Monday, November 29, 2010

The Meaning Comes Later

Last year my friend (and Goddaughter) Katherine gave me a wonderful gift. She was downsizing—moving her family to a smaller town and a smaller house—and was selling and giving away a number of things from her house here in midtown Memphis. And so I ended up with a large, beautifully framed picture by Joan Miro:

“The Ballerina.”

It hangs in our den, where I think of Katherine every time I pause to look at it.

But I also think about the meaning behind the brushstrokes from time to time.

I wasn’t familiar with Miro when I received it, but after reading about this Spanish artist’s roots and influences and looking at more of his works online, I began to love the painting more.

And then today I found this quote by Miro:

“The painting rises from the brushstrokes as a poem rises from the words. The meaning comes later.”

His words caused me to rethink the way I look at a painting, and also the way I read a poem. I would love to write an ekphrastic poem about this painting, and maybe I will some day. (I learned about ekphrastic poetry from the Orthodox poet and writer, Scott Cairns, when I attended a spiritual writing workshop led by him last year.)

In the meanwhile, I’ll leave you to ponder its meaning. And to consider these words by Aristotle:

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thoreau on the Writer's Life (in Nineteen Words)

When I returned to the beach after the Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford (November 11-14) I started a new writing project. This one is now running parallel with the novel-in-progress. It's a poetry memorization project, inspired by Beth Ann Fennelly, one of the keynote speakers at the conference. My plan is to memorize a poem a day (sometimes skipping weekends) for 100 days, and to write a brief reflection on the poem, paying special attention to how (and if) the activity affects my prose writing. (Working title: Sleeping With Poets: How 100 Days (and Nights) of Memorizing Poetry Pimped My Prose.)

So, the first ten days of the poetry project took place on the beach, which was a great way to get started, since I didn't have the distractions of everyday life which were waiting for me back home. It was also nice to print off the poem each morning and take it with me for a walk along the water's edge. Sometimes I found the rhythm of the poem and the ocean's waves crashing on the shore blended into a perfect cadence for walking. But now I'm home and everyday life is coming at me with a force as strong as those ocean waves, but I'm determined to continue the project, even throughout the busy days of planning for Christmas. Here's a draft of today's reflection. I hope you enjoy it and will leave a comment to let me know how and if poetry is a part of your life, whether or not you are a writer.

Thoreau on the Writer’s Life (in Nineteen Words)
Day 11-Sleeping With Poets

Home from a month of writing on the beach, I chose another short poem (there was unpacking to do and re-organizing my office and laundry and groceries to shop for, you know?) for my first day of memorizing poetry back in Memphis. It’s from Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862):

My life has been the poem
I would have writ,
But I could not both live
And utter it.

Done. It’s really only a rhyming couplet (spread out to four lines) in basic iambic pentameter. (You stress the words in all caps.)

da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

That’s the easy part. Pondering Thoreau’s meaning is a bit more difficult.

But I could NOT both LIVE and UTTER it
da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

He could not “both live and utter it”? So, did he live and not “utter it”? Did he not write about his life in his works? Or did he mean by these words that he didn’t really live—that he sacrificed “having a life” in order to be a writer?

Twentieth century American writer and literary critic, Alfred Kazin (1915-1998) said: “One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper, in time and in others' minds.” This speaks to a commonality I think many writers share—a longing for a place to fit in, to feel at home. And also a strong desire to share our words with others.

I know it’s cliché, but the old saying came to mind as I was penning this: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” If I wrote the Great American Novel and it didn’t get published, would it still be a great novel? Some of my writing friends would say YES! Writing is for the soul—we don’t do it just in order to be published. But like Kazin, I want to make a home for myself with my writing—especially in other people’s minds, but also on paper and in time. And so I blog. Three times a week for the past three and a half years I have shared my art, my life, my musings, book reviews, family news, my ups, my downs, with whoever will listen, whoever will read the words I have poured onto the page. When something big happens—whether it’s good news or trauma—my first instinct has always been to share it with someone, to write about it. I kept a diary when I was a little girl, and jumped on the journaling band wagon when it became popular. Like the tree in the woods, I want someone to hear it fall, and to validate my pain or my joy or my very existence.

For about fifteen years I published a newsletter for my church. It was monthly for a while, and eventually bi-monthly. During those years I was at the church just about every time the doors were open, and always with my camera. I documented every event—every baptism, every wedding, every feast day, every children’s play, every birth, every death—until one day I realized that my news radar was preventing me from entering into the life of the church organically. I was so wrapped up in capturing its life in words and pictures that I was missing the life itself, or that’s what it felt like. So I quit publishing the newsletter. I just showed up to worship and to feasts and to committee meetings, without my camera, without my pen in hand. It took a while, but eventually, I think I began to find that organic core I had been missing when I had been so concerned about capturing everything for the newsletter.

I wonder if this is what Thoreau meant when he said, “But I could not both live and utter it?” I haven’t been to church or seen any of my friends here in Memphis in over a month, and yet on my first morning back, my inclination was to find my way to my computer and write. Not to telephone a friend or stop by and see someone I haven’t seen in a month. I’ll see a lot of people at church tonight and tomorrow, but today—even amidst the piles of dirty laundry and the empty refrigerator—my characters are calling to me from the novel: “What’s going to happen to us next?”

Maybe the writing life is about balance. Don’t we have to live a full life in order to have something to write about, in order to have something to feed the lake? I guess I’m just not willing to completely give up on either—living the poem or writing it. Maybe I’ll stop by and see a friend on the way to the grocery store today, right after I finish one more chapter….

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Grandchildren, Godchildren and Thanksgiving

Yesterday was Grandparents Day at Grace Saint Luke’s school in Memphis, where our Goddaughter, Sophie Mansour is in second grade. Sophie’s grandparents live in Atlanta and Syria, so they haven’t been able to make it for this special day yet. I’ve been fortunate to go twice, but yesterday I was still here at Seagrove, so my husband went! I asked him to get a picture of the two of them together, but he forgot. He did send a few pictures of Sophie...

while working on her list of things she loves about her grandparents (and I think she meant us *cough cough* Godparents, we well.)

And joining her classmates in a special Thanksgiving song

I’m sure there will be more refrigerator art when I get home!

We were in Denver for Thanksgiving last year, which was the first time Pops met our first granddaughter, Grace.

It was such fun to share a Thanksgiving meal with our daughter-in-law’s family. They’re Hmong, and the foods on the table were a delicious mix of traditional Southern (Jason) and Hmong (See and Ia, See’s mother) foods.

Jonathan had just left for Afghanastan, a few weeks before Thanksgiving last year. This year we have a different treat in store: Pops and I are meeting in Birmingham, where we will be guests of our Godson, Damon Boiles III and his wife, Weezie. DIII’s parents, our dear friends, Damon and Madeleine Boiles, will be there from Memphis (Pops is riding over with them on Wednesday)… and… wait for it… JON will be driving
up from Savannah to join us! It will be our first time to see him since his return from Afghanastan a couple of weeks ago. Can’t wait to get my arms around him! It will make my leaving Seagrove much more bearable.

Jon has been friends with Damon III since they were in 7th grade together in Memphis. I think the last time we were all together was at Damon and Weezie’s wedding, a few years back in Huntsville.

Damon and Madeleine are always great fun to be with. This was in August of 2008 when we were at their house celebrating Damon's birthday. It turned into a spontaneous "Mad Hatter's" party as we took turns dressing up in their fun collection of hats, furs and guns.

And of course I can’t wait to see my sweet hubby again, after our month apart while I’ve been writing at Seagrove. (Okay we did have a one-night rendezvous in Oxford two weeks ago, when I was there directing the Creative Nonfiction Conference, but still, a month is a long time!) This has been such a gift—this time for me to pull my writing project together without any other responsibilities. I’ve penned about two-thirds of the book, revising as I go, so I’ll be ready to keep the story moving forward and then do the heavy revisions after I get back to Memphis. Watching so many couples enjoying their time together on the beach here has made me miss him more. I have great memories of our “dance” here in May, and look forward to many more to come.

So… this is a winding post about grandchildren, Godchildren and Thanksgiving. I’ll end with a link to a fun site about the holiday’s history and traditions. We visited Plimoth Plantation about 30 years ago, and it was fun to see the actors playing the parts of the early settlers, including my husband’s ancestor, Thomas Cushman (fourteen generations back, I think) who came over on the Mayflower and was an elder at Plymouth. I always enjoy this picture of our Korean daughter, Beth, dressed as an Indian for her kindergarden Thanksgiving celebration. (That's me and my mom with Beth, in 1987.) What an interesting combination of cultures. I wish I could find the picture of Jason dressed as a pilgrim and waving an American flag. It was actually in the Jackson newspaper in 1984, when he became a U.S. Citizen, and it’s in a coffee table book about Jackson that’s at home right now so I can’t scan it.

I hope you will be with someone you love and enjoy some delicious food! My next post will be from Memphis, after I return home on Friday. I hear it’s going to be cold. Guess I won’t be writing in my swimsuit any more for a while. I think I'll put a picture of the beach on the wall behind my computer and get one of those machines that makes sounds like ocean waves breaking on the shore. Definitely bringing the muse back to Memphis with me.
Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dolphins, Poetry, and Beach Culture: Reflections on a Month of Writing at the Beach

To the ancient Greeks, spotting dolphins riding in a ship’s wake was considered a good omen. I didn’t know that until this morning (thank you, wiki) but maybe I knew it intuitively, because I wake each morning searching for dolphins and continue to watch for them throughout the day—especially at dusk, when they typically seem to travel in this area. Will it inspire my writing if I see them? Now I wish I had made observations about how much writing I got done on the days that I did see dolphins during my writing retreat. But seriously, I think I just love to watch them at play. I’ve been here (writing on the beach in Seagrove, Florida) since October 27 (minus the weekend I went to Oxford for the Creative Nonfiction Conference) and I’ve only seen dolphins twice during this stay. One morning a few of them came fairly close to shore, danced along in pairs (I think there were only 4-6 of them) and left those of us standing on the shore pleading with our eyes for them to stay and entertain us longer. But one afternoon a large school of them showed up. The surf was stronger that day, and the dolphins were like teenage boys showing off with their tricks, riding the surf (yes!) and then breaching high into the water, so that their entire bodies were visible. I had only seen whales do this (in Alaska) and their performance took my breath away. There were only a few people on the beach that day, and we looked at each other when the dolphins left, exchanging satisfied looks, acknowledging that we had seen something spectacular. (P.S. I didn't take that picture of the dolphin breaching--I wasn't that close!)

There are only four days left in my month-long writing retreat, but I know I’ll be too busy to write this post on Tuesday, as I’m packing for my departure, so this is my reflection on the time I’ve spent here.

The writing has gone well. I really didn’t know what to expect, other than having uninterrupted time with the book, which is a huge blessing. Sometimes I haven’t dressed or washed my hair for three days at a time, coming out of the condo only for a walk on the beach, and returning with sand and a sticky saltwater film on my skin and in my hair. It’s been freeing not to have to be “presentable” on a daily basis. And not to have to leave the flow of the novel for the routines of “normal life.” Oh, sure, I’ve been to the grocery store about three times, and there have been a few times when “life interrupted” me with the need for a phone call or email unrelated to the writing. But for the most part, I’ve been living with Mare, Emily, and Neema, and the minor characters who have joined the cast of my story since I arrived here. They even go with me on walks—telling me what’s going to happen next, or arguing for a different ending (twice) or reminding me that I need to go back and write more scenes into various chapters. I welcome them on those walks, and barely take time to rinse the sand off my feet before hurrying back to my computer to carry out their wishes. I’ve avoided counting words, for the most part—even though my writing retreat has coincided, quite coincidentally, with NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month. Thousands of writers are participating in this, and many of them post their progress on Facebook every day. Their goal? To write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. I have no idea how many of these are ever published, or how well-written they are, but that kind of goal just doesn’t motivate me, and I wrote about why in my blog post of November 2. But one day I did get curious and counted up my “progress.” I was just over 20,000 words with only a week left to write. I think I’m close to 25,000 words now. But more importantly, I’ve got my head wrapped around this project and will be ready to move forward with it when I return home after Thanksgiving, where I might only write for 2-3 hours a day, and maybe only 3-4 days a week, depending upon how much I chose to enter back into my life with friends, Christmas preparations, and other activities. I don’t think I could have organized the structure of the novel as well at home. I’ve had outlines and papers spread out all over the living room of the condo, with pictures and story boards taped to the backs of chairs and sticky notes lining the edge of the desk, so every time I walk into the room, I’m surrounded by the story. And yes, my panoramic views of the beach over my computer (through windows to the west) and to my side (through sliding glass doors to the south) are breath-taking, and I will miss them greatly, but maybe I’ll take those memories home with me.

Another thing that has both informed my writing and taken some time from it this past week is my new project, which is now running simultaneously with the novel: 100 days of memorizing poetry. I started on Monday, and I’ve memorized five poems so far. I’m also writing short (750-word) reflections about the experience each day, especially about how it is affecting my prose. (Yes, there’s a possible nonfiction book in the making.) Today’s poem? “To Get the Final Lilt of Songs” by Walt Whitman.

Friends (on Facebook and through emails, and one friend who calls frequently) have asked if I’ve gotten lonely. Oddly enough, I haven’t. I do miss my husband and friends back in Memphis, and I miss my church, but I don’t equate missing these people with being lonely. I’m sure that Facebook is part of why I haven’t been lonely, but I’ve also tried to embed myself into the local culture a bit. During November there aren’t so many tourists here, so when I go anywhere—the grocery store, the gas station, to a bar or restaurant—people seem to welcome me with a relaxed friendliness. Yesterday at Publix, a man who works there (in produce? Maybe a manager?) asked me where I got my leather and pearl necklace. I said, “Wendy Mignot.” He nodded and said he bought his wife one of her pieces, and then we proceeded to talk about the local art scene. At my favorite wine and sushi bar (Crush) in Seaside, I’ve gotten to know the manager and two of the bartenders fairly well. One night I met a DJ who was working there and told him about my daughter’s wedding on the beach in May and got his card. And the one night when I met a friend (who lives in Sandestin) for dinner, several people walked in that she knew, and when she introduced me, I felt like a local, and I wanted to live here.

The communities along 30-A are like little villages. I saw it on Halloween night when I went into Seaside and watched the families and their children dressed in costume, the little ones trick-or-treating at the doors of all the little shops, and music and dancing on the lawn in the center of the square. The middle-school aged teenagers were gathered in groups—also in costume—while the younger children hung out with their parents, who eventually sat on the green with groups of friends, enjoying the music and a beer or glass of wine together. Earlier that day (or maybe the day before?) there had been a Halloweener contest—people brought their daschunds (and other dogs) dressed in costumes. It was like going back in time. Or maybe it’s like this in small towns and communities all over the place, but I’ve never lived anywhere other than Jackson, Mississippi and Memphis.

A couple of days ago I went into a shop in Seagrove that sells nice interior design items in the front and has an architectural office in the back. I met the couple (both architects) and recognized them from the daschund contest, which their 8-year-old had entered. We talked about the economy and how it was affecting architecture (I told them my daughter got her Masters in architecture in May) about the 30-A community and why they love it so much. I bought a hand-crafted home design item as a Christmas gift for a friend. They made recommendations for vendors we might want to look into for my daughter’s wedding, which will be right across the street from their shop, next May. I left feeling like they were friends, or could be.

And so I have only 4 days left to write here. Well, mostly 3, as I’m going to spend my last day here doing laundry, getting a manicure and pedicure (the salt water has destroyed my nails) and packing for my drive on Wednesday. And of course, walking on the beach and maybe stopping by Crush for one more glass of wine and one more crunchy shrimp roll. We’ll see. It’s going to be very hard to leave here, but I know I’ll be back. Several people have tried to sell me a condo or house on the beach. I’ve told each of them yes, that I will buy a beach house from them one day. When I win the lottery. Wait—I don’t buy lottery tickets. But a girl’s gotta have a dream.

I'll close with my favorite two sunset photos from my stay here. One was taken on Seagrove Beach, right off the balcony of my second-floor condo, with a storm coming in.

The other was at Seaside, through the sea oats. Each sunset is a poem. Each one is unique. I don't think I could ever get used to the beauty that each one brings.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Walking on the Beach With George Eliot

Monday morning I took George Eliott on a walk with me on the beach here at Seagrove. Yes, I know that she died in 1880. But her poetry lives forever. And I hope that some of its “shelf life” will include a tiny space in the subconscious of my brain, after my efforts at memorizing her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible.” My favorite lines:

May I reach that purest heaven, be to other souls
The cup of strength in some great agony….

And then, on Tuesday morning, I had coffee with Emily Dickinson. It was too stormy to walk on the beach, so we snuggled on the couch and read aloud, “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” First the entire poem. (It’s short—only three stanzas.) And then two lines at a time, over and over until they began to stick in my memory.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all.

Later, when the storm abated, I was able to take Emily down to the sea where I found it was much easier to file her words away in my memory. Maybe it was the rhythm of the waves and of my own feet as I walked and recited the poem. It reminded me of the years, back in the 1980s, when I taught aerobic dancing. Whenever I hear those old songs, the steps I choreographed for my students seem embedded in my muscle memory and I find myself going one-two-three, kick, back, two, three, clap, whenever Lionel Richie croons out, “Oh, what a feeling, when we’re dancing on the ceiling!”

Last weekend during the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, the poet and writer, Beth Ann Fennelly, encouraged us all to memorize poetry as part of our preparation for our work as writers. I remember reading an article about a year and a half ago in the New York Times Magazine, “Got Poetry,” which was about memorizing poetry. I even did a blog post about it in April of 2009.

And so I’m taking Beth Ann’s encouragement seriously. For the next 100 days, I’m going to try to memorize a poem daily. Well, I might only do this on weekdays—we’ll see how it goes. I’m intrigued to discover how it will affect me on several levels—my writing, my psychological/emotional/spiritual life, and even my physical well-being. And yes, I’ll be writing about it, so watch for posts here every now and then.

And please leave me a comment—about your favorite poems to memorize, any experience you’ve had with this activity, or just anything at all about poetry. I always love to hear from you!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Our Serious Play: Making the Personal Universal

Two years ago, following the 2008 Creative Nonfiction Conference, I wrote a lengthy, journalistic blog post,trying to capture all the events of the weekend. I’m not going to do that with this year’s conference, for several reasons. For one thing, I just don’t have time, as I’m immersed in writing a novel and have only 9 days left here at the beach during the writer’s retreat to move the plot forward as far as I can before returning home to “normal life.” But that’s not the only reason. If you want a play-by-play, come to a conference. For today’s post, I’m going to try to capture a few of the “soul moments” of the weekend.

During her keynote talk on Friday night of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, this past weekend, Beth Ann Fennelly opened with a quote from Nietzsche:

“A poet should be as serious as a child at play.”

She was speaking on the personal essay (and she’s had quite a few essays published) but she brought all her talent and experience as a poet to the message she shared with us. “Writing is our serious play.”

Everyone who has tried to write knows how hard it is. Beth Ann said that “essay” means “to try.” One reason it’s so hard to write essay is that it the essay writer has to be open to discovering answers to central questions that bother us as we write. “The end product will be personal, but also sociological and universal.”

Lee Gutkind spoke to this point during his lecture Saturday morning on the “5 Rs of Creative Nonfiction:

“This is what we look for in creative nonfiction—the universal chord—to touch as many readers as possible.”

During one of the panels over the weekend, the best-selling author, Robert Goolrick, said that we write memoir “because we want to leave our mark: I WAS HERE.” A good memoir author, according to Goolrick, has a “deep need to be known.”

David Magee, whom I met at the Seaside Escape to Create Writers Workshop in October of 2009, commented during the panel on “The Writer’s Life: Off the Page,” on Sunday morning that the writer needs a delicate balance between the following things in order to work:

Ego—Some (in order to believe in yourself and your work)
Patience—Very Much

(Robert Goolrick added, on the need for patience, that his novel, The Reliable Wife, was turned down by 34 publishers over a two-year period. It’s now a blockbuster.)

There was much talk about publishing during the conference, which included a workshop with two literary agents, and an opportunity for everyone to pitch their work to agents, editors and publishers one day. At the end of the conference, one participant came up to me and asked, “Did anyone get a book deal?” And while I hope that a few emerging writers did make a good connection with the folks from the publishing industry who were there, I also hope that all of us were touched, to the bottom of our souls, by the wisdom that was shared by Beth Ann during the final panel:

“You must think and write accurately if you want to change the world. Focus on your writing and you’ll find joy. Focus on success or rewards from outside yourself and there will never be enough.

Something shifted inside me when I heard those words. And on my eight-hour drive from Oxford to Seagrove yesterday afternoon and evening, I thought about the novel I’m writing and how much I want to see it in print. But then I began thinking about each of my characters and the stories I’m trying to tell about their lives and the universal chord that I hope to strike and yes, my very own, deep need to be known. These thoughts and feelings stayed with me for the entire drive, followed me into a deep sleep, and were there on the pillow beside me when I woke this morning. And as I sat at my computer with my morning coffee, I realized that there was a stirring of something in me that I haven’t felt very much of in my life. I’m not certain, but I think—I hope—it might be joy.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Imagined Beauty of a Life I Haven't Had

As one of the co-directors of the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference, I thought I was prepared for everything that might come up during the conference. The little bumps and gliches that happen no matter how well you prepare for a gathering of over 100 emerging writers and faculty from all over the country. But it's not the unforseen blips that have shaken me this weekend. No, the thing I didn't see coming was tonight's reading at Off Square Books by one of our faculty, the memoir and fiction writer, Robert Goolrick.

I had never heard of Robert Goolrick before this weekend, but when I learned that he had written both a memoir and a novel, I was interested. I introduced Robert and the others who were on the panel at our 4:15 session this afternoon, and when he spoke, something in his voice resonated with me.

Tonight at Off Square Books, he read from his memoir, The End of the World As We Know It, and I wept during much of the reading. Goolrick was molested by his father at a young age, and his memoir describes in the most powerful, dark, poetic prose I've ever read on the subject, the ongoing affects on the souls of those whose persons are violated in this way:

"If you don't receive love from the ones who are meant to love you, you will never stop looking for it, like an amputee who never stops missing his leg, like the ex-smoker who wants a cigarette after lunch fifteen years later. It sounds trite. It's true.

"You will look for it in objects that you buy without want. You will look for it in faces you do not desire. You will look for it in expensive hotel rooms, in the careful attentiveness of the men and women who change the sheets every day, who bring you pots of tea and thinly sliced lemon and treat you with false deference....You will look for it in shopgirls and the kind of sad and splendid men who sell you clothing You will look for it And you will never find it. You will not find a trace."

At this point I was making loud enough noises with my weeping that a few people around me reached out with tissues and hugs, and my friend, Kathy, asked, "Are you all right?'

Of course I'm not all right.

And then Goolrick reads the part about why he wrote and published the memoir:

"I tell it for the fathers The priests. The football coaches.... I tell it because there is an ache in my heart for the imagined beauty of a life I haven't had, from which I have been locked out, and it never goes away."

At the end of the reading, Goolrick asked the packed house if there were any questions. You could have heard a pin drop. We just applauded, and filed out, quietly.

Down the street at the reception, we shared drinks and delicious food in the beautiful surroundings of an art gallery. I spoke with Robert Goolrick about my own experience and about the way his words resonated with me. He signed his books that I had purchased at the book store, including his novel, the New York Times best seller, A Reliable Wife. He looked me in the face, and then gave me a hug.

I can barely feel my legs beneath me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Reading Life by Pat Conroy: Poetry and Inspiration

It’s after midnight the night before I’m be driving about 450 miles from my writing “retreat” here in Seagrove Beach, Florida, to Oxford, Mississippi, where I’ll be co-directing the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference, which starts on Thursday! I’m pretty much packed for my 7 a.m. departure (I’ll be stopping in Jackson to visit my mom at the nursing home) and should go to bed, but I don’t want to leave my blog unattended for five days.

A Facebook friend who has been reading my comments about Pat Conroy’s latest book, My Reading Life, asked if I was going to review it on my blog. If I had more time, I might try to do it justice, but I know I would fail miserably. It’s just too beautiful for me to mess with.

I’ve been reading it during breaks from drafting the novel I came to the beach to write, and nothing could be more inspirational. Except that I sometimes get depressed reading Pat’s work because I know I can never write like that. It’s like poetry, but it’s prose. The Prince of Tides is my favorite book of all time, and I think everything Pat Conroy has written is fabulous. (I reviewed his book, South of Broad, last September.) But somehow I didn’t expect him to bring his huge gift of literary prose to a book about reading. But, how could he do less?

You can read reviews many places, so I’ll just leave you with a few of my favorite quotes and then tell you to go out and buy the book and read it. Now. Especially if you’re a writer, but even if you just love the beauty of the written word. A few “tastes” of his nectar:

On the special relationship that writers have with each other:

“Because we were strangers who would know one another on this planet for a very short time we could trade those essential secrets of our lives that defined us in absolute terms. Voyagers can remove the masks and those sinuous intricate disguises we wear at home in the dangerous equilibrium of our common lives.”

On the influence that our upbringing has on our writing:

“All writers are both devotees and prisoners of their childhoods, and the images that accrued during those early days when each of us played out the mystery of Adam and Eve in our own way. My mother’s voice and my father’s fist are the two book-ends of my childhood, and they form the basis of my art.”

On what he wants when he reads a book:

“Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for when I take up a novel and begin to read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less, the full measure of a writer’s heart. I want a novel so poetic that I do not have to turn to the standby anthologies of poetry to satisfy that itch for music, for perfection and economy of tone. Then, too, I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food and drink, because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.”

And finally:

“I write a poem in hopes that my name will lie fresh on the tongues of language lovers a hundred years from now; I write a novel in case a poem is not enough.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

Are Skinny Women Happy?

I’ve had an obsession with being skinny since the year I turned 16 and began to gain weight for the first time in my skinny childhood and pre-adolescence. I had enjoyed freedom from this obsession during all those magical summers of childhood and through junior high school, hanging out at the swimming pool at the country club in my two-piece and water-skiing with friends, without a thought to what my hips or thighs looked like. (I didn’t have any hips or thighs to worry about, actually.) It was a time of innocence and freedom from self-absorption that I miss dearly. I’m never more aware of this lifetime issue than when I’m at the beach.

For the past eleven days I’ve gone on one or two hour-long walks on the beach every day. On sunny days, I wear a swim suit—hoping to catch some sun (tanned cellulose looks better than white cellulose) and just enjoying the unencumbered freedom of being close to nature—without the barriers of clothing. Sometimes I think about Adam and Eve and how it must have felt being naked in the garden. It’s taken me a while to lose my self-consciousness enough to enjoy the ecstatic feeling of the sun on my skin and the wind blowing through my hair as I walk along in my big girl (Lands End) swim suit, watching for dolphins jumping in the ocean on one side and the lovely architecture of the beach houses on the other.

I’m a friendly person, so I always speak to other beachcombers as we pass one another on our walks. “Good morning!” or “Hello” or “Hi, how are you?” seem as natural to me as greeting someone at my front door or the clerk in the grocery store. But on many visits over the past few years, including this one, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. Not everyone returns my greeting. Some people don’t even look up from the ground, but press onward as though I’m not even there. And now here’s the trend I’ve observed:

It’s the skinny women who often don’t look at me, smile, or speak.

Most all the men will speak. I think, for the most part, men are more comfortable in their own skin than women. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re sporting a six-pack and proud of it, or showing the signs of two many six-packs in the bellies hanging over their baggy, knee-length swim trunks. They’re just hanging out, and happy to exchange a greeting and a smile.

But the pleasing(or unpleasing)ly plump women are the most friendly. The ones with skirt-bottomed swimsuits or leggings with over-sized tee shirts. They’ll smile and make eye contact and return my cheerful greetings with their own. Sometimes I feel like we’re exchanging subliminal messages:

“You go, girl!”

“Yes, we have a right to enjoy the beach as much as those skinny, bikini-clad girls!”

But yesterday on my walk, I began to wonder if there’s another message we’re communicating. If somehow we’re trying to cover up our shame, our embarrassment, by pretending that we look okay out there with our thighs rubbing together as we walk and the fat on our upper arms jiggling. I wonder if our friendliness is a front, a way to keep our insecurities at bay.

And then I began to think about what might be behind the unfriendly expressions on the faces of the skinny women. I’m not talking about the joggers—I get that—they are in the zone and not out for a social constitutional, but the women of all ages (especially middle-age, it seems) who have slim, toned bodies, and carry themselves with an air of confidence in their swim suits. Most of them will not look me in the eye. Occasionally there’s a half-smile and less often a brief nod or “hi,” but mostly I feel invisible to them. And so I began to wonder, “Are they really happy?” And if they are, why won’t they smile or speak to me? Am I intruding on their world with my imperfect body, ruining the view for them as they take the beach in stride?

If you’re thinking, well maybe now she’ll lose her obsession with being skinny, you’re wrong. After over forty years of on-again, off-again dieting, endless exercise programs, and an on-going struggle with eating disorders and body image issues, I still want to be skinny. But I’m beginning to finally believe that being skinny won’t make me happy. (Yes, I’ve known that, intellectually, all along.) I guess I want it all-to be happy and skinny. And I promise that if that ever happens (the skinny part) I’ll still speak to everyone I pass on the beach.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Dark Night of a Memoirist’s Soul

After months of planning, the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford is about to become a reality—beginning next Thursday, November 11! With nearly 100 people registered and almost all the pre-conference workshops full or quickly filling, my fellow co-directors, Neil White, Kathy Rhodes and I couldn’t be happier. And I also want to say a great big thanks to Carroll Chiles Moore (who works for Neil at Nautilus Publishing) for all her hard work helping with the registration, web site, mailing, and countless other things.

It’s been exciting to “meet” the 9 participants in Kristen Iversen’s pre-conference manuscript critique workshop. As co-director for the conference, one of my enjoyable duties has been to gather, format, and pass these manuscripts on to Kristen, and to “introduce” the participants to one another. They’ve had a lively group email going, getting to know each other before the conference, and even making plans to meet for dinner the night before their critique workshop. Writers are often introverts, but I think this group is anxious to hang out together. (I’ve heard from Kathy that Dinty Moore’s group is also doing some pre-conference bonding, especially on Facebook.) It’s been rewarding for me to read some of the manuscripts for Kristen’s workshop (which I participated in back in 2008—she’s a great workshop leader!) and get to know some of these folks a bit through their writing.

One is writing a memoir about healing from post-traumatic stress syndrome after her husband died of cancer. Another (she’s in the MFA creative writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, for Pete’s sake) is writing about a traumatic event in a dear friend’s life. Also writing about her husband’s death, a third participant is chronicling his story as a pioneer in the US aquaculture industry, where he set out to bring hope and jobs to the poverty stricken flatlands of Mississippi and Alabama.

A fourth participant already has one book published—she woke up from a coma because she was worried about her dog, and so she wrote (and published) a breed study about Labrador Retrievers. Now she’s writing a memoir about her coma experience.

And then there’s the one who was working in a refugee camp in Tanzania and met a woman named Gisela Morini while on R&R on the Island of Zanzibar. Can’t wait to read that one! Another memoir-writer in the group gave a reading at Square Books from her chapbook (poetry) years ago and has an ongoing love affair with Oxford (don’t we all?).

Reading their stories reminds me of something conference director, Neil White, loves to share at book signings for his terrific memoir, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.” He was at a writers’ conference years ago and during the pitch fest, he stood up and basically said he did time (for kiting checks) in a minimum-security prison that doubled as a leprosarium, and before he could sit down an agent came running across the room saying, “Have you signed with anyone yet?” The point of the story was that writers of creative nonfiction have a huge edge if they have a colorful personal story to tell, because, as they like to say over at the CNF Journal and web site, “You can’t make this stuff up.” My favorite memoirist, Mary Karr, has lived a life more colorful than mine, as have some more of my favorites, including Haven Kimmel, Anne Lamott, Kim Michelle Richardson, and Augusten Burroughs. It’s not that I wish there had been more pain and suffering in my life, but it’s great fodder for memoir. And then of course the writer must get up and above the tragic life she has lived and spin her story as art, and not just as confession or therapy.

Last week, I received the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest in the mail. I brought it with me on my month-long writer's retreat here at Seagrove, and it’s been invaluable during my breaks from writing. I’ve entered several WD writing competitions in the past, with no success, but this issue contains a terrific “Winner’s Spotlight” from the 79th Annual WD Writing Competition. Michael Palmer’s essay, “Night,” was chosen from more than 12,300 entries in 10 categories.

Palmer writes about the accidental drowning of a group of his closest friends. The memoir focuses on his own grief, and his memories of one of the friends in particular, as well as that friend’s mother.

You can read the entire piece here.

When WD asked Palmer what he thought the biggest challenge of writing memoir was, here’s what he said:

“I love memoir, but it comes with a stigma of being a self-indulgent genre, and countering that can be a challenge. Memoir is far more complex a genre than a self-mythologizing narrative or straight-up confession—which is how some people think about it. In some ways there is pressure not to trust your own story, or to feel that your own story is too petty or that telling it is narcissistic.”

Well said, Michael. And here’s wishing all the participants in Kristen and Dinty’s memoir workshops great success with their works-in-progress!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

[Not] Counting Brush Strokes

Day 6 of my personal writing retreat at Seagrove Beach, Florida, is half over, and I’ve been fighting the urge to count words. It’s not that I really want to, it’s just that lots of writers I follow on Facebook and Twitter do this, and their posts can be, well, intimidating:

“3000 words today. Time for bed.”

“Hit 40,000 words today. Only 10,000 more to go.”

“How many words did you write today?”

And then there's the NanoWriMo group--the folks who have signed up to write a novel during the month of November. Their goal is 50,000 words by midnight on November 31. I do love goals, but I just don't do numbers well. (But hey, whatever works. I wish all writers success!)

Here’s the thing: For me, writing is art. And because I’m also a visual artist (writing/painting icons with egg tempera) I’m always keenly aware of the creative process when I sit down at my computer or take pen to paper to draft an essay or work on my novel-in-progress. When I’m painting, I can’t imagine ever counting my brush strokes. You don’t see artists posting things like this on Facebook:

“2000 brush strokes today!”

It’s almost distracting to me to see the page number and word count at the bottom of each page of my manuscript as I work (I suppose there’s a way to turn that off, hmmmm) because my goal is to serve the muse, to make the words sing. The quote at the top of my blog is there for a reason:

“You have got to learn to paint with words.” – Flannery O’Connor

This morning I went for another walk on the beach, for just over an hour. It was there, where I could feel the warm sun and the cool breeze on my body, where I could hear the roar of the ocean and watch the white birds fly over the deep blue water, that my art came alive for me today. Two new characters introduced themselves to me (I can hardly wait to write their stories into the book!) and I finally began to see the ending more clearly. (Some writers can write without knowing the ending, but I have to have something to write towards. I think it’s my creative nonfiction background coming through. Read Ken Follett and David Morrell’s very different approaches to writing in their interview in the November/December issue of Writers Digest, by Jessica Strawser.)

Back in my new chair (I went to Target yesterday for ink cartridges and bought a cushioned folding chair, after 5 days of sitting in a hard wooden dining room chair in the condo) I’m ready to pick up the story where I left off yesterday and write. I don’t know how many words or pages I’ve done so far (each chapter is numbered separately for now, so I don’t see a combined total as I’m working) but I do know this: giving birth to this novel is at once the hardest and most joyful work I’ve ever done. And maybe there will come a point during the labor when I’ll be counting the minutes between the contractions, but not now. For today, I’m just happy to get this baby into the birth canal. And when November 31 rolls around, you probably won't hear me scream, "It's a book!", but you never know.