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Young Writers

A few weeks ago, I volunteered to meet and encourage a young writer or two at PEN, one of the organizations I belong to, down on lower Broadway in Manhattan. Stacy Leigh, the director of “Readers and Writers,” had sent out an email blast asking for some help. I’ll quote the PEN blurb here:

“Established in 1990, Readers & Writers serves low-income populations that have limited access to writers and a diverse range of literary culture. Working with these groups, Readers & Writers aims to inspire both adults and children to read more regularly and more critically, and to encourage them to explore writers from various cultures and regions. Each year the program sends 60 authors and their books to literacy programs, community centers, schools, and other sites nationwide, reaching out to Americans who can read but may not have a relationship with literature.”

When I arrived, Caitlin, a junior in high school, was still working on her manuscript. I understood the impulse to perfect a draft before letting anyone read it, much less a stranger who is a professional writer. I waited patiently and chatted to Stacy about various PEN issues, including a library that could use some volunteer action. Then Caitlin arrived and Stacy left. I began by asking questions about her process, how the story—it was piece of fiction—unfolds, how she drafts, the nature of revision. Caitlin was full of ideas and enthusiasm which I found completely refreshing. It’s why I enjoy teaching so much.

Readers & Writers also runs during the year. If you are interested in participating, contact Stacy @ PEN: 212 334-1660 stacyleigh@pen.org.  Read More 
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I Was A Cosmo Girl

Once upon a time, towards the end of Helen Gurley Brown’s reign at the end of the 1990’s, I was a writer for Cosmopolitan Magazine. It wasn’t my intention, it just happened. I had written a book for Doubleday and my editor had moved to Cosmo. She called and asked if I’d like an assignment. I thought about the offer for a millisecond and then I made an appointment to go into the office to go through the blue books, at least that’s what I think they were called. I was directed to a special room with a long conference table upon which sat, like an altar, two large binders with blue pages. The room was austere and quiet; I was the only writer there. One binder was for long articles, the other for short articles. All the ideas had been generated by the editorial staff and Helen Gurley Brown herself. The pages were printed, but most had marginalia by various editors, including HGB, and suggestions for the writers—where and how to begin the research, and so on. This definitely was a winning wicket, I thought to myself. By selecting a page out of the book and unpinning it from the binder, every freelance writer in Cosmo’s stable was assured of money in the bank.

Needless to say, I was a happy writer during my stint working for Cosmo. I can’t remember for how long I lasted—a year or two or three. When my editor left, I left, but not before I’d published some long features in the back of the book—women in politics, women friendly corporations, that sort of thing. And then, one day, I went into the office and couldn’t find anything in either of the binders that appealed to me, so I returned to the short piece binder and found a page with the heading “skin and aging.” I thought, well, I have skin, I am aging, I can write about skin. I unpinned the blue page and skipped to my editor’s office. “Are you sure you want this assignment?” she asked me. And I said, “Yes, absolutely yes,” and off I went.

All I had seen was the $ signs, money in the bank. I hadn’t looked at the marginalia. Scrawled at the bottom of the page was a note from HGB and the phone number of her dermatologist. She’d just had silicone injections in her face and wanted the writer to mention him in the piece.

I called my editor. “I think HGB has forgotten that these injections are illegal,” I said.

“I’ll get back to you,” my editor said. I knew her well enough to catch the tone. She was new at Cosmo and didn’t want to challenge the culture of the magazine. I had to let her handle this.

Then I got a call from the advertising department. They’d heard I was doing a piece about skin. Please, I should mention—a very famous cosmetic company—in the body of the piece so that they could sell them ad space opposite the article. Please.

“Please or I must.”

“You must, please.”

I had heard that the firewall between advertising and editorial was breaking down; this was my first experience of it.

So I called my editor and told her I wanted to get off the story, or she told me, or we told each other, that I was off the story. Parenthetically, I’d found out that Vaseline was the best moisturizer, as opposed to the potions of the very famous cosmetic company I must please should mention, potions I’d savored in HGB’s marble layered private bathroom when I’d mistakenly wandered in during one of my first visits to the Cosmo office.  Read More 
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Nora's Voice

A woman is sitting by the pool, fully dressed and she is reading a book by Delia Ephron—Nora’s sister—reading and then looking at the pool, and then reading again. I spot her as I am doing my last lap and notice the cover of the book—pale pink and pale blue—and recognize her: she lives in my building, I live in hers, we have chatted in the elevator as one chats in the elevator—briefly. Then I am out of the pool, a towel around my shoulders, dripping, cold, and she is telling me she is there to observe and imprint upon her young son the importance of learning to swim so as not to drown in their pool in the Hamptons. “But he is a fish,” I say. Five years old, purple swim cap, goggles, completely adorable. What might Nora have said about such intense, privileged parenting? A lot.

“And why are you reading this book by Delia?”

“Because my mother worked for Nora and we were all at the memorial.”

And though I am cold and dripping, I linger to talk. I am envious that I have not been invited o the memorial and that I had never met Nora Ephron. Because of her writing, especially in the heat of the women’s movement when she collected her Esquire pieces into a book called “Crazy Salad,” we are intimates. And my relationship with Nora continued as she became a filmmaker and my daughter and I watched “When Harry Met Sally,” “Silkwood,” and “You’ve Got Mail,” together.

We women writers of a certain age have always treasured Nora Ephron as one of the first “girls” to crash the ceiling in the newsroom, as a free spirit, as a fine essayist, screenwriter and director, and as a brave honest soul. As homage and tribute, I have just finished reading her last two books: “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” and “I Remember Nothing,” and though they are permeated with the culture of celebrity, they are still wonderful, honest, well written books. Except for one thing: Nora never let on that she was dying. Reading them posthumously is hard as so many of the essays obliquely foreshadow her death, a funeral oration from beyond the grave written by the deceased in her own, strong voice. Read More 
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Brave New World

O wonder!
How many goodly creatures/buildings are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people/politicians in't.

A departure from William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act V, Scene I
I delivered an archive of printed emails and memorabilia to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum yesterday. Historians and archivists are challenged these days; so much is lost in cyberspace. I had printed out emails and poems I’d written, so I offered them as documentation. There is also an oral history archive if anyone reading this blog would like to contribute their experiences: www.911memorial.org.

I was nervous about taking the #2 train to the Fulton Street station and had flashbacks as soon as I was on the train. Most New Yorkers I know have traumatic memories of that day and mild PTSD that comes and goes. We all tell stories around the time of the anniversary and the anniversary is coming up. And I have had firemen and firemen’s wives in my workshops, survivors, therapists and other relief workers. When I wrote to my student, Vasu Varadhan, to tell her I was going down to the site, she wrote back to say she was on the way there with her husband to see/touch her son Gopal’s name on the memorial wall. It was eerie, she said, that we should be exchanging emails just on this day. Vasu is working on a memoir about her childhood, adolescence, and arranged marriage that will be dedicated to Gopal, one of many who were slaughtered that day, the preface to the wars we have been fighting ever since. What blind folly is this, Shakespeare might have said. Or did he? Did we not know this was coming? Could we not understand the consequences of our actions before the attack and beyond?

I hadn’t been down to the site in more than five years and when I surfaced I had to hold back tears. Yet people are working here every day, debarking trains, strolling the streets, going to work, leaving work, I told myself. I was dazed and didn’t know where I was, could not orient south or north, east or west. Instead of the Towers and then the amputated site, there were glass fronted scrapers of various sizes all around, new and sparkling in the summer sun. “We are among our monuments here, such close quarters, and what gets wrecked falls at our feet,” I wrote in an email a week after the attack. And now new monuments are rising and closing in on Lower Manhattan where the Dutch first settled in the 17th century. The cobbled streets are sometimes still visible.

I could not find Liberty Street or One Liberty Plaza so I asked a policeman and he did not know where it was either. But a woman overheard my question and walked me to the building, asked where I was going, what I was doing. When I told her, a story spilled. Yes, she was there on the day. She watched the bodies fall, was covered with ash, and escaped. “How is it coming down here every day all these years?”

“There’s a new Century 21. My friends and I have lunchtime gatherings.”

“Do you go down to the Memorial?

“We work in the Memorial. We are the Memorial." she said.

I had a meeting with an Assistant Curator of Collections, Alexandra Drakakis, who has been working on the 9/11 collection for five years. She asked if I knew anyone with oral memories who could contribute to the oral history archive and/or any writers who have kept emails and journals. Writers, photographers and artists are important witnesses to events; we document these events in our journals and our work.

The Memorial and Museum are a work-in-progress. Sadly, a financial dispute between the 9/11 Foundation and the Port Authority continues. The families are very upset, as they should be. They lost their loved ones in a Great Atrocity, are gathering memorabilia for the Museum, and deserve some closure.

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