Old Moon

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Holiday Greetings

Yes, it's really too busy to write blogs--and certainly too busy for anyone to bother reading them. Still, maybe after the tinsel is no longer shiny, I will want to feel I've kept up anyway.

There's almost nothing to be said of the season that hasn't already been better expressed by a legion of others. So my comment is only that we try to keep in mind the basics and be grateful.

So the view has to be forward with hope. Merry Christmas! Best hopes for the new year for the whole planet and all who inhabit it.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

My Mother Taught Me...

Odd things come to mind sometimes. Today as I struggled to put on a pair of socks tightened by washing, I remembered that my mother taught me how to turn the sock inside-out down to the heel so it was the shape of a mule, insert foot, and pull till the toes reach the end, then unfold the instep and cuff and pull them up to the ankle.

That led to the memory of trying to get socks onto kicking baby feet. We needed socks in a cold New England winter, but I might have given up without that trick my mother taught me.

I wonder what special helps you learned from your mother. Kitchen hints would likely top the list, but what about other domestic things? And what would be much more interesting: what did you learn about how to make judgments, how to deal with incompetent and/or rude sales clerks and airline ticket agents, how to figure out what to make of the remark you overheard at a party or that was tossed your way by someone you thought was a friend? Did she help you to decide what to say to someone bereaved, or have a mantra to help dispel a disappointment?

We could compare notes right here, if you feel like replying.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Imagination

I can't let another day go by without saying something about the death of a sales clerk in a stampede at a Walmart. That is the kind of story that makes fanatics out of people who consider themselves above the common herd, who think of themselves as religious and/or ethical experts. It's also the kind of story that makes anyone with a modicum of imagination wonder whether the pronouncements about "common humanity" and "essential goodness" have any but the shallowest foundation. I tremble to think that so many people could be so intent on buying things that they could overlook--worse, perpetrate--the destruction of a stranger's life!

There are so many frightening events these days, and often I'm even glad to be old enough to know I won't find out how they will all play out because I'm scared of how the resolution could be. And that's the most upsetting of all: the thought that maybe the good could actually be outdone by the evil.

Every ordinary person simply cannot become like the people who work in slaughterhouses who have to learn to shut down empathy. Somehow we have to show our children and theirs that until we can in some degree imagine what it's like to be someone else and care about them, we could be dooming the planet!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Lost comment

To the anonymous writer of the rebuttal re "enormity," apologies. I can't seem to get your comment posted, but would like to reply by saying that you must be right. We have 4 dictionaries in our house, but all are over 10 years old. Probably the most important part of this usage is that everyone seems to understand what the speaker really means. That's what counts.

I Wish I Were Jonathan Swift...

...Because if I were, I might be able to shake up a few readers. Does anyone remember "A Modest Proposal?" Consult your handy dictionary of quotations.
In the October 26 edition of the New York Times Magazine there is an article that should shock the ethical and even the reasonable parts of any reader's brain. The title is "Once Upon a Time in Namibia" with a subhead, "Sergio Leone Meets Ralph Lauren in an African Ghost Town." The title alone takes an entire page.
The first picture is a moody low-key photo of a girl with scraggly hair seated in a window opening (sic.) with an artful lens-flare the brightest spot in the near-silhouette of the picture. She appears to be looking thoughtfully down on a completely barren landscape with a glaring white sky above. One can barely see that she is clad in a jacket with raveling hem on the three-quarter sleeve, a tight, long sleeve protrudes from that, and she seems to be wearing a necklace. The picture's caption identifies the designer of the jacket, which is priced at $2,910, pants (invisible) at $1,240, a belt (also invisible and unpriced), and a Lanvin necklace. That little price list is the only text on the page.
The next two pages are photos of respectively, a truly giraffe-like figure clad in a sort of slouch hat, two-piece tan dress, elbow-length black gloves, and stiletto-heeled shoes. She is leaning against a scabrous interior wall in a building obviously long abandoned. The facing page shows a desert landscape photographed through a ruined window and absent wall indicated by the remains of severely weathered wood that form the frame. In the near distance is what appears to be the same model in the same hat, but this time in a black evening gown accompanied by what look like long brown leather gauntlets. The left-hand page in the spread again has the only text for both pages. It consists of the clothes designer's names and the prices for the main items. They begin in excess of one thousand dollars, and the gown on the right-hand page is $10,000.
This same style (?) continues for four more pages, each as heat-drenched and arid and empty as the first. The dramatic atmosphere of once-inhabited desolation is astonishing—an effective photo essay on a recently independent and obviously nearly destitute part of Africa.
If the reader thinks that, it's only for a brief instant, before he gets to the sparse, tiny, white-ink inscriptions on the lower corners of the pages.
The model is extremely thin and extremely tall and her hair needs combing. The clothes are black or tan and without exception unflattering. The prices are staggering. The pictures are artistic, emotionally charged, and memorable.
I felt as if I'd fallen into some kind of out-of-body experience, or had misread the few words available after the whole page of elaborate fonts and background for the title. What was the editor thinking? Above all, I wondered, Why was that place used as a setting for those designers to exhibit those clothes at those prices? Above all, what was the editor thinking?
There seems to be no excuse for the callousness of the choice of such a site for the exploitation of conspicuous consumption. I thought of Swift's ability to flay human folly and wished I could somehow convey in the way he would have done the combination of fury and incredulity that assailed me as I looked at that spread in a respected, traditionally liberal medium I've known since childhood. If "the medium is the message," I tremble for us all who can accept it without question.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Priority?

What is it about Time? Maybe I'm a little obsessive, but it really does seem as though even a second is shorter than it used to be. Trying to keep putting something up here on a regular basis while keeping up with the minutes I need to transcribe (I keep swearing I won't be a secretary again), the promised reviews and occasional essay for the Senior Women Web, and the queries for the last finished novel, plus revision of another...I think my long-suffering husband is glad I get around to doing the laundry. We don't discuss ironing.

Then I think that the impression may be distorted by the terrible pressures on the country and the world of late. Nothing that matters has time enough to be understood by most of us, let alone to figure out ways to deal with them. It was such an incredible relief to be finished with the election. Yet, we're now faced with actually finding things to DO--about the economy, the wars, the pirates, the fires and floods and earthquakes, the dying wilderness and rain forests, the educational and healthcare systems, and that list is only a beginning.

Everyone is always amazed when there is actually more than one person who wants to be President. This year, I find it harder to believe than ever before that even one person sought the office with such dedication to winning. Could it really be that someone without a personality disorder could fill the job? Is there really a man or woman who has the ego and drive to get there who will also have the sense and humility to be effective? If all the wise heads of all parties could be made to cooperate as advisors, would their counsel be recognized and considered?

And how can we, the ordinary Joes and Janes and the eggheads and experts, help? WILL enough of us help if someone comes up with instructions? Will we be able to keep our sights high enough above our own problems to see beyond them? Is there enough time to take care of everything we need to if we're to go on living on our beloved planet?

And how does one decide where to begin?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Speaking of Speaking…

It's discouraging to hear even the most respected pundits—"talking heads" and heads of state—misusing our wonderfully varied and precise language. Does anybody look up a word anymore?

Enormity?! "The quality of passing all moral bounds…" (American Heritage Dictionary.) Nothing whatever to do with size! Granted, perhaps that word could be used to apply to the tasks facing the upcoming administration, but it's to be hoped not! The job is enormous, gargantuan even, daunting certainly, but not yet "a monstrous evil…"

Maybe it's not of great consequence, but hasn't anyone noticed that there really is a difference between "convince" and "persuade?" Between "bring" and "take?"

When I hear the locution, "She went…" to introduce words someone has spoken, I want to scream (not "go")!

I hope the succeeding generation will give up "like" as a hesitant insertion while the speaker is trying to think of how to say exactly what he has in mind.

Language does evolve; we know that, but I hate to think that the only mechanism is vandalism! "Willful or malicious destruction of public or private property." (Ibid.)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Forward

It turns out that one shouldn't be too hasty about "dissing" awards. I got another one I didn't mention here: first place statewide in the NC Senior Games literary arts division. A phone call this morning asked permission to put the short story up on the website. http://www.ncseniorgames.org/. Naturally, I was happy (would thrilled be more accurate?) to give said permission. So, in a day or two, see if it's there, if you're interested.

After the election marathon, nothing else seems worthy of designation as work! Let us hope that winners and losers alike have something left for the real long haul! We all know it's uphill from here, but maybe even those of us back in the crowd along the sidelines can be of some use by soberly cheering the team on. Personally, I hope more than I can say that never again will so much time, money and labor be spent just getting to the starting post! The best thing has been the number of hitherto uninvolved voters. More of that would make much of future campaign excesses unnecessary.

It's not always easy, perhaps, but it does mean everything to have something to look forward to.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Haiku

Not all traditional, but they're so much fun to write!

Birches

Sleek triplets white
in scattered flashes, adorn
winter's sleeping woods.


Weeds

Brash rustics, crowd in
among fine grass, thornĂ©d rose –
brave the slashing hoe.

Friendship

The hand's clasp unfelt
and sweet voiced words unspoken
love's gifts accepted.


Housemate

Why not alone taste
first savor of the day? Boor,
the bacon's burning.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Be Our Guest?

Be Our Guest?

Do you ever wonder how the other half—or at least, others than you—live? If you're like me, (cowardly) there are only some others you really want to know about. I've always felt Dickens and the newspapers provide all I can bear of the really awful conditions which most of the world seems to be forced to inhabit. Well, the other evening, we were offered a chance (admittedly not the first one) to see the abode and sample some of the lifestyle of a couple of those special people. It gave me pause.

We had a really lovely time, so don't misunderstand these remarks. It's just that I can't resist trying to relive some of it in the hope of learning how to do it. To begin with, we all know the housewife who somehow manages to keep her home in a state that would require not the slightest adjustment from a stylist for Architectural Digest or Better Homes. Maybe she's not your best friend, and maybe, like me, you envy her talents. I just wish I could pick up the knack!
The apartment we visited is one of those abodes. Not only is there not so much as a crushed cushion on the sofa, every ornament on side tables is perfectly positioned, every fold in the "window treatments" is exactly the width of every other one. There is not a single newspaper or magazine (except for the TV schedule) in view in any of the four rooms we were shown, in fact, the only book I noticed ornamented the exact center of the coffee table and was a collection of botanical prints in an oversize binding, dust jacket pristine. Look at any furniture grouping, and you realize it's artistic, pretty, even beckoning. And the kitchen counters? No coffee maker, no canisters, not a dropped potholder, just pristine gray granite.
Already intimidated, I was prepared to try to stifle my natural garrulity, and take it all in for future reference. I've always aspired to improve the general ambience of our home in the face of both my husband's and my tendency to littering and slovenliness.
The conversation and the other guests were delightful, I rattled on shamelessly despite my determination not to, and the food was delicious.
We came contentedly back to our rumpled domicile which is replete with cat hair and odd bits of broken leaves off our dog's feet, where our coffee table is hidden under magazines and half-finished newspaper articles, the couch cushions not plumped after the last time we sat there, and the curtains weren't even drawn.
I reflected that it would probably take me at least half an hour of clearing my husband's paperwork off the dining table and tidying the rest of what any casual visitor would be exposed to before I could comfortably let another person in, let alone offer them a meal. Just looking around our home was embarrassing.
So the question arises: is there an acceptable excuse for this disorder? I surely hope so, because here I sit right now, writing about it when I should obviously be clearing it up. We, even though we're long retired, work here. Sure, we live here too, but we write and paint and manage our volunteer jobs where it's comfortable to do what we want to do. I hope the occasional drop-in can forgive the mess. I remind myself that "home" is the operative word.
Our bed goes unmade only on the day I change the sheets. You should know that when we entertain, we do clear up and tidy. Of course, that means we stack the magazines and newspapers, we don't get them out of sight. How could we? This is a small retirement cottage. We straighten the picture frames after the cleaners have been in every other week, keep the guest room neat and the beds changed, and I love a blossom from our flower bed in a vase.
We'd love to offer a cup of tea or a drink, if you have the courage to enter where this half lives.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Cautionary Tale

I was feeling desperate, getting older by the minute, and so I resorted to the Web. My advice is to watch out if you do that too. I have some recommendations for where to put bookmarks. I wish I'd known then....

Please take notes:

P & E Literary Agents: there is more here than just the names of agents. Markets, publishers and more. Not always up-to-the minute, but THE No. 1 source to check for ripoffs!

Writer Beware: self explanatory.

AgentQuery.com. Next to the print publications like Writer's Digest Market Guides, or Jeff Hermans Guide or CD's listing agents and markets, the best place I've found to look. Just don't expect much in the way of replies unless you really have the exact thing they want at the moment you send your query.

So now to what I did wrong:

I went to a website that lists agents, publishers, et al. with brief descriptions (supplied by the clients who appear there.) I found an several seemingly hopeful agents, rejected 2 for various reasons after contacting them, and settled on another "agent." He snapped up my book. I asked him why, after I found out his expertise was in automotive matters and scholarly dissertations. He said he wanted to branch out and swore I had a "best seller." The next thing I knew, he had submitted the book to PublishAmerica. I didn't know anything about them then, and was thrilled.

It was all downhill from there. First, they don't require an agent to submit; second, they are just the next thing to self-publishing; third, when royalties arrived they sent them to the "agent!" and he never let me know until I e-mailed him to say I was trying to find out what I owed him in commission. He didn't reply. PA admitted sending the check to him (contrary to their contract.) It was a pittance, but that really wasn't the point. No, you don't have to pay, but you don't get much for nothing--duh. The "editor" promised in the conract proved to be a worse proofreader than I am, which is pretty bad. No editing, no promotion, and a horrible rep if you want a book store to stock your baby. DON'T go there!

After I got my rights back, I went for an e-book publisher. Sold. Eventually, she also put the book into print, as you see it now. Unfortunately, after that contract was signed, it turns out her printing contract is with Amazon's subsidiary, and I'm having a hard time getting the book stocked anywhere but Amazon. And, like most small independent publishers, the discount is smaller than book sellers like. The local one won't even take copies from me on consignment! Not only will you not get rich that way, you'll be mighty lucky to recoup your computer costs for ink and paper and ISP fees.

So if this makes you think you can go only with the major and well-known houses, that's pretty much what I think too. Unfortunately, the reality is that few will give you a look except from an agent. I've tried for over 20 years to land one without success. That's probably in part because I'm not good enough to attract one. Those people have to make a living. Which is why, if the second book comes out, it probably will be from Cambridge Books, which took Settling.

In the meantime, as if I had all the time in the world, I'm sending agent queries fairly regularly and with fading hopes. (As I type this, I've just received the rejection to the query sent only yesterday--for a third novel.)

You've heard it all before, maybe not as often as I have because I've been doing it for so long, but the only thing to do is to keep at it, I guess. Just don't waste time and energy on what's a lose-lose proposition. Try to do research, which I didn't in time.

Excelsior!

And don't forget that if you happen on someone like my cyber-pal Glenda Beall, you may have a chance after all. At the very least, you'll be given suggestions and encouragement (it was she who said I needed a blog). Oh, how I wish that old-fashioned publishing standby, the "midlist" were still in existence! In the meantime, we all need to network!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

There are Friends...and there are Friends

The best friends understand what you need and do their best to help you achieve it. The best friends believe in you. The best friends put themselves into helping. This is for the friend who took the time to give me just the suggestion I was in search of.

She suggested that I say something about how I came to write a book and how I found a publisher. The latter part of that request will take too much space to tell now, but I will tell it later because it's a cautionary tale indeed!

I have harbored the ambition to be a writer since my preschool years. I was fortunate in my grandmother, who was a southern lady of great intellect and a lover of literature. From being read to until I could read, and later being repeatedly on the receiving end of her literary taste, I acquired a lot of mine by simple osmosis. It was a natural progression to the hope of writing to pass on the pleasure.

Later on, in high school, I had another mentor whose talents would be hard to equal. He taught us to write and not a little about criticism.

I wrote off and on all the time, through college, my children's growing years, but almost never finished anything. When I retired, I tried to complete a story. I nearly went mad from the drudgery of retyping everything I'd revised, and so I finished almost nothing except a few features for local newsapers. It was the first computer in our house in 1983 that set me on the road I'm still traveling.

I subscribed to Writer's Digest and Poets and Writers and decided to take the WD correspondence course in fiction writing, and then an advanced one. All to the good. My first published story was submitted by that first instructor.

Later on, I applied for a scholarship to a prestigious weekend workshop, and was accepted. It was a wildly simulating experience. After that, whatever workshops were offered within geographical and financial reach I attended, winning an actual prize at one for an essay on writing. I always thought the reason was that it was 100 words shorter than the allowable word count.

By then I was working on a novel. When I finished it, it seemed clear that it wasn't salable as it stood, and I had no idea what to do to it, so I set to work on another one. That second one was Settling. In the meantime, I was writing and submitting short stories, writing the occasional feature or profile for local papers (and not being paid for them). Also in the meantime, I kept a sporadic commonplace book. I can't really call it a journal because it wasn't regular enough. Now I continue with that, but have added a file box into which cards, slips of paper, and the like go when I have an idea I don't want to forget or a revision I hope to make.

For any wannabe writer, there are some wonderful books that helped me along the way like Anne Lamott's Birds by Bird, William Zinsser's On Writing Well, Carolyn See's Making a Literary Life, Carol Bly's The Passionate Accurate Story and a host of others.

I finished five novels in about ten years. Then a major move caused a hiatus of several years during which I wrote nothing. Now I'm hoping the second novel will be picked up, and I can try for two! There are two more in the wings, one of which needs major revision. I haven't quite given up hope of fixing the first one.

I've learned that somehow you can't quit, no matter how many rejections you receive, as long as you can honestly believe (the operative word is "honestly") that what you can say is as well said and and as interesting as the published work you read. It can't be easy to recognize something really bad, but the most valuable test is time. If you go back to a piece a month after you finished it and can't improve it, chances are it's as good as it's going to get. That's the worst problem for me with a novel: I can almost always go on tweaking it forever. A short story is apt to be truly done a whole lot sooner, and so can poems.

In another post, I'll get to how Settling got into print.

I'm no one to offer advice because my experience is so limited, and because one book does not an author make, but there you have it.

Till the next time...

Friday, October 24, 2008

Who and Why

When posting here, I always wonder about a few things:
Will anyone read this? Who will read this?
What makes someone check out this blog?

After more than half a year at it, I still feel at a loss as to what to put here so that a return reader or one who stumbles on the site will think the visit was worth the time.

In a recent post, I mentioned relatively meaningless prizes. Now I have another to report, and it made me feel a lot better than the last one. A short story I submitted to the North Carolina Senior Games Silver Arts division won me a gold medal. Without any notion of how numerous the entries were or who the judge(es) was or were, I still feel some satisfaction. The regional medal didn't do much for my ego, but the state one has.

Friday, October 17, 2008

For the Next Time

Now that we're on the last lap on the way to Election Day, I wish people who control such things would consider some reformation of the election laws and practices:

1. Strictly limit the amount of time during which candidates may present themselves and their platforms;

2. Set real guidelines for "debates" and town-hall meetings;

3. AGAIN - do something to curtail the obscene waste of money by parties and their candidates, regardless of the sources of the funds thrown away.

I suppose none of this is likely, but it makes one wonder what has happened not only to common sense, but also to any moral sense. If public outcry could alter our recent behavior, let's at least give it a try!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Different Muses?

Two Artists


I.

Inspiration gusting from infinity ignites him into blue flame:

Dionysus and archangels cry in the echoing vaults of his mind,

And he speaks with tongues and sails before those thrilling winds

Fair to fame and the Furies.



II.

He searches blazing beaches for the shards of crystal thoughts,

And drops four chips for each one saved.

Summer’s waning as the stiff mosaic

Forms in curveless patchwork,

and early cold congeals the image—

Angular and gap-toothed, as the mortar freezes.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Debates?

I know enough not to expect anything close to what we were taught in school about debating when I tune in on the campaigns' moderated discussions. When the moderator asks a question, usually carefully loaded to provide a maximum of embarrassment to each participant, it's no surprise to hear so few direct answers. Nevertheless, after listening to a couple of hours of commentators holding forth on the recent meeting of Biden and Palin, I have to ask, "Was anyone listening to WHAT was said?" Virtually every remark after the fact was directed at the WAY the "debaters" couched their arguments. These people who want our votes are supposed to be leaders.

A true debate would not permit the evasions, non-answers, digressions, and arguments ad hominem that are standard for these affairs--that ought to be arranged for the benefit of informing voters, instead of to further the public images of the contestants.

It's discouraging to find so little statesmanship and so much showmanship (and even some of that is pretty pathetic) concerning vital matters. Let's hope the puplic is more perceptive and analytical than the candidates' handlers think we are!

Friday, September 19, 2008

What matters?

A fancy cardboard envelope arrived yesterday. I'd forgotten I'd submitted Settling to an awards contest for books from small independent publishers. Inside the envelope was a nice letter and a certificate saying I'd won third place in the 2008 General Fiction category.

Pleasant news. Best not to think about it too much, I knew, but I couldn't resist checking out the list of winners. Not a single publisher, except for mine, that wasn't either a vanity or self-publishing company.

When you come close, but no cigar more than once, is that a signal to forget about competition? I think it is, except for the reaction of the woman who published my book. Her response was, "Now you're an award-winning novelist." If that isn't a comment with so many reverberations I can't take space to address them here, I don't know what is.

So now I'll have to sit down and try to write a serious essay, I guess. Don't stay tuned here. If I succeed with it, it will be on Senior Women Web in the future.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

How much to dare?

Having recently been asked to expand on a couple of short essays, one of which is a partial rumination on the writing life (if not the business), I think a word or two might be suitable for this page.

It's difficult for me, (schooled as I've been for over 20 years to cut out unnecessary words, keep even a fairly complex short story to 2,000 words, "only the facts, ma'am"), not to go on after I think I've made a point--it's proving to be a challenge to try to exhaust a subject. Even in the days of 30-page assignments in college I used to have trouble padding. In this case, of course, what I'm being asked to do is to think deeper and longer to develop a premise. I realize I'm going to have to go back to the experts. St. Exupery made a whole book out of ideas generated by night flying, and then went on to a perfect children's book, both still in print over 60 years after their publication.

Even though the relative freedom of the "personal essay" gives one a sense that almost anything goes, there remains the question of how much will be of interest to an outsider. I mean by that, someone who is outside the writer's personal circle of acquaintance. It remains to be seen, I guess.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Changing times

Recently a writing friend told me of a plot premise that she'd thought of. It involved a woman going to the store to pick up a chicken, but she picks up the butcher instead. I thought of the sources for chickens these days and realized that a place where I would be most likely to buy one would offer no opportunity for meeting the butcher, let alone picking him up.

When I was growing up, even in New York City, we had a local grocery store. The proprietor's name was Mr. Lovelock. The worn floorboards were covered in sawdust. Every customer had to negotiate around the black and white cat who always occupied the center of the space between the door, the counters, and the shelves. When my mother had chosen what she wanted, we would go home to await a delivery by a lad who must have been about fourteen. There's not much of that sort of customer relationship around these days. I'm eager to see how my writer friend's story will develop, and where it will be set.

To be at the far end of your life tends to make you think backwards perhaps more than is good for the morale. So many changes that have happened in the Twentieth Century have come about at the speed of a 100-yard sprint in the Olympics, and so many are of marvelous consequence for those of us who have lived to see them. On the other hand, that very pace has exacted a price, which for me is the leisure to contemplate details--of personalities, of eccentricities, of individualities, and the most obvious pleasures of the natural world, which is so rapidly becoming a distant backdrop instead of the close surround of everyday life. When using the word "leisure" I imply the mental and emotional time and freedom for appreciation in both senses of that word.

I'm distressed daily by the fact that I miss half the birdsong around us because it's being drowned out by the racket of diesel eighteen-wheelers. I can barely see the mountains day after day because of air pollution, and I have to watch my dog to be sure he isn't getting into some area newly treated with chemicals to discourage weeds. As for buying the chicken, I have to pick one out from twenty others so tightly encased in shrink-wrap I can't tell them apart except for the weight indicated on the labels. Nowadays, if I'm willing to pay over $10 a pound instead of under $3, I can get a "free-range organic" bird, but even then I won't have the feet available for broth that would be like what I imagine Jewish mothers hand out to cold sufferers. REAL chicken soup is really a thing of the past. I mind having to pay extra to get carrots with tops, lemons one-by-one, local tomatoes in August. A can of baked beans isn't even just a can of baked beans; now I have to choose among several different versions for use with different accompaniments. I admit it's nice to be able to get "ethnic" and "gourmet" foods, but where's the cheese wheel from which you could get a slice cut to order and so sharp it made your tongue sting when you tasted the sample offered on the blade of a knife half the size of a machete?

One of my biggest plaints as a senior citizen is directed at the tendency to enlarge everything, especially restaurant portions and publishers. Does anyone among the latter have anything they will admit is a "mid-list" today? They can't afford one any more. An editor no longer can browse the slush pile for something that might be to his or her individual taste and take a flier on it. As for fiction: the formulas for success (read enormous sales) have multiplied. Does the story have a thriller pace? Check. Plenty of sex, preferably explicit and at least somewhat unconventional? Check. Violence? Check. Shocking characters, scenes, plots? Check. Or, perhaps to fit into another category, it may need to be gently bland, without a suggestion of the unpleasant realities of life and certainly no more than a hint of sex, and make every character call regularly and verbally on the Almighty. Even the category romances of my day have become less rather than more convincing.

What has happened to verisimilitude? I can only be grateful for the authors who have managed to get into print who are the exceptions to prove those rules cited above. My feeling, though, is that they are too few, and if one can find their work at all, it doesn't get the recognition it deserves.

Is it time to organize, to shout while waving a banner inscribed with the names of literary artists in all languages, to rebel? Should there be a convention for the preservation of real literature? If only we had Mark Twain or Voltaire to make the campaign speeches, Aristotle or Kant to force us to entertain enough thought to allow some expansion of minds. Even Edward Lear and W. S. Gilbert might be fun to listen to so we could figure out how to enjoy jokes. There isn't enough poetry around in spite of the legions of willing small independent publishers, largely because it's hard to convince a customer that the price of a chapbook is worth it when there's so little time. The trouble is, we don't have the millions of dollars it would take to make us heard. Maybe we should try to start an online fundraising effort dedicated to the proposition that independent publishers of books and periodicals should have the same proportion of public support that goes to Public Radio and Television, both of which have already had to succumb to at least "institutional" advertising. Farewell Harold Ross, and all your ilk. You're missed.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Days grow short...

SEPTEMBER…
The month of changes—or so it seems to me. Back to school, end of summer, beginning again for matters of work and worry that fell out of the forefront during vacation time. Soon there won’t be a need for the AC at night, the trees that looked tired and dried out last month will begin to color with the promise of flaming October, bird and monarch butterfly migrations will catch the eyes of gardeners and hikers, wooly bear caterpillars will wend their zigzag ways across the pavement.
Of course, these are all signals of ending too. Earlier darkness and later light, the growing season even here in North Carolina is drawing to a close, and the end of the year becomes visible like a distant landmark. I never can decide whether I’m happy to see September, or a little sad. The wonderful lyrics of “September Song” from Knickerbocker Holiday pretty much tell it all: “…Oh, the days dwindle down to a precious few…” that we treasure when we get into the 8th decade, where we qualify for the symbolic September of our own days. “It’s a long, long while/From May to December,/ But the days grow short,/ When you reach September.”

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pet Peeves

You have to remember that I was once an English teacher and try to forgive my crankiness. I have a series of increasingly irritible peeves with the "media." If we're all to be exposed to so much palaver on the air and in print, it seems to me the least the talkers can do is to say what they (presumably) mean instead of getting in trouble by using words and/or expressions they don't understand, and thus leading a whole generation to follow them in their errors. I get so hot under the collar...!

For example: enormity. This word has nothing whatsoever to do with physical size! The meaning refers to something so out of the realm of morality that it exceeds all ordinary measure--of awfulness, cruelty, sinfulness.

Begs the question: this does not mean that whatever it is raises or asks a question. This is a term used in debating, and which is defined (all three words) as meaning "to evade or dodge." Therefore, to use it to suggest that an occurrence makes other questions arise is the opposite of what the speaker really means.

English is a language richer in words than almost all others. The precision it makes possible is one of its greatest attractions for me. I get pretty annoyed when people insist on saying "bring" when they mean "take." You don't bring your car to the garage for repairs, you take it there.

Why do anchors on TV programs insist on saying so-and-so has convinced someone to go or do anything? Granted, they might need to be convinced before they would be persuaded to do it. But one is convinced of something about which one was doubtful or opposed to; one is persuaded to do something. Note the prepostions.

"Sloppy" is the word that comes to mind. If people speak so sloppily, how are they to convince us that they don't think equally sloppily? It's hard for me to believe that those who learned English as a second language and learned it properly might not see this imprecision as a sign that Americans were less than in command of what is actually in their heads. Scary.

Sign this "Curmudgeon."

Where Have I been?

I don't know what kind of glitch has hit this site, but today I finally found all those wonderful responses to old posts that never showed up when I checked my site. Humble apologies to all of you who were good enough to react to my musings. It really has already made my (rather gloomy) day to find that anyone out there has not only taken time to read, but has also given me the benefit of suggestions and responses is positively touching. Thank you all!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mars or Venus?

Most of my adult life I’ve been subliminally convinced that certain aspects of personality are sex-linked, kind of like tri-coloration in cats. As I’m reading a book in preparation for reviewing it, I’m beginning to wonder if that really is the case. I just finished a review of the same novel written by a man. I admire his penetrating analysis of theme. He seemed to have understood the characters and the author’s intention, but he doesn’t say anything about the writing itself, which strikes me as artistic in the extreme. Because this reviewer is also an excellent writer, I was surprised by his silence on the subject.

Then I received a comment from a male reader on my novel that praised it for its content and message. It was a pleasant surprise to have a male viewpoint on a book that has been categorized (not by me) as a romance that tells me he saw the story pretty much as I do. (The people who call it a romance are women.) I have to confess that I'm gratified and a good deal surprised by the praise some men have given it.

Now I don’t know what to do with that subjective observation. After all, what writer hasn’t been told to consider the audience? Which of us hasn’t been warned to think of the market? An addendum to the previous post, I guess.

What IS an author to do?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

What's an Author to Do?

I'm wishing I'm not harboring a vain hope that an occasional writer reads these posts. I'd like to ask what advice one might give when the options offered by a small publisher are: (1)stick it out, or (2)take the book back--and decide within 72 hours. The contract is now over 2 1/2 years old, and no release date suggested, let alone promised. I understand (all too well) that I blew it when I signed on, but that's water over the dam. Any suggestions now?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Confession of a Revision Addict

Recently I put together yet another packet to send to a publisher, this time in an effort to find a home for a collection of short stories. I've been trying this once or twice a year for perhaps three years now, so to fulfill instructions for supplying a sample, I merely copied the first three stories in the group, printed them, and sent them off in the envelope. I've read and spell-checked until I'm heartily sick of those pieces, even if they are among my first-born, so to speak.

Then I found another possible publisher who requests the whole ms. with the query. This time I began to re-read the whole thing(maybe 67,000 words) just to make sure I hadn't missed some ridiculous syntactic gaffe or confusing transition. And there I was again, back at the stumbling block that made me quit trying to write altogether until we got a computer, namely: the compulsion to revise.

When taking art lessons, I heard my instructors repeatedly warn against "overworking" and urging the students to "know when to stop." What my problem seems to be, at least in part, is that I can't figure out how to do that with words. How do you know when to stop? The first story in the group was my second sale, heavily edited when it was published (not by me), and written over 25 years ago. And there I sat, re-wording, cutting, tweaking. Then I did it again for the second story. Now I'm launched on the rest of them. I have other things to do! Why can't I decide to leave well enough alone? Is it because of some book I'm reading for fun this week? Have I been influenced by the blogs I'm becoming addicted to that are written by professionals who put me to shame? Have I taken a new perspective from which to view the original story? Have my cutting and pasting done it any good at all?

In Snoopy's incomparable word, "Aargh!"

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Perks

Did you ever notice those unwritten rules in most households than confer special privileges on certain poeple? As I picked a chicken carcass to strip it in order to make the final casserole from it, I nibbled on those little bits that really are too small to be of much use in a dish. If you have a whole bird, the carver rarely bothers to extract the delicious little "oysters" from behind the second joint. I didn't even look over my shoulder to see if anyone might catch me at it. It's my perk as the cook.

Whoever goes out to the mailbox (we spent 45 years on a rural route with distances up to 1/4 mile to the box) gets to see who is receiving what and from whom. Often no one is much interested--unless someone is waiting for something desirable, of course--like maybe a personal letter or a reply on the last submission. Of course, most of the time, I hated those as much as bills. Too few were offers to publish. That same energetic person got to decide what was junk too. I still get a charge out of tossing the glossy newsprint flyers offering discounts on pages of stuff I know I'll never buy, or even covet.

Depending on one's place in the family, it may take an act of will to view some of these jobs as privileged. My husband, bless him, doesn't mind carving--anything. He's good with turkey, rib roasts (or he used to be when we could afford to buy them); legs of lamb (see previous parenthesis); even duck. My suspicion is that he really likes getting to choose and sharpen the particular knife (almost never the one I put out) and demonstrate his facility with it. The larger the audience, the better, but he's just as good and careful when it's only the two of us and a flank steak.

When we had a couple of saddle horses, my husband always carried the last buckets of water to the stalls at night. I know (on photographic evidence as well as his bragging) that he viewed that as his special chore because our mare used to spend ten minutes with her head over the half door and her muzzle resting on his shoulder while they whispered sweet nothings to each other every night at bed time.

It's fun to look for the perks, especially because if you don't, you may miss them. Sure, maybe it's a form of "silver lining," but we can all use a bit of that now and then.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Don't Change Your Server!

Can you believe 7 days, average 6 hours per day, to establish correct settings on Outlook Express? We've just survived (barely) this ordeal. I understand very little about the mathematics involved with figuring out the possible number of combinations when dealing with 5 pages that have from 4 to 8 possible choices on each one. I do know it's a lot. It took 7 technicians (in India and the Philippines) to set up our computers.

Okay, so who needs 4 computers? But that's not the point. We have 2 desktops and 2 laptops, one of the latter equipped with Vista. How many more possibilities are now added to settings?

It took 4 days (3-hour sessions twice a day on average) to set up the first desktop. By the time it worked, I was feeling pretty cocky, so I decided all I had to do was to duplicate the settings with a different e-mail address for the second one. Wrong.

Another day to get the second desktop going. Finally--good.

I moved on to my laptop, thinking I'd just duplicate the settings. Wrong again. Another half day. Well, now I'm really getting the hang of this. It should make setting up the second laptop with Vista less of a problem.

Definitely wrong again! 2 full days to discover that a virus protection had to be completely un-installed (not merely disabled) before that mail program would work. After my husband re-installed his protection, we heaved an exhausted sigh, and I returned to my desktop. It had been the first one set up and running.

You guessed it. Seven days into the exercise, and that computer would no longer work.

By this time I've become an expert at changing settings. This upsets the technicians on the phone because now I can make the changes faster than they can tell me what to do. Not to worry. I wouldn't bother the poor girls any more. By now I can do everything except set up and run in Safe Mode to make basic changes to the whole system (I do leave that to the experts). I spend another 2 hours changing Outlook Express settings, and at last -- the promised land of e-mail is mine again!

Now to claim the incentive monetary rewards promised in the promotion that started all this. You'll see more here if they don't come through. Believe me, the time spent doing this was worth a lot more than $225!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Leadership

I yield to no one in my distrust of most "media," and my tendency not to read what passes for news. However, I've just read a brief article by Lee Iacocca on Leadership in a recent AARP bulletin. I'm aware that one must read their material mindful of the filter of their agenda.

However this essay calls for voters to wake up to the reality that whoever ends up in the White House will need the best advisers and assistance he can muster. If they aren't in the day-to-day operations of the government, the proverbial ship of state is surely destined to sink, along with all of us.

His call is for Politics to behave not as usual, but as makes the only good sense: it should be mandatory for candidates to reveal choices for cabinet and others BEFORE the election, so that we can see who will have the best team (I'm including all parties who may be on a ballot).

Hear, hear!

Monday, July 14, 2008

Judging a book by its cover

Don't judge a book by its cover. Why ever not? Most of the time in these days of eye-catching jackets instead of handsome, dignified tooled leather, it's all you have to judge by. Our nearest Barnes and Noble is full of browsers, but every time we go in, I have to wonder whether any of them have to work for a living or take care of their houses and yards. It takes time even just to read the jacket blurbs, and when you have, it's not easy to decide how honest they are. I don't know how often you've been fooled, but I've become suspicious even though it's about the only option a potential buyer has. Of course if you've read more than a single review, you're way ahead of the game.

Publishers and their publicity departments know this for sure. The trouble is, there's another aphorism, "One man's meat...etc." I really would welcome some feedback on this. Here at top right is a cover for the same book pictured below right. It's out of print, and I had to figure out a new cover for its reissue by another small, independent press, etc. Which of the two--top or bottom--would be more likely to make you want to read what's behind the cover?You won't hurt my feelings. Both were my choice. Since one didn't sell many books, I hoped for better from the other. And yes, I have a preference.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Best Part of Writing

I've come to the conclusion that something I remember reading long ago is absolutely right: that to write is one of the best ways to discover what you think. My recent excursion into the world inhabited by columnists and professional essayists has thus far been a double learning experience that has me practically jumping out of my skin with excitement, even glee.

After embarking on the unknown waters of a subject I think I have either some knowledge or an opinion of, I often suddenly realize neither is what I thought when I started to tap the keyboard. Like any other college graduate, or even a lucky high school graduate, I was taught to develop a premise and outline the argument, and arrive at a conclusion. You couldn't take an essay exam without that. Now I've found out how much more revealing (and how much more fun!) it is to begin and let the devil take the hindmost, as my father used to say.

Which reminds me of another gem dropped into one of my lectures in college, to the effect that the really important stuff isn't in the instructor's notes, but in what the lecturer called the obiter dicta. Yes, I know, practically nobody is taught Latin any more, so I'll translate: it's in the parenthetical comments, the throwaway lines that an attentive student picks up. It's those that will matter ten or fifty years later. They're like the discoveries I've been making as I try putting down some point I think I want to present, only to discover either that it's turned into a different point altogether, or that it has a whole dimension that hadn't entered my head until I found the words in front of me on the screen! It's the remarks that aren't in the script and find their way out that say much more than I realized I had in mind. Serendipity for sure.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Reading for pleasure

Whatever happened to "reading for pleasure?" I've just made my way through the Pulitzer Prize winner by Junot Diaz. This isn't the place for a review, though if you want to read one you'll find it soon on Senior Women Web. It's unbelievably grim in spite of the large doses of humor, but it's such black humor! The literary journals seem to be specializing in fiction that is harrowing or horrifying or both.

I remember reading great stories in numerous long-gone slick magazines. They weren't funny--at least most weren't, but they were both serious and entertaining. They often had upbeat endings. Maybe I'm losing my courage and my stomach (the proverbial one, I mean), but I don't want to find the grittiest reality and the worst socio-economic tragedies in every magazine and half the books I pick up in the hopes of a good read. I'm tired of words unprintable except in the most literary or avant guard publications; I'm sick of shock and awe on every page; horror isn't any fun for me and I can't comprehend why it is for practically all the rest of the world under the age of 50! Thank goodness for the wonderful writers of good mysteries!

Please, just tell me a good story?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

If only...

As too many fiction writers know, one of the most frustrating exercises is the search for an agent and/or publisher. Among the occasional rejection notes (in place of the non-response or printed forms), I've received two that said the reader didn't warm to my protagonist. There are two arguments in my favor: first, the whole point of the story is supposed to be how that character changes; second, I deliberately try not to set up my central characters as unflawed, but I attempt to show them as real people.

At last I've read a reviewer's comment that seems to grasp what's needed in a critic, whether one commenting after the book is published or someone who will decide whether it's worthy of publication. Geoffrey Wolff, who is a long-time professional reviewer, is quoted in The NY Times Book Review. He says he regrets that too few fiction writers are willing to write reviews. "A novelist knows how difficult it is to write even a flawed novel, whatever an unflawed novel may be." Some flaws, it seems to me, are evidence of that sought-after characteristic we were taught in school to call "verisimilitude." I consider that a requisite for a novelist. (Apologies to genre writers with other objectives in mind.)

I guess I'd add that it's too bad more agents and editors aren't endowed with the same knowledge, and thus might have the patience to read more than the customary first 50 pages.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Happy Fourth

Do you call it Independence Day or The Fourth of July? Whichever it is, do you use the term because that’s what you’ve heard from the first time you knew which day it is? Or do you choose the name to use based on its significance?
Does the date so vital to Americans and historians make you think first of Old Glory and fireworks and picnics and family reunions? March music and honor guards? Perhaps it resonates with Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day (once known as Armistice Day). Do you hear a distant echo of the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence? Any or all of the above?
Whatever your instant response to a date that’s always capitalized, there isn’t one of us who can be without an emotional reaction to this special holiday. Let go, and give it the thoughts it deserves.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Oops!

I don't read my own stuff often enough! It's Emperor and Cinderella! If anyone noticed, I hymbly apologize. I have no idea how to correct a post that's already up.

A good day!

It's rare to have an opportunity to be read by someone who bothers to think about one's story or book or poem. I've just had my day (maybe my year) made by one such reader. All at once, after years of wondering whether I should find another hobby (so-called because it's so hard to claim legitimacy without noteworthy sales), she made me feel a distinct stiffening of my spine, and thus my ego.

The publisher listed Settling as a romance. Fair enough as far as it goes, but there's a theme, neither of the protagonists is without baggage and flaws. I don't want to preach, but I surely do want to give a reader something to mull over after the final page. This reader managed to spot precisely what I was trying to do. Can any writer ask for more?

Monday, June 23, 2008

If you don't blow your own horn...

The other day I received a note about a contest especially for books published by small independent presses, POD in particular. "Great!" I thought. Maybe it would be worth submitting." Second thoughts have now cropped up as I begin to research Premier Book Awards. The entry fee is steep--so much so that if I were not to win a prize, I'd be sorry to have spent the money. Preditors and Editors decrees one shouldn't pay entry fees, and doesn't list the Premier Book Awards.

However, all contests, including those run by Writers Digest, and others I know of sponsored by literary magazines or publishers, require entry fees. I assumed that's where the prize money comes from. I'd like to hear from any who have entered contests and felt "ripped off."

Promotion has become a kind of manager of my attempts at a writing life these days, and it isn't something at which I'll ever excel, or with which I ever expect to feel comfortable. Still, if there's a way to legitimize my efforts, about the only universally accepted way will be through sales.

So here goes again: I'll have an article on the Senior Women website about once a month from now on. On the home page, click on What's New.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Critic again

Another wonderful book has come my way. It was published in 2002. I can imagine it becoming an English teacher's standby, especially where a school combines the courses termed "humanities." When the Emporer Was Divine by Julie Otsuka. As you can guess from its title, it deals with the internment of Japanese during World War II.

The opening section has about as much emotional impact as I'm usually willing to endure without a struggle. Perhaps the most artful thing is that no one who figures in the story is given a name. They are "the woman, the girl, the boy." The implications of how effectively Otsuka's characters were dehumanized by their experiences is brought home to the reader on every page. Because the style is as simple as a third grade reader, as unembellished as a laundry list, a story that could become maudlin (especially at this distance in time from the events) with a single misstep has the impact of...I can't think of an appropriate metaphor. Perhaps a blow over the head with a slap stick. In fewer than 150 pages of lyrical understatement, the reader is taken to a place most of us would rather not go and made to keep turning the pages anyway. It's a $10 paperback. Look for it.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Critic

Lately it seems to me that I've read more than my share of good things. So many, in fact, that I wonder if trying to be a writer has clouded or in some other way changed my critical capacities. I'd hate to think I've become so woolly-minded that I can't detect those pet peeves of lifelong standing just because I'm a wannabe. No, that's not it. I still yelp aloud for every "laid" that should have been "lay," I still insist there's a difference between convince and persuade...you get the picture. I'm still annoyed by sentimentality and a sucker for sentiment without apologies.

Is there a reader out there who could help with this? What have you read lately that was so affecting (no, I don't mean "effecting") that you really want to tell the author how much you liked it? What has driven you up the wall? It would be fun to see who's reading what and how s/he feels about it.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Why does one blog?

I've been writing these for several months now, and can't help wondering whether anyone is reading them. The Sunday New York Times Magazine for May 25 had a cautionary tale for the feature article, by and about a blogger. This person claims to have revealed too much of herself for the world to see. I find my own motives are quite different from hers.

I want to reveal only enough to make a reader curious about my book(s). The "s" in parentheses is there because I hope to live long enough to see my next book in print. (It's been under contract for over 2 years.)

Settling (see cover illustration on the right) came out originally in 2004. It's a book for adults. That means there's a little bad language; no porn but some real sex; not much violence, but a rape; some tragedy, but with redeeming aftermaths. It's a love story, but it doesn't boast a conventional happy ending, which makes me think it doesn't really qualify as a romance. Besides, I want the reader to consider a few possible questions after finishing the story. For instance: how much should a person sacrifice for love? How much should we value good will? How about the pros and cons of fantasy and dreams? What are the consequences in adulthood of one's childhood influences? Maybe half a dozen other things. Yes, it's supposed to be entertainment, but just maybe it can offer a bit more than that.

Amazon offers it in paper or for your Kindle reader; you can order from the publisher at www.ebooksonthe.net.

If you think a story by this blogger might be of interest, it would be pretty easy to find out!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Recommended reading

An essay by Julia Sneden on the SeniorWomen.com website about what careless attitudes and misunderstanding of how and especially why children learn should be read by every member of every school board. It's a shame that the powers that be in our country seem oblivious to the advances made in psychology and technology when it comes to making our future leaders capable of meeting the challenges ahead. When will government learn to encourage innovation and diversity instead of insisting on consistency and conformity? If only No Child Left Behind had addressed the needs of the children!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Children's Theater

We've just received our third disk of a performance of the children's theater in Falls Village, CT. This is a tiny town in an almost completely rural part of a state so filled with wealth and variety it's a wonder there would be an audience for what they do there. Never mind any preconceptions. This group has done The Wizard of Oz, Cindarella, Annie with the extraordinary dedication not only of a small group of weekending professionals, but also of parents, friends, and performers drawn from the surrounding countryside. Two more productions are scheduled for this summer. Audiences pack the Housatonic Regional High School auditorium. Reviewers show up to put stories about the troop in their papers. City and country folk alike contribute money, time, expertise, and above all, enthusiasm. Here is an example of experiences for children that transcend any video game, compete with any sport, and entice every kind of talent. Believe me, their lives will always be colored by what they've done on and around this stage.

Unless you've been a part of an active amateur theater venture, you won't appreciate a word of this because you won't have a clue about how much it has cost in commitment, time, and money to put on a musical show with a cast of over thirty from about five to eighteen on the stage, and marshal all the crew and staff it takes to put a musical production on the stage.

If you think I'm exaggerating their success, think of the fact that after a single production, interest ran so high that the group has been formally organized as a non-profit, has acquired a building to be its permanent home (and production site after necessary alterations), and is making its name well beyond Connecticut's borders. Talk about "grass roots," this is the personification of real success. Check out their website: http://fvct.org

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

To reread or not to reread? That may be the question

I used to reread The Forsyte Saga about every eight or ten years, and enjoyed it as much every time as I had the first, and with greater appreciation. And then, some years ago, I picked it up again and discovered I had actually had enough of it. Something about the reader was changed, for surely nothing about the book had, and that made me think perhaps such an unwitting alteration is an unrecognized evidence of continuing possibilities. That's a comforting thought as the days ahead begin to look so sparse in comparison with the days behind. Maybe we can grow while growing old, after all. Unless, of course, we're simply regressing, like the poor character described in the riddle of the Sphynx, and by Shakespeare's seven ages of man in As You Like It (of course I had to look it up in Bartlett's to be sure I had the right play!).

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Irresistible comment

Probably the remark below doesn't belong in a blog supposedly directed to those interested in writing. On the other hand, if "the pen is mightier than the sword," how much mightier than the pen is the Internet?

The viciousness of much of this primary campaign publicity continues to boggle my mind. People who swear they won’t vote for anyone but a woman, people who swear they won’t vote for anyone who’s black, and so forth. Threatening the party they’re supposed to be interested in seeing in place with failure because of their bigotry! It’s like a precursor of another international meltdown like the one Hitler was able to foment. How can so many be so blind, and worse, how can so many be so sure they’re righteous? (I use that word because it connotes something more than simple “right.”)

If I can receive a forwarded e-mail whose aim is to terrify every non-Muslim it reaches with selective misinformation, maybe we who have access to the Net need to make some attempt to gainsay these wolves in sheep's clothing!

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Reading for writers

Nothing seems to have been as much value to the aspiring author than reading. Not news, is it? Sometimes the reading inspires better writing or more courageous writing, or maybe it provides useful examples of how and what NOT to write.I just read Alice Hoffman's latest, The Third Angel. Anyone interested in fiction should take a look, unless, of course there seems no need to spur imagination. For a serious writer to find so many ways to engage the unacknowledged fairy tale yen in all of us is one of this writer's greatest talents. She manages to make the fantastic acceptable to the non-fantasy reader, and to make the fringes of actuality fit perfectly well into the truth of her perceptive, sympathetic, honest characterizations. And she can make her reader's eyes fill with tears while doing it. She makes everything she writes about believable. A consummation devoutly to be wished.
Labels: Alice Hoffman, Good reading, reality vs. fantasy, The writing life

Sunday, May 18, 2008

What am I doing this for?

Is there anyone out there trying to be a "writer" who hasn't yet read BIRD BY BIRD? Anne Lamott has become a real guru when it comes to advice on how to get words on paper that someone will want to read. Every chapter has something in it that seems to me to apply to everyone who reads it, and never everything that would apply to everyone. Above all, she makes amusing, if not downright hilarious, the pains a writer must endure to perform the craft well enough to make it art. Inspiring.

But it's also discouraging--at least in this day and time. How often have you gone home from Barnes and Noble with a beautifully produced hard cover novel from the "Bargain Books" in the entry or from the on line catalog? I can't believe that even well-known and well-respected writers like Joanna Trollope or Alice Munro have books languishing out there as though they were beyond ordinary discount pricing! So how does someone with no strings to pull, no influential writer connections, and no thriller ambitions get an agent or publisher to show an interest in something initially guaranteed NOT to make them rich?

In other words, "What am I doing this for?" Well, Ann Lamott has a wonderful short chapter on that, and I commend it to all who are asking the same question.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The Writing Life?

Some days seem as if trying to accomplish anything personally is a kind of moral affront. Natural disaster after natural disaster befall the poorest and most helpless, human error and/or fecklessness and/or amorality and/or greed seem to be taking over the entire planet, even on our comfortable doorsteps. If those of us who would like to express anything on paper or on the Net, can we justify ourselves in the face of the larger picture?

The only thing that might keep us going, I suppose, is the store of works going back to the dawn of the written word on which we depend to show us a way to some kind of understanding. We'll never comprehend the pattern of an existence that goes from quarks to universes, but there is some kind of imperative to look around our little corner and both appreciate and interpret it for our neighbors (who should include everyone out there, near and far). Socrates in the 3rd century BC told us that the unexamined life is not worth living. Maybe that's enough.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Who Are We?

I recently had a brief conversation with a reader of these posts on the subject of one my earliest ones about one's identity as writer. In that one I was speaking of labels and whether I could qualify as a North Carolina writer. This person spoke of his youth and his very widely-traveled life, and I thought of the common supposition that if you have been, for whatever reason, confined to the same small locale most of your life, if you haven't seen a lot of places and things and people, you probably are hampered by a view as circumscribed as your geographical setting. But
think of the artists from Sophocles to Emily Dickinson, from Thoreau to Proust. If writers can effectively show us what we can't know first-hand, they're doing their job.

Once I gave a talk on fiction and quoted Rita Dove: Literature gives one a chance to enter into another's world, to understand it intimately, and not to be afraid...

It seems to me that writers must not be afraid either. To take others to new places and ideas is what writers are for! So who cares about the labels that might get pasted on us. If we can show a reader what s/he needs to widen the world, that's what proves we're really writers, and perhaps especially if we haven't seen all of it for ourselves.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

What price?

We watched the Derby yesterday with friends. Our hostess is the daughter of race horse insurance brokers from Kentucky. She's devoted to racing. My husband and I, on the other hand, are more devoted to horses. In our little pool, my husband drew Big Brown. I very nearly wept when that gallant mare went down after passing the tape! We once owned a thorougbred who had been off the track for a long time and was a perfect family horse. His poor legs were symmetrically scarred the length of the cannon bones on all sides from "pin firing." Like the "Regap"greyhounds, these creatures bear witness to nothing so much as human focus on a bottom line regardless of the cost. The horses and dogs are perfectly trained, well-mannered, and therefore make perfect pets--if they survive.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Laughing

After a lovely "tea" fund raiser for our local library featuring Ann B. Ross, we're reminded once again about how bereft the world would be without laughter. There are plenty of people who believe animals differ from us in that they have no sense of humor. Those are the people who think there aren't any dogs in heaven, I guess. Either way, it's a good thing there are Ann B. Rosses, Mark Twains, T. H. Whites, among a host of others to keep us laughing. I hope it proves to be enough, at the rate politics and global warming are going!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

What's in the background

I got to thinking about the stories I grew up with, and why they were the ones we had read to us. (I have no siblings, but a younger cousin and I were with our grandmother almost daily until we went to school.) In our case, we were lucky to be with a woman whose erudition was amazing, considering that she was a small child during the Civil War, and must have had precious little formal education in Tennessee. But the mere fact that she was from Tennessee (as were our fathers) made an indelible impression.
I wonder whether, growing up in Manhattan as we did, we would ever have known B'rer Rabbit and B'rer Fox if it hadn't been for Grandmother. Similarly, would we have had Kenneth Graham from whom to learn mythology long before someone in a classroom put those stories before us in a context that might have robbed them of their drama?
It would be interesting to find out from other writers what unintended influences may (or may not) show up in their work.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Good reading

We're fortunate that the Internet provides so many nuggets. If we spend a few minutes a day, we find our panning will yield gold. I found today's on the Persimmon Tree site. Even if you're a reader who's under 40, try it out.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The older I get...

...the less I know. Well, this is certainly not a new notion. The trouble is, it's like most cliches because it's too true to ignore or sneer at. There's a lot that's a question of starting too late to get the proper instruction, like all the hi-tech computer stuff, and there's the problem with what we used to call the generation gap, which probably just boils down to not being up on current slang. But the things that matter the most seldom come into the conversation, except in ways that remind me of the snags one had better be careful of when canoeing on a scenic river. If you hit one, the results can be quenching. What DO you say when writing a sympathy note? How do express your admiration for the kind of literature that actually makes your throat swell or makes you burst out laughing? I don't even know what a reviewer means who carps about a short story, saying it's been "workshopped to death." What on earth does that mean? Do you dare to express an opinion during a tirade from an acquaintance on religion, politics, or "kids today?"

An on-line acquaintance recently said her subject is aging. I retorted that mine isn't. Now I think I misspoke. It's getting to seem more and more that that's just what my subject is. I'm not satisfied with the wimpy, sentimental, over-explained "women's" books that cram the shelves these days. I resent being talked down to on paper. At the same time, I don't want to be subjected to the ax-grinding self-absorption of so many young writers. I love suspense, but eschew horror (too cowardly, I guess--or I have too much imagination). Even while I seek entertainment, I'm looking for something at least slightly thought-provoking. Furthermore, I know for a fact, my generation is growing daily in numbers, and when it comes to books and fiction in particular, publishers seem to be oblivious. So, I guess "aging" is my area of interest, after all.

But I'd like to shout out loud about the young writers who seem to me to be already wiser than I'll ever get, and whose artistry is astonishing: Sara Gruen, Khaled Hosseini, Laura Hillenbrand ... well you get the idea. What worries me is that these are the ones who've become known. How many more are out there that don't get promoted and/or recognized that we don't read because we don't know about them? How do we find the agents and publishers who will seek them out so we can read them?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hurry up and wait

I see now (you can tell I'm a slow study) that about 50% of the angst of trying to get read is learning how to wait. Wait for the right moment to make up your mind that you've found all the bugs and the piece is ready; wait to find someone who might not savage it or go to sleep if you let them read it; wait to find out if your query has struck a chord; wait to see the result if you've sold it; wait to see whether anyone wants to read it after all; and wait to find out how readers like or hate it.
This is a lesson best learned while in one's first two decades of life. For me, it's proving to be a special kind of torture as I look forward to beginning the eighth. And that leads to a comment on the second lesson, which is that no one but the writer gives a tinker's dam about any of that. Call me a cynic if you like, but to expect anything other than the bottom line to matter to those a writer has to depend on is sheer futility. It makes me yearn for the good old days, when a Wallace Stegner could actually pay the rent by submitting to The Atlantic.
Since misery is so fond of company, I keep hoping someone else in my shoes might respond to some of these comments, just to prove that networking (a) exists, and (b) does work.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Who are you?

I've been thinking about the question of who's a North Carolina writer. This is a matter of interest to me because I have to consider that I am one. I have lived here for more than ten years. I'm here for the duration, whatever that may turn out to be. If I'm to be considered from anywhere, it's here.
My problem is that when I write, I think like most purveyors of fiction and many essayists and poets, I call on my past. That wasn't here, except in a very distant sense: my paternal great, great, great grandfather emigrated from Virginia to Vance County. Needless to say, I never knew him, not even after he proceeded to west Tennessee. I spent more than half my life in Fairfield County, Connecticut. My earliest years were spent on a single street on the lower east side of Manhattan, with sojourns to summer camps in Vermont and to my maternal grandfather's farm in central Ohio. I attended college in Minnesota.
So, how can I be a North Carolina writer? This is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Plea to Readers

Someone who read my last post was kind enough to respond with an offer of help. More encouraging than I can say. What's most encouraging is the sense that there's another mind out there that can respond to this one (mine), and doubtless to a great many others. Okay, that leads a writer to the conclusion that whatever we come up with that we feel is worthy of sharing could actually find sympathetic readers. If that's the case, what's the problem with finding help for our projects? Agents, after all, don't work for nothing, and we who need support and expertise to find publishers are happy to pay. If we knew how to do what the agents do, we wouldn't have to try to hire them.I'm not a statistician, but I can see what's happening around me. Older people are a rapidly growing segment of the population. Most older people have a marginal interest in horror, blood and gore all over the floor, soft porn, and dungeons and dragons. More like good sci fi with interesing characters to engage in the fantasy. Large numbers are fans of romance, thrillers, and mysteries. Most readers in the 65+ age range appreciate stories that resonate with their own experiences, their own memories of the way it was, remind them of what they admire and revere and hope for (still. They're readers of so-called "mainstream" and literary fiction. (I recognize that non-fiction is the way to fortune, but fiction has a deserved place in our lives. But that's another subject for another day.) With what they do know, why don't agents have the power to prove this to the publishers and take advantage of writing that might not make billions, but would be certain to produce good profits? If the mega corporations that control the big publishers are too greedy to care, where are the indendents? I gather they're feeling hamstrung by the inability to pay what good publicity costs, and therefore can't see their way to try anything without shock value to turn a quick buck. It's no accident the the term "midlist" has become an achaic term.Where am I going with this? I want to make a plea to readers who find one of those gems of fine writing, careful thinking, and artistry, probably by accident or through acquaintance with the author, to talk it up! Word of mouth might be the only way the author and publisher can make back the cost of production--never mind the time the author spent in creation! Don't just enjoy a good book and pass it on to the library or put it on your shelf. Tell a friend, and don't lend it to that friend. If books aren't bought, no one gains anything at all except from some righteous sense of work well done.
READ A GOOD BOOK LATELY? GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN...
Labels: Talk it up