May 31, 2012

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

One of my favorite books as a kid was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I reread it as an adult and loved it just as much, if not more.  I didn't think of myself as an incipient writer as a child, but now that I look back on it, was that yet another reason I loved Harriet?

HARRIET WAS TRYING to explain to Sport how to play Town.“See, first you make up the name of the town. Then you write down the names of all the people who live in it. You can’t have too many or it gets too hard. I usually have twenty-five.”
“Ummmm.” Sport was tossing a football in the air. They were in the courtyard of Harriet’s house on East Eighty seventh Street in Manhattan.

“Then when you know who lives there, you make up what they do. For instance, Mr Charles Hanley runs the filling station on the corner.” Harriet spoke thoughtfully as she squatted next to the big tree, bending so low over her notebook that her long straight hair touched the edges.

“Don’tcha wanta play football?” Sport asked.

“Now, listen, Sport, you never did this and it’s fun. Now over here next to this curve in the mountain we’ll put the filling station. So if anything happens there, you remember where it is.”

Sport tucked the football under his arm and walked over to her. “That’s nothing but an old tree root.Whaddya mean, a mountain?”

“That’s a mountain. From now on that’s a mountain. Got it?” Harriet looked up into his face.

Sport moved back a pace. “Looks like an old tree root,” he muttered.

Harriet pushed her hair back and looked at him seriously. “Sport, what are you going to be when you grow up?”

“You know what. You know I’m going to be a ball player.”

“Well, I’m going to be a writer. And when I say that’s a mountain, that’s a mountain.” Satisfied, she turned back to her town.

Sport put the football gently on the ground and knelt beside her, looking over her shoulder at the notebook in which she scribbled furiously.

“Now, as soon as you’ve got all the men’s names down, and their wives’ names and their children’s names, then you figure out all their professions. You’ve got to have a doctor, a lawyer—”

“And an Indian chief,” Sport interrupted.

“No. Someone who works in television.”

“What makes you think they have television?”

“I say they do. And, anyway, my father has to be in it, doesn’t he?”

“Well, then put mine in too. Put a writer in it.”

“OK, we can make Mr Jonathan Fishbein a writer.”

“And let him have a son like me who cooks for him.”

Sport rocked back and forth on his heels, chanting in singsong,“And let him be eleven years old like me, and let him have a mother who went away and has all the money, and let him grow up to be a ball player.”

“Nooo,” Harriet said in disgust. “Then you’re not making it up. Don’t you understand?”

Sport paused.“No,” he said.

“Just listen, Sport. See, now that we have all this written down, I’ll show you where the fun is.” Harriet got very businesslike. She stood up, then got on her knees in the soft September mud so she could lean over the little valley made between the two big roots of the tree. She referred to her notebook every now and then, but for the most part she stared intently at the mossy lowlands which made her town.“Now, one night, late at night, Mr Charles Hanley is in his filling station. He is just about to turn out the lights and go home because it is nine o’clock and time for him to get ready for bed.”

“But he’s a grown-up!” Sport looked intently at the spot occupied by the gas station.

“In this town everybody goes to bed at nine-thirty,” Harriet said definitely.

“Oh” – Sport rocked a little on his heels – “my father goes to bed at nine in the morning. Sometimes I meet him getting up.”

“And also, Dr Jones is delivering a baby to Mrs Harrison right over here in the hospital. Here is the hospital, the Carterville General Hospital.” She pointed to the other side of town. Sport looked at the left root.

“What is Mr Fishbein, the writer, doing?”

Harriet pointed to the centre of town. “He is in the town bar, which is right here.” Harriet looked down at the town as though hypnotised. “Here’s what happens. Now, this night, as Mr Hanley is just about to close up, a long, big old black car drives up and in it there are all these men with guns. They drive in real fast and Mr Hanley gets scared. They jump out of the car and run over and rob Mr Hanley, who is petrified. They steal all the money in the gas station, then they fill up with gas free and then they zoom off in the night. Mr Hanley is all bound and gagged on the floor.”

Sport’s mouth hung open. “Then what?”

“At this same minute Mrs Harrison’s baby is born and Dr Jones says, ‘You have a fine baby girl, Mrs Harrison, a fine baby girl, ho, ho, ho.’”

“Make it a boy.”

“No, it’s a girl. She already has a boy.”

“What does the baby look like?”

“She’s ugly. Now, also at this very minute, on the other side of town, over here past the gas station, almost to the mountain, the robbers have stopped at a farmhouse which belongs to Ole Farmer Dodge. They go in and find him eating oatmeal because he doesn’t have any teeth. They throw the oatmeal on the floor and demand some other food. He doesn’t have anything but oatmeal, so they beat him up. Then they settle down to spend the night. Now, at this very minute, the police chief of Carterville, who is called Chief Herbert, takes a stroll down the main street. He senses something is not right and he wonders what it is…”

“Harriet. Get up out of that mud.” A harsh voice rang out from the third floor of the brownstone behind them.

Harriet looked up. There was a hint of anxiety in her face.“Oh, Ole Golly, I’m not in the mud.”

The face of the nurse looking out of the window was not the best-looking face in the world, but for all its frowning, its sharp, dark lines, there was kindness there.

“Harriet M.Welsch, you are to rise to your feet.”

Harriet rose without hesitation. “But, listen, we’ll have to play Town standing up,” she said plaintively. “That’s the best way” came back sharply, and the head disappeared.

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May 30, 2012

The Timeless Wisdom of Ray Bradbury

What a great talk by Ray Bradbury!  I’ve posted it below.  He’s speech isn’t prepared, and he’s just telling the young writers what it takes to be a writer.  He’s so wonderfully sincere and entertaining.

Here’s some of his tips, what he calls "the hygiene of writing."
  • Do not start by writing a novel ~ because you don’t know how to write yet.
  • Write a story a week for a year, and this will teach you how to write.
  • At the end of a year, if you write short stories, you’ll have at least one good short story.  If you write a novel, it won’t be any good.
  • Every night for the next 1,000 days, read a short story, a poem, and an essay, but make it the greats, not this modern crap.
  • Fire all those friends of yours who don’t believe in you.
  • All you need is a pencil and a piece of paper.
  • If you get blocked, it’s because you’re not writing the right thing.  Do something else.
  • Don’t write to make money.  It doesn’t work that way.
  • Don’t write to benefit the world.  Just set out to have a hell of a lot of fun.

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May 29, 2012

Can You Buy Your Way In?


Last week, I took part in a comment discussion on the Dystel and Goderich blog, and I ended up apologizing for my comment, but I’m not so sure that I was wrong.

The post by Jim McCarthy was about writing webinars and how much money you’ve spent on your writing career.  It ended with this:

So my questions for all of you: how much have you spent trying to make it as a writer? What was worth it? What wasn’t?

Here was my response:

To answer your questions: 1) A LOT and 2) definitely worth it.
But I wanted to mention something else. I know some writers who want to succeed but who do not invest money in what they’re trying to do. It’s a symptom of something larger ~ them selling themselves short and not taking themselves seriously as a writer. It’s easy when you have a family to say, “No. These needs are selfish.” I respect that, but if putting yourself out there is your goal, not just writing for yourself, you are going to have to sometimes be a little selfish, and that includes spending some money on it. It’s a delicate balancing act.
And I would say that writers who don’t have the money to spend don’t usually get as far, whether their time is taken by work and family or they just don’t take the workshops or attend conferences or build that good solid website. Or it takes them longer. A harsh reality.

Someone was offended by my comment because they said that it implied that not shelling out money meant that they were less serious about their writing.  That was not precisely what I meant.

To preface this, let me just say, you have to have put in your 10,000 hours and be very very good at your art. That’s a given.

I meant two things:

1) That people often do not give themselves permission.  They are timid and are their own worst enemies.  They sell themselves short ~ something I did for 30 years.  It’s not only a matter of it being so hard to get the work done and get it out there; it’s also a matter of us not thinking we’re good enough, not dreaming big, not aiming high enough.  Not spending money on it is merely a symptom of a larger thing. 

Many people don’t have the money.  That is absolutely true, and I understand that.  They can be aiming high and working very hard at it and not have the money.  That’s not the same thing as not claiming it.

2) That if you don’t spend money, it is much much harder to “make it.”  My personal experience has shown me that if I had not had and spent the money on conferences and networking and a website and taking a day here and there off of work and so on, I WOULD NOT BE WHERE I AM TODAY.  I was poor growing up, and I’ve been there. 

Bottom line: all the hard work and claiming in the world would not have gotten me where I am because you need networking and a professional web presence and other things that do cost money, IMHO.  It’s a harsh reality, but my experience has borne this out. 

Self-publishing is leveling the playing field, but it will never truly be level, as much as we like to believe in the American Dream.  Social Darwinism ~ money gives you an advantage.

It’s not fair, just like beautiful thin young people are often thought to have more worth in our society, but it’s a painful reality.

What do you think?  Am I way off base?

May 28, 2012

The Industry of Memory


“We are in the industry of memory.” 

Someone said this on C-SPAN’s Book TV years ago, but I can’t remember who it was. It’s always stuck with me, though. 

By that, this person meant all writers.  All writers are in the industry of memory.  I love that.  We are the keepers of the past, the treasurers of the mind.  We hoard experience and try to transmute it into the gold of story in the forge of our brains.

It’s not only a right but also an awesome responsibility.  For a journalist, that means they should stick close to the facts. For a nonfiction writer, the same. But for a fiction writer?  It seems to me we have a number of responsibilities.  We have responsibilities to our readers ~ to entertain, to open their eyes to new experiences, to make them think and to feel.  We have responsibilities to our constituencies, the people we are representing to do them justice, to be truthful and not reductive.  We have responsibilities to ourselves, to use our gift to the best of our abilities, to be brave and to go there.  Most of this applies to nonfiction as well.

But since what we do is so powerful ~ we writers literally create memory and transmit it to future readers ~ do we have a moral obligation as well? My first impulse is to say, yes, of course we do.  We’re part of the human race, and we have obligations as part of it.

Do no harm, perhaps?  Do not write with revenge as the motive?  But that, to me, seems to go too far.  Humor writers often rely on stereotypes.  People write from anger all the time. You are creating representation when you write, and inevitably things will be left out, which can be harmful. And if we want to change things, you want people to feel it, to feel the emotional harm.  I read Ralph Ellison’s short story "Battle Royal" last night, and I burned with righteous anger for the main character.

But maybe this isn’t the post to go on at length about the moral obligations of writers.

What I wanted to say is that we as writers in general do have the moral obligation, the sacred trust, of bearing witness and remembering.  And as this is Memorial Day and we the general public are unaffected and divorced from all that’s happening to the men and women in our armed forces ~ some would argue, by design ~ perhaps this is a trust that we are failing. 

For nonfiction and fiction writers alike, if it is our job to remember, to list the body count on all sides, to recount the emotional toll, to expose those responsible at all levels, are we failing at this?

May 25, 2012


Doppelganger. by Laurie Luczak

My name is uncommon.  On the web when I was setting up my website, I could only find one other person who had a similar name ~ Tamara Linse-Worman, who is a lovely artist in Minnesota.  Even when I was still single, my maiden name Tamara Tillett was uncommon, with only a gospel singer in, I want to say, Ohio.

I know some people have the opposite problem ~ lots of namesakes.

But yesterday, I came across someone with my exact name on Facebook, and so I friended her.  She’s German (my husband’s family originates in Germany and Poland) and young and beautiful. I don’t speak German, but a lot of people in Europe have the courtesy to speak English. *smile* And there’s always Google Translate.

Which got me thinking about doppelgangers.  Which makes me want to write a story.  Hmmm ….

May 24, 2012

‘Make Good Art’

To bookend the video I posted day before yesterday of the wonderful singing of EmiSunshine and then yesterday about disintermediation, here’s Neil Gaiman’s most wonderful commencement address at the University of the Arts.

Whether you’re just starting out or standing proud on a pile of accomplishments, take his words to heart:

“Make. Good. Art.”

May 23, 2012



Following on yesterday’s post and this one, I’ve been thinking about disintermediation.  That’s when you take out the middle man, the gatekeeper.  It’s what Amazon did to the big publishing companies and what the internet does for artists every day. 

The world, it’s a changing.


Everyone in the world (on a computer with internet access) potentially has one degree of separation from every other person in the world.

We can find our tribe, our 1,000 true fans, i.e., other people who love what we love and what we do. This of course is Seth Godin’s idea.

For some things, we’ve gone from an economic model of scarcity to an economic model of abundance.  This is one of Corey Doctorow’s big ideas.  Let me explain.  It used to be that you’d make/print so many things/books.  There was a finite number.  Then consumers competed for that finite amount.  This is why diamonds are so expensive, that and good marketing/killing the competition.  Now, whenever you buy a book or music, you are actually creating a new copy, rather than taking one out of the system. Consuming actually equals creating.

Change is a scary thing, and I would guess it’s contributing to the swing back toward conservatism.  If something new is on the horizon, it’s human nature to cling tightly to what you know, to old systems.

But change, too, is a lovely thing.  It challenges us, and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and helps us to live life more fully. Evolution.

But back to disintermediation.  Also a lovely thing.  Think about it: you are one or two clicks away from connecting with every fellow human on earth.  Just that far from love, from world peace. A Human Spring.

I’m just saying.

May 22, 2012

“I’m Going to Die on the Battlefield,” or Wonderful Amateurs

This is what art should be. People doing what they love.  This is EmiSunshine Hamilton singing “I’m Going to Die on the Battlefield.”  You can just see how she loves it, how she puts her whole body and soul into it. She’s got that je ne sais quoi, that certain something.

And I would suggest that, in the chicken and egg that is promotion of the creative arts, it’s the art that’s the most important. It’s the artist putting their everything into it.  Witness Susan Boyle and Adele and so many more.  They’ve got the right stuff, and it doesn’t matter that they don’t quite fit the mold.

There are a number of videos of EmiSunshine on YouTube, so if you’re avoiding work, down the rabbithole!

May 21, 2012

Rejection Ratio

I've posted this before, but I came across it again this weekend, and it strikes me (again) as so smart that I wanted to repost it.  It's from the inestimable M.J. Rose and Angela Adair-Hoy’s book How to Publish and Promote Online ~ M.J. Rose’s chapter "Last Words." It seems to me a very healthy way to look at things, no matter what sort of project you're trying to put out there.

Like it or not, people say no more than they say yes. But when I started out on my own in the publishing business I got paralyzed by the first few dozen no’s that I heard. Rejection is tough on even the most self-confident person. …

So I was telling a friend, who is a professional fundraiser, about my dilemma. She laughed and told me that in her business that the no’s are a good thing. “For each no you are getting closer to a yes,” she said. She even had a mathematical equation she’d worked out from ten years of experience. She had to get fifteen no’s to get a yes. And since she was asking for contributions for a worthwhile charity, her no-to-yes ratio would be lower than mine would. I could count on a thirty-to-one no-to-yes ratio.

So I started to tally the no’s.

In the first two weeks I got ten no’s.

In the second two weeks, twelve no’s. (I was starting to get excited, twenty-two no’s down, only eight to go. Finally, after six weeks and thirty-four no’s, I heard one wonderful, resonant yes. These no’s and yes’s were about getting a major reviewer to read my self-published novels.)

A funny thing happened to me in those weeks. I went from dreading and hating the no’s to understanding something about them. They represented hard work and determination on my part. I was proud of those no’s. Plus, the no’s were important. They weeded out the people I really didn’t want to review the novel anyway. Only someone who truly was open to the idea that a self-published novel could be any good was the right person to read it.

May 18, 2012

In Honor of Short Story Month, Litmags

In honor of short story month (May), I wanted to showcase some literary magazines that have made a difference in my career.  Check them out, read a story or two, buy an issue, and support them however you can.  They’re damn fine, you know.

  • South Dakota Review ~ Established in 1963, South Dakota Review is a national literary, scholarly journal for an educated and often professional audience. SDR contains works having a slight western regional emphasis, although selection is based primarily on the quality of the work rather than on subject matter. New, established, and emerging writers appear in each issue; most accepted work, however, is that of writers of considerable experience and ability. (Sample issues here.)
  • New West ~ New West is a digital guide to news, analysis, and culture for the Rocky Mountain region. Based in Missoula, Montana, and Boulder, Colorado, the company’s network of writers and editors cover Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. The award-winning new media publication specializes in stories and ideas about the evolving West. Its focus areas include wildlife, energy, politics, development and the innovators that make the Rockies a frontier for technology and entrepreneurship. New West also documents the literature, photography, film, outdoor recreation and local food movement that define the region’s vibrant culture in the 21st century. (I was so sad because this vital regional online mag had decided to call it quits, but I am so stoked to see they’ll soon be up and running again!)
  • Talking River ~ Talking River, Lewis-Clark State College’s literary journal, seeks examples of literary excellence and originality. Theme may and must be of your choosing. Send us your manuscripts of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction. The journal is a national publication, featuring creative work by some of this country’s best contemporary writers. Talking River is published biannually by the Associated Students of Lewis-Clark State College. (Alas, they don’t have anything online.)
  • Imitation Fruit ~ This (10th) issue marks the journal's fifth birthday and we are set to celebrate. Over the years the journal has grown in many ways. For each new issue there are more and more great stories and poems to read and new artwork to view. The journal has also grown in readership as new readers find out about the journal through word of mouth and other websites. With each new issue a lot of hard work and dedication is put into the journal from its contributors and the editorial team. Now is the time to look back and see that we have come a long way as a journal and it is time to celebrate in the fact that we have been successful in bringing quality content to readers to enjoy.
  • Georgetown Review ~ We’ve published stories by PEN/Faulkner Award nominee Frederick Barthelme, National Book Award finalist Stephen Dixon, Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction winner Andrew Plattner. We’ve published poems by Fred Chappell, David Citino, Denise Duhamel, David Allan Evans, Mark Halperin, James Harms, X.J. Kennedy, and David Romtvedt. However, in addition to all this well-known talent, we’ve also given many writers their first publication. Our magazine is a collaboration between English faculty at Georgetown College and undergrads who learn the editing business as they go and who always amaze their elders with their dedication and first-rate work.
  • Fried Chicken and Coffee ~ A blogazine of rural literature, working-class literature, Appalachian literature, and off-on commentary, reviews, rants. This online zine is published by the great Rusty Barnes.
  • SNReview ~ From the editor Joseph Conlin:  I always wished to recreate those moments. I tried for years in magazine journalism. Then I "retired" for fiction. I wrote and wrote. I' published. I' talked with writers. I' read their work. I've admired some of it. I wanted more outlets for writers whose work I admired. It never seemed possible until I understood the concept of file transfer protocol sites. Suddenly an ezine was possible. I have been at it since 1999. Our format has changed over that time. Our viewership has increased annually.
  • roger ~ roger contributes to the tradition of literary journals by publishing fresh and energetic poetry and prose by established and emerging writers, both nationally and internationally. Recently published writers include Andrea Holland, Ann Hood, Cecilia Woloch, Dawn Potter, Denise Duhamel, Gabriel Spera, Genine Lentine, Joseph Hurka, K. A. Hays, Leigh Anne Couch, Maura Stanton, Michael Gizzi, Nance Van Winckel, Paul Guest, Rick Campbell, Steve Almond, Steven Church, Stuart Dischell, Tom Chandler, and Travis Mulhauser. roger is currently published annually by the Department of Creative Writing at Roger Williams University, Bristol, Rhode Island.
  • Word Riot ~ Word Riot publishes the forceful voices of up-and-coming writers and poets. We like edgy. We like challenging. We like unique voices. Word Riot first opened shop in March 2002 as the literary section of a now defunct on-line music magazine, Communication Breakdown. Each month we provide readers with book reviews, author interviews, and, most importantly, writing from some of the best and brightest making waves on the literary scene.
  • Ramble Underground ~ Our goal is to showcase quality Fiction Short Stories on a quarterly basis without being too uptight about it. We at Ramble Underground believe that art begins beneath the surface. It's not hanging on the walls of rich folks' houses or written within the bounds of proper storytelling and literary etiquette. Underground was founded as a forum for unknown and established artists. To give voice and vision to things uttered behind closed doors or buried, like dog bones, in the yard.
  • Slow Trains ~ Slow Trains exists as a celebration of great writing, with an emphasis on fiction, essays, and poetry that reflect the spirit of adventure, the exploration of the soul, the energies of imagination, and the experience of Big Fun. Music, travel, sex, humor, love, loss, art, spirituality, childhood/coming of age, baseball, and dreams -- these are a few of our favorite things -- but most of all we are here to share the ideas, the memories, and the visions that our writers are most passionate about. Slow Trains is published quarterly near the seasonal changes (approximately March, June, September, and December), with the Slow Trains blog, Rave On: Postcards from Slow Trains updated on a regular basis.
  • Prick of the Spindle ~ Prick of the Spindle was begun in March 2007 in the spirit of creating a journal whose contribution to the literary arts would be well-rounded, with an acknowledgement to the works of literary history. It is the goal of the journal both to recognize new talent and to include those who have a foot planted in the writing community; we are simply looking for well-written, interesting pieces that embrace the fabric of diverse voices who have something to say, say it well, and say it originally.
So let’s give a hallelujah for all those hard-working litmag editors out there. Give ‘em a hand, give ‘em your attention, send ‘em your work, and support them however you can.

May 17, 2012

A Benediction

The other day, I had a late lunch at my favorite restaurant, Corona Village. It’s a place, by the way, that I will thank in the acknowledgements of my first book because it’s a place I can go and just write. Whether I’m working on my quota of pages or simply bitching long-hand, they single-handedly got me through many a tough spell. I try to go on the off hours, so there’s more privacy, and I’ve gotten to know the waiters and waitresses and bartender and owner well. They’re such good folks.

So the other day I was seated by a new waiter I had not met before. They took my order and brought it, and I was writing in my notebook and eating my arroz con pollo when the young man stopped back by to check that everything was all right. I said it was. And then he hesitated.

He’s a good-looking young man, in his early to mid twenties, medium-tall and slender with dark hair and dark eyes and just a little bit of a California Hispanic accent. He stood hunched forward a little on the balls of his feet with his hands clasped in front of him and his head bobbed forward in good will.

He hesitated, then he took a tentative half-step back and said, “Are you a business woman?”

“Well, I guess,” I said. “I’m a writer and an editor.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You just looked ...”

“Yes, I think you could say that I am.”

“Well, that’s something I would really like to be,” he said, and when he said it, he really meant it. “You see, I own a house in California and that’s what I’d really like to do here. I’d like to be in real estate, own some properties.” He had taken a few more steps back toward my table, and his face was open like a child’s. “Do you have any tips for me?”

Oh, how I had wished I had the answers. Thoughts of the poor economy and my years and years of working service jobs such as a waitress and bartender came and went. I remembered how I had yearned for a better life, how I had vowed that it didn’t matter how long it took and how hard I had to work, I would get that college degree. I wouldn’t be a waitress for the rest of my life.

I just melted on the inside. I did not know the answers.

“Well,” I said, “do you know marketing? You could volunteer to do marketing for any organization you belong to, say a church, and then you could put that on your resume. You could go to LCCC [our community college] and take classes. I think they’re fairly inexpensive.”

And then I couldn’t think of anything else to say. Where had all my years of experience gone, all my useful tidbits?

“It will be hard getting started,” I added, “but you can do it.” It sounded lame, but what more could I say?

“Oh, okay,” he said. “Can I ask your name?”

“Tamara. And what’s yours?”

I thought he said Jason at first, but no, it was Jesse. We shook hands.

“Very nice to meet you, Jesse,” I said as he turned back to his work. I was left with such a feeling of ... I don't know. Empathy, surely. But sorrow too.

And so for you, Jesse, as I can’t seem to find the right words myself, a benediction.


by Rabindranath Tagore

Bless this little heart, this white soul that has won the kiss of
heaven for our earth.
He loves the light of the sun, he loves the sight of his
mother's face.
He has not learned to despise the dust, and to hanker after
Clasp him to your heart and bless him.
He has come into this land of an hundred cross-roads.
I know not how he chose you from the crowd, came to your door,
and grasped your hand to ask his way.
He will follow you, laughing the talking, and not a doubt in
his heart.
Keep his trust, lead him straight and bless him.
Lay your hand on his head, and pray that though the waves
underneath grow threatening, yet the breath from above may come and
fill his sails and waft him to the heaven of peace.
Forget him not in your hurry, let him come to your heart and
bless him.

May 16, 2012

Anger, or Another Muse

What do you do with anger? 

I finished Augusten Burrough’s This is How.  I love how Augusten has this great shit detector, and he doesn’t let you get away with anything.  He calls you on your lies and self-deceits.  It may not endear him to some, but it’s very refreshing.

One of the things that he points out ~ and I’ve long thought was true ~ is that anger is very powerful.  It’s a caustic but vital emotion.  When you feel hurt, your natural response is to get angry.  It’s like when you’re hurt/infected by germs or viruses, your body’s natural response is white blood cells, the knights of the immune system.  Anger is the immune response of the emotions.

To extend the analogy, we also have to get those bad things out of our systems, whether it’s bacteria or poison or anger.  If we hold it in, it festers and gets worse and can destroy us, if we let it. If we can’t eliminate bad stuff through our waste system, it seeps out through the pores in our skin.

The same with anger.  We need to get it out of us, or it ruins us.  It turns into depression or self-hatred, or we let it build up to a point where we lash out, whether with unkind words or with fists and bullets.  Stress is also suppressed anger under another name (outside stimulus, our bodies telling us to do something).

It must be excised ~ or exorcised.

How do we get anger out of us?  Well, anger is a call to arms, a call to action.  It’s healthy (at least initially) because it’s the impetus to do something about a wrong.  So, to get it outside us, we need to DO SOMETHING.  One very good antidote is physical exercise.  Physical exercise reduces stress and gets rid of all those bad feelings and heightens the good endorphins. 

But my main point is this:  creative acts are one of the best ways to ameliorate anger.  Anger can be and is a lot of people’s muses.  It is an internal drive that we can focus to fuel our art.  That does not mean that our art needs to be angry ~ just that the energy that is created from anger can be refocused to our own purposes and is probably best used that way.

Competitiveness and “I’ll show them” are just other forms of anger.  It’s not bad to feel competitive ("I feel hurt because someone else seems to be getting what I deserve") ~ it just needs to be used constructively and not focused on to the point that it becomes corrosive.  It also helps to add a big dose of humility and to adjust your expectations.  But, nonetheless, redirected anger can take you far.

So I would suggest something.  Today, when someone cuts you off in traffic, when your significant other says that mean thing that really gets under your skin, when you remember how your parents didn’t love you enough or in the right way, use it.  Take that anger and use it to create space to do your art.  Say “screw them!” and use that “selfish” impulse to reserve the time and energy to do your art.

PS Here’s a great column “This Week in Anger” by some bicyclists that talks about this same principle.

May 15, 2012

No One’s a Mystery, by Elizabeth Tallent

This is one of my all-time favorite short-shorts, and I just adore Elizabeth Tallent's writing!

A woman and a pickup truck on a country road near Lincoln, by Joel Sartore

No One’s a Mystery

by Elizabeth Tallent

For my eighteenth birthday Jack gave me a five-year diary with a latch and a little key, light as a dime. I was sitting beside him scratching at the lock, which didn’t seem to want to work, when he thought he saw his wife’s Cadillac in the distance, coming toward us. He pushed me down onto the dirty floor of the pickup and kept one hand on my head while I inhaled the musk of his cigarettes in the dashboard ashtray and sang along with Rosanne Cash on the tape deck. We’d been drinking tequila and the bottle was between his legs, resting up against his crotch, where the seam of his Levi’s was bleached linen-white, though the Levi’s were nearly new. I don’t know why his Levi’s always bleached like that, along the seams and at the knees. In a curve of cloth his zipper glinted, gold.

“It’s her,” he said. “She keeps the lights on in the daytime. I can’t think of a single habit in a woman that irritates me more than that.” When he saw that I was going to stay still he took his hand from my head and ran it through his own dark hair.

“Why does she?” I said.

“She thinks it’s safer. Why does she need to be safer? She’s driving exactly fifty-five miles an hour. She believes in those signs: `Speed Monitored by Aircraft.’ It doesn’t matter that you can look up and see that the sky is empty.”

“She’ll see your lips move, Jack. She’ll know you’re talking to someone.”

“She’ll think I’m singing along with the radio.”

He didn’t lift his hand, just raised the fingers in salute while the pressure of his palm steadied the wheel, and I heard the Cadillac honk twice, musically; he was driving easily eighty miles an hour. I studied his boots. The elk heads stitched into the leather were bearded with frayed thread, the toes were scuffed, and there was a compact wedge of muddy manure between the heel and the sole—the same boots he’d been wearing for the two years I’d known him. On the tape deck Rosanne Cash sang, “Nobody’s into me, no one’s a mystery.”

“Do you think she’s getting famous because of who her daddy is or for herself?” Jack said.

“There are about a hundred pop tops on the floor, did you know that? Some little kid could cut a bare foot on one of these, Jack.”

“No little kids get into this truck except for you.”

“How come you let it get so dirty?”

“ `How come,’ he mocked. “You even sound like a kid. You can get back into the seat now, if you want. She’s not going to look over her shoulder and see you.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” he said. “Like I know I’m going to get meat loaf for supper. It’s in the air. Like I know what you’ll be writing in that diary.”

“What will I be writing?” I knelt on my side of the seat and craned around to look at the butterfly of dust printed on my jeans. Outside the window Wyoming was dazzling in the heat. The wheat was fawn and yellow and parted smoothly by the thin dirt road. I could smell the water in the irrigation ditches hidden in the wheat.

“Tonight you’ll write, ‘ I love Jack. This is my birthday present from him. I can’t imagine anybody loving anybody more than I love Jack.”

“I can’t.”

“In a year you’ll write, `I wonder what I ever really saw in Jack. I wonder why I spent so many days just riding around in his pickup. It’s true he taught me something about sex. It’s true there wasn’t ever much else to do in Cheyenne.’ “

“I won’t write that.”

“In two years you’ll write, `I wonder what that old guy’s name was, the one with the curly hair and the filthy dirty pickup truck and time on his hands.’ “

“I won’t write that.”


“Tonight I’ll write, `I love Jack. This is my birthday present from him. I can’t imagine anybody loving anybody more than I love Jack.’ “

“No, you can’t,” he said. “You can’t imagine it.”

“In a year I’ll write, `Jack should be home any minute now. The table’s set—my grandmother’s linen and her old silver and the yellow candles left over from the wedding—but I don’t know if I can wait until after the trout a la Navarra to make love to him.’ “

“It must have been a fast divorce.”

“In two years I’ll write, `Jack should be home by now. Little Jack is hungry for his supper. He said his first word today besides “Mama” and “Papa.” He said “kaka.” ‘ “

Jack laughed. “He was probably trying to finger-paint with kaka on the bathroom wall when you heard him say it.”

“In three years I’ll write, `My nipples are a little sore from nursing Eliza Rosamund.’

 “Rosamund. Every little girl should have a middle name she hates.”

“ `Her breath smells like vanilla and her eyes are just Jack’s color of blue.’

“That’s nice.” Jack said.

“So, which one do you like?”

“I like yours,” he said. “But I believe mine.”

“It doesn’t matter. I believe mine.”

“Not in your heart of hearts, you don’t.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I’m not wrong,” he said. “And her breath would smell like your milk, and it’s kind of a bittersweet smell, if you want to know the truth.”

May 14, 2012

The Past Is Not Another Country ~ It’s Us and It’s Now

I’ve been doing an informal survey of historical American fiction (~ 1850 to 1910) set in the American West.  Lots of interesting books. A lot I’ve read and a lot more need to go into my pile.

But I’ve noticed something while reading through reviews on Amazon about fiction set in rural America in the 1960s, or even set in rural America in presentday.  (This rural America tends to be the South, the Midwest, and the West.)

This is what I’ve noticed:  the blurbs about these contemporary novels read about the same as the ones for historical fiction, even to the extent that I have to do more reading to make sure they aren’t historical fiction.

(Yes, 1960 is in the past, but it’s not 1920 or 1890, for heaven’s sake.)

Why is that, do you suppose?  It immediately struck me that the past lies heavy over these parts of the country.  For whatever reason, it occupies the inhabitants more, and it seems to have a much firmer hold on current occupants.  For example, here in Wyoming, we hold firmly to our cowboy roots, even if trailer parks and roughnecks may be more representative of current inhabitants.  The Code of the West video is a prime example.

I can think of two reasons.  1) People want something to be proud of, and sometimes those things are ideals that are embodied in a (mostly fictional) past. 2) Somehow we are not able escape our past as easily.  We aren’t as distracted by the present, the technology and the fast-paced life of the city.

Am I wrong?  Does the past weigh just heavily over urban areas? Am I just more sensitive to the writing about places similar to where I grew up?  Or is it that the default subjectivity is the urban present, and all else feels strange in some way?  Or is there another reason?

Maybe there’s a personal component as well.  Our familial pasts affect us more than our shared overarching past. We seem to forget the overarching past very quickly, but throughout our lives our families continually remind us of ourselves and our families’ pasts.  We tell old stories and talk about who we are as a family, yet as a state or a nation the rhetoric doesn’t refer to the past much.

Hmmm.  I don’t know.  I’m going to be thinking about this for a while.

May 11, 2012

Emotional Dishonesty, or Augusten Burrough’s This is How

I just started reading Augusten Burrough’s new book This is How.  It is subtitled Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike.   I really like Augusten and his work and gobbled up Running with Scissors and Dry as soon as I could. 

A little background.  If you know me, you know I’m one of those cheerful optimistic people.  I always have a smile for everyone, and I don’t like imposing my bad mood on anybody else.

So then I read the first chapter of this book, entitled “How to Ride an Elevator.”  It tells a story about how Augusten was in a really bad patch in his life.  He was feeling really rotten.  He stepped into an elevator and at another floor a woman stepped in.  She saw the down look on his face and told him to cheer up, and then stepped off at the next floor.  His reaction was anger, of course. 

Then he talks at length about how shallow and false morning affirmations are.  You know morning affirmations, right?  Standing in front of your mirror every morning telling yourself you’re smart and pretty and all that.

My first reaction to reading that ~ that he discounted morning affirmations and that he stood there with a growly look on his face ~ made me angry.  My first thought was:  How dare he impose his bad mood on other people and then have the audacity to defend it.  How dare he dis morning affirmations.  (Not that I actually do them but I agree with them in principle.)

But then I began to wonder why I got so angry.

He goes on to say that his point is this:  It’s all emotional dishonesty.  When you smile and say banal things to people when you really feel horrible, you’re being dishonest with them ~ sure ~ but more importantly you’re being dishonest with yourself, and when you do a morning affirmation, you’re lying to yourself, the one person you need to be the most truthful with, if you’re ever going to get to the bottom of all the damage that’s been done.

So I began to think about it.  Why was I so angry?  I was angry because I felt hurt.  Why did I feel hurt?  First, I always bought into the idea of morning affirmations.  One thing that has always gotten me through the worst times was my sometimes-unreasonable optimism.  If I haven’t had had that, I think I would have committed suicide. 

Second, I realized that there have been people in my life who did not try to hold back their feelings and hence those emotions became my responsibility.  I was the one who had to smooth things over and make them feel better.  They imposed their bad feelings on me, and that’s why I was angry for Augusten thinking it was perfectly okay to walk around glowering.  Not that it was right for this woman to be so forward and impose her good mood on him.

Let me just say:  I’ve always had a problem with anger.  Not anger exactly ~ the lack of anger.  When I was young, it seemed as if I did not have a self to claim.  I thought of my body as other people’s property and I spent so much time trying to figure out what others wanted me to be that it took me a very long time to figure out what I really wanted or was. I did not own my own feelings.  So, anger? Not me.  You've got to feel like you own your self and only then do you have the right to defend it.  I’ve only just recently tried to deal with anger.

So, the ironic thing is, what Augusten is saying accomplished exactly what he is trying to do.  It was the epitome of what he’s talking about.  Emotional honesty.  You have to be honest with yourself about your emotions ~ not hide under platitudes, whether they are spoken or expressed ~ in order to heal old wounds.  By being honest with myself first about the emotion and then exploring why I responded that way, I realized some things about myself.

It was not a comfortable cogitation, let me tell you, but thank you, Augusten.

Go out and buy this book, people.  I can’t wait for the rest of the ride.

May 10, 2012

Julia Sweeney Gives the Talk

We have not come to this crossroads, yet, of course, but it’s coming.  Enjoy the lovely Julia!

May 9, 2012

Art Saves Lives

Alice Herz-Sommer and son Raphael

The great violinist Roman Totenberg has died, as has the great storyteller and artist Maurice Sendak. An immeasurable loss to their legions of fans and to the world.

Why is it that for some people art is everything, and for other people, nothing?  Or this form of art ~ be it music or painting or writing or whatever ~ doesn’t move me but I can’t live without that form of art?  And why are some people “tone-deaf” when it comes to art, and they think people who do are crazy?

What is it that gives art its power?  Does it begin in the basic human drive to connect, to create, to feel transcendence and beauty, to be elevated by the spiritual?  Is it intellectual or emotional or both?

I suspect it’s very complicated and includes all of the above.

Art literally has the power to save lives.  Don’t believe me?  Here is a video about Alice Herz-Sommer (interviewed by Tony Robbins), who is 108.  She is a fabulous Czech pianist who survived the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt.  The reason why the Nazis kept her around was because of her playing, which saved her life.  And she kept her six-year-old son Raphael alive with her. Her art saved her life and that of her son ~ that and her fabulous optimism ~ and I suspect it continues to save her life, in that she still plays every day and it gives her a reason to live. Alice has said just that: "Music saved my life and music saves me still."

(I am also fascinated by the psychology of the Nazis.  Here are people who are able to so totally dehumanize people as to exterminate them, yet they value art so highly?  Art is supposed to connect, yet in this instance maybe it helped dehumanize.  What's up with that?)

I am reminded of the movie Dead Poets Society ~ art saves lives, and the lack of it, or what it represents, can cause death.

People die for their passions and principals all the time.  You’ve got to think that they are saved by them as well.

May 8, 2012

A Tale of Three Black Cats

When my husband and I first got together, I decided we needed a cat, and my future husband readily agreed.  We looked in the paper and found an advertisement for kittens for sale.  As it turned out, they were teenagers, rather than kittens, but we chose a charming and lithe female from the bunch.

We named her Molly.  She was such a character.  We lived in an old house with a nice backyard, and in the summer when we would leave the windows open, she would jump out and stalk and catch worms and bring them in and give them to us as presents on the bare wood floor. Which was quite a surprise first thing in the morning on the bare feet.  Our friend Kathy stopped by and slept on the couch one time, and as Kathy sat there, Molly calmly climbed onto the back of the couch and onto Kathy’s head.

As it turned out, our landlord was selling the house and so we decided to get married and find a house of our own, but we needed to be out by June 1 so we temporarily moved to a trailer park.  The day we moved in, our neighbors' teenage boys sat out front of their trailer smoking cigarettes and listening to loud music, and there always seemed to be people coming and going.  They were good neighbors though ~ except for one thing. Within a week of moving in, Molly disappeared.  We started asking around, and as it turned out, those neighbors thought it was some cousin’s cat, for whatever reason, and just picked her up and put her in the car to drop her off.  When they got to the cousin’s way across town in a rural subdivision and opened the door, of course Molly bolted, never to be seen nor heard from again.  And let me tell you ~ we looked and looked and asked and asked.  No hide nor hair, of course.

As I was looking for Molly and asking around, I came across a woman who said, “Well, don’t know about that cat but I’ve got this one here.”  She told me with a tsk-tsk that this little female had had the audacity to have kittens in her area and was busy stealing food from her fluffy white Persian male.  This momma cat was the spitting image of Molly, except her head was slightly less streamlined and she was in poor condition.  Well, the kittens were old enough, and I said I’d like to take the momma, if that was all right with the woman.  It was.

We brought her back to the trailer and she was so dehydrated at first she couldn’t even meow.  We named her Celie after the main character in The Color Purple because she’d had a hard life.  We got married and found a house that year, moving in on Thanksgiving Day, and Celie came with us.  It wasn’t long before she was much better.  She turned out to be much less a tomboy and much more a princess.  She always finds the warmest place in the house to sleep, and she takes very good care of herself.  She’s pretty strictly an indoor cat.  She’s lived a long and happy life, and now she’s about 20.  She’s always been this little bit of a thing ~ most people mistake her for a teenage cat ~ but now that she’s hyperthyroid it’s all we can do to keep any meat on her bones.  And she’s totally deaf, and so she walks around the house at night and yells at the top of her lungs: MMMMEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOWWWWWW MRRRRRRRKKKRGGGNAAAOOOOO.  And she likes to throw up on things, and her bladder stopper leaks, which does not endear her to my husband.  But when you’re 103, you get a little slack.

And then one day, this big black tomcat showed up on our yard.  He was solid and round ~ not fat ~ with lush black fur, and when he walked, he’s swing his right front leg way out and around, like it had been broken and healed badly.  We called him The Neighbor’s Cat.  There are a lot of cats in the neighborhood, and so we didn’t think anything of it.  He was friendly and so we’d pet him.  But he just kept hanging around and hanging around, and we started to worry whether he was eating anything.  So we put some food and water out for him in the metal building/garage.  Then winter came along and it was dang cold, so we put a bed and a heat lamp there too.  Somewhere along the line, we figured out that we were his ~ he’d adopted us ~ and in fact he was not any of the neighbors’.  Which was great, actually, because my husband has a fondness for outdoor cats, being raised partly on a farm, and we’ve had a number of outdoor cats in the past.  So we renamed him Jose and he was here to stay. 

He’s a sturdy and loveable guy but also commands respect.  He and this gray male had a running battle for years, and we’d hear yowling in the night and then Jose would show up with a ragged ear or a cut.  We’d take him to the doctor every once in a while.  He loves to be petted, but as my kids found out the hard way, you got to give him space too.  They were being particularly loving, squeezing him and everything, and he gave them the warning signs (I wasn’t there), but they didn’t know that, and so he gave them a stronger warning ~ he scratched my son on the shoulder.  A very valuable lesson for the kids, I think.  He wasn’t being mean or aggressive, just telling them to back off.

I think the cats teach the kids lessons in a lot of ways.  They know that Jose likes attention but that you need to be respectful or face the consequences.  They know that Celie is a very old lady and you have to treat her gently.  I have to say: we’re not a family whose lives revolve around our pets, but they teach invaluable lessons.  I learned those lessons growing up on a ranch, and I sometimes think that they’re missing out by not being closer to all that.

May 7, 2012

The Artist Nancy Marlatt

Do you remember, on that old show Northern Exposure, how everyone was an expert at something?  How they were making films and created world-class cuisine and so on?  How worldly they were?  Well, I feel like I’m surrounded by that as well.

My friend Nancy Marlatt is an artist.  Not for her day job, but as an avocation.  (Well, her day job requires lots of creativity.) She, like many of us, got derailed from a degree in what we love but then came back to it later in life.  She’s originally from Colorado and now works in public relations here at UW. She creates these amazing watercolors. 

We were talking about how different media require different mindsets, and watercolor is one that you don’t lay on the white but rather paint around it.  It’s quite a different approach than to, say, oils.  You can’t just paint a background and then paint white in places on top. No, you have to have an awareness from the very beginning about where the white is, therefore where the light is, and paint around it.  It creates this unusual awareness of light in general that is peculiar to watercolorists.  And the paint itself is so vibrant and light, it’s as if you’re applying liquid light to the paper.

It's like poetry, really.

So, enough of me blathering on.  The real treat, and what you’ve been waiting for, is her art.  You rock, Nancy!

May 4, 2012

The Mindful Writer, by Dinty Moore

Writers are like prospectors or trappers or pioneers.  They spend their time in the wilds of the mind panning for gold, trapping beaver, or plowing the soil in order to transmute this raw material into something useful, intellectual bounty.

As such, we’re out here in the boondocks.  Sure, our families are with us and we have day jobs, but when it comes to our driving force, our raison d’etre, we are alone in the howling wilderness.

That’s why it’s so important to have touchstones of some sort.  We need somehow to be able to commune with others of our kind.  We need inspiration and support, someone telling us that we’re not crazy and what we do is not only valuable but invaluable.

What better touchstone, then, than this lovely little book ~ The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, by the fabulous Dinty W.Moore.  I read through it in one evening and will be rereading it again and again. In it, Dinty brings together his Buddhist practice of mindfulness with the art of writing.  It fits so very well, too. 

He takes the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and transposes them for writers.  Here they are:
  • The writing life is difficult, full of disappointment and dissatisfaction.
  • Much of this dissatisfaction comes from the ego, from our insistence on controlling both the process of writing and how the world reacts to what we have written.
  • There is a way to lessen the disappointment and dissatisfaction and to live a more fruitful writing life.
  • The way to accomplish this is to make both the practice of writing and the work itself less about ourselves. To thrive, we must be mindful of our motives and our attachment to desired outcomes.

The rest of this small but powerful book takes quotes from writers and expounds on them as they pertain to mindfulness.  It is in four parts ~ the writer’s mind, the writer’s desk, the writer’s vision, and the writer’s life. 

Such great quotes and such insightful commentary! Some of my favorites concretize writing with lovely little metaphors or similes:

“What crazies we writers are, our heads full of language like buckets of minnows standing in the moonlight on a dock.”  ~ Hayden Carruth
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ~ Anton Chekhov
“Writing is the hardest way of earning a living with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.” ~ William Saroyan

But they’re all good, and oh I am in love with Dinty’s soft voice, with its ever-encouraging words. 

How many ways can I say it?  This is an inspirational book ~ what it lacks in size, it makes up for in metaphorical weight.