Eudora Welty’s potato salad

At the beginning of summer, Ari Weinzweig wrote about Eudora Welty’s potato salad in the Atlantic. He did not list the ingredients as I do below; instead he wrote sentences about them. “As always, for me, the story behind the food is essential…” And I recommend his story behind mayonnaise.

As the end of summer approaches, enjoy…

Eudora Welty’s Vicksburg Potato Salad

a quart of just-cooked, cut-up potatoes
3 chopped hard-cooked eggs
a whole green pepper, chopped fine
a couple of roasted red peppers chopped fine
6 strips of crisp bacon, chopped
a bunch of mayonnaise and mustard
salt and pepper to taste

Mix everything together except the bacon, which you sprinkle on top.

Eudora Welty at her desk from the cover of The Writer's Desk by Jill Krementz

A Southern Author’s Poetic Potato Salad” is an article I’ve read two or three times, and I don’t even like to cook.

By the way, Mr. Weinzweig suggests that we “get a copy of Ms. Welty’s work and do some reading while the potatoes are cooking.” Perhaps start with “No Place For You, My Love” from The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty…

“Surely even those immune from the world, for the time being, need the touch of one another, or all is lost….they were, at last, imperviousness in motion. They had found it, and had almost missed it: they had had to dance.”

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jane’s passions

Jane Addams was a political activist who worked toward, and spoke out, for social justice, including women’s suffrage. I had heard of her but had no idea…

In  Jane Addams: Spirit in Action by Louise W. Knight, I discovered that Jane cofounded the NAACP and the ACLU, and that she was the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

She was born in 1860 and lived until 1935. She was a writer and she loved books:

Is it the child who loves books who becomes a dreamer? Or is it the born dreamer who, inevitably, loves books? Whether cause or effect, books were Jane’s passion throughout her life. The day she died, she had a pile by her bedside she was reading.

Some of her favorite characters were Jo in Little Women and Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop. She named Leo Tolstoy’s My Religion as “the book that changed her life.”

In a speech on the Pullman Strike in 1894, she “compared George Pullman with King Lear…” And “Need a Woman Over Fifty Feel Old” was the title of an editorial she published the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1914.

A biography of substance about a woman of substance. September 6th will be the 150th anniversary of her birth.

catching lives


I don’t hear much about biographies anymore–or autobiographies. Now it’s all about memoir. Not the whole life but a slant on it.

Still, biographies are being written. A Pulitzer Prize is given each year for a biography. In 2010, the prize went to The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt by T.J. Stiles.

I recently read a wonderful biography: Spirit in Action: Jane Addams by Louis W. Knight. I was writing away on that post, and then just felt like we needed a little warm-up–something to put us in the right mood. The book is wonderful. Come back tomorrow to read a little about Jane’s passions.

Some other biographies I’ve enjoyed over the years: Caught in the Web of Words: James Murray and the Oxford English Dictionary by K.M. Elisabeth Murray, Ferraro: My Story by Geraldine Ferraro, and Seasons of Her Life: A Biography of Madeleine Korbel Albright by Ann Blackman.

Do you read biographies? Do you have any to recommend?

look again

In a 1984 Paris Review interview, the writer James Baldwin said the following:

I remember standing on a street corner with the black painter Beauford Delaney down in the Village, waiting for the light to change, and he pointed down and said, “Look.” I looked and all I saw was water. And he said, “Look again,” which I did, and I saw oil on the water and the city reflected in the puddle. It was a great revelation to me. I can’t explain it. He taught me how to see, and how to trust what I saw. Painters have often taught writers how to see. And once you’ve had that experience, you see differently.

Many of you are visual artists as well as writers. I’m not. But I’ve become a much more visual person in the last few years. I think maybe this blog is my nudge to look again. To be more aware of the world around me.

These days, with writing, instead of having ideas, I’m seeing scenes. Maybe it’s just that I’ve gotten out of my own way. My thinking has gotten out of the way of my…something.

When I started with the words of James Baldwin, I didn’t realize I would end up with something, but that’s as far as I have time to go with this today…

toes

I painted my toenails orange for June, green for July. They’re sporting yellow polish at the moment.

I broke three of my toes growing up–one when I put my bare feet down to stop a swing.

My second toes are longer than my big toes, although not by much. Apparently this has a name–Morton’s toe. I’ve heard it’s a sign of intelligence.

Eyes and hair are overrated. I’m going to write about toes.

out my window: 8/18/10

I'm sitting at my desk, working on revisions, and I look out the window in front of me.

It's not fall yet

but a fox

“let me catch sight of you again going over the wall
and before the garden is extinct and the woods are figures
guttering on a screen let my words find their own
places in the silence after the animals”

from “Vixen” by W. S. Merwin

crossing borders

Black Maps, a collection of stories by David Jauss, won the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction in 1995 (Lorrie Moore/judge). These nine stories–with only one in present tense and the rest in past, and four in third person and five in first–all deal with the crossing of borders. In addition to each story, the book as a whole has a story to tell.

As Robert Frost said, “If you have a book of twenty-four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth poem.”

David Jauss writes of his collection, “The book, then, moves thematically from negation to affirmation, from the blackest of maps to one that shows the possibility of light.” After understanding this, it was no surprise that I preferred the stories toward the end of the book.

Each story is extremely well written. The first story, “Torque,” takes a limo and turns it into an intrinsic symbol, one that acquires its meaning from the story.

If he had a limo, everyone would see that he wasn’t who they’d always thought he was…

And then later in the story,

He wanted to prove to her that he was the kind of man who made his dreams come true, the kind of man who deserved a limo.

The fifth story,“Firelight,” starts with a moment and then takes us back in time and leads us up to it. In the story are 3 repetitions of the word “firelight,” and then the words “fire” and “light” separate in the last paragraph.

“Brutality” includes this metaphor: “thinking thoughts she didn’t dare let bleed into words.” It deals with the idea of a continuous life:

And who you were is a part of who you are, isn’t it?

In “The Late Man,” allowing the character to imagine what he could have done adds depth to the story.

“Glossolalia,” the last story in the collection, was chosen by Alice Adams for the Best American Short Stories in 1991. It also won a Pushcart Prize. In it, a son tells the story of his father’s breakdown. The first words of the story “That winter” prepare the reader for the very effective jump in distance later in the story in a paragraph that includes the phrase “…our life together after that winter…” Then there’s another jump in perspective and distance on the last page: “Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about….” Then what did happen in such a beautiful sentence using an echo:

But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.

Then a return to a specific moment as well as a narrowing of time from a season to a night, from that winter to that night, echoing the opening. And a last paragraph again with repetition of that night. Wow.

alone with all that could happen

Alone With All That Could Happen is a collection of 7 craft essays by writer David Jauss. I had read some of them when they were first published in AWP’s The Writer’s Chronicle, but it was time to read them again. I should probably schedule time to reread craft essays because I can’t ever get it all. Or, because I’m writing in third person this time, something else falls into place that I didn’t notice when I was working on first person…

Here are a few of the words from this book that have made a difference in my writing:

Autobiographobia

…imagining the other is ultimately a way of discovering the self.

From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction

Perhaps the most important purpose of point of view is to manipulate the degree of distance between the characters and the reader…

What We Talk About When We Talk About Flow

Thus, altering our syntax…allows us to get our thoughts off the normal track on which they run…so if we change the way we think, we can sometimes change what we think.

Remembrance of Things Present: Present Tense in Contemporary Fiction

We use the generalized present to talk about an act that is repeated throughout time, as in the sentence “I write every morning.” The tense is present, but the events described are not. Hence they are unmoored from their actual places in time.

Some Epiphanies About Epiphanies

…the best epiphanies approach their revelations indirectly, through imagery, metaphor, and symbol rather than through direct statement. In short, they arrive with some elusiveness, like insight itself.

Stacking Stories: Building a Unified Short Story Collection

Because our choices of words, characters, and plots arise from our own obsessive concerns and themes, from our own individual selves, it is inevitable that there be unifying relationships between the stories. But we must discover them and then, to heighten their effects, strategically add connecting details, parallels, contrasts, repetitions…

And finally, this excerpt from the last essay in the collection, possibly my favorite because it’s about process and it’s a way of thinking about writing that had never occurred to me before, “Lever of Transcendence: Contradiction and The Physics of Creativity.”

My students don’t hesitate when I ask them to write their actual names, but they do when I ask them to make up fictitious ones. The creative process, I tell them, resides in that hesitation, that moment of uncertainty.


You Are Not Here

cover art: "Rooms by the Sea" by Edward Hopper

David Jauss is my adviser this semester at Vermont College. During the residency, each student creates a reading list, which the adviser must approve. The books on the list may change as writing issues come up, but it’s a place to start.

Both semesters I’ve included books by my adviser on my list. This seems like an opportunity not to be missed–to read a writer’s work and have a dialogue about it.

Before I arrived at Vermont College, I knew of David Jauss mostly from his craft essays in the AWP Chronicle. I had also read a story of his. For my first packet due on Saturday, August 7th, I read some more of his work.

I started with his poetry and loved almost every one of his poems in the collection, You Are Not Here.

From “Requiem”:

“…how many times

have I paused at the crossroads, then turned right

toward home, instead of left,

toward the darkening highway that leads to that nowhere

called everywhere…”

And from “You Are Not Here”:

“each morning I ask myself

where I won’t be today

or ever.”

because the detail is divine

“…because the detail is divine, if you caress it into life, you find the world you have lost or ignored, the world ruined or devalued. The world you alone can bring into being, bit by broken bit. And so you create your own integrity, which is to say your voice, your style.”

From Patricia Hampl, “The Dark Art of Description”
The Best American Essays 2009

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How We Spend Our Days: Diane Lefer

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 Diane Lefer:

Mountains or coastline? I’m due at Peace Camp 2010 at the Circle X Ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu to give a group of high school and college student activists a crash course in street theatre. There’s no direct route. I can drive south, then crosstown, then north up along the Pacific beach, but there’s thick coastal fog this morning. I can go north over the hills, then south again down the windy narrow mountain roads, half-awake first thing in the morning on a single cup of espresso, or else on a main road traversing the canyon and through a tunnel cut in the mountain rock, hoping they did indeed inspect it for safety after yesterday’s earthquake. I opt for the canyon.

I’ve never subscribed to the macho philosophy that if you’re a Writer, you put your ass in the chair every day and write. (I say “macho” because I think men feel more compelled than women to conform to the outward sign that writing actually is a job.) But writing is about life, and life is too valuable and fleeting to be lived only through the written word. Anyway, there are so many other things to do: earn a living, work for social justice, have a personal life, too, goddammit! Still, though I don’t write every day, in the past I have put in my share of 12 or even 14 hours without interruption at the computer screen. These days, even if I wanted to, I can’t.

Several years ago–and this is a warning to all you writers out there–I lost my eyesight for eight months when too much staring at the screen made all the focusing muscles go slack. When I could read, write, and drive again, I began to limit my hours at the screen. This spring, when my right eye started going blurry, I panicked. This time around, the doctor says my muscles are physically fine, but my brain is no longer communicating properly with my right eye. My left eye is good. I limit my hours at the computer. I function.

Mornings start with a hot compress over my eyes. Then a gentle scrub of the inner eyelids with much diluted baby shampoo. Then a shampoo wash on the outside followed by artificial tears. Because I won’t be home till late, I add the exercises which usually wait till late in the day. I hope Desi, the best cat in the world (or at least in this apartment), won’t be too impatient as this departure from routine will delay the brushing she gets every morning.

First a warm-up with a card that features green and orange squares that I have to make join up again just by looking at them. Next, with 3-D glasses, I turn on a computer program that shows me red and blue squares that I have to overlap until a 3-D object pops out for me to click. When I visit the doctor’s office, I get to look at doubled images: Bo Peep has a sheep only on one side of the screen, her staff only on the other; Ole King Cole has a pipe on the right side and a bowl on the left; Humpty Dumpty is sometimes missing his hat and sometimes his cane. I have to merge the images by thinking them. Sometimes it actually happens. I’m hoping the doctor can teach me to bend spoons with my mind and then I can take the show on the road.

I think well on the road. So with two hours stretching before me en route to the ranch, maybe I can unravel a problem I’m having with the novel I’m just starting. But maybe I should rehearse the lines of the piece I’m going to perform. Turning some of my fiction into performance pieces is one of the ways I’ve found to be creative away from the computer. For today, I’ve adapted a story to demonstrate how art can be used to stimulate discussion of issues. The piece is also designed to explore whether these kids suffer from a common activist affliction: confident when standing up for someone else, embarrassed or silenced when they need to speak up for themselves.

Maybe I should just enjoy the scenery and let my mind go blank. Blank is what allows new ideas to surface. It can make the difference between carefully crafting what you already know and gaining access to something wholly unexpected. Alas, the only idea I gain today is how I can solve a costume-change problem simply by removing shoelaces in advance from my black running shoes so I can switch in full view of the audience from Guantánamo jumpsuit, hood, and handcuffs to human rights t-shirt to high heels with cocktail party dress.

At last, I’m headed down a long steep dirt road. Then, a cluster of tents, adult mentors, and sixteen young people–male and female, mostly it seems Latino, and ranging from a sophisticated Berkeley student to a young lady who explains the deteriorating quality of her favorite music (techno) is due to interference by the federal government. They’ve been making tie-dyed t-shirts and I smile to hear them regret they were born too late to be hippies or beatniks. They are all part of a movement in Southern California that has already won significant victories. When budget cuts threatened phys. ed. programs in the public schools, the military stepped in to provide free Jr. ROTC programs–especially in low-income neighborhoods. While military training is still an option, it can no longer be required. Firing ranges are being removed from school property. I listen as they brainstorm on means other than war that might help women in Afghanistan.

I’m here to suggest theatre, imagination, creativity as additions to the activist toolbox. After my performance and some initial exercises and reactions, we play a theatre game in which half the group becomes God and half are inanimate lumps who have to be brought to life and controlled. Then they switch roles and we can talk about power and the pros and cons of being leader and of being follower. Did any of them look around to see if someone else’s God was better? No. So we talk about how hard it can be to stay aware of alternatives when your attention is fixed on a single idea–something progressives need to guard against as much as anyone else. We make music on improvised instruments: empty coffee cans hit rhythmically with chopsticks, plastic jugs, shakers, whistles made from plastic straws. We do some quick improvisations: protesters in chains; a judge wearing a wig made from a mop and wielding a gavel made from a cardboard cylinder topped with a roll of toilet paper; a young soldier following a seductive beat. I explain “invisible theatre” in which a scripted incident is played out in a public place as though it’s real life in order to get bystanders engaged in conversation. Today two girls create a scene in which they walk affectionately arm in arm through what they tell us is a shopping mall. Their accomplices then approach kids who play unsuspecting shoppers and get their reactions in order to open up conversation about homophobia and gay marriage.

We try a brief scene in which one person is rude and mean to another and we play it over and over again to see how many different responses are available to the “victim.” Then I ask one of the kids who had just played the mean girl to explain to her best friend how she’d just behaved. She brags about her bad behavior. Then I ask her to imagine telling a therapist. She tells the story deadpan and when pressed, only says she had her period and was in a bad mood. Next, she has to go home and tell her cat. Now, she admits doing wrong and feeling bad. We notice that the cat doesn’t judge her.

One of the kids tells about a boy who horrified the members of the high school Peace Club when he showed up one day to say killing was part of human nature, people have always killed and he’s looking forward to going to Afghanistan so he can have his chance. It’s just as important for activists as for fiction writers to be able to imagine their way into someone else’s experience. One girl agrees to portray the boy–“I really felt like him,” she says later. “Man, that was hard!”–as we try exercises aimed at seeing him as a whole human being. Kids take turns engaging him in conversation, trying to see if they can connect on a human level and what approach will make him most willing to open himself to other points of view.

The sun has come out. I should release them from the workshop and let them hike the trails that wind through this mountain canyon. Unless you know the world is beautiful, why would you bother to save it? And me, I should rethread the laces of my shoes and go with them. But for a while no one gets up. We sit under a blue tarp that rustles in the wind and we talk about the world that is and the world we dream.

AND THOSE SAME 3 QUESTIONS…

1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • Edinburgh by Alexander Chee, recommended on this site, has the most evocative descriptions I’ve ever read of the experiences of singing and of falling in love. Thank you, Cynthia!

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • When they ask for more, give ’em less. (When someone wants to know more about a character, it’s usually because you’ve tried to explain motivation in some way that only opened up more questions. If a character seems alive, rather than explained, motivation takes care of itself.)

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • Desi is usually curled up next to me as I type, purring, her front paws on my thigh, but if she’s elsewhere in the room meowing for attention and I really don’t want to be interrupted, I tell her I can’t play with her right now but I’ll write her into the story. It assuages my guilt–a little. The frequency with which cats appear in my work is a good indication of how guilty I feel.

Books By Diane Lefer: