Inventory

March 30, 2009

I spent much of Sunday spring cleaning my computer; the files were a mess. I have seven completed manuscripts circulating—three essays, three short stories, two very long short stories—and before I start revising the stripped down murder mystery, I have to take a breather, assess the submissions I’ve already made, and send more manuscripts out before the summer hiatus. This is labor intensive work.

I’m trying to be more methodical about my submissions and keep careful notes and spread sheets with the names of editors, even if they have rejected my work. If they say they want to see more, I send them something else immediately. I want my byline and my writing to remain fresh in their mind.

Even after a long career as a writer, any word of encouragement from an editor, much less an acceptance, elevates my mood. That’s only natural, but it’s not necessary. I don’t rely on any admiring response of readers, editors, family or friends to keep working. And I let negative responses roll away. A negative response is not the same as a helpful comment or a deep critique. Once a friend told me she didn't think I was novelist. She may be right--I have never had a novel published--yet. But it was mean of her to speak to me in this way in the midst of my effort to make a novel work. Writers have to ignore such undermining remarks. We have no choice.

Taking an inventory of where we are with our work is comforting as the season changes. The work accumulates and some of it is publishable. We look back and realize we’ve done well over the winter. Our writing life is disciplined, constant. We have learned to ask ourselves the right questions: Is a revision working or should we set it aside for a while? Who is the audience for this piece? Am I working on a book or a short form essay? Is a piece ready to be sent out? Have I considered a recent critique? Why doesn’t my significant other or my best friend like what I’ve written? Does it matter? Am I building my strength as a writer? Attending to elements of craft? Reading and writing every day?

Luna Stage: New Moon Reading Series

March 22, 2009

I went to the Luna Stage out in Montclair, New Jersey to hear a play reading, “Puddin”” by Tia Dionne Hodge, a young, gifted playwright from Cleveland, Ohio who lives in Montclair, “the Park Slope of the suburbs,” according to New York Magazine except that 32% of the population is African American. In other words it’s a vibrant, multi-ethnic, economically mixed, artist’s enclave just forty minutes from the Lincoln Tunnel. As elsewhere, developers are lurking and driving the young artists out. Luna Stage, a spacious black-box theater, has lost their lease and will be moving four miles down the road to West Orange soon. It’s a loss for the community. “Puddin” will be one of their last readings in the Montclair space.

Play readings can be either boring or stimulating depending on the quality of the work, the skill of the actors, and the direction. Actors are thrilled to be asked to readings between gigs to keep their acting muscle supple and often a famous actor is present, to the delight of the audience. Tia lucked out with all the actors but especially with the four leads, all seasoned, including Frankie Faison in the role of Delroy Hudson. Recently, he appeared as Ervin Burrell on the HBO series, “The Wire.” I am sure he was challenged by the complexity of the role Tia has written. The play is rich and powerful.

A reading is much like a writing workshop. The author gets to hear her work come to life as the actors perform and can watch the audience react. Playwrights may have several readings before the script is considered finished, up to and including changes made during rehearsal and previews. In other words, they revise continuously. As Tia is transforming “Puddin,” from a one-act play into a full-length drama—it will be part of a trilogy—she had questions for the audience about the plot and the characters. In a feedback session after the reading, the director of the theater asked the questions as Tia remained in The Glass Box taking notes.

Tia also writes poems and short stories so it surprised me at first that she had decided to tell this particular story using the dramatic form. But then I thought of Eugene O'Neill, Tennesse Williams and August Wilson. Tia is in good company, or they are.



Facebook; A Writer's Meandering Thoughts # 3

March 19, 2009

I last wrote about Facebook on January 12, 2009 (see archived entry). Since that time, I have accumulated some “friends,” a still modest thirty-three at this writing, and I have gone onto the site now and again each week. I enjoy aspects of the experience—lighthearted banter, photos—as I have written before, but remain disheartened at the phenomena as a vehicle for writers to express themselves and/or stay in touch. I don’t think Facebook really keeps us in touch except in the most superficial ways. In that sense, the phenomena is very American. We have the reputation (in Europe) of making friends quickly without constancy or deep commitment.

Like the sound-byte culture of market-driven television, there is no opportunity for reflective thought on Facebook. My commentary stands out in the threads as too long for the medium. It’s an impatient, ephemeral medium. The email function is available as an enhancement, but it is boxed and replies tend to be short, too.

As writers,we need to linger, to take it slow, to expand our verbal capacity. It takes time to struggle every day with the complexities of human psychology and experience. Facebook does not encourage such thoughtfulness or complexity; it demands contraction,distillation, and speed, the very opposite of what writers must do to write well.



Kindle 2; A Love Affair

March 14, 2009

My husband surprised me with a Kindle-2 for my birthday. I buy a lot of books, I read a lot of books, I carry around a lot of books and half my duffel is filled with books when I travel. Not good for my back.

So, it arrived, we opened it, we registered it, and within minutes I was smitten. Even when the Kindle is asleep, it is captivating. Portraits of famous writers as delicate as etchings appear, like magic, on the opening “page.” Every time I open the Kindle a new writer greets me. At the moment, it is Lewis Carroll. Last night it was Harriet Beecher Stowe.

I sent my husband out to dinner and downloaded books. Three of them: Best American Poetry, 2008, Anne Enright’s new collection of short stories, Anthony Trollope’s, “The Way We Live Now,” an 800-page tome I cannot ever carry with me but absolutely love to read at the end of the day or when I’m mentally “resting.” 600 pages to go and now it’s on the Kindle. Poetry, contemporary fiction, classic fiction. I’ll order a nonfiction book, too, but haven’t decided which one.

This is the way I read—four books at once at the very least—which makes Kindle the perfect tool for my literary habits: I can toggle between the books as much as I like. And, when I travel, I’ll have them all.

And did I mention the clarity of the reading screen? It is clear and I can increase or decrease the size of the font instantly. And there’s a clipping and note keeping function I’ve yet to explore.

When I told my niece, also an avid reader, about my gift, she was skeptical. “What if the battery dies and you are not near an electrical outlet and you have nothing to read? You’ll have to carry at least one back-up book or the New Yorker or something,” she said.

Well, of course. I’ll still own books, keep books, admire them, feel comforted by their physical presence, neatly organized by author and genre on my book shelves. And I’ll carry a small amount of (paper) reading material with me where ‘ere I go. But I won’t be loaded down any more and I can be selective. I have piles of book I give away every month to friends or to my local thrift store. I never keep books I don’t think I’ll read again. Now I can simply delete them from my Kindle. But I'll have to watch my budget. The price of the download is discounted off the hardcover price. Except for the classics, there are no bargains. Hopefully, this will change soon.

There’s no new technology without challenges. Kindle-2 has an audio component that threatens the livelihood of authors. Unlike audio books that provide royalties, the electronic voice activation on Kindle-2 does not. Here’s a recent message from the Author’s Guild, host of my site, on this issue:


"At the end of the business day on Friday, Amazon announced that it would allow publishers (and thereby many authors) to block text-to-speech audio functionality on a title-by-title basis for its Kindle 2 reading device.

This is a good first step. Amazon's Kindle 2 can convert text to audio through text-to-speech (TTS) software, making it a combination e-book reader and low-quality audiobook device. (The quality of the audio will improve, of course, as TTS software is refined.) Amazon's initial implementation of Kindle 2 would have added audio playback to your e-book regardless of whether Amazon had properly acquired audio rights. For most of you, Amazon's announcement means that it will now respect your contractual right to authorize (or not) the addition of computer-generated audio to your e-books sold for the Kindle. We will be sending recommendations to you shortly on your TTS audio rights.

One important consideration in those recommendations will be to ensure that visually impaired people have access to this technology. Book authors have traditionally authorized royalty-free copies in specialized formats intended for the visually impaired, and copyright law has long provided a means to distribute recordings to the blind. We can work this out.

Wall Street Journal on Amazon's announcement: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123577886475897701.html "

I remain confident that this issue will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, amazon and authors alike.


As Winter Recedes

March 9, 2009

I was upstate for four days this past weekend and have just returned to the city. I finished reading two books, started another, wrote in my new observational journal, took notes for an essay I plan to begin this week, took three long hike-walks, played with the dog in the back garden, went out to eat twice, spent hours talking with my daughter, son-in-law and husband, swept the deck, cooked, ate leisurely breakfasts, cut up avocado and banana peels for the worm farm, read again, took naps, went back out onto the deck, watched an eagle soar, a red cardinal on a branch, sat on the deck in the warm sun and watched the ice recede and the nutrients from the thawing earth percolate up to the muddy surface. My son-in-law roamed his four-plus acres and did some tree culling, returned to report that the daffodils were coming up around the oak tree. My daughter roamed her four-plus acres and found a long-buried dog Frisbee. The dog wandered her four-plus acres and found long-buried sticks still saturated with winter’s moisture.

The days seemed unhurried, endless, spacious and capacious. I was at peace in minutes after my arrival and able to work and play with an ease I never feel in the city.

It’s not just that we all need a “getaway,” I’ve decided. It’s not just that a getaway “restores” city dwellers. It’s that city dwellers live in un-natural—literally “against” nature—environments, and that our bodies and spirits adapt to this environment in un-natural ways.

I have always thought of myself, happily, as a city dweller. I have persuaded myself that the buzz of the city is necessary to my work, that I cannot write well in quiet surroundings. I wonder if this is true or just another adaptation. I wonder what is best for me and for artists in general. Even stranger this morning, I wonder if cities should exist at all. I hear my students complain endlessly about the stresses of their lives in the city. Beyond making a living, stressful enough these days, they search for quiet spaces in which to work and struggle to find the time to become writers.

I will write another time about city life, its pleasure as well as its challenges. But right now, right here, as winter recedes and I sit in my atelier peering out at a brick wall, I wonder what on earth we have done to ourselves and our creative spirit.

Writers in China

March 4, 2009

I had a conversation today with Xiujing , a new swimming friend at the gym where I work out. She had finished swimming, I was about to swim, so we chatted at first about the water temperature and the number of other polar bears in our neighborhood braving the waters. Xiujing’s English is very good so I assumed, correctly, that she’s been in the United States for a number of years. She has a very hip haircut and wears funky glasses, a middle-aged hipster, I’d say. And why is she in America with China in the ascendant?

“I’ve wanted to live and work in America since I was a child,” she told me. "My family suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. I wanted to read great literature, but reading was prohibited. I snuck books into the house, so dangerous, and read them under my covers at night. My parents are still in Bejing. My sister and I are both here and we go to visit them, but we will never live there again.”

I don’t know what Xiujing does for a living—we didn’t get that far—but I did ask if she’d ever heard of Ha Jin, one of China’s expatriate writers, and a great one (“In the Pond,” “Waiting”). She had heard of him but had never read his books. He, too, suffered during the Cultural Revolution and writes eloquently about it. During the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, he was in the US studying. He never returned home and began writing solely in English.

As I write, there are about 44 writers and journalists in jail in China, some of them enduring long sentences. Quite often, the “Freedom to Write Committee” of American Pen Center( http://www.pen.org) part of International Pen, sends out a request for letters to be written to the Chinese Government on behalf of these incarcerated writers. Amnesty International works in a similar way. Often a writer is released, often not, or not right away. No one thought that the Berlin wall or apartheid would fall either.



The Historical Record

March 1, 2009

I’m reading a page-tuner, Nathaniel Philbrick’s National Book Award winner, “In The Heart of the Sea; The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” the 1819-1820 whaling expedition that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Philbrick’s history is based on many sources including the first-hand account of a survivor, Thomas Nickerson, a cabin boy.

In between squalls and the rigors of the butchery known euphemistically as whaling, working men and passengers on 19th century ships had ample time to ruminate, philosophize, and write observational notes in journals. Without this written record, historians would not be able to reconstruct a story as Philbrick has done so vividly.

This set me to thinking about the historical narrative of our time and how it will be researched by future generations. Assuming that most of the primary source material/data will be electronic or electronically scanned, will historians find it easier or more difficult to do their research? Is it important for all of us to maintain a record of our lives in some form: blogs, journals and notebooks, stories? What happens if we don’t?

Most writers and artists are vexed by these questions. It’s one of the many reasons we struggle to create a lasting body of work. But lasting in what way? And why is it that writers and artists assume their/our stories are worth preserving? I suppose it’s because we are different than most people in one essential way: We are participants but also observers in events, slightly marginalized, peripheral narrators of our lives in our own historic time and place.


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