Arrivederci~~for Now

July 10, 2014

I apologize for four months of missing posts.

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I began this blog over two years ago primarily as followup support and encouragement for writers who’ve attended my workshops and retreats. And it offered me a continuation of my teaching career (or soapbox) where sharing great writing and ideas about craft were natural.

A few days after my last post, my father passed away,  just two months shy of his 100th birthday.  People say, “Look how much time you spent with your father, what a great long life he lived.” And he did. Yet now I’m realizing that the length of time I knew him, nearly seventy years, also served to create so much more to mourn.

So that’s how it started–my disinclination to write blog posts, as well as the inability to find the solitude to write anything. The cliche, “If not now, when?” lately startles me with its urgency. Now I’m getting my house ready to rent out so I can spend 2015 mostly abroad,  just writing.  I already know I can write more effectively away from home than within all its distractions.

I might return with a good start on my emerging  project, its fragments currently trailing over all my devices—dictations on Notes on my phone, thoughts recorded in Pages on my tablet, hand-written in my notebook, and documented more properly in Word on my computer. I hope to make sense of some ideas that have been flashing in and out of my mind during the past ten years or so as I’ve driven south to see my parents and later to care for my father, each time returning north to my home in the Bay Area . The constancy and diversity of that drive in every season affords long expanses of time to think, wonder and record observations, the highway  a physical thread of discovery meandering north to south and back.

I know for sure I’ll be in Lake Como next fall–September 20–26, 2015–for my next Italy, in Other Words Memoir Writing Retreat. When I arrived in Varenna last month to scout the location, my first time in the area, it didn’t seem like the Italy I knew–not like Abruzzo, Rome or Tuscany, not like the Italy’s south at all. It seemed overly refined and insular, very large and nearly miniature. Yet it took only minutes to appreciate the stunning vistas as we climbed “a bit higher to paradise” up from the lake through a tiny town filled with gardens, iron railings, and palms, the lake emanating a lush silence. A few days longer and I realized how physically invigorating it was as well and left Varenna with a palpable sense of well being.

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Alas, George Clooney was nowhere to be seen (notably not in the coffee shop where I’d imagined our encounter).

Ah, Varenna.

Perspective

Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.                                                                    Henry Miller

 

The key lies alongside. Use it.

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Recent Reads to Recommend

MEMOIR: A Real Boy  by Christina Adams

Christina Adams is a very entertaining woman, both clever and vibrant. The first time I met her over coffee, three hours sped by as she entertained me with her forays into acquiring camel milk for her son who has autism. Camel milk? Yes.

Her first book,  A Real Boy , is a quick, satisfying read mainly because of Adams facility as a story teller and her skill at turning the tone on a literary dime.  She also seamlessly transitions from the present to the past tense—form, as always, following function.  A Real Boy is the back story, the prequel to her current work that explores her efforts finding camel milk in Israel, her public speaking adventures in Dubai, and her connections to Amish camel dairy farms–among much else. I’ll keep you posted when that one is published.

 

Memoir/Essay: This is the Story of a Happy Marriage  by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett‘s new book is useful on many levels; most beneficial for writers is the opening premise clarifying the chops a fiction writer needs. Hers came during years as a nonfiction writer for magazines and newspapers. Simply stated, she claims to have developed sound writing skills from working on a deadline with a specific word count, over and over again for years. The “good marriage” part comes in one essay describing an enviable union. A couple of essays are about her dog. If you’re not a marriage or a dog person,  the others are valuable  for writers and most humans. She writes about the distinction between fact and fiction, about her famous efforts writing about Lucy Grealy,  about divorce, about editing, and about her well-known bookstore in Nashville. She’s modern, witty and very wise.

Here’s one excerpt about critical editing:

Just as every story we tell bears our own distinctive slant on the experience, every story we read bears someone else’s. Whether its a story in a newspaper or a  chapter in a history textbook, the writer has made the decision of what to include and what to leave out.

Another is about the task of writing about suffering in our lives:

Every time we tell the story again, we don’t go back to the original event and start from scratch, we go back to the last time we told the story. It’s the story we shape and improve on, we can’t change what happened. This is also a way we have of protecting ourselves. It would be too painful to relive a childhood illness or the death of your best friend every time you had to speak of it. By telling the story from the story, instead of from the actual events, we are able to distance ourselves from our suffering. It also gives us the chance to make the story something people can hear.

I hope you will love this book. Patchett, a consummate pro, shows just how to get to that professionalism.

 

CRAFT: Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books  by Wendy Lesser

In Why I Read, get a thoughtful take on the pleasures of reading from a woman who understands the value of literature. In one gem among a treasure, Lesser distinguishes genuine memoir from a marginally fictionalized account:

An author who self-righteously proclaims that there is no real boundary between fact and fiction is not someone you should trust regarding either.

Lesser is a careful and worthwhile writer, one a reader can trust.

 

ESSAY: “Home, Dismantled” by Olivia Judson

This personal essay in yesterday’s New York Times traces the history of the author’s family home. It’s an honest and believable account of a task we all must face (or already have)—the challenge of dismantling lived lives. The narrative proceeds chronologically, revealing the details in the dismantling. As a conclusion the writer reflects on what has been building up during the tearing down—a careful consideration of the weight of objects:

 I never agreed with the idea that personality is defined by objects; I would rather say that objects are defined by personality. Yet when someone is dead and their belongings are all that is left, dispersing those belongings feels like an erasing of their physical presence on the earth.

The essay models a familiar writing task for the memoirist—to make sense and meaning of  physical, literal touchstones. I’ve written about this before, here and here. Writing about a treasured object can help center memories as we develop them into meaning.

Desire and Publication

10 February 2014

For just about a year, I’ve had a useful phrase taped to my laptop, something I read often. A recent conversation with a frustrated writer reminds me of its wisdom:

The difficulty of your problem lies in the specificity of your desire.

When I printed it out, I didn’t record the author, so I searched to remind myself where I’d found it. It is an opening sentence (concise, pithy, effective) to one of Chuck Klosterman’s responses as The Ethicist in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. You can find the source here, but the one line is a standout and remains so pertinent to many situations I find myself in.

Understanding the import of Klosterman’s sentence can lift a mental weight and aid us to remain in the calm of the present. Ours is an uncertain world and sometimes we follow our imaginations to the point of “knowing” what’s right for us. While it’s a critical trait to know ourselves, our biases sometimes interfere in what’s best for us. Sometimes I’ve known for sure who is right and who is wrong to be in my life, but that hasn’t always matched reality. I’ve been so sure that a particular job was right for me, but I didn’t get it. And all of us writers find ourselves sure at some point which particular publication should “want” our writing.

Alice Walker

This Alice Walker poem has long been a mainstay for me as well. It is also an antidote to the nonproductive frenzied mental activity of anticipation.

Expect Nothing

Expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.
become a stranger
To need of pity
Or, if compassion be freely
Given out
Take only enough
Stop short of urge to plead
Then purge away the need.

Wish for nothing larger
Than your own small heart
Or greater than a star;
Tame wild disappointment
With caress unmoved and cold
Make of it a parka
For your soul.

Discover the reason why
So tiny human midget
Exists at all
So scared unwise
But expect nothing. Live frugally
On surprise.

The Reading Cure

1 February 2014

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Art by Yelena Bryksenkova
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Whether you are well-published, frequently published, never published or have never written for publication (but want to!), you will be a reader. It’s a requirement. Writers are people who read copiously as children, fell in love with the written word and felt compelled to express themselves at some point. You’ve probably read about writers who started writing stories as young as four years old. But most start as children and teens who can’t put down a book. (“Just one more chapter!” was my usual response as a child being called to dinner or to do a chore. I remember the day I was forbidden to read at my grandmother’s table at a family dinner. But I’ve easily solved that as an single adult.)

As I’ve often suggested, read widely with a steady focus on the genre you are writing. In that case, read for pleasure and entertainment and as a writer—for amazement at the craft. And read, as has been said by many readers, to “feel less alone in the world.”

Keep in mind your privileges and responsibilities as a reader—to expand within as you immerse yourself in a written universe. And consider the corresponding obligation and license as a writer—to write worlds that contain just enough universe so that a reader, on occasion, is compelled to set aside the book, look up, and wonder at the revelations within.

In “A Tidy Home, Cluttered with Weighty Emotions,”a review about the theme of grieving parents in films, Manohla Dargis clarifies this critical characteristic of reading and writing as he quotes James Wood (How Fiction Works) referencing George Eliot:

“The greatest benefit we owe to the artist,” Eliot writes, “whether painter, poet or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies.” “Art,” she continues, extends “our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot. In other words, it allows us to cross the divide between us and others.”

It’s a lofty goal, but a necessary one if we are to make meaning in our work. Here is Susan Sontag on the topic:

Books are not only the arbitrary sum of our dreams, and our memory. They also give us the model of self-transcendence. Some people think of reading only as a kind of escape: an escape from the “real” everyday world to an imaginary world, the world of books. Books are much more. They are a way of being fully human.

NOTE: Consider another sort of transcendence—mindful travel. This summer’s programItaly, in Other Words Memoir Writing and Cultural Retreat, June 15–21 is quickly filling. It’s an opportunity that will change you as a writer, traveler and human.

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An Embarrassment of Words

06 January 2014

"Sketchbook" by Richard Curtner

“Sketchbook” by Richard Curtner

In life as in writing, what we leave out–or remove–can be as critical as what we leave in. Shaping that first draft usually involves lots of cutting in order to get at the core of the content.

Here, from the blog Essay Daily is some encouragement for the practice.

10 Thoughts on Elision
by
Megan Crist

  1.  The act of writing nonfiction has always been an act of elision. Only when a writer knows what to leave out, does she know what to leave in.
  2.  You see this so clearly in the work of Joan Didion and James Baldwin and Janet Malcolm and, more recently, writers like Sarah Manguso. This is not matter of style—a baroque sentence can still be as pointed as an ice pick. This is a matter of choice.
  3.  Elision is not the same thing as distortion, though it can result in distortions, some of which may be more truthful than anyone’s unabridged whole.
  4.  Abridged is not the same thing as incomplete, which implies unfinished—a house without a roof, a winter without snow. An aborted thought is not the same thing as looking at snowdrifts with one eye closed.
  5.  This is not news, but for some reason we keep needing to hear this report from the front, as if the frontline has ever been anywhere else.
  6.  Elision comes from elidere, “to crush out.” This violence is generative, resulting in “omission” but also “join together, merge, esp. abstract ideas.”
  7.  Any patient in an Oliver Sacks essay may be a composite character, an amalgamation of many patients merged into one, more useful person. This is not a secret. It does not put Sacks’ insights in danger. He has still seen what he has seen.
  8.  “You can’t do that.” Yes, you can.
  9.  “You shouldn’t do that.” Another matter, entirely. And utterly dependent on circumstance. Rules are only useful if everyone is playing the same game.
  10.  Choose your game. Then elide.

Meehan Crist is Writer-in-Residence in Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Previously, she was reviews editor at The Believer and her work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Lapham’s Quarterly, The New Republic, The Believer, N+1BR, Scientific American, and Science.

Mantra for Productivity

30 December 2013

I’m not one to notice fashion and have no place in my mind for names of fashion designers.  But one tiny blurb in the NY Times Sunday Magazine captured my attention recently.  Here it is in its entirety.

“How to Be a Self-Starter” by Cynthia Rowley [a fashion designer]
There’s a four-part mantra: idea, vision, execution, follow-through. I do that over and over and over.
I think it’s important to distill things down to the simplest idea with the biggest impact and most originality.
It’s as simple as a to-do list, which I actually edit down. 
As told to Spencer Bailey.

This is a good week to chant the mantra—idea, vision, execution, follow-through. It’s the essence of productivity and my wish for all of us as writers in 2014—to live a year of high yield.  (The photo above made in Zanzibar comes from Rowley’s blog, On the Road.)

Happy 2014!

Winter Hopes

23  December 2013

Best Wishes for a Season of
Renewal and Restoration

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This is a great moment, when you see, however distant, the goal of your wandering.
The thing which has been living in your imagination suddenly becomes a part of the
tangible world.  It matters not how many ranges, rivers or parching dusty ways may
lie between you. It is yours now forever
.
Freya Stark

Defining Family

18 December 2013

Here’s an article too important to wait until 2014.  “The Families We Invent,” is by the insightful Frank Bruni whose work is always instructive and full of heart. It acknowledges the elephant in the room this time of year when idealized family relations seem to be a given.

Bruni talks about the people not in conventional families, and the “extraordinary, enduring intimacy outside of that context, stretching the definition of family, making clear that it’s not just or even chiefly about common genes, common beds.”

His essay/column seems meant to encourage those whose idea and experience of family does not meet the social norm. But it seems to me to be important likewise as a reminder to all of us to be more generous in our assessments of others and to value all our relationships.

Bruni clarifies:  “It’s about common needs, common generosity. It’s an act of will as much as an accident of birth. That’s worth remembering during this merrymaking, reunion-heavy season, when “family” is usually invoked in terms too narrowly traditional.”

This is a quick post–and without any image! I hope you have time to read the article, by a writer whose content matches his craft.

Monitoring Memory

16 December 2013

The topic of memory has long fascinated me, both as speculation, pseudo-science, and evidence-based science. It’s a good topic for memoirists who are especially interested in the accuracy of their memories and how to portray them honestly.

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Illustration: Diana Sudyka

The holidays are a good time of the year to confirm childhood memories—if you have the courage. You risk having sudden tarnish on time-honed thoughts. Ask your sister details about the year you received the gift of your dreams for Christmas, and she might tell you (as mine did): “Yeah, when I was six and wanted a Betsy Wetsy doll, I got a Ginny Doll because you and mother thought it was better looking.” That was deflating and not what I wanted to hear. So take courage, but know the risks. Our memories are selective and highly personal.

Here are three recent NY Times articles that discuss the unreliability of memory (not news, but confirmation, once again, of our lack of authority), one writer’s belief in inherited memories as an  “unconscious sense of identity that stands the test of centuries,” and the idea of personal control over our memory. Read these for some stimulating information; then read “My Crush with Celebrity” as an example of a personal essay that deals with the same topic with liveliness and humor.

Ben Dolnick

In “My Crush with Celebrity,” Ben Dolnick takes on the topic with humor and self-deprecation. His essay opens with a humorous exploration of his memory and his great doubts about whether the famous model Olivia Wilde actually had a crush on him in elementary school. Did he remember any evidence of it, or did he merely remember his friends telling him she “liked”him.  He speculates, “Maybe it was that she smiled in a particularly nonhostile way…”

Dolnick moves from his entertaining opening to a discussion of the topic—the writer’s challenge to tell the “truth” and the reality of “how the things you write begin to blend with, and then replace, the things you experienced.

He clarifies the task:  But the underlying mental habit — replacing multifarious actual experience with simplified, and possibly falsified, story — is a dangerous one. To be a writer is to spend a good chunk of your day processing raw experience into narrative, and if my inner factory has become overgenerous with the additives and preservatives, I’d like at least to serve my artificially flavored memories knowingly.

It’s important in life as well as in writing to know the difference between reality and wishful thinking. The first step is to acknowledge doubt. And that is so much more believable than conviction (in writing as in life).

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~the art in the heart is a (more or less) weekly blog meant as follow up encouragement and inspiration for those who have attended my workshops—and anyone else. My focus is on narrative essay writing—travel, food or memoir.

Writing Retreat in Italy September 2015

Writing Retreat in Italy September 2015

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Italy Retreat June 2013–in print

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