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Melancholy Autumn returns

I always loved Autumn. Even in junior high school I collected pictures of sweeping Vermont scenes, postcards of orange maples and calendar spreads of leaf-strewn villages, and hung them on the wall or pasted them into scrapbooks. Typical pages included a football game ticket, a pressed red leaf, and one of those liquor ads where the couple is sitting in a pile of raked leaves or cozying up on a plaid blanket. 

And in Autumn I read Autumn novels. Praise the Human Season by Don Robertson, the sweeping story of a couple’s long marriage. The Hunter’s Moon by Nathaniel Benchley, with its eerie undercurrent of sexual violence. Home from the Hill, the story of a Texas family by William Humphrey. These books left the taste of Autumn in my mouth, whether sour fear or loss or just the bittersweet reality of lives bravely lived. 

In this old house, October meant battening down the hatches. My father would have stacked the cordwood with his disciplined precision. The garden would be left to rot, or turned over and planted in winter rye, the last green tomatoes lined up on the kitchen window sills. Indoors my mother already would be tending the fires, the wood stove and kerosene range, taking the chill off the first frosty mornings. My father would have swapped out the screen doors for their glass counterparts and pulled down the storm windows. 

And I would be filling up notebooks, my journal and my five-subject Mead of school notes. Reading those novels and Glamour magazine. Putting together fall outfits of corduroy and flannel. And always the season’s change played on my emotions, Nature once again strumming a beat inside me.

The season always started brilliantly: a “pale gold shimmer on the trees’ tips,” “trees at last … red and pale gold,” against “slate blue folds of the clouds looming over the roof.” 

But the first tree to turn in the neighborhood, a maple across the street, started early – in late August – and by October was nearly bare. Too soon came the gales of mid-fall.

In October 1975, I noted “russet elms,” the “dirty blackness of the river,” a “black starless sky,” and “crumpled leaves” the “color of dried blood.” I could “almost feel the yearning of Earth’s breast beneath them.” 

In 1976, after a violent rainstorm not unlike the one we just had, I mourned the Indian summer that had been washed away. “Skeletal branches” had begun “to emerge bare,” leaves lying “like cereal flakes on the ground.” 

Once after a visit to my grandmother, to the place where my father was raised, I wrote, “I am committed to the land and what it symbolizes.” 

And I was. Although only a teenager, I sensed rather than understood my emotional connection to the countryside, the seasons, and what I can only call my inheritance of place. I felt it every time I drove along the dirt road that led to my grandmother’s house in the Tug Hollow section of Richmond. From the bus window, I watched as the leaves exploded into color on Shannock Hill. No matter where I was, I paid attention to the insistent heartbeat of the natural world. 

I had read Emerson, but not enough to understand his explanation in “Nature” of the relationship between our exterior and interior worlds, how Nature provides us the raw material to spin the metaphors that allow us to express emotions and ideas that would otherwise be inaccessible. But already I was trying to make that connection, to spin a web out of Autumn’s stimulus. This was what I meant by “commitment to the land and what it symbolizes.”

This week October once again did her turn. After days of gold came her bleak and barren hours. Even before the wind lashed the trees and the rain tumbled down, I felt unsettled. Out of sorts. Depressed. And before I realized it, I was back in those old sad Autumns. Three years ago, tending to my sister, sick and emaciated, right before her cancer diagnosis. Forty-one years ago, adjusting to a strange new place, a college campus where I was missing all the old rituals of home. Memories came tumbling back of Autumn’s ambivalence – the grand show before the final exit. 

So I did what my mother would have done. I gathered up the last of the green tomatoes. I picked as many cosmos and zinnias and roses and poppies as my arms could hold, and filled the house with vases of them, tall, short, milk glass, blue glass. I thought about all the loved ones I’ve lost. I remembered my sister in the glory of October, before December took her away from us. I pictured my mother raking up the garden, her hair under a kerchief. I could see my father carrying in an armload of wood or facing  the early-morning chill to warm up the car before I drove to school. No matter how the wind blew or the rain pounded, in this old farmhouse they kept us warm and safe and ready for the winter to come. And so, after thinking about that for a while, I felt a little more ready for it now.

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A peek at others’ libraries


Naumkeag, the summer home of lawyer and ambassador Joseph Hodges Choate and later his daughter Mabel, sits perched on a dramatic overlook in Stockbridge, Mass. The gardens, which are lovingly tended by the Trustees of the Reservations, include a Linden Walk inspired by a trip to Germany; a series of terraced steps created by landscape architect Fletcher Steele; and a Chinese pagoda surrounded by Japanese maples.

On a recent visit my husband headed first for the Afternoon Garden, with its striking view of the Berkshire hills. I would get there eventually. 

Our stroll ticket included a self-guided tour of not just the gardens but the estate’s first floor. Designed by McKim, Mead and White in 1885 in the shingle style, the mansion oozes casual elegance. There’s a Flemish tapestry from the sixteenth century and a Hadley chest where the family stashed its tennis balls.

And there are also books, a roomful of them, and that’s where I headed first.

I’ve seen a lot of famous people’s libraries. I’ve perused the volumes at Cross Creek, the Florida home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I’ve inhaled the rarefied air in Emerson’s study in Concord, where his floor-to-ceiling bookcase consists of a series of stacked bureau drawers, any one of which could be pulled out to cart along on a lecture tour. I’ve scrutinized the tattered books at Fruitlands, where Louisa May Alcott and her sisters shivered and starved their way through a long winter. 

In fact, in just about every author’s house I’ve toured – and there have been many, including the likes of Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, James Merrill, and Nathaniel Hawthorne – the books are what draw me. 

In many cases, they are not the author’s originals. Most of Emerson’s volumes are at Harvard, and Kinnan Rawlings’s collection is at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Either the collections have been edited, in Emerson’s case, or replicated, as at Cross Creek. 

Nonetheless, the titles give some clues as to their owners’ thoughts, feelings, and interests. At the Choate house, the books are imprisoned behind two rows of wire, like errant cattle. They include many titles on gardening, which of course makes sense, given the owners’ proclivities, as well as popular writers of the 20th century, including P.G. Wodehouse and Edith Sitwell.

I had three writers in mind as I scanned the shelves, which rose floor to ceiling. One: Since Mabel Choate, who hired Steele to create the Chinese Garden, owned books about gardens of the East, might she also have read the novels of Pearl Buck?

I had been listening to Hilary Spurling’s marvelous biography of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Pearl Buck in China, so I eagerly looked for Imperial Woman, Dragon Seed, or The Good Earth, but found none of them.

Second, wouldn’t the Choates – whose Berlin trip in the late 1800s inspired the Linden Walk – have been familiar with Elizabeth von Arnim, the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden and A Solitary Summer? Von Arnim, whose real name was Mary Annette Beauchamp, was an Edwardian lady married to a German count, whose writings are Thoreavian in their celebration of nature.

Alas, no Elizabeth, either. The docent in the study knew nothing about her, but noted that Naumkeag was originally a summer house, so the family presumably had another library in their New York City home as well.

Finally, I wondered if the Choates knew Caroline Hazard, who served as president of Wellesley College from 1899 to 1910 and wrote books of poetry, history, and travel. 

I don’t think the docent had heard of her.

What would it have mattered to find Buck, von Arnim or Hazard on these shelves? For me such a discovery would be another thread weaving my reading life together. Just as the books in my own study lean into one another, the influence of one seeping into the next, so too do the volumes in these famous homes connect. Finding a book on Brazil in Emerson’s Concord house brought my mind immediately to Christopher Benfey’s A Summer of Hummingbirds, particularly the art of Martin Johnson Heade. If the writer of Nature was curious about Brazil, surely he was familiar with Heade’s magnificent portraits of the hummingbirds he found there. And when I later read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, her biography of Alexander von Humboldt, I thought again of that book on Emerson’s shelf.

The bookcase is a biography of a writer. Each volume is an intellectual touchstone, a literary influence. Perusing the libraries of others can only enrich our own experiences.

I eventually wandered out to explore Naumkeag’s gardens. We marveled at the staggered blue steps Fletcher Steele built and the clumps of fragrant phlox that bloomed below them. But the stacked shelves remained in the back of my mind, leading me somewhere too – to the books gathered there, which issue a different sort of fragrance and blossoms just as lovely. 

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The letters of a complicated man


For the past couple of weeks, I have been driving to 1945, as I listen to the audio version of Christopher Dodd’s Letters from Nuremberg: My Father’s Narrative of a Quest for Justice. First published in 2007, the book (cowritten by Lary Bloom) is comprised of the correspondence of Thomas Dodd, who was one of the U.S. prosecutors in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals.

Dodd, junior and senior, is a familiar name in these parts. A native of Norwich, Conn., Thomas Dodd had a storied career that included a brief stint in the FBI and service in the U.S. Senate. Norwich’s AAA baseball stadium is named after him, and his son Christopher followed in his footsteps as a U.S. senator from 1981 to 2011.

In some ways, the book is an attempt to reclaim Dodd’s legacy after his career ended in ignominy. Accused of appropriating campaign finance funds for personal use, he was censured by his colleagues in 1967. When the Democratic party refused to endorse him for re-election, he ran as an independent in 1970, but lost his seat. He died suddenly of a heart attack less than a year later, at age 64.

It is easy to see why the Dodd family would want to salvage his reputation. When Dodd died, his censure and defeat were still fresh news, and the New York Times obituary was almost entirely devoted to his Senate career and the accusations of cronyism and misuse of funds. His triumph at Nuremberg – for which he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom – was consigned to one paragraph on an inside page.

The letters he wrote home from July 1945, when he flew to England to begin work on the trial, to September 1946 are a fascinating, day-by-day look at the struggle to bring Nazi leaders to justice. But they are far more than that.

In his correspondence, Tom Dodd is revealed as a complicated man whose devotion to his wife and family was often at odds with his duty to country. Despite his protestations to the contrary, he was an ambitious lawyer already looking ahead to parlaying this assignment into a legal and political career.

The letters exist on two levels, and Dodd was aware of this as he wrote: they are first and foremost love letters to his wife, Grace, and simultaneously a recording of historic events as they unfolded. So Tom Dodd wrote both for his wife’s ears, and history’s.

Each of the letters begins not with the conventional “Dear Grace” but “Grace, my dearest one,” or alternatively, “Grace, my loveliest one.” In the very first letter, he paints a picture of her face as she waves him goodbye from a train platform in New York, an image he calls upon again and again to get him through his dreary days interrogating Nazis and negotiating Army politics.

Dodd’s wife, the former Grace Murphy, also was a local girl. From Westerly, Rhode Island, she graduated from Trinity College in Washington, D.C. (her husband was a graduate of Providence College and Yale Law School). They married in 1934. When Tom left on his Nuremberg assignment, they were living in Lebanon, Conn., with their five children – Thomas Jr., Carolyn, Jeremy, Martha, and Christopher, who was a little over a year old when his father left for Nuremberg (a sixth child, Nicholas, was born after he returned).

Although they had been married 11 years in 1945, Tom Dodd writes to Grace like a besotted newlywed. She is the only woman he could ever love; he cannot bear to be apart from her; he will cut this assignment short just to be with her, and the children. The highlight of his day is writing to her.

Her responses are not included in the volume, if they survive, but we get hints of them from his letters. It takes weeks for her first letters to reach Dodd, who travels to France before arriving in Nuremberg. When they do arrive, he finds Grace’s letters wonderful but short; several times he asks plaintively if she won’t write on both sides of the stationery. Grace comes across as a good humored, capable woman who surely misses her husband but is hardly sitting at home pining away for him – she gets her hair done and attends cocktail parties in New York City, for example, excursions he encourages bravely but not too convincingly.

Dodd tries to reassert his role as man of the house. It comes out that instead of leaving her access to his bank account, he expects her to mail him checks overseas, which he will sign and return to her by post. This clearly is unworkable, and eventually he gives in and suggests she forge his signature when necessary. It is good for a wife, he opines, to have to pay the bills once in a while to understand the responsibilities on a husband’s shoulders. Several times, he admonishes her not to pay the handyman until he has painted all the window sills and installed the storm windows.

Thinking of Grace Dodd at home with five children and a large house, with bills to pay and no ready access to the family’s savings, one can only speculate at her reaction to this.

Dodd was, of course, a man of his time, and the gender roles in his marriage were typical for the 1940s. It is hard to criticize a husband so deeply in love with his wife that he thinks about her night and day, hoping that someday they can see the sights of Europe together.

But Dodd was a man of contradictions: He despised anti-Semitism, but complained that too many Jews were on the legal team (he feared this would make the trial seem unfair). He claimed to want no role in the trial itself, content to do the interrogations, but he denounced the Army brass for sidelining him. Already, he saw the high-profile case as a stepping-stone.

Yet: Dodd was a brilliant jurist whose systematic interrogations, moral outrage and trial experience helped secure the 19 convictions (three defendants were acquitted). He was able to cut through the dry documents to show the human toll of genocide, at one point brandishing the shrunken head of a murdered prisoner that had been used as a paperweight by the commandant at Buchenwald.

In this case, the New York Times got it wrong. Although the Senate censure of Dodd led to tighter campaign finance laws, his real legacy was secured in the days after World War II, when he helped hold war criminals to account and proved that the rule of law can triumph over despotism. Reading his letters all these decades later, one admires him as a good husband, a principled lawyer, and a decent man. His subsequent failings make him human, but do not undo his finest hour in Nuremberg.


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Finding a room of our own

After more than 40 years of writing, I now have a room of my own. It was Virginia Woolf of course who famously wrote, “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” and like all women writers I have struggled to obtain both.

  My first writing space was my bedroom in the very house where I now live. It was a small, squarish space, painted blue a long time ago, with a slanted ceiling and one window near the bed and one smaller one tucked into the eaves. I had a desk in front of the larger window, where I could look out toward the backyard, where my father maintained his sawmill and my mother cultivated a vegetable and flower garden.

  My desk was an old 1940s vanity in the waterfall style; we bought it at a yard sale. At that desk I wrote every day, first in two tiny five-year diaries with their miniature locks, and then in five-subject college-ruled notebooks. I wrote about what I felt and saw, gradually moving from abstract emotional outpourings to concrete episodes; I taught myself to memorize what people said and did, and so began to write scenes.

  As writing rooms go, it was not bad. Since my mother typed my term papers, I had no need yet of a typewriter. The drawers were filled with rudimentary supplies, rulers and pens and pencils and stationery. The few books I owned were piled in a cinderblock and board arrangement common in the 1970s, and eventually in a pine bookcase my father made. I owned a few Scholastic paperbacks purchased through school book sales; a 1942 Classics Club edition of Walden; a 1936 dictionary coming loose at the binding; some paperbacks of British poetry; and a well-thumbed copy of Leaves of Grass.

  It is not possible to talk about one’s writing space without talking about one’s books. Woolf was concerned not just with having space for books, but what books filled that space: few, if any, titles were by women, and in any case budding women writers did not have the money to fill these “empty shelves” even with titles written by men. But even though we were poor, we always had books in the house – my mother’s old oak bookcase stuffed with gilt-edged volumes of Scott, Hemans, and Bryant, along with the Book of Knowledge and National Geographic’s Lands and Peoples. I did not think too much about the proportion of male authors on my shelves, until I started buying books on my own – it was not Woolf but Erica Jong who raised my consciousness, and Fear of Flying was quickly followed by Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, with its incisive take-down of male writers, and by Sylvia Plath, and Alix Kates Shulman, and Germaine Greer.

  By the time I began living in apartments, my father had built me a second, bigger bookcase, and each time I moved, he would enlist his sawmill helpers to drag all the boxes of heavy books up and down stairs. I kept the waterfall desk, too, its drawers now stuffed with letters from friends and old journals and scraps of paper with one-sentence story ideas. Still, the “room of my own” was no more than roving furniture to be stuffed into this or that corner, a circumstance that was to last for decades.

  Somehow, I managed to carve out a corner for myself no matter where I lived. After marriage and children, the need to write was overwhelmed by full-time employment and motherhood. But a writing desk could be disguised by the duties of paying bills, signing school paperwork, or making out Christmas cards. There was the Victorian lady’s desk I found at yet another yard sale, with its cubbyholes perfect for paperclips and tiny notebooks and random slips of paper. For a while we kept one of those prefab computer desks in our living room, a sole work station shared by five of us – two gaming boys, my husband, and a young daughter who was just learning to use a mouse. Later I commandeered one of my teen boys’ computer desks and found a home for it at the top of the stairs.

  From these makeshift work spaces, I wrote. In the living room, while cartoons blared, I completed four photo history books and my first novel, my research spread out on TV trays. Upstairs in my nook, I wrote two more novels and a master’s thesis. These spaces were neither quiet nor commodious; stacks of paper leaned precariously on surfaces, file cabinets poked into my knees, plastic storage bins overflowed with manuscripts. My library was spread all over the house in bookcases of every size and style. I had not advanced very far from those days of writing in my bedroom, and in fact I may have regressed: No one had bothered me in my blue room, for my mother was a writer too and took it for granted that her daughter needed to sit at that waterfall desk and stare out the window, or spend hours bent over a composition notebook, for she had done the same as a girl, and had to endure the clueless comments of her more athletic and outgoing siblings.

  As a married woman, however, I had a husband and children to consider. I learned to write in the smallest windows of opportunity. I got up early on weekends, before the kids were up, or stole an hour between when school started and I needed to be at work. I wrote in the evenings while my husband worked second shift and the children, fresh out of their baths, had an hour of play or TV before bedtime. The size or placement of that writing desk mattered less than the time I could spend there.

 Eventually, the children began to leave the nest, and I adopted one of their rooms for an office. But it was a makeshift affair: I still had that rickety computer desk, its faux surface peeling, and files bursting out of boxes, and books all over the house in whatever corner I could cram them. And you never knew when the son who was still home might start blaring the Black Keys from the adjoining bedroom.

  Now I have a room of my own – figuratively and literally. Figuratively, because all three children are grown and living on their own, and my part-time teaching has given me time and freedom I did not have in my 30s and 40s. Literally, because in December, after seven months of renovation, we moved into the house where I grew up. My old blue bedroom is now a bathroom, and the largest bedroom upstairs is my study. My mother’s oak bookcase is up here, and an L-shaped desk, and built-in bookshelves. There’s a small red chair just right for reading or, if you’re a cat, napping. My books, my papers, my files all have found a home, a place close at hand, in closets and file drawers. This is the room I dreamed of – it is Jo March’s garret in Little Women, complete with a mood pillow; it is Thoreau’s small house in Walden; it is Emerson’s study with that wall of books.

  Coming into it is like walking into my own head: I wrote in this space for years before it materialized. Here are my reference books at the right hand: dictionaries, a thesaurus, guides to birds and flowers. Here are my little notebooks at the left: lists of books I’ve read, lists of books I want to read, journals empty and half-full. I have only to swing my chair to find my journal open on the desk, capped fountain pen at the ready, or to ponder my creativity bulletin board, with its collage of vintage car ads, songbirds, postcards, family snapshots and mysterious paintings.

  Curiously, I don’t always write here. Often I go to a local coffeehouse, bribing my Muse with an iced tea and chocolate chip cookie. The Room of my Own is the perfect space for writing, but perfection can be a harsh taskmaster. Maybe I don’t think I deserve this space; maybe the house itself conspires against me, calling out with dirty laundry or an unmade bed. Or maybe it’s just that the cat knows where to find me when she needs to eat. Whatever the reason, when I have a deadline, the coffee shop beckons.

  At the end of “A Room of One’s Own,” Woolf evokes the sister of William Shakespeare, who died before she could write. She exhorts the women in her audience to write for that silent poet who never had the chance. I make no pretense to be Shakespeare’s sister, but if all women are heir to her, and to Woolf, and to all the women writers who have tried to fit writing around all their other obligations, then I revel in this space my life has made, and prepare to write in it.  

 First, though, I’ll feed the cat.

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Writing by numbers

The end of December is here, a time for reassessing the literary year. Readers are posting their favorite books of 2018 and writers are revisiting their goals. A writer’s number of rejections has become the new brag statistic, especially on the Facebook board Binders Full of Rejects, a spinoff of the Binders that popped up after Mitt Romney’s tone-deaf comment about “binders full of women” in the 2016 election. The theory is that the more you submit, the more you will publish, and the competitive nature of the Binders site has inspired many to post their rejections with same pride they would an acceptance.

In that spirit, I have been examining my literary life in a more quantitative way. I’ve been logging “books read” for about 11 years now, but this was the first year I set submission goals and kept track of my status in meeting them. But for both books and submissions, the numbers only tell part of the story.


Reading …

I read 54 books last year, which includes audiobooks listened to in the car. Adding audiobooks to my repertoire has not only increased reading quantity but its breadth as well, and that to me is the more important result. I’ve been focusing my audio listening on a genre I’m trying to break into, historical fiction, and from these books I’ve learned a great deal about the mechanics of pacing and the demands of character.

Among my favorites this year were two by Anita Shreve, Stella Bain, about an amnesiac nurse during World War I, and Fortune’s Rocks, the story of a 15-year-old girl, Olympia Biddeford, whose love affair with a 40-ish married man in 1899 alters the course of many lives. Shreve’s death from cancer in March, at age 71, was a wrenching loss for the literary community; I can only imagine how many nuanced and moving stories of hers will remain untold. Her last book, The Stars are Fire, was set in Maine after World War II and stands among her finest.

I also was captivated by Under a Dark Summer Sky by Vanessa LaFaye, a fictionalized account of the 1936 Labor Day hurricane that wiped away most of the Florida Keys. LaFaye chose to set her story on a fictional Heron Key and also moved the storm to July, but the novel is rich and moving nonetheless. Researching the author, I was dismayed to learn that she, too, had perished from cancer, in February.

Imogen Robertson’s A Paris Winter, set against the backdrop of the Paris floods of 1910, tells the engaging story of a London emigre who is taking art lessons on her own in the city of light when she becomes the victim of a pair of grifters. Although one element of this story was left dangling, I was nonetheless enchanted with the characters and the breakneck pace.

My favorite, however, was Agate Hill by Lee Smith. She’s a Southern writer whose memoir, Dimestore, is also a must-read. In Molly Petrie she has created an orphan heroine as strong as Jo March and as vivid as Dickens’s Pip. How can you not love a girl who hides herself away in a cubbyhole to write down a household’s gossipy secrets? Set before and after the Civil War, the story is marred only by its ambiguous ending.


… and Writing

I set ambitious goals for myself in 2018 and, although I didn’t meet all the numerical targets, there were some big-picture victories.

Because I’d written 22 book reviews in 2017, I upped the ante to 24 this year. Unfortunately, I didn’t come close, writing only 15. But I have a pretty good excuse: I spent most of the summer on the last volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novel/memoir, My Struggle. At 1,157 pages, Book Six was not only the longest in the series but also the most ponderous. Knausgaard’s typically frank and quotidian musings are interrupted mid-book by more than 400 pages of academic digression into the life of Adolf Hitler and a poem by Paul Celan. The effect is rather like finding a student term paper shoved into the middle of a suspense novel. The observations, despite occasional flashes of insight, arrive with all the narrative punch of a Wikipedia page.

But I stuck it out, despite the fact my editor did not want yet another Knausgaard review.

I’d also hoped to write more blogs, setting a goal of one a week, or 52. Counting this one, I wrote 24, not quite half that – but still way more than the two I eked out in 2017.

Other categories found my output also falling short. I submitted one literary piece eight times, for eight rejections, despite the goal of 24. But that was twice the volume of the year before, when I only submitted four times.

I had better luck placing my freelance articles and op-ed pieces. I had hoped to write six travel/arts pieces, instead placing 13, or more than twice that (and one more than in 2017). Op-ed essays – for which I curiously had no goal at all – came in at nine, eight of which have been published, including a letter to the editor that made the New York Times in April.

But perhaps my most important goal was to submit 42 more agent queries in my continued search for representation for my novel. When I signed with agent Christine Lee in July, it was after 32 queries in 2018 and 91 overall, a testimony to the power of persistence.

That one achievement, of course, was far and away more significant than all the other missives sent out into the world. But the point is: If you don’t try, you’ll never get anywhere.

Sifting through these numbers, a few scattered observations float to the top. I have a lot of opinions and so op-ed essays, often written at a white heat, are a good fit. I enjoy writing about travel, history, and art. Literary magazines are harder to break into than newspapers. There were some surprises, including an out-of-the-blue offer to write an institutional history.

As I ponder erasing the whiteboard of 2018 goals, I wonder if the numerical system is really the way to go. Maybe a better motivator would be a list of what I want to write in 2019. Or maybe I should create monthly or weekly goals, rather than having to stare at those hard numbers all year. One thing is certain; while success cannot be guaranteed, failure will be – if we don’t send our work out into the world.

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Houses’ mysterious (writing) allure


It was a house that drew me to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and a house that brought me back to him.

I was probably 10, browsing through the Book of Knowledge, when I first came across a condensed version of The House of the Seven Gables. Who could resist the title? Never mind the pen-and-ink sketches of the house with all its twists and turns, the gaunt Clifford, the dusty shop opened by Hepzibah. I barely understood the story, but its gothic ambience was irresistible.

Years later, my husband and I visited the house that inspired the novel, in Salem, Mass., on a brutally hot day in the summer of 1986. I don’t remember much about it, except for the steep stairs and the nooks and crannies. At some point I read the book entire. I moved on to other writers.

Since then, we have toured dozens of New England houses; some sheltered writers, others merely inspired them. Last week we found another – the Old Manse in Concord, Mass., where Hawthorne brought his bride, Sophia Peabody, after their marriage in 1842. As he recounts in Mosses from an Old Manse, this house that had sheltered many a minister – and witnessed the first shots of the Revolution, literally in its backyard – drew in the couple with a warm embrace of old timbers and the shade of black ash trees.

Set back from the road, the house was fronted by a tree-lined path; in the back, the Concord River slipped peacefully past, near where the old North Bridge had stood on that first day of the Revolution. The interior was rambling and drafty, although its front and back doors afforded a nice cross-breeze in the summer.

In her book about the Concord renaissance, American Bloomsbury, Susan Cheever senses a barely disguised sexual energy in both Hawthorne and Sophia’s writings at the time. Though their stay would be tinged by sadness – Sophia lost her first baby – they used her diamond to etch messages of hope into the window glass in Hawthorne’s study: “Man’s accidents are God’s purposes.”

Standing in that study last week, where Hawthorne wrote the classic short story “The Birth-mark” and Emerson composed the essay “Nature,” I felt the pulse of both men’s creativity beating in the air. I sat in a reproduction of the wide-armed chair Emerson used for writing, feeling a little like I was about to give blood. Hawthorne’s desk, cleverly notched into the wall, is original, as are the books throughout the house.

Notes Brenda Wineapple, author of Hawthorne: A Life: “The Manse is another of Hawthorne’s old houses, fragrant with the spirit of former tenants and, perched on the banks of the past, fit emblem of his imagination.”

The houses, always the houses. After “The House of the Seven Gables,” I was drawn to a series of books in which the house is a dominant character. Just as with Hawthorne, I discovered the Brontes in the Book of Knowledge, where Thornfield Hall looms over Jane Eyre, especially in that pivotal scene when the first Mrs. Rochester stands behind the flaming curtains of the burning hall. I read the entire novel at 12, again not completely comprehending it, but drawn in by those drafty halls and stone-lined corridors.

Later came Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and a host of gothic imitators, including Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, with its doomed Manderley. Louisa May Alcott wrote captivatingly of four sisters in Little Women, but where would the book be without Jo’s garrett, the private escape of which every young (writing) girl dreams?

No coincidence, then, that my first two novels feature houses on their covers, or that the early stories I scribbled always seemed to revolve around intriguing real estate: Tug Hollow, the old Cape Cod house where my father grew up, and what we called Howard’s House, the 1728 Cape in Escoheag that belonged to his stepfather. It didn’t take much imagination to conjure their early residents. Old ancestors’ portraits were piled upstairs in Tug Hollow, and  Howard’s mother had kept a boarding house, with the registers of their guests still extant for my fervent examination. Was it true that my grandmother had made booze in the cellar of Tug Hollow, during Prohibition? (Yes.) And that a guest had died in a mysterious hunting accident at Howard’s? (Probably not.) Already I was learning that authors didn’t write history, they just used it to spark their imaginations.

Hawthorne, Wineapple writes, needed the tangible to kick-start his tales – the red A of The Scarlet Letter, the house that (once) had seven gables, the dusty records in the Custom House where he earned his bread. It’s the past he’s sifting through, and houses are the largest embodiment of it, their rooms so metaphorically akin to our own bodies: the windows as eyes, the rooms our heart and mind, the shutters the masks we hide behind.

Not only did other residents walk the halls of the Old Manse, and peer through this wavy glass, but other writers did the same, imagining the original dwellers’ presence, a tantalizing layer of observers and observed.

Rare, however, is the house that bestows inspiration on its occupant while the writer lives there. Houses achieve their highest magnetism after we leave, and we are forced to bang together their rooms from memory. Hawthorne wrote the introduction to Mosses from an Old Manse while back in Salem, working at the Custom House. The House of the Seven Gables came to him while he and Sophia lived in a cramped rented house in the Berkshires. Alcott was living in Orchard House in Concord when she wrote Little Women, but the house she fondly remembered was the Wayside (so named by Hawthorne, when he later lived there), and the March girls’ garrett came from another house altogether – Fruitlands, the ill-conceived experimental community where Alcott and her sisters nearly starved to death.

Now, staying in a modern apartment while we await the renovation of the house where I grew up, I wonder if I will be able to write once I get there. But all that will remain is a shell, the walls, roof, and floors, for the old house only exists in my mind, the best place for writing inspiration to begin.


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A reader’s guide to convalescence

I am convalescing. That’s a word we don’t use too much any more; from the Latin, con +  valescere, to grow strong, from valere, to be strong. Maybe because convalescence takes time, and we have so little of it. We might speak of being “laid up” a couple of days or “on the couch,” but most of the time we fight our illnesses and push to get back to normal as soon as possible.

But convalescence is a wonderful concept; it’s about giving your body time to repair, heal, “grow stronger.” Doctors don’t prescribe it, because it doesn’t come in a pill bottle, profit anyone, or require a medical degree to understand. Maybe you could see the results of it through some sort of electronic imaging, but then again maybe you couldn’t. My doctor came the closest to prescribing it when he said the cure for my malady was colon rest, which is about as disagreeable prognosis as I can think of. Note he didn’t say that the patient needed rest, only one of her organs, a prescription that involves a liquid, then soft, diet.

But I am prescribing convalescence for myself. Although I can’t really stop working, this time of year I teach one morning class, that’s all, so I can spend the afternoons on the couch if I want.

We have stopped going out for breakfast and instead I sit outside here on our apartment deck, sipping tea and watching the cardinals flit from branch to branch. I’ve stopped drinking, so no more glasses of wine when we go out to eat – which we do seldom now. I’m not in the car as much, so going somewhere as become a treat, a time to take in the shades of the night sky, spot wild tiger lilies on the roadside, appreciate the fine combings of raked hay.

Mostly, I read. Since my childhood, books and convalescence have been intertwined. One winter week in 1972, my mother, sister and I – recovering from the flu – read Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Cross Creek. Home from school with a cold, I would thumb through the ancient volumes in my mother’s bookcase – Dr. Chase’s medical book, which convinced me on more than one occasion that I was dying; Mrs. Beecher’s guide to housework, which mostly involved managing her servants; and the Book of Knowledge, with its condensed versions of classics like The House of the Seven Gables and Jane Eyre.

Convalescence and reading are both slow activities. Reading helps our bodies rest while our minds stay active; I could skip across the fields with Jo March even though I was too sick to cross the street. There’s something soporific about words on the page that allows us to drift easily into a slumber we might otherwise resist. I’ve been doing a lot of napping, too. Whether curled up on a rattan chair on the deck or under a blanket on the sofa, I move easily between the page and my dreams.

I’ve read contemporary novels (Gail Godwin’s Grief Cottage, the marvelous The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar), travelogues (Adirondack Passage by Christine Jerome), and American history (George R. Stewart’s guide to how everything here got its name, Names on the Land). There’s no limitation of genre; the point is to be transported.

Jerome’s account of her canoe trip through the Adirondacks, which traces the route that George Washington Sears took in 1883, is just the sort of tale for the laid-up. I might not feel like straying off the couch, but in my mind I’ve paddled Raquette Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and the Saint Regis lakes, thrilling to the queer laugh of the loon, dodging stomach-twisting rollers, and marveling at the sky-splitting pines of the wilderness.

In a similar way, Cross Creek took us out of our tissue-sodden misery that long-ago February. We took turns lolling in my mother’s bed, literally passing the book to one another, enjoying this rare indulgence of leisure. The orange groves of Florida in the 1930s could not have been farther from my provincial existence in rocky New England. The smudge pots that Rawlings lit to ward off frost, the stray breeze that cooled her porch, the lap of a paddle as she canoed from house to house – it seemed a magical, upside-down world, where creeks became highways, where winter could be spring, where oranges actually grew on trees.

Ultimately, no matter what organ our doctors seem intent on fixing, it is our minds that control our bodies, and our minds that need these oases of quiet. So I rifle through my bookcase, looking for the next journey of my convalescence. Will it be Steinbeck’s California, Wordsworth’s Lake District, Nin’s Paris? Maybe it will be all three. After all, a proper convalescence should last a good long while.



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The power of the personal library


It’s hard to overestimate the importance that owning books played in my development as a reader and a writer. Although we had books in the home and went to the library regularly – by age 10 I was walking to Clark Memorial Library by myself after school – there is a difference between borrowing books and purchasing them.

The borrowed book is read, enjoyed, and returned to the library, perhaps imprinting a few lasting images on our memory. The purchased book is read, enjoyed, and returned to its shelf in our homes, a lasting reminder of the reading experience and available at any time for rereading.

By age 12 I had a small library of my own, mostly paperbacks purchased through the Scholastic Books program. Baby boomers and millennials alike will remember the colorful newsletters that were passed out in class, with their long order form inviting student purchase. Although money was always tight in our household, I can’t remember my mother ever saying no to my book requests, and a typical order might be two or three paperbacks.

Soon I had built a library of maybe two dozen books. I favored Lois Lenski’s stories of regional America, like “Prairie Girl” and “Strawberry Girl”; classics like “Little Women”; and stories of strong working women, like “Nellie Bly, Reporter.”

Sometimes, I would buy a book based on its description in the flier, only to find it too difficult or dull to capture my interest. For some reason I bought, but never read, “The Secret Garden,” for example.

The never-read and the well-thumbed books shared space on a makeshift board shelf in my room. Taking the idea of a library literally, I decided to turn my modest collection into the Thayer Free Library. My mother, again never one to stint on the educational, bought me white stickers and a due-date stamp. I fashioned by own due-date slips out of index cards and cardstock, and used my mother’s old Royal manual to type out call numbers on the stickers, which were then affixed to the book’s spines.

By this time I had begun working in our elementary school library, where I became familiar with the Dewey decimal system. I don’t recall ever actually letting someone borrow books from Thayer Free Library, however. It was the cataloging I loved.

Sometime in my early teen years, the library book sale replaced the Scholastic flier as my primary source of reading material. The first book sale I probably attended was at the Washington County Fair, where every August Clark Memorial Library filled a booth full of library discards. What riches! While my friends were riding the Tilt-a-Whirl or eating fried dough, my sister and I were browsing this pop-up bookstore. Here I filled my arms with old sentimental novels, reference books, and trashy paperbacks like “Nightmare County” and “Forever Amber.”

But for every Jacqueline Susann novel I brought home (my mother was less sanguine about these, calling them “trash” and “filth”), my library began to fill with classics, books that would remain in my library for decades to come and shape how I viewed the world. I was 15 when I bought a Harvard Classics edition of “Walden,” which still occupies a place of honor on my writing desk. Plays by Luigi Pirandello and Anton Chekhov, the short stories of Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, poets from Walt Whitman to Sylvia Plath, and the novels of Faulkner, Steinbeck and Sinclair Lewis – these I consumed as avidly as an Agatha Christie mystery or pulp paperback.

Without realizing it, I was beginning to develop a reading aesthetic. I discovered regional novelists like William Humphreys (Texas), Shirley Ann Grau (Louisiana), and Ruth Moore (Maine). One writer led to another – Welty to O’Connor, O’Connor to Carson McCullers, McCullers to Truman Capote. All of these books began to form a web of impressions in my mind, that I tested against the reality of my own family life – the tragic, the grotesque, the comic, the pathetic. Not yet certain why one writer enthralled  and another left me cold, nonetheless I began to apprehend my own taste and to trust it.

Over the years, I’ve carried these books with me, occasionally scuttling some over the bow, as it were, to make room for more. I collected Sinclair Lewis for years, but eventually had to sacrifice most of his ballast for more contemporary writers.

Each time I moved, my father would call up his sawmill helpers and enlist them to carry the heavy boxes from one apartment to another. Doing his part, he made me two bookcases out of rough pine, perhaps optimistic that two bookcases would be sufficient.

A few months ago, my library was packed up again. My now it has grown to hundreds of books. I still have some of the original Thayer Free Library volumes (“The Schoolhouse Mystery,” “Mr. Pudgins”) and library book sale acquisitions from long ago (“Autumn Comes Early,” by Howard Breslin, a romance set against the backdrop of a hurricane). To them have been added dozens of novels, biographies, nature books, poetry collections. My husband claims he put 68 boxes into our Pod, and it’s probably not a exaggeration.

Maybe it’s because I still remember the thrill of acquiring those first volumes, the pleasure of marking them as my own – Thayer Free Library – and having them at hand to thumb through, over and over, that I have kept buying, and keeping, books. Certainly, keeping books carries a certain price, but weighed against the joy they have brought me, I would buy them all again.


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The power of ‘Little Women’


I read “Little Women” for the first time at age 12. It was the Scholastic abridged edition with the pink cover – the four girls in an oval frame. A few years later I was ready for the long version.

It’s a cliché to say I identified with Jo. Of course I did. Every young girl is meant to, whether or not they dream of being a writer. It wasn’t about scribbling in the garret – it was being an independent, feisty young woman who isn’t afraid to defy authority or convention.

Although she’s not the eldest, Jo is the sisters’ leader – organizing their theatricals, boldly racing the boys, standing up to the icy Aunt March. In fact, she is more of a family leader than moralizing Marmee or their feckless father. Just as Louisa May Alcott did, Jo becomes the March wage earner, whether selling her stories or chopping off her hair.

I didn’t have a writer’s garret, although I knew what a garret was; instead, I wrote at an old waterfall vanity we’d picked up at a yard sale, sitting on a castoff piano stool. First, in tiny five-year diaries, later in five-subject notebooks I decorated with pictures of wildflowers sent by my Aunt Dot, the biology professor. From my bedroom window I could see my father’s sawmill and all of its comings and goings – trucks rumbling in with towers of logs, men tossing slabs into piles, sawdust flying through the air like snow.

I was the youngest, the Amy of the family, but I was nothing like Amy, being neither blonde nor insipidly vain. Besides, there were not four of us sisters, but three, or rather there had been. Our “Beth” already had died. Still, that part of the book came as a rude surprise, and I’m sure I cried when the fictional sister made her selfless exit – not dying so much as slinking away, afraid to be a nuisance.

Of course, my sisters had probably identified with Jo, too. Who wants to be sensible Meg, even if she does get to marry Mr. Brooke? And who would admit to being like self-centered Amy? No, Jo was the sister who had it all figured out.

Which made her fate all the more hard to accept. Not only does she not get the European trip with Aunt Carrol, she refuses the impassioned proposals of Laurie. Mr. Bhaer, the German professor horsing around with his nephews, seems like a poor substitute for the next-door neighbor we’ve expected her to marry practically from page one.

It would have made more sense for Jo to make good on her threat to become a literary old maid. Even at 12 I could sense authorial invention.

None of this ruined the book for me, however. To read “Little Women” is to enter a different world, in which a child’s powers of imagination, invention, and self-sufficiency are strong enough to confront the greatest of adult terrors. War, scarlet fever, poverty, and hunger are among the 19th-century scourges the four girls face, and they vanquish all of them in their fashion. Beth may die, but she does so bravely. And each of the girls in turn must conquer her moral failings – greed, vanity, and selfishness among them.

What is most remarkable about this is that all the problems, internal and external, are solved by the titular women. Consider the men in “Little Women”: Mr. March is missing for the first half of the book, moldering away in a Civil War hospital. Laurie’s grandfather is a crabby shadow, quickly melting in the presence of Beth’s godly goodness. Laurie, even when he marries Amy, is a perpetual boy; Mr. Bhaer is just another grandfatherly figure. The only real “man” would be Mr. Brooke, and he could hardly be said to be a paragon of dominance and authority.

It must have been reassuring to read “Little Women” that spring of sixth grade, in the drafty house where my mother fretted about money, swept up my father’s trail of sawdust, and refused to say my late sister’s name. I could take comfort that the March sisters, too, knew what it meant to dress in hand-me-downs and long for things they could not have. For a few hours, I could believe again in the type of childhood I thought I would have, where sisters trade clothes and put on plays and braid each other’s hair – and where a young girl writing at an old desk might someday make something of herself.


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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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