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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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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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