Poetry and Art as Inspiration

Sometimes writers can’t help themselves. Like engineers who see things in terms of physics and photographers who sees things in terms of light and shadow, writers see things in terms of words. During my annual writing retreat to warmer climes (pre-CoVid lockdown), I was impressed by a national art show in Punta Gorda. I submitted three poems inspired by three different paintings. One was chosen to be read at their awards ceremony in March.

The second one caught a different judge’s attention in August. My poem was inspired by a portrait of an elegant black woman in a lush conservatory. She exuded power and grace. My poem, Let Her Go, won a six county contest at the chapter level of one writer’s group to which I belong, and then it competed statewide and won the Virginia Writers’ first place award. I’m not sure yet whether they will post it at the website, so I won’t add it here. Perhaps later. But it’s particularly exciting to know that my words evoked images that made an impression on the very accomplished judge, a past Virginia Poet Laureate.

Another point of note. Despite the recent controversy over writers exploring the emotions and experiences of a demographic group to which they do not belong, I feel that my poem captured the essence of that woman, her power, her black pride, and her place in history. It also captured my recognition of her as an accomplished and deserving woman. We share a bond, that woman on canvas, the woman in my poem, and I, a white middle-class novelist. And hopefully my readers feel that same bond, that same excitement, that same pride. As did the judge. Be patient, I will post it when I can.

Discovery : Edna O’Brien

How foolish I feel, never heard of Edna O’Brien, a world-famous Irish writer, with books in the double digits, most of which won prizes and all of which are acclaimed by the best writers of the 20th and 21st century. A writing mentor, Gail Kenna, steered me to her own blog after she taught a class on O’Brien at our local community college’s lifetime learning institute. I value Gail’s opinion–she admires Marilynne Robinson as much as I do–and when she recently notified us she was blogging about O’Brien, I went straight to her site, http://www.gailwilsonkenna.com.

I have just finished The Little Red Chairs in one sitting. What I am feeling is almost indescribable. Worthless as a writer myself, shocked at the blindness of the world, ashamed that I never heard a news story about the red chairs (not even during our 2015 trip to Serbia and Croatia), and undone by the depth of beauty and wisdom and emotion in O’Brien’s words. I think ‘my heart was in my throat’ the entire four hours. I want only to read it again from beginning to end, to be thrust into that world and carried away, in an effort to better understand the story, the prose, the revelations. This is not unlike how I felt being lifted out of the bath water in Lourdes and feeling faith so vividly and viscerally.

My list of brilliant and powerful passages is scribbled on a back page: Fidelma and Jack’s wedding night, poetry as metaphor for the warrior’s voice, Mujo and his doves, freedom from ‘fighting mean,’ the shy child in the window wanting and watching with the protective father, the lightning-burnt tree with its new green shoots, green green green all by itself, to the final paragraph pairing the graveyard and the sheep fold. I want to believe that, in her brilliance, she simply thinks like that. It boggles my mind that she might labor at those insights and those phrases which only come to me rarely and by stealth.

Like Robinson, O’Brien connects history and humanity in her links between classic literature and the everyday, something I will never achieve, living too much in the here and now and, to be truthful, in my selfishness over the time spent creating and the time spent doing necessities of life. Not that I don’t chase truth in my writing, but not with her intensity and not to the exclusion of the day to day pleasures of family and my ivory tower existence. Reading O’Brien is the stratosphere compared to my muckety sunny days.

I feel as if I could write about this book for hours. You simply have to read it. And re-read it. I am ordering another O’Brien, wondering if I should start at the beginning of her long list. Her latest at age 90, a Nigeria story, is so timely in light of last week’s kidnapping of the boys, that I hesitate to start there, already undone by this one.

UNDER THE RADAR, MEANT TO BE SHARED

So . . . June’s arrived, annual winter writing retreat over, pandemic in place, another rainy day: time to talk books I’ve been reading and share the good news. This spring I added a few blogs and writing sites to my ‘stay-connected’ list. The Darling Axe from Vancouver, not only runs writing contests for very small fees, all going to prize money, but they give editing advice online in fun videos, all about writing better and not about themselves. Very useful for writers. Literary Sofa from UK is another one. She’s just posted her summer reads, and while they’re a little heavy on the mystery/hidden secret side for my usual taste, her reviews are well thought out. She puts each new book in context for its genre and she posts regularly, a skill I envy.

Three writing colleagues have published new books, all three worth reading. Michael Parker’s Prairie Fever (Algonquin) about sisters during the dust bowl. Language is celebrated as in all his writing. Half by Sharon Harrigan from University of Wisconsin Press explores the deep connection between twins, using the first person plural. And Cliff Garstang’s House of the Ancients and Other Stories.  His linked short story collection won the Library of Virginia Fiction award a few years ago. He’s well traveled and conveys the sense of foreign places and mindsets with an easy skill.

My new favorite, a Dollar Tree find, is Anna and the Swallow Man by Gavriel Savit. Yes, it’s another WWII story, but fresh, original, charming, AND suspenseful. 2016, paper and audio available. It’s good enough I might buy the audio just to hear it in the child’s voice.

I usually recommend and enjoy Chris Bojalian. He’s written so many that I have read and would read again: Skeletons at the Feast, Double Bind. But I was disappointed with Sleepwalker. A little too heavy on the relationships and the parents are a little too lackadaisical for credibility in this one.

Lots more I’ve read, but will save those comments for another day.

 

 

 

REVISION and REVISION

Look at the word, friends. The art, the craft of revising starts with your looking again at your characters, your story, your conflict, and being critical enough to hear or see the places where the record skips. If you want to keep your readers reading, these are the places to start in any revision.

My first virus pandemic in my 67 years, and somehow I knew enough to go right to the experts. I signed up for an online writing course with ONE STORY. A subscriber on and off again over the years to their single story per issue mag, I had just finished reading The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, the second novel of Hannah Tinti, one of the OS founders, and I wanted more. She created a criminal and made me like him in  spite of himself.

Because so many writers were feeling a similar need for connection, 367 of us from all over the world signed up for the ONE STORY course. Six days of writing exercises led by the six editors at the literary magazine in NYC. We sheltered in place but we practiced ‘place’ and ‘villains’ and ‘credibility.’ We chatted in the Students Only lounge and we poured our literary hearts out on the Let’s Talk page, all managed neatly by Haiku’s Power Learning program. I made new friends, offered suggestions and kudos, posted my drafts, received critiques, and revised and revised. A bargain at $60, I’m re-energized.

And a new writer friend in California emailed some very valuable comments on one of my draft stories. He inspired a re-visioning of immeasurable value. What a strange and surprising place is this COVID netherworld.

 

 

 

A sweet find: Steven Millhauser’s Enchanted Night

Here we are, locked down or locked in, stuck with what’s in the cupboard and who’s in the spare bedroom. I’m writing and reading like a madman, maybe I am a little mad. Definitely getting closer. BUT . . . I discovered a gem, hidden away on a low shelf, under my classic favorites by Michael Parker, Janet Peery, Robert Olmstead, Sheri Reynolds, Alice McDermott, Ron Carlson, Ted Kooser, and David Guterson, (the list is too long for a blog entry). Surprisingly it’s a slim volume, a novella, by the man who wrote one of the most dramatic short stories ever, THE KNIFE THROWER. Millhauser’s novella, ENCHANTED NIGHT, is a literary thriller. It drips narrative tension. Its myriad characters are your neighbors, your childhood friends, and you are right there walking the streets and praying for a miracle. It’s so well done that I thought I might have expired in COVID netherworld and arrived at heaven. Where each word and each sentence and each paragraph transports one to a place where perfection stems from less is more. If you ever doubted that a novella could carry the weight of a novel in character development, in motivation, in suspense, in discovery, you should read ENCHANTED NIGHT.

Latest review of one of my short stories, a second place winner

The Darling Axe is an online writers’ site in Canada, with several very down-to-earth editors who believe that serious writers are always working to make their work better with editing. My ‘flash’ short story (1000 words) ELEVEN FOR GOOD MEASURE won second place in their annual contest. Judge Michelle Barker wrote about my story:

“This is a well-crafted story with a strong narrative arc that accomplishes a lot in a small space. Strong characterization and a fine eye for details made this a very satisfying read.”

Here’s the link to read my story and the other two winning stories: http://darlingaxe.com

Thank you to David Brown and Michelle Barker for the site, their online advice, and for running the contest. Each small bit of praise helps eat away at that mountain of self-doubt that plagues this writer like so many of us who have chosen to tell stories that need to be told. Lots more to listen to and read on the Darling Axe to Grind site.

Our view of germs and friends from the river

Hunkered down at our river house on the Rappahannock River, I find myself torn between the pulsing laptop keys and the swirls of sun-wrapped ripples across our mile view to the wildlife refuge. These days, four weeks into the lockdown, we’re reading more voraciously, walking twice a day, attacking the weeds, and trying to walk past the puzzle table without getting sucked in. I’ve ‘fixed’ eight stories, submitted a collection to three contests, dabbled at editing the latest novel manuscript, re-written the penultimate scene of another novel in progress, and started several stories that are whining for more attention. I’ve read ten books in a month. Except for missing my kids and grands, I don’t miss being in the car, or endless grocery shopping, or battling traffic to drive once a week the two hours to visit my 94 year old mother, still in her own home, but slowing down. I don’t even miss Poldark and I was sure I would.

Tennis is a loss that is harder to quantify. It’s good for my guy Roger since he had the operation on his other knee after the Australian Open and wouldn’t have played until later this year anyway.  He says he’s ‘devastated’ but my guess he’s enjoying the time with his kids.  No TV tennis means my own tennis will suffer when I can play again. My rhythm on the courts is so much better when I’ve watched TV tennis the night before. But social distancing doesn’t work with my tennis group, mixed doubles, random cupcake birthday celebrations, trading stories about recent travels, bringing odd visiting family members to our sessions. Everyone touches every ball, endlessly, half of the group are sneezing and wiping their eyes from the wind. While we have stopped offering hats or scarves between us, the germs are everywhere.

In the earliest days of this pandemic I played three times a week, but the higher the curve went, the more I considered that losing two months or six, won’t matter with the state of my game at 67 years old. During my year with cancer, I didn’t play for 18 months, but that’s been 10 years ago now. My tennis friends from four counties text each other, leave books to share on each other’s doorsteps, and circulate photos of what’s happening in our shrunken world: the yard, the sunrise, moon glow, the newest recipe, the empty WalMart parking lot.

Will I forget how to play tennis by the time this is over? Maybe, but I won’t forget my friends and the small kindnesses and the instant moments of joy when my phone chimes and I have a new message.

Florida for Writers

How lucky am I to be able to run away from my everyday world for a month every winter, drive with my convertible top down to the land of sunshine and fresh strawberries to write all day and far into the night, no one to interrupt or insist on chores or dinner at seven. 2020 is my twelfth year for this annual writing retreat.

In 2009 friends offered me their sailboat in the Palmetto marina for a month. My routine was up with the sun, walk to the harbormaster’s for free newspaper and coffee, write below as long as I could sit upright with the bunk cushions propping up my back, bike to grocery (or liquor store or library), nap at pool, G and T on the deck at sunset, more writing until I fell asleep and crawled into my sleeping bag in the fore bunk. Three years in the sailboat, three years dog-sitting for a Bradenton friend with a magical turquoise house and blooming jungle garden, two years in Tampa at my niece Kari’s condo overlooking blue blue Tampa Bay and the Gandy bridge, one abbreviated year when our Portland friend Stan died unexpectedly and I went home early and heartbroken, two years in Naples with those distracting but gorgeous white beaches and too many art festivals.

So here I am in Cape Coral this year, a second floor condo across from a popular bar with outdoor Bingo on Monday nights, and a thrift store bike that rides like a dream. I fly up to Publix for fresh shrimp and stop at Paisano’s Italian Market for olives or Pecorino.

The list of who I need to thank is endless. Lake Union for publishing Catcher, Caught and selling the heck out of it still, the Pen Faulkner Foundation for choosing it for their Writers in Schools program, my generous and patient husband who enjoys his month without me as much as I enjoy the retreat, my grands who grow taller and smarter every day I’m away, my philosopher son who compares writing schedules, my money manager son who checks in regularly to be sure I’m healthy and safe, my daughter the doc who sends me videos of Eli and Selah and wears every colorful thing I bring back to her, my daughter-in-law who reads my books avidly, my son-in-law the doc for his sense of humor that keeps me humble. I’d thank Professor Skarda if she were still with us, she’s my inspiration, the reason I edit and edit and work so hard to get it right but eloquently, and my mother, 93 and still gardening and painting and reading, for her insistence that you keep at it, fill the frame, and paint it again.

Authors thank their agents, their editors, their readers, their critique groups, the list is long for artists. We may be admired, but we are not valued enough in the crush of achieve and acquire in today’s world. I hear often that there are less than 300 writers in the world who live off their royalties (that includes journalists), and that 95 percent of authors don’t sell more than 500 copies of a book. I’m ahead of the curve on that one, but it’s not an easy thing to know that most of the working people I meet earn more in a month than most writers earn in a year.

And I would be remiss not to thank my readers. Who buy the books, recommend them to their friends and book clubs, write the reviews, and come to my presentations. I know it’s more than the dollars, it’s an investment of time. Just like my Florida writing retreat.

SIT DOWN AND START WRITING

Ideas, dreams, imagined scenes, all good fodder but until they’re on the page, you’re not a writer. Start with vignettes about your proposed character or ‘what if.’

What makes your character fume? What’s her go-to comfort food? Who is his nemesis and why does he dislike him so? Would he eat Chinese or only 100 percent beef? Does she ever cry at movies? Can she talk to her father without arguing? Why would a guy with lots of money like to walk by himself on the beach at midnight?

If you schedule half an hour in your crazy busy day to ask yourself that question and write it down, you’ve started. Never mind that he may end up disliking the woman who insists on Cherry Garcia instead of black coffee to top off an evening out. He’s your character and you have to know him inside out to write a story where he’s the star.