Journal Entries

Confessions of a Carnal Reader, Recently Reformed

Throughout my life, I’ve been what Anne Fadiman* would call a “carnal lover” of books, rather than a “courtly lover,” like my sister and at least one of my sons. Their books leave their hands in pristine condition, unmarked by their passing.

I, on the other hand, love my books to death. As a youth, I thought nothing of dog-earing the pages, scribbling in the margins and underlining the words that gripped me. It was words and their meanings I was after, I told myself, not pretty objects on a shelf. I most often loved ‘em and left ‘em (to the used book store), anyway.

As a teacher, I was more likely to return to a book again and again, but it didn’t make me any kinder. My books were rendered useless, so starred and scribbled and highlighted were they from each successive reading. You don’t even want to see my personal copy of Beloved. (I have an extra clean copy suitable for lending out.)

In later years, I’ve become gentler. I still leave the occasional book splayed on the dining room table, but I also own a collection of bookmarks, and I’ve let the highlighter go in favor of miniature post-its. They stick out of my books like tiny blue, pink, yellow and green flags, saying, “Here I am, that little nugget of wisdom, those glorious words you were so afraid to lose.” I find I can’t bear to remove the markers when I finish the book, so I return it to the shelf with its streamers still in place. Thinking, of course, that I will return and retaste those perfect morsels, if not the whole meal.

Much-loved book.

Why do I do that?
Because I’m trying to stop time.
And that’s all wrong.

A book should grow with us, forever offering new perspectives based on who we are and where we happen to be going at the time. Marking the pages urges us to see only what we saw before, muting the value inherent in a reread. It urges us to step into the same river twice. But the mystery and joy of travel – be it geographical or intellectual — is that we never do that.

Breaking this habit is more difficult than you might think. As wonderful words get away unmarked and unpreserved, I feel a sting and imagine a kite string slipping through my fingers. I see that brilliant bit of colored silk floating away into the sky, to be lost forever. But I comfort myself: if the book is worth its salt, a whole array of new wonders awaits my next visit.

* If you haven’t read Anne Fadiman’s book, Ex-Libris: Confessions of A Common Reader, you can’t be said to have fully lived as a reader. The essay referred to is entitled, “Never Do That to A Book.”

Words and Pictures III: The Crutch

(This is the last installment on this topic, continued from Words and Pictures I: Childhood and Words and Pictures II: Growing Up.)

What I’ve learned from this double vision of the world is that the basic ingredient for visual art and fiction is OBSERVATION.

If you’ve ever drawn a picture of something that didn’t turn out right, most likely the fault wasn’t in your hand. It was in your eye. In order to draw something accurately, you have to see it accurately, and that’s not as easy as you might think. We make certain assumptions about things until we study them carefully, and those assumptions are often wrong. Items in the distance may be much smaller than we think they are, and that hand reaching out toward you is huge – maybe twice as large as the head of the man who’s reaching. Teaching drawing is always more about teaching seeing than about anything else. That’s why people say an artist has an “eye” for detail.

Observation is just as necessary for writers, who are encouraged to “write what they know.” Writers must catch the details, the nuances of setting and character, light and motion. The best artists study the world around them, then transform what they see, recreating it into what they saw transformed. But everyone starts with the real world.

(This invasive Japanese kudzu in South Carolina
was reborn as a motif in The Gift Box.)

Alas, for all my love of art and of writing, I am not very observant of details. I tend to see only one aspect of the world I’m in. If a lady in a startling red dress walks into the room, her dress eclipses everything. I miss her eye color and whether she is wearing shoes or not, I don’t catch her name and I may not hear her speak. The dress dislodges my thoughts and sends me off on a flight of fancy — to The Scarlet Letter or those ruby slippers on Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Later, if I try to remember the woman’s name, if she wore glasses or jewelry, I’m at a loss.

Ah, but for me there is The Crutch:

I write my story drawing on my experiences and emotions as I feel or perceive them at the time. I let my imagination go, and don’t worry too much about realistic detail. Later, in the process of research, I plug the holes. I research through words, of course, but I also spend a lot of time looking at photographs. On one research trip to South Carolina and Florida, I took hundreds of pictures, many of scenes and objects I could never have imagined. I often blow these up, use them in art projects or frame them. I use the camera lens to focus. Later, I use the pictures to remember or clarify what I’ve seen. I meditate on them, and study the minutiae I might have missed in passing. In time, some details will be bonded to the story they inform.

(I came across this startling scene on a Florida Seminole Reservation. It reappeared in Flight.)

I’m thankful for the way a camera can freeze the image that’s caught my eye and hold it forever. Or long enough for me to recreate and anchor it – in words.

Words and Pictures II: Growing Up

Check out Words and Pictures Part I, about my early interest in the verbal and the pictorial.

My family loved to read. As we reached high school, paperback books often went the rounds, with each reader initialing the inside cover. When the book had been read by everyone, it landed in a box by the door and my mother carted it back to the used book store, only to return with a fresh crop. In later years, she owned that store, and the books were mailed back and forth to her from our far-away homes.

The writing continued, too. We wrote long, funny, descriptive letters back to my mother, who compiled them, typed them up, and mailed copies to everyone with her own additions — our early version of “reply all.”

Archival snapshot: Mom at her used book store.

Still retreating into images, I illustrating my journals and built a portfolio that won me an art scholarship. But once I reached college, English classes had a stronger pull than Art, and I soon helped transform the college literary magazine into an Arts magazine of equal parts pictures and words. When I graduated with a degree in English and became a teacher, words became absolutely pivotal in my life. But then I switched tracks again and began teaching visual art, eventually designing a course called Storytelling that tried to combine the two avenues of expression.

As a full-time writer, I’ve returned to words as the fulcrum of my creative life. Only without pictures, my writing machine stalls. Why? Find out in Words and Pictures III: The Crutch.

Words and Pictures I: Childhood

Just so you know, any photo or visual art you see here is mine, unless otherwise indicated. Pictures are as essential to my creative work as words are. In fact, the two hold hands every step of the way.

Let me explain: I’ve always struggled between the language of words and the language of pictures. For any American child who grows up abroad, words can be problematic. My first language was Italian, but at the age of five I was transplanted to New York, where no one spoke Italian to me. My first three years of education were in German schools, but back in the US my teachers expected me to read and write in English.

I can tell you, my spelling was atrocious. Idioms confused me. And some words were simply inexplicable. One day at school, the children called me a Nazi, a word I’d never heard before. I went home and asked my mother what it was. She frowned, stroked my hair and suggested I go draw in my sketchbook. That was easy, so I drew and painted, something I enjoyed and did well. Something everyone understood.

But it wasn’t that simple, because words were currency in my family. All of us loved to talk, to write, to read. My father’s degree was in English, my mother’s in drama. I began my first novel – a terrible copy of the popular novel Gidget – when I was twelve. My sister wrote plays, which the rest of us performed for family and friends. My brothers wrote, too, and then moved on to songs, which they eventually recorded. The dinner table was a wild cacophony of talk — brilliant, silly, loud, irreverent. My sister and I tacked a poster board on the back of the door in the room we shared, following the example of a character in a J. D. Salinger story. Here we recorded our favorite lines from the books we read, and I can still remember some of them:

Scarlet O’Hara was not a beautiful woman.
Maggie, girl of the streets, bloomed in a mud puddle.

However, we also shared a bulletin board devoted to pictures, many clipped from Life magazine, Newsweek or Time. I remember one of an injured soldier in Vietnam, and another of Grace Metalious, who wrote Peyton Place, sitting on the floor, typing on a small portable typewriter. In my memories, the lines from the books and the images from the magazines are inseparable.

My childhood was an illustrated tale: words and pictures on every page.

Next time, Words and Pictures II: Growing Up

Making it Real: Belletrista

Say you have a vision. Something original, exciting, and scary.

Perhaps you want to do something new. I’m not talking about having toast instead of yogurt for breakfast; I’m talking about one of those ideas that tends to sit in the mind for a while, that thrills and terrifies, and then more often than not fades away when you realize that you don’t have what it takes to do it. I remember planning to travel the US on a Vespa (they were hot then), deciding to build a boat and sail to Tahiti, and that idea to rent a house in Greece for a summer and invite my friends. None of that’s happened. Yet.

But did you ever get one of those blockbuster ideas — then follow through and actually do it? Did you ever make a personal vision real?

I have been privileged recently to stand by while a friend does just that. Lois Ava-Matthew had the idea to start a magazine online, something that would let people know about women who are writing terrific books all over the globe. So she gathered together a group of wise and clever international friends and supporters, writers and reviewers, translators and webgeeks, book lovers and book sellers, all of whom loved the idea and wanted to play, too. They set out to create a ‘zine filled with book reviews and other articles on women writers from all over the world who are published in English.

Many long days and short nights later, Lois has followed through on her vision, and Belletrista lives. Its attractive format features articles that are entertaining, easy to read and ad-free. It opens windows within windows, revealing the marvelous diversity of our world through women who write about it, and again through the filter of readers and writers who admire and appreciate their work.

I am in awe of Lois: her creativity, her cleverness, her perseverance. Her guts.

Check it out. Belletrista: Celebrating Women Writers from Around the World

Hatching the Egg

The bluebird nest in our yard this summer set me thinking. The eggs were stunning: the brilliant blue of a Lake Tahoe sky in a smooth, elegant shape to fit the palm of the hand.

Just like an idea for a story. It often seems marvelous – even perfect — when first conceived. But it has a long way to go. First, there is the writing of the story to be done. In many cases, it never reaches that critical point of birth, the cracking of the shell, the words on screen or paper. If it is born, worse problems may present themselves. Once written, the words may not dazzle us as the concept did in its idealized, unrealized state. Often the story is abandoned right there, out of fear that the final product will be a monster, something not even a mother could love.

Our four baby birds were ugly enough to make us wince when they were born, and one of them, lying in a sluggish heap at the side of the nest, hinted at disaster. But they were hungry, they ate, and they grew.

In the end, they all grew feathers, which eventually took on the magical blue and blushing orange of the ones their parents wore. Each one of the fledglings did in fact take to the air, and they lived for a time in the tree over our deck. There is nothing quite as lovely as a bluebird on a summer day.

I was glad their parents had the good sense to believe in them when they were still weak and awkward, when it was difficult to imagine that they could ever hold up their heads or grow feathers, much less fly. With proper care and feeding, patience and dogged work, the birds fulfilled the dream of the egg. A lot of stories can do that, too, given the chance.

Eggness Examined

From The Free Dictionary

egg on (one’s) face Informal
Embarrassment; humiliation: If you do that, you’ll end up with egg on your face.
lay an egg Informal
To fail, especially in a public performance.
put/have all (one’s) eggs in one basket Informal
To risk everything on a single venture.

Why is the egg so often associated with failure, or the threat of it? To lay an egg is at the very least a creative act, and at best a source of new life. There is certainly a parallel here with writing: both the creative impulse that produces it and the danger of disaster if the effort fails. Eggs are fragile, as is the psyche, and a broken egg is, after all, a major mess. But, oh, when it works it is glorious.

bluebird eggs

More on eggs next time. Now, breakfast.

Meditations on the Public Life

The Individual Internet Presence is so much a part of our world that it’s easy to forget how public it is. After all, sitting alone at a desk feels very private, but hitting the “publish” button changes everything. As I dive in, I do wonder just how deep it is, how easily one can get in over one’s head, how many sharks or tidal waves I am likely to encounter. And yet the appeal of the words on the screen, the opportunity to share and interact with others, is too tempting.

Holding my nose, jumping …

point lobos shore

Getting started …

A new website, a new adventure.  Watch this space for something considerably more interesting.  Try next week.

In the meantime, think about coffee in Portugal on a dazzling summer day.  Sit back, sip the heady brew, and sketch on the tablecloth.

coffee in Portugal