A writer needs it all

The writer is moving. This is causing all sorts of angst and upheaval, rooted in the office, with its books, notebooks, and visual art. Because a writer needs her own space, and a writer needs her own things.

First of all, the writer needs her books. A collection, begun in high school, no, childhood, now totalling probably 900 volumes. Her seven dictionaries – the Junior Dictionary from grade school; the Brown University dictionary won in high school; the 1936 Webster’s so like her mother’s; the unabridged; the dictionary for ripping up; dictionaries that are newer. Her thesauruses – or is that thesauri? Well, she has two, whatever you call them.

Her writing craft books – Julia Cameron, Stephen King, William Zinsser – need she say more?

Thoreau, Emerson, Edwin Way Teale. Poetry! Wordsworth, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, William Carlos Williams, Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot (might need him in April), Pablo Neruda, Erica Jong, Longfellow, Whittier (see earlier blog), Frost.

The Brits – the Brontes and Dickens; the diarists – Anais Nin and Anne Frank and Virginia Woolf. All the great American novelists. Steinbeck, Conrad, Melville, Wallace Stegner, Joyce Carol Oates …

The thing is, the books are only half of it. The writer needs her memories. The writer needs all those journals she kept, from childhood on. Her five-year diaries. The dozens of Apica notebooks she’s filled in just the past few years. She needs her notebooks from high school and college, which she has saved, knowing that someday she will need them.

She needs all her little notebooks, too, with their scraps of information. A conversation with her father, just months before he died, about boiling springs and dousing and outhouses. A friend saying his mother falling sounded “like a cord of wood being dumped out.” The writer Peter Abraham, during a visit to Newport Library in 2005, advising, “You have to give the reader enough information … fold [it] in like truffles in a cream sauce.”

The writer needs other people’s handwriting. She needs her mother’s poems in fine Palmer penmanship and her father’s uncertain handwritten note delivered to her college dorm during a blizzard, a different sort of poem: Jeannie, I could not stay the snow is bad. She needs her sister’s elegant lists, some written just weeks before she died, of clothes she wanted to buy and books she wanted to read and who was winning Dancing With the Stars.

The writer needs pictures.

She needs her bulletin board, with its mishmash of classic art and old Ford advertisements and skies and flowers and birds; its snapshots of herself, that is, the self who long ago disappeared; its mysteries – her father’s motel receipt, a stranger’s foreclosure notice, a road map of old highways.

The writer needs her objects, her talismans. A blue jay’s feathers. A heart-shaped rock. Her sister’s pin: “Andrea.”

She needs the little boxes that hold these treasures; the Coca-Cola tin and the box covered in bluebirds and the Coca-Cola crate (miniature) and the box covered in goldenrod.

She needs family history. Her grandmother’s laborious genealogical notes. Obituaries, curling photos, family trees. Her own notes of that grandmother’s stories, so resonant, so comic, so tragic, that the writer fears she will never get to tell them all.

She needs the postcards that she thumbs through, aimlessly, looking for a door into another world. She needs the letters from dear friends who still, magically, believe in writing letters.

And of course she needs her supplies – her labels and her index cards; notebook paper and notebooks; ruler and stapler and three-hole punch; files and folders; stamps and envelopes. Her writing implements – the beautiful Cross pen her son gave her, the Pentel pens that sub in when the Cross pen gets cranky, the highlighters and pencils and markers and Flair correcting pens. Paper clips. Push pins. Post-It notes.

The idea that some of this must be packed away – indeed, that some of these things already reside in carefully packed boxes in another place – makes the writer want to chain herself to her old, rickety computer desk and refuse to move.

But of course, there is no civil disobedience in one’s own house. So the writer, like a harassed ER nurse, performs triage. This can go away, for a while. This can be thrown out (maybe). But this, yes, this, and this … must come along for the ride.

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Artists, do for yourselves

 

On Dec. 4, 1918, artist Maxfield Parrish wrote to his friend Martin Birnbaum: “all tied up with some work for the Red Cross, so I’m working day and night on some very bad things for their Christmas shindig. But – early this spring I am going to do some things for myself, have refused all orders until next fall …”

The letter, part of a Smithsonian collection on display at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Conn., through May 6, sums up perfectly the dilemma of all artists, including writers.

When, oh when, will we get to create for the joy of it? When will we have the free time and space to follow the Muse instead of the marketplace?

Parrish, clearing his calendar for two seasons, has the right idea. His Grecian images against that trademark Persian blue – a “Maxfield Parrish sky” inspired by the hills near his home in Plainfield, N.H. – adorned the covers of magazines like Collier’s and Ladies’ Home Journal, as well as advertisements of everything from Cashmere Bouquet soap to Jell-O. He was making money, which meant he could take time off to make his “real art” without feeling too much of a pinch.

For the rest of us, whether we have day jobs unrelated to our work or we toil away in universities, museums, galleries or libraries, making creative time is always a challenge. Whether we are distracted by work tasks or family obligations, creative time can feel like stolen time, robbing our employer or our loved ones of our attention. But it is as necessary as water or air.

This semester I’m teaching at two institutions, a full course load of four classes and three preps. As midterms approach and the essays and tests begin to stack up, the end of the semester seems far away indeed. Add to that the herculean task of a looming late-spring move, and I’ve only been able to carve out a half-hour here or there to work on my own writing.

But spring break is coming, the semester will end, and even with one five-week class, summer beckons with the promise of writing time. So I will try to get through the obligations and look forward to the free time ahead, when, like Parrish, “I am going to do some things for myself.”

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Six strong-willed sisters, forever at odds

 

I have been reading The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, by Mary S. Lovell. When my son spotted it in the bookstore while Christmas shopping, he thought, “This is either the perfect gift for Mom, or she already owns it and has already read it.” He took a chance and bought it anyway, to my delight.

The Mitfords – six sisters and, almost parenthetically, a brother – were one of England’s most fascinating and notorious families of privilege. Tragedy wends its way through their lives in ways both deserved and undeserved. The sisters counted among them two best-selling authors – novelist and biographer Nancy, the eldest, and Jessica (whom the sisters called Decca), best known in the U.S. for her nonfiction, including The American Way of Death (1964). Two of them were admitted Fascists and suffered mightily for it: Unity, a middle sister, consorted with Hitler and attempted suicide at the outbreak of World War II, becoming as a result an incontinent and mentally stunted shadow of her former self, and Diana, whose husband headed the Fascists in Britain, was jailed with him for three years during the war. Decca gravitated to the other end of the political spectrum, becoming a member of the American Communist party; she was put under surveillance by the FBI and subpoenaed to testify before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (she pleaded the fifth). The lesser known sisters melded into English aristocratic respectability – Pamela, nicknamed Woman, was more interested in  sheep than politics; Deborah, or Debo, the baby, married a man who eventually inherited a dukedom.

Among them, they lost children to miscarriage, stillbirth, illness, and accident. They married often, and some of their greatest loves were extramarital. But it occurs to me that the essential tragedy of the Mitfords – or the Redesdales, since their father was the second baron Redesdale and a member of the House of Lords – was not unhappiness in love, their parents’ refusal to educate them (a source of incredible bitterness, particularly to Decca), or their political persecution. It was that some or all of these things led to real estrangement in the family, so that their primary strength – the source of all their wit, intelligence, and creativity – was compromised forever. I speak of their sisterhood.

Decca, the communist, despised Diana, blaming her, her husband Sir Oswald Mosley, and their ilk for the war, particularly their brother’s death in Burma. (Before the war’s outbreak the Mosleys had been trying to establish a radio station in Germany.) The sisters’ father, David, and Sydney, their mother, never lived together as man and wife after Unity’s attempted suicide; Sydney, who had met Hitler upon Unity’s introduction, refused to renounce Fascism, and David could not abide that.

It’s hard not to sympathize with Decca and her father, especially because of Diana’s blasé attitude toward Hitler. Long after the horrors of the Holocaust had been revealed, Diana and her mother continued to speak of the Fuhrer as though he were a particularly charming party guest they happened to have met. Diana and her husband, particularly, never reckoned with the anti-Semitism behind Mosley’s party, the British Union of Fascists.

The sisters had grown up with incredible privilege, raised by a nanny in a succession of moldering estates not unlike Downton Abbey. In novels and memoirs, the writer-sisters portrayed Sydney as a hapless and detached mother, which always struck her as unfair. What they did not fully appreciate – what they never attained the narrative distance to understand – was how incredibly lucky they were to have so many sisters.

Six of them! Tom was beloved, but his upbringing was always different: primarily because he was allowed to go away to school and university. The sisters compensated by creating their own sorority, complete with its own language, nicknames and humor. Even years later, after decades of bitterness and estrangement, they continued to write to one another, sprinkling their correspondence with made-up words and inside jokes.

Keenly missing my own sisters (having two for such a short time, until age 7, and then losing one a  year ago), I read The Sisters with undisguised envy. It’s not their titles or their wealth that I long for, nor their strange British eccentricities, and certainly not their politics. No, it’s only the fact of that number, six, Nancy – Pamela – Diana – Unity – Jessica – Deborah, two perfect triangles, three pairs, adding up to an untold number of secrets, adventures, and stories. How sad that so much drove them apart.

 

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Be Gone, Girl Titles

 

Gone Girl. Girl on a Train. Nowhere Girl. You can scarcely walk by a bookstore or scroll through Amazon without coming across a title with the word “girl” in it. Publishers, who like nothing more than riding the coattails of last year’s best seller, are churning out Girl titles left and right.

So what’s the problem? Most of these novels are not about girls. They are about women. And I think the tendency to call a girl a woman is about a lot more than the syllables in a word or the potential for alliteration. A girl makes a good victim – vulnerable, easily frightened, powerless. But a woman is an adult. She is powerful. She might get in your face and object to being called a girl.

This phenomenon transcends fiction. As I begin to write this, Tom Petty’s “American Girl” is playing on Pandora. What does it say about us that it took a Canadian band to write “American Woman,” and that was in 1969? And the Guess Who song was not, by the way, exactly an anthem for what at the time was called women’s liberation.

Some fine novels have “girl” in the title, and I blame not the authors but the Great Publishing Machine that determines titles, designs covers, and creates often artificial genres for its wares. Consider Lilac Girls, by Martha Hall Kelly. Of its three female characters, two start out as teenagers, but for the majority of the novel they are adults responsible for their own choices. Last year also saw The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane (Lisa See, who also wrote Shanghai Girls), The Atomic City Girls (Janet Beard), and The Girls (Emma Cline).

Some of the “girls” in the above titles start out as such, but they grow into women over the course of the story.

What about novels with “women” in the title? There certainly are some: The Woman in Cabin 10 being the most prominent recent example, as well as The Woman in the Window and The Women in the Castle. But can’t you picture some marketing team member suggesting that they change the title to “The Girl in Cabin 10” or “The Girl in the Window”?

It was not always thus. Can you imagine if Jane Eyre had been “The Poor Girl”? Or if Louisa May Alcott had called her most famous novel “Little Girls”? Or if Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca had been “The Girl in the Boat”?

It’s time writers stood up to this abomination and banished the word “girl” from their dust jackets.

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Worth the paper it is printed on?

 

I wrote 22 book reviews last year, and my goal for 2018 is 24. But the domino effect of newsroom cutbacks and a pending tariff on Canadian newsprint just hit home, so my ability to get those reviews published is now in doubt.

Among the tariffs President Trump’s Commerce Department is considering is on paper imported from Canada, which is the primary source of American newsprint. The paper mills of Maine no longer even produce newsprint. Even the Portland Press-Herald gets its paper from Canada.

The President may try to sell this as a way to protect American jobs, but we all know he won’t be crying any tears if newspapers have to lay off employees, cut back on their newsholes or even close their doors because of the rising cost of paper. The 30 percent duty could be the end of many papers just hanging on in the age of free online content.

The tariff hasn’t taken effect, but already the price of newsprint is going up. And even though it’s been six years since I left the industry, this problem lit up my inbox yesterday in the form of an email from an editor who publishes my book reviews. Rather than a full page every week in the Sunday paper, she’s being forced to cut back to one book review once a week. Since I’m only one of a stable of reviewers, I’ll be lucky to get two or three published a year.

In the scheme of things, this isn’t going to break the bank – I only make $20 a review, and I do it more for exposure than anything else. Indeed, I get many comments from people who enjoy my reviews, and it’s helped me build a following, at least in Rhode Island.

Authors rely on book reviews to publicize their books; readers need them to discern what books are worth paying $25 or $30 for; and the community needs exposure to the ideas they contain. The only other choice: online reviews, which are neither objective nor edited.

Of the most concern is what this signals for the future of print journalism, which wasn’t looking rosy to begin with. I worry about friends and colleagues who still make their living in the business, writers who have regular free-lance gigs, and, most of all, our readers, who are getting less and less from newspapers at a time when they need them more than ever.

 

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File this under Indexing and Journal

 

Both Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson practiced a deliberate form of inspiration, by referring back to their old journals for ideas. In Emerson: The Mind on Fire, biographer Robert D. Richardson Jr. describes the transcendalist’s method: “… Emerson spent a good deal of time methodically copying and recopying journal material, indexing, alphabetizing indexes, and eventually making indexes of indexes.” Emerson found these indexes particularly useful for his lectures, because they tied together his many thoughts on a subject in one place, for easy reference. Thoreau, too, revisited his journal entries, particularly as he drafted and redrafted Walden, which would undergo seven iterations before its publication in 1854.

I had both men in mind this month as I began, rather haphazardly, to start an index of my journal. I began by picking a volume at random. One notebook – I use the Apica brand, ranging in size from 5.5 by 8 inches to 7 by 10 inches – typically covers three or four months. Immediately as I leafed through the first, ideas for stories, dreams, thumbnails of people, and old memories rose to the surface. Each time an interesting subject heading arose, I started a new file card. Eventually I had about 20 of these, ranging in topic from people’s names to story titles to various nouns.

A typical card I headed with my grandmother’s name, and the following subheadings: Her aprons; Love/grief/cemetery visit; Memories of; Attitudes and superstitions (“Superstitions” would soon get its own card); Garden; Money. One subject card I headed “Handwriting, cursive,” after finding  two rather elaborate entries on this, in 2011 and 2013, including one in which I practiced the Palmer method I remembered from school. Other card headings included Ice; Thoreau; and Writing, General.

Among the abandoned projects I thus unearthed was an essay about my great-grandmothers and a novel I started in 2013, about a man who collects dictionaries.

The most haunting entry, in 2014, described a dream my sister had about her own suicide. Two years later she would die of cancer, although I had no idea then she was sick – although this suggests she may have suspected it.

This exercise appears to have several benefits: 1. The compilation of related material into one place, for  future reference. 2. Comparing ideas, good and bad, for writing projects. 3. The discovery of material within the journals that might still have life. 4. The assurance that, despite our daily anxieties, a wealth of material exists, waiting to be found, connected, and rewritten into a new form.

I’ll leave you with writing advice I gave myself in March 2014:

 

Write in my journal every day – check!

Attack this book as though it’s the most enjoyable thing I’ll ever write.

Pursue whatever writing project I want.

Face the earth in all its substance every day with every pore of my writing self open, absorbing, receptive.

Trust that my critical/revision/editing self will be dogged, will be immersed, and will not stop revising too soon.

Celebrate the opportunity to write without giving in to guilt, depression, or despair.

Tell myself, just for now I will not doubt my ability or my determination.

Continue to read and review with the idea of learning from others.

Not a bad manifesto for the new writing year.

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She had me at ‘linoleum’

In just the first sentence of Oprah Winfrey’s magnificent acceptance speech at the Golden Globes on Sunday night, she did what all great orators do: She established a connection with her audience. And for me, it was with one word: “linoleum.”

“In 1964, I was a little girl sitting on the linoleum floor of my mother’s house in Milwaukee,” she began. She even paused a little on the word linoleum, giving it an emphasis that was no doubt lost on her live audience, most of whom were too young or too affluent to understand the reference.

The young Oprah, she related, was watching actress Anne Bancroft present the Oscar for Best Actor to Sidney Poitier, the first black man to be so honored. But while she made her point, I was still back there at “linoleum,” remembering what it was like to sit cross-legged on a cold patterned floor, watching a TV that no doubt was tiny and black-and-white.

For a certain socio-economic class in the 1960s, linoleum was an affordable, practical alternative to wall-to-wall carpet or hardwood floors. True linoleum consisted of linseed oil imprinted on a burlap or canvas backing; later floor coverings were made of vinyl to mimic the look of tile. Linoleum came in rolled-up sheets that could be cut to fit a room’s size, and typically an edging of wood floor would be left around it, so the linoleum resembled an area rug. Some patterns had a border to accentuate this effect. Indeed, often only the wood floor’s perimeter was painted, with the surface beneath both unfinished and untreated.

When I was five years old, in 1965, we moved into an old farmhouse with maple floors. Their edges had been painted brown, to resemble a dark oak finish. My parents’ sole redecorating effort was to buy some cheap linoleum and cut it to fit. Down the front hallway went a long runner with a brown, art-deco pattern. The kitchen’s linoleum was of a speckled pattern that I later would find to be ubiquitous in run-down New England farmhouses. In the living room, my father had to cut out a hole in the linoleum for the gas floor furnace. He even tacked up sheets of pink vinyl on the bathroom walls to resemble tile.

Linoleum’s advantages were obvious: it was cheap, easy to keep clean, and took an enormous amount of punishment. We also understood its disadvantages. You did not walk barefoot in the house in the wintertime. It also never looked like the lavish ads of Congoleum or Armstrong, where the flooring adorned modern kitchens and family rooms that made our house look like a shack in “Tobacco Road.”

For a vivid reproduction of mid-20th-century lower class living, visit Strawberry Banke in Portsmouth, N.H., where one colonial house is maintained as a 1950s tenement. There you’ll find linoleum in living rooms, a kerosene stove for heating, and sagging, cheap armchairs and couches. Visiting about 20 years ago, expecting something like the East Side of Providence, I was struck dumb by this exhibit. My childhood home had become a museum piece.

As it happens, I own the family house. In the 1980s, in a whirl of misguided renovation, my father tossed out most of the linoleum in favor of stick-on vinyl tiles or cheap area rugs. The speckled kitchen pattern and the Egyptian-looking hall runner became relics of the past. One upstairs bedroom, however, remains untouched, my childhood preserved in an amber of linoleum flooring, one single ceramic light fixture, and a rose-patterned wallpaper border.

Oprah’s point was the power of Sidney Poitier’s achievement to her dreaming younger self. In her speech she hoped to reach the young girls who might be inspired by her tremendous achievements. For me, nothing expressed how far she had come so much as that one word: linoleum.

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