shakespeare days

For a long, long time, I’ve wanted to read all of Shakespeare’s plays–all 38. In June I was re-reading one of my favorite books, The Writing Life, by Ellen Gilchrist. And in it, there’s a chapter about “The Shakespeare Group.” Ellen … Continue reading

scheduling time

I adore this portrait of May Sarton. I used it in a blog post on August 8, 2009. I also used some of the same quotes, but I had a very different reaction to them two years ago. 

Polly Thayer's portrait of May Sarton owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University

There is nothing to be done but go ahead with life moment by moment and hour by hour–put out birdseed, tidy the rooms, try to create order and peace around me even if I cannot achieve it inside me.

As the last days of summer float by, I feel like I’m swimming upstream against them, periodically climbing onto the river bank to put out the next fire. I don’t really think that’s what May Sarton meant by going “ahead with life moment by moment.” And, unfortunately, I’m not even in the same universe with putting out birdseed and tidying rooms. How can I have so much to do?

I’ve been printing blank weekly calendars from the internet and making lists, thinking about the best way to shape the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. On one of my lists from yesterday was “schedule time for reading.” You’ve got to be kidding, I say to my list. It’s come to this?

“That was what I was after–a daily rhythm, a kind of fugue of poetry, gardening, sleeping and waking in the house.”

I like fugue for its sense of interweaving of parts, for its writerly rhythm.

But at the moment I’m not sure fugue is going to get it done. In fact, what I need is a general to command the troops, to whip all these to-dos into shape. And less sleep. Maybe if I get up an hour earlier…

Just so you know, Eleanor Marie Sarton was born in Belgium in 1912. All of her quotes in this post can be found in  Journal of a Solitude, published in 1973.

How about the rest of you–how are your summers going?

under the mercy trees

Spring Contrary has sprung… And with a brand new look. Plus five book reviews, one of which is mine on Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees:

I once stood at my grandfather’s knee, watching him do tricks with rocks. Later I backpacked by myself in France. I married at twenty, became an attorney in a high-powered Atlanta law firm, then the mother of four. With one friend, I walk and talk; with another, I hike mountains and go to clubs in San Francisco. In Mary Gordon’s novella, The Rest of Life, the old woman Paola searches for the wick running through her life that makes her “the same person who was born, was a child, a girl, a young woman, a woman, and now she is old.”

Bertie, however, one of four point-of-view characters in Heather Newton’s debut novel, Under the Mercy Trees, prefers to focus on the mystery of how different we can be…

To read more…

the third residency

Already the third of five has come and gone…

Time’s a goon, right?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010: As usual, the 3:oo general meeting kicks the residency off. At 3:15 we each meet with our class. This is my critical thesis semester–5000 words. (And the reason I’m so b e h i n d with e v e r y t h i n g is I’ve been writing it.) At 4:30, the first lecture: “Story, Image, Idea” from Clint McCown: the story should be told from as far along the action as possible/find the poem in your character’s story/If you want to send a message, use Western Union. Dinner at Positive Pie, then the student reading sign-up, and a faculty reading.

Thursday, December 30, 2010: Staying at Betsy’s Bed and Breakfast this year, which means gloriously delicious pancakes! At 10:00, the third in a series of lectures on “A Fiction Writer’s Vocabulary” from Jess Row: we make it to IRONY. At 1:15, the first workshop with faculty Abby Frucht and Clint McCown.

Friday, New Year’s Eve: my semester review with Dave Jauss at 8:00 am. Ellen Lesser‘s lecture on “Redemption in End-Times America”: “Will we have created something before it all gets swept away? It won’t save the world, but it could be our own sweet chariot.” 1:15 workshops. More lectures and readings. Then an auction and champagne…

Saturday, 1-1-11: Happy New Year! At 10:15, student lecture on exposition, a panel, then another student lecture by Heather Sharfeddin on what happy endings have done to us…more lectures and readings. Our choices of advisors due to the office by 3:00. Advisors posted around 7:00 pm. Connie May Fowler, it is!!!

Sunday, January 2, 2011: Connie’s lecture at 8:45 on uncovering the good and evil in all of us. Cool exercise where we each wrote a “good” thing we had done on a white index card and a “bad” thing we had done on a pastel index card. The cards were put in two separate hats. Then we drew one from each hat and wrote about a character who had done both. At 10:00: Advisor Group Meeting. Lectures. 2:15 workshop.

Monday, January 3, 2011: 8:45 panel on publishing. At 1:15, Doug Glover‘s “A History of Western Philosophy in 45 Minutes.” Really. And he almost did it. At 2:30 Joshilyn Jackson talked about various ways to begin a novel. More lectures and readings. My meeting with Connie. Barry Lopez at 7:00 pm.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011: 8:45 workshop. Early-ugh. At 11:15 Rich Farrell’s great lecture on emotion with a close look at Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America.” At 4:45, Abby Frucht spoke on book reviews. “Join the NBCC!”

Wednesday, January 5, 2011: 8:45: Barry Lopez lecture on authority. Lectures. Readings.

Thursday, Janurary 6, 2011: Informal Talk with author and graduate Lisa Carey. Workshop. Gary Lawrence’s great lecture, “To Link or Not to Link? Is That the Question?” with a focus on Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine.

Friday, January 7, 2011: 8:45 Informal Talk with the wonderful poet Lynn Emanuel. I first heard Lynn read in 1999 at the Napa Valley Writer’s Workshop. Then the last workshop. The last lecture. The last reading. Graduation. Celebration. At 5:00, three of us head out of Montpelier in the sleet and snow with our destination Hartford, Connecticut. You know the rest of the story

the second residency

My second residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts

Monday, 6/28/10: Up at 5:15 to fly from Columbus to Atlanta to Boston. I rent a car in Boston and drive 3 hours to Montpelier, arriving just in time for the last few minutes of the fifteen-minute Orientation. Then a meeting for 2nd semester students and at 4:30, the first lecture–“How We Know What’s Done is Done” by David Jauss: Anne Lamott says that finishing a work of art is like putting an octopus to bed. You pull up the covers and there goes a leg slipping out. At 8:00 Connie May Fowler, new faculty member, reads from her recently published novel.

Tuesday, 6/29/10 (my anniversary and my son’s birthday!): The first workshop–I signed up for a special workshop on publishing led by Domenic Stansberry. In addition to discussing manuscripts, we will each do a presentation on a literary publication. Doug Glover gives a lecture on “Symbols and Image Pattern.” Look at Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood to see how she uses the title image to unify and add layers of meaning to the novel. Follow an image each time it is mentioned to see what story emerges. When you write, let your characters have different responses to an image.

Wednesday, 6/30/10: A poetry lecture by Leslie Ullman on “Dialogue: Engine of the Practical and the Mysterious”–there can be a dialogue between the title and the body of the poem and dialogue between parts of a sentence by using phrases and commas, dialogue between the known parts of ourselves and the unknown, between will and imagination. Our second workshop with presentations on City Lights and McSweeney’s and a impromptu visit by VCFA graduate Vivian Dorsel, Editor of Upstreet.

Thursday, 7/1/10: A lecture by Philip Graham on how to bring everyday skills to writing. A wonderful lecture on landscape by graduating student Robin MacArthur, who is also half of the band Red Heart the Ticker–“our obsessions are key to our art.” Our faculty preference forms are due by 3:00–as a 2nd semester student I list 5. Advisers are posted at 7:30 on a bulletin board. So excited to be working with David Jauss this semester.

Friday, 7/2/10: In our third workshop, we’re discussing manuscripts. Graduating student Rachel Mullis gives an interesting lecture on the novella. Visiting poet Claudia Emerson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her book The Late Wife, reads six poems from that book, a brand new poem she wrote this week, several poems from her book, Figure Studies, and an amazing poem from her book in progress, “Secure the Shadows,” about the photos that used to be taken of the dead. The highlight of the reading was the finale when her husband joined her on stage with his guitar and they put her poem “Aftermath” to music, adding the captivating refrain–if I had a gun, I’d a shot her dead…

Saturday, 7/3/10: I take the day off and drive a little over an hour to Ferrisburg to visit the Kingsland Bay State Park, which used to be the French Camp Ecole Champlain. I was there the summers of 1970, 71, and 72.

Sunday, 7/4/10: An exciting lecture by new faculty member Trinie Dalton on “How Easy It Is to Enter” the abject, the place where meaning collapses. I meet with Dave Jauss to discuss my semester writing and reading. In our workshop, we hear presentations on Kore Press, Glimmer Train, The Paris Review, the Iowa Review. I talk about One Story. There’s a softball game (poets vs prose writers–prose wins!), a craft fair, BBQ on the Quad and later the Talent Show–Red Heart the Ticker plays two wonderful songs. Later Montpelier fireworks.

Monday, 7/5/10: Lectures by new faculty members: David Treuer on “The Art and Sense of Style” (“we want to make style work for us”) and Connie May Fowler on “The Necessary Evil Called Exposition” (“we want a balance between exposition and scene and we want to render exposition in exquisite detail”) We’ve been here a week and everyone (including me) is starting to wear down. The heat wave is not helping. Vermont does not do air-conditioning as well as Georgia does. At the student reading, I read part of my recently finished story, “The Blue Parrot.”

Tuesday, 7/6/10: Wonderful lecture by new faculty member Patrick Madden on “The Infinite Suggestiveness of Common Things” (“I’m in love with essays”). More student lectures and faculty readings and another workshop.

Wednesday, 7/7/10: Last workshop with presentations on Esquire and Harper Collins. Signed semester study plans must be turned in before we leave. At graduation, after the graduate’s name is read, an excerpt of their work is also read. Lovely. It’s time to hit the road for Boston. I arrive in time to see the sun set over the harbor.

Here I sit in my hotel room, looking at Boston from the outside. I’ll be leaving for the airport in 30 minutes, and I’m happy to be heading home. Tomorrow, back to writing.

[you might also be interested in the first residency]

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time to adapt again

I was going to write a bit more about The Maytrees, but yesterday I read a post by Alexander Chee in which he wrote about, in addition to many other wonderful things including the connection between novels and the news, his pre-writing rituals and the need to adapt. This post was timely. For the last few days I’ve been thinking about changing how I begin my day.

Let me interrupt this logical sequence to say I just now realized yet another possible reason why this post came back to me this morning as I was crossing the border between asleep and awake (as I was leaving my sleep–still playing these CDs constantly). One of the things the novel I finished a year ago (and that I have not sent to very many agents yet and that I keep telling myself I need to make time to do so) is about is the impact the news has on one woman.

Nabokov, in an interview for Playboy in 1964, wrote that in the winter, he would wake up to an Alpine chough (which I thought was a typo for church until I just googled it) alarm clock around seven and then that he would lie “in bed mentally revising and planning things.”

Dani Shapiro wrote, in one of the How We Spend Our Days posts, that as she gets her son off on his morning, she tries to “reserve just a bit of myself in that quiet, dreamy state of just-waking, so that once my family is out the door, I can turn to my work.”

For a little more than a year, my black, rectangular alarm clock has been waking me up at 6:30. I get right on the treadmill and watch Morning Joe for thirty minutes before getting my son off to school. This morning, I lay in bed for that thirty minutes and a thousand things entered my mind and they’re still coming. Maybe, as Chee wrote, “It is time for me to adapt again.”

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the first residency

Thank you to everyone who’s asked what it was like going to my first residency at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I think it’s taken so long for me to write this post because, in addition to catching up with life and not getting behind on my work, I was a little too close to it all until today. It was a lot to get my head around, as the saying goes. The words of advice we most often heard were, “Pace yourselves. You can’t do it all.”

Monday, 12/28/09: First semester students arrive. I would be staying in a dorm, Dewey Hall. In my packet is the final schedule for the residency, something I would never want to be without for the next 10 days. The first meeting takes place after supper. First semester students of all ages (lots right out of college) appear to be choosing the low-residency format because it more closely resembles the life of a writer, and it allows for a life outside of school. Students are here to study fiction, poetry, and creative non-fiction.

Tuesday, 12/29/09: Orientation continues with, among other things, visits to the library and getting our picture made for our student ID. Finally, the first substantive event, a faculty reading at 8:00 pm.

Wednesday, 12/30/09: No water in the entire town of Montpelier. A water main burst. Thank goodness I took a shower last night. First lecture at 10:00 by Ellen Lesser on the State of the Story. Students interview faculty at 11:15 to figure out who to request for an adviser. Takes place in a large room where each writer/teacher has a little spot and the students move about asking questions or listening. Think speed dating. First semester students choose eight, any of whom I’d be happy with. Workshops start after lunch, always two hours plus. Two writers/teachers with 12 students, a nice mix of all five classes (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Graduates). Faculty readings. Student readings (I’m first!).

Thursday, New Year’s Eve: Yes, it’s true. I did ask why: lots of faculty and students have other jobs so VCFA tries to make use of all holidays. More lectures, readings, and workshops. A lecture by Natasha Saje on ways to evaluate literary texts. An auction to celebrate the new year.

Friday, New Year’s Day: I do attend the 9:00 am lecture by Robert Vivian on the wonder of the sentence. (I’m responsible for recording it!) In fact, this is a day full of lectures. No speaking required by students. A lecture by Laurie Alberts on 4 choices re time: real time, slow it down, speed it up, compress it. Adviser forms due today. More readings. The list of advisers and their assigned students is posted on the Noble bulletin board.

Saturday, 1/2/10: More lectures. Our first meeting with our advisers. This is a group meeting with the adviser and all his or her advisees. We receive the dates our packets will be due, what the packets will contain, and how to send them. Mine are due every four weeks by mail and should contain a letter/summary of my work over the four-week period, approximately 30 pages of fiction, and a 2-3 page critical analysis of some aspect of craft (just one of these, I think.) Workshops. A lecture by Larry Sutin on how we end up reading what we do in a lifetime. More readings.

Sunday, 1/3/10: Lectures and readings. David Jauss gives a lecture on abstractions (they are a short cut that asks the reader to do the hard part). My meeting with my adviser. We work on a reading list for the semester.

Monday, 1/4/10: Workshops, lectures, talks, and readings. A talent show.

Tuesday, 1/5/10: Lectures, talks, and readings. Jess Row gives a lecture on the fiction writer’s vocabulary (to be continued next residency). Meeting with Hunger Mountain editor, Miciah Bay Gault.

Wednesday, 1/6/10: Workshops and readings. Last lecture of the residency by Phyllis Barber (and last at VCFA for her-she’s retiring) on the craft of writing. Most lectures are not just good but outstanding, and I learn something from each one. This program is so the right thing for me to be doing.

Thursday, 1/7/10: Last workshop, last reading, and graduation. Lecture evaluations and semester study plans must be turned in before we leave.

Friday, 1/8/10: Travel day. My shuttle picks me up at 3:30 am(!) for a 6:00 am flight out of Burlington.

[you might also be interested in the second residency]

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filled up & emptied out

I lie down and get back up only minutes later. I close my eyes and then open them. I’m filled up and emptied out at the same time. Exhausted and yet energized.

I’m on my way home from Vermont College of Fine Arts after 8 days of a residency full of lectures on the wonder of the sentence and the state of the story. Readings of poems, stories, and creative nonfiction. New faces and new words. And more books and ideas and craft than I had when I arrived.

It was a winter wonder land.

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infinite summer

IMG_2267David Foster Wallace‘s 1079 page Infinite Jest has been in residence in my study for 13 years–since 1996. When I first heard about Infinite Summer, I glanced over at the large book on the bottom of my ToBeRead shelf, and I thought nooooo.

Then, after spending about an hour on the website, I got up and pulled the book out and dusted it off. I let it sit on my desk for a day. I was making friends with it.

The Challenge: Join endurance bibliophiles from around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.

The next day I came into my study and there was the book right next to my computer and I thought if I’m not going to read it now with all these other people, I’m never going to read it. Then I thought well, I can at least start it and see how I like it.IMG_2088

Infinite Summer, as if summer, the feeling of lazy reading days and the salty ocean breeze, were to go on forever.

I started late, and so far I’ve been behind everyday. But I’m on track to catch up today. And that’s exciting. It’s so true that social networking has given this project a  “we’re all in this together” feeling. You can find Infinite Summer on facebook and twitter, as well as the website.

I started reading a week ago today, so it’s not to late to join the party. C’mon, is this book on your TBR shelf?

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a bent cover

img_1408Don’t you hate when this happens to one of your books?

I ordered May Sarton‘s Plant Dreaming Deep online.  I was excited as I was pulling the book out of the padded envelope…only to find it had made its entire journey with the bottom right corner folded back.  Aaaagh!  I immediately pressed it back into place.  Weighted it down with other books.  A day later, no improvement.  I admit I had thoughts of giving this book away and ordering another copy.  But I got hold of myself–another lesson that nothing is ever perfect–then took hold of that bent cover, opened the book, and began to read.

Another confession:  In the past, whenever I heard the title of the book, I thought of a plant that was dreaming.  Never once did I consider that the reader was being encouraged to plant dreaming deep.  But before I even arrived at the first page of the book, I came upon the epigraph, four lines of one of Sarton’s poems where a man who has been out roaming comes home “Seasoned and stretched to plant his dreaming deep.”

May Sarton

Polly Thayer's portrait of May Sarton owned by the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University

Plant Dreaming Deep is May Sarton’s memoir about settling down in a house in the village of Nelson, about two hours from Boston, for the stated purpose of rescuing her parents’ Belgian furniture from the cellar in which it was being stored.  She was in her early 50’s.

After a load of firewood is dumped in her yard, she and a visiting friend set about making order out of disorder.  Afterwards she writes, “There is something very satisfying about a well-stacked cord of wood on a back porch.”

She writes about how supportive a routine is, that “the spirit moves around freely in it.”  Just as Annie Dillard writes about a schedule  as “a net for catching days.”

Plant Dreaming Deep is the story of May Sarton’s house, her garden, and her village, what she calls “a tangible reality outside myself, against which I could prove almost everything I had come to believe.”  It was published in 1968.

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The Lucky Ones is Rachel Cusk’s fifth book. 

In it, there is a Contents page, which announces five sections.  Each section stands by itself.  There is a passing reference in each section to at least one character in another section.  With a lovely circularity, the last section ends with, I believe, the only reference to the main character in the first section.

A wonderful collection of linked stories.  But the book, on its cover, calls itself a novel.   Again, I don’t think so. 

Still, the author’s writing throughout is even better in this book than her last.  The final section of The Lucky Ones is my favorite.  In it, she goes into that depth of truthfulness that characterizes a work of substance.

“You’re doing well for yourself,” said Vanessa sourly.

“And all that happened,” mused Serena, “was that I finally worked out that people prefer what’s true to what’s right. 

She writes about shaping a day:  “It seemed to Vanessa that she should do something to please Colin on his return from work, and this ambition immediately rose like a great spire from the humble structure of the day.”

Finally, perhaps my favorite paragraph:

“It was in the mornings that Vanessa most often suspected the existence of a problem.  In the rumpled dawn camouflage of her bed she would open her eyes and think of the coming day and sometimes, just as when sometimes she turned the key in the ignition of her old Honda, nothing would happen.  She lay there, paralyzed by the image of what she had both to construct and then to dismantle before being returned to this same bed, like a book being returned to its shelf, intact and yet somehow depleted of her information.”

the day itself

On Monday, February 26, 1951, John Steinbeck wrote,

“I don’t understand why some days are wide open and others are closed off, some days smile and others have thin slitted eyes and others still are days which worry.  And it does not seem to be me but the day itself.” 

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters

Is this wishful thinking by John Steinbeck?  For surely, it is me.  And not the day itself.  Usually, I have plans for my days–scaffolding, Annie Dillard would say.  Certain things I always do on Monday–exercise.  A particular thing I want to do this Monday–work on my new novel.  And then there’s the email, the phone call, the car that won’t start, the brain that won’t work.  What if the scaffolding comes tumbling down on top of me?  Well, then I can use tape or glue to force it back up or I can pause for a minute to see if a new shape might be emerging from the pieces.

Every day that John Steinbeck worked on the first draft of East of Eden, from January 29 to November 1, 1951, he began the day by writing a letter to his editor, who was also his friend.  For anyone beginning or in the middle of a novel or any other long project, this book is proof that day by day, it can be done.

catching days

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard writes of schedules as nets for “catching days.”  She says, “I have been looking into schedules.”  Then she describes the schedule of a Danish aristocrat living a hundred years ago, who started his day by getting out of bed at four to hunt grouse, woodcock and snipe.   Wallace Stevens in his forties woke at six to read for two hours.  I long to be an early riser.  Yet, on most days, it takes an alarm to pull me out of bed at seven.

Annie Dillard also writes, “There is no shortage of good days.  It is good lives that are hard to come by…a life spent reading–that is a good life.”  Today I’m reading Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk.  It was the 1993 Winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award.  Unfortunately the Whitbread Awards have gone the way of stadiums and are now referred to as the Costa Book Awards, as in the coffee.

That is something I’m aspiring to, by the way.  A first novel.  More specifically, a published first novel.

But back to Saving Agnes, so far my favorite moment is when Agnes is talking to her friend Greta about a weird man, which sends Agnes into her head–one of my favorite places for a character to be.  Agnes thinks, “There was another world beneath the surface of the one she chose each day, a dark labyrinth of untrodden paths.  Its proximity frightened her.  She wondered if she would ever lose her way and wander into it.”

I spend so much time in my head.  The trick, it seems, is how to push what’s in there to the surface.