Cleaning House

I’m in the process of having a new website designed and linked to this WordPress site.  So please check back late summer 2014 for more info and a fresh look!

Thank you!

 

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Crossing the Bridge

Bridge-crossing is a metaphor, of course, and a clichéd one at that.  It’s also an action grounded in regular habit for anyone who lives near water:  to get to work, to school, to home, we cross a bridge.

Growing up, I crossed one bridge most often:  a world-famous landmark, its International Orange towers looming on movie posters, picture-book covers, and tourist postcards.  As a girl, I knew it as the slightly eerie, almost ghostly passage home from my grandfather’s house.  Miles of highway, city boulevard, and then, the fog-swirling bridge itself, huge lights casting the air outside the back window into something out of Oz—except we’d call it Topaz City, not Emerald, because of the amber lights.  I’d watch the fog rush around our car, I’d marvel at the movable yellow reflectors between lanes.  They reminded me of the pegs from my Battleship game.

Later, when I learned to drive, I followed my mother’s lead in choosing the “fast lane”—the farthest left—of whatever direction I was traveling.  Because the bridge has no permanent divider between southbound and northbound traffic—only those yellow pegs, moved to accommodate changes in traffic flow for the morning and evening commutes—this lane unnerves drivers.  In some ways, though, it’s the safest, because the proximity of cars traveling straight at you keeps you alert—and away from the gawkers who hug the sides, snapping their photos.

While I’ve bicycled across the bridge—a far windier and louder experience than I’d imagined—I’ve never walked it.  I’ve been telling myself for years that I needed to walk it, that I couldn’t write a certain scene in my novel until I had done so.  I’ve been avoiding this scene—maybe because I don’t particularly want to walk the bridge.  Or maybe because when I write it I’ll be done, the rest of the novel mere dénouement.  The scene is one of pitched conflict, and conflict makes me anxious.  But fiction depends on conflict, so here we go.

Other reasons exist for my hesitation, reasons having to do with my brother, dead now for 20 years (no, he didn’t jump off the bridge); with family lore I’m sick and tired of (while he didn’t jump off it, he did climb the north tower, a feat my mother announced to anyone given the slightest opportunity); with my parsing out of where my character Chris ends and I begin.  (Chris has his own issues with the bridge.)

Last week, though, I started writing the scene.  I’d been stuck, really stuck.  Reviewing notes, making lists, going around in tight little circles.  I’d started referring to my novel as the hairball.  How could I know not the right ending?  How could I, after all these years, not know the answers to every question about my characters, my plot?  Josh, a writer I work with at the Grotto, suggested that I give myself a break.  Not from working on the novel, but from beating myself up.  Have a little fun, he suggested.

Fun?  Usually this kind of advice makes me tense, like when the dentist tells me to relax.  But Josh said it so kindly, and with such compassion and intelligence in his eyes, that I found myself listening and taking his advice.  I wrote a few new scenes, not thinking about where they’d fall in the narrative arc, not thinking about their cause or effect, just writing them.  I had fun.  I learned some things.

In this way, I snuck up on the bridge scene. I started writing it, even though I hadn’t yet walked across it.  (And still haven’t.) I used my imagination.  I thought about those yellow Battleship pegs—turns out they collapse under the weight of a car, if you happen to drive into one.  I thought about the fog swirling in the amber lights, the way the tall towers disappear overhead, how all that can appear as magic or mystery or danger (or all three) to a child passing below. I thought about the noise and wind and cold, and the surprising incline from either end toward the middle.

I got across.

There’s more to do, in terms of research and detail.  But I’m grateful I wrote a scene before going out there myself, grateful I let myself—thank you, Josh—rely on the fragments I already had, long before I ever thought of this novel.  I knew more than I thought I did, which reassures me.

Now if I could just remember it, next time I get caught in the hairball.

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Story of an Ending*

Halfway through the year, a visitor appeared to a teenaged girl.  This was no ordinary visitor. The visitor greeted the girl, who was perplexed, even troubled, by the greeting.  Why had this extraordinary visitor come?  Don’t be afraid, the visitor told her, and then went on to say that the girl had found favor with God and would conceive and bear a son.  The visitor told her the son’s name and predicted greatness for him—a throne, even.  This troubled the girl even further.  She’d never slept with a man, as she pointed out to the visitor—how could she conceive? And, what about that man she was pledged to be married to—well, what would he think when she conceived by another?  The visitor explained the details—up to a point.  All things are possible with God.  And then an amazing thing happened, perhaps the most amazing thing in the whole amazing story.  The girl said Okay. She accepted the news.  And then the visitor left.

Yesterday morning, I heard this story read aloud for probably close to the fiftieth time, in different words from those above.  Certain phrases struck me, as they always do:  Do not be afraid. She wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  Overpowered by the Most High.  And, yesterday, as though hearing it for the first time, Then the angel departed.

The gospels are full of stories, and these twelve verses tell just one.  If we strip the narrative of its implications for a moment and think of it just as a story, not as part of that story, we notice a few things.  I’m not talking here about what happens next in chapter 1, important as that might be—Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, say, or Mary’s song of praise, or the naming of John, or Zechariah’s getting his speech back—just about these twelve verses between Mary and the angel, rendered over the centuries as poetry and art and gorgeous Byzantine icons.  Just those twelve verses, just the visit.

There’s tension—conflict, even, and crisis and resolution.  We have characters—two whom we see directly, Mary and Gabriel, the girl and the angel, and five others who are named, Elizabeth and Joseph and David and God and Jesus.  In this way, Mary’s personal drama fits into a wider context of family and tribe and people and history and creation.  Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, those are the narrative facts.

What struck me yesterday, listening to Luke 1:26-38, was just this:  the narrative.  I guess because I’ve been struggling with narrative of my own.  For that reason, I think, I was stunned by those four words that close this particular episode.  Then the angel departed.  So simple, and so powerful.  In a way, ambiguous.  The angel left, after depositing this bombshell on the girl.  He’s explained it to her, he’s reassured her, he’s told her not to fear and that she’s found favor and that her baby will achieve great things—never mind for a moment that he hasn’t predicted the pain and sorrow—but still.  Having been a young teenaged girl myself—and most scholars agree that Mary would have been about fourteen—I think she must have felt a bit, well, dazed.  She’s said Yes to God, in an enormous act of faith and humility—a Yes that will resonate down through the millennia, a Yes of acceptance of what will come.  And at the same time, she must feel utterly overwhelmed and terrified and maybe even a little giddy.  To be told such news!  No wonder she runs off to visit Elizabeth, her relative.  Who wouldn’t want to share this news?—but not with anyone.  Elizabeth knows about amazing news, having conceived in a surprising way herself.  Elizabeth, this unwed pregnant teen can trust.  But I’m getting ahead of myself again.

Then the angel departed.  We could read it a number of ways: he’s done his job, time to go; she’s on her own now.  And just where does Gabriel go when he departs, and how? Through the door, behind the drapes in one of those Dutch master annunciations, into thin air?   Fra Angelico’s fresco in San Marco in Florence, Italy, shows Mary in a colonnaded shelter, with what looks like a tiny jail cell behind her, Gabriel approaching as if from across the lawn scattered with millefleurs.  The two mimic each other’s posture, arms crossed in front, shoulders slumped forward, knees bent under folds of blue (Mary) and pink (Gabriel), as they bow to one another, an acanthus-capitaled column between them.  Girl and angel occupy two separate spaces, architecture and geometry delineating what my friend Eva Bovenzi calls the meeting of matter and spirit. (Eva’s Messenger series was influenced, in part, by this fresco).  How would a girl respond to such a visit?  How would anyone?  With grief, relief, a little of both?  Wait, don’t go!  I have a few more questions.

In that way, the four words take us back, to the almost-ending.  Be it unto me, according to your word.  Ah, there’s what we need.  There’s Mary’s change—clearly shown, as any teacher of narrative craft would advise, in this case in dialogue.  Mary’s acceptance makes the power of Then the angel departed so resonant.  It doesn’t explain any further, or try to.  Or need to.  Still, it creates wonder—and isn’t that what all good endings should do?

*with apologies to Julian Barnes, and thanks to Callie Feyen

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Adventus

It’s the season of waiting at church, the Christian season of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas.  For those of us who put up our trees on the 23rd or 24th and leave them through Twelfth Night, waiting has about it a sweet, welcome reprieve from the hustle of the season.  In face of the lights and the piped-in carols (which I can get into as much as anyone, in the right mood), we tell ourselves that we’re marking the season right.  We’re waiting.

But not for too long. This is active waiting, after all.  We don’t want to be caught like the bridesmaids without oil for their lamps.  For several weeks, even before the church calendar clicked over into Advent, the appointed Sunday readings have been concerned—even preoccupied—with waiting, with anticipation, with preparation, with anxiety over what, exactly, we’re waiting for.  And when.

Now I’m conflating here—mixing Advent, with its turning toward Christmas and the birth of the baby in the manger, with eschatology.  But I’m conflating because the lectionary has led me to do so, with its selection of readings for the last few weeks of “ordinary time”—the half-year since Pentecost, the season before Advent.  Just how does this week’s selection—John the Baptist’s call for repentance—fit with the previous weeks’ narrative of Jesus’ talk about the destruction of the temple and coming disaster?

Not chronologically, that’s for sure.  Advent marks the beginning of the church year, so we’re back at the baby, back at the baptizer’s call to repent.  Makes sense.  But in terms of waiting, at least, and preparing a way for the Lord, John’s words seem to herald not only the birth of the Christ child but that grown-up child’s words about what will follow later.

Back in November’s readings, Jesus responded to the disciples’ anxious questions about when, exactly, the destruction he predicted (“not one stone will be left on another,” Luke 21:6) would happen.  He didn’t respond the way they wanted, by telling them a specific date or sign.  Rather, he gave them something more complex.  He warned them to watch out for false prophets (remember all those Y2K scares?) and for earthquakes, famine, and nation rising against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Luke 21:10).  Before all that will happen, though, he tells them that they will experience persecution and adversity and betrayal.

Then, a week ago, as we turned the corner into Advent and a new church year, into beginning all over again, Jesus was still answering the “when?” question (Matt. 24: 36-44).  This time, by comparing the coming of the Son of man to the coming of the Flood, which “took them all away” as they were “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage.”  Very rapture-esque: “two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.” Stay on your toes, in other words.  After all, the man wouldn’t have had his house broken into if he’d known the time of the break-in.

So, why—if you’re still reading—is this  blog, never particularly heavy with scriptural references, addressing the end times and the Advent season?  Maybe because I’ve become (slightly more) comfortable going public with writing about messy faith.  Maybe because this stuff fascinates me, and in the solipsistic blogsphere, I can write as much as I want.

But I think the real reason—at least the one that came to me first—is that I’ve been revising my novel, sneaking up on a scene I need to write, a scene I’ve been avoiding, a scene I can’t avoid much longer.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John the Baptist tells the Pharisees and Sadducees as they approach.  Counting on Abraham as your ancestor won’t cut it.  Calling yourself a novelist doesn’t cut it.  I’ve got to write that scene, and make it cry out. 

Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 

What does this mean, should this mean, can this mean, for a writer?

For me, some hesitation at the implied connection.  Is it dangerous to imply that writing can have about it something of repentance, something of grace?  Or, rather, to claim that  it doesn’t?

Every year since 2002, I’ve spent part of Advent on a silent retreat.  Twenty-four hours a day, for up to six days, of silence.  Complete silence.  At first, it took getting used to, especially at meals.

I’ve never brought my writing with me.  It’s a retreat, remember?  And writing is work.  Instead, I’ve brought along books, knitting, Christmas cards to write and address, my bicycle and hiking boots.  Last year, I spent the most memorable afternoon of my four days sitting in a chair watching the light move across Fitch Mountain as a hummingbird busied itself in the bushes.

This year, though, I’m considering bringing some work.  I’m excited at the idea of waking at 7 to write for an hour before walking to the Refectory to eat delicious oatmeal that someone else has prepared.  I’m thinking that, this year, my preparing the way for the Lord might just happen on the page.

And I’m scared, too, nervous that this line of thinking is too self-serving, too indulgent, that waiting should have more of the hair shirt about it.

Hold on.  Writing worthy fruit is the hardest thing I know.   I can’t be like the Pharisees and Sadducees, or the bridesmaids who run out of oil.  I need to make sacrifices, to kill my darlings.  It might not be what the writers of Matthew and Luke had in mind when they cautioned readers to “Keep awake,” but it might mark a start. I can’t wait.

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Back In the (Blog) Saddle

I know.  I’ve posted this before.  And no one likes an excuse.  Tedious, really, and ultimately who cares?  So I’ll just say:  I’m back.  Thanks to Meghan Ward (of Writerland), I’m sitting down this Friday morning to post here.  “Are you still blogging?” she asked me yesterday at lunch at the Writers’ Grotto. “Every time I go to your blog, it’s the same post.”  (She said this in the nicest of ways, really.)

It is, indeed.  Imagine having a friend repeatedly drop by for a visit and never being there!  That’s a little how I felt.  Plus, I realized that Meghan’s question had reminded me how much I enjoyed blogging before I stopped.  I didn’t mean to stop.  I just did, because too much else was going on.  Oh, wait, no excuses, right?

So here we are.

Now I just need a topic.  (And don’t worry, I won’t go on for 600 words without one.)  I’ll grab at what feels foremost right now:  Gratitude.  That’s right.  It’s an overused concept, and not in the right way.  By that, I mean:  it’s all over women’s magazines, self-help books, polished rocks carved with inspirational words.  But the real thing?  How much of it do we see, feel, embrace?  We can all use more, right?

I am grateful to Meghan, for the nudge.  To The Grotto, for community and laughter and Fred’s damned good coffee and Stephanie’s loaning me The Goldfinch and Ethel’s wonderful reading last night and several people’s support in a tricky, potential icky professional situation.  For Ethel Rohan, for writing Goodnight Nobody.  To Monica, for being excited about teaching a class with me next winter.  For K, too, a student who worked hard on his manuscript and placed it with a national literary magazine. For my nephew, who just left a voice mail asking for the details on Grandma’s (that is, my mother’s) Brussels sprouts–do you brown the butter before adding the nuts and sprouts?  For Leslie, for inviting four of us to Mexico with her for her 50th birthday.  For my husband, C, who tells me how much fun he has with me—and for, after three-and-half years of sharing love and life with him, the fact that I actually believe him.  It’s not that he’s not believable; it’s that the lifelong pattern of being told I can be something other than fun has taken its toll.  For the fun we had last month on the Circle Line boat tour of Manhattan.  For visiting a national park during federal shutdown and not missing a thing.  (We took ranger on his advice:  “Just be smart.”)  And for each one of you who reads this.

It’s good to be back.

Lady Liberty from the Circle Line:

Lady Liberty from the Circle Line

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Stealing

As you can tell if you regularly read this blog — and if you do, you have my undying gratitude! — I’ve been remiss in my posting.  Vacation; a week of teaching; deadlines…and well, here we are in August.

I’m gearing up for my first Grotto class this weekend, What We Talk About When We Talk About Stealing.  The name, of course, is stolen from Raymond Carver’s classic, and I’ve had such fun re-reading it (again) alongside Nathan Englander’s masterful “WWTAWWTA Anne Frank.”  And revisiting gothic retellings of Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard in Joyce Carol Oates’ and Angela Carter’s stories. 

What makes a successful steal in writing as well as on the infield, of course, involves stealth. Yes, the best examples make their homage clear—by title or obvious re-use of a line of dialogue or character situation.  And then they move past mere stealing to make a new point of their own with resonance and originality.  We’re not talking about plagiarism here.

It’s difficult to steal.  I’ve tried, for years, to write a late-20th-century version of Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever.”  How closely do I adhere to what transpired between Mrs. Slade and Mrs. Ansley?  Or is just the situation–two women in a foreign city with a secret between them–rich enough?  I made headway when I could use the “staging” of the original but infuse the friendship with a tension particularly to my characters and not Wharton’s. 

What fun to plan a new class!  And yes, how anxiety-making, too.  But it’s the “good kind of anxiety,” as a therapist friend calls it.  You know, where I wake up wondering if I’m trying to cram too much into a five-hour workshop, or not allowing enough time for students’ sharing their work aloud, or if I’ll have to face 12 faces staring at me blankly.  Where I’m excited, too, hoping for the magic that can happen in the classroom.  I’ve had some bad teaching days, but many more good ones, and as I pull my notes together this Friday morning, I’ve reminded of the joyful surprise I found in my first-ever class, all those years ago at UC Davis:  I love teaching!

A short list of “steals”:

Blue Beard—”The Bloody Chamber” (Angela Carter)
Red Riding Hood — “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Joyce Carol Oates) & “Company of Wolves” (Angela Carter)
“The Overcoat” (Gogol) — “The Overcoat II” (T.C. Boyle)
“Hills Like White Elephants” (Hemingway) — “Good People” (David Foster Wallace)
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (Raymond Carver) — “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” (Nathan Englander)
“Parker’s Back” & “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (Flannery O’Connor) — “Idols” (Tim Gautreaux)
“Lady with a Pet Dog” (Chekhov) — “Lady with a Lap Dog” (Joyce Carol Oates)

And, of course, novel versions such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Ulysses, Grendel, East of Eden that make use of literary forerunners.

Please:  Add to the list!

 

 

 

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How Revision Brings Us Closer

This first Friday in July, I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by my friend and colleague Monica Wesolowska. Her memoir, Holding Silvan, will blow you away.  And she’s got some nifty insights here, too. 

Thank you, Monica!
holding_silvan_243_400_80

At a recent reading from my memoir Holding Silvan, a friendly young man in the audience asked how I’d managed not to be angry or bitter in the book about the people who’d failed me while Silvan was alive. I had to laugh. I could have said the memoir just came out like that because I’m naturally a lovely person, but catching my eye from the second row was Lindsey Crittenden. Lindsey’s in my writing group.  She read my rough draft.  She and I both know it wasn’t that easy.

Holding Silvan is a love story, one that I couldn’t write for years. Silvan was my son. He was a beautiful baby—physically perfect with his olive skin, long lashes—but he was severely brain-damaged during birth. My husband and I chose to remove him from life support and let him live his brief life in our arms. It was an agonizing loss, but a beautiful death. That is the raw material, the true story, upon which my memoir is based.

For years, Silvan’s story remained just that: a private memory. Sure, I talked about Silvan to the people in my life. And I had the diary I kept while he was alive. But those versions seemed too raw, too sad, too angry for strangers. When the story did come popping out, a terrible silence usually followed as if I’d given, as they say, too much information. And that only made me sadder and more angry.

So what compelled me to make the leap from personal to public story, to reveal all to strangers? As a writer and a mother I suppose I felt that Silvan’s story belonged in the world. We never could have made the choice we did alone. And I wanted to test it again, to ask ourselves these questions: Did we really love Silvan well? Was his death a “good death” for him as well as us? And would revealing the hidden story of choosing to let our son die really benefit the living?

One day I was ready. Eight years had passed when the rough draft rushed out. With the strength of distance from my story, I sat tight as Lindsey and my writing group went through that first draft line by line. They teased me for writing about Silvan as though he were the most beautiful baby ever. They chastised me for writing as though I’d behaved better in crisis than anyone on the planet ever had. They questioned me as a narrator, someone who’d been changed enough by my own story that I had the wisdom to come back and tell it. They did all this by crossing out a word here, a word there, asking me to be more and more specific.

OK, so maybe they weren’t really teasing or chastising, but it felt that way.  At first.

Writing is a solitary act, but language itself puts us into communion with others. The more closely I worked with my own language, the wider my world became. And that, I told the young man in my audience, is one of the gifts of writing. I wrote myself right into compassion. I saw how closed we all can be. And I realized the power in my story was less my grief and rage and more my love. Here, my book says, is Silvan. You can hold him. Come on. Don’t hesitate. Now’s your chance. Hold him the way we’d all like to be held in the end.

—Monica Wesolowska

 

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