Old Moon

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Pleasant Surprise

One should revisit places that have published one's work. I just went to Lowestoft Chronicle where a poem was published early in the year. There is a notice that the poem is in the print anthology they put out each year, and that was chosen as "Best of the Net Anthology" by Sundress Press (if I have read the news note correctly).  Made my day!

Monday, December 19, 2011


Like many "seniors" I find myself rereading, or reading for the first time, old books. The artistry of what is mostly in the past can cause real emotional quakes in my now admittedly somewhat unsound foundations. I recently commented on what appears to be the fashion for showing readers the seamy, unattractive, amoral, callous sides of life. The more I see of this, and the more I turn to older fashions in fiction, the more I think the new (if not young) writers should have some intestinal fortitude--enough to dare to transport their readers. Or is something we were brought up to admire now considered unworthy? Are tenderness, a response to tragedy, an appreciation of poetic irony, a real sense of joy no longer admissible in
intellectual society?

Come on, all you writers! /show us Life; make  us weep and laugh out loud. Teach us empathy! HAVE SOME GUTS!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Trying Not to Be a Cynic (Honestly!)

Thanks to the Internet, almost every day I find some evidence of how writers continue to bud and often blossom in an education landscape that seems to be less and less fertile every year. It isn't just the attachments to emails proving how much more a fifth grader knew in 1890 than a college graduate does today, though they are frightening. Of course, with the body of knowledge growing exponentially month by month (where once it grew year by year), I do understand part of the problem. As a one-time English teacher, I've had to learn not to get hysterical over the incredible sloppiness of diction, syntax, and punctuation even in respected places where someone should know better (i.e. "diffuse" on MSN to describe what was being done with unexploded ordnance found on the bottom of the Rhine).

Reading contemporary poetry so often humbles and delights simultaneously. I bought a subscription to Poetry. The 12th issue has just arrived. I find that as I look at most issues, probably 80% of the poems, I'm as clueless as if they had been written in Sanskrit.

It's embarrassing. I actually buy books of poetry that mean something even on the first reading; many are by prize-winning poets; all are younger than I; all articulate and describe ideas and things in ways that provide a reader with something valuable and pleasurable to add to life's lessons.

That set me wondering about the impulse to produce a poem that is so utterly opaque as so many in the most prestigious journals. It also made me wonder how a poet manages to learn what it takes to accomplish a feat like that. Furthermore, how (if as such) poetry is taught today, especially at the secondary level. Finally, I'm speechless with admiration for the editors who can evaluate such work.

Along came a kind of corollary question: could it be that there is a fraudulent wing of the little magazine establishment to go along with the gradually emerging realization that so much  contemporary "art" has become exercises in self-promotion and behind-the-hand titters to make big money? Of course, there's no big money in poetry, but a big enough ego is doubtless happy with admiration coming from the right quarters.

The idea that an artist may have to educate his audience isn't new to me. To an extent, I agree with it. However, it seems to be a scam to appeal either to an audience too foolish to know it's being "had," or to one that has to be part of some kind of exclusive society of those who are in on the secret.

Maybe some reader of this complaint will help to explain this to me.

Finally, to go back to the first sentence, I get my consolation from the really impressive (accessible) poems that so many younger and just plain young poets are producing. Not only do they give pleasure and insight to a reader, they provide the hope that all is not lost when it comes to education and the arts in America.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Feast or Famine

It occurs to me that so many of my blogs include complaints. Apologies. Yet I notice that so often I'm either feeling as blank as an empty bowl or else my brain is swarming with so many notions I can't start fast enough to make notes so I won't forget them in the dry times.

A friend recently commented to me that life is always cyclic. He wasn't speaking only of seasons, but of broader repetitions.  Not a new idea, I know, but one about which I hadn't thought in a long time. My suggestion to anyone who might be looking for a spur to invention would be to consider that apparent fact of life.

Remember the prehistoric ages running from flood through gradual drying out, from tropical to ice and back; and seasons, naturally; el nino and la nina years; that odd repeat of perception of spans of time--from childhood when a year is a long time to maturity when ten years isn't much, to old age when a year is a long time again; from one generation to the next and the next; from fashion of one sort or another to a repetition or at least a reference recurring years afterward...you could go on at length. For me, each possibility of comment as one circumstance leads to another to be eventually repeated (in one form or another) suggests so much...I'd like to live long enough to develop every example that springs to mind.

From nothing or a barren planet to whatever will make that planet barren again, it looks as if there might be something finite in the universe, after all. In between, there's only a temporary famine of ideas that will burgeon into a feast again--if we can make ourselves wait patiently enough.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Popularity vs. Excellence

I just read an incredible headline: "Is ______ more popular than Jesus?" Popular?! It blows what little mind remaining to me to consider where our so-called civilization would be if popularity were the deciding factor in religion, governance, intellectual development, any science, or any art.

What does popularity have to do with anything?

In an election year in a democracy, it's perhaps the biggest problem the country has to face. If only voters could be dependably influenced by factors other than popularity!

I wonder if the headline writer was kidding.

Saturday, October 29, 2011


Everybody remembers the days of having a paper due. How do you deal with that task now? Do you set out to produce an essay, a story, a poem on a topic, a person, an experience that seems to ask to be put on paper? Do you ever consider accepting an assignment from out of left field, so to speak? No problem when it has suggested itself; when someone else pushes it on you, that's a different kettle of fish!

I've just taken on something like that. It's not my cup of tea in general, and many of the specifics being included in the proposal would never have entered my head. Yes, I've always wished I could address a writing problem like the one being proposed, and I've always felt there was no way I might achieve an acceptable result. It's turning out to be a challenge (and I do mean challenge) to try to write something that would be right up someone else's alley. I can't resist trying, even against my more realistic instincts.

With an eye to the comfortable closing in of winter, I'm trying to get some kind of start into a tale that could possibly take off, and if not run with me, at least begin to point a direction. Maybe I should have entitled this post "No Fool Like an Old Fool."

Monday, October 17, 2011

None the Wiser

Nothing to say on the writing front today, but maybe I should follow up on that last post. Six days and three ladies later, I doubt there's a taker in the lot. The principle viewer of our superior community, after finding minor faults with some things that can't be changed (like dining room hours) and some that can (like artificial leaves as part of the mantel decoration) seemed unlikely to be content in any residence that doesn't have unlimited variations in routine and policies. In other words, no place I know of. Then just before departure she surprised me by saying she was favorably impressed, and will consider us--in a few years. After almost a week of lodging and a meal a day (if she and her friends were here to partake), I was not pleased.  Imagine how our Marketing Director feels. A while back, we had a couple who actually spent two full weeks here, demanding a lot of special attention and information, and not just one meal a day, only to depart after letting everyone know that they intended to go to Florida--from day one. They were just "checking" other possibilities. In a store that would amount to shoplifting, wouldn't it?

The older I get, the more amazed I am at what I grew up calling chutzpah. (Sometimes Yiddish has no English equivalent.) It's the kind of nerve that an observer knows immediately is fully understood by the perpetrator as dishonest at worst, and doubtful ethically at best.

So now we go back to the ordinary business of preparing for a winter that seems likely never to materialize. Yes, cool nights, but daytimes at temperatures associated with June or July. If I ever get fall pansies to put in, I don't know if I'll be fighting the dratted hose every other day to keep them watered so they'll still be here in December! Climate change? After fewer than fifteen years here, I don't know yet.

So the next chore is to email my publisher to get at least a statement on royalties (?) I'm scared I've heard nothing because there aren't any to report.

It's another perfect autumn day, though with high cloud beginning to show. Carpe diem is the order of the day--as it's apt to be when you're my age!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Perennial Complaint

Waiting to be picked up for an hour-plus drive to the airport to meet a prospective resident of the community where I live. I don't have to drive,  just be available as a kind of welcoming one-man (woman) committee. The whole enterprise will take between four and five hours if there's no flight delay. The difficulty is that I can't get those hours back.

Is there a non-professional (definition of one who writes without getting paid for it) out there who doesn't feel bothered by these thefts of precious hours? The individual mentioned in my last blog has bullied me into admitting that hours I could be writing but am not, verge on the sinful. Even if he's wrong, that idea is gaining more and more traction in my head along with predictable intimations of mortality (thank you,  Mr. Wordsworth).

I seem often to be asking my readers, if any, for advice. This is another of those times. Wednesday I incurred the barely concealed anger of the president of our residents' association when I refused to undertake a task I've done before. The question is, should I apologize? I've served on that board as an officer, and twice as a representative, and on several committees, some of which entailed months of work (think revision of By-Laws as one example).

I'm actually saying out loud (as my excuse for the things I no longer am doing), "I'm a writer, and I don't have the time." What if I'm deluding myself? Maybe that doesn't make any difference. I'm a writer anyway!

Friday, September 16, 2011

A Blast from the Past

I find myself with a mentor. Suddenly an old schoolmate (from the graduating class behind mine in high school) phoned. I remembered his name, but not another thing about him. He was looking for some old yearbooks for a book he's writing. I had some of them. As they say, One thing led to another, and I found myself in long, intense, fascinating conversation with a man who is unable to talk without mentioning several famous (not just well-known) show business names in every sentence. This goes with the territory because he's the son of a famous actress and writer and stepson of a Broadway producer everyone has heard of.

Because he's working on a memoir, he asked me what I knew about a number of people from our school, many of whom I lost track of the minute I graduated, some of whom are no longer alive, and some of whom I happened to know about. In the latter group is a woman older than I whose life has repeatedly intersected with mine. She has led a remarkable life as basically a servant of humane causes--as a teacher. First in California, then in Nigeria, and finally in China. Her parents and mine were close friends. When I answered his question about her, I told him what I know, and he immediately said, "She became a saint. You have to write a poem about her."

After the phone call, I decided in an offhand, this-will-come-to nothing way, to try. I sent him the result. [He mistrusts the Internet, is a bit of a conspiracy nut, and has almost total recall. Hence all communication is via phone or snail  mail.] He called me the night he got the poem to demand I send him a signed copy.

He calls two or three times a week with advice, lists of required reading, and guidelines about what to do about writing. (He's reading Peripheral Vision now.) He insists on discussing the novel I'm trying so hard to find some entree for into the traditional publishing world. His behavior is like that of someone who has made me a protegee. It's a stimulating experience, and sends me to bed after a couple of hours (sic.) on the phone so wired I can hardly wait for another day to get started working in the light of the previous evening's talk.

We are diametric opposites politically (beginning with the fact that I'm not at all political and he is). Our artistic tastes are apparently not similar except in a few cases, but this man is unalterably opinionated, so I listen and glean. The point to all this is that I've discovered--or rediscovered--how stimulating it can be to have reaction to your work, but also how invigorating to have someone determined to direct you whose opinion you respect. I don't have to agree with everything he says, and the freedom to choose is liberating beyond anything I've experienced since graduate school days.

Would you believe I'm looking forward to the closing-in sense winter brings?

Friday, September 2, 2011

A Light at the End of the Tunnel?

I've been reading a Pulitzer Prize winner. Without Mr. P's name on the cover, I'd have stopped after 30 pages. I persevered, and have come almost to the end. The characters that in the beginning made me grind my teeth have matured or died. From the beginning, the writing was vivid, original, attractive, but the situations and people in them made me want to drop them as quickly as I could. Even now, with only a few pages to go, and filled as I am with admiration for the creativity evident in A Visit from the Goon Squad, I'm shaken.

I'm not a prude, and the Anglo Saxon epithets were realistic, suited to the mouths uttering them. I simply wondered why I should care about people who were not only crude (though sometimes sensitive), but self-absorbed and amoral. Their world seemed to offer nothing on its surface to suggest they might need to become observant, other-directed, or altruistic, but their lack of imagination on their own behalf astonished me as the material that had won such a prestigious prize. I think that was the point, and satire was evident, but I felt cheated by seeing nothing else for so long.

It got me thinking about fashion. We all know that it comes and goes. We all know it applies to a lot more in our lives than clothes. It appears to be omnipresent in either the persons or the perceived rankings of judges--of all the arts. Where (outside of that enclave known as "Inspirational") are critics who are willing to look to the effects of their judgments on viewers and readers? What has happened to contemporary art? Why is the public so ready to immerse itself (if I may refer to it as a monolith for the sake of this argument) in the down sides of life? Happiness is so often as easy as understanding Rabbi Schachtel's aphorism: Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.

It's clear that nothing is quite that simple, but it's also clear that too many young people, especially those who have almost everything they could ever want, are the most dissatisfied and depressed and at a loss. Even today there are plenty of anecdotes about triumph over adversity, and too few of humility and gratitude. It's disheartening to see how much adult literature is devoted not just to showing the abstracted, drugged gyrations of musicians and those who look to the noise in their headphones to define themselves, but also to those who glamorize mindless sex as being as uncomplicated as the next drink at a bar, who give not a thought to how their actions may cause others to suffer, or even to the harm they do to themselves.

These days, you almost have to venture backwards in time to find pictures of life redeemed in spite of or because of depravity, dishonesty, error. The ancient Greeks, Shakespeare, Hardy, Austen, even Sinclair Lewis or Harper Lee...make your own list. Writing and painting and music hardly dare to be beautiful these days except for some poets. The cachet is in being gritty, hip, up on the latest fashionable illegality.

Being human should not be made to appear like a sentence to misery to be lifted only by discouraged compromise.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Imp on My Shoulder

I knew there was a disadvantage to beginning to write a blog, but when I started I wasn't sure which of several possibilities it would turn out to be. At the moment, uppermost is the requirement of producing posts on a regular basis. Along with my disaffection with volunteerism, I'm getting to a place where I don't want to look at the date on the last post!

Didn't we tell each other when we moved to a "retirement community" that one of its appeals was the first word in that phrase? It didn't take a month to show us the naivete of such a notion. Things are getting a bit desperate around here nowadays because people who came when we did are 15 years older, dozens have passed to their reward, and the newcomers (too few and far between owing to the housing market crash--most people sell a house to pay the entry fee) tend to be already relying on walkers, suffering from macular degeneration, or too deaf to converse. All this makes them unlikely prospects for committees, offices in the association, or even decent bridge.

I passed my 80th a while back. I don't want to do this any more. Most of the people I know well don't either. The Decorating Committee petered out a couple of years ago. Trying to persuade somebody to take an office on the Residents Association Board is getting to a place where it involves bribery, extortion, or blackmail. I've already refused to be on the nominating committee again.

Shouldn't I be spending my time and available energy on writing -- as opposed to blogging? Furthermore, I can't help thinking I have a right to claim these September Days for myself. But there's always an voice whispering in my ear that of course I can -- serve on this or that deserving committee, polish the brass candlesticks, weed the flowers, and give this spot an occasional word or two in case anyone might be reading it. On the other hand, I'm still lucky enough to be healthy if not hearty, and possessed of my faculties.

So now the guilt rises up again. These moans aren't worth bothering with. Well, maybe next week when I finish helping with rewriting the handbook, have the third meeting on revising the scholarship application forms, and get the next issue of the newsletter out (thank goodness, it's only 2 a year I have to deal with), I can make some sage or funny comment about what I'd rather be doing--and it isn't fishing!

Sunday, July 31, 2011


Perhaps not all, but many things do indeed come to him who waits (or her, as the case may be). Peripheral Vision is here, in print, ready to hand at last. Here's a blurb that didn't make it to the back cover.

The intricacies of human relationships is the primary theme in Joan Cannon’s  fine collection of short fiction.  If you're looking for a flashy stream of action, look elsewhere, but if you prefer incisive characterizations, astute observations and sly humor,  give Peripheral Vision a try. Joan Cannon can take a microcosm of life and show it’s enduring effects. Translating the core of human emotions is never easy, but her prose, reminiscent of Louis Auchincloss, accomplishes that task with a few deft strokes. 
         In “A Home for Crusoe,” an elegant elderly woman who sells Crusoe, her beloved old car, to a parking garage attendant, imagines it taking the young man’s family on beach excursions and country picnics. Instead, it is reborn as a winner of stock car races.
         At Christmas time an immigrant tailor loses his shop in a fire, but everything, he says, has “Complete Coverage.” Everything, the reader realizes, but the amazing gift for his granddaughter that he had worked on all year.
         In one story a character has “hair as black and shiny as Mary Jane shoes.” In another, “his voice has a zing to it like a cicada in August,” and in a third, a dying man’s “IV bags dangled like tired party balloons.” In the final story, The Bear, a son visits the family’s wilderness camp the year after his mother’s death. He and his grieving father sit on the porch ”to watch the afterglow through the hemlocks. The chairs creaked softly as they rocked. They listened to the vesper songs of veeries and hermit thrushes and the towhee’s  sharp ‘chink’ until full dark. By the time a whippoorwill began its insistent calling, the mosquitoes drove them inside.... “
         Writing doesn’t get much better than that.
Joyce C. Ware

 I confess the author is a friend, but she's also a well credentialed writer herself. 

Monday, July 18, 2011

Poetry vs. Prose, or Poetry & Prose?

I keep up with the blog,  How a Poem Happens. The  questions after each example are great for a tyro like me because without dissecting the poem, they stimulate ideas about how to make a poem happen. Writing poetry is for me not really like writing anything else for a couple of reasons, the first of which is that I've found a poem is in some way organic, as opposed to the manufactured quality of good prose. It really is like a happening, if the result ends up seeming satisfactory.

A second reason is that the impetus for a poem comes from a layer somewhere probably on the right side of the brain instead of the rational left. That's definitely not an original idea--just a statement of how it is. A poem does, at some point in its development, require plenty of input from that same left side, though, if it is to grow into even a free form that entitles it to be more than a kind of automatic writing.

I do find myself resentful, though, when I read much of today's academically admired poems that seem to be created for the express purpose of offering insoluble puzzles to its readers, as if one must be part of some elect aristocracy of art to decipher them.

The attraction of these contrasts is maybe the best thing about poetry.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

From Two Thousand to Twelve Thousand Words

That new photo is of the cover of a collection of short stories to be in print shortly. Peripheral Vision. Here's another case when I wonder what genre they fit into. Written over a period of over 25 years, they range from pretty simple stuff an insurance company used in its publication for clients to a long story serialized by one of the oldest publications in the US, to some other pieces that appeared in an occasional literary journal, plus the ones I've never found another home for until now.

Maybe they're "summer reading" or maybe not, but there's a variety of serious and some not-so-serious. If I had a million, I'd have liked to have them illustrated. Remember when even grown-up books had pictures? I wish they still did!

You might notice I've removed the picture of the title page for the Bookstogonow.com story. That's because it's been spoken for to be in a print anthology. I think it's still on their website, but I couldn't use it in the collection March Street Press is about to release.

The books (softcover) will be $15 plus shipping and available from the press at 3413 Wilshire, Greensboro, NC 27408. March Street Press has a website at http://www.marchstreetpress.com. The big retailers will be able to order them too--Amazon, B & N, and your favorite indie book store. Stay tuned...

Saturday, July 2, 2011


If you're like me, you quail when asked to tell what genre you're producing. The common understanding of that term won't fit my fiction. I have recently (within the past four years, say) rediscovered nonfiction, and even more recently (within the past two years) reconnected with poetry--but that's about as far as I can push classification.

Settling isn't romance, but it is a love story. Maiden Run isn't even that easy to classify, unless you could call it a sort of love story about one family's home with subplots about the lives of the siblings who must give it up. An editor whose judgment I trust calls my third novel "literary." I suspect the first two might fit that description as well. However, I  submitted an essay to a magazine seeking literary essays whose subject was an ideal fit. They rejected it because they said they were seeking "more literary" work. I guess that's an example of the usual myopia of an author.

I have a much admired friend who has published a large handful of romances in different subgenres. They are very good indeed, and each fits perfectly into the formulas that were required in the seventies when she wrote them. I was unable to bend my imagination to the plots and requirements of that kind of writing, while she relished the challenge as of a puzzle. I envy those who can both spot the necessary ingredients and how to present them within standard limits, and then craft fiction to fit. My characters are too apt to take hold and run outside any boundaries I may have decided on ahead of time.

Memoir seems to be on the upswing in popularity these days. Those I've read most recently all have some very much out-of-the-ordinary jumping-off point. One is about the peculiar (to an American readership) experiences of a woman who spent most of her life with a not too successful farmer in Africa while the upheavals of the fifties and onward were overtaking them. Another is about a very literate man who found himself not only imprisoned for a white collar crime, but incarcerated in the last remaining leprosarium in the US. Exotic places or circumstances might be enough to sell a memoir without too much trouble.  It's the same appeal fiction has:  the chance to experience something vicariously. It's a temptation to write a novel that pretends to be a memoir (not a new idea, heaven knows), and almost certainly, since it wouldn't be labeled as a memoir, you'd be right back where you started--that is, faced with the bare fact of your competence as a story-teller.

My main problem is how to approach an agent or publisher without recourse to classification--not because I'm unwilling, but because I don't know where my work belongs. Like most writers of fiction, I rely to a great extent on my own experience, but for a memoir, I have no eye-catching singular events to attract a reader. On the other hand, think of the poetry of a recluse like Emily Dickinson and the ruminations of an ordinary man like Thoreau.

I know you have to have a hook; I know you're supposed to be able to make "an elevator pitch;" I know you have to stand out from the hundreds doing the same thing. But even if you can follow those dicta, you have to find a way to fit into a slot before you can get anyone even to consider what you can do. You can't afford to pretend to be something you're not. This, I find frustrating.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One, Two, Three...?

Did you ever notice the tendency of events to happen in clusters? You know the old saw about bad things happening in threes...and you get a new car, and suddenly you see a dozen of the same model on the road in the next three days...you get a wedding announcement, and then at least one more before you have a chance to respond to the first one, and we won't mention how one pregnancy seems to lead to another...

Today was one of those days. A couple of months ago, I was asked to do a written interview to be posted on a blog on June 28. I was flattered and gratified, and I did. It was posted, as promised, today. Here's the link: http://wwwthouhtfulreflections.blogspot.com/2011/06/poet-novelists-and-short-story-author.html. It's an interesting place to read about interesting people.

A week or so ago, someone else asked if I'd write a blog post for her to use on one of her websites. She's been a good friend for several years now, and again, I was flattered to be asked, and so I did it. It, too, was posted today. So here's another link: www.profilesandpedigrees.blogspot.com.

Now, if I can just get a release date for Peripheral Vision, maybe these will generate some interest in it?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

What's a Writer to Do?

It seems presumptuous and even foolish to be writing a blog about writing. No one who would bother to read it would have missed the mantras that are supposed to help us "get published." You know: write every day, submit, enter contests, write a blog, network, don't give up, write what you know, enter contests, don't just write what you know, you always need a "hook," enter contests...on and on. If those instructions were all it takes to see your work (and I do mean "work") in print, there would be an even bigger glut of e-books and print books and screen plays and poetry than there is now.

Some day there's going to be somebody who will honestly want to know why you write. Maybe it's worth considering what your answer will be--worth thinking seriously about it. My guess is that a survey would reveal a relatively small number of answers.

Then there's the entering contests question. Of course, if you should happen to win one, there's the satisfaction of a small success (unless, of course, you just won a nationwide  one with a big monetary prize and publication by Random House). Do you enter contests depending on who runs them, on the size of the entry fee, on who is familiar to you who has won it before, in hopes an agent or publisher will notice you? Or do you do it because it's on the list of things every wannabe has to do?

There's a pretty interesting website on which a book on how to win writing contests is regularly advertised. I admit to being tempted. Then it occurs to me that unless you have some knowledge of the judge(s), or are just plain clairvoyant, your entry is in the same category as weekly lottery tickets. Maybe the odds aren't quite as long, but pretty nearly. The author of the book on how to win must be willing and able to be a chameleon. Either you have a voice of your own or you don't, or you're able to imitate someone else's voice. Here I'm using that word the way literary critics like to: meaning the diction and themes that distinguish you and your work from others'. Even if you write so-called "genre" material, we all know it will be better than the run-of-the-mill if only you could have written it, and a reader can spot that right away.

Whether it's contests or just getting published without paying for it, you're up against fashion, the difficulty of reaching the right audience, and, let's face it: how good you are at what you do. It's certain that not enough writers who are exceptionally good ever get the audience they deserve. So that part of the list of "Dos" for writers that says "Never Give Up" is the hardest one to remember.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

To Tell the Truth

If a writer feels it necessary to trudge ahead regardless of past performance, or especially past recognition--or more likely the lack of it, the notion of an advanced degree, presumably an MFA, is bound to have surfaced. There was a time when I was sure one day I'd have a chance to enroll in some  program that would fill out my talent (if there were any) and lend some credibility to whatever I might write.

One of the things that is apt to take over when one is attempting to become--whatever the goal is--is that the aspirant looks to others who have reached it to provide instruction. Never mind how many scores of dollars I may have spent over the years on correspondence courses and books, the few that have been of real benefit wouldn't crowd a single shelf. A course in the history of criticism was one of the best aids to literary decision making for myself, along with only half a dozen of the many books I have bought and read. Now I'm a bit like a donkey with blinders on; I just keep plodding on.

Then, just today, a humble (well, maybe not so humble) blog once more put into a small space the most important lessons I've been able to take away from all those who have had the temerity to write about writing. It has to do with reality--with the absolute necessity--of putting out the truth regardless of its appeal or power to horrify. All writing is political, just as nearly all politics is economics. A writer who can face this at the fundamental level may turn out to be a good writer.

This is a pathetic distillation of a complex imperative, but if it interests you, stop by and read mfainabox@aweber.com.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Grey is Great

The restrained but extravagant repetitions of a singing catbird fall as gently as rain onto the ear.  Many mockingbirds fill the neighborhood with their boisterous notes at high volume. I remember how delighted we were when they moved north to regale New England with their brilliant, tireless musicianship. Up there, and now, even more obviously here, catbirds became either less numerous or were overpowered by the bigger, crow-related, brash and showy mockingbirds.

Now that I live in true mockingbird territory, when I hear a catbird, even more when one visits the deck or a nearby tree, I get a special thrill of pleasure from the modest and lovely grey bird that sends it.

The towhees my mother used to call “wood robins” fall in the same category of beautiful, graceful, shy birds that seem content to spend their lives and rear their young near human beings.

Plenty of others endear themselves by brilliant plumage like the blue jays and “redbirds.” Even the small house finches flash red and jewel-like past our windows along with sunny, showy goldfinches, indigo buntings on their way to the mountains and the cheeky, noisy, clowning Carolina wrens.

Those less presumptuous, perhaps more humble representatives of avian society seem like some people of similar modesty-- special treasures in our lives.

Friday, May 13, 2011


For a long time even before I began trying to write poetry again, I have been dismayed at poets who seem to be trying to outsmart their readers, playing a kind of puzzle one-up-manship. Then I bumped into a market called Lucidity Poetry Journal, and immediately figured it might be a place I could send some of my not-too-profound versifying.

I didn't win a prize, but I did garner an honorable mention (I had sent the limit of five poems). There was also a list of honorable mentions for titles--a first in my experience. I got one of those too. So, just for the fun of it, here is the poem with the title the editors liked:

Bottom Line

Where is what is lost?
Is it absent forever?

When the blossom shatters,
when the snow melts,
when a dropped earring
can’t be found, the space
on the museum wall
now bare of the image
that haunts the lover
of art—
is there some
ledger that tells us
which lacks are less or greater?

Who would bewail the loss
of a child’s first tooth?
How long will the mournful
cow keep lowing for her absent calf?
A soldier son, an aged mother,
an elder statesman, a teenaged
driver, a deer in the headlights…
are they of equal weight in
some cosmic balance,
once they’re lost?

If at last there is no finding,
how do we achieve
the full height of our being?
Only the faithful and the brave
know the courage to deny
the mortality of what is unseen.

The latest issue of Wild Goose Poetry Review is online as of today. This is the real thing--not just poetry closely judged and well chosen, but graced with trenchant reviews as well. Scott Owens, the editor, was kind enough to print a couple of my offerings there. 

Today was a good day in other ways: I got the first royalty check from Bookstogonow.com. It wouldn't buy a cup of coffee, but it proved someone bothered to download my story. And I came in second at a bridge club in which I was invited to substitute. 

Maybe another day, I won't be the perennial also-ran? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Art, Mankind, & Nature

Here comes another storm--slower than the original prediction. The iris are full out and gorgeous, most of the dogwood at peak, and I can't help wondering if they will all be ruined before dinner time. Rain is falling, flood watches being broadcast, and my dog is already feeling considerable consternation.

As seasons go, 2010-2011 has had more than its share of extremes. It's such a temptation for human beings to read significance into natural departures from the norm (which is determined by human calculations) that it makes you wonder how we got so self-important. I remember a lady we knew many years ago in Connecticut who declared that the (then beginning) disease threatening white ash trees was evidence of the onset of biblical warnings of the last days. The fact that her sense of doom occurred nearly fifty years ago doesn't change the alarms still going off as a result of so many catastrophes we've seen since then.

For anyone interested in what might be called "serious" writing, there seems to be so much gloom and doom in the human condition (wonderful locution that covers so much territory), it's often near impossible to tell a story or produce a poem that doesn't mirror awful or cruel or depressing aspects of mankind's existence. Reams have been written about the duty of artists. All the arguments don't agree.

Maybe each artist must allow self-interest to determine how much reality and how much fantasy, how much factual and how much hopeful, how much concrete and how much spiritual belong in his or her work. We are not all equally gifted any more than we are equally equipped to control what flows from that hidden source from which artists produce whatever they can. Maybe the best we can do is keep the faith in what we've been given with which to work.

I just hope we can find a way to tap into "inspiration" or catch the muses of comedy (Thalia) and her happier sisters for more of the poems we write and the music we compose and the pictures we paint. Surely an artist needs occasionally to do a bit of uplifting.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writing About Writing

Over a number of (20+) years I've read a good deal about writing. Some has been the standard, virtually required stuff, some has been inspired and useful for prying open the clamshell of a traditional mind, and some shakes a would-be writer up like a pebble in a tin can. I'm reasonably sure that what goes in that last category is different for every writer.

  My most recent read that fits that description is (as is common with me these days) not a new one. Of course that doesn't matter. Madeleine L'Engle's Circle of Quiet is the example.

Carolyn See in her book about the literary life suggests that all writers need to be ready to send "sweet notes" to authors whose work they admire. She's not joking about that. I sent her one, and she answered it! Well, I'm about to send a note (not sure how sweet it will be) of unbridled enthusiasm to Madeleine L'Engle.

Probably this series of journal entries requires a female reader, but I'm not sure about that because I know so few male writers. If it doesn't speak to any writer of fiction, I'd be astonished, though. It's unassuming, available in paperback, and reads as if the author were having a conversation with her reader. Self-effacing, humorous, poignant, and above all, wise, her views on writing are a must read for those who want to write anything serious--maybe even for those who want to live a serious life.
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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Get Up and Go...?

The older I get, and to to quote Wallace Stegner, "...and I get pretty old...," the more I find myself giving in to lethargy, or inertia, or whatever it is that prevents people from doing immediately whatever it is they should. Everything from the laundry to balancing the checkbook to transplanting the overcrowded perennials, all the way to sitting down to write the promised review or react to the nagging mosquito hum of a nascent poem--everything falls into this sticky trap. I don't get distracted. No excuse there. I simply don't want to do it, and so for a time, I don't. There's a tiny voice at the back of my head saying I've earned laziness at my age, or that the world won't come to an end if I procrastinate, and other equally solipsistic bait.

The irony is that I have this sense of time racing away, as the astrophysicists tell us it does, at an ever more rapid speed. What I don't get is why that knowledge alone can't blast me off my rooted spot.  This is being posted here in the vague hope that someone (over the age of 45) will have a suggestion to boot us slugs into motion--metaphorically, of course!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Who Will Be Your Critic?

As you metaphorically sweat out your verbal creations, do you ever wonder, not just who might read them, but who might critique them? Assuming, of course, that you don't already have a group to support and chastise and encourage you. The first words written on the board in my 9th Grade English class by its truly talented and unique teacher were: All criticism should be in plus values.

As I do my best to be fair to the authors of books I review or to authors on Fanstory, or the occasional offering of a fellow aspirant, I recall that admonition. Over many years it has proved to be a real byword for my own teaching and current reviewing. I wish the notion could extend to the kind of thoughtless arguments that seem to dominate political discourse to the point where there's a real question about whether our elected officials are over the age of majority.

And as I work through the final stages of preparing my next book, I harbor the hope it may find some readers capable of that viewpoint.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

And then there's the question of questions...

The Question Is…

 I believe I was rather a curious child. Now that I’m in my eighth decade, it seems to me that I have hundreds  more questions than I ever did when I was young. Even allowing for all the facts and means of coping that no child is born knowing, now that most of those concerns are taken care ofwell enough, half my waking hours are taken up wondering, Where’s that wisdom that just still being here is supposed to confer? (You see what I mean.)

Too many of those questions seem to spring out of the past and its list of things done and things left undone, in the wording of The Book of Common Prayer. I’m not talking about “what ifs.”  I’m afraid what I mean has more to do with how we might do or react to things at a different stage of our lives than the ones we had reached when it became necessary to meet crises and puzzles and ecstasy head-on.  How much do we fail at or forget to allow to sink in just because we haven’t had enough experience to see in three dimensions or how to judge perspective? 

Now that I’ve developed a kind of habit of rendering into words what swirls around so relentlessly inside my cranium, I come up against another big question. Namely:  if I put the time and effort into expressing all this, what’s the point? 

I’ve discovered one thing that puts me at odds with what used to be the establishment of writing instructors, and that is that there’s no joy in doing all that work for oneself. A writer doesn’t write, darn it, for him or herself; that labor goes to satisfy a reader, or more accurately, many readers. Maybe we don’t expect to make a living at it, much less get rich doing it, but we bother in the hope that there will be a few minds elsewhere that might crack open far enough to let us in, and if they do, that they may enjoy themselves or learn something from what that poor benighted writer tapped out on a keyboard.

The examples of people who have spent even brief lifetimes entertaining and enlightening everyone who could read are daunting and inspiring. One of these nagging questions of mine has to do with whether someone with no credentials known beyond what personal acquaintances have heard, and from nothing much more than general living has any business taking up a pose that might make someone think competition is a motive. Honestly, I know my limitations and respect the expertise of legions not only from the past, but of today. A conversation with one of my college-age grandchildren gives me pause. I learned the meaning of “hubris” even before I was in college.

You’re thinking, “She’s just another wannabe with no chance of a big contract, and she’s just feeling sorry for herself.” Half true. On the other hand, if you suffer from this compulsion to put things on paper, I’d honestly like to find out before my last breath if even a couple of dozen readers are enough to legitimize all this angst, not to mention ink and paper and postage.

On the third hand, sometimes you just do what you gotta do.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

A Small Case of Literary Schizophrenia

In the past year it has dawned on me that my writing life is fractured. I wonder if that's a good thing or a bad one. When writing a book review, there's an imperative to be clear, evenhanded, as uncomplicated as possible. If an essay is the task at hand, the same precision in diction is required as for the review, but this time I must take a position from which to make whatever the point may be.

My trouble is that for a couple of years I've been concentrating on poetry. Not just the rather formalized, often rhymed verse I enjoyed so much when I was younger, but the kind of free-flung, authority-challenging sort of thing contemporary poets seem to be selling these days. I admit to the commercial ambition as well as the artistic. Then I read some Robert Frost or Al Maginnis, for instance, and wonder why I bother.

If you have something to get across to a reader in prose, as a general rule you strive for simplicity (not necessarily short words so much as the right words) in order to leave as little room for doubt about your intention as possible. It's a whole different ball game with poetry. Not that the diction doesn't need as much concentrated effort in making choices -- the choices have to be made with almost opposite goals in mind.

A poem seems to require the opening of broad interpretations, almost unlimited possibilities for revelations, however minute they may be. A poet needs to feel the possibility of something even broader than s/he initially intended when putting those words down. Some instinct says to a poet that the work must be different from and more than its author was aware of, while still fulfilling the first intention. The challenge is no longer for clarity, but for suggestion, for implication. The poet's mind has to have slipped a kind of leash of logic and wandered off the trodden path to point out a new wilderness for the reader to want to explore.

Shifting gears is getting more difficult to do and isn't (as with driving a car) automatic.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Trying to Keep Up

Without the Net I couldn't vent here; without the Net I'd submit perhaps ten percent of what I can afford to submit on line; most important, without the Net I would never have met nearly all my writerly friends and supporters.

Without the Net, I'd never keep up with my children (all some 800 miles away), and my grandchildren.

Without the Net the USPS would hold me in thrall and ruin what little I have in the way of a budget; in addition, I'd have to wait months for a reply to any letters I write.

Why do I have half a dozen old friends who pride themselves on not knowing "how to turn a computer on?"

When desperate, I resort to the telephone, but while it's lovely to hear a voice and chat if I catch them at home, too often the timing is wrong.

Finally, without the Net I doubt anything I've written would be out there where someone might read it and respond. My editor, publishers, and reviewers have come to me via the Net.

It's enough to make a person sentimental about technology!

Monday, March 7, 2011

You Could Have Knocked Me over with a Feather...

Once the kitchen cleanup, the bed making, and the cat litter are taken care of, I head for the laptop and email. Imagine my surprise...

Last Friday I sent a follow-up note to a publisher I'd queried and received a request to forward the hard copy of my ms in October. He replied quickly with a request to get it in electronic form because he'd read it sooner. So this morning (Monday) I wasn't prepared to find what looked like two replies without any text--just attachments. One was a proposed cover for the book, and the other was a letter of agreement and the galley.

Of course, I had to find someone to crow to, which I did in short order. So now, my heartfelt thanks to March Street Press (Greensboro, NC) and R. Bixby. It would have been lovely to have found them thirty years ago, but there would have been fewer stories for him to read. Never too late!

I'll undoubtedly be posting the cover once it's been finalized unless he objects.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Support Group

Because I wanted to show my gratitude for the invitation,  I attended a bereavement "support group" yesterday. The facilitator is a talented lady who managed to open the proceedings (after the obligatory prayer) with a prompt that had everyone in stitches. Who knew that we could each think of something funny in our married lives that would strike others the same way?

In the aftermath of important loss, is there always something waiting to be remembered that will make us laugh? Even one thing is a boon not to be refused.

I doubt if I'll return next month, but maybe I'll have thought of something else funny to share. There will surely be more widows and widowers there for that second meeting. There's an awful lot of that going around where I live. Sometimes I think it would be easier if the world were a little less with us...

So now, I need to sit down and write something for someone else to find resonance with that might revive a comforting recollection, and maybe even a funny one. You know the old saying about having to laugh or else you'll cry.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Inside a Notebook

Most of my adult life I've been a very intermittent journaler (not journalist, I think). In addition to notes I hoped I might make use of for stories either new or under way, I'd remark on current family events. It's a good thing too. I don't know anyone with a worse memory. Today I opened a fat notebook that reminded me of two years that in retrospect were so full of significant events for us, it amazes me to find I would remember nothing but the facts today if it weren't for that notebook.

My husband was in a career crisis; I was president of our public library association in the midst of fund-raising and beginning a major addition; our second son and his wife were leaving for four years while she pursued her doctorate; I was struggling with the first draft of my second novel while editing a museum publication...just for starters. Twenty-five years ago we were younger, of course. Still, thank goodness I recorded some of our feelings and reactions to what was overwhelming us. When I read what I wrote, I realize I had completely blocked those out. Now I wonder if any of the other players were aware of how events were shaking the two of us. Good example of how easy it is to forget the rest of the world when you have too much on your own plate.

If at any time a writer needs a prompt, there are always the family pictures and, with luck, the journal or commonplace book entries. For those with retentive and unflinching powers of recall, perhaps these aides memoire aren't necessary. For me, they're life savers. Sometimes I think I was oblivious; these jottings prove to me that I wasn't. I'm glad.

So when the day comes that as a writer of fiction or personal essays, or as a poet, you need something to push the Start button, turn to those records. At my age, of course, the past is ninety percent of what I can write about. As a character in a movie I watched last night said, "I'm eighty years old. My future is a short line as straight as an arrow..." Of course, he was talking about preserving something for as long as he had time left to enjoy it. In a sense, so am I, even if some is less enjoyable than instructive. And instructive is what a writer needs!

For many of us, it's a question of revisiting what happened on the road while it was still mostly in front of us and so full of twists and hills we had no idea of where it would lead. It's astonishing how much pain and pleasure and how many surprises and perhaps insights might be available for new sightseers, if we can find a way to tell them about it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Conditional Cheers for Hi-tech

For anyone with a yen to exchange conversation and work with other writers, the Internet is a life saver. My cyber pals are virtually the only connection I have with people interested in writing what I want to write. I met another yesterday. Thanks to a publisher who followed through forwarding a comment I made about a poem I read on the Net, she wrote to me and even added another poem. I have writing friends scattered now in three countries: the US (of course), but also in France and now England. In fact, in the spring issue of an English journal I'll see a new poem of mine. Check out The Lowestoft Chronicle.

You may notice the new picture to the right. It's the cover for another short story out on www.bookstogonow.com, also available for Kindle and Nook. Maybe we can't hold these things and hug them the way I often have done with print on paper, but it's better than not being read at all! One of these stories has been published in a literary magazine, the other only online.

Technology, however, makes me more certain than ever that I don't want to let hard copy go. Some tiny electrical malfunction is all it would take to wipe out ten years' work! Paperless is a fine idea for some things, but I guess I haven't much faith in its ability to last.

Word processing has made writing so much easier, I'm afraid of using too many most of the time because it's so easy to change them, improve on them, and I lose the sense of how difficult or easy it is to read them. I'd never have finished more than a couple of stories, let alone some books, if it hadn't been for the boon the computer is to the compulsive rewriter. Still, it's probably a good idea to try to remember some of what we were taught decades ago.

I know one thing: even if I had Jane Austen's talent, I could never have written at a 2'x 3' table with a quill pen and finished half a dozen wonderful novels!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Buy Poetry

Had a mild jolt yesterday when a friend reminded me about my promise to do a program for her book club. Needless to say, I'd spent time on it already, nervous about how and what to say. I had the date on my two calendars: Friday, the 18th. The jolt came when she said, "Wednesday, ten o'clock." Wednesday? If we hadn't met at the salad bar, would I have missed the whole meeting? She admitted she'd said the 18th. I'm not a member of this group, though once before I did a program for them. I didn't remember what day of the week they meet.

So what's the big deal? I hadn't yet arrived at the true stage-fright phase. (I'm pretty close to it now.) I had a feeling there was still plenty of time to decide which of the two fully written-out talks I'd try to give. I'd already marked the pages of the books from which I intended to read. It wasn't as if I'd waited till the last minute...but now that date seems to loom. I've fretted about trying to "give a program." In days gone by, I got used to knowing where I wanted a lesson to end up, but found much greater success winging it and taking advantage of spontaneous reactions in the classroom. Now I have to decide whether elderly ladies in a beautiful living room with porcelain cups in their hands want to be talked at, or might be expected to contribute. I really prefer letting the chips fall where they may. Well, I've done this before, but the truth is, this time I'm on a bit of a crusade.

With thousands (probably a conservative estimate) of people writing poetry all over this country, and scores writing really good stuff just in the state where I live, I'm wondering whether anybody over college age is reading it. There will be 15 or 16 people to hear this, and I want so much to make them think about leaving prose for at least a little time and buying poetry. Yes, BUYING poetry. I'm astonished that it's still possible to purchase nicely bound and produced books of poetry from even the mega presses, in paper and hard cover. Long live the poets! and they won't, unless someone buys what they write. So I want to shake these ladies up enough to hope one of them might go out and buy a book of poems. Who knows, even add one to next year's book list for the club!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

What Right? We Must Write!

I just read an interesting discussion about whether or not a writer must always write from personal experience and knowledge. I had never considered any ethical facet of the question. It always seemed that if you can imagine it vividly and convincingly enough, of course it was all right to use fictional, imagined material and settings; for fiction it's necessary to use imaginary characters. The problems would be in the author's ability to make the imaginary sufficiently realistic.

It struck me that neither the questioner nor the author answering him even mentioned fantasy and sci fi -- two enormously popular genres. The question was whether an author might be perpetrating some kind of fraud on the reader by not having known and/or experienced what was in the story. Does the writer have an obligation the truth that would deny the honesty of fiction? The answer given was that of course, whatever a writer wants to write about is fine so long as s/he does it well enough to make it acceptable in its own context.

Certainly, there are many ethical (not to mention legal) problems with writing and publishing. The truth of fiction is not the same matter for consideration as the truth of reportage or criticism. I can't help feeling it would be beyond tragic if poets and novelists and playwrights had to consider their work primarily in the light of their actual knowledge and first-hand experience. Human beings are animals that can benefit from the experiences of others, after all.

If there is any justification to be found in literature, it must be in writers' ability to offer to better the world in which they write. From the first words, they seek to present work that provides insights, hopes, and recognition of the good -- not only that is with us now, but that readers may envision because of what they have read. That's what "classics" are: maps for the betterment of humanity though revelations, most of which have little to do with actual facts.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Have a Look!

I'm an aspiring poet. I've just followed up on one of my favorite websites, How a Poem Happens. It's rare to find anyone who can be interviewed about his or her work who is so articulate about it. What Joel Brauer has to say about the creation of a poem is not only instructive for poets, but for any writer. This may be illegal--to rave about another blog--but darn it, when something is that good, people need to be told!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Out of the Blue

I often take a few seconds to read my horoscope as I reach the final pages of the paper. Now comes the news that for believers in astrology the world is forever changed, thanks to the science of astronomy, among others. Three different horoscopes of late for Virgos have suggested unexpected sources for professional advancement. As always, I folded the newspaper and took it to the recycling bin.

Then I got a phone call. I'd received a very nice rejection to a query I'd sent a small publisher. As I'm wont to do, I had responded to it with some kind of thanks. There had been almost three months between the sending of my letter and sample and the rejection note. A phone call from that publisher was certainly nothing I was expecting. The conversation took place on speaker, presumably so other(s) in her office could hear the lady in question and me talking.

You know how occasionally you meet someone that you know is on the same wavelength, who seems to give off those "vibes" that promise you can understand each other. This auditory meeting was like that. Without going into the details, I'll just say that I hung up feeling as though I might have made the acquaintance of someone who could become a friend.

After I agreed to send the complete manuscript she asked for, I tried to pull together my scattered thoughts. I already knew from their website that they offer "services" of various kinds to writers, not just the possibility of publication. While I await a response to the whole novel from the editors who are reading it now, I have to decide how to receive any advice they may offer short of a total refusal. They know the book has already undergone a professional edit, but if they think it has possibilities for publication, they will ask me to pay for advice and instruction. Do they really think the book is worth the effort and expense of publication because it could be profitable to them? Or are they interested only in gaining the income writers can provide to their book doctors? Two editors who will presumably decide have already sent humorous and welcoming notes.

As the king of Siam kept repeating in the musical, "'Tis a puzzlement." So now I have to sit around while they presumably read my novel and either decide to forget the whole thing, or to offer me for a price something to salvage it--and of course, with no guarantees for either of us. Such a temptation.

I wonder whether my sign would now be Leo or Libra--and if it would make any difference anyway.

P.S.: I see the debunkers are now being debunked. The Zodiac is still in control as it has been for millennia--or is it?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Slow to Learn

I've never been much of a one to go in for New Year's resolutions. I guess that's because I realize how much I lack in the way of self-discipline. Like a superstitious ignoramus, I secretly feel that if I don't put intentions into words, no one (including me) will notice when I fail to bring them to fruition. This post is, therefore, a daunting thing. Maybe I'm just superstitious, but already the results are beginning to make themselves visible, and it's not a comfortable feeling.

For some time of late I've thought of trying to write ...a memoir...an autobiography...an extended journal...? Anyway, something to leave behind. For whom? Well, maybe for my children and grandchildren, probably not for strangers, but maybe that decision will have to wait until I've finished.

What is most difficult to manage, I find, is the gradually but rapidly increasing awareness of my lack of awareness. As I've begun what may turn out to be rather a lot of pages, every incident or period I recall and think to mention brings home to me how little I understood about it or about the people involved (again, including me) at the time, and I've only produced about 8 or 9 single-spaced pages of references for a skeleton.

It took me about 9 months to produce the first drafts of my novels. The more formative, important, interesting things I haven't got to yet, even as a list! Big question for 2011 is: will I be able to finish a project like this?