Old Moon

Friday, April 23, 2010


You've read and heard the aphorism: those who can do, and those who can't teach. I wonder if it applies equally well to reviewers. Movies, music, painting, books, and a raft of other artistic endeavors are regularly subjected to published opinions. I should know something about that, since I write monthly book reviews for an online magazine.

I try not to forget the first command (written large on our blackboard in the ninth grade) from my high school English teacher:
All criticism should be in plus values. It occurs to me all these years later that that was a remarkable introduction. Its implications weren't lost on us, and they continue to echo to this day.

Have you ever been in a writer's critique group? Do you have trouble deciding what to say about an offering for the current meeting? As comments are made, are they useful? Do they inspire a rewrite? Do they lead to new approaches? Do they make you wish you had stayed in bed?

Admittedly, critique and criticism are not the same breed of cat, though certainly they are related. Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of moving many hundreds of miles from my home has been the absence of opportunities to receive and discipline myself to hand out "constructive" criticism among fellow writers. Writing with a hope of publication becomes kind of like trying to walk without staggering on a strange road after dark. Just remember you can't trust your best friend to show you the way unless they have a flashlight. You really need someone who already knows where the potholes are.

If you are attempting any kind of artistic production, seek out those who may be willing at the very least to make comments that begin with discussing what your story or sculpture or song is before they try to tell you what it isn't, where its problems may be. Maybe equally important (an idea my editor has suggested to me), give yourself the same courtesy.

Until I achieve a critical success with a "traditional" publisher, ignore this whole blog. Don't listen to me, for the reason quoted in the first line.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


If someone who aims to be a "writer" can find enough models, I keep thinking she can learn enough to succeed at it. Today I read an essay by Liz Flaherty that combined the offer of that hope with the usual sense that I could never do that. So now it occurs to me that maybe we should be careful not so much what we read and wish for, but how we read it.

It's so hard not to let the admiration overwhelm the determination to learn how to do what Liz has done. This comment doesn't apply to fiction for the simple reason that (at least in my case) we tend to be so much better at writing one kind or style of story than others. I couldn't craft a good who-dunnit for all the tea in China. Nonfiction is so much more elastic, and so much more self revelatory. That's where we ought to be able to find opportunities to emulate, to steal ideas and approaches and adapt them, and even to learn to add humor.

Liz Flaherty is a romance writer. She is also so talented an essayist it makes me wonder how she decides where to put her energies. And there's another word of real significance: energy. As time rushes by, no one gets more of it. Any secrets on how to preserve and enhance the drive and strength to keep at what we love should be shared! (I don't include the usual health article instructions.) Whatever spiritual and/or emotional spurs could be shared, couldn't they?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Spring Mourning

At the risk of sentimentality, triteness, and self-absorption, I guess I'll throw this comment out to those to whom it might be relevant. In the incredible annual burst of renewal -- blossoms, birdsong, the occasional thunder storm, I feel almost as ambivalent as I ordinarily do in autumn. It hit me as I began to trade woolens for cottons in my closet. It seemed to me that almost every item I moved into the garment bag stirred recollections I don't need right now. So did the ones I took out. Memories of an event I we attended while wearing it, or the day the absent one picked it out when we were shopping together, or that he gave it to me.

I had a hard time with removing his ingenious raccoon deterrent (an electric fence transformer wired to the iron hangers for our bird feeders, deck railing covered with unsightly aluminum flashing) in the hope that I can get the deck reconditioned this summer. Every room in this house bears his signature. He hung nearly all the pictures, all the curtain rods, constructed shelves, planted half the shrubs and all the roses. He took care of fertilizing the lawn and cleaning the goldfish pool, wired for hi-fi, helped choose all the furnishings we didn't inherit. Stifling my extreme reluctance a few months ago, I managed to make a couple of necessary alterations both indoors and out.

I got my comeuppance pretty fast from the raccoons. It took them about a week to discover they could raid at will. I had a hard time chasing two of them off at 9:30 at night. Now I have to take the hanging feeders in at night, and forget about filling the big one on a post because the beasts have figured out how to get seed out without putting weight on the perches and closing the openings. Three pounds gone in a single night. They drained the hummingbird feeder too.

It crossed my mind that maybe the fact that we neither want to forget nor can, could be made more tolerable if we could make really drastic changes. For instance, if we could afford to, exchange all the familiar and loved things around us with all new from Pottery Barn or Ikea. Put all the family photos that aren't already in them into albums, maybe even move. Let the happy memories sympathy notes remind us to to lean on come so they can't drown us. I know a few who have done that, but I don't know if it helped.