On Keeping a Notebook
“Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.”
So writes Joan Didion in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” which seems to be frequently assigned in graduate-level English classes, so that I was able to snatch this quote off the internet as soon as I determined this morning to write about notebooks. Apparently, when she wrote this piece, keeping a notebook was rare (although no, it wasn’t), or the distinction between notebook and diary had to be made explicit. As far as this quote goes, I say: speak for yourself, Joan.
But to say “speak for yourself,” to Joan Didion is so much a tautology than I can scarcely think of another example, unless it were, say, “Spell it out, Sesame Street.”
I keep a notebook and admit that I am lonely and a malcontent (perhaps another tautology?) but I dispute “resistant rearranger of things” because I’m not sure what it means, and “presentiment of loss” as a child because, in the case of my childhood, it was not a presentiment, but an observation.
I have been thinking lately about notebooks, not only because they are the only things I hoard – I have come to terms with that – and not only because I recently, after several stressful weeks at the day job, rewarded myself by breaking out the fanciest notebook in my hall closet collection.
It is this one, a Japanese notebook from the bookstore Kinokuniya across from Bryant Park. I would say more about the brand but alas, the product information is in Japanese. This notebook weighs too much and costs too much but otherwise, it fits all the criteria for an ideal notebook. It does not impede the flow of writing. It lies flat. The paper is soft enough to be pleasant to the hand resting on it. (The paper in this Kinokuniya notebook is the softest thing I have ever felt that is not fabric, skin or fur.) It is quick to seize ink. It resists a tear (in both senses.) And the notebook itself is sturdy enough to survive the apparent turmoil of the life inside of my handbag.
In the Poetry Folio newsletter released today from Atticus Review that landed in my inbox this morning, poet Michael Meyerhofer reminisced about his favorite notebooks to keep, the free pocket-sized notebooks issued from the bank in the small farming town he grew up in – “twenty or thirty blank pages about as long as your index finger.” He took a stack of them with him to college and maintains an appreciation for them even as electronic note-taking has gradually replaced them. He writes that sometimes all we can do is “fill these tiny little pages while we can.”
A few weeks back, I attended a members-only night at the Whitney Museum, where I learned that the Whitney has a great many members. The Whitney is in its final weeks of an exhibit devoted to Edward Hopper. I learned in the gift shop that Edward Hopper used to roam the city armed with notebooks purchased from the five-and-dime. Edward Hopper! Now here’s a “lonely and resistant rearranger of things”! He found, in the clamor of a relentlessly bustling metropolis, images of solitary and faceless office workers, viewed through plate-glass windows, caught in a melancholy stillness. We might envision Hopper, passing such a scene on the elevated train, which he reportedly rode sometimes all night, grabbing his dimestore notebook to rough out a future painting.
Or we might envision, as a savvier and presumably less melancholy and presentiment-of-loss-afflicted merchandising executive did, reproducing these Woolworth notebooks used by Hopper, with their old-timey typeface announcing their old-fashioned titles – “Ledger,” “Cash,” “Journal” – to sell in the Whitney gift shop for $18.50.
I’m not here to decry the cost. My Kinokuniya notebook — with its more daunting title “Life” — cost even more than that. But I am wondering what is the appeal of the reproduction of a once-cheap, utilitarian notebook. Why has such an object been elevated to the status of a museum gift shop item? The notebook was not designed by Hopper, or touched by Hopper but only implicitly endorsed by Hopper. And even that implicit endorsement is a long stretch. He probably used those notebooks because they were handy. He was a broke artist. He was more interested in the message than the medium.
I don’t know what a buyer of one of these notebooks hopes to be purchasing. Perhaps she just thinks it’s cute. Who am I to judge? (Okay, I’m judging a bit.) But it took me years of this notebook and that one, the here-you-like-to-write gifts and the singular bliss to be found in day job supply closets, to realize what suited notebooks suited me and why. The imperative is that it does not impede the flow of writing. So I have smaller notebooks, pocket-sized ones, old-fashioned reporter notebooks that can fit in one hand while you use the other to write, lightweight notebooks for a weekend trip, steno pads bought at office supply stores if I forgot to bring anything and yes, of course, tiny free pamphlets.
I suppose I would encourage anyone who hopes to channel inspiration by purchasing a reproduction of the kind of notebook Hopper favored to instead find her own notebook. As Cavafy encouraged his readers to find their own Ithaka.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
But if you were wise, on that journey, you kept a notebook.
My Year in Reading 2022
I’m still working on expanding my reviewing, and was fortunate to land a new gig, so I’m looking forward to more in the coming year. I reviewed three books this year. They are therefore disqualified (and indicated in italics) from my top ten. I’ve also ordered several books written by friends but they may still be in the TBR pile, or not yet finished.
So, with the downtime I had at my disposal, excluding periodicals, and listening to podcasts excluded, here are the books:
Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical – Anthony Bourdain
Terrible Typhoid Mary – Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Deadly – Julie Chibbaro
The Lonely City – Olivia Laing
Open City – Teju Cole
Feral City – Jeremiah Moss
New York City Coffee: A Caffeinated History – Erin Meister
The Power Broker – Robert Caro
John Winthrop – Francis J. Bremer
Eye of the Sixties: Richard Bellamy of the Transformation of Modern Art – Judith E. Stein
The Architecture of Happiness – Alain de Botton
Mark di Suvero (edited by David R. Colleens, Nora R. Lawrence, Theresa Choi)
Work on the work-in-progress progresses, so I have started on readalikes. I’ve realized that there really is no way to tie in Typhoid Mary to the conceit of my book, but I have now read enough on her to consider myself an amateur expert. Halfway through the year I shifted my focus to Mark di Suvero, subscribed to Art in America, downloaded every article I could find at NYPL, and solicited a box of di Suvero family papers from the Smithsonian. And still I know so little that eking out 500 words took all I had.
All that said, The Power Broker occupied weeks and weeks of reading, even with using the audiobook. That book is long. I also saw the David Hare play, Straight Line Crazy, so I’m just about as up on Robert Moses as I am on Mary Mallon.
Reading resolution for this category: Continue with Mark di Suvero. Read other living Queens authors extensively for a workshop I hope to hold, with grants I hope to be granted.
Five Tuesdays in Winter – Lily King
The Last True Poets of the Sea – Julia Drake
The Latecomer – Jean Hanff Korelitz
An Honest Living – Dwyer Murphy
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – John Le Carre
Mercury Pictures Presents – Anthony Marra
Fellowship Point – Alice Elliott Dark
Natural History – Andrea Barrett
Shrines of Gaiety – Kate Atkinson
About Face – William Giraldi
Trust – Hernan Diaz
Trust Exercise – Susan Choi
I was surprised to see so few novels on my list, again, The Power Broker took up a lot of my summer. I was sad to leave the Lily King and the Kate Atkinson off my top ten list, but the memoirs below just nudged them out. The Marriage Portrait is in the queue.
Reading resolution for this category: See Queens authors, above. Otherwise, I will probably graze indiscriminately.
Bluets – Maggie Nelson
H is for Hawk – Helen MacDonald
The Outrun – Amy Liptrot
Also a Poet – Ada Calhoun
The Lost Children of Mill Creek – Vivian Gibson
Easy Beauty – Chloe Cooper Jones
The Odd Woman and the City – Vivian Gornick
Reading resolution for this category: Don’t really have one? Crying in H Mart is waiting for me at the Astoria Library.
Animal Bodies – Suzanne Roberts
Orwell’s Roses – Rebecca Solnit
Like Love – Michele Morano
Hysterical – Elissa Bassist
Festival Days – Jo Ann Beard
All the Leavings – Laurie Easter
Bright Unbearable Reality – Anna Badkhen
Reading resolution for this category: I hope to review more in this category. I focus on collections published by indie and university presses.
Craft in the Real World – Matthew Salessas
A Swim in the Pond in the Rain – George Saunders
How to Write One Song – Jeff Tweedy
Reading resolution for this category: I am starting 2023 with a poetry workshop which has two rather daunting required texts, so, dare I say, I am good here?
Islands of Abandonment – Cal Flyn
The Strange Case of Dr. Couney – Dawn Raffel
Reading resolution for this category: I realize that this category is composed of writers with whom I took workshops in 2022, both of whom were super-kind and thoughtful.
The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter – Gillian Cummings
Long Rules – Nathaniel Perry
Reading resolution for this category: More, more, more.
Cozy old things and mysteries
Cheerfulness Sets In – Angela Thirlkill
The It Girl – Ruth Ware
The Madness of Crowds – Louise Penny
Dying to Tell – Robert Goddard
Reading resolution for this category: this is the “something fun to read” category. It defies resolve.
Happy reading in 2023 to all!
“Let me tell you about winds,” Almasy says to Katherine Clifton as they shelter in a car from an Saharan sandstorm in The English Patient. “There is a, a whirlwind from southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.”
I’ve been thinking about The English Patient because it’s one of my movie obsessions but also because I am in the room above the kitchen in the old house here, part of the original structure, a sheep shed, that was all that was here when the owner, Georgina Howard, bought the property. This house reminds me of the villa where Nurse Hana shelters with Almasy, now the English Patient, to allow him to die in relative peace. As the medical convoy moves on, Hana watches from a high window in the villa, chopping off her long hair into a chic bob the way women do in the movies. Disparate characters come and go, a thief called Caravaggio, a Sikh bomb defuser and his sidekick Kevin Whately (that is the actor’s name, I only ever think of him as Kevin Whately) all with their different knowledge, expertise, striving and grief. They come together for a time, and then they part ways.
Let me tell you about winds.
In my room with its view of the roof over the dining room, and then of the valley beyond, I heard the winds around dawn. The nearby wind sounded like the whoosh of the ocean. The approaching wind sounded like a rapidly-arriving locomotive. Not a whirlwind from southern Morocco – Morocco, like all the rest of the world, is far, far away – but a fierce eddy from somewhere that, when it arrived, bent the trees long ago matured into strange undulations like modern dancers.
And then it raised itself up and away.
A few days ago we had a straight, hard rain, after a thrilling prelude of thunder that purred and echoed across the valley. I grated cheese in the kitchen with a keen eye on Chef Carol, who disguises her expertise beneath a mask of amiable vagueness. What’s in the risotto? “Oh, it’s got some shallots and some . . . I chopped . . . did we say 7:15? With risotto, you have to be very precise.”
Outside, the rain stopped. Georgina thundered down the stairs and swept into the kitchen. She is not one to enter a room with hesitation but strides into the action mid-gesture with an urgency to impart, like a herald in a play. But you would not expect a docile demeanor from someone who twenty-odd years ago saw a Basque shepherd’s hut and willed into being a creative manse (or, in Basque, etxe). The central courtyard between the houses is a kind of stage, one where I would happily set a play, a romantic farce, if I wrote plays happily, which I do not.
Georgina cried, “Elizabeth! There is a word for the smell of the earth after the rain! Petrichor!” She rolled the R, so I thought the word must be Spanish or Basque. “Petrichor! From ‘petra,’ meaning earth and ‘cor,’ meaning . . . oh . . .”
From ichor, the term used to describe “the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods” in Greek mythology. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word was first used in a 1964 article written by a group of scientists, which is why we have never heard of it.
“How would you use it in a sentence?” asked one of the writers when we brought petrichor along with the risotto to the dinner table.
I couldn’t think of how to use “petrichor” in a sentence that would not also include the words “smell” or “rain,” which tells me this was not a word clamoring to be coined. I also wonder how these scientists, finding the phrase “the smell of the earth after it rains,” insufficiently pithy to their needs, fell so easily onto “ichor.” Now there’s a word I’d like to use in a sentence. “How do I get this ichor stain out of my dress?”
There is a laurel tree embedded in the patio courtyard. Georgina constructed the patio around it, decided that the tree would be part of the family. In Greek mythology, Daphne, pursued by Zeus, transforms herself into a laurel tree to preserve herself from his lust and other ickiness.
The poem The Laurel Tree by Louis Simpson contains these lines:
“Is there a tree without opinions?/Come, let me clasp you!/Let me feel the idea breathing.”
And ends with these:
“The dish glowed when the angel held it./It is so that spiritual messengers/deliver their meaning.”
Xavier, my Savior
“Don’t you love her accent?” said the Irishwoman to the Brit.
She could only have been talking about me, since I was the one talking. I had been the one talking, truth be told, for quite some time, a jet-lagged dialogue fountain since the five of us had arrived at the Pyrenean Writing Retreat and been revived with a glass of wine (or several). I’d arrived in San Sebastian on Sunday, after quite a long journey that began in Astoria when I dragged my suitcase to the Q102 bus stop, took the bus to the E train, the E to the Airtrain, the Airtrain to the airport, JFK to Madrid, Madrid to Bilboa, then a bus from the Bilboa Airport to San Sebastian, where I was once again dragging my suitcase through a charming, unfamiliar town, where I was thoroughly lost.
“Is easy!” the text from the hotel read. “Cross the river to the Cathedral Buen Pastor, go straight to basilica Santa Maria and go up stairs we are in calle mari 21 very easy.”
It wasn’t easy. My phone was dying because I hadn’t had time to recharge it at the Madrid airport since I spent 90 minutes in line to get into Spain. I didn’t see any stairs and I mistook one basilica for another. Furthermore, despite several weeks of diligent study on Duolingo, my Spanish was crap. I could talk about universities and professors, drinking coffee and having a tall daughter, but I couldn’t ask for directions.
The wide avenues and plazas were full of families out to tire the kids on a Sunday afternoons and pleasantly tired, painted marathon runners. Cafes bustled.
“Perdon, hablo ingles?” I asked a passing family.
They didn’t really, but they helpfully called the hotel, and then haltingly told me that it was a 20 minute walk, which I refused to believe. (It was.) I was handed off to a man with a bicycle, and then I handed myself off to a man I stopped (“Perdon, hablo ingles?” “Yes, of course.”) who happened to be an English teacher. He delivered me to the door of the hotel, which was by then worriedly awaiting my arrival, since the call from the family. They had called me to check on my progress but of course, my phone was dead.
I was so grateful to the English teacher – Xavier, my savior – that I gave him the copy of CENSORETTES I had brought along on the trip in case any of my fellow students at the retreat wanted one. This left me with two books, THE GREAT GOOD PLACE by Ray Oldenburg, which is research for the dog café project, and THE ART OF SYNTAX, part of Greywolf Press’s THE ART OF series. And, of course, THE POWER BROKER by Robert Caro because you can’t write a history of New York City, even a tiny fragment of it, without referencing Robert Moses. One of his great works, after all, is the Triborough Bridge, which ends in Astoria. I downloaded it as an Audible book, my second-ever audiobook. It is 66 hours long and of course, it is eating up massive amounts of space on my phone. Hence, it keeps dying.
The next day, another bus brought us deeper into the heart of Basque country, and then we were collected by van and brought to the retreat, which is unspeakably lovely.
After a night of chatting, I fell into the bed of my room above the kitchen, a charming room that made me feel like some intrepid mid-century traveler, a female Patrick Leigh Fermor.
This morning we had our first workshop, with the savvy and kindly Diana Friedman. The topic was SETTING. She generously used the opening of CENSORETTES as an example of an effective setting. My fellow retreaters were very kind, but I had no copy to give them, thanks to Xavier.
But at least now I can say I have international distribution.
System of a Poet
by guest blogger Hattie Jean Hayes
Hattie Jean Hayes is writer and performer of many things, as well as a poet, but I asked her to write a guest post about her submission strategy, since she has such a successful method, far from the “dreamy, impractical” stereotype. Although I am behind on my posts for April is Poetry Month, Hattie was gracious enough to share some of her tips with my readers,
I didn’t begin submitting my work “in earnest” until February of 2021 when I set a goal of submitting a piece of writing every day. By the end of that month, I’d logged 32 submissions on the calendar. That “sprint” broke me of my anxieties or reservations around submissions, and I continued submitting through the rest of the year. My year-long goal was to see 12 pieces of writing accepted for publication; a total of 21 were accepted. I’m on track to surpass that number in 2022. If you’re trying to challenge yourself for a single month or grind on submissions all year, you can use these practices.
I use two tools to inventory all my creative projects: Google Sheets and Notion. I use a spreadsheet titled Creative Project Dashboard to log my in-progress and completed projects, including short stories, novels, essays, scripts, parody songs, original musicals, and poems. Once I begin working on something, it’s allowed to be recorded here – if something is just an idea, it stays in Notion.
Every category of project gets a different sheet, and every sheet has different columns. My stories and essays, for example, get these columns: title, status (in progress, complete, awaiting feedback, editing), synopsis, length, and where I’ve submitted it. The poems get a similar treatment, with the synopsis column replaced with a “spawn point” signifier, so I can remember if something was first drafted during NaPoWriMo, a workshop, etc.
Inventorying my work allows me to track where I’ve sent things, and it means no project is forgotten. There are hundreds of items listed in my document, and when I’m putting together a submission for a journal that will review five or six pieces, it’s helpful to have a list of all my work, so I can say “Wait! I haven’t sent that one out in forever and it totally fits this theme!”
I log all my projects in Notion, a note-taking app/website similar to Evernote. Just use whichever productivity app you’re likely to actually use. I like Notion because I can easily create and move different “pages” in that dashboard. I keep a list of ideas for each category of project, and I put early drafts of the projects themselves in Notion. I really like the flexibility to use dashboards in Notion to track where I am with revisions, or record a bunch of feedback from a workshop and see it at a glance. This is not an ad for Notion, I just like it!
My Notion also has lists of all my accepted and published work, so when these pieces go live, it’s easy to copy and paste the live links onto my website. I have a page in Notion where I record third-person biographies of various lengths since this is something you need to have on hand for submissions.
I don’t rely on Submission Grinder or Duotrope to find and record submissions, only because I find it overwhelming. Sometimes I use the aggregators on ChillSubs.com or in Submittable to look for open journals, but that’s usually when I have a specific piece that hasn’t found the right home, and I need to expand my view a little.
My primary means of finding places to submit are social media. I’m in a submission group on Facebook that introduces me to a lot of new journals, and I use Twitter’s bookmarks feature to flag journals I want to read and submit to.
I have a bookmarks folder on my browser for lit journals, and when I make a new bookmark, I name it “SUBMIT XYZ TO [JOURNAL NAME]” so I’m not confused about the bookmark later. If there’s a journal I’m eager about, and the submission window isn’t open, I set a calendar reminder – with the name of the piece I want to submit – for the day submissions open.
I don’t think you need to be a devoted fan of a literary journal to submit to it, but I do think you should get a feel of the tone and some of the published work. I think I’m most successful when I’m mindful of how my writing will fit a particular journal’s readership. My “best” writing isn’t always the best for the job.
This is probably the most customizable part of the process. When it comes to actually submitting, YMMV! Do you like month-long “sprints” where you send work out every day, or even shorter, day-long marathons? Do you want to fill your calendar with reminders of submission windows, and submit as they open up? Or are you going to focus on one piece of writing, and shop it around until it’s snapped up?
Whatever works for you is good! Make sure that you follow guidelines about submission formatting, and respect any rules around simultaneous submissions. Consider creating a document like mine for short bios/publishing history.
Indexing your writing is just inventorying, again. Once you’ve submitted a piece, index the places you submitted to. There was one poem I submitted to 40 different journals in 2021. By the time it got accepted, I had 9 journals still considering it, and it was so handy to have a list of journals that needed to receive that sweet, sweet withdrawal email.
Log your kudos: were you nominated for a prize? Did your mentor say something complimentary about the piece? Put it in there! If you decide to stop submitting a piece while you revise it, make a note about your different drafts. Once you place it, you’ll want to remember the “before” and “after” so you can see what changed. And if you decide to axe any pieces, consider indexing them into a “graveyard” where they can be cannibalized into new writing later on. I began logging my projects this way in 2016, so I have six years’ worth of ideas (good and bad), drafts (good and bad), and completed pieces (mostly good! some bad) on record. That makes me a hell of a lot more confident when it comes to getting published, and when I get rejected, it’s another data point.
Hattie Jean Hayes is a writer and comedian, originally from Missouri, who now lives in New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, HAD, Janus Literary, Sledgehammer Literary and the Hell is Real Anthology. She is working on a novel and several much sillier projects.
A Sense of Place
As one of the recipients of a #NYCArtist Corps grant, I did a reading last weekend of my work in progress, “40 Days at the Dog Cafe,” at the market adjacent to the dog cafe, Marche le Woof. After my reading, I conducted a workshop called “A Sense of Place,” inspired by the fact that I was inspired by the dog cafe, Chateau le Woof, to begin writing about my changing neighborhood, over the summer.
I am toying with the idea of offering a regular, free, low-key generative writing workshop for writers of all levels. The workshop was my favorite part of an already rewarding day. Here is the “teacher’s edition” of the handout I provided the participants. Let me know what you think in the comments.
A Sense of Place
A Chateau le Woof workshop
When we read stories, we often don’t think of place as a primary element. In the earliest stories we heard, place hardly mattered at all. The story happened in a place – far away? enchanted? A kingdom? A village on the edge of a dark forest? A cottage by the sea? We had just enough to orient ourselves.
When we think of stories, we think of plot, characters, and the rise and fall of action. If we think of place at all, we think of where a story “takes place.” To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Alabama, or, if you move in, in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone else, or, if you move in more closely, on the front porch of the Finch household and in a courtroom.
A Game of Thrones takes place in the Seven Kingdoms, in Westeros, in King’s Landing, and in the throne room where the frankly ugly chair that everyone is fighting for actually sits.
But I’d like to explore how place can serve a story. How it can act as character, or metaphor, or place setting. Place setting is most common in the movies, where a bleak western landscape or a busy heartless city can set up a conflict for the hero. something to conquer.
But place can also be one of the main characters. the examples below are from essays. Let’s see how descriptions of place can be used.
PLACE AS CHARACTER
Somehow you are supposed to teach yourself how to comprehend Hong Kong’s energy and flash contradictions; Asian and Western; the encroaching Chinese mainland and the remnants of England; the greasy night markets of stick-rice tamales and knock-off leather boots that slouch right across from Tiffany, Chanel, and Prada. The only things common to these are the offices sending air-conditioned blasts into the street, a kind of longing for money, and, most important, the sense of storytelling that the city seems to require as a visitor’s pass. Hong Kong has a way of turning on your internal monologue. Walking becomes an act of silent storytelling, figuring people out. You feel like you are lost in some prelapsarian novel in which the plot has begun but the characters wait for you to name them. In some time, at some place, we step into an underground Cantonese restaurant and I see a grey-suited, red-tied man act like a parody of the States. American, I say, with an American accent: good-natured smiles, occasionally the slow English dispatched on foreigners and children, and a slightly uncomfortable look, as though he’s worried he’s outnumbered.
Ken Chen, “City Out of Breath,” 2005
This essay by Ken Chen describes a visit he made with his father to Hong Kong. His father spoke Mandarin but not Cantonese. Is Hong Kong a character? Perhaps an antagonist?
Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as its harsh conditions—the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold—keep you in mind of your mortality. But the desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in evening and under clouds. The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of mountains changes hourly, as places that are flat and stark at noon fill with shadows and mystery in the evening, as darkness becomes a reservoir from which the eyes drink, as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption, rain that delivers itself with thunder, with lightning, with a rise of scents in this place so pure that moisture, dust, and the various bushes all have their own smell in the sudden humidity. Alive with the primal forces of rock, weather, wind, light, and time in which biology is only an uninvited guest fending for itself, gilded, dwarfed, and threatened by its hosts. It was the vastness that I love and an austerity that was also voluptuous. And the man?
Rebecca Solnit, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” 2005
This essay by Rebecca Solnit describes a landscape and a love affair. She ends the passage with the question, “and the man?” but what do we already know about the man, from the way she described the desert? Is he fat or lean? iI the sex good? Is he emotionally available? What clues do we have?
PLACE AS TABLE-SETTING
In the bar up ahead waitresses slam sloe-gin fizzes down on wet tables and men point pool cues at each other in the early stages of drunkenness. The singer in the three-man band whispers test into the microphone and rolls his eyes at the feedback. The sound guy jumps up from a table full of ladies and heads over to turn knobs.
We crunch over the parking lot gravel and wait for our song to finish. I’m over my head, but it sure feels nice. The bar is low and windowless, with patched siding and a kicked-in door; the lot is full of muscle cars and pickups. A man and a woman burst through the door and stand negotiating who will drive. He’s got the keys but she looks fiercer. In the blinking neon our faces are malarial and buttery. As the song winds down, the drama in front of us ends. He throws the keys at her as hard as he can but she jumps nimbly out of the way and picks them up with a handful of gravel, begins pelting his back as he weaves into the darkness.
Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins,” 1995
Where are we? When are we? What do we make of the fact that the writer describes what’s going on in the bar before she and her companion even arrive? What kind of evening is going to unfold, and how do we know?
Whenever the experiment on and of
My life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
And be held.
Jane Mead, I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss
Write about a place that held you, how it held you, what it felt like to be held there.
Art is energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced.
Write about a place the gives or gave you energy, that inspires or inspired you. (It doesn’t have to be artistic inspiration – it could have inspired you to make a move, or a declaration.)
Write about anything you like.
Boats Against the Current
And still we keep on creating, though myself not as much I would like of late. Lacking friends with benefits, I turned earlier this summer to friends with books out.
Marcia Trahan’s memoir Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession explores her own medical ordeals, her obsession with true crime on television, women’s bodies as commodities in society, and her own identity. Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, a memoir in essays, explores assault and addiction, and masterfully illustrates how trauma can stalk a person’s life, sometimes in brief shadow, sometimes in full-blown flashback.
I like to call Lee Martin’s recent fiction “Southern Illinois Noir,” although whether he likes me to call it that is not something I have asked. In his recent novels and story collections, momentarily untethered people make rash decisions that lead to outsized consequences; sometimes, as in his recent Yours, Jean, based on a true crime, an entire town acts as both chorus and cast.
There has been little progress on my own work, except for publicity for and correction of the proof of Censorettes. While I have little to complain about (I know; I am lucky!), how rarely that stops me. I am able to work from home, and I am putting in more hours than ever, including Sunday afternoon, which at least provided peaceful, uninterrupted time. I am attending a virtual writing conference next week, and need to get my day job ducks in a row.
Once I was done, a walk to the park was in order. My new favorite place is Chateau Le Woof, because I love the ingenuity the owners had of turning a former industrial parking garage into a dog-friendly cafe, open to the street, across from the park. On the way there, I met a woman and her dog. The owner and I nodded, but the dog did a full-fledged double take and pulled her back to where I was sitting. “YOU AGAIN!” he would have cried, had we both been human, and cast in a romantic comedy where in an earlier scene I would have stolen his parking spot, or spoiled some meticulously prepared model just before the big presentation. He gazed at me with ardent brown eyes through dirty white fur.
“Hi,” I said to the dog, as his owner tried to break his stare and pull him along, chuckling apologies to me. I said to the dog, “Hot out, right?” and then, as a man walked by, “Okay, I’m really not that interesting. Try that guy.”
Because of allergies, I’m not a petter of strange dogs, particularly ones who regard me like an antic Cary Grant regarding the leopard, if not Katherine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby.
Then, I said to the dog, “Alright,” and got up to walk with them to the park.
“You a Vermonter?” asked the woman.
Strange question, I thought, until I looked down and realized I was wearing a Vermont t-shirt. I still think it is a strange question. People don’t necessarily wear t-shirts advertising their home, so they can be returned if life becomes wayward. People visit places and buy t-shirts to show they were there; there is even a cliché about it. But I once wore a t-shirt I bought in Canada on a Brooklyn riverside bike tour, and people kept asking me what province I was from, or telling me how much they liked Quebec.
The woman was herself from Burlington. I told her, then, about Vermont, how I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier, Vermont every summer (where I met the above authors, Lee, Marcia and Sue), how this year it is virtual, which means I am not at my picnic table on the town green at the top of the hill, or hanging out in the Cafe Anna with my friends, but in my apartment, in my same crippling home desk chair, a captive of Zoom, with pandemic hair and bad lighting (I know; I am lucky!)
Maybe I am a Vermonter.
We turned the corner on Vernon Boulevard, where some string players were entertaining an insufficiently socially distanced group and their dogs.
My canine love interest took off across the park, a sculpture park, which is currently home to this monolith.
The music of the strings lured me out of the park and I stood among my insufficiently socially distanced neighbors, enriched that day by so much heat and creativity. We are isolated; still, we create. We are ordered to keep a distance; still, we connect. We experience ordeals and suffer from bad decisions; still, we write books (albeit ones with blood-splattered covers).
The string players launched into I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, alternating the melody line, first the pizzicato, then the legato. We all grew very still and drank it in. We knew we were lucky.
Last night I went to the 92nd St. Y to see Hilary Mantel with Jeremy Herrin, who is the director of the upcoming Broadway production of Wolf Hall, in a conversation moderated by Candice Bergen, who wore bright red laces in her high-top sneakers. I was invited by my friend Leslie, who has invited me to at least a dozen things this quarter (she is quite the culture vulture) but due to my schedule of day job as a researcher, writing and grad school, I have always said no. Hilary Mantel was too good to pass up, however. And she did not disappoint.
I hadn’t planned to take notes, but she kept saying such interesting things. As a historical novelist myself (and yes, I realize what that sounds like, putting myself in the same paragraph with Dame Mantel), I have had a recent problem with two of my characters, Nick and Daisy, frisking around in the attic of my brain when I am meant to be doing homework. Where were they during winter break? (To be fair, during winter break, I was polishing the novel I am now trying to sell, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, and the characters barging into grad school studying are the fresher (in the sense that I haven’t been writing them for SEVEN YEARS), fiestier characters from Untitled Berlin Love Story.
“I had wanted to write about Thomas Cromwell for more than thirty years,” Dame Mantel said, which made me feel slightly better about my seven, and also prompted me to reach into my bag for a notebook and pen. We must remember when writing historical fiction, she said, that we are writing “characters who are ignorant of their own fate . . . [unaware that their choices] have cascades of consequences that go down through generations. They’re not people in history. They’re people in their lives.”
As a researcher, I was gratified to hear Dame Mantel state that the does her own research and has no assistants. “How do you know what you need to know until you come across it?” she asked, adding that research is “a devious process. I don’t see how you can delegate it. The research is just as creative as the writing itself.”
As for how she does what she does: “A novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.” and “I write in scenes and I put it together like a collage.” (She is currently writing the third volume in the Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror and the Light.) When questioned about her “routine,” she said “I don’t really understand writing routines. I am writing 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Nobody gives you a holiday. You take your sensibility with you everywhere.”
This was gratifying as well, since I remain bruised from an interrogation a couple of years back by a leader of a short-term workshop I was in, who demanded that I explain my “practice.” What room did I write in, did I write first thing in the morning, did I set aside a time every day? This same woman was initially delighted that I was going to start graduate school, but then horrified to learn that I did not intend to quit my job to do so. “When will you have time to write? You’re a WRITER!” How, um, I asked her, did she think I was going to pay for grad school without a job? “Can’t you get a grant? You’re a WRITER!”
She is a child of the 60’s but even so. In the 60’s, was there an abundance of grants which provided housing, food, medical insurance to women of an age more likely to have children in grad school than to be in grad school? But then, we were obviously of different mindsets. For one thing, the workshop was in “flash fiction,” which I don’t read, don’t understand and, as it became apparent, can’t write. For another, I don’t “practice” writing, as it is not law, medicine, or religion. I write novels. I take my sensibility with me everywhere.
And a novel is an inherently unpredictable thing.