Thursday, July 21, 2016

Maybe I Knew Italian In Another Life...

Or maybe the words are familiar through some kind of osmosis. A stray word here and there lodged in my brain, after visits with my Italian grandmother a million years ago or from the roommate I had in college who was taking Italian 101 and constantly muttering vocabulary words under her breath.

Maybe the words seem familiar because they're closely related to Spanish (a language I sorta sorta know).

bambini, bella, libro, lingua, famiglia 

The words jump out at me from the pages of the book I'm reading. They ping around in my mind. I know them. I want to know more.

The book, in case you are wondering, is called In Other Words. It's a memoir by one of my favorite writers, Jhumpa Lahiri. I've read and loved all of Lahiri's books and scooped up this latest without knowing exactly what it was--

basically a musing on Lahiri's obsession with the Italian language, which leads her to move to Rome with her kids and painstakingly teach herself to speak and write only in Italian.

In Other Words is her fifth book, her first memoir, and her first book written entirely in Italian. It was translated into English by someone else but Lahiri's original Italian text appears on every other page.

Every time I turn a page, I begin to read, out of habit, the words at the top of the page, which are in Italian.

It's disconcerting and familiar all at once-- for me as a person who is intrigued by the very idea of immersing oneself in a foreign language as an adult--

and as a writer, amazed and fascinated by Lahiri's quest to let go of the language she knows in order to think and read and write in a different one.

Lahiri is considered one of the best authors in America. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her first book, Interpreter of Maladies; her later books have won both critical awards and landed her on best seller lists. And here she is, in her own description of her process, struggling in this new medium.

Maybe not completely surprising though.

There's lots in Lahari's novels and stories about the immigrant experience, displacement, belonging. Many of her themes are rooted in her own life. She grew up in America speaking Bengali with her Indian parents and speaking (and writing and reading) English everywhere else. Both Bengali and English feel as if they are imposed on her, whereas Italian is a new way to define herself.

Plus, it's a challenge.

It helps her rediscover her joy of reading. And gives her a new understanding of herself as a writer.

"What does it mean," she asks, "for a writer, to write without her own authority? Can I call myself an author, if I don't feel authoritative?

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect."

I'm not sure, exactly, why this book is resonating with me. I won't be moving to Rome any time soon or immersing myself in another language. My writing is nowhere near the level of Jhumpa Lahiri's, but still, her words-- in Italian, in English-- tumble around in my head.

They confirm what I know about the creative process, which involves, by definition, risk and discomfort,

the balancing of discipline with taking leaps off cliffs,

the striving toward perfection and the letting go of it,

a rooting around for words that are both familiar

and magical.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Writing Words in Times of Plague

There's a doofball character in the book The Plague by Albert Camus.

       The writer.

A terrible plague sweeps across the land and the town is suddenly quarantined. Anyone who happens to be outside for the day can't get back inside. Everyone inside is trapped. Soldiers guard the walls.

The people in the town begin to act the way you might imagine they would. Some freak the hell out. Many strike out at others. A few rise up to help.

Police officers and government officials try to maintain order. The doctor takes cares of the sick and dying. The minister prays and offers consoling words. Most people retreat to their homes.

The writer writes.

The truth is he's not even much of a writer.

He fiddles with the words in one sentence, the first sentence in what he dreams will be his magnum opus. Meanwhile, the people in the town are struggling. Consumed by terror. Numbed by horror and death. The good among them trying to cope against what feel like impossible odds.

And here is our writer, entering the scene every now and then to share his story.

The novel, the sentence, the words are his passion. A mental challenge. A puzzle. A cause for frustration, and at times, delight and joy. He will get this sentence "right" one day and he will move onto the next sentence. One day he will reach the end of the book, and everyone will celebrate with him.

The other characters shake their heads in amusement at the writer. But they pause to hear the latest version of their friend's sentence, and then they go back to their urgent and seemingly endless work,

and the writer goes off to fiddle with his words.

The people inside the walls continue to live and die. One small town suffering from a plague, a place where there is no escape except death.

They grow sick, they despair, they mourn

They steal, they blame, they attack, they kill

They retreat, they hide.

They help. They care. They give.

They build. They plant. They write. They paint. They dance.  They dream.

They love.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

In Which I Pretend To Mock The Bachelorette

I was going to write about how ridiculous and idiotic and silly the show The Bachelorette is

and how I am only watching it because my teen daughter is home from college for the summer and begged me to watch it with her, 

which led to my husband drifting into the room and sitting down to watch, and then, weirdly, led to our grown son, who is also home, briefly, after graduating from school and about to embark upon his adult life on the opposite end of the country, poking his head into the den to see what all of us were doing, and staying to watch too,

and how immediately, we all began mocking the absurdity of the show--the premise, the characters, the vapid dialogue-- 

the bachelorette, Jo Jo, a human Barbie doll, traipsing around in her high heels and sequined ball gowns

(Jo Jo)
earnestly trying to find her future spouse among the parade of glorious men,

in their bizarre pompadour hairdos and pink shirts, 

with their transparent and competitive jockeying for attention and their cattiness and tattle-tale-ing behind the scenes,

nevermind, the man tears and the ripping of T-shirts,


last night, as we settled down in our places together to watch Episode Six, it occurred to me that we were truly enjoying watching this show. 

So, I guess I am not going to mock it after all. 

(Don't be fooled by the attention the teens
seem to be paying their phones... that's a self-protective
form of cringe-watching during the uncomfortable
Rose Ceremony scene)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

In the Weeds


Sometimes I am a liar when it comes to talking the Joy of Revision with my writing students. 

You can do it, I say. You can write a book. Write a messy first draft. Figure out what you have and what you need. Revise. Rinse. Repeat. 

I show them one of my drafts as an example. An array of colorful post-its. 

Look! It's not so difficult! Sometimes it's even fun! And my students nod along, inspired, I think, to try it for themselves. 

I do the same kind of thing when I talk about my garden. I post glorious close-ups of my veggies on social media. Lovely cauliflowers and darling pea pods and gorgeous purple cabbage.

It's not so hard to grow a garden, I tell my friends with less greener thumbs. Scatter a few seeds here and there. Water. Weed.  Repeat.

Okay. I don't completely lie. I admit to throwing out entire chapters, to fighting resistance each morning and girding myself to settle down to my day's writing 

to battling slugs 

But I tend to do this in a funny way. Glossing over the sweaty details. Joking about the actual WORK involved, the TIME

The worm that ate the hell out of the cabbage growing right next to the lovely cabbage picture above. 

The days I sit in front of my computer writing and rewriting the same paragraph a hundred times and then scrapping the entire thing. 

The caterpillars on my kale

The mornings I rant and whine and moan to my critique partner, 

the self-doubting--and sometimes, self-loathing

The creepy purply mold on my cauliflower

The times when I've finished up a revision of a revision and think what I have is the best piece of writing I've ever done and I send it off into the world and it sinks like a stone, unread--  or worse, read and passed on

and I wonder how I will ever find the energy or courage or discipline to start writing another story

The pathetic patch of cilantro after a heavy rainstorm

But, somehow, I do begin another story

Because it is what I do

It's what I do. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

One Kind Day

Yesterday I woke up to news I wish I hadn't woken up to. Another mass shooting in America. But it could have been a bombing. Or a terror attack. Or a riot. Or a police officer shooting an unarmed person. Or a 20 year old man dragging an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and raping her. 

I don't want to know these things happen in the world. I don't want to know that people are terrified and hateful and spiteful and selfish and enraged and ignorant and racist and sexist and contemptuous and self-righteous and greedy and divisive. 

I'm not here to argue a point or pass judgment or blame. I don't want to talk about guns or Islamphobia or homophobia. I just want to figure out how to live in a world that is often a place of evil and fear-- without succumbing to evil and fear myself. 

It's overwhelming. 

My natural inclination is to retreat. Click off the news. Put my hands over my ears and pretend these things don't have anything to do with me. I realize only someone in a position of great privilege can make this choice. I also realize that even the most privileged of us are still vulnerable--

    --if we go out to night clubs or run in marathons or attend church or school or parties or movies. 

Yesterday, after I read the news. I made a meal. I planted basil plants in my garden. I sat with a writer friend at a book event because I knew she was anxious about having to sit by herself, and we ended up chatting with several teen readers and writers. At night I watched the Tony Awards with my husband and teared up when Lin Manuel Miranda, the brilliant and talented writer and performer, read a sonnet about the news we had all woken up to. 

...When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day
This show is proof that history remembers
We live through times when hate and fear seem stronger
We rise and fall and light from dying embers
Remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love...

Someone on Twitter wrote that the opposite of war is not peace, it's creation. 

I believe this. 

We live in a world where evil and fear and ignorance exist, and on a day like yesterday, especially, evil and fear and ignorance seem to be winning. 

One person can do very little to fix, to change, to solve--

and I am not so naive to think that preparing a meal for your family or planting a basil plant or sitting with a friend or talking about stories to beginning writers or taking a moment to honor music and words and theater and dance and art can counteract all of the pain and suffering and terror and trauma that happened yesterday-- 
                              that will happen today--  
                                                       that will happen tomorrow-- 

but isn't it lovely, sometimes, to think so?   

Thursday, June 9, 2016

A Tale of Two Editing Sessions


Your lovely critique partner reads your draft and calls you to discuss big picture issues that you might want to look at as you revise. You agree with pretty much everything she says and are excited about digging in. You open the manuscript, taking note of the 160+ comments and questions that your lovely critique partner has helpfully inserted.

You begin work enthusiastically.

The End


Your lovely critique partner reads your draft and calls you to discuss big picture issues that you might want to look at as you revise. You agree with pretty much everything she says. Damn it. 

You open the manuscript, taking note of the 160+ comments and questions that your lovely critique partner has helpfully inserted and you are horrified by the amount of work that lies ahead.

But whatever. What else are you going to do with your time?

You begin work. Tightening, reworking, deleting, adding, fiddling--

move this paragraph over here where it fits better. No. Move it back. It worked better where it was originally. Delete the end of this chapter. Rework this scene. What's the timeline here? Does this flashback belong in this chapter? Why does the main character say that? What's the purpose of the scene? What's the MC's friend thinking at this point?

More fiddling and tweaking and shifting, cutting

combining, questioning,

wondering if you're fixing problems or creating new ones. Is this necessary? If you take it out, have you made things more confusing? Wait, why did you think this character was funny?

What's the point of this story? Why did you start writing it in the first place? What if you can't fix this? What if it's unfixable? Why are you a writer? What is the meaning of life? Why are-- what should-- Why didn't you-- Who cares if--

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The End

Bonus points if you can guess which scene I acted out yesterday :)

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

My Life in Drafts

I wrote the first draft of my tenth book in the winter of 2012. 

That year my son was graduating from high school and I was on the verge of a book deal but wasn't sure if the deal would ever actually go through. This particular first draft was weirdly fun to write. Book number 10! and up to that point, none of the other nine had been published! 

So mostly I was just writing for myself, month after gray wintery month, playing around with a meandery, blathery plot, a mostly stream of consciousness narrative, something I knew even then, when I "finished" it, would need a ton of work. 

But then the book deal came through, and I spent the summer editing, and in the fall I started reworking another manuscript, and then another manuscript, and meanwhile, I was promoting and traveling and teaching like crazy, and that draft from the winter of 2012 stayed tucked in a computer file, undisturbed and unread and unremembered--

--until this past fall, when I metaphorically dusted it off, took a seriously look at it, and decided it was worth a second round.

Thus began Draft 2, the bulk of it reworked during the winter of 2016. I "finished" it a couple of weeks ago, 

a few days before my son graduated from college. 

Which says something about something about time flying and wasn't it just yesterday that I was stressing about his college acceptances and word count goals and what's with this stream of conscious style anyway and how many people are coming to the high school graduation party 


how many people are coming to the college graduation party and does this crazy stream of consciousness style work or not and why is it taking me a week to write one scene and when exactly is my son moving across country to start his job?

I think it was T.S. Eliot who said he measured out his life in coffee spoons.

Apparently, I measure out my life in drafts.