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A Snowy Day

As predicted, it was snowing in New York this morning, but it was not cold and the snow soon turned to slush. I took the subway to Times Square and walked east past the neon signs and the tourists towards Bryant Park, and around the corner onto Fifth Avenue. The demonstration on the steps of the New York Public Library was set to begin at 11 a.m. and I was a few minutes late. American PEN had already set up a small white, protective canopy, chairs, a microphone, and speakers. A small PEN audience, bundled in winter gear, listened attentively as Edward Albee, Dan Delillo, E.L. Doctorow, Jessica Hagedorn, and Honor Moore, among others, read excerpts from Liu Xiaobo’s poetry, the text of Charter 08: “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes,” and the indictment by the court that sentenced Liu Xiaobo to eleven years in prison.

It was more like a vigil than a demonstration. We held signs with words from Charter 08. We held signs with the words: “Free Liu Xiaobo.” The press recorded the event--the speakers and the audience holding signs. When it was over, a mere thirty minutes later, a delegation walked to the Chinese Mission to hand in a letter.

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Liu Xiaobo

I’m interrupting the Happy Holidays to write a blog entry about Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most prominent writers and a past president and member of the Independent Chinese PEN center. After a show trial, he’s been sentenced to eleven years in prison for co-authoring Charter O8, a petition calling for political and human rights reforms in China, and for seven sentences in five articles he published on the internet that are critical of Chinese authorities.

He was sentenced on Christmas day. Maybe the powers-that-be in China thought that the Western World would not be watching. They were mistaken.

I’m trying to imagine what it must be like for a writer who has done nothing wrong—other than to write what is in his heart and mind—to be incarcerated in a Chinese prison. But I can’t imagine it, not really. It’s a bitterly cold day as I write but I’m warm, sitting at my desk, my computer humming. Access to the internet is instantaneous and unfettered. No one is trying to shut me down. No one is trying to shut this website down. I’m not a dissident, I’m a writer. In China, almost by definition, writers are dissidents.

It’s not a pretty picture.

A few years ago, a book I complied and edited, “Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories,” was published in China. When my agent first told me the news, I thought it was good news. But then I got worried. What if the book is censored or gets someone into trouble and they end up in jail? I asked. My agent reassured me that this would not happen. How could she know for sure? When it was suggested that I might like to travel to China to publicize the book, I refused. In fact, I won’t set foot on Chinese soil until all writers and other dissidents are released from jail. The Chinese government needs to shape up. Their actions are unconscionable.

Thursday is New Year’s Eve Day and American PEN is celebrating by organizing a vigil for Liu Xiaobo somewhere in midtown Manhattan. Snow is forecast but it makes no difference. I'll be there.

For more information about Liu Xiaobo:


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It's the end of the year and the one year "anniversary" of this blog. I'm in the midst of editing my murder mystery, "Say Nothing," which I hope to have finished before the new term begins in early February. It's hard work but also enjoyable. I went through the manuscript top to bottom last week and now have started another round of close, line by line editing. Working from my editor's notes and suggestions, I am trying to complete one chapter a day, at least. I'm elaborating description, trying to make some structural changes, and correcting grammatical and punctuation errors. Much to my surprise, many of my sentences in the first drafts were fragments. I think this is because I was trying to write very colloquial dialogue, closer to clipped, telegraphic speech. Or, maybe, I had the noir novels in mind, those tough characters who mumble tough, telegraphic sentences. But I am also certain that I am unconsciously influenced by the sound-byte literary culture we live in. I don't text but I do email a lot. I wish I had time for long, discursive, narrative emails all the time, but I don't. And the speed and dexterity of the email medium is corrosive. I have known this for a long time and talk about it to my workshop all the time. But I didn't think fragmentary communication had affected me at all. I was wrong. It has. And I've got a lot of work to do on the novel to make it sing rather than lurch along. Wish me bon chance and have a good holiday.  Read More 
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My cousin, Peggy Weis, had an art opening last Friday night at the Fairfield Arts Center. I’d watched her collect objects as we walked on the dirt road in Martha’s Vineyard last spring and some of these objects had been transformed into a “Road Kill” series and a “Portals” series. I asked her what she was collecting and she said, “fragments.” I wanted to help so she told me what to look for but I didn’t see what she saw so that was a useless exercise for both of us. But we kept on walking and talking about the creative process. Visual artists—their work and their statements about their work—always inspire me. Here’s Peggy’s (eloquent) statement about this show which is called “Back and Forth” :

“The art in this show reflects the movement Back and Forth of my ideas in concrete form—from one medium to another. From that, my creative process begins, deciding what format the work should take, be it work on paper, mixed media or sculpture. I am a walker and I frequently pick up objects while, at the same time, noticing the patterns of the cracks on the sidewalk or road. I have also experienced the deaths of friends and family members during the last few years and thoughts of life’s paths and portals to another realm started to preoccupy my work.”

Like writers, artists don’t sell a lot of work these days but that doesn’t mean they stop working. Peggy works all the time as do the two artists I talked to at the show who had stopped by to see the art but haven’t had a show in a very long time. Is this discouraging? Yes and no. Once back in the studio, they both agreed, the joy of creating new work and working the work takes over. Where the next meal is coming from is another matter; artists become easily lost in their process and find it difficult to surface into “reality.” Others, more commercially minded and self-promoting—Andy Warhol was quoted more than once that evening—find a way to make money from their art. Peggy, who has had numerous job jobs over the years, now has a patron—her husband—which makes her more fortunate than most, but doesn’t diminish her hard work or achievement.

The opening lasted for two hours and held a crowd. There were chocolate-dipped strawberries on the table, dips, crudities. Wine and sparkling water in blue bottles was served in the obligatory plastic cups. There were corporate sponsors in suits, the curator of the show, friends and family, board members of the Fairfield Arts Center. After a while, I wanted to pay attention to the art—a joint show with Roxanne Faber Savage—so I took one of the guide sheets and walked around slowly. A thirteen-year-old visiting from Cincinnati came with me. I tried to talk to her about the work but she was texting six friends back home all the time and had no language left for conversation with me much less description of what was in front of her. I thought this a terrible shame and also worrying. If we are never alone with our thoughts how can we experience art?

I talked to Peggy’s patron—her husband—for a while and we both said how happy we were that Peggy now has an opportunity to “do” her art full-time and is receiving well-deserved recognition from other artists. Artists have always supported one another with encouragement, suggestions, and attendance at openings. With or without financial aid, with or without sales, that’s the nature of real patronage: support, encouragement, suggestions, and admiration.  Read More 
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Written in Stone

Some years ago, an art appraiser friend gave me a cuneiform tablet for my birthday. What a gift! It’s a round stone, about four-inches in diameter and two inches thick, irregular in shape, and light-reddish brown in color. The inscription on it is not literature but calculation; it's a market transaction.

At first, I didn’t want to touch the stone much less hold it. I considered it precious and kept it in the straw box in which it had been delivered to me from the ancient Middle East. It had been a long, arduous journey. This clay tablet, wet when written on with a stylus, had survived countless upheavals. I think of this, and more, when I touch this stone. I wish Iraq peace and prosperity in the coming years.

When I told my friend I was afraid to handle the stone, he insisted that I take it out of the box. It needed to breathe, to live. And so I did. Its presence in my writing room is a reminder that written communication is universal and has been for millennium.

The expression, “It’s not written in stone,” originates in the discovery of these tablets. It implies that our ancestors in antiquity considered the stone tablets permanent records. But that was most likely not the case; they were ephemera to be stored or tossed away once the transaction was complete. And though all of it is important to us now as artifact, at the time the clay tablets were not precious; they were tools.

There will be more tomorrow and the day after that, into the future, beyond our lifetimes, beyond the wars we are fighting in the cradle of civilization where all artifacts are endangered. I suppose there is some solace in this, at least: The museum in Baghdad is open again, its collection partially restored and on view, most of it stored safely outside the country.

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