Friday, November 30, 2012

Long Live Bookstores!
     I was saddened to learn that Quail Ridge Books and Music in Raleigh, NC is going to be sold. This is an award-winning independent bookstore with an incredible children’s section. Its owner, Nancy Olson, now 71, opened the store in 1984. Each week she hosts  signings and parties for authors of children’s books as well as those for adults from Al Gore to Amy Tan, and such children’s book authors as John Scieszka, Ashley Bryan, James Ransome, "Erin Hunter" (Warrior series), Mo Willems, and Junie B. Jones. Just within the last few weeks Rosemary Wells and Orson Scott Card. were there.
     I’ve been a Quail Ridge speaker numerous times over the last twenty years, and a loyal customer practically every week over the last ten. Children’s services coordinator Carole Moyer I think of as a special friend who’s kept my books on the shelves. Other Quail Ridge staff greet  me when I  enter and are always willing to help me find books and magazines and even gift-wrap them.
    One particularly tender incident occurred a few years back on a excruciatingly hot day when my dog Shaka Zulu and I drove to Quail Ridge. It was so hot that I couldn’t leave my dog in my Volvo even with all the windows down. The bit of shade I found under a tree for him wasn’t any cooler. I kicked myself for bringing him.
     I  tied Shaka to the tree and told him I’d be back in ten minutes. Shaka growled, “Make it five, Old Gal, make it five.” That's how we rolled.
     I rushed into the store where Nancy smiled and chatted with customers. She spoke to me and I responded, adding that my dog had given me five minutes to make my purchases and get back to him under that tree.
    “Oh, he’s welcome in here,” she said. “Dogs and bookstores go together.” Surprised and grateful, I hurried back to fetch my darlin’ dog.
     Shaka is a well behaved dog. I worried, though, that with so many people walking around inside, and so many tall book-bulging stacks and cards everywhere to wiggle his butt and tail past would be too much of a challenge for  him.
     Shaka Zulu wasn’t anybody’s fool. He knew which side his dog biscuit is buttered on. Once inside he seemed to understand that he’d have to be on his best behavior if he was to stay in this comfortable place. Maybe he also smelled something familiar -- books? Books were all over the place back home. He'd slept on many of them on the couch.
     Shaka behaved, I made my purchase, and we hurried back to my car. It was an experience not many dogs get to have. Shaka seemed to enjoy it, and I did, too.
     I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Quail Ridge’s new owners will love books, authors, illustrators -- and dogs -- as much as Nancy Olson does.
     What’s a special memory that you have about your favorite bookstore?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Attempt

I happened onto a guy named John D'Agata writing about the essay.  He's quoted in an old piece in "The Los Angeles Review."  Interesting enough, the copy that I have is missing pages.   Thus I have part of an essay about the essay.   But enough to get my heart started.
The title of this apercu (isn't that a cool word and since this is more a sketch than anything else, it's apt) comes from the French assei:  an attempt.  To write an essay is to try something.  And probably fail though success in the usual sense of the word really isn't the goal.
Here are a few things from my tortured copy of "TLAR" --   The goal is never again think of the essay as five paragraphs.    Anybody who has taught composition knows why five paragraphs will get a student from English 400 to English 1A, but he/she also knows the process has probably crippled the student for life.  Who would ever want to write something that moribund again?  The 5-paragraph essay is not an attempt; it's a foregone conclusion just as anesthesia will render every patient unconscious.
And then this:   "A thesis statement . . . denies a text the possibility for reflection, digression, discovery or change."  Aren't those attractive nouns!  Especially digression -- the path that leads off the well-marked trail and that might take one to a view point that's not on the map or a cave with a half decomposed body.
Let's finish w/ a quote from the editor of the 2000 edition of "The Best American Essays"  -- "If the essayist has all the answers, he isn't struggling to grasp, and I won't either.  When  you care about something, you grapple with it because it is alive in you.  It thrashes and moves like all living things."
For the Hamline students who have to write critical essays, keep this in mind:  if it's just lying there on the page, it's probably dead.  Bring it to life.  It is, after all, your monster.


Friday, November 23, 2012

The Lives and Letters of Townsend Warner and Maxwell

Alas, I have finished reading the book I mentioned in my previous post, The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William 1938-1978, edited by Michael Steinman (Counterpoint).  A few of them each night, just before sleep, have given me better dreams than usual.  One of the great pleasures of these erudite, affectionate exchanges is the startling originality of the language, an originality of being.

Beset by "the minutiae and careful queries" of her publishers, Townsend Warner complained, "I am like those children who spend their time crawling about under cotton-looms in Manchester factories, fastening loose ends.  It is tedious in the extreme. It would be a pleasure to do it for somebody else's book--but not for one's own.  It is like trying to get sand out of one's navel."

While she edited the papers of her lover, Valentine Ackland, dead of cancer at sixty-three, Townsend Warner suffered.  "The  letters are so sad and my memory of the last years till so raw," she wrote to Maxwell, "that I had to take myself off and hide in plain hard work and useful futilities.  I am perfectly well, but made of damp sawdust.  If I were in an hour-glass, I would stick."

Maxwell replied, "The only way I know to dry out the dampness of sawdust is by writing.  It is the only cure, for the likes of you and me, for it doesn't matter what evil under the sun, including those that are incurable."

Such language is inimitable.  However hard I tried, I would never think Sylvia's particular thoughts, for they are the deep expressions of a distinct sensibility.  We must find our own imagery.  Now that the book is closed, I feel bereft.  On to her other books of stories and memories.  Then to the fifty-year correspondence of Maxwell and Eudora Welty: What There Is to Say We Have Said.  Then back again to the Maxwell-Townsend Warner lettersWhat a pleasure to anticipate.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

You know, if Benjamin Franklin had had his way and made the turkey the national bird, it would have been protected under federal law, and then we would have had to eat something else for Thanksgiving. So mull over that while you're battling your cousins for that drumstick tomorrow! And thank the folks who decided on the bald eagle instead!

/random post

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"I'm a genius but nobody knows it but me.”

Ran into this quote this morning via @JohnFugelsang on Twitter: 

“If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery--isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you'll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is.”

-- Charles Bukowski, Factotum

I have nothing to add.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How to Write

You would be surprised by the frequency of simple errors in other people's manuscripts.  We all benefit from editors, as I learned again and again  whenever a copy editor returned a manuscript that bristled with Post Its.  Last week a couple of anonymous notes on writing came my way.  They may give you a laugh as they did me.

Words on a t-shirt:

Let's Eat Grandma.
Let's Eat, Grandma.
 Commas save lives

And a list of guidelines, doubtless written by an English teacher who had had enough and couldn't take any more:
  1. They're =They fucking are
  2. Their= Shows fucking possession
  3. There=Specifies a fucking location
  4. You're=You fucking are
  5. Your= Shows fucking possession
  6. It's=It fucking is
  7. Its=Shows fucking possession
  8. We're=We fucking are
  9. Were=Past fucking tense of “are”
  10. Where=Specifies a fucking location
  11. Loose=Not fucking fixed in place
  12. Lose=Cease to fucking keep
  13. Affect=A fucking action
  14. Effect=A fucking result
  15. Could've=Could fucking have
  16. Could of=You're (see 4) a fucking retard
I thought about cleaning up the language, not to offend readers whose sensibilities are more delicate than mine.  But why?  Words are only words, and words are writers' materials.  Taboo words have greater force than others, if they're used purposefully.  As they come more frequently into the ordinary conversation of old ladies like me, they lose some of that force, but they haven't yet lost it all.  (Consider your own reaction, Reader, to the appearance of such words at a website about writing for children.) If the list above were cleaned up, it would lose the hair-tearing tone the author intended, and therefore its humor.

Meanwhile, I've been reading An Element of Lavishness, the correspondence of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, her New Yorker editor for forty years.  Warner wrote scores of stories for the magazine.  Over time, although they rarely met, author and editor became intimate friends.  The tone of their letters is the contrary of the tone in the list quoted above, all elegance and decorum and delicate irony, all patience and kindness.  One of the most striking things about the correspondence is the writers' mutual encouragement.  Maxwell wrote novels, as Warner did.  They sent their books to one another as gifts, always a dangerous thing for writers to do, lest one be forced to remark on a friend's book that doesn't please.  Whatever they may have thought in their heart of hearts, they always found generous things to say.  Maxwell could write about a storm strong enough to blow his wife into the arms of a stranger and shatter plate-glass windows all around, with a sense of the danger unmitigated by the humor of the telling.  Warner wrote about an aged friend who enjoyed a little adultery, when the robin that came and went through the sitting room window and was her constant  companion took umbrage at the arrival of another robin who entered through a window in the kitchen.  Such little things became matters of moment, because gifted writers had noticed.

These two old friends both loved music (Warner was an expert in ancient music) and books and culture and one another.  Whether the topics were storms or birds or Cardinal Newman or the cats in the garden or Maxwell's little girls or the Cuban missile crisis or Warner's need to hunker down at home during World War Two, when she might have taken refuge in America, their impulse was always to comfort and share ideas and entertain.  A reader of these letters takes vicarious comfort and entertainment, too.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Nitty Gritty: Which Questions to Ask? Which to Answer?

     When I give talks at schools and conferences, I’m used to spouting the some stock (though significant) answers to the same stock questions that folks have asked me over  most of my writing life.  
     Like “What made you decide to be a writer?” “What’s your favorite book that you wrote?”  “Where do you get your characters/ideas/words?”  “How old are you?”  “What’s it like to be a Negro/Black/African American writer?" (tired of being labeled)  “Are you a millionaire and travel in a limo?”
   These questions are acceptable, of course, but  I’d love to field some unusual questions, too, ones that would challenge me to indulge in spectacular answers. Wouldn't you?
     Well! Award-winning short story author Edith Pearlman (Binocular Vision) in her keynote address at the North Carolina Writers Network Annual Fall Conference the other evening told me how to do this. I’ll pass it on to you.
     She said she thought of questions that she didn’t get asked but that she wished she would. Then she wrote down answers to them. Repeating those questions to us and then telling us her answers became the centerpiece of her talk.  I’m sorry that I didn’t write down her questions or her answers. I was too busy thinking about my questions that I’d like to answer aloud to my own audience.
     Like “Why did I move from writing journalism to writing fiction -- or is there a difference?”  “What kind of book would I'd like to write that would become a guaranteed best-seller?” “Why do I declare, and rather emphatically, that the language (American) I use in my books  is ‘regional vernacular’ and not ‘dialect’?
     How about you? What would you publically ask yourself -- and have the courage to answer -- in front of your audiences?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Stay in the Room

I've been reading Ron Carlson.  (BTW.  Why does his name sound so pleasant while mine cacophonous?)  Anyway, his short stories are terrific and I suggest them highly.  He also has "Ron Carlson Writes a Short Story," a pleasant little how-to book where he explains the process that finalized as "The Governor's Ball," itself a gem of understatement.

As he traces the story from the first sentence, he gives advice about writing.  The piece that I want to chat about is this:  Don't Leave the Room.   He's adamant about this.  Stay in the room.  No hot drinks.  No fridge.  No nothin'.  Stay in the room.   Butt in the chair.  He chronicles the difficulties.  The siren call of Mr. Coffee, for instance.  

We all know the difficulties.  Ulysses had his men tie him to the mast.  Ron stays in the room.  Good for him.  However, lots of us don't stay in the room and we do all right.  I speak for many when I say something is still writing when I'm sorting whites from coloreds.  (And if you use Mrs. Stewart's Bluing for sparkling whites, raise your hand now.)

Writing is getting done when I'm playing w/ Amos, the outdoor cat.  Watering the corner of the lawn that the sprinklers miss.  Seeing what the weather is in all the cities where my friends live.

Maybe this Ron's advice is this:  if you can't stay in the room, take the story along.   The story always calls, "Shotgun."  Likes to ride around and do errands.  Likes to take the air.

Dozens and dozens of people have told me how they write at stoplights.  Waiting for kids after school.  Writing w/ a flashlight as the soccer game rages a dozen yards away.  Writing at lunch while the others gossip.  Writing on the bus or train.  Writing for 15 minutes while everybody else is settling into sleep.

The biggest room is the world of the story.   Stay in the room.