You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet. --FRANZ KAFKA
Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Last week, I received an offer to speak at a "Breakfast With the Author" sponsored by the the Cape Cod Writers Center, a distinguished group that has hosted the likes of Mary Higgins Clark, David McCullough and Marge Piercy at various events in the past. This summer, their annual conference will feature Dennis Lehane; former poet laureate Ted Kooser has also been scheduled for an appearance. (Anyone planning to be on Cape Cod in August, please check their Web site.)
Needless to say, I'm excited. And terrified. (See photograph.) Remember, I'm used to serving the coffee at such events, not being seen and oh-my-god actually heard.
Though it's a year away,I decided I had no time to lose; and this morning I started practicing my talk in the bathroom mirror.
"There are two kinds of fiction writers," I said to the amiable crowd.
The polite silence in my sleeping household urged me to continue.
"Those who write veiled stories about themselves," I said. (Artful pause.) "And those who create pure fiction, revelling in the opportunity to make things up."
I'm a card-carrying member of the second group, and was about to tell my cordial audience exactly that when I caught sight of the face in the mirror. She was shaking her head vehemently.
"Pure fiction?" she asked skeptically. "Do you really thing that exists?"
Of course, I was flummoxed. I hadn't even gotten three sentences out, and this upstart was already questioning my writerly wisdom.
I paused again (this time less artfully) poised to tell the rude questioner just what I thought of her.
But then, I realized she was right. I may not have ever composed a brilliant violin concerto, or committed a murder, or caused three men to fall desperately in love with me at one time as various characters in my novel have done, but that doesn't mean my fictional creations don't share my obsessions, my fears, my most closely held beliefs on some level that is deeper--far deeper--than the "facts" of my life reveal. How else could I explain the way those same obsessions had worked their way into every story I attempt to write?
I stare in the mirror, clear my throat, and prepare to start again. "Is there really such a thing as non-autobiographical fiction?"
The crowd sips their coffee, ready to hear more. But just then my daughter calls out, "Hey Mom, what's going on? Are you talking to yourself up there?"
Monday, June 26, 2006
BEGINNING WITH M...
Marilyn Monroe postcard
Originally uploaded by Trevira.
Several weeks ago, Jonathan on CONNAISSANCES, was passing out letters of the alphabet to all takers. If interested, you signed up in the comment section, and he assigned you a letter, which you were to use for free association. I got M, (the Mercedes of letters in my humble opinion).
Anyway, the weeks passed, and I stored up my M like a personal treasure. Every now and then, I took it out and looked at it, considering what use I might make of it, what secrets it might reveal.
I turned it upside down and pretended it was a W. Will, wonder, wanderlust. I turned it on it's side and made a Greek E.
"Not yet," M said, and I put it away in its box for later use, while M words spun in my mind: miracle, Mercury, movies, Marilyn...how could I ever choose?
Then tonight, sitting in my study, I looked over at my bookcase and the M spoke, telling a brief history of my crazy life in the incongruous book titles I've collected over the years:
I MARY MacLANE: I bought this book (published in 1917) in a second hand store in Cambridge, MASSACHUSETTS when I was eighteen. For at least a year, I read from this diary of a young woman living in Butte, MONTANA, on a daily basis. I have no idea if Mary MacLane was heard from again, but her youthful longing and wild loneliness spoke to me like nothing else at that time.
Thomas MERTON: You can open his books anywhere, and find a passage of such complexity and truth that it bears returning to again and again.
Time MANAGEMENT. Never have gotten the hang of it, but I'm a sucker for anyone who promises to teach me.
MESSIES MANUAL: Yes, that's the real title. And I bought it. (Stored on the Good Intention Shelf right next to Time Management.)
Czeslaw MILOSZ: My favorite poet. Profound, earthy, exalted.
MARY Oliver: My OTHER favorite poet, for all the same reasons.
Henry MILLER: Known for his eroticism, but I read him for his exuberant spirit.
Edvard MUNCH. Another book purchased in the turbulence of late adolescence when I thought The Scream represented my changing emotions.
MOMENT magazine with my friend Susan MESSER's award winning story in it.
How to MAKE MONEY in Stocks: A gift by a well-meaning family member, and unfortunately the only unopened book in the library...but that doesn't really surprise you, does it?
Meanwhile, if anyone would like a letter. They're free; they have countless uses; and though Marvelous M is unavailable, I'm sure I have a letter that's just right for you...
Sunday, June 25, 2006
Singing in the rain
Originally uploaded by neloqua.
Last night at the wedding I worked, it rained so hard and so long that one of my co-workers wondered if it was the end of the world.
Water streamed down the brick walkway and into the door whenever anyone opened it; and the tent, which is usually pretty impervious to the weather, sprung some small leaks.
The bride arrived early, looking dismayed and tense. She'd planned everything so carefully. She hadn't envisioned buckets or towels on the floor amid the flowers. She'd been hoping to take photographs on the beach.
I wanted to hug her and tell her that once the wedding began, those things wouldn't matter. I wanted to tell her that marriage is all about the unexpected.
But waitresses aren't allowed to say things like that. I told her not to worry; we'd get the buckets out of there before the guests arrived. I told her the rain looked like it was letting up.
It wasn't and didn't. The buckets remained.
The father of the bride got up and read a poem about true love by Robert Louis Stevenson. The poem said that love makes the day clear and blue. As he read the rain grew defiantly stronger; it clattered on the roof of the tent like a hundred wild horses.
The wild horses said that true love is all about the unexpected.
The band arrived, and they, too, were anxious. There was a leak just over the area where they were setting up. One of them thought he saw lightning over the water.
We brought them some strong drinks from the bar.
But once the music began, everything changed. The bride relaxed into her beauty. The poem suddenly made perfect sense. The musicians forgot to worry about lightning. Everyone danced.
The rain was no longer an intrusion; it was simply part of the music. And like the best music, it was all about the unexpected.
For more meditations on music: Sunday Scribblings.
Monday, June 19, 2006
Originally uploaded by www.DaveWard.net.
My first car was a classic MG.--very cool and European. The gift of a high school boyfriend, it sat on the outskirts of the swampy woods near my house for at least a year.
Over time, the weeds grew up through the rusted floors. They were tall and obtrusive enough to feel like an extra passenger by the time my father had the car towed out of there. I don't remember whether the thing ran or not, but it didn't matter. I wasn't much interested in driving.
My theory is that there are two kinds of people: those who run out and get their license on the first calendar day the law allows, and those who take to the road only when it becomes necessary.
I was firmly in the latter group. I loved walking; our city had good public transportation; and besides, most of the places I wanted to go weren't accessible by car. I wanted to travel to Europe, to see the Great Wall, to traverse the vast inner desert that seemed to grow more expansive by the day.
Still, I loved that car. When my parents argued, or I wanted to be alone and think about the world, I would go and sit in my little European car where the weeds grew wild.
That year I collected college catalogues from every state in the union and a few international schools. As soon as the mail came, I took my brochures into the car, and fingered the glossy pictures, imagining lives I might inhabit.
The mailman said that he felt as if he'd traversed the world just delivering my mail; and so did I. In the end, I think he was a little bit disappointed when I chose the state university.
I read Eric Fromme's THE ART OF LOVING sitting in that car, and thought my life was changed forever. It wasn't, but I can still remember the exhilaration of believing it could be. At any moment.
And mostly, I wrote. I filled dozens of diaries. I curled up in the driver's seat, and made long lists of the places where I would travel, the careers that I would have, the things I would do before I die. Like my dream of attending a distant college, most of those things never happened outside the confines of my rusted sports car.
The MG was nearly buried by the weeds from the swamp by the time it was towed away. Strangely, I felt no sadness to see it go. I was eighteen and hungry for the future. I said good-bye to my home city, to the house where I'd spent my life, to friends and even my beloved dog without nostalgia. I barely noticed my parents' tears as they watched me pack. What was one little car that never ran?
And yet looking back, I realize I traveled further in that immobile MG than in any vehicle I ever owned.
Saturday, June 17, 2006
SEE YOU TOMORROW...
It's a work day, so no words from me today. Just my brand new tux shirt fluttering in the breeze.
And oh yes, a recommended read. In the process of looking for a web site designer, I've been checking out dozens of web sites. So many that my mind boggles. I know so much about author bios and frequently asked questions that I might be pronouncing myself the world's leading expert some time one of these days. (I know; I'm becoming insufferable and I promise to STOP.)
Anyway, right there in the middle of my trolling of author web sites, I accidentally walked right into the most amazing thing: A book! And not just that, but a book that instantly captivated me. In fact, I got so lost in the first chapter of this memoir that I put my quest for the perfect website aside, clicked on Amazon and pre-ordered. And when I was done, I emailed the author to tell him how much his words inspired me.
Tim Madigan's book is about Fred Rogers, the truly extraordinary human being who many of us know as "Mr. Rogers". Oh, I liked the show and so did my kids, but I probably wouldn't have reached for a book on that subject. And I certainly wouldn't have rushed to pre-order it.
And if I hadn't, I might have missed a rare opportunity to be touched by the evolved and loving spirit who Madigan presents in his book.
(Now what was I saying about NO WORDS today?)
Thursday, June 15, 2006
THE TIME TESTED WAITRESS METHOD OF FINDING A LITERARY AGENT
that saucy waitress at the diner
Originally uploaded by the dark.
First of all, a warning: The official definition of The Waitress Method is The Hard Way. It means entering ignominiously by the back door or the service gate. In publishing circles, it's known as the Slush Pile.
It's also, for many of us, who have no Literary Connections or pedigree, the ONLY way. So here goes:
1. You're probably bored with this dictum already, but I have to repeat it, because if you miss this one, nothing else you do will really matter: Write something good enough that people will pay money for it.
In other words, write for love. See vividly, listen intently, feel deeply, store it all up, and when it's ready to explode inside you, give it up. All of it.
I know it's a paradox, but that's how it works. Write because you want to give everything you have, and maybe the world will give back to you. That "maybe" probably sounds unfair. It is. File it under "working conditions."
2. Research like a mad scientist. There are virtually hundreds, maybe even thousands of literary agents out there. Some of them aren't even real bookselling agents. They're unscrupulous fee-charging sharks, whose business is making money off lazy writers' dreams. And yes, I mean lazy! With the abundance of warnings about these predators in print and on the web, I'm amazed that people still fall for their scams. Would you send your child out after dark in an unknown neighborhood? Of course not. Then why would you consider putting the work of your mind and heart into the hands of someone you know nothing about?
The literary guides advise that once you make contact with an agent, you ask him or her for a client list, and inquire about recent sales. But I never queried an agent before I had answered those questions for myself. The information is out there. An on-line subscription to Publisher's Lunch is free, and will tell you on a daily basis, which agents are selling what, and who their clients are. The acknowledgment pages of your favorite books are also great resources.
3. No pressure here, but if you have any hope of being lifted from the slush pile and actually read, nothing short of a fabulous query letter will do. You've got one page to convince a harried agent that you can write something that people will pay money for.
4. Iron your uniform and comb your hair. Remember, you're coming in by the back gate here. You can be kicked to the curb at any moment and don't forget it. Know the rules of professional manuscript preparation and follow them to the letter. If someone has to remind you to include an SASE, you haven't done your homework. Come to work with a hot pink bra showing through your tuxedo shirt, chipped nails, or no bow tie, and you'll be out of there before you have time to mutter an excuse. A busy literary agent will 86 an unpolished manuscript even quicker.
5. We're getting to the heart of the Waitress Method here, so pay attention. (It's also the method that agents themselves frequently use when submitting to editors so there has to be something to it.
Through your research, find twenty agents who seem like good matches for your work. Then query ten of them. Like kids applying for college, mix a few "stretch" or dream agents with some newer ones who work for respectable agencies, but who might be accepting new clients. (Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a "safety" agent in this game.)
6. Expect rejection. Lots of it. So moan, get drunk, do what you have to do, then get up the next morning and prepare queries for the next 10 agents on the list. You didn't think this was going to be easy, did you? It's the Waitress Method, for god's sake!
When those ten go out, start compiling another twenty. The good news is there's a lot of agents out there, even a lot of GOOD agents, so sending out packets of tens, you can stay in the game for quite some time.
7. In the query game, good news usually comes by email, bad news by mail and great news by phone. If things go according to plan, you will get a few emails inviting you to submit your manuscript.
8. Give the agent exactly what they request, no more, no less. Consult rule #4. No hot pink bras or chipped nails.
9. You get an offer of representation! Okay, you want to scream, cry, drink champagne, offer her your first born child. But don't. In fact, don't even accept. Not right away.
10. Take some time to get to know the agent. Talk to them. Is this someone who truly understands your work? Is it someone you feel comfortable enough to talk to about something as personal as your characters and their obsessions. (Believe me, there is nothing more intimate than that.) Is the agent willing to work with you to make your novel, or memoir or whatever the best that it can be before it goes out?
11. Notify any other agents who might have your manuscript that you've received an offer. Chances are their interest will be piqued. You may even get the opportunity to make a choice.
12. So how do you choose? Do you go with the most prestigious house? The most impressive sales list? Those are certainly valid considerations, but at this point, you've also got to trust your instincts. I chose the one whose voice crackled with enthusiasm when she spoke about my novel, the one who I could talk to like a friend, the one who was brainstorming suggestions to strengthen the manuscript even before I said yes.
13. Thirteen is bad luck; there is no thirteen.
14. This is where we talk about what happens if you DON'T get that call, if you don't even get the email. Then you're faced with three choices.
a) You write another book and make it even better than the last one. (I did that my first time out.)
b) Submit your book yourself! As Amishlaw pointed out, a tenacious writer can achieve publication without an agent. Some excellent presses still consider unagented manuscripts. Find out who they are and start making your lists of ten.
c) POD. With low costs, and lots of fine writers jumping on board, POD has become a respectable alternative to traditional publishing. But once again, some publishers are more reputable than others. Refer to #2.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
THREE SUREFIRE WAYS TO FIND A LITERARY AGENT
You can tell a lot about a person by locating the most dog-eared volume in their library. For some it would be the Bible or some other sublime spiritual text. Others would have worn out and marked a favorite volume of poetry, a classic novel or a work of philosophy.
Okay, I love those, too! (she says defensively.) But in my library, the most tattered ferociously annotated book---the one with the most coffee rings and wine stains, the book consulted in times of trouble, the single volume I've laughed about, shaken my fist at and wept over more than all the others is THE GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS.
If I'd applied myself to organic chemistry the way I studied the client lists and sales' rates of my Agent Gods, I would be a doctor by now. if
I studied poker manuals the way I pored over my precious GUIDE, I'd be banned from every casino in Las Vegas. But I wouldn't mind, I'd be rich as Croesus--whoever that is. (If I paid as much attention to classic mythology as I did to the names of the agents who made it to Publishers' Weekly's HOT DEALS, I suppose I'd know that, too. Well, you get the idea.
Anyway, after all these years of diligent study, I've never been awarded a degree or even a cheesy mail-order certificate. What I did get, however, was a literary agent. No,not only a literary agent--but the Right Literary Agent For Me. Not a bad deal.
I also got a title: World's Leading Authority on Finding an Agent. (She says humbly.) All right, I admit, there's plenty of other people who studied the same periodicals and guidebook, and know as much as I do. There are even some excellent websites on the subject. But here on my blog, I'm the Leading Authority.
I'm hoping the knowledge comes in handy, too. From what I've heard, the most common question asked of famous writers is "How do I get an agent?" No one's asked me yet, but if they do, I'm ready:
THE THREE SUREFIRE METHODS:
1. Write something good enough that people would pay money to read it. Then enroll in a first-class MFA program where Agent Gods actually come looking for new writers. (I never tried this one myself, but I've heard it works for a lot of people.)
2. Write something good enough that people would pay money to read it. Then ATTRACT an agent by publishing in quality journals. Amazingly enough, while writers are desperately searching for agents, agents are searching, too. Some very good ones avoid the slush piles and find their clients by trolling literary magazines for signs of promise. the years, I've been approached by some very fine agents this way. For various reasons, none of these ever translated into a contract for me, but it has for others.
3. Write something good enough that people would pay money to read it. Then use The Waitress Method of finding an agent. More on that tomorrow. (You didn't expect the World's Leading Authority to give up all her secrets in one day, did you?)
Monday, June 12, 2006
Waitresses in Sunglasses
The other night around one in the morning, I came in from a waitressing shift, poured myself a glass of milk, and turned on the computer. I read several of the blogs on my sidebar, and tapped out comments when I felt moved to do so. Then I came to Mole where Dale had written about the grace of saying thank you. Just in from my service job, I nodded to myself as I read that people are much more likely to complain about what went wrong than to offer thanks for what went right.
Of course, it doesn't apply only to customers. Just that night, three people had earned this server's gratitude. I thanked all of them at the time, but thought I might add a little public appreciation.
1. First was the dishwasher, whose own job is hard enough, but who came out of the kitchen when he saw me carrying a heavy bag of dirty linen at the end of the night. Though he doesn't speak much English, he intuited that my back hurt and carried the bag outside for me. Then he followed me into the tent and asked, No mas? I wanted to tell him that his kindness was more than enough. But since my Spanish is rudimentary at best, all I managed was an inadequate gracias".
2. Then there was the slightly, okay, very inebriated guest who rudely accused me of stealing his jacket and camera. (There's at least one of these at every function and the server is never the one who misplaced the errant belongings, so the next time you're tempted to--no, never mind, none of you would ever....)
And why do I want to thank an unruly drunk? you might ask. Because unlike all the ones before him, this one came back when he'd sobered up and said he was sorry. I was sweeping the floor of the tent when he returned, and offered a sincere apology. "I had too much to drink earlier," he admitted, looking chagrined. "I was acting like a jerk." It meant a lot, so thank you. And I'm glad you found your camera.
3. Then there was the old man who spent most of the night sitting in a quiet corner, looking slightly forlorn. When I asked him if he wanted to dance, he said he was waiting for them to play "Shine on Harvest Moon". I told him I hadn't heard that song once in ten years of weddings, and he laughed. "Now you're beginning to understand how I feel."
I brought him cake and coffee in his forlorn corner, and we spoke every time I passed. At the end of the night, he sought me out, and reached for my hand. I thought he was just saying good-bye until I realized he'd pressed a ten dollar bill into my palm.
Thank you, lonely stranger. It wasn't the money I most appreciated, but what it represented. The shared humanity that passed between us. The fleeting image of that harvest moon.
Whenever I get a cash tip, I stop on the way home and spend it. It's my way of reminding myself that generosity isn't just a vague intangible. It's something you can use and trade, something that can actually make you stronger.
On this particular night, I bought three cartons of milk. Lactaid for my son who's lactose intolerant, 2% for the rest of the family, and the fat-free kind I always drink. But when I got home, I decided to live it up. I poured myself a glass of 2% and drank it as I thought of everything I'd experienced that night. The milk was so rich and good, it tasted like cream.
Sunday, June 11, 2006
THE ULTIMATE MYSTERY: Where have they gone?
Frequent readers know my devotion to Polish Poets like Adam Zagajewski, and Czeslaw Milosz.
This poem by Milosz is one of my favorites. For me, it expresses the deepest mystery of all
We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.
And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.
That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.
O my love, where are they going, where are they going
The flash of hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles,
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.
Jerzy Ficowski, another Polish poet, who chronicled the Holocaust and wrote movingly about the gypsies in his country, died this week.
When I visited a website to read more about him, I was startled by his face--especially the eyes.
It was almost as if an older version of my own Polish husband was staring back at me. Another mystery perhaps?
Friday, June 09, 2006
BECAUSE THEY BOW TO YOU WHEN THEY SAY GOOD-BYE
Last Saturday night, we had several interesting dinner guests. One of the men traveled extensively in his work. It seemed exciting to me, but his voice was weary when he spoke of it. He had just returned from Korea--his fourth trip to that country this year.
"It's not the same as traveling for pleasure," he said when I expressed interest.
I thought about that. "But whatever the reason you're there, you're seeing, meeting, experiencing. If you travel that often, there must be places you've grown to love."
"Japan," he said immediately, the weariness dispelled from his voice.
And when I asked why, his eyes grew animated. "Because they bow to you when you say good-bye."
At that point, others entered the conversation, and it took a turn as conversations will. People wanted to know if he'd eaten live eel when he was in Korea.
But I continued to reflect on the comment he made about Japan long after the discussion was over. It occurred to me that we don't bow to each other nearly often enough. Not physically or spiritually. We don't acknowledge the sacred in every encounter, every conversation, every parting.
I thought, too, of my parents who always came out and stood in the driveway whenever a guest was leaving. They stood and watched until the visitor's car had totally disappeared from view. Now that my father is dead, my mother stands in the driveway alone.
When I am the guest, I want her to stay in the house. I'm afraid that she'll be bitten by mosquitoes in the summer or that she'll slip on the ice in the winter, that she'll forget to lock the door after I'm gone.
But she never listens when I tell her to go back inside.
"You never know when you might be seeing someone for the last time," she says.
I tell her not to be morbid; but then I understand: this is her way of bowing.
Wednesday, June 07, 2006
GREAT DEAL ON WAITRESSING SHOES and MY OWN FAMILY MOTTO
There are two phrases that sends unsuspecting googlers (a word that suggests waddling duck-like creatures with excessively long necks, huge eyes, and oversized shopping bags) to my site on a daily basis. The first is "Waitressing Shoes." I doubt this overworked pair with the conspicuous hole in the bottom is what they're looking for, but hey, I appreciate the traffic.
Googlers also come looking for their "family motto." Lured by a post I wrote about the unwritten philosophy, the secret mantra that underlies every family, they show up nearly every day. Once again, my personal rant is not what they had in mind.
What they want is something official, the kind of thing that would appear on a coat- of-arms or a family crest. At first, I ignored them, but when the family motto folks continued to show up day after day, searching for the elusive phrase they could hang over the door and tell the world who they are, I decided they might be onto something.
I began to wonder how I'd gotten this far without knowing my own family motto. Maybe that was where everything had gone wrong. If only I knew the meaning of my name, the mission of my clan, my whole life might have turned out differently...
So I stretched out my neck, opened my eyes really wide, grabbed my tote bag, and started my own search. It wasn't Francis that I was searching for. No, what I wanted was the motto for my birth name.
Unfortunately, my name, which I shed at a young age through marriage, was the kind that provided infinite fodder for childhood teasing and adolescent self-consciousness. But now, after living more years without it than I did with it, I sometimes miss it. Not enough to take it back, of course, but enough to feel a certain tinge of regret when I hear it spoken aloud. And no, I'm not telling you what it is. (I didn't get married at nineteen for nothing.)
What I will tell you is my family motto: TRUE VIRTUE RELIES ON ITS OWN ARMS.
Hmm...Very interesting, though I can't say I like it much. In fact, I don't even get it. Does it mean my clan was stockpiling clubs and stones in case the neighbors dropped by? Or does it imply that the virtuous require no weapons? (I prefer the more philosophical reading, but somehow don't think that's what the clan had in mind.)
I think I'll stick to the motto that's currently over our door at home: PEACE TO ALL WHO ENTER HERE.
Tuesday, June 06, 2006
THE WHITE PAGES
One thing a diary records with uncommon eloquence is its own end. After a friend's death a few years ago, I picked up her datebook and leafed through it. It was full of the appointments and memos to self and hastily scrawled phone numbers that daily life spawns. Full of the wildly slanted handwriting that was quite simply her. When I came upon the sudden and irrevocable whiteness of the pages she would never fill, her loss became tangible for the first time.
War is all about the white pages, the abrupt endings, the silence that echoes through decades. In this morning's New York Times there was a piece about the diary of Dang Thuy Tram, a young doctor who died on the battlefield in 1970. It was salvaged by an American veteran named Fred Whitehurst who saw Tram as "a sister and a teacher."
For thirty-five years, Whitehurst carefully preserved it. "Human to human," he said, "I fell in love with her."
Last year he located Tram's mother and returned the document to her.
"When I have the diary in my hand," the mother said, "I feel I am holding the soul of my daughter."
That statement made me think of the words we leave behind, both written and verbal. Are we, as we draft them--sometimes after much thought, but most often carelessly, creating that thing we call the soul?
Somehow it brought me back to a recent post by pohanginapete, who casts great light on any subject he considers. In this piece, he reflected on the now uncommon term "fountain pen".
I wondered: will the people who hold the words that flow from our "pens" in the future experience our fire and humanity as Whitehurst did when a translator first read Tram's diary to him? Will they feel that in some essential way, we are there "in front of them" as her mother did on opening the notebook?
If so, the pen is a powerful fountain indeed.
Monday, June 05, 2006
LOVE AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PURSUITS
William Wolf, the precocious five year old in Ayelet Waldman’s new novel has a lot on his mind. He worries about his lactose-free diet, about ice-skating without a helmet, or getting his feet wet in the park. He frets about getting into a pre-school that will put him on the track to Harvard so he won’t disappoint his high-achieving parents. But it is his unspoken anxieties that underlie and ultimately drive the novel. How does he remain loyal to his mother and still get along with his father’s sexy new wife, Emilia? How does he handle his stepmother’s lingering grief for the loss of her own baby--or her resentment toward him? How on earth is he ever going to have any fun?
I resisted this novel at first--or more specifically, I resisted its protagonist, the self-absorbed Emilia who seduces William’s father away from William and his mother, Caroline and then refuses to open her heart to the child. I didn’t trust this woman with either William, whose care she repeatedly bungles or with Isabel, the baby whose death remains something of a mystery until the end of the novel.
But eventually Emilia won me over with her unflinching honesty. If the reader finds it hard to forgive some of her transgressions, she is even harder on herself. Undoubtedly, she speaks for many stepparents, struggling to love children not tied to them by the inclinations of biology. But what really redeems Emilia is that she keeps trying.
In the end, this novel is a love story--not between Emilia and her husband, who seems to spend most of his time at work, but between Emilia and William. Waldman uses Central Park, the scene of Emilia’s happiest childhood memories and the most painful reminders of her loss as a source of healing for both of them. Taking the fearful William by the hand, she drags him into the land of skinned knees and unpredictable adventure, of secret pacts and muddied jeans that is the true province of childhood--and of that messy, imperfect thing we call love.
Sunday, June 04, 2006
they call it television because brain-corrosive eye-candy manipulation machine didnt score well with the focus groups
Originally uploaded by fubuki.
I'm sitting on the floor. Maybe I'm two or three, but I feel younger. I feel like a baby with my back erect, and my legs bowed out in front of me, and I'm watching TV. My hair is short, and curls in the humid room; it's the beginning of the frizz that will haunt me for life, but I'm blissfully unaware of my it. I'm not aa bit worried about the dimply fat in my thighs either. Ah, life is good!
What I am concerned about and utterly engrossed by is the flickering TV screen before me. But in my memory, it's not only the images on TV that are colored in shades of gray. I'm black and white, too; and so is the room that surrounds me. We've been totally swallowed up by the world behind the screen.
Interestingly enough, the-me-that-was-to-come (self-conscious about her thighs and frequently frantic about her frizzy hair) would not turn out to be much of a TV watcher. Oh, I found it interesting enough. Still do on occasion. It's just that real life with it's books and gardens, its rivers and paintings and people and music is so much more so...
Not so for the frizzy-headed baby who's been trapped in the black and white TV however. In my memory, no one can break through her fascination. Though it's my memory, I only own a small piece of it. I see the baby; I see the room; I see the TV. What I don't see are the other people in the house, or even what's captured her attention on the screen.
But the greatest mystery of all is why this moment? Among all the sensory images in all the moments--why remember this one? Were the baby's parents arguing in the background? Had she just made some kind of baby-revelation about life? (If indeed babies have revelations.) Or was it really what she was watching on TV that made this moment so enduring? Had the baby gotten lost in the magic of story for this first time?
If we could rewrite the things we don't remember, then that's how I would describe this one: the nascent writer beneath her new frizz discovering story for the first time. But I won't. I'll leave that baby there in her black and white world staring at something she will share with no one.
Friday, June 02, 2006
SEE, THERE'S THIS LIAR WHO KEEPS A DIARY...
Unfortunately, my own case bears that out. Can't come up with a succinct pitch to save my life. If anyone asks me what my book is about, I stutter and stammer..."Um, well, it's kind of well...it's a suspense novel." On a really good day, I might add, "See there's this liar who keeps a diary..."
The obvious subtext is the polite assumption I learned as a little girl: Don't take up too much space. Don't be too loud. And never, ever talk too much about yourself.
Ted, on the other hand, can talk fluidly and with enthusiasm about the novel to anyone he meets--from old friends to captive strangers in the line at the grocery store. By the time he's finished, his listeners are convinced that they not only HAVE to buy my forthcoming book, they're ready to pre-order my unwritten next two.
In an effort to learn more market savvy, I took MJ Rose's excellent course, Buzzing Your Book. (Highly recommended to newbie authors, or those who plan to be. There's absolutely no one in the industry who knows more about creating buzz than MJ.) One thing we worked on developing one succinct line that encapsulates and intrigues. Even shrinking dandelions like me should be able to blurt one of those out.
I came up with these options:
a) psychological suspense for those who believe character is the deepest mystery of all
b) sophisticated suspense for those who believe the darkest mystery lies in the human heart
c) psychological suspense for anyone who can't resist a private diary, a locked door, or a closed heart
d) sophisticated suspense for anyone who ever read someone else's diary
and found something they never wanted to know
e) sophisticated suspense for the reader who cares more about why it happened than who did it.
I'd love to hear any and all opinions about which one works better, though if I run into you on the proverbial elevator, don't be surprised if I just mutter and look at my shoes, "Well, um, it's kind of a suspense novel..."
I was always such a polite little girl.