't bring myself to take it out and transfer it completely to another machine.

Getting rid of one machine for another always feels like a little death to me. I get a sweep of nostalgia when we've had to move to a newer, better computer. But there's something else going on here, I  finally realized. To transfer all my words in one motion through the ether somehow acknowledges that they aren't real, that they are invisible, fragile. It feels like I am ripping them from their home, the place of their birth.

I wonder if other writers feel this way? Maybe it's because I first started to write on typewriters and the words could only exist there, unquestionably tangible. Words written on a computer are more of a verb than a noun, an action frozen. They are written, typed, saved. Even when completed, they still remain more an idea than a thing. Writers who have always written on computers perhaps don't feel this need for a specific home for their words.

(The photo above reveals the one thing I've done on my MacBook--play with its Photobooth feature. Self-portrait, March 2011)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Two recent electronic pieces on The Great Gatsby

 Like everyone else my age, I read The Great Gatsby in high school and thought, at the time, that it was OK. It took many years, and much more reading on my part, to realize how brilliant it is. (Maybe it's hard to appreciate genius until you've otherwise read a lot of crap—and it's hard to love a book you're required to read.)

A Studio 360 podcast I listened to a few weeks ago (originally broadcast last November) perked up my interest in Gatsby again:  American Icons: The Great Gatsby. An hour well spent.

This morning, CBS Sunday Morning did a segment, The end of an era for the "Gatsby house", about the demolition this weekend of the house on Long Island that inspired Fitzgerald's story. The segment offers just the right splash of clips from the Gatsby movie (thankfully no glimpse of Daisy/Mia Farrow), a little narration from the book, and archival photos of the house in its former glory.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Conversations and Connections writers conference in DC this weekend

I went to the Conversations and Connections conference the last time it was held, a couple years ago, and came away with a list of Flash Fiction Markets.

CC is a pretty good deal—you get three workshops, a speed date with an editor (they look over a page or so of your writing and give you immediate feedback), a subscription to a literary magazine, and a free book (your choice among four books offered).

Also of note: my buddy, Kim Dana Kupperman, is giving a talk there on "dimensionality in nonfiction."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The disposible librarian

Unfortunately, my work experience and graduate degree are in two professions that seem to be disappearing.

Everyone knows about newspapers making their slow exit and, thus also, newspaper careers. But librarians? You'd think with such an information overload there would be more need than ever for librarians—to find and explain, weed out the unnecessary, and catalog the rest. Apparently not.

I saw the writing on the stacks, years ago, when (what was then) the U.S. General Accounting Office began to pull professional library staff out of the Technical Library where I worked. It became merely a room full of books and CD-ROM terminals, which, in retrospect, doesn't seem all that horrifying since most GAO researchers have advanced degrees and know their way around a library.

Children don't have the advantage of college training when they head to a library. It helps to have someone there who can suggest books they never would find on their own. Yet in my Maryland county right now—one of the wealthiest in the nation—public library hours have been slashed and the children's desks sit empty.

At least, I thought, school libraries are safe. But next year's school budget proposes to slash school media specialist positions to half-time. Librarians won't have time to interact with classes, they'll be there just to keep the library together. Arizona and California, among other states, have already slashed school librarian positions.

Writers, take note! These changes mean that in the future children and parents are going to be on their own when they walk into a library to select a book. The kids will probably grab the books with the flashiest covers, or whatever their friends are reading. The parents will probably grab children's books by the authors they recognize, or those with awards noted on their covers. Books that could have been transformative or comforting are going to remain on the shelves, unknown and ignored—or not ordered at all.

One of the reasons I am a writer is because I loved books so much as a child. They were always accessible to me. I could walk to the branch library on lazy summer mornings, and check out books from the school library during the school year.

That branch library closed more than 20 years ago. Now there is only one library for the entire county, to which most children must be driven. Still, I presumed, the school library offered children easy access to books, at least during the school year. Soon that safe harbor may disappear—if it hasn't already.

My fear is that when counties have more money again, the need for librarians—what it is like to have someone guide you through both stacks and cyberspace—will be forgotten.

(The photograph is the inside of my hometown library, Moravian Falls Public Library, summer of 1977, before it closed)

Monday, March 28, 2011

Treadmill desks: can you really exercise and write at the same time?

Suddenly I'm reading lots about treadmill desks (or vertical workstations), which allow you to write and exercise at the same time (see selected articles below*). This seemed like the perfect solution for me since exercise/writing is often an either/or choice with me and sitting in one spot for several hours gives me lower back pain.

But the smallish bedrooms of my 1960s split-level house aren't big enough to accommodate a 6'-long treadmill (unless I want to put a mattress on top of it at night). And I don't want a treadmill in the middle of my living room.

The obvious solution was to put my laptop or notebook on a higher shelf and to simply walk in place. The results? Illegible handwritten prose. A lack of control at my laptop, even after repeated tries. And the loss of the meditative state I like to be in while composing. Perhaps I could type while walking in place if all I was doing was typing.

So it looks like I am not going to join the growing number of "treadheads."

However, I've come up with a different solution that is working for me, and which cost me only the $29 for a good pedometer. I've started to walk or jog in place while doing other things, in an effort to get up to 6,000 steps a day even when I'm working inside all day. Washing my hands and brushing my teeth? 300 steps. Loading the dryer? 500 steps.

It feels a little silly to jog in place when I'm in the bathroom, but like Vegas, I figure whatever goes on in the bathroom stays in the bathroom. Sillier to jog downstairs to the laundry room, or to march in place while cooking. Yet the pedometer is an antidote to embarrassment; it keeps me moving.

It also helps that I read recently that William Shatner runs in place for 30 minutes every morning (in addition to swimming and other types of exercise). The man looks pretty dang good for 80.

* Here are some recent articles/blog posts on treadmill writing:

Next stop: MEGA Treadmill Desk

Pound the Keys and Drop the Pounds (includes a funny clip from Woody Allen's "Bananas" on the prototype exercise desk—the pic above is a still from it)

The Amazing Treadmill Desk (includes a "Good Morning America" clip on office workers on treadmills)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The non-virtual books that will remain

In a recent post, I gave my five arguments about why (some) books should continue on paper. But the reality is that the non-virtual books that are likely to survive may not be the picture books and beach paperbacks I advocated for, but books for collectors.

This week CBS devoted a Sunday Morning segment to Taschen Books, which publishes large and beautiful books, sometimes costing thousands of dollars. (Their limited edition Muhammad Ali book costs $15,000). The books are sold online and in their dozen Taschen bookstores. 

Until someone figures out how to create value and exclusivity in e-books (which I can't envision happening ever), art/collectible books—and comic books—will continue to be published on paper.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The digital picture book takes hold

A week after I wrote my post, Five Arguments Against the Total Inevitability of E-books, the Washington Post Book World arrived with this article on the popularity of iPad picture books. So popular, in fact, the article states:

Earlier this week, eight of the top 10 paid book apps on iTunes were picture books. Today’s digital-native children seem keenly interested in a story told to them on a 10-inch screen with a finger’s swipe to reach the next page.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Writer Profile: Amy Bonaccorso

If it hadn’t been for The Sun magazine, I probably would never have met Amy Bonaccorso—Amy and I joined the same Sun discussion group a couple of months ago. When the conversation turned to e-books that first day, I made my usual “E-books, yuk!” refrain. But Amy didn’t agree with me because, she said, e-books can offer higher royalties for authors. She knew, because her book, How to Get to 'I Do': A Dating Guide for Catholic Women, is available in both Kindle and hard copy editions. When I told her that I wanted to know more about her publishing experiences, and how she has been marketing her book, she graciously consented to this email interview.

Amy is a senior communications specialist within the federal government, where she manages an internal newsletter, arranges big events, and works to improve communication. For more information on Amy and her book, see her web site.

How did you get the idea to write your book?

When I dated in my twenties, a lot of the guidance I got was unrealistic and not very helpful. Much of it was written by unmarried people or concerned parents. After I became engaged, I could see what I did wrong, what I did right, what advice was worth taking, and which words should have been ignored. It was something I wanted to capture in writing. I am sure lots of people have great moments of hindsight like I did...they just don't write anything down. I thought I should publish my lessons learned for others, though.

I had a diverse dating portfolio by the time I met my husband on And that’s the point I try to get across in my book. Women, even very traditional Catholic women, need to put themselves out there in a variety of ways. A man can’t find you if you aren’t anywhere to be found. I also think some Catholic women need to relax a bit and not be so hyper-pious.

The blurb for your book says, “…plenty of good men are waiting for a woman like you to throw away the checklist of idealized mate material.” What was on your original "list"? What did you find instead?

Here is the list:
- Catholic, like me
- Devout
- Chaste
- Building a good career
- College educated
- Marriage minded
- Physically attractive
- Willing to support a full-time mom/housewife role for me

My husband was not incredibly devout, and although he had a good career plan, he made less than me when I met him... so I couldn't expect a quick 1950s lifestyle. He is a lot more secular and "modern" than the man I thought I was looking for. I couldn't see it then, but I have a rather bohemian background and a sometimes contradictory set of interests, personality traits, goals, and beliefs. I could probably drive a cookie cutter Catholic man crazy. One ex, for example, wanted me to quit going to acupuncture because it weirded him out. I got to talk to an old Andy Warhol protégé in New York City a few months ago, and it was one of the thrills of my life. Discerning religious life at a Carmelite convent was also one of my most memorable life experiences. Not everyone can accept that kind of dichotomy. (We’ve been married nearly three years now.)

Since you work full-time, when/where did you write the book?

I wrote during my lunch breaks, in the evenings, and on weekends. I'd sometimes write on the backs of receipts or little pieces of scrap paper when I was out at lunch. Or, I would eat at my desk and write my thoughts in an email message. The book came very quickly. It only took about six months. I credit my muses for that.

How did you find your publisher?

I didn't have an agent. I looked at books that I was reacting against and saw who published them. They were small Catholic publishers. Since I could easily refer to other books on their list when pitching mine, I targeted them with a book proposal. Within weeks, I had an offer.

Why did you decide to do a Kindle edition?

My husband recommended that I suggest a Kindle edition to the publisher. I also had people around me who were into their Kindles and weren't buying paperbacks anymore. I had a feeling that some women would want the book quickly too if they were having a dating crisis. It's the first e-book for Servant Books.