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Facebook: A Writer's Meandering Thoughts

My daughter persuaded me to try Facebook sometime in 2007. As soon as I put my picture up, I felt uneasy. I tried to join the party. Then I left the party.

Over the Xmas weekend, my daughter told me that she keeps Facebook open all day and dips in and out of it as she is working. She lives in the mountains in upstate New York where the closest store is a twenty minute drive away. A sensation of connection –real or virtual, virtual or real—to the global village is comforting. More than comforting, it is essential. And this, I feel, is the underlying armature of Facebook and all other interactive technology. Ultimately, they are tools to remain connected and to find new connections where none existed before. Heightening our awareness of life beyond the singular borders of our lives, observing how others live, can only be positive.

Why then was I still uneasy as I entered the Facebook portal for a second time this week? It had been a long hiatus. My “friends” had abandoned me. One or two welcomed me back. The party had proceeded without me.

I returned some hugs, answered accumulated messages, peered into, over and through “walls,” accepted a “gift” of roses. And then I picked up the telephone and called a few people. The sound of the human voice is what I miss on Facebook. So, too, the opportunity to tell stories in full sentences and paragraphs.

I suppose I’ll continue for a while because there must be something I’m not getting, something elusive and magical perhaps?

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I met a homeless man in front of the post office the other day. He was sitting on the sidewalk, his back against the brick wall. It was a bitterly cold day. He was dressed well enough--jeans, clean work boots, a parka, a warm hat--but he was shivering as he tried to write the words, "Homeless, Please Help Me," on a piece of cardboard with a thick, black felt-tip pen nearly out of ink or frozen solid. His beard was caked with icicles, his cheeks were red, and his eyelids crinkled, just like the Salvation Army Santa ringing the bell over on Broadway.

Sometimes, a person down on their luck in the city gives me pause, literally. I stop and look at them, I observe, and I force myself to think of what it must be like to be in such a predicament. I proceed to take what the Buddhists call "right action."

I was headed to the Housing Works thrift shop that day with a giveaway bag of clothing. I pulled out a woolen shirt from the bag. My husband had recently liberated it from his full-to-overflowing closet. How many shirts do we need? And there was also a book by Graham Greene, "Ministry of Fear," I had finished but wasn't planning to read again. (I only keep books I think I'll read again. I'm rarely mistaken.)

I began to chat to the young man who was from Portland, in trouble with the law, and as soon as he told me this he began to cry because he missed his 10 and 11 year old sons. I handed him the shirt which he held to his chest like a security blanket as we talked some more. He thanked me, he thanked me, and he thanked me. Then I asked him if he liked to read to which he answered "yes," in a bold and confident voice. And so I also gave him the book which he slipped into his backpack.

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Documentary Narratives

I went to the New York Historical Society to see an exhibition called "Drawn by New York: Six Centuries of Watercolors and Drawings." The earliest drawings are the most fascinating as they document the Dutch settlement: the first Native Americans encountered, the coastline, the ships at anchor, the interior cabins on the ships, the slave markets, and more. Most--French, Dutch, English, Spanish--explorers were draftsmen as well as writers; learning to draw was considered part of a proper education for upper class men and women from the 16th through the 19th century (at least). Before photography, there was reliance on images as well as words to document daily life, important occasions, coastlines, weather, politics. We have lost the skill of visual narration. Perhaps it has been taken over by photography and film. Audubon's magnificent drawings of birds and wildlife, for example, are accompanied by journals and notebooks. Prints of these drawings and an anthology of his writing are both available in the Society bookstore, a good place to buy holiday gifts.

The historical society has a treasure trove of documents that they rotate on a regular basis for exhibition. They also have an excellent research library. I have used the library to research articles on Nelly Bly--the first American woman investigative reporter--and Daguerreotypes. The museum has a rich collection of them.

Just years ago this important New York institution was threatened with closure. Hopefully, this will not happen again.

"Drawn by New York" is on until January 7. The address of the NY Historical Society is 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. Check their website for hours over the holiday. Read More 
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A Salon at the Algonquin

I was invited to a salon at the Algonquin to celebrate Alexander Lobrano's book, "Hungry for Paris; The Ultimate Guide to the City's 102 Best Restaurants." Though the book was published in the US by Random House last April, has been translated into several languages, and has been reviewed well, Lobrano is still publicizing the book at every opportunity. This is the writer's task even if an in-house publicist has been budgeted.

But this author is more than a publicity machine; he is an inspiration. The European correspondent for GOURMET Magazine, Alexander Lobrano has made a writer's life for himself that is both personally satisfying and financially viable. His early childhood was spent in a literary household in Connecticut. Lobrano always knew he would be a writer but he still had to work hard to become a writer. He is well educated but also an autodidact. Recently, he went on an anthropological eating tour of Transylvania for GOURMET. When I asked how he prepared for assignments, he said, "I read until my eyes drop out. It's the preparation for the articles I write that is most enjoyable." Unable to speak French when he first landed in Paris, he is now fluent in French, Spanish and Italian.

I've invited Mr. Lobrano to speak to my class next spring. As he travels so much of the time, he's not sure he'll be in the US. I hope so.
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Books As Presents

A message came to all the members of the Author's Guild--which hosts my site--about book buying this holiday season. A friend took it to heart and bought about fifty books she had enjoyed reading this past year to offer as presents at her holiday party. They were stacked neatly on a bench by the door, unwrapped, which made them more enticing for some reason. Everyone stopped to browse and took one as they were leaving. What a treat!

FYI, I will paste the broadcast email here:

I've been talking to booksellers lately who report that times are hard. And local booksellers aren't known for vast reserves of capital, so a serious dip in sales can be devastating. Booksellers don't lose enough money, however, to receive congressional attention. A government bailout isn't in the cards.

We don't want bookstores to die. Authors need them, and so do neighborhoods. So let's mount a book-buying splurge. Get your friends together, go to your local bookstore and have a book-buying party. Buy the rest of your Christmas presents, but that's just for starters. Clear out the mysteries, wrap up the histories, beam up the science fiction! Round up the westerns, go crazy for self-help, say yes to the university press books! Get a load of those coffee-table books, fatten up on slim volumes of verse, and take a chance on romance!

There will be birthdays in the next twelve months; books keep well; they're easy to wrap: buy those books now. Buy replacements for any books looking raggedy on your shelves. Stockpile children's books as gifts for friends who look like they may eventually give birth. Hold off on the flat-screen TV and the GPS (they'll be cheaper after Christmas) and buy many, many books. Then tell the grateful booksellers, who by this time will be hanging onto your legs begging you to stay and live with their cat in the stockroom: "Got to move on, folks. Got some books to write now. You see...we're the Authors Guild."

Enjoy the holidays.

Roy Blount Jr.
Authors Guild

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End of Term

The end of term is always bittersweet for me and my students. To celebrate, we put together a "book," of best work, most of it still in progress, some close to submission. Then we have a reading of sketchbook entries and a discussion about "what's next?" We say good-bye and plan, sincerely, to stay in touch.  Read More 
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I've been thinking today about our President-Elect, the recent campaign, and the challenges we all face. I've just finished reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Ben Franklin, which I highly recommend. It seemed appropriate to return to colonial history in this present (historic) moment. The issue of slavery is handled deftly in this biography. Have we finally come to the end of that sad, brutal road? I hope so. The book is also very well written and will be added to my suggested reading list next term.

I've never blogged before. It's interesting, a bit strange, but interesting. It's not exactly private, of course, as it will be broadcast on my site. There's an article in the current Atlantic Monthly I'll read this afternoon about blogging to get some more ideas. It certainly provides more opportunity to write, which is fine with me. I look forward to some comments from bloggers, if they are so inclined. So far the "be the first to comment" has not been clicked so I might be talking to myself or into cyberspace. Nonetheless, there's a sense of freedom and possibility I'm enjoying. I suppose that is partially the point: we are FREE to write. How privileged we are in this regard, truly. And with this freedom--responsibility-- to speak with bold voices. According to Ha Jin, writing in the Autumn, 2008 issue of American Scholar, rigid censorship in China has weakened the Chinese people and "forced them to be less imaginative and less inventive." We don't have this excuse, so let's go, and write with gusto.  Read More 
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A Change of Seasons

The teaching term is nearly over at NYU so it's time to reflect on the exceptional students I've mentored this term before returning to my own projects: a revision of a murder mystery, the first I've ever written, and some research for another. A long short story, "Water Baby," just won the Glimmer Train "Top 25" prize, prestigious, but they only publish the Top 3, so I am free to place it elsewhere, not easy because of the story's length. And "Searching for Fritzi Redux," was just published in Austria in a University of Salzburg journal. There's a link to a word document on the site if you'd like to read it. I'm anticipating an interesting response in Austria as Fritzi Burger, my mother's second cousin, a former Olympic Silver Medalist, is a heroine in Austria. It's the first time she's been outed as a possible Nazi collaborator (the evidence is not absolutely definitive).

It's late, this is my first blog, so I'll sign off and write again soon.  Read More 
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