As some of you know, French was my first passion. The summers after seventh, eighth, and ninth grades I spent seven to nine weeks in Ferrisburg, Vermont at Ecole Champlain, a French camp on Lake Champlain. I just loved it.
When I was a junior in high school, I spent a weekend skiing in North Carolina–in blue jeans. I froze. I decided I could not possibly go to school any farther north than North Carolina. I found a school as much like Middlebury as I could in North Carolina–Davidson College. That’s where I went, and I loved every second of it.
Nevertheless, I have always kind of regretted that I wimped out on my dream.
Tomorrow, with a different dream, I’m finally heading into a Vermont winter. I have snow boots, a down jacket, a hat, a scarf, gloves, and a new book bag. I’m going back to school–to Vermont College for my MFA in Writing.
You can read Dylan Thomas’ story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” online. You can also listen to the author read a substantial excerpt from the 1952 recording. In addition, you can hear the interesting story of how this recording came to be in this NPR broadcast.
Thomas grounds the story of this long-ago Christmas in real details–snow and fire brigades and uncles–and yet he tells it as if it were a fairy tale.
The ending: “I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.”
[Annual Christmas Eve post]
My desk this morning, instead of being covered with books and manuscript pages, is covered with Christmas lists. I want to write, but it’s hard to draw my mind away from the unanswered questions and undone errands on my list–with the clock ticking.
I wondered how other writers managed to focus at this time of the year. So I reached for May Sarton‘s Journal of a Solitude, written from September to September–1970 to 1971, I think. And guess what? As far as December, there’s an entry for the 2nd and then nothing until January.
It’s like falling into a black hole. In December, most of all, it’s a struggle to claw through the must-do’s, the should-do’s, and the do-nows to find something real. In December, it definitely takes both hands to catch a day. So I’m going to aim for a minute here and there. Maybe an hour. I’m not going to give in. I’m going to take a deep breath. Read a few words. Write a sentence.
In her January 2nd entry, May Sarton writes,
“I can understand people simply fleeing the mountainous effort Christmas has become even for those, like me, without children. Everyone must feel revolt as I do about the middle of December when I am buried under the necessity of finding presents, the immense effort of wrapping and sending, and the never-ended guilt about unsent cards…”
In an attempt at a real thought for today, I leave you with this. In her last entry in the book, she suggests that writing is a “messenger of growth,” that from where we are, “we write toward what we will become…”
[Something about my desk this morning felt familiar, hence this re-post from December 19, 2008.]
“I love this undertaker. He has that thing that young people got, sometime after I grew up. He does not pretend. He does not judge. He talks about the caskets in a ‘whatever’ sort of way, like it is all just shopping–the real questions are elsewhere.”
What a lovely, original, and novelistic dichotomy Enright allows to emerge from the personality of this character.
And another reminder to ground myself in what’s important as I scurry around for those last few gifts.
My husband just forwarded me an email, sent to him by a law school and golfing buddy, with a YouTube video of Katrina Kenison, the long-time editor of the Best American Short Story series, reading a seven-minute excerpt from her new memoir.
As an antidote to these list-oriented days, I am passing on The Gift of an Ordinary Day:
In Ron Carlson‘s new novel, The Signal, a book that includes both clotheslines and abandoned places, each word counts, as each word should but often doesn’t in novels. The Signal packs a lot into its 184 pages: six days in the life of its main character Mack.
Its cover looks, as one of my children said, “like a book I wouldn’t read.” I’m not sure whether he meant it looks “sensational” or “like a guy’s book,” but I agree on both counts about the cover, not about what’s between it. In The Signal, it’s a toss-up whether the language or the story is the most alluring part of the novel.
“This was his life, riding out two hours from a ranch that itself was an hour from town and still knowing there were unknown hours ahead.”
“The tinted window went down and there was her face.”
The descriptions will give you goose bumps, and the dialogue is tight. Listen to this conversation between Mack and his father, whom he describes as “…his presence in the world was like order itself.”
“Do you know what you’re doing?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
“Are you going by your gut?”
“Do you think you can get a girl by showing her a bear?”
“No idea,” Mack said.
His father folded his arms and leaned on the doorframe. “Me neither. How many were there?”
Mack is also the narrator, and we’re right there in his point of view, a close third, yet without even a space break, Carlson zooms out seamlessly, giving us a little distance: “The two hikers stepped out into the high-atmosphere sunshine…”
Some will argue that there’s too much plot, but in my opinion The Signal offers a brilliant example of plot arising out of character: Mack’s choices drive the plot forward.
I’ll leave you with my favorite passage:
“The sun was weak light, and the chill was general headed for a real freeze. The watery yellow day wanted to break his heart. The season had foundered and each day was now a brave imitation of the day before. In September the year fell away and in the car you’d get a late baseball game on the radio as you drove to town sounding like it was coming from another planet, the static and the crowd noise and the announcers trying to fend off the fall shadows.”
Behind me climbs a tower of papers, each one containing a thought or a quote or an article that I want to write about here. A few minutes ago, I started shuffling through the stack. About midway down, I stopped on a piece of graph paper on which I had scrawled these thoughts from the character Glory in Marilynne Robinson’s Home:
“But oh, the evenings were long. I am thirty-eight years old, she would say to herself, as she tidied up after supper. I have a master’s degree. I taught high school English for thirteen years. I was a good teacher. What have I done with my life? What has become of it? It’s as if I had a dream of adult life and woke up from it, still here in my parents’ house.”
I knew I had written about other characters expressing this same feeling and I wanted to connect them with Glory. In the search rectangle on the blog, I typed in “life.”
I found two posts: one titled “something more,” in which I wrote about Mrs. Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf and Clara in Black & White by Dani Shapiro; the other entitled “more than this,” in which I wrote about Ursula in Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence.
Here’s the weird thing: one was written on December 9th and the other on December 11th, 2008.
The end of the year pulls me toward reflection. But where’s the time?
Writer Anna Clark is doing a series on her blog, Isak, suggesting that we all choose books as gifts for the holidays. Each almost-daily post in the series suggests not only the title of a book, but also who that book would be perfect for, what edition to buy, and where to buy it.
There is also a Buy Books For the Holidays website that hopes we will “make this holiday a literary season.”
I agree. I hate shopping, but choosing a book for someone does not feel like shopping. It feels like getting lost in a library. I love to give books. I love to receive books. Most hardbacks are $25 or less. Wonderful paperbacks can be found for $15 or less. And for $9.95 a month, there’s BookSwim, a kind of netflix for books. Gifts of words, of stories, of lives…
One of my other favorite gifts is to plant a tree in honor of that person. I started doing this in 1998 through an organization called Forevergreen that planted trees in Minnesota. I’d seen a segment about their work on TV. Now there’s Trees Columbus.
If you have questions about giving any of the books I’ve written about on the blog, please leave a comment and I will try to respond quickly.
Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Elizabeth Benedict:
I set the alarm for nine o’clock, but can’t sleep past eight today, even though I went to bed at two, or was it three? Never been a good sleeper. And there’s no such thing as a routine when promoting a book.
In that semi-dream state before getting out of bed, I remember an event I haven’t thought of for years: soon after we moved to Manhattan, when I was eight, my parents woke us in the middle of the night. There’d been an explosion nearby, and we had to leave the building. Outside, the air was filled with sirens, the sidewalks with sleepy families huddled together, coats over their pajamas. We walked many blocks, looking back to see what we were escaping. All this time later – 1962? 63? – I can’t summon the details. If I write about it, I can force myself to remember – and make up the rest.
As I lurch to the computer at my desk, the memory falls away and instantaneously, I’m deep in email country, answering an editor who wants to reprint Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay, in Mentors, Muses & Monsters – aka the 3Ms. Her emails are about contracts, waivers, jpgs – not the sweet solitude of reading or writing.
I make coffee and raise the blinds to see Riverside Park, the West Side Highway, and the distant outlines of New Jersey. The sky is gray, the city is waking up. I decide against checking the weather report. If it’s going to rain tonight, I don’t want to add it to my worries.
Mostly what I feel is excitement about appearing at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, the city’s brand-new indie, with four of the contributors to the 3Ms – Alexander Chee, Mary Gordon, Martha Southgate, and Lily Tuck – after years of watching nearly every indie in the city shut its doors.
All afternoon, I read my students’ short stories. On my way to the subway, I fall into aimless worrying. Have we done enough promotion? What if only five people show up?
The mood at Greenlight is festive and welcoming; the store is a lovely, bright, well-lighted place. It doesn’t take long to see that the guiding principle here is quality, not quantity. By 7:30, every seat is taken. We are introduced by master literary blogger, Ron Hogan, senior editor of Media Bistro’s Galley Cat, who was instrumental in arranging tonight’s event.
“The response to my invitation was overwhelming,” I read from the introduction to the anthology. “One after another … in a matter of weeks, two dozen fiction writers said yes, they wanted to contribute to this anthology…. I seemed to have hit a nerve.” The nature of the nerve is on display as panelists read briefly from their essays – Lily on Gordon Lish, Alex on Annie Dillard, Martha on Harriet the Spy, and Mary on Barnard teachers Elizabeth Hardwick and Janice Thaddeus.
We swap stories about what made the essays hard to write (Alex: “I was writing an essay about the woman who taught me to write essays.”), whether writers need mentors (special books, says Martha, can inspire more courage than you can imagine), whether mentors can be destructive (read Mary’s essay on the transformation of Hardwick from mentor to monster), and the hazards of writing about someone who’s still alive (Lish lives 4 blocks from Lily; she was sure to clear the essay with him).
The audience wants to know if peers can be mentors (yes, Mary’s first novel, Final Payments, was one of mine), what sorts of things we pass on to our students (our affection for cherished books, personal insights of the sort that professors don’t usually offer), and do we think of our families when we write (absolutely – Alex has several ancestors he can’t shake).
As we sign books, private conversations continue. A woman introduces her grown stepdaughter, Rosa, explaining that she’s Laurie Colwin’s daughter. I didn’t know Laurie Colwin, the beloved novelist who died suddenly in 1992, but know many people who did. I ask if Rosa’s a writer (yes). I sign a book for her and remember to myself the shock of her mother’s death, and the eight-year-old I knew she left behind. For the first time all night, I’m speechless.
Hours later, packing for an early morning train, the dazzle and anxieties of the day fading, I’m still thinking of Rosa. Of explosions in the night when we’re young, of who and what save us and show us the way, if we’re lucky: books, writers, teachers, mentors, stepmothers.
AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…
- It’s hard to choose, but I’ll go with Life with Sudden Death: A Tale of Moral Hazard and Medical Misadventure, by Michael Downing. I’m a long-time admirer and read everything he writes.
2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?
- Get in touch with your material. Write from that place rather than a place of cleverness, artifice, and/or showing off. Editing the essays in the 3Ms reminded me anew of the power of starting with our deepest material – and then doing something wonderful with it. I’m not advocating memoirs, but of using material we care deeply about as a foundation and then working it through all the steps, to a high sheen.
3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?
- When I’m stuck, I get up and do things like wash the bathroom mirror or dust a shelf – no major projects. In mid-dust, the right word frequently comes to me and I sit down, drenched in relief.
Books by Elizabeth Benedict: