christmas magic 2011

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If you can find twenty minutes, you can listen to Dylan Thomas’ story “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” read by the author–courtesy of NPR.  The written story is also available online.

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.”

rock & sling, poetry, arroyo, ecotone

One I’d heard of before. Three I hadn’t. Some were free at AWP; some were not. In each one, I found something that made me glad I’d lugged it home–either connecting with the words of writers I didn’t know or finding new poems and stories by writers I did. Two of these journals have stunning covers that will make me incapable of putting them in the recycling bin even after I need the space for new ones. So two I will send to a friend. Two I will take to the local high school library. Here are some highlights from the four literary journals I brought home from Washington a few weeks ago:

Rock & Sling–a journal of witness. Published twice a year by Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Volume Six. Issue One. Winter 2011.

“Chalkboard” by Jeremy Clive Huggins:

I was in the 10th grade when it first registered: I will be someone else some day…Two decades later, I fail to remember that I will be someone else, not just some day, but next year, next week, next day, next anything.

“Mud Flats” by Ray Amorosi:

Clams hiss through pin holes a few feet down.

Poetry. A publication of the Poetry Foundation. Volume 197. Number 3. December 2010. The Q & A issue. Cover art by Sam Martine. “Faces (detail), 1997.

Charles Baxter on his poem “Some Instances” is asked if poetry is an escape from narration: “My answer is a respectful “No”…Like many fiction writers, I began my writing life as a poet, and what I sometimes miss in my own fiction is the high-velocity association of ideas and events and imagery that poetry makes possible.”

Jane Hirshfield on her poem “Sentencings” is asked about the image of “putting arms into woolen coat sleeves”: “I might, I suppose, have written a different poem, about my late sister’s coats. They are lovely. But I wrote this.”

Arroyo. Department of English, California State University, East Bay. Hayward, California. Volume 2. Spring 2010. Cover art by Jonathan Viner.

Dorothy Allison interviewed by Jacqueline Doyle. 15 pages.

Life goes so fast and we lose so much. We can barely even hang on to memory. But if you’ve got a story, a stunned moment story, that moment lives forever.

Ecotone–reimagining place. Department of Creative Writing and The Publishing Laboratory at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. 10. The sex and death issue.”Ecotone and the University of North Carolina Wilmington are proud to print this entire issue on 100 percent postconsumer fiber paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.”

Benjamin Percy on James Salter’s “Akhnilo”:

Suspense is the engine that drags a story forward…They [my students] misunderstand suspense, believing that it hinges exclusively on plot points, rather than on human urgency.

This story is a case study on the mystery outside the character and the urgency within…the true pull of the story comes from the desire the man feels, the desire we feel alongside him…

I support literary journals. Support art–any way you can.

Crossposted at The Contrary Blog

life is meals

I’m approaching this post as I do my writing these days: without a plan in mind, I just sit down in front of the keyboard and continue.

Taking a break from the Christmas list, I wonder whether to write about the holidays, which reminds me of the first line of a Dickens novel…or whether to write about something other than the holidays. I think about what I’d like to read myself.

One of my favorite books ever is Light Years by James Salter. It was published in 1975, and I read it for the first time in 1990. One of my favorite (maybe my favorite) quotes in the book is this:

Life is weather. Life is meals. Lunches on a blue checked cloth on which salt has spilled. The smell of tobacco.  Brie, yellow apples, wood-handled knives.

James Salter and his wife Kay wrote a book together that was published in 2006– Life is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days. The entry for December 18th is on dining rooms. Apparently Thomas Jefferson used the State Dining Room in the White House for his office and let his pet mockingbird fly around. I remember I used to let the kids play ping-pong on our dining room table. You can still see faint ping marks.

making a list and checking it twice

A list makes me feel as if I’m in control of things. It’s a little summary of what I have to do. And if I can just get “it” on a list, it’s in line to be done. It will get done.

On Sunday, in The New York Times Book Review, in the essay on the back page,”I’ve Got a Little List,” Arthur Krystal discussed literary lists. He wrote,”Isn’t every list in reality a ceremonial flourish against amnesia and chaos?”

Yes, exactly.

I keep trying different systems. What I really need is one of those hats with a pole that extends out in front of it so that the current list can dangle continuously in front of my eyes…

Lists are the one thing that don’t seem to work for me on the computer. I need them on paper.

I make lists of things as I think of them on whatever is handy (like torn-off corners of envelopes). I make more organized lists on sturdier index cards. Sometimes, I make a series of lists in a small flip notebook. Or, like yesterday, I list on a print-out of my schedule for the day–that way the list is face-up and in my face.

I have Christmas lists: the get-Christmas-started list (which except for setting up the wrapping area is complete), the gift list, the food list…

The “list” has literary beginnings. According to Krystal:

“List,” borrowed from the French word liste, first turns up, in the modern sense, in “Hamlet,” when Horatio reports that Fortinbras has “sharked up a list of landless resolutes”–i.e., indiscriminately put together a makeshift army.

How do you list?

just because you can’t remember

In The New York Times “Sunday Book Review,” with a very cool cover by Maira Kalman, James Collins wrote the essay at the back, “The Plot Escapes Me,” on whether there’s a point to reading books when we can’t remember what’s in them. Although I do have difficulty remembering what I read, I admit this is a question I’ve never asked myself.

He consulted Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University and the author of “Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain“(which I just ordered).

I recommend the essay, but we’re all busy. In what I consider to be the bottom line, Ms. Wolf said:

I totally believe that you are a different person for having read that book…I say that as a neuroscientist and an old literature major.

It is in some way working on you even though you aren’t thinking about it.

It’s there…You are the sum of it all.

I wanted to spread the good news. Keep reading.

writing my way there

I walk every step of what used to be the camp, of what is now Kingsland Bay State Park. Then I sit in a white Adirondack chair with my pen and paper, looking across the bord de l’eau to the Adirondacks. I bring my vision in to the flag pole cemented to the ground. The cement tells me it’s the same one that was here when I arrived for the first time in July of 1970.

Why do I want to come back? For proof I was here. For clues as to who I used to be. I just want to stay long enough to…

I think this place has something to tell me.

I remember friends I made here, but I no longer keep up with them. It’s this place I miss, not the people who were here. Is it this place or the person I was here?

I was my best self here. I learned how to be myself here. It was my first time away from home for a long period of time–eight weeks that first summer, nine the others. Each summer I got closer to me.

The metal rings holding the flag clang against the pole. The water of Lake Champlain laps against the shore. People spread cloths on the picnic tables. A motor boat zooms past a large sail boat that seems to linger in the moment.

Writing about it again this morning for this post, I finally get it. It’s the continuous life. That’s why I’m here–to understand that the girl who was here in 1970 is the same woman who is here now. I’ve been tagging these posts all week with those words without seeing it.

As Mary Gordon wrote so well in The Rest of Life:

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her.  That she is the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.  That there is some line running through her body like a wick.  She is the same person who was once born.  All the things that happened to her happened to one person…’I’m trying to understand what it means to have had a life.’”

Final post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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proof

I ask the young park ranger if there are any cabins left. He says no, just the shed. But it’s not just the shed.

I take some photos of the outside of the cabin and head deeper into the woods toward the Point of Rocks. Something tells me to go back. The cabin is unlocked.

Inside—proof.

Names and dates in uneven scrawl. White paint against dark wood. The shed is Chalet A–the insides hollowed out to make room for rakes and saws, park signs and four wheelers.

Kim was here. Becky Howe was here. I remember her. Connie Bryan in 1965. If you want to find out about the summer of ’66, write to Mary Torras, Valley Road, New Canaan, CT. Leslie 1970. Nicole Browning I remember from 1970. Rose was here in 1971. Sandy in 1962. Sally Smith in 1966. Ceci Blewer in ’68. Vee Vee was here. Heather in 1973.

This discovery fills a part of the empty box I brought along today, letting me know that part of the reason I return is to find proof that I was in fact here, that what I remember is not just in my head, not just a dream I had, but something I can touch. And here it’s made of paint and wood—words that persist.

I am part of this place. This place is part of who I am.

I’m beginning to see a pattern. Another place that holds part of me is what used to be my grandparent’s house in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve returned there once as an adult and written this story about it.

I will write more on Saturday

3rd post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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hoping to discover

On Saturday, July 3rd, I took a break from lectures and readings and slid into my rented red Prius headed for the past. Even though Ferrisburg, Vermont, lies directly west from Montpelier, Google Maps directed me north to Burlington and then south.

In addition to my purse, I have coffee, water, camera, paper, and pen. I also seem to have some sort of invisible empty box with me that I hope to fill. I am going on a bear hunt and I want to catch a big one.

I wrote in my last post that Ecole Champlain, the French camp I attended in the ’70s now seemed “mysterious to me, as if it’s withholding secrets instead of holding memories.”

But, as is so often the case with my words, I didn’t get that right. Rather, what it seemed was as if the secret to something was there waiting for me to find it. In more words, the place was with me, not against me. In fact, I could almost see it closing its eyes, concentrating, in order to draw me back.

An old map shows the main entrance has always been the one I come in today, the one along the water that brings me in by MacDonough Lodge, now known as Hawley House. But that doesn’t seem right. I figure out that the buses that used to bring us to camp after we flew into Burlington on Mohawk Airlines always used the service entrance, coming in past the stables and down the long straight dirt road to the lodge.

That sweet smell is still here, a smell I’ve come across only a few times since camp. A breeze will go by and there it is. Ecole Champlain. Vermont. Once I smelled it from a bathroom air freshener. I ask the young park ranger. He says it’s the smell of cut hay. July is haying season in Vermont.

The dining hall is still here. The park ranger unlocks the door, and I enter the space where I once ate 7 grilled cheese sandwiches in a contest with a counselor.  Other than a portion of the floor having been replaced, it looks the same–only empty.

The distance between the dining hall and the lodge seems smaller, as I would expect. But as I start down the road to the stables, I’m surprised, and pleased somehow, that this still seems like a long walk.

I peer in the windows of the stables. Then I turn to face the space where the riding rings used to be. When I concentrate, I can see the one across the road where my horse took the jump and I didn’t. And then…the counselors used to call me Strawberry.

What will I discover during this visit? What do you hope to discover when you go back?

I will write more on Thursday

2nd post in 4-part series on
Ecole Champlain:
Part 1: places that call us back
Part 2: hoping to discover
Part 3: proof
Part 4: writing my way there

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framing the past

The summer I was thirteen I flew by myself to Vermont for seven weeks of camp. Somebody in our cabin had brought a record player, and it was there in the woods that I first heard the music of James Taylor and Carole King. After I got back home, I bought their albums. I still have them–although they now hang on a wall.

On Thursday night in Atlanta I heard Carole King and James Taylor live as part of their Troubadour Reunion. This round stage that rotates slowly was created specifically for the tour, with small tables for two around it–an attempt at recreating within an arena the nightclub atmosphere that King and Taylor played to in Los Angeles at the Troubadour.

The concert started a little late, around 8:15, but they were on stage almost 3 hours–until after 11–with only a 15 minute intermission. They played So Far Away, Smackwater Jack, Sweet Baby James, Country Road, Fire and Rain, Natural Woman, Up on the Roof, You’ve Got a Friend, I Feel the Earth Move….

from the first half

I’ve seen James Taylor in concert many times, and he was as wonderfully mellow as ever. I’d never seen Carole King before. She didn’t seem quite as comfortable, but the audience loved her. She’s small and wore stiletto-heeled boots the first half. She sang, played the piano and the guitar, and jumped around all over the stage. She sounds the same as ever–and Tapestry came out almost 40 years ago.

from the second half

There was something about seeing the two of them together that really took me back, that made me realize just how long ago (and far away) that cabin in Vermont was.

And speaking of years, Carole King is now 68 and I now have a new vision of what it means to be 68. James Taylor is a mere 62. And together they can rock the house down.

It’s not too late to see them in concert. Here are the remaining dates for the Troubadour Reunion. And look for them on The Today Show on June 18th.

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the music room

IMG_2413The Music Room by Dennis McFarland was published in 1990. I read it the first time in 1991, and then again at the beginning of August–eighteen years later. I enjoyed it just as much. Here, McFarland could be describing his own writing, instead of a feeling:

“I liked the simple clarity of the feeling. It had the appeal of a primary color; it promised a range of complementary hues to come.”

Over the years I have often remembered how much I enjoyed reading The Music Room. Then in March, at Sirenland, I was hiking up to eat lunch in this great little trattoria, when the person I was hiking with mentioned that her brother-in-law had published several books. Like what, I asked. Well, probably the most famous is The Music Room.

See how he takes these five concrete details and bundles them into a memory:

“The points on the star of this recollection were the red leather of the sofa, its bright gold buttons, the sound of my father’s shoes, his approach in uniform, and the brief, biting taste of suffocation.”

When I got back home, I moved The Music Room from my regular shelf to my little stack of books to reread. There it joined The Heart of the Matter, The Half-Life of Happiness, Beloved, The Rest of Life, and Remembering the Bone House.

Read how he pulls rage out of words:

“You want to know why he didn’t leave a note? Because even to say goodbye is to acknowledge a person.”

Before I could get to it, my friend who reads everything I read plus more asked if she could read it. Yes, she said, it’s still good. And she promptly ordered everything Dennis McFarland has written since then. They’re all great, she reported last week. More books for me to add to my growing list.

Here he turns plain words into poetry:

“In the john, I had a bad case of the shakes, but the roar and rumble of the jet engines saturated me, resonated with my poor jittery cells, which felt like a kind of sympathy.”

Yesterday, I happened upon this blog, which had reprinted this excellent article, “Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader.” (Yes, I’m saying you should actually click away from here to read it. Really.)

IMG_2412“How odd that in this musical family one of my earliest longings is for deafness: the silencing not only of the nocturnal creakings of the Colonial mansion but of the regular jagged peal of breaking glass, of the grownups’ zingers and spiny laughter, and of Father’s terrible, smashed wrong notes.”

Dennis McFarland knows how to tell a story, slipping easily from the past of the central narrative into the present of memory, with all scenes past and present moving relentlessly forward.

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how we got here from there

IMG_2110I don’t write memoir. But I like the way Abigail Thomas writes, the way she tells the truth. “My truth doesn’t travel in a straight line, it zigzags, detours, doubles back. Most truths I have to learn over and over again.”

I got hooked on the truth in her fiction first, Getting Over Tom, An Actual Life, and Herb’s Pajamas–the last two are little hardback squares. I loved Safekeeping, her first memoir. Its short sections are a concrete example of her life zigzagging and doubling back, the many truths of herself.

Thinking About Memoir is another little book. A rectangle instead of a square. Thomas writes, IMG_2175“Memories survive on a wisp of a fragrance, or a particular shade of blue…” Then a phrase you’re probably sick of me using, but oh, then I really knew I was in: “This is… about letting one thing lead to another. Follow the details.” She concludes the two-page preface with this,”Memoir is the story of how we got here from there.”  And this story is fascinating whether you write fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or memoir.IMG_2172

She writes, “Be sure to include what you can’t make fit neatly into your idea of yourself, or whatever it is that ruffles the smooth surface of your life story.” This may be the most important thing I’m taking from this book at this moment. Nothing is supposed to be perfect. Let the messy real show through.

The only book of hers I have not read is Three Dog Life, a memoir of her husband’s brain injury. In an article published on June 20, 2009, Marion Winik recounts a moment in that book where  Thomas writes about being accused of “stealing a memory.” “Is memory property?” Abigail Thomas asks. “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong?”

IMG_2174And here in this book she adds, “Memory seems to be an independent creature inspired by event, not faithful to it…” I can just imagine this little creature up in my brain somewhere, in a little cave with a kodak instamatic and a pen and a pencil, maybe some file cabinets, doing the best he can to keep track of everything, and interrupted yet again as I get a whiff of  something sweet. His long, floppy ears perk up, and off he goes, scurrying around, eventually delivering summer camp in Vermont, walking to the stables.

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stop time

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Frank Conroy was the director of the Iowa Writers Workshop for 18 years. He was also a writer himself, the author of 5 books, including the “classic memoir” Stop-Time. He died of colon cancer in 2005 at the age of 69.

“My faith in the firmness of time slips away gradually. I begin to believe that chronological time is an illusion and that some other principle organizes existence.”

Conroy was interested in time and memory. The title of his book on Nantucket, a place both he and I love, is Time & Tide. img_19701He begins this book with a preface, which recounts his earliest memory.

Stop-Time begins at the opposite end of the spectrum, with a brilliant one-page prologue from the point of view of the older speed-crazed Conroy, who would do “anything at all to keep up the speed, to maintain the speed and streak through the dark world.” We don’t see this older narrator except for a couple of other times in the memoir. Yet we keep him in the back of our mind as we move through his memories of his childhood.

Conroy’s writing is exact. Note these three examples from the memoir:

“My mother would make a quick meal out of cans.”

“Half to himself, his voice fading as we went around opposite sides of the car, he said…”

“My mother laughed nervously, not because she thought it was funny, but because her relationship with Donald forced her to laugh.”

Jayne Anne Phillips said, “He believed that the work leads the writer, and not the other way around. He used to say that in his own writing he’d read and re-read what he’d written the day before until he knew what to do next.”

Frank Conroy could also write beautiful sentences:

“A bewildering array of emotions exploded simultaneously–confusion, embarrassment, a kind of childish love, apprehensiveness, but behind it all, as steady as the solid bar of sunlight across the polished table, triumph. The moment was at hand.”

out stealing horses

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“We weren’t really stealing them…But we call it stealing to make it more exciting.”

Per Petterson is a writer who can stand inside a moment, turn in a circle and look up and down until there is no inch of that moment left unexplored.  Mary Gordon calls this “saturating the moment.” Read this:

“…and then he fell on his knees like an empty sack and beat his forehead on the ground, and stayed there huddled up for what seemed like an eternity, and for the whole of that eternity I held my breath without stirring. I didn’t understand what had happened, but I felt it was my fault. I just didn’t know why. At last he stood up stiffly….”

Or this one:

“‘Which farm was that?’ I ask, although there can be only one farm in question. But I was not quite with him in my thoughts, and I wonder whether that is how we get to be after living alone for a long time, that in the middle of a train of thought we start talking out loud, that the difference between talking and not talking is slowly wiped out, that the unending, inner conversation we carry on with ourselves merges with the one we have with the few people we still see, and when you live alone for too long the line which divides the one from the other becomes vague, and you do not notice when you cross that line. Is this how my future looks?

“‘The farm at home. In the village, of course.’”

In Out Stealing Horses, Trond is an old man. During the course of an evening, something happens to cause him to remember an incident that occurred when he was a boy. As the reader continues, occasionally we come upon a sentence such as,”Or that is the way I remember it.” As we continue further into the story, through the climax, we come upon, “My father could not have told me all this, not with all the details; but that is the way it is printed in my memory…” These kinds of sentences lend credibility to the story. They remind me of The Gathering by Irish writer, Anne Enright.

Petterson uses an omniscient narrator who can drop into a character so seamlessly, it’s difficult to even notice. “We heard the rain battering the roof and it rained on the river and on Jon’s boat and on the road to the shop and on Barkald’s meadows, it rained on the forest and …., but inside the cottage it was warm and dry. The stove was crackling, and I ate until my plate….”

And yet there are some things this big narrator doesn’t know: “What they talked about I have never been able to imagine.”

Petterson needs a certain coincidence to occur. So he takes it and owns it, making it a condition of the novel:

“…if this had been something in a novel it would just have been irritating…that kind of coincidence seems far-fetched in fiction, in modern novels anyway, and I find it hard to accept. It may be all very well in Dickens, but when you read Dickens you’re reading a long ballad from a vanished world, where everything has to come together in the end like an equation, where the balance of what was once disturbed must be restored so that the gods can smile again.”

Per Petterson is a Norwegian writer. Out Stealing Horses was translated by Anne Born.