Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Adventures in New York: Tales of Blizzards, Russian Novels, Emily Dickinson, and a Writing Conference with 1200 of My Closest Friends

Day One: I'm here a night early because a snowstorm's coming and my airline suggests that I go, so I do, fortunate to have a place to stay, an apartment way uptown with a friend. I'm a grown-up in the cab, feeling sophisticated as I give the driver the address. Feeling less sophisticated when I apparently commit a major faux pas and don't tip him enough? Because he drops me at the curb and doesn't get out to help me haul my suitcase and when I try to close the cab trunk it whacks me in the head.

Day Two: Outside's a blizzard. My friend is not feeling well, but she's a trooper, walking me to the subway station seven blocks away. We laugh in the fierce wind, clomping up snowy sidewalks, me dragging my wheeled suitcase, the only two dodos out walking except for a guy here and there shoveling a store front. At the subway station, I'm snowy-melty-wet and sweating, lugging my dripping suitcase, working on feeling sophisticated as I ride 110 blocks downtown, change trains, and ride into Grand Central, find my hotel, miraculously, inside the terminal building, heave my drippy suitcase into the lobby, realizing with horror that my ID is in my suitcase and I will have to open it, in the lobby, in order to check in.

Meet my roommate and her friend, who has never been to NYC and wants to see the Empire State Building, and the blizzard's over and the sidewalk shovelers are amazingly efficient and I offer to take her there.

We promptly get lost. And I step off a curb directly into a icy slush puddle and soak my sneakers through. Then I walk ten blocks, feet tingling and frozen, chatting, while stressing over the state of my skin and wondering how long it takes for frostbite to set in.

No worries! I find a corner tourist-y store and buy a ten dollar pair of I Love New York socks. (Best ten bucks I ever spent in my life.)

Did I mention I'm here for a writing conference? It's the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators annual Winter Conference! And I am the Regional Advisor of the Ohio Central South region and they're paying my way! Woot! All of the RAs walk to Broadway and see a play I've never heard of, Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which I learn later is a story taken from War and Peace, and I love it. (Favorite song: "In 19th Century Russia We Write Letters.") Walk home in the cold, clinging to a new friend as we step over frozen curbs and try not to fall and/or soak ourselves.

Day Three: I have no boots, but damn it, this will not keep me from walking eight blocks to the Morgan Library to see an Emily Dickinson exhibit! Fun facts: Emily D had red hair. Also, she treated books even more disrespectfully than I do-- not merely content to fold pages and scrawl all over the margins, but also cutting words out and gluing them onto other pages.

I am a brave subway rider, finding the correct route and taking it down to the Lower East Side to see the Tenement Museum, getting lost only once and so very careful not to step off a street into a ice puddle.

I meet a friend for a drink in the hotel, which turns into two drinks and I've eaten nothing since breakfast and I go tipsily to party with fellow RAs and editors and agents and gorge myself at the mashed potato bar and bump into an agent who rejected me once and I think I tell her that I love her?

Day Four: Crack of dawn and I am at my station, registering people for the conference and pointing out the women's restroom and the coat check. Laughing when Lin Oliver, the SCBWI co-founder, tells us jokes and holding back tears when the brilliant Bryan Collier speaks about seeing himself for the first time in a book, A Snowy Day, and how he thinks of that little boy Peter when he makes his art.

The world is waiting for you to dream, he says. The kids are waiting for you. 

Later I do cry as beloved/best-selling author Tahereh Mafi speaks of the experiences of her immigrant parents from Iran and shares her long writing and publishing journey.

I am the lucky RA chosen to help Tahereh later with her book-signing, which basically involves handing the fans post-it notes to write out their names and holding their books open so Tahereh can autograph easily. She speaks with each person and I watch them walk away clutching their books, blinking back tears.

And then it is time for another party! And more mashed potato bar! I mingle with my regional members and drink a 17 dollar glass of wine.

Which leads to another party for new members and I realize that once, long ago, I was a new member and had no clue about writing or publishing and look at me now, a much older veteran in the trenches with achy (yet thankfully, warm/dry) feet.

Day Five: I ride in an elevator with Jane Yolen and then I hear her speak. Tomie De Paola presents an award to a worthy up-and-coming illustrator. Publishers and agents talk about the state of the business. Cynthis Leitich-Smith and Ellen Hopkins discuss difficult topics in kids books and how to write about our changing, diverse world. They remind us that this year 50.2% of all babies born in America were not white and we, as children's writers, are on the forefront of acknowledging and embracing all of our readers.

Sara Pennypacker gives the closing address and she is glorious, reminding us why we write and why our stories matter.

We write to allow children to experience safely dangerous situations. 

Our job is to give children a voice in a world where they rarely have one.  
She tells us to find our tribe, to surround ourselves with other creators, to reflect life and to model life.

I must sneak out of the room before she's finished to take my place at my next station, by the side of Andrea Beatty, author of the bestselling Ada Twist, Scientist. Andrea's line snakes around the room and the organizers whisper to me to move it along, but I can't bear to. Andrea is so funny and personable, chatting with each fan, scrawling her name and writing Be Bold! on each book.

I pour her water and snap photos of her posing with her fans. "In April I'm marching for science," she tells me during a rare lull, and then two children walk up with their harried mom. The girls are holding books, heads bowed, reading. They shyly lower the books and Andrea chats enthusiastically, flipping through the pages, pointing out the secret hidden illustrations.

Off to the airport with my roommate, now a dear friend. We eat a twenty dollar airport meal and share photos of our kids and pets and gardens. Our flights are delayed and we commiserate about the world and vow to keep in touch.

Much later I settle into my cramped seat on the plane, open the book I am reading, fall into the world of the story as the plane takes off and the lights of the city fade away.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

How to Treat Books: Thoughts on Building Book Towers, Writing in Margins, and Cracking Spines

When I was in college I spent the night at a relative's house, and bored, after everyone had gone to bed, I perused a bookshelf filled with rows of pristine hardcover gold-tinged classics and pulled one out to read. Later, I set the book down, dangling it over the edge of an end table because I couldn't find a bookmark.

The next morning the relative, clearly upset, scolded me: "Don't you know how to treat a book?"

I stammered out an apology, not daring to mention that my Dangle over the Edge Method was me trying to show proper respect for her book. My usual strategy for saving a page was folding it over at the corner or simply setting the book down, splayed out.

I felt like a book barbarian. Here, I'd always that how you treat a book respectfully was by reading it.

Confession: as a kid I constructed high-rise apartment buildings for my barbie dolls out of books and blocks.

In school I took notes in the margins of my books.

When I open a new book, especially the pristine hardcover type, the first thing I do is crack the spine for easier reading.

More confessions: My cookbooks have food stains on the pages.

When my kids were little, I let them gnaw on their board books. My daughter ate all four corners of her Pat the Bunny book and I thought that was adorable.

A few years ago I was sitting in a doctor's waiting room reading and suddenly the ending of the book I was in the middle of writing scrolled out in my mind and I did the only logical thing: I scribbled it all out in the margins.

I've been thinking about books and how I treat them because I just read Ex Libris, Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman.

If you are a fellow book lover, you will love this collection of essays about books and reading. Some fun topics covered: how to properly mingle your spouse's library collection with your own, (you're not truly married until you do), what it's like to grow up in a family of compulsive proofreaders, (you will find yourselves out to dinner with each other correcting the menus), the joys of browsing in used bookstores (Fadiman and her husband once purchased 19 pounds of books in an afternoon that they then had to tote home on a train), and the respectful treatment of books (Fadiman, when she was a child, I am happy to note, built towers out of her father's books and had no qualms about letting her children eat the corners).

Unlike Fadiman, I did not grow up with many books in my home, save for the ones I made block high rises out of-- a handful of Reader's Digest books and a set of World Book Encyclopedias, 1975 edition. My mother was a big proponent of the public library and she gave me quarters to buy a paperback every now and then from the Scholastic Book Fair. My prized book possessions were the complete set off Trixie Belden, #1 through #16. Also, a book on Greek mythology, a book called The Best Loved Poems, and a book on astrology, Love Signs by Linda Goodman.

Interesting fact: the only book that I still own from the time is Love Signs by Linda Goodman.

Today I am a compulsive collector of books.

Walk into my house and here's what you will find--

In the living room:

(My husband, God love him, built these bookshelves
and the shelves in every house we've lived in) 

In the kitchen:

(note the torn up Joy of Cooking, center, courtesy of the dog)

In my office:

 Next to my bed:

Years ago, still mourning the loss of my Trixie Belden books, I came upon the complete set in a used bookstore and promptly bought them.

They sit on my office bookshelf, spines cracked, tattered, written in, and possibly gnawed on by somebody.

I promise you: I know how to treat books.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Bonding in the Porta Potty Line: Dispatches from the Women's March in Washington D.C.

One thing all women know: there will be a line for the bathroom.

We talk to each other in those lines, smile, nod, in solidarity. We never cut in front of each other-- unless it is an emergency, or we are toting a small child who is wailing that he has to GO! Then the cutting is okay. We understand. We've all been there. The crying kid, the diaper bag weighing down our arms. We know. We know.

The women at the march are older for the most part.

In their late forties, fifties, sixties. They skew upper middle class. But it makes sense. Who else can hop on a bus, a plane, a train and travel across the country fairly easily? Not that there aren't younger women here. Women pushing strollers, walking with babies strapped to their chests. And men, God bless them, our allies, the ones who hold our purses and make emergency trips to the CVS at night to buy tampons for us when we have our periods or fetch the craved Wendy's hamburger when we're pregnant, men who wait patiently for us to return from the always long ladies' room line at the concert.

The buses let people off in the streets and we walk together with our signs. Love Trumps Hate! Keep Your Hands Off My Uterus! Y'all Means All! We wear our knitted pink hats. We smile at the babies wrapped in pink blankets, the dogs in pink sweaters. A golden retriever trotting with a sign: Even The Dogs Understand No Means No.

We pass the Capitol. The Washington Monument. The newly opened African American History Museum. People parading from all directions, so many people that we don't use the planned march route. We march on all of the streets. We take pictures of each other. We say excuse me when we step on each other's toes. Someone starts a chant and we laugh and repeat it:

Hands too small
Can't build a wall

We need a leader
Not a creepy tweeter

Tell me what democracy looks like
THIS is what democracy looks like

We tear up at the sight of the women in wheelchairs, the ones walking with canes. I walk with a woman who has stage four breast cancer. I walk with rape survivors. I walk with women who've had abortions. Women who relied on Planned Parenthood in college. Women fearful for their daughters and their son's girlfriends. What will happen to these girls in a country where the president refers to them by one body part? We are not women to him. We are not human. We are pussies.

I hate that word.

Each time I read it on a sign, my stomach clenches with anxiety. But this man who sits in the beautiful building we march by calls us this word, and half of the country is perfectly fine with it. Fifty-three percent of white women voted for this man. I know some of these women and I am having a hard time understanding their betrayal

especially as I stand in line for a porta potty, chatting with the black woman in front of me.

Always a line, she says, smiling.

I know, I say. I know.

We shuffle up together, commiserating at the number of women standing in the line in front of us, marveling at the size of the crowd surging around us, all of the lovingly knitted pink hats, the clever signs, the funny signs, the vulgar signs, the defiant signs, the man with the Canadian flag sitting in the tree waving, telling us we're all welcome in his country, the college girls chanting, the grandmothers taking a rest on the bleachers, the little girls asleep in their mothers' arms.

We are more than our reproductive systems-- although we all know we build our lives around that, planning pregnancies or finding ourselves pregnant, caught in meetings without maxi pads, fanning ourselves through hot flashes--

Still, we are not ruled by our wombs and we cannot be distilled down to one word--

We are scientists and teachers, doctors and attorneys, writers and artists, stay-at-home moms and never-been-moms. We are lovers of men. We are lovers of women. We are newly graduated and retired. Black and White. Muslim and Christian and Jewish. Mexican, Italian, Polish, German, Irish, Somali, Native American--

We are women

shuffling together toward the line of porta potties, surrounded by millions of our sisters.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why I March in the Women's March

I am going to the Women's March in DC this Saturday

because this election and the upcoming administration feels like an assault on everything I believe.

I wanted to make a protest sign to articulate all of my thoughts, all of my reasons for protesting.

I say

No-- to a man who boasts about grabbing women and girls by their private parts, who views women and girls as objects to rate and denigrate, who thinks it's disgusting when women breastfeed or have to go to the bathroom, who jokes about dating his own daughter, who calls women he doesn't like pigs, who parades into dressing rooms of underage girls and thinks that's funny and his right because he was born wealthy

No-- to a man who mocks people who have disabilities

No-- to a man who disparages people of color and people who are Muslim and people from other countries and people who are refugees and immigrants

No-- to a man who encourages his supporters to look at others with suspicion, to harm others, to bully others

No-- to a man who calls veterans losers and insults the parents of war heroes who gave their lives for this country and shows disdain for soldiers who suffer from PTSD

No-- to a man who threatens journalists, who wants to silence his critics

No-- to a man who shows contempt for Science, who doesn't believe in Climate Change

No-- to a man who tweets insults and bullies citizens who disagree with him

No-- to a man who surrounds himself with white supremacists, who takes advice from billionaires and Oligarchs and Russian leaders

No-- to a man who mocks the poor

No-- to a man who misleads his supporters, who makes promises he can't possibly keep, who wants to make America great again but can't explain what that means or WHEN that means and refuses to level with his supporters that it is impossible to go back to a mythical time when everything was "great" because everything WASN'T great for everyone.

No-- to a narcissist who can't empathize with anyone but himself, who has done real damage to most of the people he has come in contact with-- black people who he denied apartments to, women he sexually assaulted, workers he refused to pay, students he misled in his fake university, and all of us he has lied to-- about his status as a billionaire, about who he owes money to, about his multiple bankruptcies, about his many scams, about his entanglements with Russia--

But, all of that wouldn't fit on my sign.

So I just wrote this:

When I return from the March, the real work begins. That is when I will say Yes to actively working against him and every monstrous thing he stands for.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Take Two

I wrote a book in November.

Correction: I wrote the first draft of a book in November.

Okay, it wasn't a "book" exactly. More like 65,000 words molded into a book-like shape. Characters. Scenes. Pieces and chunks of scenes. A possible beginning. A foggy middle. A glimmer of an ending.

This is a typical first draft for me, my way of exploring a couple of ideas and watching, waiting for those seemingly unrelated strands to come together, wondering the whole while if they WILL come together and then marveling when they inevitably do. It's the bizarre and magical aspect of writing a story and I don't even pretend to understand how it works.

What I do know is that if I go In each day, write my words, trust the process, follow the characters and the story strands-- something will eventually spark and catch fire, and if I keep going with it, if I keep showing up on the page, pushing, while at the same time letting go and not pushing at all--

I will find myself at the end of the process with this Thing that I did not have at the beginning,

a first draft.

By definition it is a mess.

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird calls them "shitty first drafts" and the first time I read that I loved Anne Lamott. The first draft, she says, shitty as it may be, is perfect, because it is finished. Because you made it to the end of it and now you have something to work with, something to revise.

Which is where I am now, at the beginning of the Take Two leg of this novel-writing marathon.

I'm okay with that. Even a little excited. I have methods that have worked for me in the past. Strategies.

*Put the first draft away for a while.

*Print it off in a different font from the font that you wrote it in.

*Read it. Which is always a challenge. It's hard to face this thing you wrote-- see the actual words written on the page vs the beautiful complex amazing brilliant story you had floating around in your head, and then come to grips with all of the work you're going to have to do to get the draft on the page closer to what you envision.

I take notes as I read. I write questions to myself. I make a list:

What I have/What I need

So far my list sounds like this:
What I have: characters, a voice, a back story
What I need: a plot

A few months ago I was at a party and an aspiring writer asked my opinion about revision. "I bet you don't revise as much anymore," she said, "now that you're more experienced."

I shook my head. "No," I said. "I revise even more now."

She looked at me quizzically. I could tell she didn't quite believe me. Some beginning writers assume that it gets easier. (Spoiler alert: It doesn't.)

I can't remember where I read this, but a student asks a teacher:

Do good writers revise?

And the teacher answers: Only good writers revise.

Every writer has their secrets. 

Lately, I've been thinking of revision as a kind of puzzle. I empty the pieces onto the table. I turn them over and study them. I group them by color, by shape. I click together the obvious ones, assemble the larger chunks, maybe stop every now and then to string the border, identify the corners, trying not to get overwhelmed by the pieces that don't seem to fit, all of those empty spaces that will have to be filled in eventually.

And then there's nothing to do but start writing.

Take two.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

I Read Harder This Year...

specifically, I pushed myself to complete the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge.

It was fun at first, searching out books to fill the categories, checking off the items on the list. A horror book, a book over 500 pages, a book of essays, a book published in the decade I was born. But then I let the project lapse for a while, going off on several book-reading tangents.

I read Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle, thinking it could be my horror book, and was so enamored by her voice and her writing (Shirley Jackson, if you need a reminder, is the author of the brilliant short story "The Lottery") that I ended up reading Raising Demons, a set of stories about Jackson's life in a big old drafty house in Vermont with her serious professor husband and their four kids and various pets and zany adventures.

But there's all this other stuff going on under the surface: What it was like to be a working woman writer in the repressive/misogynistic 1950's, to be the faculty wife of an academic, to be a bohemian outsider in a Madmen world. (I just discovered this write up of a new biography of Jackson, A Rather Haunted Life. And oh YIKES, I now know what book will be on my 2017 list!)

I heard the South African memoirist Alexandra Fuller speak last winter and immediately read two of her books about growing up in a weird white colonialist family. Neither of these books fit anywhere on my Book Riot list, but they did set me off on a memoir kick:

*Paula McClain (the author The Paris Wife) Like Family, about growing up in foster homes.
*My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer, about life in America with a Muslim husband.
*A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas about taking care of her husband after he is permanently brain damaged.

I got serious about the Book Originally Published in the Decade You Were Born category, Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter, but that book almost killed me, all of the pointlessness and futility, the cruelty of humans toward each other--and all of that packed up in a 500 page book with no plot and over thirty characters. I had no choice but to go off on another tangent:

The Spymaster's Lady by Joanna Bourne. (insert blushing emoticon face here)
And pure fluff--
Good Grief by Lolly Winston

Back on track again with a Book Riot-approved novel, (a book by an author from Southeast Asia) Jhumpa Lahiri's Lowland, set in India-- which I then learned is NOT in Southeast Asia, but I kept reading anyway because I love everything by Jhumpa Lahiri and realized with a bit of fudging of the categories I could stick that book in the Read a Book about Religion slot.

Then, more memoirs:
*Lahiri's In Other Words about immersing herself in Italian, and I toyed with the idea of learning Italian.
*Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert because I wanted to recharge my creative self.
*The Great Failure by Natalie Goldberg because I felt like a big fat writing failure.
*All I Did Was Ask, a collection of interviews with creative people by Terry Gross. And I felt better.

It was summer and the Book Riot list was hanging over me and the spaces were only half filled in and I recommitted myself to the challenge.

Some stand outs:

*The Kitchen Wars by Betty Fussell  (a food memoir) but actually about so much more. Early feminism and academic life in the 1930's and 40's (not at ALL what I envisioned. Let's just say the pre-War/post-War academics were more hedonistic than I had realized).
*Giants in the Earth by Ole Rolvaag (book of historical fiction set before 1900) about the pioneers settling the prairie, and holy moly was there a lot of cold and death and post partum depression on that prairie.
*Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck (a book under 100 pages) and one of THE most perfect characterization/plot set-ups I have ever read. Honestly, don't know how I as an English major and English teacher missed this book along the way.

Off track to read several YA books for a book panel I was asked to moderate. Best of this bunch by far: Mindy McGinnis's The Female of the Species, a powerful, thought-provoking novel about the effects of rape culture on a small town.

Another tangent to read manuscripts written by writer friends.
*A picture book by my lovely friend Donna Koppelman, which I ended up using in my Read a Book Aloud category, because I literally read the book aloud to her like, ten times. It's SO good and will likely snag a book deal soon.
*Two manuscripts by my prolific and brilliant critique partner Natalie Richards. (One Was Lost on book shelves everywhere now. And a psychological horror, out in the fall, that I call the Haunted Bridge book--inspired by our haunted retreat weekend in Marietta.

The last book I read to fill out my chart was Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann. (category: listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award.) I cheated a little for this one, beginning the book by reading it because I wasn't sure I'd have time to listen over the holidays with my house filled with guests.

A few years ago I heard Colum McCann speak, and the things he said about the power of story and the need for radical empathy in our broken world stayed with me...and then drifted away.

But a few days ago, his words came back. I had to drive somewhere alone and I popped the CD into my car CD player and out came this beautiful soft low Irish accented voice. Colum McCann's voice, reading to me.

The book is a collection of stories, some written before Colum McCann was assaulted on a city street and seriously injured, and some written after the assault. He'd spoken about this event in his talk several years ago, how the assault had tested his faith in humanity, forcing him to question all of his beliefs about forgiveness and kindness winning out over bitterness and fear and hatred.

The book is beautiful, and more beautiful in the listening.

The last week of the old year, when I drove alone to the grocery store, to the post office, to the library, Colum McCann read to me in his soft, sure voice.

"For all of its imagined moments," he said, "literature works in unimaginable ways."

I got to wherever I was going, and I knew he was right.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Why I unfriended you on Facebook

because I am a coward

and I couldn't tell you in real life how I felt or what I was thinking and it was so easy to click Unfriend.

It was a spur of the moment decision, not planned ahead of time or calculated, just a momentary surge of outrage and sadness and disappointment in you, in the country, in humanity

in myself too, for thinking that clicking a button on a social media site would make me feel better.

The truth is it made me feel worse.

Because I want to get along and go along and not make a big deal out of everything, not make waves or stir up drama. Because I want to be a nice person, a good hostess, a caring friend.

Because you are my family, my friend, my neighbor and I already knew that you had different opinions from me so why should knowing your opinion, today, matter?

But it made me angry when you showed yourself to be ignoranthatefulracistbigotedmisogynistic and I know you or thought I did and anyway, don't we have to draw the line somewhere? At the denigration of Muslims and Mexicans and people of color and anyone who is not white, or the mockery of gay marriage or the joking about sexually assaulting women and girls?

Except who cares about social media anyway?

I mean, ten years ago we lived just fine without it and who would even know if you thought it was funny to compare the First Lady to an animal or had an irrational fear of a transgender person using a public restroom or were cool with flying the confederate flag?

But I do know. And now that I know, I can't unknow.

Why do we see the world so differently? Why are we so broken and hurting and terrified and angry and quick to judge others and constantly outraged

and human?

Can we have the courage of our convictions? Can we bridge the gaps between us? Can we forgive?

Is it even possible to be friends?