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A Writer in The Family

Once upon a time there was a writer in the family who used his backstory in the first five chapters of his novel, fictionalized, of course. He changed the names of his nearest and dearest—his familiars, people he loved, people he found troublesome—and amplified the characters beyond recognition. Or so he thought. He told his writers group, and then his agent, and then his publisher that the work took on a life of its own, that the story wrote itself, without reference to his own story or anyone he knew. By the time he was done, he said, he didn’t remember how the book had started or who had inspired it. Nonetheless, a brother recognized himself, then a cousin, then a former lover. A more distant relative threatened to sue. Luckily, the writer carried indemnification insurance. He had been warned by his agent: publishers no longer indemnify. So what had started as a writing project became a legal nightmare. Many writers have been through it; few can afford it. Including me.

I have had more than one such conundrum in my writing life. I’ve had a death threat and a request from an English Lord in the House of Lords—where I’d been called to testify because of an article I’d written—to return to the country from whence I came, post haste. My very own mother asked that I refrain from writing a memoir about her side of our family for fear of legal action, which never happened. The book was published, it did well, my mother was proud.

I am a reporter, Nancy Drew writ large. I gather evidence. The story is told from my point of view; I own it and take responsibility for it. I write fiction now, too, which is different in many ways, but the same ethical rules apply.

Recently, not that long ago, alas, I published an essay called “Why I Believe in Interventions.” Someone in my extended family took exception to it and threatened to sue unless I withdrew it from the online magazine, or changed a few of the sentences. I no longer carry indemnification insurance so I had to prevail upon a mediator—my skillful husband—to quiet this relative. It was an unpleasant episode that affected me and members of the family adversely. Afterwards, I asked myself questions: Should I have written and published this essay? YES. Did I have a right to publish it? YES. Should I have shown a draft to various family members mentioned in the piece, directly and obliquely? PERHAPS. Would that constitute censorship, or prior restraint? YES.

Every term I begin my workshop classes with a mantra: every writer must feel absolutely free. No self-editing, no censorship, no prior restraint, no coy references or hidden agendas. Remain credible, write honestly and fairly, do your research, raise your knowledge base, state your point of view, and the writing will soar.

I do not live in a police state, I am free, I am a writer. This is what writers do.  Read More 

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My avatar finds it impossible to stay neutral. Bless her, she's got a strong point of view.

I know a woman by the name of Faith who is cheerful and optimistic. She attributes her temperament to her faith and her voice; she sings in church every Sunday. We knew each other briefly, then fell out of touch. Did I have faith in the longevity of our friendship? I did, at first. Is this narrative true or false? How does she tell the story? What is her point of view of our fleeting friendship? Her perception? Probably quite different, undoubtedly so, I’d say. That is because there is no fixed rendering of any event or relationship or history; there is only uncertainty and flux and evolution and devolution, or all of the above, simultaneously. I know this absolutely. I’m an absolutist on the question of faith; I don’t have any. When I open the bible all I see is early 17th century poetic prose or poetry itself. It is not the Holy Bible to me, it’s just the King James Bible, a book. Stories, characters, setting, omniscient point of view. It’s the omniscience in some biblical tales that’s troubling for me. This book is the word of whom, exactly?

This was a question I asked twins Cassandra and Stephanie, both recent graduates of SUNY New Paltz. It was a warm day and I was about to walk on the rail trail. There they were, perched on a couple of stools, clothed top to bottom in long cotton dresses and collars tightly pinned, their long hair bunched and bunned at the neck. Though they looked Amish or Hasidic, their wobbly cardboard sign identified them as Jehovah’s Witnesses. The world is in a state of suffering, they told me, and only the Lord knows what to do about it. They offered pamphlets and a long, tiresome rap. But because they were young, I stayed to talk. I wanted to know if they had boyfriends, how they supported themselves and whether they voted, or not (they don’t), or how they made it through four years on a free-wheeling college campus. Just yesterday, I told them, a woman cyclist, naked from the waist up, circled around and past me. What did they think of that?, I asked. “Original sin,” one of the sisters whispered. “I couldn’t agree less,” I said.

They referred me to an official website. Did I know---seeing as I am apparently without religion, progressive, and believe that knowledge and faith are mutually exclusive—that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bear arms, that they are conscientious objectors? That they remained neutral during World War II? “Silence is complicity,” I said after a moment of silence for my murdered family.

And so our conversation continued in that spirit. Civil and respectful throughout, thankfully. I do think we were searching for common ground and were sad, in a way, not to have found it. I liked these two young women—they were still unformed from my professorial perspective—except for their intransigent beliefs. Those were fully formed, intractable, based on the words written in the Bible.

Then, just about a week later, I met two more Jehovah’s Witnesses on Main Street in front of Starbucks. Same signs, same literature—if one can call it that—same admonition to “wake up,” two different women one Asian-American, the other African-American. The sidewalk was narrow and they were blocking my path. From their point of view, the semiotics were obvious: if you block the path, the person has to stop and talk, right?

First things first, I asked if they’d like an ice cream (they didn’t) and then if they were students or recent graduates (they weren’t) and, finally, I informed them that by standing on this particular corner, they were integrating the town. It’s a very white town, did you know that?, I asked them. They didn’t and looked a bit alarmed. “I didn’t mean to alarm you,” I said. “It’s a safe town.” Then I interviewed them, so to speak, which they found amusing. But they were restless. I wasn’t their target audience, and when they finished with their complicated back stories, I said goodbye and went to get my ice cream.  Read More 

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Water Baby

I had my last lap swim in my local outdoor pool yesterday. The Minnewaska State Park beaches are also shuttered, as is the Ulster County Pool. Why? Because all the lifeguards and swim instructors return to school this week. End of summer story. On Thursday, I’ll join an indoor pool at SUNY New Paltz and lap swim once or twice a week. It’s different than working out at the gym, more meditative, more supple, less coercive and competitive and goal-driven. Though there is an adult swimmer’s Masters Class at the university, I will not succumb to that temptation. I’ve had my day in the competitive sun and though, at times, I still enjoy chasing the much younger guy in the next lane, I can also let the swimming- to-win go.

My mother put me into the water the first summer of my life. Out of the womb, into the water. I’ve written a novella based on my imagining of this summer on a lake in upstate New York probably not far from where I am living now. My parents had split yet my mother looks happy in the photo I have of the two of us at the beach. We are both beaming with “we’ve just been swimming” smiles. This photo, my favorite of the two of us, inspired the “Water Baby” novella. I kept it on my desk as I was writing and it is now enlarged and framed.

My mother was born in Vienna where a sports culture pervaded everyday life for everyone, no matter class or caste. Outdoor activities—summer and winter—were the norm. Everyone could swim and ski and ice skate and play tennis and soccer, as could my sister and I as we were growing up. So it came as a surprise to me that there were people in other parts of the world who were not as privileged and had no idea how to swim, for example. Someone told me the other day that it is becoming harder every summer for pools and lakes to find lifeguards and swim instructors in America, of all places. I wonder if this is also true in Europe? That’s a question I hope one of my EU readers will be able to answer. Is it possible that young people are no longer interested in Red Cross certifications? I was thrilled by every card I earned—Beginning Swimmer to Advanced Swimmer—and was a wiz at CPR by the time I was 16. I couldn’t wait to boss kids around at the pool or lake while I was life guarding, or teaching them to swim during my summer holidays in high school and college. I had a whiff of this memory this summer when I volunteered to administer a swim test to wannabe Minnewaska long distance swimmers. Once again, I wielded a clipboard and the power to pass or fail a swimmer. Throwback summer.

How fortunate I am to still be able to swim and hike and remain healthy in mind and body. My mother died at 99 of old age, so I have good genes. I took her swimming every Saturday until she was about 95 and we—her caretaker and I—could no longer get her up or down the stairs. Her sight was so poor that she often crashed into the lane dividers. But she still swam like an angel and had yet more stories to tell over a well-earned lunch. If I could have taken her swimming while she was in hospice, I would have.  Read More 

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