Monthly Archives: January 2013

Revision, A Woman’s Wash Day

I’ve been doing a lot of cooking lately. Finding new recipes, buying the ingredients, then sifting, stirring, folding. Something about baking, especially, is compatible with writing. I work on a freelance story or the fledgling novel, then I go downstairs and stand in the kitchen, happily taking out the whole-wheat flour, salt, sugar and eggs.
The laundry, however, is a different matter. There’s nothing soothing about toting dirty clothes down to the cellar, emptying and filling the top loader, then leaning over the bed to square off T-shirts, crease pants and match socks. In fact it makes me downright grumpy.
Cooking, you see, is creation. It’s generation. Just as we writers enjoy that moment of seeing a story unfold from the pen or in computer typescript, so too do I like to watch the lemon pudding cake softly browning in the oven, or the muffins rising in their round little homes.
But laundry is revision. It’s trying to put order where there seemingly is none. There always seems to be a stray white athletic sock with no mate, a sleeveless undershirt that might be a daughter’s or a son’s, towels (upstairs) mixed up with dishtowels (downstairs). Laundry means sorting whites from darks, climbing up and down stairs, wrestling with static cling.
Just like the piles of laundry that seem to breed by themselves, my drafts build up, demanding attention. And fixing them is no easier than sorting, washing, drying and folding – in fact, it’s a chore, which is why I put it off, attending to the easier projects instead. The newspaper story I can dash off in an hour. The mood piece the magazine requested. The blog I’m writing right now.
With the short pieces, it’s like baking cookies: nearly instant gratification. Cookies don’t hang around for six months or a year, like some of my memoir pieces that refuse to be “done.” In the oven, out of the oven. Bam, as the chef says.
But the laundry piles up. It’s a series of mundane yet variegated tasks, and there’s never a sense that there – you’re done. No sooner is the linen closet restocked with towels, then you notice your son’s hamper is overflowing. As quick as you hang up your husband’s shirts, you begin running short on pajamas. It’s hard to get excited about laundry, or revision, when you never feel like you’ve accomplished anything.
But revision, like laundry, must be attended to. And like the mounds of married socks and fluffed towels, some good does come of all that effort. It’s just hard to see the final draft when your laundry baskets are full of stray commas, dead phrases, and limp endings. It seems like you should be done, after spending hours rewriting that beginning, over and over again, or taking out the small anecdote and then putting it back in, once, twice, three times. If you read that piece about your childhood one more time, you’ll rip it to shreds. It seems like you’ve made it worse than better. But how could that be, when it was so terrible to begin with?
Take heart. Just like housework, we must mix our chores to stay sane. So keep baking those cookies and shaping those meatloaves, as long as in between you dash down cellar to reload the washer. Keep checking that little basket of unmatched socks. Sooner or later, their mates will turn up – just as you will finish that story, eventually.

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Leaving behind the books of the past

A new study came out today that says we can see how much we’ve changed in the past but fail to predict how much we’ll change in the future. We think, no matter our age or circumstances, that we’ve reached some apotheosis and we’ll just keep on being our grand selves, not realizing that someday we’ll look back on this time and realize how much we had yet to learn.
As I read the story in the New York Times this morning (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/04/science/study-in-science-shows-end-of-history-illusion.html?hpw&_r=0), I couldn’t help thinking of my bookcase, or rather bookcases. We have eight in this house, and would have nine if my husband hadn’t made me reduce my library by one bookcase last year. The ninth bookcase is down in the basement thrown in with a lot of other junk, just waiting for someone to say, “You know what? We could really use another bookcase around here. Let me go bring it upstairs for you, dear.” Having already hoodwinked Tim into letting me take custody of an oak bookcase that belonged to my late mother, I’m thinking that day isn’t coming soon.
So it was that after Christmas I began sorting through my books, rearranging and (yes) culling, making room for the new books that appeared under the tree this year, and that’s where this past self/future self thing came to mind. Because as I sifted through shelf after shelf, I realized that my writing tastes had changed, and if this study is correct, they are going to evolve a whole lot more before that ninth bookcase makes it way back upstairs. Which, for anyone who’s paid any attention to the dynamics of my marriage and the water-on-rock theories of getting one’s own way, it will – eventually.
You see, I have certain collections. Authors whom I dearly love and whose books I can’t bear to part with. And if I don’t read these types of books anymore, that doesn’t mean that I can just pack them up and get rid of them.
Take Elisabeth Ogilvie, for example. I discovered the Maine writer when I was in my late 20s. The summer Perry was born, I tore through her island novels, with their realistic portrayals of the quiet human drama of everyday life. In books like High Tide at Noon, Day Before Winter and The Seasons Hereafter, all set on the island of Criehaven (which she called Bennett’s Island), her characters lived the anachronisms I wanted to live. I own about a quarter of her more than 40 novels, including a signed copy Tim bought me one year for Christmas. With books piled all around me on the floor, I suddenly decided to get rid of some Ogilvie – not the island novels, but the romances that are set elsewhere. One, two, three, four. Done.
With the previously sacrosanct Ogilvie collection breached, I now eyed my Joseph C. Lincolns with a more critical eye. Lincoln, also prolific, wrote regional novels about Cape Cod in the early part of the twentieth century. They are entertaining, but very old-fashioned, with lots of dialect. They are also highly collectible and worth money. But, already having read them and unlikely to return to them, I can no longer allow these dust-catchers to take up one and a half book shelves of my finest glass-front bookcase. So all but three have been bagged up for sale.
Who was I when I read these books? Younger, certainly, and interested in how novelists translate their sense of place. But some of the books I loved, not love, the past tense showing how my literary interests have changed. Many of my bookshelves are overtaken by the sort of “library novel” that I once aspired to write. Now I’m trying to make room for memoirs (since I’m trying to write one), more classics like Dickens and Twain, and short stories and poetry, which I’ve always collected but now use on a daily basis because of my teaching.
With my bookcases also accommodating writing craft books, dictionaries (another sort of collection), histories, biographies, disaster books, and an extensive collection of Rhode Island fiction, there just isn’t room for every book I’ve ever read. Too many of the novels, unless they fit into some sort of genre, were experienced richly at the time but will never be reread.
That’s why I also put dozens of novels in the discard pile: Drood, by Dan Simmons (it’s more than 700 pages long and takes up the space of three books; besides, I read a library copy of his novel The Terror, and I didn’t feel a need to own it); A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng, Beth Gutcheon’s Maine novels, my Nevil Shute collection (even On the Beach), and Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
I shocked myself when these started piling up in paper bags, but the more I thought about it, the less upsetting it was. I enjoyed them at the time. I would never go back and reread them, though, and there was nothing in them that I would use in teaching writing. No structural innovations, no killer first lines, no metaphors that speak to me still. They are, quite simply, good yarns well told, but that’s no longer enough to earn a place on my limited shelves.
I could not, however, get rid of Joyce Carol Oates, Anne Tyler, Richard Russo, Paul Watkins or Alan Furst, because theirs are the novels I turn to again and again when I’m struggling with my own writing or trying to show my students how the finest writers practice their craft. For the same reasons, I could not discard the classics – the Brontes, Dickens, Virginia Woolf among the Brits; John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, Eudora Welty, and Wallace Stegner from the American canon. Some writers, indeed, are so precious that they occupy a privileged place up here in my office, where they will never have to be weighed for discard or retention. I speak, of course, of Thoreau and Emerson.
It is possible that I have become a more discriminating reader, over the years, in ways I hadn’t guessed; that writers who were once beloved are fondly recalled for the entertainment they provided but no longer need to be on my bookshelves. So I must get rid of them to make room for someone new.
Just as I only dimly recall who I was when I read these books, so too will I one day look upon volumes acquired today and wonder what it was about them that I considered so precious – what lessons they were teaching me. Someday, the authors that I consider sacred today will make their way to new shelves for someone else to discover and enjoy. We contain many reading selves, and those selves are ever evolving, whether we realize it or not.

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The anonymous reviewer

The worst reviews you will receive are always unsigned. They crop up on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or Good Reads, one or two sentence fragments that cut you off at the knees with the casualness that someone might complain about a tepid cup of coffee. They offset the effusive reviews that your friends and relatives have left, providing a cold splash of reality to your authorial delusions of grandeur. We writers tend to ignore the words of praise, even the legitimate ones from strangers and reviewers like Publisher’s Weekly, to focus on the anonymous critic who really, really hates our work.
When my first novel came out, in 2008, it received a good review from Publisher’s Weekly and a decent one from Kirkus. The book, Roberta’s Woods, sold 1,600 copies, barely enough to earn back my advance, but it earned a wide readership in libraries, which is my publisher’s primary market. Yet through all the feedback I received, good, bad and indifferent, the one that stuck in my craw was an Amazon posting from someone calling herself “Wee Bookworm,” who noted: “Interesting book and a good story. I could identify with the areas and type of people, but it was not proofread well enough (4 spelling errors is a lot for a book of this size). The ‘language’ in it seemed forced and it would have been a better book without it for sure.”
Hardly a lambasting, certainly, and obviously written by someone offended by the book’s two or three swear words. That was hint number one. But little did Wee Bookworm know that with a few clicks of the mouse I was able to learn her true identity.
It was someone I knew. Indeed, she had attended not only one of my book events, but my father’s and mother’s funerals. What was her motivation for making the comments she did, and doing so anonymously? She is religious, so obviously that had factored into her opinion.
Then my second book came out, and sure enough, here came another negative review, by someone calling herself “Juniper.” But this one was even worse. She gave the book one star, and under the heading “silly book, poorly written,” wrote: “From start to finish I found this book at best boring. There was only one page that touched me at all. I was angry that I was wasting my time reading it. I did not like the style of writing. There was no character that I felt was worth liking.”
Her name was an obvious biblical reference to the tree that shelters Elijah in the Old Testament, only this time whoever was writing reviews under a pseudonym had smartened up and protected her identity. I have no proof that Juniper and Wee Bookworm are the same person, although some conjunctions are intriguing. The cadence of their writing seems different (short, staccato sentences versus more complex diction), but Juniper’s choice of a review handle seems to match Wee Bookworm’s interests. Juniper also complains in another one of her reviews that a book was poorly edited (although she herself makes grammatical mistakes in her reviews).
Ultimately, whether I have one or two detractors, however, is immaterial. If you’re a writer, at some point you will be confronted by a Juniper or Wee Bookworm, someone who wants to trash your work but doesn’t have the courage to sign their name to their opinions. Such reviewers are the literary equivalent of the hit-and-run driver, a bitter reader taking out their literary road rage on you while eluding the sort of accountability that comes with identifying yourself. Their criticism may be justified or not, but its very anonymity suggests the writer has a motive beyond warning the reading public that there’s rough riding ahead.
Amazon recently began deleting reviews on authors’ sites that were obviously from relatives, in an attempt to improve the integrity of the review process. But the retailing giant continues to allow people to review works anonymously, without any concern that these reviewers’ motives might not be pure, either. Yet as long as people can take potshots at writers without identifying themselves, the highly negative review will be just as suspect as the highly positive one.

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