Weekend Write-In: Books I Will Remember (fingers crossed)

old-woman-reading-newspaper-cartoon_gg61902082

 

This is how it goes in book group some nights: someone says, “Didn’t we read a book about ____?” and then several other people nod. “Yes. Yes. I remember. That’s the book where ___ happened.” Someone else says, “Right! And the mother is ___.” The conversation goes on and on without me because, meanwhile, I am sitting there in a cold sweat, thinking: I am long overdue for a brainscan.

I lead our book group. I choose the titles after serious research. I’ve only missed one meeting in ten years. So, unless it’s Mill in the Floss, I’ve been part of an hour long discussion on every  work . Where, then, are those details that are so readily accessible to others?

When, finally, the details bubble up, one neuron sparking another (if that’s how these things happen), until I follow a blinking light through the darkness in my mind and towards that one gold thread that will lead me to a relief more divine than any reading experience I’ve ever had (and I’ve had any number of terrific reading experiences), I celebrate. Not only am I not losing my mind, I remember that book! The book! The book is not lost to me. Those hours I spent in its company. The pages I felt beneath my fingers. The characters into whose intensely private moments, I eavesdropped.

Eventually, I decided to keep a list of the books I read each year. This mostly helps (though, I confess, sometimes only a few weeks after I’ve closed the covers, I have to check the Amazon review to remember the plot). So, here are some of my favorite titles from this year. I’d love to hear what you recommend!

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher was, by far, the funniest.

Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala was definitely the most heartbreaking, but a beautifully written book.

Why has it taken me so long to read Montana by Larry? It has been on my shelf for years. Thank God, I finally plucked it off. A quick and brilliant read.

Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner. Again, long overdue, but I’ll read it again someday. And again.

A Visit from the Goon Squad Jennifer Eagan (okay, so I’m not exactly prompt with these things)

Good-Bye Shoes Jill McCorkle (short stories). How does she do it? The humor and then the gut-wrenching poignancy?

How to be Good Nick Hornsby. I read this alone and wished (still wish) I had been part of a discussion on it. It raised so many questions for me. Loved it.

One Man’s Meat EB White (re-read). What can I say? White has been my favorite writing teacher forever.

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. I fought to get to page 100 but when a writer examines truth the way Hustvedt does, you have to work at it, and WOW it was soooo worth it.

Family Life Akhil Sharma (If you love the craft of writing, this is the book I would recommend. Stunning.)

So many other wonderful books, poems!!!, stories, kept me company in 2015. I hope the same has been true for you.

 

Advertisements

Weekend Write-In: Go Steelers????

Four days til Christmas. This year, I decided to paint a few directional signs for kicks. I did it last summer and really enjoyed it and people loved getting them. Painting, when it’s sunny and when I have no other responsibilities, is relaxing. I doodled around imagining how maybe I could paint a hundred more or so of these and make a little money. I envisioned all of the other people who might like one and thought about mailing them around to my friends with the names of their favorite places: Truro; Rangely, ME; Misquamicut Beach, Fishing Hole. But that was July. One hundred and forty something shopping days til Christmas.

Now, it’s dark as I squint over the letters. I’m nearly out of black paint and hate the idea of heading anywhere near the mall to get more. Meanwhile, LL Bean is taking its time sending my last few gifts. I haven’t sent out one card. Not one. One of my daughters has so many stocking stuffers, I’m going to have to pile them on the floor while her sisters have a giftcard and a Chapstick apiece. Not like they’ll compare or anything. So much to do for a holiday where there is so much already — food, stuff, errands, traveling, potential to disappoint.

Oh. And I’m writing  a new story. One I’m really excited about which doesn’t happen often in my friction-filled relationship with writing fiction. The new ideas distract me. I’ve taken to recording scenes on my IPhone as I cook dinner or feed the cats or scribble to-do lists.

Also, the late game is a good one. If Pittsburgh wins today (and it’s HARD to root for the goddamned Steelers), the Pats clinch home field throughout the playoffs. So I’m watching, yelling at the screen, trying to curb my innate hatred of the gold and black. The usual.

If you’re keeping score: I’m trying to write this blog entry, add to my new story, figure out how to finish up the Christmas errands tomorrow, keep track of third down conversions, and paint a very long name on a sign free hand since I can’t find the stencils I made last summer (I prayed to Saint Anthony to help me find them, but he is mad at me because I yelled at my dog, and I don’t blame him, but isn’t that Saint Francis’s job, birds and other creatures?).

Instead of coming up with writing advice on my own, I asked my husband, Dennis, instead.

I might add here that, last week as he led a middle distance workout for the high school track team he coaches, he fell in a mud puddle and bruised several ribs so he offers this, between groans: “Keep at it, and don’t listen to the voice that tells you you suck.”

Not bad. He winces and continues: “It’s kind of like running. You have to keep doing it every day. In fact, writing is a lot like running. Sometimes on the days you don’t feel like doing it, you get your best stuff.”

Very true. Low expectations can free you. And what a welcome surprise those days are. How they sustain us through much darker days battling the page.

Of course, some days, you also feel pretty damn good about yourself and end up tripping and falling into a mud puddle while your adolescent charges stand around you either horrified, or, as in the case of your own daughter, laughing hard enough to pee their pants. You do finally manage to stand again, coated in muck, soggy and cold, struggling to draw a breath, but you know you’re in for it. You’re not young, you know. You can’t recover as quickly as you used to.

Oh, and your loved ones are so busy, they have precious few moments to spare for sympathy.

 

Weekend Write-In: Friends’ Shelf

If Mrs. Jacobs was alive today, Taylor Swift would be living in her neighborhood. One summer, the project at Sunnymede, her summer “cottage” was to sit on the divan while one of her new friends (a sycophantic historian who, out of earshot of Mrs. Jacobs and her housemate, Ms. Kimbrough, made frequent references to how close to the hereafter they were), re-arranged their library.

Mr. Dennis Brown (not his real name (yes, it is)), would read off titles and the delighted women would call out: Fiction! Poetry! History! and, most miraculously of all: Friends’ Shelf!!

I had been reading aloud to Mrs. Jacobs for several years before the summer of Mr. Dennis Brown. It had ceased to surprise me that she knew people like Indira Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Leontyne Price, Bowzer from Sha Na Na (okay, that surprised me). But the idea that she knew enough writers to fill a shelf?! Easier to believe that, one day, we could talk face to cyber-face with a loved one on another continent. There she sat, almost completely blind by then, announcing, time after time: Friends’ Shelf! while I, temporarily squelching the nausea Mr. Dennis Brown’s company inspired in me, gaped.

Oh, Mrs. Jacobs, my one true friend for many a Misquamicut-slash-Watch Hill summer. Here is yet another reason why it’s tricky to befriend octogenarians when you are barely old enough to sit at a bar legally. Because when you finally have a Friends’ Shelf in your much more modest library, to whom can you express your gratitude and your disbelief?!

There are other things I do to honor the memory of this friendship, but keeping my Friends’ Shelf is my favorite because, along with marriage and motherhood, with seeing my name on a book spine, this kind of thing came under the heading: To Dream the Impossible Dream. It also comes under the heading: Not Only Do They Walk Among Us, You Can Have a Beer With Them.

Imagine the realization that writers are a) living, b) mortals, and c) people you hug upon greeting!! Sometimes, I can’t believe my luck.

As Wilbur the pig tells us, “It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.” And so,  I honor the following wordsmiths on my shelf. First, old friends Rebecca Kinzie Bastian, Charms for Finding (poetry); Sarah Yaw, You Are Free to Go (fiction); Holly Robinson, The Gerbil Farmer’s Daughter (memoir); Haven Lake (fiction); The Wishing Hill (fiction); Chance Harbor (fiction); Beach Plum Island (fiction); Brian Kologe, AMC Guide to Freshwater Fishing; and new friends, Betty Cotter, Roberta’s Woods (fiction); The Winters (fiction); Kirun Kapur, Visiting Indira Gandhi’s Palmist (poetry); Jane Ward, Hunger (fiction) and The Mosaic Artist (fiction); Myfanwy Collins, The Book of Laney (YA); Cathy Chung, Forgotten Country; and many other writers I’ve been happy to meet along the way .

What about you? Who’s on your Friends’ Shelf?

 

Weekend Write-In: Poetry by Request

100826-helix-asperaOnce upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.

Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.

To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.

Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.

Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.

Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.

These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.

 

This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.

Plum Island and Back

You come here expecting things in pieces:

the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,

crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.

 

You come expecting flight over dunes, terns

diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons

lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.

 

You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,

things you feel you’ve had enough of.  You expect —

no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.

 

But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon

in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,

this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.

 

It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.

He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish

the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.

 

The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.

Weekend Write-in: Even Though You Won the Nobel Prize, My Mother Still Loves Me Better

Perhaps the room looked a little like this?

This week, I travel to Amherst, MA, to read from my new book in the town where it was published. On my walk this overcast morning with Bella, my border collie, I plan what to read, how to introduce things. A fox darts across a long driveway. A droplight still burns inside a carved giant pumpkin. Overnight, the leaves have fallen so everything underfoot is orange and gold beneath a gray sky. The flea market enjoys its final weekend. Bella and I detour through it, the dog sniffing at every post, me on the lookout for some cast-off I had no idea I needed.

I decide to read a couple poems, a section from a story I feel particularly indebted to. My husband has asked me before if I get nervous to read (Anticipating an acceptance speech he had to give at his high school’s athletic hall of fame dinner, he once lost his voice. Once the speech was over, his voice returned full force.). But I don’t get nervous. Instead, I’m excited to make the trip, especially excited to meet the people who brought my book to life.

Maybe I was nervous the first time I read. I try to remember when that was. Meanwhile, Bella greets a lab puppy beside a collection of empty frames and chairs that need re-caning. I think for a moment that it might have been with a lovely group of poets I worked with for a few years when my girls were babies.

But then, I remember: I was nervous all right. The first time I read my work in public was at Boston University. No excitement there: just mind-numbing anxiety and a healthy dose of dread.

Our graduate student reading took place in some dark academic room. We had been given a time limit that I knew would be impossible for me to fill, unless I wanted (once again in front of this not-so-forgiving crowd) to read crap. Let’s summarize by saying: It had not been a good year. But my mother was excited to hear me, and she would’ve been proud if I’d stood up and read recipes for chicken pot pie. Also, this requirement was nowhere near as terrifying as some of the other things we’d had to do to fulfill Derek Walcott’s assignments. So, despite a throat nearly closed shut with terror, I read two poems, then sat down and clasped my trembling hands in my lap.

When the reading was over and we stood in a narrow hallway for the obligatory social hour with juice and store bought cookies, George Starbuck told me I’d won the award for the briefest presentation. This was the kind of feedback I was used to receiving from George. Non-committal and not particularly helpful. Derek Walcott praised a revision I’d made (Yes, I said praised.). This opened up my breathing passages a little.

However, I had no choice but to introduce him to my mother. He told her she had a very conscientious daughter. My mother said she already knew that. Then she added, “So you’re Derek. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Um. Okay, so I thought the reading would have been the most awkward part of the evening, but you never know when my mom is around.

Somehow, I escorted her safely away from the gathering and we left shortly afterward, me relieved to be leaving the literary scene in the rearview, my mother insisting I’d exaggerated my accounts of Derek Walcott. “He didn’t seem very scary at all,” she said.

I didn’t think about reading again in public. Instead, I was relieved to escort my mother onto the Green Line and think I’d never again venture into that mythical room 222 where I had certainly not done service to Plath, Sexton, Lowell, and its other illustrious occupants.

Is it just a coincidence that the memory has stayed buried for three decades, only to return on Halloween? But it’s good to be haunted by certain reminders. I’d like to say I’m not that person anymore. I can fill the time allotted to me. I don’t cringe with mortification at what I am forced to utter aloud. But there’s no such thing as a completely shed skin for this particular individual of the species. A scale or two of the old stuff always hangs around.

I write, in part, to keep those insecurities at bay.

As for my mother, she won’t be making the trip to Amherst. But her lessons always accompany me: when you have the opportunity to meet people who also love what you love — stories, poems, the power of language — embrace it. And if the most intimidating person you’ve ever met in your life, star of your anxiety dreams, happens to be in the audience, smoking like a fiend? Just wave the smoke away and introduce yourself.

Weekend Write-In: Just Say NO!!

Since you're not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

Since you’re not busy, would you mind taking a look at my manuscript?

It took me forty years to admit I’m a writer. First, I wrote it on forms that asked for profession. Then, I told telemarketers conducting surveys. Finally, I tried real people: women at my daughters’ preschool, my new dentist. No one called my title into question. Some people even started using the title in reference to me: “That’s Beatrice’s mother. She’s a writer.”

Then there was the day when I said, “I’m a writer,” and someone said, “Really? Would you read my novel?”

Since I had no idea how to say no, I slogged through page one of Wasted Lives, complete with typos, misspellings, and a main character named Dick. When I set the manuscript back into its shirt box, I lectured myself: I didn’t even know this man. Why would I spend hours plowing through his manuscript? I waited until I knew the author would not be home (these were the good old answering machine days) and then I left a message: “I can’t do your manuscript justice in the limited time I have. I’ll leave it on my back porch. Stop by anytime for it.”

The relief I felt at dumping the mess on my doorstep disappeared as soon as I received an email from a distant relative whose step-daughter wanted to be a writer. Might she get my opinion on her work? Evolution is a slow process, but I began the crawl. “I’ll take a look at the first chapter,” I said.

Thus, I spent a night with Jennie Longwood, a young, gorgeous virgin who meets her true love tending bar in a New York piano bar where she has gotten her first singing gig. Their sparks are only interrupted by a record company executive who asks her to stop by his studio in the morning. She takes the bartender back to her beautiful apartment and has an orgasm. Then I got to page two.

Dear Julie, I typed. How impressed I am that you have the discipline to see a longer work through to its end. I suggested she might sign up to take some writing classes.

For a couple of years, I cruised along unapproached by closet novelists. Then one night when I was running out the door, the phone rang. It was our new selectwoman, an acquaintance whose son went to school with my daughter. She asked for the name of a book I’d recommended at the busstop one morning. I told her and then said I had to run and (feeling boastful), added: “I’m off to my fiction workshop.”

There was a pause before she said, “That reminds me.”

I wondered if she’d seen the press release for my first book. If she would attend the reading I’d be giving at the library. Or maybe if she’d read one of the obscure but lovely magazines that had published my work recently.

Instead, she said, “I was just going through stuff and found copies of a novel I’d written. I was going to toss them out, but then I thought: maybe Carla would be interested in seeing it.”

Clever to frame it this way, no? The way she put it, I could lie and say, “Of course I would,” or I could tell the truth and say, “Throw it out.”

I wish I could say: Lesson learned. Just say no.

Instead, I read the first twenty pages and offered my stock advice about taking a writing course. Since then, I’ve had an almost total stranger send me his daughter’s collection of poems. Although she is only a ninth grader, I am sure you can see her promise. I’ve read shorter pieces for people who preface their queries with, “I’m not a writer or anything, but . . .” I’ve even (once) been PAID to review a manuscript.

But here’s the thing about real writers. Yes. I said REAL. They don’t ask just any ol’ person to take a look at what they’ve done. Why not? Because we’re writers. We understand the precious few hours we have in a day to get to work. We also hand off our work, not to someone we meet casually or someone who can’t avoid a biological link to us, but to other writers whose instincts we trust, whose input we value, whose works we would pore over in exchange.

So what can you do if you need someone to read your work (besides taking a class — still my #1 piece of advice).

  1. Join a writers group or form your own (I hung signs at a local library many years ago and wound up with four wonderful readers who also happened to become my friends).
  2. Offer to read other people’s work in exchange for them reading yours.
  3. Make friends with writers. We hang out at readings and conferences, but we also grocery shop and volunteer in our kids’ pre-schools, and take our cats to the vet.
  4. Of course, keep reading.
  5. Most of all, refrain from showing your work to find out if you are a writer, if you have what it takes. No one wants to read your stuff and deliver that verdict. It might take you a few decades to say it out loud, but if you are a writer, you’ll know it.

Weekend Write-In: What Do You Mean I Have to Sell the Thing?

My book among 1000's at this year's AWP conference.

My book among 1000’s at this year’s AWP conference.

Congratulations! After only ___ years, you’ve published a book! What a dream come true! What a lesson in perseverance, patience, the alignment of certain stars, luck. You’re a real, live author now and someday soon when you’re at a cocktail party (which you rarely are), someone is sure to ask you what you do. I’m a writer, you will say, feeling authentic. And that feeling will continue even when someone asks the next question: What do you write? Chest puffed. Shoulders back. Fiction! you crow. Written any books I might have read? For the first time in your life, you have an answer to this (that won’t insult the general public). Why, as a matter of fact, I do have a book you might have heard of (most likely this guest would not have heard of it, but you get to say it anyway). Aren’t you a fine specimen of literary success? You go off and celebrate with more champagne (which no one you know ever serves at any kind of parties).

I never tried cocaine, but I liken its high to what it’s like to publish anything. You send your darlings out there into the abyss and amazingly, impossibly, someone reaches back through the black hole and says, We want you. You turn around to see if there’s some other more deserving person standing behind you but, lo and behold, the recipient of the miracle is none other than you! And you soar! Briefly.

No matter how many magazines you are fortunate enough to place your work in, the dream is, the dream has always been, a book. You’re a reader. When someone asks you what you would bring to a deserted island, you forget all about water and energy bars, impossible as it seems to survive without a book in your hands. Your name on the spine of one of these mythical creatures? Turbo-charged fantasy.

The reality is, of course, as magical as you thought it would be, except for one tiny thing: now, you have to sell the thing. Suddenly, you are outside of whatever hovel you hunker down in to create. Instead, you are out there where, unlike some famous barroom, nobody knows your name.

According to Forbes Magazine: “There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each.” But know this: for each of those 250 copies, the author did some serious marketing work.

Writers are not necessarily business people. Some of us aren’t particularly social people. But if the first book doesn’t sell, many writers find themselves more hard pressed to find a second publisher than their comrades are to land their first deals.

So what to do? Start with two easy steps:

  1. Develop your network of writing friends. Join book groups, writers groups; take classes; read at open mics. Writers need communities of other writers for many things, but ultimately, these are the people you will invite to your book launch dance party. In the meantime, you will teach each other how to write better, where to send your work, how to court an agent, etc.
  1. Support other writers: Buying books is key, of course, but that isn’t the only way to help a fellow author out. People pay attention to Goodreads and Amazon reviews. Read a book you liked (even if you checked it out of the library or borrowed someone’s copy)? Then give up some love. Tell your FB friends what you’re reading and loving. Attend readings in your area. Faces in the audiences are often much more welcome than book sales. They are, at the very least, more encouraging than row after empty row of seats. Visit authors’ websites and let them know you’re out there, reading, listening, waiting for the next thing.
This is me at my book launch dance party -- highly recommended.

This is me at my book launch dance party — highly recommended.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am grateful and humbled and thrilled to have published books. It’s still hard to believe it happened to me. I’m happy to do the work of helping to sell my books, but it is a role that took some getting used to. The best piece of encouragement I received so far, was from a panel discussion on publicizing books where one writer said, “The best publicity for your first book is, of course, your second.” Nice to know, isn’t it, that’s it’s important to keep writing!