2010: I turn 53

2010: The new year begins in the deep snow of Vermont. I stay in the dorm, wear my first pair of snow boots, and vow not to waste any more years writing novels that don’t sell. I will go shorter. And I … Continue reading

2009: I turn 52

2009: Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President. After a visit to Bobby in Scotland, Cal comes with me to Sirenland. It’s the only writing conference I know that is spouse friendly. In Italy we make a daily habit of climbing all those steps … Continue reading

2008: I turn 51

As you might guess from the length of yesterday’s and today’s posts–the squares turning into rectangles–writing these short is getting more difficult. The years feel unwieldy now rather than obscure. I’m working to contain rather than to remember. 2008: I start … Continue reading

the wake of forgiveness

The Wake of Forgiveness, the debut novel by Bruce Machart–officially out as of yesterday from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt–has a big storyteller narrator who knows how to describe sweeping panoramas and then move seamlessly in for a close-up. We follow an owl for three paragraphs, then zoom down to a man trying to extricate himself from a fence. On the next page, a rider on horseback notices the man by the fence.

The Wake of Forgiveness has a beautiful, symmetrical structure:

  1. A Winter Harvest: February 1895 (Karel being born)
  2. Turning the Earth: March 1910 (horse race)
  3. A Breeding of Nettles; December 1924 (Karel and Sophie and the baby)
  4. A Sacrament of Animals: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
  5. Meander Scars: May 1898 (the photo of their mother lost)
  6. The Blind Janus: December 1924 (the baby and the 2 brothers the conflict escalates and the fire)
  7. Testaments to Seed: March 1910 (Karel and Graciela)
  8. A Reaping of Smoke and Water: December 1924 (it all comes together)
  9. A New, Warm Offering: February 1895 (the wet nurse arriving)

But what was most amazing were the sentences–both long:

Alive in Karel’s mind is only a whisper of suspicion, one muted by the astonishing beauty of what he’s seen, and he smiles at the fortune of having borne witness to something so graceful and yet so capable and strong, to a girl turned woman before his eyes, to that woman flashing her white teeth at him, smiling because, for her, as for Karel, there is nothing quite so thrilling as a race run on horseback, nothing filled more with wonder, nothing so able to convince you that you are flesh and blood and alive in the world that offers so few joys other than this running.

and short:

The rain needles his good eye, and the sky is dark enough to suggest that the moon has orphaned the heavens.

I heard Bruce read from The Wake of Forgiveness last March in Italy (he was the Sirenland Fellow). On Saturday, he’ll be reading at Cornerstone Books in Salem, MA. The rest of his author tour is online. If you’re in the area, go out and make Bruce welcome. I highly recommend this first novel.

See also this Sunday’s review in the L.A. Times.

four poems

I have a folder where I put poems I’ve printed or been given or copied out of books. Maybe someday I’ll put them in a notebook so I’ll think to look in it more often. Three poems were mentioned in connection with the manuscripts we discussed in my March Sirenland workshop. I was not familiar with any of them. A fourth one I discovered on the same page as the third one. Here are a few lines from each:

1) “After great pain a formal feeling comes” by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow–
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

2) “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone” by W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

3) “A Third Body” by Robert Bly (1926-)

A man and a woman sit near each other, and they do not long
at this moment to be older, or younger, nor born
in any other nation, time, or place.
They are content to be where they are, talking or not-talking.

4) “A Story About the Body” by Robert Haas (1941-)

The young composer, working that summer at an artist’s colony,
had watched her for a week. She was Japanese, a painter, almost
sixty, and he thought he was in love with her. He loved her
work, and her work was like the way she moved her body, used

When I was working on my novel, I would start by reading a poem or two. I think I’m going to go back to that for a while–light a candle, read a poem, get to work….

Do any of you read poetry before writing? Do you have a favorite poem you read over and over?

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if I loved you

When I heard that Robin Black was going to be the Sirenland Fellow for 2009 and that she had published a story in One Story, I moved quickly to my back issues and began to thumb through. I only save the stories I love and pass the others forward. Of course I’d saved her story. She writes the kind of stories I love.

Ten stories, including “Harriett Elliot,” first published in One Story, make up this collection. [no spoilers here] These stories catch the ordinary moments in life–a new girl at school, a neighbor building a fence, a father taking a daughter to meet her first seeing-eye dog:

“As Jack scans the road for signs, Lila is proclaiming to him in those certain tones of hers that if it weren’t for being quite so blind and having to have one, she’d definitely never get a dog. Never. Never ever.”

Notice the way we hear Lila’s voice without the first person, without her point of view, and without a direct quote.

Although I don’t have a favorite story, I do have a favorite first sentence. It comes in “A Country Where You Once Lived.”

“It isn’t even a two-hour train ride out from London to the village where Jeremy’s daughter and her husband–a man Jeremy has never met–have lived for the past three years, but it’s one of those trips that seem to carry you much farther than the time might imply.”

Trees, like guides, have two sides to them. In “Tableau Vivant,” Jean walks her daughter Brooke to her car.

“The roof, sunroof, hood were all splattered with bird droppings. ‘Stupid,’ Brooke said. ‘Acres of open field, and I park under a tree. I was thinking shade, when I should have been thinking bird.'”

The stories in this collection slow the ordinary moments down so that you feel their underside; there’s a pause, and then they expand with wonder. From the third story in the collection, “Immortalizing John Parker:”

“A streetlight comes on. Clara waits to see how long it will take another to join it. A minute passes, two minutes. Nothing. They must have different levels of sensitivity, she thinks. They must believe different things about what darkness is.”

In “The History of the World,” the last and longest story and the only story with more than one point-of-view character, this is from Kate:

“She has been many women, she understands, has slipped surefooted through the years from one identity to the next. Daughter, sister, wife, mother. And now to be this–to be a woman without even the illusion of knowing herself. The sensation is like flight.”

These are the stories of our lives. They are the kind of stories that will crack your heart open. They will remind you, you have a heart, in case you’ve forgotten.

“The idea that as loved as we may be, we may also be forgotten. If only for a day here and there.”

In each of these stories, worlds seem as if they’re about to collide, but instead, they hover–one world on top of another for just a moment so that the light all around changes. Like in an eclipse. And it’s that moment that causes these stories to expand before your eyes.

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four women and a sheep

the Sirenland sheep

One of the great things about writing workshops is meeting other writers. At Sirenland this year, I met four other writers with blogs, which makes them easy to introduce to you. Meet Aaryn, Sariah, Jude, and Renee:

Aaryn Belfer at thematically fickle

Sariah Choucair-Joseph at Yell Softly

Jude Polotan at Oink and Away

Renee Thompson at Bird in Hand

Drop by when you have a minute to read what they’re writing.

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Madame, this is not your day

Because I’m always writing about how much I LOVE traveling, full disclosure compels me to tell the story of my trip home from Sirenland. I am only just now able to speak of this–now that the story has come to an end and I did in fact make it home. As a foil, I will sprinkle the story with lovely photos from the trip.

One of the amazing things about Sirenland is that it includes spouses in the dinners, the readings, everything except the workshops. So my husband was with me in Italy. He and I left Positano Saturday morning around 8:30. We took the train from Naples to Rome. After a pasta lunch with friends near the Piazza del Popolo, followed by a walk to the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps, then a glass of wine in the courtyard of our hotel, I began to feel sick. I went up to the room to lie down for a minute. Then I started throwing up. Which went on for hours. From my bed, between trips to the bathroom, I could see Cal on the balcony looking out at Rome. I could also see a couple across the way. Cal told me later that they were pointing at me on the bed and him on the balcony and laughing.

Anyway, even though I stopped throwing up sometime around midnight, I was dehydrated. My body felt all achy and feverish and so weird that I could not make myself get out of my clothes. Also, I could not stop myself from worrying about having to be on a plane in a few hours.

Sunday morning, I washed my face and brushed my teeth but did not have the strength to dig into my suitcase to change clothes. I told myself if I could just make it to the plane, I could curl up and go to sleep and by the time I got home, I would feel better. I would not breathe on anyone, and I would keep my anti-bacterial gel in my pocket.

At the Rome airport, I accepted the boarding pass the agent handed me, and I checked my second carry-on because I could barely lift my purse. An hour later, as Cal was about to leave to get on his plane (we fly separately), he noticed that my boarding pass had me going to Boston instead of Chicago.

The agent in the Alitalia Lounge helped me untangle the boarding pass mess and tried to reroute my suitcase but no luck there.

I finally got on the plane, took my shoes off, put on my face mask and got under the covers…only to hear moments later that we had to get off the plane for mechanical difficulties. When I walked back into the lounge, the agent who had helped me with the boarding pass was still there and I told her I was on the plane to Chicago, and with her lovely Italian accent, she said, “Madame, this is not your day.” No kidding.

Delayed one hour, then two more. Then they sent us to the airport Hilton to await instructions. I threw off my shoes and collapsed on the bed to sleep for 3 hours. Woke up, washed my underwear and socks in the sink, aired my other clothes, wrapped up in my raincoat, and watched movies on TV. Oh yeah, and the air conditioning was not working in the hotel. When our instructions came in, we learned that we would not be leaving until the next morning at 8, and that we should be at the airport at 6.

Back at the airport on the way to my gate, I got trapped in the train along with two other women. They had to come manually open the doors. Then the plane was delayed 30 minutes–fueling and catering…

By the time I got home–Positano to Naples to Rome to Chicago to Atlanta to Columbus–I had been in the same clothes for 3 days.

So sometimes, although I hate to admit it, I don’t love traveling. There. I said it.

Coming soon: more pictures from Italy, stories from Sirenland, and lots from my workshop with Ron Carlson. Also, on the first, a new guest post in the How We Spend Our Days series!

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I’m in Italy

So sorry for the radio silence but I’m at the Sirenland Writer’s Conference.

I was here for 2 1/2 days before I had a second to log in to the internet, which is the longest I’ve been offline in over a year. And that was just to check email.

I mean, breakfasts, workshops, hikes up the mountain and lingering over lunch and the view. Evening readings.

I’m in Ron Carlson’s workshop. Dani Shapiro is here. Also Jim Shepard, Hannah Tinti, Nam Le and Bruce Machart. And writers, writers everywhere.

And there’s the view.

So much to show and tell. More very soon.

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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some people buy shoes (a prequel)


my latest purchases

I buy books.

I used to feel guilty that I didn’t use the library, but no longer. I look at it this way. By buying a book I’m supporting a writer. If I buy from an independent bookstore, I’m supporting them as well. It’s an investment in what I believe in, with something in it for me.

The thrill of opening a package from Powell’s or Amazon. Or just bringing a bag home from Barnes and Noble, our only local bookstore–reaching in to pull out the books. I run my hand over the smooth cover, breathe in the smell of paper and ink, flip through the carefully printed and as yet unmarked pages.

In March I had to change planes in Paris on my way to Positano, Italy, for the Sirenland Writers Conference. I was sitting next to a 10-year-old boy. As we circled Paris preparing to land, we caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower (which I’ve seen many times since I lived in France for a year), but I don’t know who was more excited–the little boy or me. Every time I see the Eiffel Tower, I’m as excited as I was the first time. That’s the way it is with a new book.

Hence the problem of shelving.

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