A New Term Begins

January 25, 2009

A new Presidential and academic term begins. The excitement of the inauguration over, we can all return to work, commitment revitalized, and write our hearts out. An African-American friend said, “I have no more excuses.” I said, “Neither do I.” Onward. Let's write as though we were going to die tomorrow. Let’s write because what we write is important to us and others.

I listened to President Obama’s speech twice and look forward to reading it soon. I was struck by its words, all carefully chosen. Words matter.

After the toasts, the phone calls, the emails, the IM’s, and the Facebook news feeds, I opened a hate-filled email about “stupid Americans” from a European relative and then deleted it without a reply thinking, Every family has an incendiary. I eventually did reply if only to say that hate speech is not welcome in my “in box.” Private hatreds must remain in the private sphere. It has been well documented: Hate speech leads to violence. Not allowed.

That night I recounted the email exchange to a good friend who works for the United Nations and has traveled and worked in more countries than I can name. Words matter, he agreed, and continued with this profound thought: “I hope we can eliminate the prefixes attached to the word American now. We are all Americans.” Indeed.

Barack Obama, The Writer

January 18, 2009

I’ve heard discussion this week—at two social gatherings—about our President elect's eloquence and incisive intelligence. But there have also been some questions raised about the authenticity of his memoir, “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.” Did he write the book himself? Was it heavily edited? Was it ghosted? Recent egregious instances of false memoirs have made us skeptical about the word “memoir.” This is a shame because it makes every memoir suspect and there are many memoirs, including “Dreams from My Father,” that deserve our trust. It was written on commission by the first African-American President of the Harvard Law Review, published in 1994, and then re-issued ten years later with a new, eloquent and incisive preface. The warm, calm voice in this preface is the same voice we now hear every day, the one that will lead our country for the next four years, perhaps longer. Whether reading from a prepared speech or speaking extemporaneously, our President elect, two days away from inauguration as I write, is articulate, thoughtful and blessedly educated on the challenging issues of our time. He is rarely seen without a book in his hand--poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Read this article in the NY Times for further comment: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/19/books/19read.html?pagewanted=2&ref=todayspaper

It's a week of celebration for many of us.

A School in Afghanistan

January 15, 2009

I am always touched by still photographs of students in poor countries bent over their books or slates, pencils or chalk in hand, earnestly, eagerly studying, writing, listening. There are news reports about such children and young adults daily. Yesterday, there was one about a school for girls in Kandahar, Afghanistan where the Taliban had flung acid at a bunch of girls on their way to school last November. I have written a letter to the Headmaster commending his courage and that of the girls. I offered a connection to me and my students at NYU this term, if they are willing, as well as a donation of books. I am mailing this letter today and I have also sent it out via email to the NY Times reporter who wrote the story.

If you are interested in helping me “adopt” the Mirwais School for Girls, please contact me.

Here’s the link to the article :
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/14/world/asia/14kandahar.html?ref=todayspaper

Readers, Editors, Agents

January 13, 2009

I have just heard from my agent about the murder mystery I wrote over the summer. She likes it but it needs work. Hard to believe, this is music to my hard working writer’s ears. If she’d said, “It’s awful. No way can I handle this,” I would have cast the manuscript aside and started again.

My agent is a literary lawyer who reads hundreds of books every year and knows the marketplace well. She’s not particularly nurturing so far as my literary efforts are concerned but I’m experienced so I don’t need a nurturing agent. I needed that at the beginning of my career, but not now. So it’s fine with me that my agent’s goal is to sell my book, period. As it happens she's a very nice person and I like her and she likes me. But she's not my editorial Mama. We both are practical and get on with it, I'd say. When I hand her work, I know I'll get an honest assessment. I trust her. Therefore, even though I might not like what she has to say, or I might not agree with all her suggestions, I have to remain open to them and not take suggestions as a personal rejection of my efforts. Critique and criticism are not the same.

In addition to being my agent and my lawyer, my agent is also an editor. She knows what works and what doesn’t work in a manuscript. I respect her commentary and, for this project, I have my eye on the marketplace as much as she does. I still write literary short stories, poems, essays, and consider myself a journalist at heart. I send things out, I get them published, or they are rejected and I file them away. I sometimes get paid for my efforts and sometimes I don’t.(The literary marketplace pays very little or not at all.) P.S. I want to sell this book.

Have I mentioned that the difference between a published and unpublished writer is someone who can work with an editor, an agent, or a publisher, without complaint? We can stand up for our material, but still be cooperative. There’s no other way except the self-publishing route, not a bad one nowadays. I’ve used it myself (twice) and will write about it here eventually I suppose.

As for readers, they are important also. I don’t know a professional writer who works in isolation. Everyone needs feedback before revision. I’ve been in many writer’s groups over the years but don’t have one at the moment. I do, however, have three friends—one is a writer, the two others are avid readers—and they don’t seem to mind reading my work. I give them guidelines as I hand them the manuscript; I remain silent as they talk to be about my work, just like in a workshop. Then I get to work on a revision, send the work out or, in the case of a full-length manuscript, hand it to my agent. And I don't worry. If this project isn't viable, I'll move on to the next one. That's the writer's life.


Facebook: A Writer's Meandering Thoughts #2

January 12, 2009

Time collapses online and so it is with my visits to Facebook this last week, or two, or three. I have been consulting both my daughter and my niece about the proper security settings and continue to tweak these. Because I had chosen e-mail notifications for everything, I was receiving links all day on my email account. I could not resist clicking on these—more friends!!—but did not notice for several days that I did not have to log-in to Facebook, my Home Page came right up with a click off the email notification. This was alarming particularly as I seemed to be getting more spam, unfiltered by my Norton security system. I then received three junk cell phone messages and a spam message from an email address (I thought I knew) referring directly to the phone calls: “I called you three times last night.” Who called me? I have no idea. Needless to say, I have revisited all my settings and re-set them, and changed my Facebook password.

So, what have I enjoyed? Mostly, contact with relatives who live far away. There is a sense of immediacy in status updates, wall posts, photo albums, and so on. I even sent my son-in-law’s mother a sunflower yesterday as she wasn’t feeling well.

Whereas my first blog entry on the subject of Facebook was light-hearted, this one is less so. I am still perplexed about the nature of Facebook friendship and its rules. Who do we invite, block, or remove? Who does the same to us, without notification? Does a friendship have a chance to deepen and evolve? Two old, dear friends I had a falling out with over the summer have taken me off their “list.” I have removed their daughter because I was getting her news feeds, saw pictures of my two, old, once-dear friends, and was reminded each time of them and our rift. Too painful. And no opportunity to discuss at length on Facebook, or resolve, or move forward. A line firmly drawn in cyberspace would have to be erased another way. Has the “removal” on Facebook exacerbated the problem? I’m not sure.

Internet Archives

January 7, 2009

Is it my imagination or are there more scanned books available on the internet than before the holidays? I’d seen the movie “Doubt” and was curious about its author, John Patrick Shanley. I Googled, and found a sample of the stage play with its Samuel French cover. This play is still copyrighted, of course, so it was only a sample. I am not sure but I think I could have purchased an electronic version right then and there. Instead, I walked to my local Barnes & Noble and bought a hard copy of the play and sat with it—in my hand—at a café. I suppose if I had a Kindle, the Amazon wireless reading device, I wouldn’t have taken that walk. I’m waiting for the price to come down and the technology to improve before buying one. With the amount of reading and research I do, it makes economic and environmental sense. How long do books last? The paper I mean. Just a few days ago, I pulled out a copy of Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, a book I probably have not looked at in a decade, and as soon as I opened it the brittle pages shredded onto my lap. Then this morning, trolling the internet again, I went through a portal into the University of California at Berkeley library ( my alma mater) and found a memoir by Alphonse Daudet, the French Dickens (1840-1897), fully scanned and available without a fee. I confess I was extremely excited to be able to flip the “pages” with a click on a forward arrow. Legibility was not an issue and even the photograph of M. Daudet was clear.

So what will happen to the books on our shelves or the bookcases that hold them and warm our homes? Or bookstores? Stay tuned.




Memorial

January 6, 2009

A former student of mine, Ruth Massey, has passed away. I dedicate this blog entry to her.

I had been waiting for Ruth's phone call to say she was back from Paris and ready to resume work on a memoir. The call never came.

Another former student, Ruth Patkin, sent out a broadcast with the news:

Ruth Massey was born in Marienbad, Czechoslovakia, and grew up in England. After living in Paris for a number of years, she came to the United States and worked for the UN in New York as a photographer and journalist for the United Nations Development Programme. Her work took her to more than fifty countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Her photographs and articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Nation, The Miami Times, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, National Geographic, Le Figaro and, on the web, Archipelago.

"The Enlarger" (short story): http://www.arabesques-editions.com/journal/ruth_massey/3737604.html
"Darfur: The Way it Was" (1995): http://www.archipelago.org/vol8-3/massey.htm

A Curious Case

January 1, 2009

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the movie, is based on a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald story inspired by a remark by Mark Twain that it's a pity that the best part of life comes at the beginning and the worst part at the end. I haven't read the story as yet but after seeing this whimsical, life-affirming movie, I was curious, and bought a new collection of forty Fitzgerald stories, just a fraction of his total short story oeuvre--160. I can’t usually read a short story anthology straight through, but Fitzgerald’s clear, rich prose is carrying me along. Of course, many of the stories are familiar as I’ve read them before, but not all by any means. When I’m done with the book, all 700 plus pages, I plan to reread the novels and a biography if I can find a good one.

I often immerse myself in a writer's work in this way, reading and re-reading all they have published and everything there is to know about their writing life. In just two decades, F. Scott Fitzgerald created a lasting body of work and one master-work, "The Great Gatsby." How did he do this?

Sometimes students tell me that they have dipped into the reading list I provide in my syllabus but that they find good writing too awe-inspiring and/or intimidating. Inspiring, yes, but not awe inspiring, please. Every successful writer works hard to achieve publishable work. Every successful writer is a model and inspiration.

I've just started a new short story myself. Fitzgerald's vivid voice is knocking around in my head. I want to write something as good as "May Day," or "The Ice Palace." I'm getting there.


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