OCTOBER 20, 2008
AT THE RETREAT
Here at this artists retreat in the Midwest, I’m amazed at the way the other residents retain the strictures, diets and good habits of the lives they have left behind. One writer walked into town yesterday to buy yogurt and fresh greens. Another runs every day. An artist does her yoga in the living room in late afternoon. Obviously, they don’t let slip the daily habits of a disciplined live.
I, on the other hand, do. Oh, I arrive with the best intentions. I pack my running shoes and yoga clothes and cart along five bottles of supplements. I promise myself I’ll abstain from sugar and white flour. (Stuff I generally won’t have in the house.) In short, I’ll continue the disciplines of home. But within days, I’ve adopted a general permissiveness, an amnesty from rules. As if – here – consequences don’t apply and the desserts consumed in the dining room don’t count, the way some people claim that if you eat a cookie by breaking it off in pieces, the calories fall out.
My away-from-home indulgences are as follows:
White break raisin toast
3(!) cups of coffee at breakfast
A second glass of wine at diner
Morning bubble baths
Ditto the vitamins (The bottles remain unopened on the dresser.)
There are other joys.
At night, I lie in bed and turn on the radio – volume low so as not to distrub the other residents – and know the delicious, retro pleasure of listening to a Red Sox game in the dark. I wake at three, switch on the lamp and read for two hours, then sleep until eight. Or later.
I can’t figure out exactly why I have relaxed all standards, but I think it has something to do with being in a place where all needs are met – meals prepared, sheets changed and room cleaned weekly – and so I slip back into childhood, but an ideal one where all that is required is that I create.
Posted by Anne LeClaire on October 20, 2008 11:45 AM
SEPTEMBER 15, 2008
I had just left my afternoon class at the Maui Writers Retreat. I’d sent my students off with a load of homework (they work like sled dogs) and headed to the beach for a late day swim. I had about an hour before I was meeting Ann Hood for dinner to talk about the speech we were giving the next day.
I waded in, submerged to my shoulders. I figured there wasn’t enough time for a shampoo and blow-dry before my date with Ann and so paddled around, bobbing in the surf, all the while careful to keep my head out of the water, my hair dry, so I’d look good at dinner.
Around me, the carnival that is Wakiki Beach played on. On shore, couples posed for photos, five neon-hued parrots perched on their arms and shoulders. The dude who ran the umbrella and chaise concession flirted with customers. Tourists climbed on an outrigger canoe and headed off into the distance. Surfers paddled by on their boards. Children, encircled with hot-pink inner-tubes, floated by, trailing laughter.
I observed life around me.
And then a wave crashed in, taking me up and throwing me head over bandbox, as if I weighted no more than a sand flea. After the first sputtering shock, I swung my hair back from my eyes, as wet and stringy as seaweed, and laughed out loud. I’d been swept not only by the wave, but by the liberating, exhilerating sense of freedom that grabs us when we surrender to what life thows us. When we no longer are trying to be careful. Safe. Looking good. For the next half-hour, I cavorted like a six-year old. Diving into the surf like a seal until my head was water-logged and my fingers wrinkled.
Later that night, I thought of my students and how they were careful to stay close to shore. How they resisted tearing apart a chapter they’ve worked on for months. Or even years. How they moaned at having to toss the first twenty pages or five chapters in order to begin where the book really begins. In this they are not alone. Most writers know this agony. How careful we try to be with our prose. How reluctant we are to rip up what we crafted when what we need to do is pry our fingers loose from the page and rip that mother up. Scatter the pieces to the wind. Dive in. Let go of caution. Get our hair wet.
I have an image of myself on that beach. Sopping wet. Stringy hair in my face. Laughing out loud. I’ll try and remember it as I work on the new novel. The exhilaration of releasing – whether to water or to writing – reminds us of what it feels like to truly come alive.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 10:39 AM
AUGUST 17, 2008
CALLING IT QUITS
I’ve been having an interesting e-mail exchange with a reader named Linda R. about how we decide on when to give up on a book we’re reading.
I remember one novel that stayed on my night table for months. Again and again I would pick it up to give it one more try although I found the plot tedious and the prose uninspired. Finally I donated the book to a library book sale.
Quite some time later, during a book discussion at a dinner party, I mentioned my disappointment over this popular book (it was a best-seller, though I should know by now that this often is a guarantee of nothing more than a strong marketing machine at work). A friend, another avid reader, asked how far along I was. “About page fifty,” I said. “Oh,” she said. “The beginning is really, really slow, but it‘s worth it.” Another friend chimed in. “You have to get to page 100,” she said. “Then you won’t be able to put it down.”
This was not the first time I’ve heard that comment about a book. I call it the just-stick-with-it advice. But why didn’t the author begin at page 100? Or why hadn’t an editor recommended tightening the beginning? Why must I have to slog through the first third of a book before becoming engaged?
Linda R. said she was willing to give a book an honest go but there were too many books she wanted to read to spent the time on one that she doesn’t like.
For years I’ve felt a moral obligation to finish any book I began, but no longer. As Linda wrote, life is too short. And there are, indeed, far too many books. When we open to page one, we agree to no contract to read to the final page. The imperative lies with the author who is charged with creating a book that draws the reader in early on, to create an engine of desire that drives the train through the long journey to its destination.
These e-mails with Linda have me thinking about calling it quits in general. Most of us have been raised on the “Never give up,” mantra. The Vince Lombardi school of “Winners never quit and quiters never win,” a philosophy underscored these days as we watch Olympians push beyond imagined barriers and possibilities. They are men and women who serve as object lessons that perseverance – linked with hard work, desires and dreams – does pay off. If we only did what we knew we could do instead of what we imagined might be possible, no barrier would be broken. Of space, or time or mind.
And yet. And yet.
Sometimes the most positive thing we can do is hop off the train. To put down a book that goes no where. To make another choice. To make the hard call to back off from relationships that consistently drain. To step away from friendships that have become abusive. To put down a book that bores.
Sometimes calling it quits is a sign we’ve taken charge of our own time. Our own lives.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 10:33 AM
AUGUST 3, 2008
Well, the chickens are no longer in that adorable Easter-peeps-fluff stage. Now they are in pre-adolescence, all gawky and full of attitude. They roost on the branches Hillary has threaded through the hen yard wire, chase each other around in what seems like a fowl version of tag, and come running to wrangle over kitchen scraps.
One has chosen me for friendship. Or what passes for it in the poultry world.
A Black Star, she walked up to me the day she arrived, twenty-four hours after being hatched, the only one of twenty-eight not timid or wary. She hasn’t stopped coming to me since. When I step into the yard, she rushes over, ignores the melon rind I offer and pushes against my leg. While the rest of the chick-lets mill about and squabble over the peelings, she stands still while I stoke her feathers. She is a handsome creature who, according to the McMurray Hatchery people, will weigh a little over five pounds when full grown. They advertise her as egg-laying machine. They said nothing about any proclivity to bond with an owner. But bond we have, Black Star and I.
Now back in June when they arrived. I swore I was not going to get attached to this batch. In the past, each time I grew fond of a chick – at least fond enough to name her – she was the first to fall prey to a predator. Tina Turner, a Buff Laced Polish with a flowing crown that looked like a rock star’s wig, we lost to a fox who managed to get through the wire fence. Lady Day, a Golden Campine as handsome as a partridge, fell victim to a racoon. Ella we lost to a hawk who squeezed through a narrow hole in the wire netting above the yard. Each time I wept. Although I spent most of my childhood on a farm and know the cruelty of nature, I never get used to it.
So when this batch arrived I said, that’s it. No more. I’m not setting myself up for loss. And I’m definitely not naming any of them.
And then little Black Star chose me. And as simple as that, I was hooked.
In this complicated world, it is a simple thing to stand in a chicken yard on a summer day and commune with a chicken. And a simple and wondrous thing, too, to open your heart in spite of a history woven with the anguish of loss.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 1:46 PM
JULY 14, 2008
SUMMER READING. DELICIOUS!
Let the rest of the world keep the golf courses and tennis courts and shopping expeditions, my idea of a perfect summer day is to be sequestered with a good book. A hammock and fat novel and I’m in hog heaven. Add a glass of iced tea and I’ll just roll in the dust, metaphorically speaking.
When I was in high school, each summer break I was required to read and report on eight books chosen from a reading list as lengthy as it was diverse. While this idea may strike some as onerous, to me it was a treat. Even now I can remember some of those books. A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN. THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII. LIFE WITH FATHER. The autobiography of George Washington Carver. THE CHILDREN’S HOUR. SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY.
This summer my book stack measures a foot high and is as varied as the high school one.
Among the non-fiction titles are THREE CUPS OF TEA and THE INTENTION EXPERIMENT.
I have my pal Thomas Cook’s new book MASTER OF THE DELTA to look forward to. Judging by the write-up in this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, I won’t be disappointed. A bunch of us have been getting Tom’s book tour dispatches and if he ever decides to give up a life of crime and turn to comedy, I’ll be first in line at the book store.
Also in the crime genre is Lee Child’s latest NOTHING TO LOSE. Child is a relatively new discovery for me and I’ve been taking his backlist out from the library all spring.
Usually I’m so put off by hype that a year or two passes before I get around to reading what everyone else has been chatting up for months, but the word of mouth from tons of readers and reviewers and authors I trust for THE STORY OF EDGAR SAWTELLE has been so over the moon that I just bought a copy.
Books that I read earlier in the spring but highly recommend are Ann Hood’s heartbreaking memoir COMFORT, and LOVING FRANK by Nancy Horan, the story of the love affair between Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Borthwick Cheney.
What about you? What’s on your summer reading list these days? What is your most memorable summer read? If you had only one book to take to the hammock, what would it be?
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 1:36 PM
JUNE 16, 2008
Back in the winter, Hillary tried to get me involved in the ordering of the new chicks. I resisted, even when he pulled out the catelog and offered me the opportunity to choose my favorites. I wasn’t interested. After ten years of chickens, I’d had enough. They’re cute when they arrive, but soon there is the reality of tending them 24/7 year round and finding caretakers for them when we want to go on vacation, not to mention the sorrow when – inevitably – we lose one to a predatator. I was ready to move on to a life beyond the chickens.
Not HIllary. Niight after night, he poured over the Murray McMurray Hatchery catelog, seduced by the variety of breeds. As always he was torn between selecting the proven egg producers like the Rhode Island Reds and the gorgeous plumage of the more exotic breeds like the rare Golden Campines, all black and gold, and the Egyptian Fayoumis and Silver Laced Wyandottes.
“What do you think?” he’d ask.
“I don’t care,” I’d answer. Though secretly drawn to the Buff Rocks and Campines, I offered no encouragement. Enough was enough.
But a Hen Man is a Hen Man through and through, and, even without enthusiasm on my part, he sent in his order.
The chicks arrived this morning. They’re in the smaller hen house, huddled under the heat lamp and I am no longer able to remain unmoved by the miracle of life playing out before me. Earlier, I helped teach them how to drink by picking each one up out of a shipping container no larger than a shoe box and dunking its beak in the water trough. They are weighless as smoke in the palm, but already – one day old – filled with spunk. And even this early, a pecking order is developing. The bossy ones push the meeker aside to get to the water. One adventuresome one chased a bug across the floor. Their antics make me laugh out loud.
If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by for a visit. In the midst of the trials and heartbreaks of our days when it seems as if every week comes news of another friend struck by cancer or other illness, not to mention the bleak national reports of war and a tanking economy, it is good to celebrate life in whatever form it comes to us.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 8:46 AM
APRIL 21, 2008
I’m in that first stage of writing a new book when all things are still possible.
A friend asked me if writing a book was like giving birth. The comparison is apt. There is the conception – that first spark of an idea that hits in the middle of the night or in the shower or when I’m out running, followed by a period of gestation as the project grows and develops. And then, eventually, there is the labor of birth and euphoria,followed by – at least for me and for a number of my colleagues – post-partum depression.
“So where are you in the process?” my friend asked. “Have you conceived?”
I told her I was still dating. Right now I’m in the back seat of the Chevy making out and steaming up the windows. The hard work lies ahead.
In an exchange with one of my students from last year’s Maui Writers Conference, I mentioned that non-writers
couldn’t possible know how difficult writing a novel is. “Yeah,” Alan e-mailed back, “but they don’t know how exciting and gratifying it can be either.”
Or how alive you feel when passionately in love with a story and the characters who people it. I’ll let you know when I crawl out of that back seat and start driving the Chevy down the road.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 10:05 AM
FEBRUARY 20, 2008
HAVING A LIFE
In an interview, someone, I think it was either Carol Shield or Margaret Atwood, once summed up her life by saying that when she was writing she didn’t have a life and when she had a life she wasn’t writing.
Ditto here. When I am in the thick of a novel, I barely floss my teeth never mind tending to concerns of the “real world.” (When my daughter was a teenager she told me she thought writers should be hermits.)
But when I finish a project, suddenly – as if I am crawling out of a cave – I blink in the blaze of a life long neglected. My days are filled with little excursions. I buy shoes, lunch with friends, catch the movie everyone in the country but me has seen. I fill with nesting energy. I furiously clean closets and kitchen cabinets. I put order back into the life I have reclaimed.
This can go on for days and weeks. Sometimes months. And then one morning, I wake, a cloak of dissatisfaction weighing heavy on my shoulders. I am antsy. Itchy. I have no interest in painting woodwork, or pruning back the hydrangeas, or making one more plan to meet a friend for coffee or a glass of wine. The hunger to be writing consumes me.
Last week I finished the revisions for my new book. SInce then I have cleaned five closets. I have reconnected with friends. I have started the onerous task of clearing out the clutter in my studio and culling my files. I’ve recommitted to my fitness plan. I’m reading other authors’ books and preparing cover blurbs.
The itch hasn’t started yet. Stay tuned. It’s only a matter of time.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 12:00 PM
FEBRUARY 10, 2008
SHOWING UP AT THE STATION
I read in yesterday’s New York Times that the novelist Phyllis Whitney died. She was 104 and, according to the obituary, once said she stayed young by writing. She last published in 1994.
Then last night I went to see “Starting Out in the Evening.” In the film, Frank Langella portrays an elderly novelist whose life is turned upside down by a young grad student. In the final scene, after he is back home following a stroke, we see him setting a cup of tea and plate of toast and jam by his bed. The camera zooms in on the tea and toast, and then it cuts to him at his typewriter pecking out words as he works on his novel.
The coincidence of the two – Langella’s performance as the aging writer and Whitney’s obituary – reminded me of a project my friend Kelly Morgan was working on years ago concerning the correlation between creativity and longevity. But that’s a subject for another day. It was something else entirely that made me clip out a paragraph from Whitney’s obit and set it on my desk. Here’s what I saved.
“Ms. Whitney ascribed her success as a writer to persistence and an abiding faith in her abilities. ‘Never mind the rejections, the discouragement, the voices of ridicule (there can be those too),’ she wrote in “Guide to Fiction and Writing.” ‘Work and wait and learn, and that train will come by. If you give up, you’ll never have a chance to climb aboard.’”
Sound advice, I think, and not just for writers. Work and wait and learn. And continue to show up at the station.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 10:43 AM
JANUARY 22, 2008
About a month ago a flock of wild turkeys moved into the neighborhood. I think they settled in the marsh. But they make regular forays to our yard. I’ll be sitting here in my studio and look out and there they are, all seven of them, grazing in our front lawn. Last week they moved to the back yard. One of them flew up to roost on the rail of the deck outside my studio.
They are large birds and magnificent in a kind of ugly-beautiful way. And I am obsessed with them.
Just as, the last time Hillary ordered a shipment of chickens, I was obsessed with them.
For weeks after they appeared in our lives, I’d go to our basement to stand over a large carton that he had fashioned into a makeshift nursery and I’d watch the process of life unfold beneath a heat lamp.
The chicks – thirty of them – arrive in the mail from Iowa, shipped across the country in a box measuring no more than one square foot. The fact that living things can be mailed across seven states and arrive peeping at the post office astounds me. The truth is, from the git go, I was against the enterprise, but as soon as I saw them, I was hooked.
They were two groups. The business part of the flock were the twenty-five Red Stars, absolutely guaranteed to be layers and produce eggs year round. The beauty part, if you can wrap your mind around the concept of chickens as beautiful, were an Egyptian Fayoumis, two Golden Campines, a Buff Minorca, a Black Australorp and one “Rare Exotic Chick” which the folks at McMurray Hatchery threw in free with the order.
Hatched the day before they arrived, the baby poultry huddled beneath the red glow of the heat lamp, looking nearly boneless beneath their yellow fluff, like marshmallow Easter peeps. They felt weightless as smoke in my palm.
The first weeks they were in residence, I’d go down to check on them and monitor the temperature two or three times a day. Before I knew it I had been standing there for a half-hour or more. Watching what? I mean these chicks were the poultry counterparts of a newborn human. They slept, woke, dipped their beaks in water, ate their feed, cheeped a bit, then gathered in the corner beneath the lamp to nestle again into sleep. Not exactly the Six O’clock News. Or Law & Order, for that matter. Still I watched.
By the end of the first week they were sporting the first feathers, which sprouted at the tips of their wings. I marveled at the perfection them, like miniature white angel wings. The tail feathers were next. And then the tiny beginnings of combs.
The more carefully I observed, the more I saw distinct differences. Two or three of the flock developed their tail feathers several days before the others. These same two were the first to display the red feathers characteristic of their breed. Some were bolder and would come to investigate and peck at my wedding band when I offered my hand. Another one – the free Exotic – was bossy, elbowing her way to the food tray.
As I watched the chicks, I was reminded of Flannery O’Conner and her obsession with her pea fowl. In “The King of the Birds,” one of my favorite chapters in “Mystery and Manners,” O’Conner writes, “As soon as the birds were out of the crate, I sat down on it and began to look at them. I have been looking at them ever since, from one station or another, and always with the same awe as on that first occasion…”
I understand O’Connor’s fascination with her fowl, just as I do Barbara Kingsolver’s interest in Buster, the hermit crab who lived in the writer’s Tucson home and about which she writes in “High Tide in Tucson.” And Annie Dillard’s hunger to explore the natural world. And mine with turkeys and chickens, however they come into my life.
Writers are lured by nature. In Kingsolver’s words, it draws us away from the “clutter of human paraphernalia and counterfeit necessities” and anchors us in the “genuine business of life on earth.”
Nature slows us down. It calls for our attention with ferocious storms and the delicate architecture of narcissi and the stiff-winged flight of a red hawk. It bedazzles us with the tapestry of a peacock’s tail and the flailing progress of an inch worm and with Buster the hermit crab who, sequestered in the southwest, continues to live by the tidal time of his native shore. When we slow down and notice the details of life, everything comes alive. There is mystery and majesty in ordinary things.
Nature connects us. To the earth and to each other. It schools us to pay attention, to look more deeply. It wakens us to “the genuine business of life.” This attention we bring to our writing. We learn to slow down, to allow time for ideas to incubate. We pay strict attention to specifics, knowing that concrete detail is what makes a story spring to life. Around us, the world offers a rich metaphor of the spirit.
In my basement, chickens once sprouted angel wings. On my deck, the wild turkeys astound.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 11:19 AM
JANUARY 12, 2008
The outside thermometer reads 45 degrees this morning and the sun shines in a cloudless sky. This after a day of intense thunderstorms. This past Monday I drove into Boston where joggers dressed in running shorts and t-shirts were out in force. The temperature was 70. It would be easy to believe that spring is on the immediate horizon, moments away instead of months.
Apparently I’m not the only one confused about the seasons. As I walked to the beach earlier today, songs birds sang full throttle from perches in marsh reeds, brush and trees. I identified chickadees, cedar waxwings, mourning doves, a flicker and a marsh hawk.
Perhaps New Year’s intentions were still in the air and my consciousness has been raised by Al Gore, but lately I have been deeply aware of the responsibility that comes with stewardship. Both of the planet and of our own bodies. I’ve developed the habit of bringing a bag to pick up litter along my route. And day after day, I’ve been finding that the great majority of trash consists of crushed cigarette packs and empty bottles – beer, wine and liquor.
In truth, I’ve ingested my own share of poisons. And I’ve certainly treated my surroundings with thoughtless disregard. But today as I stooped to pick up the fourth crumpled cigarette pack, I couldn’t help but make the connection, judging from the contents of my plastic litter bag, that those who pollute their bodies with toxins are the same ones who treat the planet with distain.
No soap box here. Just a morning observation from a woman with a bag full of trash.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 9:32 AM
DECEMBER 30, 2007
All is well as we end the year. Hillary is home and recovering. Thank you for the notes and e-mails and cards and calls expressing concern. They meant so much.
I’m trying to hold on to the lessons his health crisis brought. Priorities. Simplicity. You know. The things a major reshuffling bring to mind but then are all to easy to forget when daily life again takes hold.
So another year ends. A new calendar hangs in the kitchen. I love the promise of the empty squares. And wish for all of you that the months ahead are filled with the riches of life. And the wisdom to recognize them as they cross the threshold.
Happy New Year.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 6:09 PM
DECEMBER 15, 2007
BEST LAID PLANS…
This time of year, anxiety is free-floating and contagious. It drifts through the atmosphere like some kind of virulent winter flu, ready to latch onto anyone who stops for a nanosecond.
I know this and build up my resistance with meditation, silent days, yoga and the best of intentions. But then as holiday pressure builds, fueled by commercialism and advertising and calendar pages turning at warp speed, I find myself infected. I fret about whether or not I will have the house decorated before we host a surprise party for a friend on the 18th. I lie awake counting back days and trying to figure out how much time I have to get packages wrapped and shipped to the west coast.
I wake early and head to the studio to write before the world intrudes. My desk is covered with slips of paper and forms. I have recommendations to write for a grad school candidate, two copies of bound galleys to read and write cover blurbs for. Manuscript pages are piled at one side. I worry about whether or not I’ll make my new deadline.
As if I don’t have enough to occupy my thoughts, my mind leapfrogs to December 29th. I worry about how many layers I’ll need to keep warm when we sit in the stands at the Meadowlands, the last regular season game for the Patriots, tickets we’ve had for months. I stew about the weather and arrangements for the trip. Should we drive to New Jersey or fly? If we decide to fly I’ll need to get tickets soon.
I make lists. Pages and pages of lists. As if organization can be the antidote to anxiety.
And then, as I plan and worry and organize, life lobs a curve ball.
A doctor’s appointment for a nagging pain. We learn that Hillary must have an operation. Monday.
All the things that kept me awake, stewing and making lists, no longer seem important.
The birthday party is canceled. The tickets for the Patriots-Giants game are up for resale. Chores that only days before seemed critical go unattended.
I am again reminded of what really counts.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 8:43 AM
NOVEMBER 19, 2007
On January 1, 1998, novelist Kaye Gibbons, well into her sixth novel, hit a state of what she calls “necessary despair” and struck the delete key on her laptop, erasing 900 pages of her novel in progress, a book her publisher had already begun advertising for a mid-year release. In one swift keystroke it was gone.
The novel, Gibbons explains, was going nowhere, was bad and kept on being bad. “I had to throw it away,” she says.
Still. Nine hundred pages.
It was, wrote Liz Seymour in a “Book” magazine interview with the author, an “extraordinary act of literary bravado.” It was also a dramatic example of letting go.
This act of surrendering is an essential part of the writing process, a rough lesson writers learn the hard way, over and over. I think Gibbons’ phrase “necessary despair” is deadly accurate for the anguished state that precedes letting go. We usually have to be brought to our knees to release our hold, but the gift is that such surrender precedes transformation. It is not a sign of failure or defeat, but a signal we are opening to receive.
To make space for what will work, we must get rid of what doesn’t. She didn’t make her deadline, but he 900 pages Gibbons deleted eventually made way for a new novel, a book that sprang out of the old material.
Which doesn’t make it any easier.
“It’s difficult to take yourself out and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to take this really pretty piece of work and kill it,’” said short story writer George Clark.
For several days this week, work in my current manuscript was rolling down a dark corridor and straight into a corner. I had a growing sense that things began to go south with one particular scene but each time I read the paragraphs I became more and more attached to them until they seemed like the best things in the book. Meanwhile, an inner voice whispered, “Lose them.”
I have learned to trust this voice, just as I have found strength and consolation in the wisdom on this matter gleaned from writers who have gone before me.
“To be a good writer is to throw out a good deal,” John Hersey said. And May Sarton advised that you “may have to break your poem to remake it.”
Six years ago, I tossed 50 pages of a novel in progress. When I told a friend, he asked if that wasn’t difficult. “No,” I said, “the really hard part was the weeks before, the days spent working on a piece that was dying, trying to keep the pages.” The tough part was the intractable grip of attachment. Once I surrendered and got rid of those 50 pages I felt nearly euphoric with release, and the writing began to flow again.
Still, again and again, we resist. Who wants to believe that anything we’ve struggled to create is expendable? Those paragraphs or pages or chapters represent time and effort and labor and hope. Products of our creativity are pulled from deep within. They are our children. And now you’re telling us they have to go? Exactly. As Hemingway put it, writers have to kill their babies.
The better the actual writing, the more difficult it becomes to let it go. You’ve written something that just sings, but it’s in the wrong chorus. To prune this good stuff requires courage. And it calls for a willingness to distance ourselves far enough to know what is serving the work and what is serving the ego.
It is, of course, ego that keep the full nelson on the prose we write, convincing us these words are too precious to release. But ego does not nurture the work, it only feeds itself like a mutating organism that starves while it continues to dine on its own flesh.
Critic James Wood recently wrote that the fatal flaw of a noted author is that she loves her own writing more than she loves her characters. This novelist has become too enraptured with her own lyrical prose to get about the awkward business of telling a story.
We must, Picasso reminds us, leave ourselves at the door when we enter the studio. We must dare to open up, lose control, relax into the unknown, for that is the nature of surrender. The fundamental spirit of writing is not control but release. Such letting go requires a liberation from hear and a leap toward faith.
Again and again, I return to learn this lesson: When we can muster the courage to let go of what isn’t working – in writing as in life – we are set free to discover what will work. Through it can feel like death, surrender is rebirth. It is grace unfolding.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 11:11 AM
OCTOBER 31, 2007
I have been seeing saints lately. Or, more precisely, the faces of saints.
Let me back up.
Several weeks ago, while flipping through TV channels searching for the pre-game hype for the Patriots-Cowboys match-up, I came across a program that stopped me in my tracks. It was called “Divining the Human: Tapestries.”
The documentary was about the work of John Nava, a California artist and American realist who created the paintings for the tapestries of 136 saints he did for Los Angeles’ Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
According to Nava, throughout the history of art painters such as Rembrandt have depicted “recognizably ordinary people” as saints and so he, too, decided to use as models for the works, people from his town. The resulting paintings were transposed into computerized images and then woven into tapestries in Bruges, Belgium, marrying the most modern of arts with one of the oldest. Vermeer-like in composition, these monumental tapestries are compelling. All ages and ethnicities are represented. Nava’s saints were people just like us. He has found the human component of the divine. As I watched the documentary which juxtaposed Nava’s actual models with the resulting paintings, I was moved to tears.
Later that afternoon, I headed off to a concert by the Cape Cod Symphony – the second of the season with the dynamic new conductor, Jung-Ho Pak. As I drove along the mid-Cape highway, the images of Nava’s saints lingered in my mind. And they were with me, still, as I stood in the corridor outside the auditorium, one of several hundred people.
And then, as I looked around, I saw in the human faces of those around me, Nava’s saints. I could see the divine in each. In each. Every one.
This “halo effect” lasted throughout the concert and for days beyond. It was as if I were seeing with different vision. The clerk bagging my groceries at the market, the patrolman directing traffic by a construction site, the young girl waiting for the school bus, the elderly woman in line at the bank – all seemed divine. I might as well have been stripped of my skin.
Gradually, as the days have passed, less and less do I find myself seeing through the “Nava lens.” But for those moments when it happens, life changes.
Try it. Try seeing saints in the faces around you.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 4:36 PM
OCTOBER 17, 2007
One spring, a fellow writer sent me a postcard from the British Library in London. On one side was a reproduction of an early draft of William Blake’s poem, “The Tyger.” The page was thick with scratched out lines, crossed out words and phrases, inked in amendments. “Aren’t we encouraged,” my friend wrote, “to see just how much revision Wm. Blake felt he needed.”
As I stared at Blake’s tiny, elegant writing, I was both encouraged and, momentarily, astonished that the visionary poet had to revise at all. Once again I had fallen victim to the falsehood that real writers don’t have to struggle, don’t have to rewrite.
There are many myths that are destructive to the writer and I think this is one of the most damaging. It is a poisonous delusion and even writers who know better use it as a whip of self-flagellation.
It is a myth that dies hard.
We pick up a book. Our eyes wonder over the pages. We eat up sentences that sing, prose that excites and enlightens. And – because the language is elegant – we tend to assume it came easily to this particular writer. We believe this author had an open line to the muse or tooth fairy or whoever is responsible for kick starting the creative process, that her words flowed without struggle or second thought. We believe this the same way we believe some people can have cheese Danish for breakfast, lasagna for lunch, fried clams and creamed sauces for dinner and never pack on two ounces.
Of course we know better. We have the experiences of those who have hiked the trail, send word back.
John Hersey said that “to be a good writer is to throw away a good deal.”
“Rewriting,” says William Zinsser in “The Courage To Write,” “is the essence of writing.”
E.B. White and James Thurber, two writers whose finished works were seamless, rewrote
manuscripts eight or nine times. Twenty-two pages in raw form are boiled down to three when Allan Gurganus revises.
“I rewrite to be reread,” Andre Gide said.
”The more I revise,” says Gail Godwin, “the more the novel comes alive.” She believes not to revise is inexcusable carelessness.
When Raymond Carver finished a first draft, it often ran 40 pages. The completed story was half that.
“Cut a good story anywhere and it will bleed,” Chekov wrote. Like Carver, he knew that to draw blood one must carve away dead flesh
“Colleen McCullough worked on “The Thornbirds” for five years. During that time, she rewrote the whole thing ten times from beginning to end.
“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” Meister Eckhaart noted. And novelist Phyllis Whitney said that “good books are not written, they are rewritten.”
Over and over writers report that revisions are a crucial part of work. It is about making the work better, making it fulfill its promise.
The last thing in the world beginning writers want to hear is that a necessary part of writing is revising. They want someone to get down to the real business, like how to land an agent.
“That’s work,” they moan, as if writing should be easy.
“But I might as well be building a house,” they cry.
A craft, after all, requires attention to the components of craftsmanship. Allan Gurganus noted that he really sees little difference between high art and a beautiful, beautiful table. That means putting in the necessary hours. A novelist needs staying power, not only to withstand rejection, disappointment and the heavy stone of discouragement, but for the process itself. It takes stamina and patience to rewrite.
Another reason writers resist rewriting is because, as William Zinsser says, “We have emotional equity in our writing. We can’t believe it wasn’t born perfect.”
What most beginning writers want to learn is how to get published. What they most desire is to both be published and get famous. What they don’t want to hear is that they need to rewrite, to hone the material.
Just tell me the good stuff, they plead. How can I get an agent?
More than one writer confesses they love having written but hate writing. It’s a human tendency to want to escape the work.
But, as I recently reminded a student at the Maui Writers Conference, writing is the work.
Good writing is disciplined, sharp with clarity, with every word necessary. To achieve it, we must attend to our writing. This very attention brings richness and a depth of meaning to the work. And we best serve it by remembering what carried us to it in the first place.
Love of language and love of story are what bring us to the work. As in life, it is this love that also liberates and sustains us in the labor.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 7:37 AM
SEPTEMBER 21, 2007
WAITING TO INHALE
My friend Susan is waiting to hear from an agent about a book project she submitted. So she’s nuts. As she wrote me, “I am in the throwing-up-what-was-I-thinking stage.
Boy, haven’t I been there. In fact, several years ago I wrote an essay about exactly this phase in the writer’s life titled “Paranoia.”
I am reprinting it here with Susan in mind. And to remind myself of how far off center the profession can pull us.
Here is the essay:
I was going to write about writers and equanimity, but I am so far removed from any sense of balance that this subject will have to wait for another day. What I’m feeling is paranoia. My manuscript’s off to my agent.
I mailed it two weeks ago. The first days passed with the usual jumble of exhaustion, euphoria and relief that accompanies the completion of a book. I tidied my office and caught up on correspondence that had piled up during the final push when I was cranking eight or nine hours a day. I dumped the cat litter. I flossed my teeth.
Then one morning, as if my subconscious had secretly been marking days on the calendar, I woke and thought: It’s been seven days.
One week. And I haven’t heard anything. What does this mean?
Here is what I would tell a sister-writer in these circumstances: Enjoy the break. Have fun. Drink champagne. But a pair of shoes. Go out to lunch. Catch a movie. Drive into the city. Buy more shoes. Sleep. Camp out in the hammock and stare at the sky. Relax. Get a massage. More shoes. More champagne.
Here is what I tell myself: It’s been a week. Why haven’t I heard anything?
“Lighten up,” I would tell a friend in these circumstances. Fortunately, my own friends have developed senses of self-preservation and keep advice like this to themselves.
Days pass. The silence from West 57th Street deafens me to reason. I still haven’t heard. What does it MEAN?
It means nothing.
It mean everything.
It means my agent is on vacation. It means she probably hasn’t even gotten around to reading it yet. It means she hates it; it means she’s dropping me from her client list.
Now I’m not thinking champagne. I’m thinking Drano.
I get an e-mail from a friend in Wisconsin, a woman whose books have an apartment on the New York Times Best Seller list and who writes a syndicated column. A woman who has been on Oprah. Her editor just called to schedule a lunch. “I think he want to cancel the column,” she writes. “And I am NOT being paranoid.”
No. Of, Course not.
The only people who think an invitation to lunch means rejection are writers. And maybe actors.
Listen,” I tell my friend. “If someone is planning on giving you the ax, he doesn’t do it over lunch. Lunch means he wants something.”
“Right,” she says. “He wants to cancel the column.”
Paranoia. From a Greek word meaning madness. And it is a kind of madness, this thinking.
I watch the mail. I skulk around waiting for the office phone to ring. It’s been eleven days. No word from West 57th Street.
Food cravings start. I want potato chips. Cookies. Chocolate. Big time.
My friend e-mails again. She’s had “The Lunch.” The editor wants more columns.
She maintains she was not being paranoid earlier. Nine out of ten times, everything turns out fine, she says, but that tenth time colors everything.
What do they call it with rats? Intermittent re-enforcement?
Several years ago, another friend phoned while waiting for her agent to respond to a submission. “It’s been two weeks,” she fretted. “I think she hates it.”
“Two weeks is nothing,’ I said. “If two months pass and she hasn’t responded, maybe you should worry.”
My friend’s anxiety couldn’t be eased. Another week passed. Finally her agent called, apologizing for taking so long. “I’ve been on vacation,” she explained,” and then when I came back I was busy running my daughter’s Brownie Troop bake sale.”
My daughter’s Brownie Troop bake sale.
This phase has become the shorthand we use to remind us of the insecure state of insane projecting we dive into when we’re waiting.
I think we get into this state as a kind of superstitious ritual. Maybe we prepare for rejection as a way of warding it off. I don’t know of one writer who, on shipping off a manuscript, primes herself for the best. We don’t think, “Oh, she’s going to love it.” Or, “When he reads it he’ll probably want to negotiate to get me more money and a two-book contract.” No, we don’t go there.
Another day passes with no word. My mental health deteriorates. I think of all the people who know I’ve finished the book and are waiting to hear its fate. I consider moving somewhere far away. Somewhere, say, like Cameroon,
I stare into paranoia’s mad face. And gradually I realize it is not a face I am seeing but a mask. The frantic, obsessive facade that covers fear.
The uncertainty of not knowing does feel unsafe. So once again I must face the gargoyle of insecurity, of sitting in not knowing, of learning the lessons of faith. What I have been doing is projecting all my deepest fears and insecuritites onto my agent.
Who probably hasn’t read it yet.
Who is probably on vacation.
Who is busy with a bake sale. Probably.
So there it is. Hang tough, Susan.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 1:42 PM
SEPTEMBER 9, 2007
BEACH PLUM JELLY
For weeks now, Hillary has been talking about making beach plum jelly and, in response, I’ve been rolling my eyes. My thinking is this: I don’t have time for it. It’s too much trouble. The recipe calls for way too much sugar. It’s far easier to buy a jar at The Chatham Jam and Jelly Shop.
Then yesterday he came home with two pails of picked beach plums. Before I knew it I was preparing plum juice and sterilizing jars and the house was filled with the sweet-smelling steam. For me, scent is the most evocative sense, capable of eliciting the most long-forgotten memories. Suddenly I was thrown back to my early days as a bride when each fall my mother-in-law would take me to the spots she knew the bushes grew. We’d head out to Long Pond to harvest the purple fruit while she told me the secrets for making the sweet-tart jelly. (“Always throw in some green berries for their high pectin quality.”)
And then I was remembering my childhood on the farm and the production line in our kitchen as my mother put up preserves and canned enough fruits and vegetables to see us through the winter. I was twelve – the farm sold to a developer – before supermarket cans appeared on our kitchen shelves.
I find great satisfaction in seeing the jeweled-filled jars on the counter and in returning to a fall ritual that slows me down and connects me to the earth. And links me, too, to the generation of women who practiced it before me.
What I wonder is what rituals are we handing down to our chuildren today.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 8:39 AM
AUGUST 22, 2007
Turning to fictional characters for life advice has its drawbacks.
In THE LAVENDER HOUR, I was struck by the wisdom of Lily, the main character’s mother. She said she noticed that as the years passed, often people’s lives got smaller and smaller as their confort zones diminished. To keep her own life large, she decided to sail across the Atlantic with her new boyfriend.
Yesssss, I thought. You go, girl. That makes sense.
And I decided – after years spent learning how to say no – to start saying yes. I decided to accept whatever opportunities came along. And so I did. Yes to taking a role in the Monomoy Theatre’s production of “My Fair Lady.” Yes to new opportunities for book promotions which meant a calendar full of signings and readings. Yes to teaching at the Maui Writers Conference this coming week. Yes to teaching a three-day creative writing workshop outside Chicago. Yes to house guests. Yes to invitations to parties and lunches and dinners.
And did my life get bigger? Yes. It also got overscheduled and I ended up exhausted. Once again I learned the hard lesson of finding balance.
I still think there is wisdom in Lily’s words. I think there is more wisdom in slowing down enough to listen to our own truths. And to maintaining balance in our lives. And to practicing discernment.
Now I’m off to pack for eleven days in Maui. There are some things it’s good to say yes to.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 2:11 PM
AUGUST 1, 2007
SUMMER NIGHT IN BOSTON
At game time the temperature was 81 but by the second inning there was a gentle breeze blowing our way. I was in heaven: The bleacher seats at Fenway – the best park in the country for baseball and people watching.
There are glitzier parks and more glamorous ones. In the past two years we’ve traveled to Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay with my nieces Linda and Laura – rabid fans, both. (Okay, Linda is the rabid fan, Laura is in it for the adventure.) But given a choice, I’ll take the park on Yawkey Way. In part, because of the memories it evokes.
My introduction to Red Sox Nation, though it wasn’t called that back in those days, was sitting with my Grandfather listening to a game. He in his suit and tie, me in my Sunday-best dress and maryjanes. The radio was in the bedroom of their Beacon Street apartment and we’d sit there, all attention. I was so young my feet dangled five inches from the floor, but he thought I was old enough to learn how to keep a scorecard.
I didn’t get to a game at Fenway until I was a bride. Our children were five and seven when they saw their first game. Since then I’ve been with friends who know the name and stats of every player on the team, friends who root for the opposition, and friends who are virgins in the territory of sports. I’ve been in the years when management couldn’t give the tickets away and seasons when you have to tap dance or have good connections to get one. One thing is constant – the thrill I get when I walk up the ramp and see the field spread out before me.
They lost last night, in spite of Beckett’s pitching and Big Papi’s two home runs. Still they head the division with a seven game lead over the Yankees.
All’s well in Red Sox nation.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 8:00 AM
JULY 22, 2007
Lazy (?) Days of Summer
Today at noon we are going to a birthday beach party in Yarmouth, then at 4, I’m off to a Ladies Garden Tea in Eastham, and then HIllary and I reconnect at 7 PM to go to a bookstore in Chatham to hear a friend give a talk. That’s what our lives are like these days. Sandwiched in between theatre, gardening ( first cukes harvested this week, two peppers about ready), seeing friends, having house guests. swimming, and keeping up with the daily demands of home and body and chickens, we are managing to work. Hillary is clamming about every day and I am trying to finish writing my book before the end of August when I leave for Maui to teach at the writers’ conference there.
So, what I’m wondering is this: What happened to the lazy days of summer? Remember them? Lulling in a hammock or on the porch swing. Reading. Back yard picnics. Croquet. Domino games in the late afternoon. Summer church fairs. July and August on the Cape have a frantic air and I wonder if this is because this is a resort destination or if it’s reflective of the times we live in. Or just an indication of my own life.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. How is your summer unfolding?
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 10:14 AM
JULY 12, 2007
As soon as the school bus released me at the foot of our drive on long age winter afternoons, I’d race for the house. Once inside, I’d drop my books, trade my school clothes for woolen layers and grab my skates, then, with my Collie for company, I’d head out across the road from our property where a frozen swamp waited.
I’d kneel on the ice and strip off my mittens to lace up my skates. By the time I’d finished, my fingers would be clumsy, struck dumb with cold. Then I would rise to glide along the length of the stream that traversed the swamp. I would weave in and around the clumps of marsh grass, skating on and on, racing against time as the December sky darkened toward late afternoon.
Eventually, driven by thirst, I would sit on the frozen surface and, using the rear point of my skate blade as a pick, I would chip away at the ice, chopping until I had created a hole large enough for water to rise up through. Then I’d flop prone, legs splayed behind me, and drink.
This is what I remember: The shock in my chest when the frigid liquid hit, then, on my tongue, the wild taste of untamed water, fertile with hidden dangers, unknown life. This bog water was far removed from the purified, odorless stuff I was used to. It was alive. As I drank, rather than feel apprehension, I felt profoundly connected to the earth and to this particular spot where much later in the spring I would return armed with a Mason jar to scoop up pollywogs. I felt strengthened by the primeval taste of nature.
As I grew up I was weaned away from wildness. I became restrained, fearful of wild things and more careful of what I was willing to take in. But I have never forgotten the jolt of the icy swamp water and how it satisfied something deeper than thirst, some nameless desire that is the urge to taste essential life.
Writing can be like that. If it comes from Wild Mind.
“Wild Mind,” writes Natalie Goldberg is “raw, full of energy, alive and hungry.”
A hungry mind is a necessary thing for writers. Like my long ago winter thirst, it drives us to go for primal sustenance. It calls for us to lose control and frees us of the grip of our cautious editor mind. Of course, it also makes us nervous. It gives rise to a litany of fears. We fear that we will look foolish. That we will give offense. That we will expose hidden parts of ourselves. That we will estrange those we love and repel strangers. And so we rein it in. We write a scene that sings about a mother dancing drunk. The writing is raw and alive and we feel its power in our belly. Then a grim voice breaks in. Someone might think you are writing about your own mother. Better change it. Tone it down. Be safe. Better have her drink tea. Better forget the dancing altogether.
Safe mind always urges us to conceal the real heat and energy. It calls us to stop short. It is then we must muster the courage to go deeper. Go further.
“Sometimes when you think you are done, it is just the edge of the beginning,” Goldberg says in “Writing Down The Bones.” “Probably that is why we decide we’re done. It’s getting too scary. We are touching down into something real.”
“The crust of the everyday must be broken through,” wrote Delacroix.
I like that phrase. The crust of the everyday. It speaks to me of the loss of wonder and of the layers we take on in the futile hope of protecting ourselves from hurt, from revealing too much, from seeking truth, which is, after all, the aim of all true writers.
Like the skate blade I used decades ago, Wild Mind is a tool that we can use to break through crusty barriers. It leads to the rich material. It connects us to the fecundity of life.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 9:33 AM
JULY 6, 2007
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about competition.
Let me back up for a minute.
For several months now, I have been sitting on a cushion of joy. My new book sold to a publishing house and was welcomed so enthusiastically that my editor sent me flowers. Lovely things were happening and days passed in a gilt-edged haze. A magical sense permeated my world. When the date was set for publication, I flipped the calendar ahead to June and marked the day with a star.
Several weeks passed and then a good friend called to tell me her novel was also scheduled for a June release. My first reaction was delight. This was, after all, a friend who had been generous and supportive all during the months and months I was writing my novel and had wished nothing but great success for me. It even seemed fitting that our books would be released simultaneously since during the past year we have shipped chapters back and forth for feedback. But no sooner had we hung up than it hit me: Our books would be in direct competition.
As quickly as that, my cushion of joy – the pillow that had supported me for weeks – deflated. My dearest confidant morphed into my competitor. I felt my heart – which until now had championed my colleague – shrink to the size of a toenail.
In the following days she called with up-dates: Her publisher was flying her to Florida to speak to the reps at the big sales conference. Her cover art was gorgeous. Her publicist had secured a June 17th appearance on the Today Show.
“Terrific,” I’d manage, my jaw as tight as a boxer’s fist, the sweetness of my triumph gone sour. Competition is the grinch that steals happiness.
Here’s how it works. It begins with the impulse to compare. How much is her promotion budget? How many cities are scheduled for his book tour? What size print run is her publisher planning? Who has he got to do cover quotes? Did her house spring for a celebrity photographer for the jacket’s author shot?
Almost instantly, comparison edges over to competition. Competition, let loose, feeds dissatisfaction and – ultimately – envy.
And once envy got its fangs in my throat, I was road kill. “The wasting disease,” Cynthia Ozick calls it. I forgot all the reasons I write. I lost touch with the joy and satisfaction that comes from language and story and the fellowship of writing.
We live in a culture that encourages competition. Our economy is based on the very principle of competition. Early on we learn to place our worth on where we sit in the pecking order. From grade school on we are rated and judged against our peers, in academics and athletics and looks.
While it might run the economic system, competition is a straightjacket for artists. It is a vampire that drains spirit and soul. It leads to depression and oppression. As the husband of a friend said, “To compare is to despair.”
I tried to remind myself of these things as I struggled to accept my friend’s news. I counseled myself that success wasn’t a stew. That every ladle scooped out to someone else didn’t mean less for me. But, in a society where competition is the bedrock of commerce, how do we reprogram our minds? How do we separate aspiration from competition? How do we find a way to honor our own aspirations and celebrate our sisters’ successes?
I struggled to come up with answers.
Then, one Sunday, the words of a wise minister showed me the way. “The essence of a joyful life,” he said, “is not competition but gratitude.”
Gratitude. The essence of a joyful life. How could I have forgotten?
When we sit in gratitude, when we acknowledge all the blessings, there is no room for competition. Gratitude expands the soul. It converts an attitude of poverty – the tight thinking that there is not enough for everyone, that I won’t get my share – to one of abundance.
It refocuses our ambitions so that we aspire not to be the best, but to do our best.
It reminds us why we write.
The reward is always in the work.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 9:27 AM
JUNE 30, 2007
THE QUEEN’S LAST NIGHT
Okay, so I’m not the first to note there’s a potful of gold to be made by the first person who discovers a way to bottle the enthusiasm, vitality and energy of youth. But what I’ve realized the past few weeks is that while it may be impossible to reclaim the pizzazz of a twenty-year old, the next best thing is to get to hang out with a bunch of them. At least if they’re like the talented, thoughtful, funny and highly motivated actors and technicians in this year’s company at the Monomoy Theatre in Chatham.
Alan Rust is the Theatre’s Artistic Director and back in May when he asked if I would consider taking a role in the opening production of MY FAIR LADY, I didn’t hesitate for a nano-second. Although it’s been 27 years since I acted at the Monomoy, the idea of being part of the Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Season and of working with the show’s director, my old pal, MichaelJohn McGann, were all the incentives I needed. Before you could say “Pick up your script. Rehearsals start on Monday,” I was on board. Not that I needed much of a script for my cameo as the Queen of Transylvania. I have one line. Actually, one word: “Charming.” Though I do get to say it twice. With an accent worthy of Zsa Zsa Gabor.
New York equity actors Holly Holcomb and Terry Caza are stunning as the leads. Ditto Rust as Alfred E. Doolittle and Richard Mangan, on from England this summer to act and direct, as Pickering. The rest of the company are twenty-something acting students, all possessed of equal measures of ebullience, talent and charm. (Although the Theatre is the summer home of the Ohio University Players, founded 50 years ago by Elizabeth Baker, the wife of then President John Baker, students audition at colleges around the country.)
It’s been a joy to be with them – back stage and on stage – and worth the late nights and lost sleep. Every minute.
Tonight’s my last night as a queen. At eleven PM I hand in my tiara. It’s been a terrific two-week run.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 4:29 PM
JUNE 23, 2007
Author Julia Cameron writes that as youngsters, “Every word we learn is a new acquisition, a bit of gold that makes us richer.”
My first treasure trove of language was the bright yellow and green 64 count Crayola Crayon box that afforded me my first glimpse at the possibility and poetry of words.
Maize. Burnt Sienna. Sepia. Turquoise green.
The allure of the waxy colors was secondary to the seductive pull of the names block printed on the paper sleeves, perhaps the first real indication I was destined to create with language not paint or clay.
Mahogany: The architecture of the letters, an entire poem unto themselves. The rise of the “h” and dips of the “g” and “y,” the round symmetry of the vowels.
Periwinkle: A cheerful word, with its twinkle rhyme.
Raw Umber: So somber sounding, with the unexpected juxtaposition of the “u” and “m.”
Violet: Old-fashioned, evoking emotions I couldn’t begin to identify.
These exotic words lay foreign on my tongue, offering a glimpse into possibilities far beyond those presented in my grammar school primers, texts that did the job but left out the enchantment. As youngsters, our world can be narrowly circumscribed and to this day I find it astounding that a corporation creating a product aimed primarily at the young had the vision to enrich not only a child’s eyes with color, but also her imagination with a palette of words.
Poetry reaches us from unexpected places. At church on Sundays, I was mesmerized almost to distraction by the reading of the scriptures. Often, by the end of the sermon, my head was heavy, drunk with the poetry of the psalms. The King James Bible, as Robert Olen Butler once wrote, is “the Mother lode of our language. ( I am still saddened by modern translations, which, in an attempt to make the stories accessible, rid the verses of their richness, and think we are the poorer for it.)
As my education progressed, I learned that every word had its own family tree and its own history that traced back to ancient lands and times and that the lineage of words even had a name. When I first learned it, I used to whisper it to myself in the dark, as if it were a magic mantra. Etymology. Abracadabra.
My grandfather, co-author of an English textbook, was a word man. He told me that everything on this earth and in the universe had a word ascribed to it, even the “&” symbol on the top row of his Royal keyboard. Naming brought poetry to the most common things. Ampersand. Hedgehog. Banjo. Ten-penny nail.
And of course I learned that, as with all things of power, words could hurt as well. Like many children confronting schoolyard cruelty, I was told that “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Untrue. I understood even then that words have the potential to do great damage, scarring us in places lesser weapons can not reach. I was schooled about the hard responsibility that comes with wielding words.
For a writer, language is the central tool of the craft, which explains why writers are so drawn to words, so awed by their strength and diversity. Almost every writer I know keeps a notebook of words, collecting them as a sculptor might add yet one more chisel to an already overcrowded workbench. Author Bailey White said that discovering a new word is like falling in love. And like the right lover, the right word has the power to transport. The right word, Mark Twain wrote, is the author’s eternal quest, as different from the almost right word as lightening is from the lightning bug.
Language is essential to the human experience and it is the writer’s first allegiance. String words together and they tell stories. They build characters and countries, planets and worlds, arguments and connections. Words have power. They bring order to chaos, give form to thoughts and unleash feelings. They make visible the unseen. They breathe, burrow, whisper. They trumpet. They have their own rhythms and sing or march or hum across the page. Sometimes the sound of a word is more important that the sense of it.
Language can liberate us or create a prison. It can lift us up, fire our imagination, or throw us into despair. Words can surprise us. Sometimes, when I’m walking along the seashore near my home, a word or phrase will surface in my mind, a word so perfect it triggers an entire scene which I run home to capture before it fades.
Words enrich us. The poet Adrienne Rich has noted that “When we awaken to our own life, language is our ally.”
We free our lives with words.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 7:29 PM
JUNE 15, 2007
Maybe there is nothing in the world to explain the world, but we try hard anyway. We try to define the illusive, mysterious quicksilver we call inspiration.
“God on the job,” says author/actor James McEachin, referring to both inspiration and the things that inspire us.
“Telephone poems,” a poet friend says, referring to the verses that come fully formed on awakening, as if in the night she received celestial dictation.
“The collective unconscious,” adds another friend, seeking answers in the teachings of Jung.
Eureka moments. Epiphanies. Flashes and fragments of insight. Revelatory dreams. These are the creative gifts that bring us to our knees in gratitude and wonderment, but by what mysterious process do they, seemingly unbidden, arrive? Where does inspiration spring from? How do we court it? Can we woo it?
The ancients believed in Muses and so do writers. How could we not? There is a strong element of the mystical in inspiration.
Theodore Roethke wept for joy when he completed his poem “The Dance,” and acknowledged that he had felt a Presence in the room helping him, an attendant spirit akin to the Greek daemon. Harriet Beecher Stowe believed “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was written by Another Hand.
Even writers working at the cusp of the twenty-first century acknowledge it. We write in the middle of a magic circle, said Ralph Ellison. August Wilson called it the “land of magic.”
Still, the question of divine inspiration tends to make writers edgy. Short story writer Craig Moody maintains the whole subject is taboo. “We’re skittish about the issue because it verges on the spiritual and metaphysical, or at least we’ve convinced ourselves it does,” he says. “What it really is is this: We’re afraid another writer might somehow steal our mojo. Or that we might jinx it by talking about it.” Writers, he maintains, are just as fascinated and perplexed as anyone about where ideas come from.
And as in awe of it.
People ask writers all the time where they get ideas and the truth is they come like gifts. If we are wise, we are open to receiving. Our minds soften their grip on reality and open to the imagination. Woolgathering, our grandmothers called it.
While reading the brand name on a box of Pasta della Nonna noodles Massachusetts writer Virginia Reiser absently-mindedly translated it from Italian. Pasta of the grandmother. From this came the impetus for “Pasta della Nonna” the lovely story that won first prize in a CapeWomen magazine fiction contest, and which opens, “Eat, eat,” my Nonna said. “You are like cappellini – too thin to hold a sauce.”
Recently Reiser was in her car with her husband when, out of the ether, this question occurred to her: How did the Spirit of St. Louis get back to the United States since Lindbergh didn’t fly it? There was an immediate click of recognition. She held in her mind the first kernel of story.
Creative triggers surround us: A newspaper headline. The writings of another author. A tree branch that captures a shaft of light in a certain way. A snippet of overheard conversation. An inchworm’s flailing progress. A memory resurfaced. The first line of a story that arrives spontaneously and whole. Our part is to be open to them.
There are, I think, two keys which unlock the passage for inspiration: Play and Work.
Play liberates us from analytical thinking and frees the mind for ideas to enter. Imagination, after all, requires room. “I am an elaborate daydreamer,” says novelist Gloria Naylor, reminding us that muse is a verb, as well as a noun. To muse is to envision, to daydream, to call up creative imagination. The root of inspiration is inspire, to breathe in. The act of imagining breathes new life into our labor.
A commitment to work is the other component. In that way it is like the story of the man who prayed to God every morning to win the lottery. Month after month, year after year, he fervently prayed to hit it big. When he died, he confronted God and asked why, since he had been faithful in his prayers, God had not granted them. Responded the Lord, “You might at least have purchased a ticket.” We can pray for inspiration, but the moment of recognition comes because we have been preparing for it and it can only come when we are primed. Work, like play, serves to open the channels.
I know I am most likely to receive an inspired thought when I have been writing regularly and so I regard my daily stint of work as a form of cloud seeding, as if the act of writing itself produces ideas. Creativity is a journey, a friend once said. We have to visit the right places on the way and a path of industry leads us to these right places.
I think, too, that the spirit of creative thought resides not only “out there” but inside us as well. Sir Philip Sidney wrote, “’Fool,” said my muse to me. ‘Look in thy heart and create.’”
“In thy heart.” So perhaps, the secret of inspiration is that, like most good things, it is born of passion and love.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 3:11 PM
JUNE 10, 2007
Every now and then I hear a story that breaks my heart and then mends it.
I recently heard from a woman, a reporter who had interviewed me many years ago. She wrote about what has happened in her life in the years since our paths had crossed and mentioned substance abuse, suicide, cancer.
I emailed back telling her how often Hillary and I reflect that no one escapes grief and loss and no matter how a life appears from the outside, it always contains some measure of loss and heartbreak. No one escapes. I shared that my sister and Hillary’s nephew both had committee suicide.
In her next email she told me more of her story. She wrote about a daughter – frequently institutionalized – and the horrific cost of substance abuse on a family. She told me that she and her husband had adopted their young grandchildren and said her husband is currently in treatment for cancer. Then she wrote that her son had committed suicide. “How does a mother ever recover from that?” she asked.
But here is the part of her letter that struck me like a lightning bolt to the heart.
“I still make quilts,” she wrote. “And enjoy eating popcorn out of a wonderful red bowl while watching movies with my grandchildren. I plant flowers. God is still good.”
This is a woman tested by the fires of unimaginable loss and still she finds the courage to continue, has the grace to find forgiveness and the ability to remain grateful for life’s simplest pleasures. A red bowl. A bed of flowers. The stitching of a quilt.
In the Edgar Lee Masters play, Spoon River Anthology, there is a line by a character named Lucinda Matlock. “It takes life to love life,” she says.
The former reporter’s letter reminded me of Masters’s line and how he recognized the courage required to celebrate life in all its riches and pain.
“It takes life to love life.”
And it does. And it does.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 11:34 AM
MAY 28, 2007
EATING MY WAY INTO SUMMER
Summer has hit with the force of a tsunami here on Cape Cod.
It arrives earlier every year. When I was a college student working at a hotel here, the season started on July 4th. Then it edged back to the middle of June when the schools let out. Now it seems as if the official season begins on Memorial Day.
Let the crowds arrive.
Let the eating begin.
Already I’ve gone out for fried clams and onion rings. Last week while dashing out on an errand, I stopped to pick up a bag of chips and bottle of crème soda – me who rarely eats junk food. And when I was shopping yesterday I dropped a quart of orange sherbet in the cart. (Sherbet was the tip-off as to what was really going on. Instantly I recalled riding my bike to the corner store to buy a pint of raspberry sherbet and then sitting on the front steps and eating it right out of the carton.)
Here’s the thing. Childhood summers meant liberation from school and from coats and sweaters. It was a season of permission. Endless hours outside. No bed time. And it was a relaxation of food rules. A&W root beer. French fries dunked in ketchup. Cotton candy. Roasted peanuts in a warm and greasy bag. Fried clams. Potato salad. Hamburgers on the grill. Lobster roll luncheons at the church. Grape flavored Popsicles.
These days, as if trying through food to recapture the sweetness and – especially – the freedom of those long ago years, I eat things I would never consume during the remainder of the year. I was talking about this with my friend Joan and she told me she went to a party yesterday and ate three hot dogs. With all the trimmings. Relish. Mustard. Chopped onions. By the time she got to the third, there were no rolls left but she didn’t care. As she told me this, I heard a definite note of pride in her voice.
Laurie, another writer friend, is having lobster for dinner tonight. “It’s the best way I know to kick off summer,” she says. “It’s almost a superstition. Memorial Day and Labor Day. Lobster to start and end the season.” And she and her children have already hit the clam shack near her home.
School’s out. Let the eating begin.
What’s your summer food memory?
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 11:44 AM
MAY 21, 2007
E. B. White, an author who suffered great anxiety about both writing and public speaking, said: “I admire anybody who has the guts to write anything at all.”
I can only echo, “Amen.”
Many readers assume that those who write for a living seldom have to confront fear of writing. Writers, too, succumb to this myth, believing that while one personally may have to struggle with the demon fear, other writers don’t. The truth is that fear is a universal experience for anyone who puts pen to paper. Everyone who writes has to summon from some deep place inside the courage to write, the nerve to write true.
For writers, courage is “the first essential,” said Katherine Anne Porter.
Cynthia Ozick wrote, “If we had to say what writing is, we would have to define it essentially as an act of courage.”
It is revealing, I think, that both Ozick and Porter link the word “essential” with courage when describing the task of writing.
“You need a certain amount of nerve to be a writer,” Margaret Atwood wrote. “An almost physical nerve, the kind you need to walk a log across a river.”
I like the simile: Courage as the physical quality that provides stability and balance, allowing us to the traverse the unstable, slippery terrain of both our psyche and our material.
In his book THE COURAGE TO WRITE, Ralph Keyes perfectly captures the litany of fears a writer can get lost in. “Whenever I start writing a book, my fears follow a predictable path,” he writes. “First I’m scared that I won’t finish it, that I’ll be exposed as a fraud who conned a publisher into thinking he could write a book. When I do complete a manuscript, I’m afraid my editor won’t accept it. If my editor does accept the manuscript, I’m worried that critics will hate it. If critics don’t hate it, I’m sure no one will buy my book. And even if readers do buy my book, there’s danger that they won’t like what they read. They might find it laughable. Worst of all, someone I know may ridicule my efforts. These are the types of fears that keep me, and anyone who presumes to write for public consumption, awake at night.
Rejection, ridicule, failure, the fear of being wrong: The Four Horsemen of dread. Add to them the trepidation of revealing that which we fear we should not disclose. It requires a certain dauntlessness to expose particular topics to our readers. I think of this as the “I can’t write about that” phenomena.
A participant in a writing workshop I gave in Kenmare, Ireland one spring was the wife of the local vicar. In response to an assignment on characterization, she wrote a strong and enchanting story about a male stripper with a tattoo on his bum. After the class, she confided in me that the boy in the story was her son. By the end of the workshop she felt safe enough to share that news with the others in the class, but she said she could never publish the piece because of what people would think about her, her son and her husband the vicar.
To mine the rich territory, we must find the courage to write the one thing we feel we can never write about, the subject that makes one break into a sweat to even consider divulging. This is the pay dirt, the very thing we must write.
Ralph Keyes writes, “A warm flush of embarrassment is like a dowsing rod pointing its quivering tip right at deep wells of rich material.”
I think we don’t extinguish our fears as much as write in spite of them, and in the process we discover that many of our fears are phantoms born of our own imagination. And those which are not, we survive. We don’t die when we get a poor review, but actually go on breathing and live to write another day. We discover that breaking taboos not only does not isolate us, it connects with others.
When I allow fears to pollute my mind and silence me, I remember that the root word for courage is derived from the Latin “cor” and that the French word for heart is “coeur.” I remind myself that my heart remains the sturdiest of the writing muscles.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 9:48 AM
MAY 11, 2007
One summer, as she worked diligently to meet her publisher’s deadline, author North Cairn kept at her side a copy of “Endurance.”
The 1957 classic by Alfred Lansing is a narrative of explorer Ernest Shackelton’s audacious expedition to Antarctica in 1914, the stranding of his crew following the destruction of his boat, and his struggle to survive against daunting odds and save his men.
Shackelton, a demanding leader and dreamer, had planned to cross the then unexplored ice-bound continent by foot. Shortly into the journey, his ship, Endurance, was locked in an ice pack and then crushed by the weight of the shifting floes. His dream of crossing the continent was lost, his remaining goal solely to get his men out alive. In a desperate gamble, he split the party, leaving 22 on the shore of Elephant Island and set off in the ship’s whaleboat with five men in search of rescue. Their journey lasted 850 miles. Eventually all were rescued.
Shackelton became Cairn’s spiritual companion. Inspired, she used his example as fuel to finish her own project which, at that time, was feeling not unlike crossing a continent.
She had ten weeks to transform an eight-page book proposal, essays she had previously published on her subject, and mounds of research into a finished manuscript.
Her schedule was to work everyday from seven to noon, have lunch, and return to work until 5:30. She would then take a long walk, have dinner, fall into bed, and read another chapter of Lansing’s book. Riveted by the story, heartened by the courage of the men, she also resonated with the element of the transformative impact of isolation in a natural setting, a theme which paralleled one in “By Monomoy Light,” her book about the time she spent alone one summer on the wildlife refuge off the coast of Chatham, (Northeastern University Press, 1999).
“These men had nothing ahead but the prospect of death, and I took from their story information about the process of persevering,” she says. “They had already been through so much and, exhausted, they had to make this last journey or die. They went though hell and lived.”
That sounds a lot like what writing a book can feel like.
Writing any book demands endurance. It requires a surprising amount of physical strength and dogged emotion resiliency. In Cairn’s case seeing her project through to completion also called for an almost lock-jawed stubbornness in the face of disappointment. Mid summer she learned the book’s acquisition editor was leaving Northeastern Press. The project was turned over to an editor unfamiliar with it and occupied with the manuscripts of his own authors. Discouraged, Cairn turned to Shackelton. Good, God, she would tell herself. If these guys can get through this, I guess you can finish a book.
Shackelton’s family motto was Fortitudine vincimus. By Fortitude We Conquer. This axiom is not only eerily prescient for his Antarctic journey, but seems a fitting epigraph for writers in for the long haul.
Completing a four or five hundred page manuscript means creating, forming and shaping material, then editing and revising it, sometimes four or seven times. Often, it means doing battle with the personal demons not yet faced. Or reengaging those faced in the past.
Inevitably, it means dealing with the vicissitudes of the publishing business. Editors leave publishing houses, conglomerates swallow up houses and writers are set adrift. Sometimes it means dealing with all this while experiencing death or divorce, illness or loss in one’s personal life.
No wonder fortitude is called for.
Passion and enthusiasm drive a writer to the desk, as does love of words and story, but to stay the course, stores of physical stamina, emotional tenacity, and mental toughness serve a writer well. As does patience, a necessary component of fortitude, I think, as it suggests acceptance of one’s self and tolerance for the process.
As North Cairn discovered when she turned to Shackelton, a mentor to instruct or inspire one in these matters helps. Writer might do well do hang the Shackelton family motto over their computers.
By fortitude we conquer.
Or as novelist Elizabeth Berg, puts it in “Escaping Into The Open,” her book on writing, “If you want to ride, stay on the horse.”
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 6:34 PM
MAY 3, 2007
A friend recently gave me an article containing an interview with Andrew Harvey, the co-author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. One passage leapt off the page for me.
“I don’t say follow your bliss,” Harvey says. “Look where that has gotten us. I say follow your heartbreak.”
Perhaps Harvey’s statement resonated so profoundly because lately there has been much heartache in my life.
I was in Virginia during the time of the murders at Virginia Tech and word reached me there that Jamie Bishop, the son of my friend the sci-fi writer Michael Bishop and his wife Jeri, had been killed at the school. My heart breaks for Mike and Jeri – and for all those affected by the horrific event – with a sorrow that is marrow deep.
And on Monday, during the long drive back to Cape Cod , three more pieces of sad news reached me.
A friend of Hillary’s had been in a bad accident and his foot had to be amputated. My sister-in-law received her test results and starts chemotherapy this week. My sister is getting a divorce.
And always – always – there is the every present backdrop of the daily death count from Iraq.
How to we nurture and sanctify life in the face of tragedies like the Virginia Tech shootings? How to we hold on to hope in the face of personal loss, of disease and destruction, global warming, ecological devastation and war?
Harvey, a religious scholar, says heartbreak can strike us “like a sword of light through the heart.” He suggests that it is the passion behind our heartbreak that will compel us to work for change. He calls for “sacred activism,” a policy of respect and compassion for ourselves and our planet.
My heart is breaking. Now I ask myself, What will I do with the heartbreak?
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 2:33 PM
APRIL 21, 2007
Here is one of my favorite stories about rejection.
Several years ago when A. Manette Ansay was teaching creative writing at Vanderbilt University she decided to give her students a visual demonstration about what being a writer meant.
Before class, Ansay pulled out her file of rejections. It was thick. (Nearly every writer I know keeps a similar portfolio. Surely this deliberate stockpiling of pain and failure reveals something about the writer’s psyche – why don’t we just toss them?)
With rejection letters in hand, Ansay sat in her office and constructed a dress, cobbling it together with staples. When the garment was finished, there was still a stack of correspondence on her desk, so she made a hat, complete with feather. In this costume, she greeted the class.
“I stood in front of the room in this dress made of my rejections,” she says, “and I told them, ‘This is what being a writer looks like.’” Blank faces stared back at her. Ansay recalls, “I would see by their expressions they were thinking, ‘Well, you must not be a very good writer.’”
Ansay, whose most recent novel is “Midnight Champagne,” is a terrific writer. She has received the Pushcart Prize, the Great Lakes Book Award and the Friends of American Writers Award. Her collection of short stories, four novels and memoir have garnered critical praise. She is an Oprah author. And she is right. Being a writer means rejection.
After class, Ansay returned to her office and pulled off the dress, badly scratching herself with the staples in the process. “I was bleeding from my rejections,” she says.
Don’t we all?
Rejection is the beast with yellow teeth waiting in the closet. It is every denial we have ever experienced, every moment of self-doubt, magnified 10,000 fold. It’s the fifth grade teacher who humiliated us in front of the class. It’s our worst fear – You’re a fake who has been found out – in a form letter. Rejection humbles us and erodes self-confidence. And every time we sit down to write we risk it.
We deal with it differently. Depending on the moment and our temperament, we react with anger, bitterness, humor, rationalization or resignation. We remind ourselves not to take it personally. We take it very personally. Some of us assume the fetal position and consider bartending as a serious career option. Others of us dream about getting out hands on an Uzi. Any jury of our peers would acquit. Justifiable Homicide. Temporary Insanity.
A writer I know struck out the name of her publisher on copies of one of her novels and scribbled in “Scumbag Press” after the house rejected her next book.
In the face of rejection, we gather stories like talismans, passing them between us like 50-dollar bills. Stories about 20 editors who pass on a manuscript that, finally published, becomes a best seller (“Ordinary People,” “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” The Firm”). Stories about an author so defeated he commits suicide, but whose work, submitted posthumously by his mother to yet another house, lands on the best seller list, wins awards (“Confederacy of Dunces”). We review the early rejections of Hemingway, Faulkner and Steinbeck. We talk about the insanity of the publishing business and speak in awe-filled voices about the saga of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” One hundred and twenty-one publishers said no thanks before one editor saw merit in Robert M. Pirsig’s manuscript, a book which eventually sold millions of copies. We savor Pirsig’s sweet revenge as if it were our own. We try to imagine addressing the 122nd envelope, sticking the postage stamps on, shipping it. We ask ourselves sobering questions. Would I have quit after the first 20 rejections? Fifty? Seventy? One hundred? How militant is my belief in my work? Will I continue if all incoming evidence suggests I am engaged in an act of supreme self-delusion?
Faced with rejection, we recite these stories like litanies. We gain comfort – and fortitude – from them. We sho ut. Cry. Whine. Sneer at the obtuseness of editors.
Here is the totality of what I know about rejection. When I am done reacting, I must return to the work. Like all life challenges, rejection is simply a test of my mettle. It offers two options. Give up or continue. So, I continue.
Unbowed and only slightly bitter, I stumble on. Or march on defiantly. Or crawl on all fours. Or make a furious dash for the finish. I establish working relationships with other writers so I don’t have to deal with rejection in isolation. I learn to celebrate small triumphs. I develop a thicker dermis.
It serves me, too, to sheath myself in steadfast faith, to hold fast to the understanding that there is a purpose in what happens, even in rejection. I recall the words of a karate master that “every defeat holds the seeds of future victories.” I extend that faith to surround my whole life, knowing that even when the news looks bleak, it’s a building block to something else. I remind myself to follow the compass of my own true inner impulse.
And I write.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 10:49 AM
APRIL 10, 2007
WALKING WITH MARTHA
We are obsessing here.
I lay it all at the feet of Martha Tod Dudman, a writer from Maine who arrived two weeks ago. Or perhaps I should say I place the blame at Martha’s hip. Where she wears a green pedometer.
Martha’s target goal is 10,000 steps a day. This, she tells us, equals five miles. Most of the time she does more.
Within days she has two of us heading off to purchase our own pedometers. $4.88 plus tax at the nearby Wal-Mart. Let the obsession begin.
We check our tallies at breakfast. At lunch. Mid-afternoon. At dinner. Not that we’re competitive. Oh, no.
I find myself making excuses to run back to the residence from the studio. Four hundred and thirty-seven steps. On my writing breaks, instead of reading, I walk. From the rear of the studio barn up the road to the little church by the field with the baby goats and back is four thousand and twenty-seven steps. Two miles. When returning to the studio after lunch, I no longer use the shortcut across the yard. Forty more steps. No steps too few to tally.
Sara says she’s going over to the college to swim. I offer my car.
“That’s okay,” she says. “I’ll walk.” After dinner she plays – no, competes – in ping-pong. “Play,” she says is too friendly a word. It’s serious business. Intense. We’re all truly amazed at how many steps you can click off during a game.
On a warm day, taking a walk, Martha ties her sweater around her waist. When she returns she discovers that not one step has registered. The sweater has made the pedometer malfunction. For the rest of the day she is fixated on the lost steps. At breakfast the next morning she still grieves their loss, the way you’d mourn a canary that has escaped from its cage and flown through an open window.
But Martha is our cheerleader, her numbers our standard. When it turns unseasonable cold, we walk. When it rains, we walk. After dinner, we walk, usually from the residence down the drive to the highway. Two thousand, two hundred and seven steps. One mile round trip.
Soon Martha and I are sent back to Wal-Mart to get five more pedometers for other Fellows. All women. We’d walk but the store is in the next town up the highway.
There are seven men here at the moment and although we’ve offered to pick up “clickers” for them, not one is interested In fact all of them – the Irani playwright, the painters from North Carolina and Santa Fe, the San Francisco novelist, Wisconsin poet, New York film-maker and Nigerian artist – all are amused at how seriously we’re into this walking thing. They make secret man-eyes at each other as we compare tallies. And they’re the ones eating the potato chips at lunch.
Ten thousand steps – when you spend your working day at a computer – is a lot of steps to aim for. Almost a part-time job.
The artists are luckier. Cheryl notes that she racks up steps in the studio while painting. Apparently artists walk around a lot while they work.
Sadly, Martha left yesterday, returning to her real life in Maine. We picture her striding the streets of Bar Harbor. We vow not to slack off without her. We’ll see.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 9:43 AM
APRIL 4, 2007
CELEBRATING IN VIRGINIA
The LAVENDER HOUR was published a week ago. In the past I have been at home when a book came out, caught up in a flurry of launch parties, interviews, extensive book tours, store signings and celebratory dinners with family and friends.
This year on the publication date I was in Virginia.
I am in residence at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts on a writing fellowship. At first it felt odd to be here and not out promoting the book. I received no flowers or emails from my publisher as I had in the past, no phone calls from friends. In the isolation that a place like this provides, I could almost forget it had been published.
And then it seemed that being here is the perfect and right thing.
It is true that there is satisfaction in holding a published novel in one’s hands. In seeing it on the shelves. All that work. All those hours spent riding the impermanence of emotions: doubt, fear, delight. Of course, it is thrilling. Ours is, after all, a result-oriented culture. We think that when we marry the right partner, land the job, lose ten pounds, get published, life will be ever after the magic carpet ride. We tend to think the point is publication. In the flurry of success, we can forget that eventually the book will disappear from the store shelves and that the most profound and long-lasting joy lies in the creating.
Gardeners know the immediate and sensual pleasure of a tomato perfectly ripe and still warm in the hand from the sun’s heat. But the soul satisfaction comes from tending the plant, the time spent with hands deep in the earth.
Here I am one of twenty other artists who understand that it is not the product but the process from which we derive the most intense satisfaction.
As I write this, a poet is at work in the next studio and a novelist in the one beyond that. Across the courtyard a composer is working on a song cycle. A photographer from New York is printing in the dark room. There are two children’s books authors here, a sculptor, a visual artist who paints dream-like figures, a second who draws birds nests, and a third who paints clouds against the Blue Ridge Mountains. There is a Chinese-American writer working on a memoir about her trip to Tibet. An artist from Africa is burning wood and cutting bamboo from which he is making a drum. It will “talk” he promises us. We are a mixed group. Some of us are established, even famous. Others of us are unknown. Emerging artists.
Last night after dinner an artist presented slides of her work. As she clicked through the carousel, she quoted the words of a painter who had mentored her long ago. “If there isn’t passion there, don’t do it.” Everyone in the room nodded. There was no talk of sales figures or reviews, or best-seller lists. Only the work.
My new book is out.
I am in Virginia, surrounded by my tribe and celebrating life the best way we know how.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 10:43 AM
MARCH 27, 2007
Stanley Kunitz deliberately oriented the basement studio in his Provincetown summer home so that his desk faced out through a window onto two swollen mounds: one a pile of decomposing seaweed, the other a compost heap.
In “The Round,” he wrote, So I am sitting in semi-dark/hunched over my desk, with nothing for a view/ to tempt me/but a bloated compost heap, steamy old stinkpile/under my window/
It is revealing, I think, that Kunitz saw the compost heap, the stinkpile, as something that would tempt him, attract and engage him. The decaying mass nourished not only the poet’s garden soil but his consciousness as well, reminding him of the continuous cycles of the universe.
Poets do create out of compost. The garbage heap is where the steamy work gets done. Things sit, disintegrate and break down and then are transformed into fertile matter out of which new life is nourished and rises. This cyclic alchemy is always at work in nature and in life. Vietnamese Zen master and poet Thich Nhat Hanh writes that the flower and the garbage inter-are. The flower is becoming the garbage and the garbage is becoming the flower. If we look deeply we can see one in the other.
The garbage heap is the alluvial sludge that writers mine for material. We call it memory.
Scientists tell us that memory is inscribed on the cortex of the brain, stored in our cells. Poets are more lyrical. Oliver Wendell Holmes called it a net. I think of memory as a sponge, the repository of everything we have ever dreamed, smelled, seen, heard and tasted. It holds our hopes and dreams, failures and successes. Our wild imaginings. Excitations. Passions. Amorphous illusions and concrete experiences. Memory is creative work, built of slippery truth and mythic fantasy, confusion and tangled imaginings, all mutated by time
Always we are absorbing. Perpetually, in the compose heap, memories are being consumed, digested and assimilated. Out of it, grow the blossoms of creation. We take a memory and imagine it fully which in turn adds to the bank of remembrances. One sparks another. Both inter-are. There is a direct and kenetic relationship between memory and imagination.
That is why writers count memory among their most valuable tools. It is why we keep journals. The smallest thing – a fragment of a conversation, a remembered smell, a name, one object from the past – is enough to stoke the creative mind. “Memory,” says writer Amy Tan, “feeds imagination.” We have only to take the sponge and squeeze the good stuff out.
All of my novels were born in memory. One was built on a haunting story I heard at dinner one night when I was ten. Imagine holding on to a tale for decades before releasing it in the form of a novel. Another book was built on an image of an exhibit at a museum. A third on the morning recollection of a dream. Still another on a remembered newspaper headline. Another on the cellular memory of a profound loss.
Try this. Take a piece of paper and write the words, “I remember.” Then fill the page with things you remember. Out of deep recesses of the cortex, reminiscences surface.
I remember the calluses on my father’s hands; the first time I swallowed seawater; drinking buttermilk at my grandmother’s house; hearing my neighbors fight; Ellis Island; hunger.
Now add an additional word or phrase: “I remember holding…,” “I remember smelling…,” “I remember the first time I ….”
This exercise is a sure cure for the sterile thing we call writer’s block. Retrieve a memory from the list and enlarge it. Embroider and expand it. If it shifts to the sphere of fiction, relax any concern about holding to the literal truth. Just follow where it leads. This is how we write. We go to the workspace and the play yard we call memory. We swim there. We dive. We learn again how to create. We pay attention to what we’ve stored. We discover that often a memory that makes us want to run in the other direction is the stuff out of which powerful writing comes.
We till our compost into the garden of imagination.
And we remember to give thanks.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 12:43 PM
MARCH 15, 2007
You’re a writer. You enter a bookstore, stare at the shelves.
“Don’t compare,” a tiny voice advises.
Too late. You’re already lost.
A colleague’s novels are stacked in their own flashy display unit. Obviously her advertising budget totaled more than your last advance. And what’s this? That novelist has another book out. Does he produce a novel every three weeks now or what?
You reach for a book, read the cover blurb. Clearly the author is brilliant. Magnificent. You pick up another book, study the jacket photo. Lord, lordy. What is she, in middle school? Maybe.
You’re a writer. You go to the bookstore. You look at the books. You might as well go down to the morgue and dance with the bones.
Sooner or later all writers confront the beast, the unholy ghost named Envy who dwells in the soul. No one escapes. Not even writers like Buddy Nordan.
Buddy is the only living author I know who has an entire week named for him. For a fact. February 7-14 is “National Lewis Nordan Appreciation Week.” Reviews of his books are so outrageously enthusiastic you might think his mother wrote them. Critics say things like “greatness in our midst,” “storytelling genius,” and “the best prose writer in the United States.” So one might imagine that Buddy wouldn’t have to contend with envy.
One spring, during a writing residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Buddy and I went over to Sweet Briar College to hear Lee Smith give a reading from “News of the Spirit,” her collection of short stories.
Lee is a funny, generous-hearted and wildly talented writer and all Southern charm. When she is on the stage, she owns the audience. For more than an hour, in the cradle of the Blue Ridge Mountains during a theatrical thunderstorm, Buddy and I and several hundred fans sat in an overheated room and, completely enthralled, gave ourselves over to the magic of Lee.
Later, on the way back to the residence hall and still high from the evening, I turned to Buddy. “Listening to Lee just makes me want to run to my studio and write,” I said.
Buddy gave me this hangdog look. “It makes me want to shoot myself,” he drawled.
Well, I thought, if Mr. National Appreciation Week, Mr. Storytelling Genius himself can be silenced by envy, I might as well pack up the tents and go home.
That is what envy does. It silences us. And at one time or another we all wrestle with it. We compare ourselves to another and come up short. Our admiration is mutated into envy.
Several years ago, a good friend’s book was surfacing on The New York Times bestseller list and she appeared on “The Today Show” and “Oprah.” “I’m so happy for you,” I said each time Jackie phoned with the latest news: the ascent on the list to Number One, the movie sale, the terms for her new two-book contract, the Oprah Book Club Selection.
“Doesn’t it make you a little envious?” another friend asked.
“No. Not at all,” I said. This was my friend, after all. Surely you aren’t jealous of a friend’s great good fortune. Surely you celebrate rather than covet.
Yet these calls corresponded with a personal dry spell and after each conversation I felt a little bit more like a failure. I wanted to take up residence in a closet and eat shoes.
“I’m so happy for you,” I’d say. But secretly the Maurice Sendak creature that was rooming in my liver wasn’t so happy. Secretly this fanged and furry critter hoped my friend would get fat.
It took nearly four months of battle with the corrosive emotion named Envy before I could release it enough to genuinely rejoice for my friend.
That summer I asked her if she was ever envious of other writers.
“Only constantly,” she said. “When I’m writing a book and go into a bookstore and look at all the work, I am sick with grief and envy. And I can’t read any work – even of writers I don’t admire – if it is remotely graceful. When I am writing I can only read botany.”
“And,” she continued, “I’m ill with envy when another writer says, ‘I’m having such a good time at it. It’s like I’m taking dictation. My characters just tell me what to write.’ Meanwhile I’m slugging through the dirt and my characters are eating chips and getting acne and not helping me out at all.”
That’s when I felt safe enough to confess that maybe I’d felt the teeniest bit jealous when her book came out. Just the teeniest bit, you understand. I didn’t mention anything about how I’d hoped she’d put on a pound. Or thirty.
In our culture, we’re trained to feel ashamed of emotions like jealousy and envy, to disown them.
The Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has a different take on it. She teaches that emotions like envy need to be regarded as wisdom in disguise.
If we are willing to sit with it, she says, to begin the queasy business of going deep inside, there is much we can learn.
Easier said than sat. Who wants to sit quietly while a beast chaws at your liver? Better to run. Better to deny.
But, instruct the Buddhists, by becoming quiet, we grow to understand that envy is the lodestone that brings us back to self-knowledge. After a while we grasp this truth: When we experience envy, it means we’ve undergone a lapse of faith in our own work, our own lives. We’ve gotten off track. We’ve gotten caught up in the poisonous game of comparing. We’ve come to the false belief that there is only so much success to go around. We’ve given in to fear.
Gradually, we come to comprehend that the experience of envy and the belief in one’s self cannot exist in the same space any more than love and fear can, and this knowledge pulls us out of the pit. We go on. And we find that because we can’t inoculate ourselves for life, envy periodically surfaces like a virus that sleeps inside.
Over the years, as we sit with our beasts, we learn to foster compassion for ourselves when they assault. We learn to sustain ourselves. We grab on to our lifeline, return to the writing, which nurtures.
We tutor ourselves to hold firm to our belief in our own path.
This is good practice. In writing and in life.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 9:44 AM
MARCH 10, 2007
By the nature of our work, writers create in solitude, but out of this withdrawal comes the gift of connection.
“The word,” wrote Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain, “preserves contact.” One May, I was reminded again of the inherent power of story to connect. I had been recruited to teach creative writing in Ireland to a class made up of American and Irish women, and before I left I was laden with anxiety, an apprehension that centered on the bicultural nature of the class. Would I be able to understand the Irish brogue? Would I, an unknown American, be accepted as a teacher in a land where poetry is the native tongue? What was I getting into? Lost in anxiety, I had forgotten the power of story to transcend any division created by culture. Then, for ten days, in the village of Kenmare, County Kerry, I sat in the center room of a stone cottage and listened to stories written from the heart.
The first day of the class, without any directive, the group formed a circle, that classic configuration for storytellers, and we settled in. For the first assignment, I gave an in-class exercise that began with the phrase, “I remember…” With no time to succumb to page fright, the writers took up pens and sailed off to their individual interior worlds of memory.
Mo wrote about holding the weight of a shriven breast in her hand as she bathed her beloved grandmother. Eileen wrote about her childhood on a farm and about the small square of treasured green silk her father gave her to clean her wee glasses and the fly-away-Jack he invented to keep the crows from the crops in Stephen’s field. Kate wrote a remarkable stream of consciousness piece about the day when – in her former profession as a nurse – she held an amputated limb for the first time. Iva wrote of Harpies and fear. Margaret composed a piece about a hen that pecked flesh from one’s neck and held little pigs beneath her speckled wings, and wept when she realized she was, in fact, writing about her mother.
Lorraine wrote about her father’s service station and the ties it promulgated between three generations. Vera, the vicar’s wife, wrote about a young man with a playgirl tattooed on his bum who performed Striptograms, and the old dame who bared her tit at him. (Days later she would confide the tattooed boy was her son.) Pam wrote of her childhood in South Africa and the courage it took to leave her family so she could pursue a dream. Cornelia wrote of loss and life struggles: cancer, the death of a husband.
Each day, we returned to the stone cottage, a haven situated fifty feet away from Our Lady’s Holy Well and Shrine and yards away from a Druid’s Circle more than 3000 years old, and each day the class formed its own circle. Together we drank from the well named memory and dove into the deep sea called imagination. We plummeted into white water filled with risk and danger. We shared writing and bore witness for each other. And it didn’t matter where we lived or in what country we were born. What counted were the stories.
They were fiction and fantasy and memoir. They spoke of courage and fear, desire and despair, of sons and daughters, fathers, mothers, lovers and husbands, of soaring off to distant stars, of senses come alive.
By now, my initial anxiety had long since dissolved. My only question was How could I have forgotten? How could I have forgotten a truth I’ve seen demonstrated again and again, the lesson I had learned so poignantly during the two years I had taught creative writing to women in jail: Words unite us. Stories connect us.
How could I have forgotten that there is within each of us a deep yearning to share our stories, and it is through the telling of these stories that we build relationships, that we reveal ourselves? How could I have forgotten what E.B. White said so perfectly? That all writing is communication and creative writing is the Self escaping into the open.
Stories cross borders of geography, sex, age, culture and race. In a time when connections seem to be breaking down at a frantic rate, our stories hold the power to forge community and create bonds. They are catalysts to open our hearts, dissolve preconceptions and connect us to our world. Through them we dare demonstrate who we are.
In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize, Pablo Neruda said, “All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are.”
To convey to others what we are.
That is what we yearn for. That alone is worth the journey to the dark and daunting place of isolation that is the territory of the writer. And when we have the courage to face the darkness, we come out with stories that shape and connect us. As Naruda said in the same speech, we come forth to “dance our clumsy dance and sing our sorrowful song.”
How could I have forgotten? Through stories we sing the music of our lives.
Stories have always been the magic.
Posted by Anne LeClaire at 12:36 PM