Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A novel should be novel ...

"It's always struck me as elemental,"says Jonathan Karp, "that a novel should be novel." in an interview in the Nov.-Dec. Writers and Poets. Karp is the editor in chief of Twelve, the publishing company. He goes on to say, "I've never understood why somebody would write a novel knowing that the story has been done millions of times before. If your work is not novel on the conceptual level, I'm not sure why you should expect somebody to stop what he's doing and pay attention."

Mr. Karp seems to prefer nonfiction that is serious and impactful. He publishes twelve books a year and gives each great attention and publicity. He goes on to note that no less a novelist than Norman Mailer once predicted that novelists would come to have "the cultural influence of landscape painters." This makes Mr. Karp conclude, "if you're setting out to write a novel, or literary nonfiction, for that matter, I think you have to have very high standards."

Mr. Karp's comments leave me feeling pulled left and right at the same time. I search for those novels with something novel to tell me, I try to avoid the ones that offer nothing new [or novel] and I feel cheated when I am disappointed by the same old, same old. On the other hand I began a novel in the NanNoWriMo frenzy and am now struggling to find out how it ends. While I think the characters are novel and are unlike ones written about previously I'm wondering about how high my standards are for my own work. I'm having such a good time getting to know my characters and trying to figure out how to make them vivid and alive that my writing time seems almost playtime. Probably I'm aiming for a nice landscape painting. I will not submit it to Twelve, I'm not even sure I'll be able to find anyone to publish it. But I am not young and ambitious as I once imagined I was; I am now older and more easy going with myself but my opinions and standards for works of art have become more demanding. So a double standard ... not such a novel situation.

[the photo is in Cracow - it feels like a moment in a Central European novel - could the lone young man be a novelist?]

[Second thought: I don't believe I ever enlarged this photo before. I certainly didn't look carefully at the man in the background. It was quite early in the morning and I was wandering around before breakfast as I'm apt to do when traveling, hardly anyone was out yet. Now that I look and think about it, the man seems to be using that pretty building as his personal urinal. Hmmm....]

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Tuva or Bust

We have a super used bookstore on Main Street, Hyannis. I try to restrict myself to three books a visit. On my last visit I bought Tuva or Bust by Ralph Leighton. Published in 1991, it was about attempts made by Leighton, his friend the eccentric Nobel laureate in physics, Richard Feynman and assorted friends to visit the tiny country of Tuva mainly because it's capital has no vowels, Kyzyl however is pronounced as if the Ys are vowels. Tuva also contains a monument by a little known adventurer named Proctor who tried to visit the absolute center of various continents. Apparently by Proctor's calculations Tuva is at the center of Asia.

I tried to find a map of all of Asia that showed Tuva but failed. The map below is of Russia, Tuva is in blue, and you have to imagine beneath it Mongolia, then Tibet [okay, imagine all the territory China claims plus it's legitimate land mass, and below that India and all of the countries of southeast Asia. Then to the east beneath Russia all the countries we are now hearing more than enough about, the "stans" Iraq,Iran, and all the Middle Eastern countries. Makes you wonder if Tuva is really the center of Asia.

The book is a fun read from this distance because most of it is about trying to deal with late cold war Soviet bureaucracy. I did know about Tuva, partly from having gone to Mongolia and hearing a great deal of throat singing, which was apparently invented in Tuva. It's musically amazing!! Recordings are available. The difficulty was so great that Feynman actually died before the permissions came through. I love reading about travelers, especially when I can learn things I didn't know about the geography and people and politics of a place. Hurray for used book atores.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Latest Terrorist

Airline security is a major sore point with me. I totally despise the attitude of the security people in airports. I am a plain white haired old lady, to the best of my knowledge I have no FBI or CIA files. I definitely know I've done nothing that would warrant the attention of either organization. Nothing about me fits a terrorist profile. But I, ring the warning bells with my artificial hip. I have a card that says I have a artificial hip. No one at security cares about that, I'm told to stand aside and then am thoroughly patted down, wanded and once went through a "puffer" machine [I don't know what it's called]. I consider all of this unnecessary and invasive of my personal dignity. That's my rant.

So why is it that the airport security spends their time and effort harassing ordinary citizens, making us remove our shoes and discard our water bottles, but they do not give extraordinary attention to a person on the terrorist suspect list and allow him to board an international flight where he presumably spends several hours savoring what he thinks will he his final ones before attempting to detonate whatever kind of device he carried on board? The security system seems to be planned for maximum tyranny and harassment of ordinary passengers but don't have a method for truly examining person on their terrorist watch list. El Al has been doing it right for over twenty years. Why can't American airlines learn from others' experience.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Lost Glove



The lost glove,
frozen stiff,
pointed at footprints
in the snow
leading to my door.

Not an intruder.

My own steps
as I came home
on a cold winter night.

[sorry about stock picture with steps going the wrong way.]

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts

Dense books take time to read so I've been working on Sven Birkerts' Gutenberg Elegiess for a week or more. To greatly simplify: he bemoans what seems a cultural change for the worse, i.e., serious literature has become so marginalized that it has no real cultural influence anymore, in contrast to, say in the 19th century and first half of the 20th. He makes a good case and I agree that we as a culture are and will in the future be poorer because we are overloaded with information and entertainment but are not challenged, and rarely challenge ourselves, to look deeply at ourselves or our cultures. And we certainly do not go to serious literature for insight.

Two things came to mind when I closed the book: I'm tardy in reading it, for it was published several years ago and probably written about 10 years ago. He emphasizes the digital takeover but he wrote before cell phones, iPods, internet social networks -- all of which have been electronic kudzu burying, choking and cloaking many people's individuality and stifling thought.

But, to counter some of the fear and trembling Birkerts inspires there is a movement towards meditation and inwardness. I see it most promisingly in the Buddhist varieties but there are Christian groups as well that truly try to look beneath superficiality of every day life. It's far from a majority but it is a growing movement. Serious writing of all sorts is very marginalize, but it's not dead but the voices are difficult to hear in the cacophony.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Done! Well, almost...

A couple of hours of shopping, and about half an hour of VERY slow traffic, and I am done with purchasing Christmas gifts. I came home and wrapped them ... well, I'm almost done. Doesn't something always remain as a tag end? One gift to go but it is one of those "make a donation in my name" kind of things and I know what I'd like to donate to but I don't know if that's particularly appealing to the giftee. So I'm pondering. I've got time as he's out of touch during the week so ... I can procrastinate. That is one of my premier traits; I've been working on perfecting it most of my life. That's why, only there days before Christmas, I finally went and purchased the last of the gifts.

Going to the mall was insane! But I wrapped myself in my down jacket and a resolve to be patient and off I went. I thought parking will be a nightmare, for a bit it seemed like it was, but then, moving from back lot to front lot a space opened for me, magically almost. When done there, at the next shopping area, same thing. This used to happen often 30 years ago when I lived in mall-land [not NYC where I had no car]; it seems to be happening again. Why this luck? Many things do not have explanations and I can just accept them and not look for "why?" when it's good, like a very nice parking space, I notice and I'm happy. I believe it was Ben Franklin whose quote I read in a blog recently but cannot recite verbatim. The gist is that true happiness is the little every day pleasures, not the big wish-come-true that hardly ever happens. We know it's happiness when we pay attention to those small pleasures -- the car backing out of the parking space just as you turn into that lane. My word is serendipity.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Deep reading

"Deep reading", a term I came across in some casual [definitely not deep] reading referred to The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts. Oh, I've got that book, I remembered. I've had it maybe three years. What does he call deep reading? I thought it would be pondering the philosophers or digging into literature as the New Critics did mid-20th century dissecting structure, etc. Happily not the latter although I studied with New Critics way back when. And strangely not the former which surprised me.

Birkerts believes that serious literary novels have a deep impact, they change our personality because we live the experiences within the story as vividly [sometimes more so] as our own lives. He believes those of us who read intensely acquire complex ways of seeing the world and [in my words] live a more richly nuanced life. I've looked for quotable take-outs to quote but he is not that kind of writer. He emphasizes, as I would also, that the novels must be literary, serious writing. For example, we white readers can know the worlds of black experience through Toni Morrison with reality that would be impossible otherwise. This, of course extends to writers in other countries and of other time periods. I have lately explained to friends that I rarely read American writers because I know American life, I would rather read Coetze or Julian Barnes [as I am right now], a Norwegian, German, Chinese, Indian writer, etc. to see the world their characters live in.
Birkerts' book was mostly reviewed because he believes such reading is in danger of disappearing, that, in fact, books as we know and love them, are on their way out of general use. I hope he's a premature alarmist but, sadly, I think it may be true. What is disturbing is the shallowness of experience available to people who do not read, the visual media which is omnipresent does not contain the layers of psychology and story telling and experience available in the novels of fine writers.

It's a huge subject, I'll be pondering it a long time, meanwhile reading as many good novels as I can, mixed in with nonfiction which may not change my personality but gives me perspectives consider. [Top picture if Mary Cassatt, bottom is Berthe Marisot]

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Winter approaches

Winter will be here in just a few days. Yesterday could be called "nippy" but it was sunny and I took a decent sort of walk since I'm a firm believer in "use it or lose it." I believe much of the reason my age group have so many aches and pains is they sit around and get stiff and then the body screams at them for moving those joints. If you keep moving them they won't scream at you. So I walked and it felt very good. I came in with rosy red cheeks.

Today was sunny too, but notably colder and I have been in a cleaning mood, I had a bag of things to take to the Goodwill shop. So I drove. Being there, of course, I had to check out the store. There were unopened rolls of nice wrapping paper for 50 cents each [$5 in the stores], and, being chilly, I had to check out the fleece and sweaters. I'm feeling the need to go along with the native folk costume, fleece and knits over T-necks. So I found two warm tops at $5 each. This is a sensible way to dress but was quite unnecessary in overheated NYC. Can't beat the prices. So let the solstice come! Two months of cold also means that in two or three weeks the light will noticeably begin to return, days lengthen. It's an uncertain world in many ways, but this we can count on, global warming or not, the great Earth keeps turning and tilting predictably.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Cascade effect

At times doing A leads to B, leads to C and soon you're at Z and nothing is the same anymore. It's called the cascade effect. It happened to me today when I had to replace a light bulb. I didn't like another light where it was so I decided to change it. C lead to D lead to E ... Now almost everything in my living room is in a different place. I finally hung the last unhung picture, I cleaned off my desk -- yippee! -- I sorted books and magazines. I got so enthusiastic I changed the bulbs in the kitchen's daunting fixture, I changed the drapes at the windows. I think I like it, but I'll have to live with it a while.

The photo above might be called a cascade but that barely covers the majesty and magnificent of the mighty Victoria Falls. "Oh, I don't care much about seeing it," said I chavansitically. "I've seen Niagara." WELL! This is only one of half a dozen pictures I took of the falls. Some places I could not take a picture because the air was so full of spume everything not tucked away in a backpack got wet, including me. I never saw the bottom because the spume was too think. It was the rainy season and the great Zambezi River was very full. Victoria is about six Niagaras and I may have been humbled enough to never be ho-hum about natural wonders again. I'm having these vivid and valued memories while recouping from my cascade of home rearrangement exertions.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Scandal of the Week


I am so tired of the scandal of the week mentality, I can barely stand to go to my AOL homepage which wants me to think that Tiger Wood's philandering is important. Last week it was someone else and when they can't find the scandal of the moment they look at child stars to see if they can find a sob story. BARF! Forever and ever men have wanted to sleep with more than one woman -- many women want to sleep with more than one man. This is not news, it is not interesting. It is supremely boring.

Do headline writers think we're all stuck at age 12 tittering about who kissed who? We have an ugly war going on, we have major legislation in Congress, we have world climate controversy in Copenhagen, the rich guys on Wall Street continue to find ways to stay rich while most of us get poorer and poorer, the ugly murders continue. I am insulted by headlines telling me about Tiger Woods "alleged mistresses." What does this old fashioned word mean, anyway? Now that they've smeared another hero who will be next? I really don't want to know about it. I'd like NEWs, not the same OLD, same OLD. End of today's rant.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Big Pharma

Today the Sunday NY Times had an article about "big pharma" which creates a drug for everything, be it a disorder, disease, or delusion. The picture is of benzodiazopines [psychotropic drugs]. I have strong feeling about big pharma because in my former job when I transcribed many meetings and events held by the advertising agencies which promoted the products of big pharma, I developed many strong feelings about just how they operate and bend our minds.

Today's article in the Times business section was especially about a "Viagra for women" but covered a lot of other territory. I was especially stunned by a picture of a woman in an ad who said that she had been using Prempro for 16 [yes, 16!] years to control the symptoms of menopause such as hot flashes. Has any woman ever experienced hot flashes for 16 years?

The average American consumer cannot have sufficient information to understand how he or she -- and the doctors who "treat" them -- are influenced by advertising. I vividly remember the day a cardiologist wrote a prescription for Lipitor for me because I had a somewhat obstructed left ventricle. I told him that a week earlier I had transcribed [in my job where I transcribed all kinds of meetings] a talk by one of the Nobel prize winners who invented statins, the drug category of which Lipitor was then [maybe still is] the biggest seller. This brilliant scientist, by then retired and an aging [therefore not entirely esteemed] figure, said that he had been working for years to figure out why statins seem to help only 17% of the people who take them. 17%, it seemed to me, was a VERY low percentage. But my cardiologist said, "Well, we'll hope you're in the 17%." He did not believe me nor the Great Man, he believed the propaganda of Big Pharma and the guidelines of the American Heart Association which, in turn, believed Big Pharma.

My point is that although I knew the point of taking that drug was not necessarily good medicine [I do not now take Lipitor!] it was pushed at me. This is only one example of many hundreds -- like that unquestioning woman who has somehow thought she needed something to help with hot flashes for 16 years -- something, by the way, that has been shown to contribute to breast cancer in many women.

How can we be smart enough and informed enough to understand what we might be putting into and doing to our bodies? Most of us would rather live our every day life than even think about the question, let alone do the research to learn even a little bit about it. We want to trust the experts. But many of the experts mainly want to sell a product and the doctors want not to be sued for malpractice because they didn't prescribe something that "might" be helpful. This is an ongoing rant of mine. I try not to give in to my cynicism and anger -- but then I read an article that doesn't even bother to point out that 16 years is a ridiculous amount of time to take a drug for a symptom that few experience for more than a year or two.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mature Brain

[Image of human brain while doing yoga] ... A brief but satisfying conversation last evening with a psychiatrist at a social gathering where the topic was writing and performing. I mentioned that since being retired I've found writing in new forms {especially short story] flowing on demand -- maybe not wonderful poems, short stories or the NaNoWriMo novel but easily written. The images and voices come and the word follow effortlessly. I trust the subconscious to continue yesterday's story when I have left it although I do not know where it might go and only sometimes know how it will end.

Said he, "It's neurological. The mature brain has acquired that ability, it's a fact." There were many other people around, interruptions, I wanted to ask for sources, for references to research. He seemed so certain and factual, I believed him. I've followed a lot of the brain research with Tibetan monk meditaters and of people doing yoga -- MRIs very definitely show changes in parts of the brain used. I find all this very exciting. It is also part of the reason I feel older people who have written little but now want to should not only be encouraged to "just do it" but should also be offered pointers and structures toward good writing that goes deeper than the surface, tells more truth than the sentimentalities and nostalgia I see too much encouraged. The capability is there, let us not be afraid of the truths we have learned through all our living.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Smara, a dreadful journey

I am a slow reader. Some books I read very slowly because they are difficult and I need to taste them in small spoonfuls. Some books are too painful to read all at once because they engage my imagination in a world I would only wish to enter vicariously, often one that is totally foreign to my experience and I would not wish to actually live it.

Smara, Journey to a Forbidden City by Michel Viewchange is the latter. With the romantic sense of adventure of a very young man, French, he decided to be the first European to go to Smara, a ruined city deep in the Sahara which in 1930 was peopled by warring tribes of Berbers. He enlisted a guide who enlisted three others. Michel traveled partly in the disguise of a woman, sometimes in male clothing. He could not speak the languages although he picked up some, apparently enough to curse at his guides when ill treated by them. It was a torturous journey, physically debilitating. He kept a diary and took photographs, the book is his diary, reading it is very painful and strangely not monotonous although it is repetitious, sores on his feet, marches over various dessert terrains, long periods of waiting in a village, in a lice infested room, terrible food, bad water when it was available, etc. He reached Smara, was there only three hours and hurried away by his guides who were terrified of being found by local tribals.

Throughout the most vivid picture is of the men he must trust although they are not trustworthy. The men of the region are illiterate, they are constantly aware that all others are dangerous. They live the lives of wild animals, constantly thinking only of safety and food, sometimes scheming against one another. They are capable of amazing physical feats, marching across the dessert for 80, 90 miles a day, wearing out their camels and themselves. Always on guard, always fearful. A terrifying way to live, perhaps the way human beings have lived in some parts of the world for thousand upon thousands of years.

Michel Viewchange reached his goal and was exalted by that accomplishment. He was so physically devastated, however, that he died of dysentery a couple of weeks after he returned to a French held town where he met his brother a doctor, who had helped him plan the trip. Knowing this at the outset made reading of his physical endurance bittersweet. The book is a classic of travel literature that I had read references to. I found it in a second hand store. One of the readings in the I Ching says we are the sum of all we put into our bodies and minds, which of course is true. I try to live vicarious journeys like this, which my imagination lived vividly, to understand the varieties of human experience. I'm happy i finally found this book.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The First Emperor, opera


Tan Dun's The First Emperor is that rarity, a new opera commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. I had not seen it but in the class today they showed a DVD of the live performance shortly after it opened. I expected to dislike it and possibly leave at the midpoint break. But I stayed, held by curiosity not delight. I was often fascinated by the musical instruments and their players [the drummers who held stones in their hands, for instance]. Very much so by the occasional visions of the composer conducting -- so alive, so totally a part of the music. When the Met wishes to present grand opera no one can do it grander -- the set, the lighting, the costumes, the choreography, the stage direction were all spectacular and beautiful.

The story was simpler than it needed to be, the various plot moments sometimes seemed like plot months. Although sung in English subtitles were a great help, although the poetic was sometimes pathetic. Although there was a final great peaon to "China" the anthem that was a propelling motive was that of the hapless and almost hopeless laborers, the untold thousands who built the great wall under the whip. The first emperor was a despot upon whom Mao could have modeled himself [possibly did]. A book burning tyrant who, unlike Mao [and the current crew] actually allowed someone to call him "tyrant" to his face, and listened, but did not learn from, criticism. [I take this as purest fiction.] One cannot see this opera without political thoughts, of course. It could have been shorter and more powerful. I'm glad I saw it. It's rather like reading a book that is hard to get through, but that finally gives one food for thought. I've gone to Wikipedia for reviews and will go back and read more. This is probably the one mentally challenging bit from my foray into "adult education" this fall.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Owls and Other Fantasies, Mary Oliver

"Imagination is better than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work." This quote is the end of a poem, "Yes! No!" from the very lovely little book of Poems and Essays by Mary Oliver Such serendipitous things happen, I think, partly because I try to follow her advice and pay attention. Some of that paying attention is acting on impulse, which is a matter of paying attention to some not-quite-verbal inner impulse.

In her well known poem, "The Summer Day" she told us she knew how to pay attention and proved it in a few lines describing a grasshopper. Here she offers another thought to ponder: I believe "imagination is better than a sharp instrument" but, at the same time, I believe we must use our logic as a sharp instrument to cut through some of the inanities that imagination run rampant comes up with. Imagination is an instrument of all our needs and neuroses as well as a conglomerater of all that we have paid attention to. The latter function is a tool of wonderful poets like Oliver and of all find writers, especially novels. But we need that sharp instrument when we consider the products of our imagination.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Tapping Talent

I wrote with discouragement a couple of times about the writing class I'm taking at the adult ed division of local community college. All is not despair. Throughout the course, but especially today, I have watched one man find his voice. At introductions he said he had only written dry science-work related stuff but he wanted "to tell stories, true stories." He wrote well about his love of a sailboat, he wrote touchingly of helping his wive deal with neuropathy, he wrote movingly of his work as a hospice volunteer. He is open and honest and straight forward.

Today he wrote of an encounter with a coyote and his search in his neighborhood for the horned owl he heard on summer nights. He even described stalking through the densely settled neighborhood on an August midnight in his underwear, dodging behind bushes when police showed up. He did not see the owl but he learned lessons about himself and about wildlife which he told using poetry as his reference. His work was very beautifully done.

It is a thrill to watch a sensitive person opening his personality, at 67 years old, and finding expression not only of an incident that could happen to anyone such as seeing a coyote cross in your car headlights, but in an active pursuit of an experience, searching for the owl and finding himself something of an outlaw in the staid neighborhood where he lives. He has found this voice simply by coming to a welcoming class. He has had no instruction, no editorial input. He wanted to write and his personality is such that he wants to write truthfully, not hiding behind any reticence or ego need to be a certain kind of person. He is truly a writer. I'm thrilled for him.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A white haired old lady

At 15 a beautician cutting my hair said, "You have some gray hairs." For many years I did my part to support the bottom line of Clairol and L'Oreal. At 40 my hair was very salt and pepper-y. It's been truly white for a good while. I like it that way!

In the past week two clerks in two stores where I would never think of asking offered me a "senior discount." I don't know if such discounts are particularly prevalent in this part of the country, if it's a result of the recession to encourage return visits or if it's becoming the rule in general. I like it!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Getting aculturated

[Dawn over the parking lot]


Shopping in a real department store this morning I realized I have to think about how I want, and need, to dress for the coming winter season. My life is different and as I look around I see people are also dressing differently. I have a collection of cashmere sweaters [mostly versions of NYC black/gray] and I normally have worn with black/gray pants. Fine. But now I'm home most days, and when I go out even that casual sweater and pants combo is dressier than the people around me who are in fleeces and fisherman sweaters, jeans and sneakers.

Then there's the simple practical matter of how to be comfortable. In my nearly 100 year old Manhattan apartment building the steam heat was controlled by management. It came on Oct. 15th and was shut off May 1. The radiators had been painted so many times the handles to adjust the amount of steam were long ago painted solidly open. Anyway, I always used the radiator cover as an extra shelf from which I did not want to move things. Therefore the apartment in winter was often nearly 80 degrees. When too warm I opened a window the amount needed to adjust the temperature of the room.

Not so in this more modern apartment. I can adjust the thermometer but it seems profligate and actually ridiculous to set it over 68 or 70 and I know most people keep their homes at about 65. Here people wear sweaters and fleeces and sweatshirts at home all winter. This makes sense to me although I feel a little cool doing so. I can adjust and I WANT to adjust. I think it's better for me and for the environment. That is what I was thinking as I shopped. Adjustments. A different way to live even when alone at home, all because I moved 250 miles north to a different milieu.

Winter is coming. I KNOW winter from years of living upstate in New York. Winter in this kind of place can be very different from winter in NYC. This morning I saw someone in the parking lot scraping ice off the car's windshield. When I went out almost two hours later the sun had melted the frosting on my windshield but this was a harbinger. I will adjust ... probably while wearing a layer of fleece.

The Sound of Fear

In an forum I read, the line, "What is the sound of fear" was given as a prompt for a poem. It seemed almost as enigmatic as the well known zen koan, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" I thought of fear for several days. Here is my answer.



What is the sound of fear?
A shriek? And eek?
Whimpers? Moans?
Mute silence?

Once fear abounded
in dark forests,
outside the walls,
beyond the boundary.

Fear once frightened us,
paralyzed and choked us.
Now it is tame or neurotic
or entertainingly titillating.

Here we buy tickets
to be frightened on the rollercoaster,
to scream at movie monsters and disasters,
or to bungee jump to conquer terror.

Safe and arrogant old men
send boys to far away wars
where fear is not a game
but part of their day's work.

Soldiers hear the sound of fear
when their comrades vomit
their own teeth chatter
they hear the rattling breath of death.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Spacey -- like it that way

Yesterday's On Language column in the NYTimes Magazine was worth reading because I learned things I had never heard before about something I've taken for granted. I love this kind of discovery. Caleb Crain wrote about why we put spaces between our words as we write. So people can read it easily. "Elementary, my dear Watson." Well, yes but there's history. In the earliest writing there were no spaces. Then for an unknown reason spaces were used a short while. But then they were lost again -- we are talking about the Western world. I have no idea what was going on in China or India. Says Mr. Crain, spaces weren't very important because all written language was phonetic and read aloud [to be memorized says he, although I think that's a questionable conjecture].

When the monks of the dark ages set about copying manuscripts, they did so in stone walled cells so they could read aloud as they worked in order to make sense of what they were doing. And so their voices would not distact their colleagues. But in the 7th and 8th century it seems priests reading Latin, in England and Ireland [what about elsewhere? We don't know.] had such a hard time that they began asking for spaces between words. This became the norm. Then, says Crain, reading silently became possible, which let individuals ponder about the meaning of what they were reading. And thus philosophizing came into fashion. Now I"m mutilating Crain's essay a little because I don't know how he knows what he says although I'm willing to accept that one can look at ancient manuscripts and see if they have spaces or not.

I had a taste of how difficult reading writing without spaces is when I read a book last summer called "The Singing Creek Where Willows Grow," which combined a biography of a child prodigy, Opal Whitely, and her childhood diary. She learned to read and write at a very young age and wrote with crayon, pencil, whatever she could find, on whatever paper she could find. There were photos of the actual diaries which were all in caps and without spaces and words ran over to the following line as well. At first glance it was utterly impossible and as I looked at it I saw that I could only begin to read it if I mumbled the words as I went along. Fortunately for the reader, at a later stage Opal actually transcribed her own childhood diaries into readable typescript. The diaries, by the way, were amazing to say the least. She had an incredible imagination and lived a very rough life in a logging community and was often whipped by her mother -- but never seemed to resent it. That is beside the point about spacing. Thank heavens we use spaces now -- but now we're slipping into emoticons and acronyms to the point of near unreadability in some of our communications. But that's another story.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Aged by Culture, Margaret Morgenroth Gullette

Aged by Culture is an academic book and was not an easy read -- in fact, I read only 5 to 10 pages at a go. But sometimes hard books with a goodly share of academic jargon are worth the effort. Gullette analyzes how our culture insidiously assigns an identity to each age; this is not static. It changes as our culture changes. Other people are writing glib books, and wishful books about "aging" but they do not have the perspective and have not done the amount of research Gullette has brought to this book. She describes the "age narratives" that each of us tell ourselves. She calls it our "virtual identity".

A couple of posts ago, Kass replied to something I wrote saying that aging is a matter of loss. I reacted immediately. I know where that feeling comes from -- the cultural narrative that has been assigned to us which Gullette discusses at length. We women, especially, worry about our appearance and the loss of a youthful body and face. If we have vested our physical appearance with our identity, we will lose it unless, like a great many actresses and wealthy women we can afford to constantly pay specialists to make us look younger than we are. When our youthful appearance gives way to a mature face and body, we have not become a different person, we have not lost who we are. We have naturally gained the look of maturity.

The loss that comes with menopause is not a loss of identity, only of child bearing capability and in this age few of us want to have children late in life. The empty nest when children go to college, is not a loss of motherhood. You cannot stop being a mother. If you have raised your children into young adulthood they have become people with whom you can share a loving friendship that is, or can be, the deepest of friendships possible. And then there's that horror that many women fear -- the husband who, because he cannot face his own aging, [or for some other reason] choose a younger woman or a more exotic one. That is a loss of social prestige but can be an enormous gain in freedom and self-possession once the woman realizes that "wife" is a role, not an identity. In our society divorce is often a financial loss for the woman and that is very painful. But many times that financial loss forces her to assess what she needs and how she can live as herself, what resources, talents and skills she has. I do not see maturity as loss in any way -- sometimes it's a forced jettisoning of the unessential.

Yesterday I found a poem I did not know by a poet I know nothing about, David Whyte, the poem is called "Sweet Darkness" and the last lines are:

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive


is to small for you.


This you appreciate when you are mature enough to know who you are and what you really need -- not what our culture says we are and what we need to be that person culture wants to make us.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

50572 words written in 25 days

Undertaking the NaNoWriMo challenge has been a very odd experience for me. In short it is to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. I was not thinking of doing it until Rachel asked quite innocently [? -- I think] late in October if I were going to do it. I recollected a novel called "Geneva's Quilts" that I once started and put aside. Why not finally write it, I thought. There is now a sub-genre of books about quilters/quilts with a publisher or two who know how to market them at quilt events and in quilt stores, maybe the book could actually be published. So I signed up and I have been writing. This is not a reasonably way to write a book. It has been both seat-of-the-pants and without a strong drive to make a specific statement.

I had no doubt I could produce the words, although I had only a vague idea of a plot. In fact, I've just reread the synopsis I wrote when I signed up and I find almost nothing in it congruent with what I've been writing. I became interested in my main character, Liz, and the men who come into her life because of her interest. Suddenly I'm writing a romance as much as the original story about the quilt stash she has discovered and the aging quilter who plans to give them all away. I'm not a romance writer -- far from it. I'm so far away, in time and experience, from what is being written by and about twenty-something romances today that I'm a blind man describing and elephant. But, I tell myself, people are people and I find these people unusual enough to be interesting if far from typical twenty-somethings.

Today I hit the 50,000 word goal and am maybe half done with a first draft -- a very sketchy draft in need of enormous rewriting -- and rethinking. I feel as if I'm a dinosaur of very little brain standing at the edge of the La Brea tar pit and likely to begin sinking at any moment ... committing months to actually writing this novel. And then more months, maybe years in the search for publication. And then, if the miracle of publication happens in this changing era of the book business, of course, I cannot hope for anything like a reasonable return on the time invested.

My first impulse was to say, "No, I'm not doing NaNoWriMo." Many first impulses are the ones to go with. I gave in to a slightly stronger, secondary impulse, which is to say yes to the challenges that arise. The tar is warm and sticky. I won't starve while I sink, there are plenty of dead bodies around to gnaw on.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery

Coincidence sometimes puts books in my hands that I would not read otherwise. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery came to me that way. When visiting in NYC, Ellen said she had read and liked this book -- she doesn't proclaim it, but I think she's a covert Francophile. The next day at my favorite thrift shop I found it on the shelf. I would not have purchased a book with an adolescent on the cover because it suggests to me that it's going to be a coming of age story in the insipid way I detest, "They say to write what you know and I'm only 20 and all I know is the pain of growing up." No, not at all, this is told by a very grown up and well educated writer although the two women in it are stuck, like adolescents critical of everything their parents do, in their too aware and painfully sharp disgust with the bourgeoisie who inhabit the elegant apartment building where Renee is the concierge and Paloma a sulky 12 year old rich kid.

Renee works hard to be the stereotypical concierge, all but invisible to the building's denizens, except to Manuela, a Portuguese cleaning woman. Most of the story is told in Renee's mind, portions, in different type face, are notes toward a philosophical view of life by Paloma who has decided on suicide on her 13th birthday to escape the pretentiousness she's afraid will be her fate. I had difficulty getting involved with both characters for the first third of the book but was pulled along by Barbery's writing which seemed very "French" and, indeed, elegant as the two philosophized and said senseless things such as that hedgehogs are elegant. Eventually both are befriended by an wealthy Japanese who moves into the building and their protective judgmental attitudes are striped away.

It was a double Cinderella story with a twist to the happily ever after ending as if nothing of equal importance could be told after the sooty clothes are shed, in that sense I was disappointed. Growing up is difficult whether you're 12 or 54, but living as a true adult is even more difficult. Not enough books attempt to show how it's done.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thsi Baby Aint Gone Yet


This is one of two geraniums that were Mother's Day presents and have ever since been hanging at the sides of my postage stamp patio. That is to say, they are almost exactly six months old -- at this location, never mind their starts back in some greenhouse. The leaves, as you can see, are turning red in homage to autumn but the flowers are still pretty perky and there are some buds that might yet open.

I feel both kindness toward and kinship with these geraniums, surely septagenarians in their species. They have not had a soft cushy life, certainly not in the past couple of months as the temperatures drop into the forties and even upper thirties at night. But we have had many very beautiful days in the last week and my geraniums respond with vigor and zest. I take them, for now at least, as totems to my new abode and new life in this very different place than I have lived previously. They were gifts from my daughter and I couldn't have had a better Mother's day gift. Someday snow will fall on them and they will die a natural death -- I am not a gardener who wishes to bring them in and force them to endure a protracted dotage. This is not a covert comment about my own feelings about life's final stages for myself. I'll deal with that when it comes as, of course, is bound to happen. For now I'm feeling at least as vigorous as these flowers and hoping to sprout a few new blooms of my own -- after all, as I've noted in these posts, I'm well into a novel once given up but now taking on new life. It is not an accident, this time around, that two of the characters are octogenarians.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

NaNoWriMo -

All of November I have been in the NaNoWriMo mode -- trying to write 50,000 words of a novel. I don't consider that a great challenge and find I'm averaging about 2500 a day, which puts me a bit ahead even though there was a three-day weekend when I didn't write at all. The organization cheerily sends out pep talks once a week -- the organizers handle it like a great game. I'm to old to play games. I just decided to tackle a once started and then dumped novel idea again and see how it goes. [Google NaNoWriMo if this is a new term to you.]

I've discovered what might be a bell shaped curve. It was steeply up and then a nice plateau of getting on with the story and watching it become more complex. Now, I have either started down the opposite side or hit a dip. I am truly questioning the worth of the story -- no, really the worth of my writing of the story. Now and then I really like a couple of pages, but mostly I think: this is not interesting enough to hold readers' attention this far. The plot is unfolding too slowly.

Yes, yes, I know there's rewriting to do but in NaNoWriMo mode one doesn't rewrite but plunges ahead accumulating words. But in that mode, it's hard to say, well, I'll probably jettison those 5 pages and I need to add X to spice up the story. It's reaching a point when it seems very, very messy. I've got a story mapped out in my head, things that will happen. The plot from that earlier idea that still fascinates me.

This morning I'm thinking of this process like making yeast bread. The first steps are very easy, add the milk or water, the butter, the yeast and eggs if it has them. Beat into a nice batter. That I thought I was doing with the novel. Then one adds flour cup by cup. It takes a bit to add enough flour to make a kneedable dough. At that early stage it is sticky, gooey, it's hard to mix in the flour but not at all pleasant to the hands. When it becomes kneedable it is a joy to work with. One needs to keep adding flour until she can dump it onto the floured surface and turn it into a smooth, elastic ball that feels alive in the hands. Then it can be put to rise and then shaped into loaves and baked until it becomes something delicious and even nutritious.

I'll call this the baker's view of novel writing. I love to bake bread and I love to write. Mostly I trust the methods of both, but I trust novels far less. Everyone needs and loves bread, especially warm from the oven. Novels stop being analogous at that point. Another novel is not needed or wanted [least of all by publishers] and it doesn't necessarily smell good, look good or otherwise appeal. At this point the metaphor is going south and I should drop this line of thinking or I won't get today's 2500 words written.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

By the Waterside

Strolling by the shore I watch
slow waves write a calligraphy of light
refracted down to the sandy bottom
eddies make mottled movement
of shadows in the shallows.
I round a corner and am dazzled
by dancing sparkles, splinters and shards of light.

I pause to ponder how humankind have lived
beside oceans, river, lakes since earliest times,
at first curious and confused
by these moving sights,
but hungry and searching for fish,
snails,crabs, anything soft within the shell, edible.
Learning to trust water's bounty,
learning too its dangers.
One day Lao Tzu, so I've read,
sat by the river that had run there
longer than memory.
He was struck by a spark of thought --
that river was not the river
he sat by yesterday.
Yesterday's water was far away,
he had never seen this water before.
The river looked the same,
light played the familiar tricks
but it set off different shadows and shards.
Nothing was the same.
He could never step again into yesterday's river.
Lao Tzu was different yesterday,
the sky had different clouds,
the air blew a different breeze.
All was changed, changing, change.
Change the only constant.
He drew words on aspen bark,
despite relentless change
the words remain.

Monday, November 16, 2009

A literary soiree?


At times I know that I have moved to a foreign country -- today is one of them. Part of the foreign country is this earliest part of New England and part of the foreign country is the land of the older persons. We're not in NYC any more, Toto. It doesn't look like Oz, but it sure isn't NYC. I'm befuddled and bemused and somewhat be-saddened.

The so called "literary soiree" of the Adult Lifelong Learning Center of the community college where I am taking classes was this afternoon. An hour after I sat through a very old film of Rigoletto in the opera course. The man introducing the opera read disjointed notes, he gets and E for effort and a D- for delivery. The ancient DVD had a youthful Pavarotti as the Duke in magnificent voice and acting charmingly. A physically unattractive Rigoletto was a fine actor with many emotions on his doughy face that were deeply touching. Gilda was a Russian with a smallish voice and incredibly tiny teeth, as if she had never lost her baby teeth, very bothersome. Meanwhile the Sparafucila was given a set of [I hope] false teeth [or caps] that were grossly deformed, indicative of his evil livelihood. Shot on location in Mantua, the final scene on the river at dawn was very beautiful. What an emotional ride that experience was! And what incredible dullness in the audience! Said the woman next to me, "A very lively story." Another was very confused to discover on the DVD case that the baritone who sang Rigoletto also sang Monterone -- although the credits clearly said it was shot at one time and the music added at another. There's no point in trying to talk to anyone in that class.

So I went to the so-called literary soiree in an emotional muddle because Verdi always ties my emotions in knots and I had seen a magnificent Rigoletto production last spring shot live in Bologna with a Rigoletto who was magnificent -- not handsome, but grand. And not a soul with whom to share and compare.

The soiree certainly did not deserve such a hoity-toity French word. Six authors of self-published books were lined up before rows of folding chairs. There was no attempt at getting to know anyone. Only two readers had a clue how to use the microphone and the woman doing the introductions was even worse, holding the mic well away from her mouth so it served no purpose at all. Only one reading was lively, as I knew it would be by that particular member of the writing class I'm taking. The others, including a poet, mumbled distant from the mike in a monotone. Three readings were of children's books. These are, of course, mostly grandparent age people but sheesh! "Literary soiree?"

I understand self-publishing if you want to share your stuff with a certain limited audience and you understand this is your purpose but these people all seemed to think their work would have a wider audience. One book deserves a wider audience but as the woman said, she sent query letters to 100 publishers none of whom rejected the book because they didn't even ask to see it. That's an attitude other writers might take out of ego-defense. It is worthwhile book but as she said, it's currently available from the trunk of her car.

I am having culture shock where 5 of 6 people are apparently satisfied with -- and proud of -- their self-published efforts. I'm used to people with ambitions and at least some sense of how they compare with the greater world. I feel no greater world exists beyond the Sagamore Bridge which connects mainland Massachusetts with the Cape. Yet, a handful of excellent writers do live here at least part time. But the don't associate with the likes of these even if they are in the proper age bracket.

[the photo above is a stone fence, of Rbt. Frost-ly vintage, once marking fields, now all but lost among a regrown forest. Somehow it seems an apt metaphor]. In a nutshell, I do not wish to vanish among regrown forests.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Age Identity

Now and then I read academic books that are so dense in theory and research that I can only read about 5 pages at a time. One that I'm reading now is Aged by Culture, by age researcher Margaret Morganroth Gullette. This is an important book but not an easy one. She defines her field and she defines much else, it's a heavy meal. I am not coming across pithy things to underline because that is definitely not the style. But the following longish bit seemed something I wanted to share. It's from a section called "Age Identity as an Achievement."
Age identity is a special subset of autobiography -- I understand broadly, as a narrative that anyone can tell about one's self, to self and others, whether informally in conversation or written for archival purposes. No particular level of education is required. Age identity is special because its focus is on the meaning of long time, although it can highlight one-time events or short periods of epiphanies. It's what I report when I stand back to survey where my "historic" trail has led me. From observation and self-report, I think that identity over time can be seen as a sense of an achieved portmanteau "me" -- made up, for each subject, of all its changeable and continuing selves together -- connected in different ways, or intermittently, but sometimes barely at all, to a sensuously material body.

The partially conscious, partially unselfconscious, agglomeration includes private, self-defined traits, relationships, heartbreaks, and desires; the secret my father told me when I was eleven, the secret I told my son when he was twenty-one, stuff I'll never tell about early sex, ambitions relinquished, dreams maintained against the odds. Memories of this kind feel authentic, and if they are not, nothing is.

I think of this above quote especially in relation to the writing class I am in at the local community college where most people are writing memoir pieces. A couple that were read yesterday were particularly memorable. It was interesting that one writer let the work speak for itself which it did powerfully. The other writer had no confidence in his writing -- which was quite vivid and needed not explication. But he talked and talked about the subject before and after reading his work. The former was willing to project identity and trust what he wrote, the latter neither trusted his writing nor was he self-assured enough to feel he had project himself adequately.

[the portrait above is, of course, Georgia O'Keefe]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Write about Everything ...

A friend who is also involved in NaNoWriMo sent me this quote from Sylvia Plath:

"Any by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise."

For a woman raised in the early '50s with the restrictions about being a "good girl" that society was laying on us [I am squarely of her generation], the operative word here is "guts". Most writers have the imagination although they may be afraid to improvise -- a matter of guts again. Nerve could be substituted for guts, if you're a guy you might substitute balls. She's talking about taking chances and not needing to be liked, not caring about the disapproval that will rain down on the writer's head -- far more so back then! -- when writing about a socially unacceptable subject.

Now if a writer reads widely s/he will see that indeed Sylvia was right, everything is writable and someone has had nerve/guts/balls enough to write about it. What one wants is to do it better, more honestly, or more specifically to a situation. There comes the imagination, with skill holding up the umbrella that will deflect the storm of indignation of the good manners police.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Advice from a Pro

I'm well into NaNoWriMo with nearly 17,000 words so far -- will get to 20,000 today I think. I received a card with this quote from Mark Twain: You need not expect to get the book right the first time ... God only exhibits his thunder and lightening at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightening too much, the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.

Twain pulled off some wonderful thunder and lightening. I have doubts about what I'm writing being much more than a summer rain; but maybe on rewriting some of it will eventually build up to a bit of rumble in the distance or even a far away flash of light. In any event, I am having fun pouring out my heroine's story and I haven't even got to the most important part yet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Highline


The Highline is Manhattan's newest urban park. It is on the bed of the elevated rail line that has been closed and unused for decades along the far West Side from the center of the West Village up to 20th street [it will eventually go to 34th or so] This formerly desolate bit of odd real estate was a long stretch of rusting rails and weeds of all sorts, seeded by bird and rat dropping and heaven knows what else. The flora has been left, there is no prettied up plantings. So these dried weeds, looking sculptural are natural there.

One of the most spectacular new buildings along the way is this Frank Gehry office building with a magnificent view of the Hudson and the harbor. No two sides are the same, as is Gehry's style. We are becoming accustomed to the idea that buildings don't have to be geometrically regular. In fact, Gehry's curving buildings are adding excitement all over the world. This one is relatively restrained compared to some of his art museums and concert halls.

These daisies are just a few of the hearty flowers still looking good the first weekend of November -- there were some weedy blue flowers that were absolutely spectacular [no photo, alas] I was in NYC for just some 40 hours but packed a lot in, including this walk on the Highline with what seemed like a large portion of the population. It was a magnificent blue sky day with temperatures around 60. I had never known that part of the city, when I first moved to NYC nearly 30 years ago it was a place a woman did not go alone -- nor, for that matter, did anyone who didn't have a connection with someone there. Now, just north of the Highline, over the last 15 or fewer years most of the art galleries that were in Soho, and many that are newish have moved into the west 20s. They've totally changed the neighborhood. There was time for looking at several, including seeing David Hockney's wildly vivid landscapes of his home area in England -- this is a man who is not becoming more conservative as he ages. He's getting bolder and brighter. There were two new Frank Stella steel constructions, hugh mazes which awe even as they cause claustrophobia. And a couple of shows by people whose names were unknown to me but who had fascinating work.

This is just one opportunity to look between the buildings at the river and New Jersey across the way. I'm told the park is lighted with low lights within the weeds at night and closes at some point. Like all good NYC public spaces there are many benches and toward the middle is a snack vender and quite a lot of seating, including in one strip with wooden chaises such as are sometimes found on beaches, wide enough for couples to sit side by side and sun. It's a thoroughly delightful place. Another reason to love NYC, another reason, although I don't need to pile up the reasons, to return whenever I can manage it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Ready to be given away


At last this is finished and I'm about to take it to NYC to give it to the Empire Quilt Guild -- I'm going to the meeting on Sunday -- for their project of providing quilts for a homeless shelter for vets in the city. This is exactly the same pattern as the quilt below which I made for the same charity. I like the one below better. When I was making it I saw that the centers of the pattern were stars and wondered what would happen if they were all a different color than the diamond shapes that separate the squares. This is the result.
NOTE: I really meant this post for my other blog, Calender Pages, and maybe there's a way to move it but I don't know it and it's very early in the morning when, obviously, I'm not exactly in high gear anyway. Just an explanation of what's going on here.

Interesting that one pattern can look so very different. And I can imagine that if I had chosen to make every star different and all the bordering pieces, which here are a great variety of scraps mostly in the brown family, it would be yet again very different. Well, I'm not going that far, I'm tired of sewing this particular design. And it's off to a worthy home. And I'll be on to some of the other projects that I listed a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile I"m very much looking forward to the guild meeting even though I will have to leave a bit early to catch my homeward bus. So much to do, so little time -- always the story. Not a bad problem, really a rather nice one.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

When You're Having Fun ...

The question asked about my last post was how do I find time? For one thing, I'm retired so I can spend the time. But secondly when you're having fun it creates energy.

And I am truly having fun, I'm almost sorry that I'm going to NYC for the weekend and have decided I will not take the laptop so I'll have a three day hiatus. What I thought was going to be a fairly straightforward little story is getting more complex. It seemed all women for a while but suddenly the protagonist has two men in her life, well one is jogging in place in my brain because he just materialized as I was writing earlier today but hasn't walked through the door yet -- after dinner I'll have another go at it and see what he's going to say for himself. This is why I don't outline. I love when there are surprises.

All of which does not say this is going to be a successful novel. I can't tell. Could become a mere clump of bytes in the memory of a computer never to see the light of day. Or it could eventually let me know it needs to be the same only very different. That's for much later. For now it's just fun.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

OVer 10,000 words


The sun was just coming up - with change in time I'll always be up for dawn but it won't always be so glorious.

The sun is about as completely up -- maybe more so -- as I am in this new novel undertaking. I've topped 10,000 words. The number sounds bit to those who don't write much but it's only about a tenth of a typical novel of something in the neighborhood of 300 pages. I feel like it's mostly scene setting at this point but the wonderful thing about writing a novel is one can take time to explore the characters and setting and situation. Things are happening but slowly. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut said as a refrain in Slaughterhouse Five.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Off to a decent start

Two days into NaNoWriMo with the goal of 50,000 words -- I've done over 5,000, more than 10%. But this weekend will be a blank so I'm hoping to get ahead. And I'm asking myself -- so what? This a purely voluntary writing exercise. I can tell myself it's important to reach the goal but I know it doesn't make a bit of difference in the long run, not to the world [most certainly!] and not really to my ego. It's a game and I am usually a bad game player because winning is never very important to me. The "Competitive" screw in my personality is loose, maybe got lost along life's way.

Anyway, I'm discovering things as I write -- various unexpected facts about the characters as I first describe them. Some people do all that in advance. I like to surprise myself, which pieces of my own background/reading/experience I can draw on. It's fun. My main character has taught school in Mongolia. This sets her apart from the potentially insipid person I originally had in mind. Her aunt is a retired school teacher who likes the "warhorses of middle school poetry" -- that offers some potential for dialog. These little bits are fun.

The big discovery is that I'm not writing the genre piece I said to myself I would write. Currently there is a minor genre of books that feature quilts or quilters, sweet stories, some of them historical, mostly, I take it [not having read any] well plotted and well researched. My research, from immersion in the subject, is pretty solid, but I'm not writing an easy-to-read genre piece. I don't think I can do that for any genre. I have never in my life wanted to write what people want -- thus I refused to study journalism in college. The questions looming in my mind are already bigger -- art questions, art versus craft questions, intention of folk artists. And then there's a trio of old ladies -- two among the old-old, over 85, one hearty seeming and the other frail. I don't know yet, but one or maybe both will die. My young character will have to deal with that, too.

The photo is a quilt of mine that is not quite the kind of wild, mostly unlovely -- or so the locals think -- quilts that feature in the story. But this one is on the "wild" side -- too much so for me to want to live with, so I gave it to Leslie who liked it. But then she lives in California and the sensibility is a bit different out on the Left Coast. Time to go back to my NaNo work.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Can Do It

I read, recently, on another blog this quote from Picasso "I always do what I cannot do in order that I may learn how to do it." This seems the general motto of NaNoWriMo -- challenge yourself to do what you cannot do, i.e., write a novel in a month. I have heard of some acclaimed novelists who were said to be able to do this [short novels, of course] and produce novels they did not rewrite. I can't remember if those were people who wrote formulaic work like murder mysteries. Such geniuses in music have existed, Mozart was said to be able to write a symphony in a week or two without revision.

I don't expect to write a whole, and certainly not a polished, finished novel in the month of November but I wrote the introductory 1800+ words yesterday and truly enjoyed it I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer. I do not start with a plot or with notes about my characters. I have a very simple plot in my mind: protagonist has a goal, goal seems attainable, complications arise, goal seems unlikely to be attained, goal is attained but probably in a somewhat different manner than was originally envisioned. I'm being very general because I know things will change as I wrote.

Mainly yesterday, and today -- in a few minutes when I go to that file and start writing -- I am setting the physical scenery, and describing the characters. I haven't yet had Liz, the protagonist meet Geneva, who is a sort of antagonist. For me the delight in working from the seat-of-the-pants is discovery as I write. I set it in the part of rural southern Indiana where I grew up. It's a landscape that is easy to write about and enjoyable. The characters are the type of people I have known although none are based on my actual family or people I know. A certain dialect is spoken there that I enjoy using to give flavor to dialog.

Many people doing this exercise [they are all over the world. I haven't looked at the total number, but I'm sure it's on the website] are working more "traditionally" with outlines and laborious notes they made in the last few weeks. Good luck to them. It's a matter of temperament -- and possibly of age and experience. I know words flow easily and I do not have ego issues at stake. This is a story I attempted once possibly twenty years ago, maybe more, I now have a different perspective and more experience so I can write in greater detail. I'm having fun. That's an important factor. I strongly suspect Picasso had fun every time he took up pen or paintbrush, he couldn't have kept going for so long and produced so much art if it weren't a great pleasure.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Autumn poem


An autumn poem before I get totally into fiction writing.

LITTLE TREE


The little maple tree
young and maybe not yet
used to how things are
stood red as fire
dressed to call attention
to her beauty.
Her fate was to stand
alone in a small clearing
in the forest
on the mountainside.
She trembled delicately
in the cool dawn breeze
still in the shadow
of older and taller trees.
When the sun climbed
the clean cloudless sky
warm golden fingers
touched the tree top,
moved downward
caressing.
The leaves began to fall
as they were touched.
They rained directly down
mounding at its feet
like a robe dropped
seductively.
When the day's light
bathed the entire tree
she stood naked
as a concubine
prepared
for the Emperor's
pleasure.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

National Novel Writing Month, sks NaNoWriMo


Did it -- signed up for NaNoWriMo. I'm very jealous of my time although my days are my own. As everyone knows nature abhors a vacuum -- which is partly why Tantric meditation is SO hard. That's a different matter -- sheer everyday life abhors a vacuum and I'm very, very good at filling it with a ton of things I want and love to do.

NaNoWriMo is a month, i.e., November, during which the participants -- there's an official website and enrollment and daily tabulation, etc., etc. with worldwide participation -- attempt to write a novel, or something that could be shaped into a novel, of 50,000 words in the month of November. The word count is not particularly daunting, it's the time element that is a crunch -- goodbye to most quilting, lots of reading. Never mind the very avoidable housekeeping, I'm good at ignoring that. When I was asked if I was going to do it, my first answer was no. But I thought of a novel begun probably 10, 12 years ago, maybe more. Situation, conflict, setting, a couple of characters fairly well formed in my head. I stopped back then partly because I thought it was not marketable: the subject is the fate of a collection of quilts. Who cared? But in the interim books about quilters or featuring quilts have become a kind of sub-genre, a couple of publishing houses understand the market. There's hope of a sale.

So I signed up and will see how far I get. I'm sure the whole thing will be more than 50,000. Of course a first draft is only that, but it must be done and probably much will be usable. So as of Sunday I'll get started. Daily word count is reported.

There are regional groups, one of which met last night at the local Borders -- 12 or 15 enthusiastic 20-30 somethings, bright and fun oriented. Writing games, an attempt at espirit de corps. Okay, but not my kind of thing. Planned "write ins" -- I have never written with other people and don't want to, don't need that. Tend to feel that "real" writing is not a team sport. One does it as a part of one's life or not. Only a few do. From things I've read about NaNo -- it serves to some extent to weed out the wannabes who think there's glamor in writing from those who just know they will write and soon realize it's not glamorous.

Anyway I've committed myself and I'll do it, not truly feeling pressure to write approximately 2,000 words a day but, Geewhiz, that's not many words. I write that many words many days. Anyway, posts may be a bit fewer during November. It's a matter of so many hours in a day and I will not give up reading (books and blogs) or walking and have various other commitments.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Greater Mystery


I have been looking at the prayer flags in the photos below and have decided the ones that were caught on the bush were NOT the ones I put on the cairn. The color arrangement is different.

Where did they come from? I don't know. I went back yesterday afternoon and they were gone. Flags flying around the world? I once found a set of smaller Tibetan prayer flags on the sidewalk immediately outside my NYC apartment building when I went out about 7:00 in the morning. At that time the Dalai Lama was in the city so I assumed they had been displayed somewhere, wafted away and landed where I found them that morning. Was it Shakespeare who wrote, "there are more thing in heaven and earth than ..." whatever -- will have to look that up and see what the context was, somehow it sounds like Midsummer Nights Dream.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Prayer Flags on the Beach

A prose poem:

I've heard the story of the butterfly fluttering in the heart of China, making a breeze that becomes a wind that becomes a great storm at sea or a tornado in Kansas. I don't believe it, but I can't forget it. The human mind makes myths and manufactures miracles. I love the stories, but loving doesn't make it so.

A true story, small and simple. This is the end of October. My story looks backward to July. A small pile of stones at the end of Long Beach where I walk grew taller and taller until I thought it had earned the name "cairn." I sometimes added a stone of my own. I always walked around it clockwise. Teen-agers, I thought, are building it. They moved other rocks around, made hearts and peace signs and initials on the sand -- seashore graffiti

Cairns in the Himalayas and on the steepes of Mongolia wear wind horses -- prayer flags. In Mongolia they wear crutches and vodka bottles, maybe money, various tokens of thanks. So I took a set of Tibetan prayer flags saved for years for a purpose I kenw I would know when it arose. I tied them to the rocks on the cairn and weighted their ties firmly. There they fluttered in the summer breeze for three weeks ...

...until a hurricane's remnant brought high winds and wild seas. When next I walked to the far point the flags were gone. The cairn had lost its top stones [too big to fall in wind or any but the fiercest waves). Wind took my flags, I said. Teens tore down the cairn. I looked among the rose tangles which might have snagged the flags but they were gone. They could have flown anywhere. That is the fate of loose flags in a windy world. And so it was for months, the cairn returned to a humble pile of stones but the hearts and peace symbols lay on the sand, simple outlines the tides did not destroy, nor the teens.

Today after a wintery wet weekend I walked the beach to the end. The tide was higher than I had ever seen it. The pile of stones was an island twenty feet from dry sand. Around the corner a thorny tree, its roots twisted and gnarled into a dune, was festooned with my prayer flags, tattered and twisted, held by grasping branches.

The ink washed away, the colors bright -- the primary ones: blue, green, red, yellow and white were the only colors in the brown of sand and stone, the gray of rippling sea and matching sky.

The flags came from Lhasa. They were meant to fly under the pitiless sun and be whipped by the winds on those tallest of mountains. These hardy wind horses had rested a while -- surely caught on other thorny growths -- torn loose and caught again beside an ocean unused to mountain symbols.

I do not write or miracle or moral or myth to end this story. If the reader needs it, his mind will make it.