Iva: This is it! The Big Day!
Heaven: It’s so cool that we’re having our book party at the beach! Who’s coming? Will Heather Ross be here? Her illustrations are great!
Iva: Anybody who’s anybody. I think the writer is coming this time.
Heaven: Are we gonna tell people what we do in this story? Like how I’m the big star this time?
Iva: You are not. You just act like it. Hey! Isn’t that the funny-looking kid from our party last year?
Heaven (squinting through the crowd): It is him. I think he’s a friend of Yard Sale’s. I wish Yard Sale could have come to the beach with us.
Iva: Me, too. And Sweetlips. Mama said she was gonna trade Sweetlips for one of us. She says the dog is the only one that listens.
Heaven: It is kind of crowded in this beach cottage—Lily Pearl, Howard, Arden, Hunter. And our mamas. You and me are crammed on the screened porch.
Iva: We’d have a lot more room if you hadn’t brought all those stupid suitcases!
Heaven: I packed my wardrobe and essentials for each day I planned in a separate suitcase. Pretty smart, huh?
Iva: Yachting Day? We ride on so many yachts!
Heaven: It’s Boating Day. You never get anything right. No wonder London Howdyshell beat you at everything. Like that disgusting boardwalk food contest.
Iva (groaning): Don’t remind me! Cotton candy, taffy, kettle corn, fried mushrooms, fried cheesecake bites. It was the cheesecake bites that did me in.
Heaven: You ruined eating for the rest of us forever. And you lost!
Iva: Because certain people cheated. We’re supposed to mingle. Look, somebody put a picture by our books. Who is that skinny girl?
Heaven: That’s the author when she was a kid at Ocean City. What an unfortunate outfit. I bet she opened the wrong suitcase that day.
Iva: See that man way in the background? He fainted at the sight of her!
Iva: There’s the author now. She’s a grown-up but she’s snarfing that—I can’t even say the word! I feel a little sick—
Heaven: Don’t you dare! Not at our party! Everybody loves cotton candy. Even that funny-looking kid.
Iva: Is there a trash can handy?
Heaven: If you were truly good and stuck to the rules, you wouldn’t have so many troubles. You get everything you deserve, Iva.
Iva: If you’re referring to yourself, you certainly get what you deserve.
Heaven (smirking): Like that giant shark’s tooth I found in the sand?
Iva: That you gave away!
Heaven: That we’re going to give away! Folks, write a comment about this party! You will be eligible for a free copy of Iva Honeysuckle Meets her Match (about time!) AND a fossil shark’s tooth from a beach in Virginia. All for free!
Iva: Don’t forget! Put a comment about this party and you’re name will be drawn by that funny-looking kid . . .
Heaven: One week from today! That’s Thursday, June 20! Be there…
Iva: Or be square.
Iva: Hey! That funny-looking kid fell asleep reading our book!
Heaven: He’s probably reading a part about you. When he gets to a part about me, he’ll wake up.
I don’t go to Goodwill much any more. And when I do go, I look for dresses, everyday skirts, and tops in green. In and out quick. The other day I dropped off a donation and went inside.
As I clicked along the dresses rack, a woman next to me pulled out a 70s halter jumpsuit in a radical print. About a size 4. She said, “Somebody been hangin’ on to this a long time. Hopin’ to get back in it.” The disco outfit was so sleazy I almost grabbed it to keep as an artifact. Instead I said, “I never wore anything like that, even when I was a size four.” We laughed over it.
While I was looking through green tops, a customer asked a clerk if she thought the economy was getting better like the news kept on saying. “Getting better? Not down here!” The other woman agreed: “Maybe for some but we don’t see it. Nosirree.” “Tight as ever at our house,” the clerk added.
In the dressing room, my thoughts–Did Liz Claiborne ever design a skirt for a post-menopausal woman?–were interrupted by two women I guessed were mother and daughter. The mother said: “They got Dale Earnhart glasses.” The daughter commented: “No, I seen ‘em before.”
Their easy talk reminded me of shopping with my mother years ago, or my sister now, how we “find” things for each other, keeping track of the other’s interests of the moment and suggesting clothes that would look good. This is strictly a girl thing. I can’t imagine guys at a used car lot: ”Hey, man, get the red metallic GMC–that color is perfect on you.”
The daughter was ahead of me at check-out. Among her items, a NASCAR throw wasn’t tagged. The clerk left to get a price. The mother squeezed past me to join her daughter. She was a large older woman in an ill-fitting sundress, complicted with straps and shoulder buttons and cut-outs. The too-big armholes emphasized her sagging bosom. “Pardon me, sweetie,” she said to me in a low-pitched voice.
The clerk came back–the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daughter said and paid for her things. Then her mother set two little glasses–shot glasses maybe, the Dale Earnhart ones, on the counter. She pulled two much-folded dollar bills from her worn wallet. “Thanks, sweetie,” she said to the clerk in her soothing voice. Then she looked at me and said, “Thanks so much, sweetie,” for letting her go ahead of me in line. I bet she bought those glasses for her daughter.
They talked all the way out the door in that easy manner of mothers and daughters who live close by and call each other several times a day. I wanted to go with them.
I paid for the one dress that fit and an Ann Taylor bottle-green shirt and thought how Goodwill has replaced the mall as a place to putter and shop. We used to go to the mall on Saturday afternoons like it was someplace special. Now I only hit the mall on a mission, like for pantyhose. In and out quick.
As for the economy, the majority of us are still waiting for these big changes the news keeps touting. If it seems we’re getting along fine, it’s because we’ve learned to adjust. We still get out and buy little things we don’t really need–or maybe we do–like bottle-green shirts and Dale Earnhart shot glasses.
In case anybody wonders, we’re doing okay, thanks so much for asking.
It was a terrible week. I got caught trespassing by some hothead who didn’t even own the property I was taking photos of. He threatened to call the police on me. Me! A 60-year-old woman in Easy Spirit shoes! My brother-in-law’s health, steady for so long, dropped a big notch. In my family, we are keenly aware that spring is nearly at an end. And Persnickety decided it was time for her own end.
By Friday I was still sobbing over the cat, my brother-in-law, the national news. (That old woman finding her dog in the tornado rubble…) I could not pull myself together. A cold front had come in bringing wind and showers but I couldn’t stay indoors with my own thoughts. I got in my truck and headed for a farm.
I turned off on Orange Plank Road, a two-lane road I’ve never driven, yet I knew it. I knew the arching trees meeting overhead like a cathedral ceiling. I knew the spill of honeysuckle tumbling over banks like bride dresses. I knew the rural mailboxes, the old Fords parked by brick ramblers. This way I knew.
This was my road, my countryside, my place on the grid. I knew deep beneath the red clay lay bullets and horseshoes because the road cut through Wilderness Battlefield. A sign marked “Longstreet’s Wounding” brought to mind Lee’s stricken face when he heard his general had fallen. The very air still carries the desperation of that May 1864 conflict.
At Miller’s Farm, I waded into the strawberry patch with my basket. It had poured all night and most of the morning. Water stood in the paths and the wind was freezing. I bent and picked. This I could do. I couldn’t bring back the cat or turn the clock back for my brother-in-law or warn those people in Oklahoma how bad it was going to be. But I could pick strawberries for my husband.
After a few minutes my back began to hurt. I straightened up. A few older ladies were in the field, too, filling little white buckets. They called to one another across the rows, their voices clear as song sparrows. “My bucket is full!” And I was swept back to the strawberry patch my mother kept steps from our back porch. When the strawberries came in you didn’t walk outside without a pan or a collander in your hand.
The first ripe strawberries were thrilling. Mama made shortcake with Hostess “shells,” Cool Whip, and juice from berries that had been sugared down. Because I hated strawberries, my shell was a volcano of Cool Whip, but I did love dribbles of the thin pink juice. Short as the season was, it seemed to last forever. One time as I helped pick in the hot sun, I grumbled, “Are these things everbearing?” Some crop my parents had planted was called that (and during August, everything seemed everbearing).
I finished filling my robin’s egg blue basket, remembering the green plastic mesh baskets my mother sold her strawberries in, gently washed and not a berry with a bird bite or soft spot. The strawberry money was hers–she bought our stereo console with it one year.
At the market shop, I paid for my berries. I also bought a couple of begonias because I had a strong craving for pink, some locally roasted coffee for my husband, a “Farmhouse Brownie” for myself, and got back in the truck. I’d go home and hull the berries, sugar them down in my mother’s strawberry bowl.
I drove back down the road I’d always known, passing the “Longstreet’s Wounding” sign again. My own wound seemed a little less raw.
Longstreet lived. So will I.
I’ve been watching her closely, looking for signs. But with cats it’s hard to tell. They are eating and fine one day . . . Just the day before yesterday I told my husband Persnickety is still very much here, still vital.
But yesterday morning I got up early to take my walk. I gave Snick her breakfast. And then she took a walk of her own.
I went through my to-do list. Dishes, laundry, emails. Ran errands before lunch. I pitched her bed and cushion out of my truck bed (where she slept), noticed she wasn’t around. She was profoundly deaf and couldn’t hear car engines so we always checked when we backed out of the garage.
Came back from the errands. Still no Snick. I put her lunch out and went back to my to-do list. Changed the sheets, dusted the den, wrote. I ate my lunch on the porch. Snick usually came around to see what I had. Then I pulled weeds in the flower box. Skinks ran all over–some quite big and all with their tails. Snick loved to catch skinks.
By dinnertime her absence was keen. She’d stuck close to the house these last few years. She never missed meals. By dusk my husband and I were outside with a flashlight, looking under the porch, the shed, the deck, the bushes.
And then I knew. While I’d gone through my to-do list, busy-busy all day, she had one item on hers. This is so not what I wanted for her. I wanted to be with her, to help her out. But this cat came to us on her own terms, lived with us on her own terms (and they were strict!), and left this world on her own terms.
She was here . . . and now she’s gone.
Paul Theroux has a new book out, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, chronicling his experiences to find the Bushmen, the world’s oldest people. He was nearly 70 when he made this arduous and important trip. The African bush, he says, is his favorite place in the world.
In an article for the Wall Street Journal, he discusses his note-taking method: “I spend nearly all of my traveling life with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. The idea is to have a notebook that fits in your pocket, so that you are not advertising yourself as a note-taker. And two pens, because you’ll probably lose one.”
Last week I went to New York City for two days (up for a CBC Children’s Choice Award, didn’t win, loved the bizarre evening). This is as close to a foreign country as I’m liable to travel to these days. I took my camera and a small notebook, but I didn’t take a single note. I took exactly five photos.
This is the only picture I kept, the entrance of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Why didn’t I take any notes? Why didn’t I take more photos? Why didn’t I lean into the strange—if there is ever a place with plenty of strange, New York City is it.
I found myself in Times Square, a gigantic, often living, billboard. Actors dressed in costumes hawked ads for movies. The tide of people carried me from street to street. I made no decisions, just walked when the conveyer belt of people moved, went where they went. I passed the same stores, Duane Reade, Papyrus, Crumbs. Much of what I saw was strange, but a lot of it wasn’t and didn’t seem worth recording.
Theroux says, “I write down everything and never assume that I will remember something because it seemed vivid at the time.” New York is so vivid, and yet at the same time, mundane, that I could not find my place there. At last I broke away from swarms of midtown and headed for the Village to the Strand Bookstore. My friend Donna Hopkins told me about it. A four-story genuine bookstore, these days as hard to find and as exotic as the Bushmen. Eighteen miles of books!
There I found my place. I roamed the stacks, looking for certain books yet coming out with books I had no idea I wanted until my fingers found them. On the train home (which I almost missed because I stayed so long in the bookstore), I read happily, falling into other people’s adventures. I made scratchy notes about the other passengers, my curious spirit once again free.
Amtrak steamed into my station the same time as the VRE. Commuters streamed off the double-decker local. My husband said they looked locked together like Lego people. But everyone quickly dispersed into their cars and so did we. I drank in the sight of woods, birds, and the first appearance of the seventeen-year cicadas. I saw old places I wanted to record with my camera.
Paul Theroux warns that “the accumulated experience in travel can be overwhelming—too much for anyone to trust to their memory. Because foreign travel is at times almost hallucinatory, you need to record everything, as well as your own disbelief.”
In New York, I developed a mental shield to protect me from the strange—too much felt like an assault. The energy and pace was overwhelming. I didn’t even know the name of the restaurants where I ate.
A few days after I was home, I was ready to take in the strange in my surrounding area. I could approach these places on my own terms and have time to think about what I saw. I took notes. I took photographs.
I’m writing this listening to the steady chorus of cicadas in the treeline beyond our house. They began showing up last week, ghost locusts stuck to porch railings and brick walls as they shed their amber skins. Magicicada stay above ground long enough to mate and lay eggs before dying. The nymphs from this brood will go underground seventeen years before it’s their turn to complete the cycle.
I made note of that in my notebook this morning. Unbelievable. Strange.
Finally, we are up to my era in Mad Men. I was 16 that year and I remember the make-up, the clothes, the shoes. It was a mixed-up time–volatile and fast-moving. But most of us were not adults living in New York City and working in an alcohol-fueled ad agency. Here’s what girls wanted in 1968, from my March 1968 Seventeen.
Pretty eyes. I had big round eyes, the fashion (I also wore glasses but kept them off except for reading the board). I perfected my eye makeup at age 12. Max Factor liquid eyeliner in brown. Max Factor powder eyeshadow in Espresso. Maybelline mascara in brown-black. Max Factor brow powder in dark brown (most girls ignored their brows). Once in a while, pink lipstick. Never Yardley white! White lipstick made you look like something helped from a coffin. I would love this eye makeup right now.
Pretty hair. Yes, the straight look was in (the curse of curly-haired girls like me who had to sleep on 4-inch rollers–my head never hit the pillow for four years), but curls were also popular. Most of the hairstyles you see on Mad Men are wigs or hairpieces–falls, wiglets.
Granny dresses. I made mine in eighth grade home ec and still wore it in high school.
I loved the midi-length, too. Look at how pretty these dresses are . . . they didn’t make you feel like a six-year-old at a birthday party. They made you feel like a girl.
The shoes. Okay, I had mini feet. I didn’t wear a woman’s shoe size until I was in eleventh grade. So these gorgeous shoes weren’t available in kids’ sizes like shoes are today (I still wear kids’ shoes sometimes). I remember a girl in my school who had turquoise patent leather Mary Janes with a spool heel and a wide turquoise grosgrain bow. I lusted after those shoes. I still do. Stockings were fun and if you had skinny legs like I did, the bright colors helped fill them out. I’d wear those pink ones today.
This issue was all about California. We all wanted to go there. We all wanted to be California Girls. Blonde!
It was a time of experimenting with your looks. I never wore shiny “peel-off” eyeliner–too harsh. But my sister did streak my long brown hair, one blonde rebellious streak.
It was a time of dresses. Romantic dresses. Dresses to play in. Dresses to dream about your future in. The world around us may have been mixed-up but with the right dress, we could face anything.
And we did.
One: Friday morning at 6:45 I stood in our driveway, listening to a pair of barred owls calling to each other. They weren’t far away, but our neighborhood was noisy with school buses and barking dogs and commuters and birdsong. My husband, on his way to work, too, couldn’t hear the owls. Like a conductor, I pointed when the first owl called, then swung my arm when the second owl answered. Once he was able to discern the direction and filter out the background noise, he could hear them, too.
Two: On my school visit last week, a second grader asked what I liked to do when I was his age. I told him my favorite thing in school was when our teacher told us to take out a piece of paper and draw or write anything we wanted. We did this for at least 30 minutes (so the teacher could grade papers or have a space of sanity). I asked the second and third graders if they did this, too. No, they said, shaking their heads. No, their teachers said, shaking their heads. Not enough time.
Three: In 1999, I wrote a story for a best-friends anthology published by Scholastic. I was in great company—Rachel Vail, Ann M. Martin, Cynthia Voigt, Paula Danziger—and proud to be a contributor. But I hated the title of the anthology: Girls 24/7. Back then that was new and hip, but I thought it had a creepy foreshadowing.
Four: I am finishing up a book on endangered and extinct amphibians. The further reading section must include books and websites. I had trouble finding relevant websites that weren’t saturated with ads. Even the best website had header and footer ads that had nothing to do with frogs (nursing jewelry? pet exam coupons?).
Five: Yesterday I decided to buy an MP3 player now that they are about to go extinct. Since I don’t know anything about MP3 players, I read about them on the Internet. First, there were all the types to choose from. Second, I didn’t understand how they actually worked. By the time I sifted through the information it came down to this: I would have a gadget that would require time to figure out and I’d most likely be excited about for a week before I stuck it away and forgot it.
Six: I am fixing to get ready to think about meditation practice.
So what do numbers one through five have to do with number six? They are all about distraction and mindfulness. I almost hesitate to use the word “mindfulness” because it’s everywhere. Mindful eating. Mindful relationships. Mindful parenting. In fact, as I’ve typed the word, it’s already fading into the wallpaper.
I have serious issues with distraction. It feeds into my irritability (a medical problem, not just because I’m grouchy). Lack of focus affects my work. And it is getting worse with the advent of the Internet and all that came gushing afterward.
A sample from my file of articles clippped from the Wall Street Journal: “A Cure for the Age of Inattention” (first-year Yale medical students study paintings), “No Vacation from Tweeting” (hyperconnectivity, “branding” yourself), and a chart that says, “Less than 40 minutes a week: Average backyard use by children; Less than 15 minutes a week: Average backyard use by parents.” The chart shows a photograph of a rope swing.
I want to practice meditation, but I know it will be a huge challenge: I have the skippity brain of a marmoset. How will my story-making mind learn to let go of thought attachments, not make connections to the past or future, even five minutes a day?
I’ve dragged home lots of books, ruled out Transcendental Meditation (pay money to get my mantra? Reminds me of Thoreau who warned of any enterprises that require new clothes), but insight meditation seems doable.
Right now I’m reading Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was published in 2005 and the author talks about the connectivity of 24/7, of cell phones and beepers and wireless palm devices and the World Wide Web. Those things seem quaint, almost laughable, now. I kept dozing off (it’s a big, dense book), but woke up when I read this:
It is now harder to pay attention to any one thing and there is more to pay attention to. We are easily diverted and more easily distracted. We are continuously bombarded with information, appeals, deadlines, communications. Things come at us fast and furious, relentlessly. And almost all of it is man-made; it has thought behind it, but more often than not, an appeal to either our greed or our fears.
These assaults on our nervous system continually stimulate and foster desire and agitation rather than contentedness and calmness. They foster reaction rather than communion, discord rather than accord, acquisitiveness rather than feeling whole and complete. And, above all, if we are not careful, they rob us of time, of our moments.
I don’t know about you, but I’d like some of those moments back or want to at least experience the ones coming up. I want to switch from mind full to mindful. I’m moving toward a new way to help lessen stress and anxiety and to connect with myself at the purest level: this moment.
So I’ll forego the MP3 player and listen to the radio. I’ll continue to resist the lure of the smart phone and the insistence to brand myself. I’ll try to be more aware that the constant bombardment of Internet advertising (catered just to me!) appeals to my greed. Yet I’m glad I’m not so far gone I can still hear a pair of barred owls calling. And that I can still take out a piece of paper and write anything I want.
Five minutes a day to start. I can do it. Sitting in my own backyard.
Friday I packed a picnic lunch and my Canon S95 and took photographer and great friend Donna Hopkins on a road trip for her birthday. The little red truck shuttled us down U.S. 1. Once we got past the clutter of Walmart-Lowes-Target and down into the county, the road showed us ghosts of its storied past.
My stepfather called it Number One highway. We would traveled from Fairfax down through Alexandria to the Three Pigs for barbeque. I never knew the road, constructed in 1926, stretched from Maine at the Canadian border all the way to Key West. 2,377 miles of motels, restaurants, garages, filling stations, and roadside attractions.
Then along came I-95 and U.S. 1—which can sometimes be glimpsed from the interstate—lost its status as the route from north to south. All those little businesses died.
Donna and I stopped at a clapboard building that may have been an old store with living quarters above or a boarding house—it was hard to tell. The figure in the window made us wonder when somebody lived there last. We took pictures of the building and of each other and of each other taking pictures of the building. Cars whizzed by yards away. I turned around, hoping to hear the hum of Ford station wagons bound for Florida.
The Texaco sign in front of this small place seemed odd. No sign of a gas pump, but commercial things stored inside indicated it may have been a little store, the kind where you grabbed a grape Nehi dripping from the cooler and a pack of Nabs.
Our road trip set memories spinning free. While we ate our picnic (in the parking lot of Captain D’s), Donna told me how her father stopped at general stores along the road for a loaf of bread and package of bologna to make sandwiches. We never did that but I wish we had. What could be more spontaneous than making lunch in the car? Certainly not standing at the counter at a McDonald’s off the interstate, your stomach already regretting the grease to come, while the clerk throws a fish sandwich on your tray.
Not all the old businesses are derelict. Some have been converted into restaurants and antique shops. Donna took me to a tiny art gallery where we looked at photos of what I call Big Travel, iconic lakes and mountains. Our final destination was an antique shop where I made a beeline for the Paper Man. I’d read an article in the current issue of Vanity Fair about Holiday, a swanky travel magazine began in the 40s that drew top writers, photographers, and graphic artists. I bought ten issues, one with a Grandma Moses cover, another with pieces by E.B. White and Ludwig Bemelmans.
Because it was late, we hopped on I-95 to get home in time to fix supper. Within two miles of our exit—U.S. 1!—we hit a wall of traffic. It took us over an hour to crawl to our turn-off. There were no roadside attractions, no filling stations, no little stores with bread and bologna—just the back ends of tractor trailers.
Still, we had a big time because we both love Little Travel. We drove about fifty miles of that 2,377-mile road. And that evening, I opened my November 1952 issue of Holiday to a piece called, “First Road of the Land,” the last of a four-part series about U.S. 1.
While Friday going-home traffic remained tangled on the interstate, I dreamed we were driving to Ormond Beach in our ’52 Caddy, heading down Number One highway to Ellinor Village, the largest seaside resort in Florida. Our villa would come equipped with an ironing board and ice trays in the refrigerator. We could rent a radio, a toaster, and a cot for our maid, get our hair waved, and dine in the Tropics Restaurant.
All for $8 a night.
Last night I called my sister and we had a serious discussion: what the heck is the first episode of this season’s Mad Men about? I said when Roger started crying after he got the shoeshine man’s shoeshine kit, he was finally able to grieve his mother’s death. My sister thought he was crying over the shoeshine man’s death, Roger had known him his whole life, and the shoeshine man’s poor family had sent him the only thing he owned.
We went back and forth until I said I was going to write to Matthew Weiner and ask him why Roger was crying. But I already know the answer. Good stories keep you guessing. The best stories let you become the character. It was easy for me—and lots of other people—to identify with Roger losing his mother. But my sister, the true storyteller in our family, came up with a richer, more layered interpretation. She looked beyond the obvious. I like hers better (but I still think I’m right).
Work is still a muddle. The above photo is the mood board I created for a midgrade road trip novel that is going nowhere. When I cleaned my office, I put it away.
I’ve crossed little off my to-do list. Yesterday I wrote a few sentences on chapter two of the YA proposal. I didn’t even look at the “frog book.” I did eat an entire bag of Toad-Ally Snak Hanky Panky, a dollar a bag at Family Dollar, which tells you how nutritional it is, which I’m trying to stretch into “frog book” research.
While I ate Hanky Panky, I read Natalie Goldberg’s new book, The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language (I did promise three books). The title alone is enough to send writers in droves flying to the shelves, added to the fact it’s written by the Writing Down the Bones author. If there’s a secret in this book, it’s that we have to sit still, be silent, breathe, and let our thoughts go until we reach “wild mind.”
I always believed my mind was wild enough. But it isn’t, not really. Goldberg, who teaches Zen retreats that include meditation and writing, teaches the difference between letting random, obsessive thoughts go when meditating, and pinning them down in writing practice. She writes for ten, twenty minutes, never stopping, usually on a topic like cupcake, kiss, or cat.
Ever the skeptic, I wondered if this is a fancy version of “free-writing,” something I’ve always been suspicious of. Mainly because I want my work to count for something. Have a beginning, middle, and end, and meaning. Maybe a paycheck. Someone asks Goldberg, “When does it stop being practice and become the real thing?”
Goldberg says, Practice is not for something else. Practice is the practice of being here with your life and pen now . . . [to get] across the chugging land of your mind.
The book includes exercises. In one, Goldberg asks students how they got there. Some wrote directions from their house to the zendo. One wrote about how her parents met. The exercise I want to try is to spend a week— consecutive days—in a café for an hour, the same time every day, at the same table if possible, writing what you observe.
While Goldberg’s book has a lot of Zen-dy stuff I’ll never do in a million years, there is much in it to read and go back to. The notion of writing practice, of being quiet, of sitting still, of letting go of random thoughts, and then, later, writing like mad, dovetails nicely with keeping a journal. A wild journal, but still thoughtful and important-ish.
A Year of Writing Dangerously: 356 Days of Inspiration & Encouragement by Barbara Abercrombie is a great companion to Goldberg’s book. This is the perfect bedside book, though I’m tempted to keep it in the bathroom. (Yes, I have a bookrack in the bathroom. Go on, admit it, you do too. Stephen King says he reads while he’s peeing.)
A Year of Writing Dangerously consists of bite-sized essays plus quotations. This is from Number 83 (or Day 83) “Retyping the Best:”
When Donald Ray Pollock turned 45, he decided he wanted to do something different with his life; he was going to learn how to write. He began by retyping stories of writers he liked—John Cheever, Richard Yates, Ernest Hemingway—and then he’d carry the stories around with him and re-read them. “I’m not a real close reader,” he said, “and typing those stories out gave me the chance to see this is how you make a transition, this is how you do dialogue.”
I once read about a writing teacher in the 1950s who used to make her students (some of whom became famous) type out whole published novels by their favorite writers.
There’s more to this essay, but I think this is the most dangerous exercise of all.
I’m forever telling my students to type out picture book manuscripts and they grumble it’s a lot of work. 800 words! I’ve often typed out entire easy readers and the first two or three chapters in chapter books.
Like Donald Ray Pollock, I’m not a real close reader either. I’m going to get myself unstuck by typing out, if not the entire novel, than whole chapters of books I’m using as models for my own novel.
I’ll end with part of Number 84, “How to Be a Writer:”
“Make a place to sit down,” reads the first line of Wendell Berry’s poem, “How to Be a Poet.” The second line is: “Sit down. Be quiet.” He lists what you must depend on: affection, reading, knowledge, inspiration, and finally patience, “for patience joins time/to eternity.”
The quote that goes with this mini-essay is from Rilke: Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your life. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language.
All three books emphasize the same things: sit, be quiet, listen, pay attention, be patient and wait.
Well, it’s not midweek, but the end of the week. My husband is coming home this afternoon. The columns on the great big huge to-do list are only half-crossed through, though I did chores that weren’t on the list like wash windows and rearrange the bookshelves in my office.
Winchester will be thrilled to see Daddy because he gives him treats and stingy old Mama doesn’t. Persnickety will be glad to see Daddy because he’s her Person and I’m just a humble substitute. The house is mostly clean. The wife is five pounds heavier (too much Hanky Panky). There is a new pink geranium on the front porch.
I’m trying to have patience with unresolved things in my life and am grateful for three new books to help me. I’m learning to look beyond the obvious.