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Singing our songs


It’s a tough day to begin with. Seven years ago on March 8, my mother passed away from a massive heart attack. The passage of time always catches me by surprise – how is it possible it was that long ago?

This year it’s a crappy day for other reasons, too, one of those times when you really start to question what you’re doing as a writer – sending out your words to a world that often doesn’t want to read them.

So it was that this morning, leafing through my mother’s notebooks of poetry, I came across a ditty that surely was meant for me, meant for this day of numb depression.

It’s called “For My Critics”:


Come, blast my songs, and I’ll care not a whit

For I am freed from embryonic night;

And soon, soon, the world will know of it.

I am the cockerel, crowing for the light.


She wrote this in 1946, and I think I know what was on her mind. She had just come out with her first book of poetry, a sonnet sequence called While Enemies Conspire, about a woman missing her lover who is away at war. Many of the poems had been published in Driftwind, a Vermont poetry journal whose press published her collection; indeed, her work had appeared in many newspapers and magazines, including Yankee, the Christian Science Monitor, the Hartford Times, as well as literary magazines, including the Rural New Yorker, Prairie Wings,and something called Hearth Songs, which published “For My Critics.”

The book’s publication was noted by Rhode Island newspapers and some of the magazines that published her work, but there was no outpouring of critical acclaim. One review sniffed that the collection “suffers somewhat from a ‘Fatal Interview’ grandiloquence.”

Perhaps she also was thinking of the letter she received that February from Charles Hyde Pratt, editor of the Florida Magazine of Verse, who said of her submission, “A sonnet should be more than a rhymed poem of fourteen five-beat lines” (ouch!) and proceeded to detail his “notion, which is shared by many authorities” that “the first quatrain also should end in a full stop.” Whatever happened to “thank you, but no”?

I can imagine how disappointing all this was for her. The book was a culmination of years of work. She was a craftsman who had begun submitting her poetry, and getting it published, while she was in her early teens. Her high school yearbook compared her to Edna St. Vincent Millay.

She was not cowed by Pratt’s patronizing letter, or by his assumption that he knew more about poetry than she did – because she submitted to him again, and this time he replied more warmly: “This is a good sonnet, but we have enough material on hand to last a year, and I hesitate to accept more. Congratulations on your acceptance by many magazines. Probably none of them are as slow in reporting as I am. Thanks too for the photograph, which is charming, and my best wishes for your continued success.”

So she had sent him another sonnet and didn’t hesitate to point out all the other editors who were accepting her work, or to send her publicity photo.

I love the defiance in “For My Critics.” I love that she sees her poetry as songs, as a “crowing for the light.” And I ache for the disappointment that underlies her defiance, because I have felt it too, oh so many times.

I like to think she prodded me gently this morning to find these four lines, written in fountain pen in one of her notebooks, a clarion call from the past. It says, “I too have been there, my child,” and it says, “Sing your song,” and it insists, “don’t give in to that old despair.”

And so we writers must crow for the light, out of the embryonic night, over and over and over again.


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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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My father, the douser, the diviner


My father was a douser. He could cut a V-shaped stick of willow or cherry, grasp each end in his hands, and walk the land until he found water.

He had a calling. “Electricity in the veins,” as he said. To prove it, he would stand over the septic tank and that stick would point straight down, while the muscles in his arms popped from the strain of holding it steady.

People knew this and sought him out. Old Ben James, who was more Swamp Yankee than my father, had him walk his potato farm in Wood River Junction. Others asked him to work his magic before they called the well driller.

Our own well went dry off and on after we bought the house in Shannock in 1965. That year, and the year after, one of the worst droughts in the state’s history choked off the springs that kept our dug well full. In the winter we melted snow to wash hair. In the summer we collected water in a rain barrel.

Finally, in 1971, the task could no longer be postponed. My father called the well driller. He must have walked the yard first, but I don’t recall it. I was 11 years old that fall and reading the “Little House” books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, which didn’t seem all that far from how we were living.

All of this has been on my mind because last week they tore down the corn crib. It was about ready to fall down, anyway, and we had salvaged what tools we could – the potato digger, the post-hole digger, spades and rakes and hoes, a cross-cut saw.

With the contractor’s attention turned elsewhere, the roof lay flattened atop the floorboards. I picked up a rusty metal rake and began poring over the contents. Most of what littered the floor was empty walnut shells left by squirrels, but a few artifacts remained: A brake light. A commercial license plate. A Nehi soda bottle.

Then I saw it. Stretching, I was able to hook the metal tines around one end and pull it forward.

My father’s dousing stick.

How easy it would have been to mistake this for a piece of brush. I held it to my chest, amazed I’d spotted it, grateful I could save it.

He had hung it on a hook in the old shed. Its end looked freshly sharpened.

I grabbed each end, thumbs up, the way he’d taught me. The wood trembled at my touch. I aimed its pointy end outward and began to walk.

I crossed the driveway, passed over a patch of lawn, and paused at the septic tank. But after that first vibration, nothing happened. My father had long ago given up on passing his magic to me. I didn’t have the electricity in my veins, he said.

But he was wrong about that.

I might not be able to find water. The ancient Yankee art of dousing might have died with him. But I have a different sort of power in my veins. Like his, those veins rise under my skin, blue highways on a relief map.

My father told me about other wells, other springs. Boiling springs: “There used to be one at Mame Thomas’s. She had a house over on the Mooresfield Road … up behind the barn was this boiling spring. … they used it. Fine water.” The well at Tug Hollow, where he grew up: “One year we had a drought. I’ll tell you, people from all around were coming to us for water. Used to put a trout in it [to kill bugs].”

I jotted his stories in notebooks large and small, in diaries and journals. They still give rise to sketches, and stories, and novels.

As sure as a dousing stick, I wield my pen. I pace these pages every day, looking for water, remembering my father. Like his blood in my veins, his electric voice runs from my head to my hand to the ink on the page.

No coincidence that divining is a synonym for dousing (sometimes spelled dowsing). For what are we doing when we search for water but telling the future, portending, showing the unseen? Surely a man who can reveal what lies underground has some powers of prophecy.

And what do we do when we write, but discover, guess, explore the unknown? Consider this meaning of to divine, from my old Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “to perceive through sympathy, or intuition; to detect; to conjecture.”

Walk the land, my father told me. Cut the branch of a willow or a cherry. Hold that stick fast and pace. And you will find the water that runs beneath, the subterranean vein, the well of creativity.


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Dr. Dyer, my mother’s pop psychologist

I was 16 when my mother discovered Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. She probably saw him on Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin and then bought a paperback copy of his first best-seller, “Your Erroneous Zones.”
From what I remember of his pop psychology, Dyer believed we should experience new things, not worry about other people’s approval, and exchange adventure for fear. My mother, who left the house only to shop at the A&P or get the mail, might seem like an unlikely candidate for a personality transformation. Indeed, I didn’t notice any difference in her behavior, despite her frequent, enthusiastic quotations from the text.
In fact, the book simply reinforced my mother’s already entrenched personality traits. Telling an old Yankee like her that she didn’t need anyone’s approval was like throwing fire on a burn barrel. Soon, whenever she had an opinion, she would follow it up with: “And Dr. Dyer says I don’t need anyone’s approval.”
I don’t think this line worked that well for me, although I read the book, too. My friend Andrea and I used to quote “our buddy Wayne,” as we referred to him, quite frequently. By the time we were 17, trying to negotiate the future (a mystery) and the present (not so hot), he’d become our go-to guru of advice. Yes, we wanted to travel, try new food, stretch our wings! Of course we did – we were teen-agers who hardly ever went anywhere and were under the thumbs of rather controlling parents. And no, we didn’t need your approval, thank you very much, a line that made us feel better about confounding romantic relationships, gossipy peers and demanding teachers.
By the time of his death last weekend, Dr. Dyer had written more than 20 books and turned his psychological bullet points into a prosperous line of CDs, DVDs, and lectures. Over time his “erroneous zones” evolved into a philosophy of intention. In other words, if you imagine it, it will come.
I still think of Dr. Dyer whenever I open a menu. Why get the same old meatloaf, when you can try something new? Recently I discovered his publisher, Hay House, on Facebook. Just as authors like Emerson and Chekhov live on in social media, so too does Dr. Dyer. Today’s thought: “You have the ability to match up with the power of intention and attract ideal people and Divine relationships into your life.”
My mother might have been a hard-core Yankee, but she lived her life the way Dr. Dyer recommended – to the fullest. At 92, she had a mild heart attack. In the hospital, she helped me do crossword puzzles, learned all the nurses’ names and urged me to follow my dreams of teaching full time.
One day when I was visiting, they gave her a plastic cup of berry-flavored yogurt. She eyed it suspiciously, but then dipped in a spoon. Not long after, the only sound was the spoon scraping the bottom.
“Mmm,” she said. “That was really good.”
A few days later, she had a massive heart attack and died. I hope if I get to be her age, I won’t be afraid to try the yogurt.

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Labor Day looms, so we must write on

It’s been a whirlwind couple of weeks. Three days in Williamstown, Mass., with my husband, where we saw a Van Gogh exhibit at the Clark Art Institute, attended a new production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and visited the Robert Frost Stone House Museum in Shaftsbury, Vt. Then, home to clean house, attend a reunion on Sunday of former newspaper folks, and enjoy a lovely three-day visit with a dear college friend. Patti and I talked nonstop, visited Doris Duke’s Rough Point estate in Newport and strolled the laid-back resort of Watch Hill.
Yet through it all, I wroteAugust.
A book review, 1,600 words of the novel and a review of the O’Neill play, all while staying in Williamstown.
Another two days of novel writing on Monday and Tuesday, before and during Patti’s visit.
Back in the saddle today after her departure, writing and rewriting for two hours.
Make no mistake: I am no Stephen King, who writes 365 days a year, even on Christmas, the Fourth of July, and his birthday. I admire that sort of dedication, but I also know there are days I’m not going to make it to the writing desk.
But this is August, and as all writers know who make their living teaching, time is running out.
In her novel of the same name, Judith Rossner noted that the month strikes terror in the hearts of psychiatric patients, because their therapists vacate New York City for the Hamptons, leaving them to their own devices.
For college professors, August is ominous for a different reason: it’s the last buffer between summer break and the grind of syllabi preparation, teaching, and correcting. We know if we want to get that short story, memoir or novel draft done, we have to double down now – or else give up until January.
August has a silver lining. When time is limitless, writing lags. An approaching deadline tends to focus the mind.
A patient with a vacationing therapist learns to cope. A writer with a deadline gets busy. Let us celebrate August, all 31 days; because it is finite, because it is vacation, because it makes us work.

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The science of metaphor

The last time I had any interest in science was probably in fourth grade. We got new textbooks that year, and they featured finely wrought pencil sketches of a boy and girl conducting experiments, keeping nature journals, and collecting leaves and rocks. If that was all “science” involved – keeping a journal, walking around outdoors, and occasionally mixing up some vinegar and baking soda – I was in.Geology 007
By the time I got to Junior High, I was more interested in the cute boy from Hope Valley with the hair in his eyes than Mr. Bannister’s Earth Science class. The teacher literally carried around a shoebox of rocks. Rocks! Could there be anything duller? We tried to get him talking about the war; as soon as he said “When I was in Korea,” we knew he was good for a 15- or 20-minute digression.
By ninth grade, all hope of my science education had disappeared. My notes for Introduction to Physical Science were layered with Aerosmith and Rolling Stones lyrics. I think I learned how to use a slide rule. That came in handy.
So now what am I doing, 55 years old, earnestly studying a Geology textbook, tracing epochs in the Book of Knowledge, and taking notes on Paleozoic time?
Yes, I’m still a novelist, and the only subjects I’ll ever be qualified to teach are writing, English, and journalism. But decades into this writing thing, I’m wishing I had paid more attention to Mr. Bannister’s quartz and granite samples. I’m trying to remember something from 10th grade Biology – besides the earthworm we pinned and sliced. Because I’ve finally realized the connection between science and writing, between the empirical world and the literary one.
The physical world is the source of all metaphor. We know this, as writers, but we don’t pay it much mind. We think our imaginations can conjure up whatever tree, flower, or stone wall will dress up our passages. After all, we are writers, we deal in words, and what else do we need but a facility with vocabulary?
The truth is we must apprehend the real, physical, dynamic world before we can write about it. We have to see with the intensity of the scientist observing phenomena. We have to take notes and report with the accuracy of the geologist or botanist, then translate what we know into the vernacular – making our metaphors clear to the average person without losing the essence of that understanding.
The best writers know this. Think of Andrea Barrett’s haunting story, “The Littoral Zone,” about a pair of scientists whose infidelity places them in a netherworld not unlike the shoreline area they are studying. Whether it’s Melville on whaling or Michener on the origins of Hawaii, the writer must explain the physical world before he or she can be trusted with the metaphysical.
It happens that my latest protagonist is a scientist, a botanist to be precise, so of course I need to be able to think the way she does. Because she is teaching college classes in 1953, I’ve collected introductory botany texts to get some sense of the material she’d have at her fingertips. I’ve bought guidebooks to wildflowers in the Smoky Mountains, where she is doing research, and I’ve even read my aunt’s dissertation on that subject, since the character was (very loosely) inspired by her life.
But what’s up with the geology? I wanted to explain how those mountains formed, that’s all. That led to a brief study of geologic time, and notebook pages of jottings – from Archaean time, “earth a solid globe,” I wrote, to the upper, lower and middle Cambrian periods of the Paleozoic, with seaweed, mollusks, and the first vestiges of terrestrial life. I had the vague idea that the mountains emerged where once was sea.
It was only later, when I sat down to write the brief passage this research informed, that I realized the true metaphor I’d unearthed: my character, like this mountain, is comprised of deep compressed layers, shaped by a certain heat and violence.
None of which I would have guessed back in eighth-grade science, when terms like igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic where just vocabulary to be memorized, and when I knew what metaphors were but never guessed they could be found in a rattling shoebox full of rocks.

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In praise of the tiny notebook

Let us nolittle notebooksw celebrate the little notebook. Not to be confused with the journal, which for me means the mandatory three-page writing exercise heralded by the likes of Julia Cameron and Heather Sellers. My journal is an Apica notebook, 8.5 by 6 inches, with finely lined pages. Its content is sacred, specific, and therapeutic.
In contrast, the little notebook is writing on the fly. Random, unfiltered, truncated, the content is better described as jottings than entries. The notebook of choice varies as well. I have a Moleskine (a gift from a former writing teacher; I’m too cheap to buy them myself), a tiny Apica (5 by 3 inches), and a wonderful flower-covered pad that was a gift from my friend Laura.
I have a few of these around my desk, and usually keep one in my purse. They tend to last a long time, because I don’t write in them every day or even every week. Sometimes months go by without much more than a phone message scribbled hastily on a page. Here’s a partial inventory from the old green Apica notebook, whose entries date to 2005:
Accounts of dreams, including one about a white bear.
Notes from Watchaug Pond: “Smell of barbecue smoke. Colors: yellow, blue and white. Sail pink blue teal blue & white sail. Striped beach chairs. Tangerine sail in the distance. Striped umbrellas. Pails coolers bathing suits.”
Notes from a trip to Vermont: an ad for a roommate posted on a bulletin board (“mature, spiritual … musician, artist, healer, house painter, owner of 15-year-old dog must have electricity and wood stove”); woman in a T-shirt that says “Slavery still exists”; a man we spot walking backwards on Route 30.
Notes from a conversation with my father about dousing, boiling springs, and outhouses: “Was a man who used to go round & clean ’em out, that was his job. He would dig a hole & bury the stuff. That’s how they did it in them days.”
You get the idea. These are impressions, quotes, observations, or visuals that I don’t want to lose. It doesn’t mean I’ll do anything with them (although the conversation about dousing, sans the Outhouse Man, was useful in my third novel). The beauty of it is that, even 10 years later, there they are, little snippets waiting to grow into something bigger.
Standard writing advice is to keep a notebook by your bed. I say, keep a notebook handy not at night but during the day. In your purse or pocket, your glove compartment, your backpack, anywhere you can grab it quickly when you see or hear something interesting. Don’t worry about filling every page or writing neatly or often. Let its use, like inspiration, be serendipitous.
And now that I think of it, Outhouse Man has been waiting a long time for his story to be told.

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