LATEST WIN : VIRTUAL READING at the SOUL-MAKING KEATS LITERARY COMPETITION

Despite my long face at not being able to travel to San Francisco for the 29th annual awards ceremony of this wonderful SMK contest inspired by Keats’ reference to soul-making, I did my first ‘virtual’ reading in early April. Second year of no in person ceremony, thanks to co-Vid.

Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VbaFDm5f0bQ .

The judge for the novel excerpt category, Donna Gillespie, begins her introduction at 1:37:41. My reading as first place winner for the early pages of my fourth novel MINDING HENRY LEWIS comes at 1:49:29. The Prose readings covered a long, but fascinating afternoon of diverse writers, and 13 categories.

Thank you, Donna, for your comments as judge. They would make a perfect back cover endorsement, though the novel has been out since 2014. “Seamless intertwining of place, personality and drama” is how she starts.

A warning. I have no experience reading to a camera. The head bounces between page and camera are very distracting. Perhaps, close your eyes and just listen to experience the power of the scene without my ineptness.

A word to writer colleagues. Contests are a solid way to build a reputation and spread the word about your work. My first contest award was a weekly news magazine in Charlottesville, Virginia about a man whose wife washed away in front of him during a 500 year flood. THE HOOK ran its annual contest for short stories in conjunction with VA BOOK, a book festival to rival all book festivals, now over 25 years old. My second win, a first place from New Millenium, came to me in Spain via fax because they needed a rushed bio to meet a publication deadline. And that was 1996. I’ve been entering contests ever since. In a later HOOK contest, John Grisham judged, reading blind, and chose two of my stories for first and third place. Later he told me he was shocked it was the same author that had written the two very different stories. There’s another valued endorsement.

In these days of instant photographic news and information deception, the hard truth still erupts from well-written fiction. I’m contributing by exploring what it means to be human in my ficttion. I’m more proud of that than the first place award.

I’m still dreaming of the ‘big’ prize. In the meantime, I’m committed to making what I write more powerful, more accessible, and more relevant to living in this upside down world. When I teach creative writing, I push my students to dig for the resonance in their characters’ challenges and solutions. When I judge writing contests, I try to reward the writers who make careful word selections to evoke setting and character, even as the action rises and falls. In my essay responding to NPR’s THIS I BELIEVE, I wrote that I believe in the power of words. The solution to world peace lies in communication and understanding all sides. Oh, what I’d like to show those citizens of Russia about megalomaniacs.

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Writing essays in a series: ON THE ROAD AGAIN

As a writer, I gather experiences like photos. They are inspiration and fodder for new stories. My friends and family at home are forever asking me where are you and what are you doing. My usual answer is, I’m in my car. I live in my car, between one home on the river and one in town, and my 96-year-old mother and three art centers where I volunteer and display my paintings. But even driving across Virginia gives me ideas.

I just finished the fourth essay in a series I revived from several years ago for one hometown newspaper. On The Road Again lets me share those travel experiences as well as find universal themes in the places and people I meet. I’ll post them here, in order, over the next few weeks, and hope to hear from my readers everywhere, who wait patiently for the next novel.

Please add your prayers to mine for an agent who falls in love with my 86-yr-old Murray Fenwick in ‘One Last Mystery.’ After he decides the way to avoid the nursing home is to convince his two daughters that he remembers everything, he starts a journal with the red-haired nurse at The Paris Hospital in WW II who nursed him back to health. Interrupted with neighbors and family who need his help, he works in spurts to finish it by Christmas. With his own health challenges, he’s not quite sure when he gets to the end, whether he’s telling the truth or has made it all up. But in the writing, he discovers one last mystery.

Here’s the first in the 2022 series On The Road Again.

“Several years back, long before the Covid pandemic craziness, I wrote a series for this newspaper to share my experiences as a traveling novelist. Word pictures of driving south to a Florida marina to write from a sailboat that belonged to Dunnsville friends and observations of how life looked different from a Cape Ann cottage above rocky Atlantic beaches. Now that Covid is in the rearview, I’m off again, eager for new vistas, but with a very different perspective in my explorations. Dear readers, bear with me as I examine life elsewhere. Know that my river neighbors are with me in spirit, closer to my heart than I could ever have predicted.

96 degrees yesterday, perspiration ran rivulets between my shoulder blades. I carted my empty recycling tub to the garage and stuffed the extra suntan lotion into my beach bag. Four ospreys perched above me in a hundred-year-old oak that needs pruning badly from wind damage and age. Our tree man says oaks live for fifty years and die for fifty years. I feel their pain. Seventy for me this year comes as a shock. Never mind all those birthday cards for friends who aged ahead of me that are stacked in my memory along with the sympathy cards I’ve written these last two and a half years to friends who lost parents and spouses to the dread invading virus. It seems impossible that seventy with all its related illnesses and conditions and system failures can so quickly infiltrate the days of an active gardener and avid tennis player. Where did the time go? Now when my grandchildren dive into the Duplos, I sit on the sofa and observe. I avoid getting down because getting up is the challenge at seventy.

This first summer escape from Tappahannock follows a once-in-a-lifetime spring trip to the United Kingdom. Ferried to places I’d only read about in storybooks, we hiked across Shetland Island heathered hills to see gigantic rings of stone that had been set in circles centuries ago. The mystery of why continues to fascinate. The sun dipped at eleven at night and slipped back up at three in the morning. We buried ourselves in sweaters and scarves and marveled at sentried oil rigs and copycat wind farms sprouting from the North Sea. With only a thousand Shetland ponies left, their breeder boasted that she doesn’t sell them anymore because people refuse to put them to work. They’re happiest when they’re hauling a plow or a wagon, she said, and the truth of that struck me after our months of lockdown and binging on Turner Classic movies.

In Dublin, energy teems from sidewalks jammed with twenty-somethings in jeans and shouldered briefcases. The city celebrates its rebirth as the IT capitol of the world. Its seventeenth century universities graduate more computer science majors than all our American universities put together. A visitor can hear the hum of the future in the Google campus built on the foundations of a twelfth century shipping port and in the paychecks of 17,000 Intel employees.

The Irish, the Brits, the Scots, and the Welsh showcase for the world their combination of history and hope. Everywhere banners announced the Queen’s jubilee, seventy years as reigning monarch and still riding her horse when her hats are in the hatboxes. In Chester even the less well-heeled ladies sported their feathered fascinators on race day and streamed past the double-decker shops to the track. In Canterbury, they’re steam-cleaning the Cathedral where Henry the Second and Thomas Becket argued over the separation of church and state. When you can step where Becket stood his ground, you get a sense that your world is the tiniest piece of a puzzle you may never understand.

My initial wonder at the history so close at hand was replaced over those two weeks with an overwhelming sense of gratitude. We’re from that same stock. Americans, in all our diverse origins, were, and still are, immigrants searching for a better life, believers hoping for freedom to pursue their dreams, nephews building businesses with uncles who came before them, cousins escaping the bloody fists of drug dealers and dictators, students craving open dialogue and scholarship funds, budding entrepreneurs with new ideas, and mothers wanting a safe place to raise their children.

I came home filled with hope. Americans are connected to that same history. Like the old world from which our first settlers came, we have strong roots and a powerful will to survive. Graft new stock, water us well, teach new skills, and brainstorm new ways of thinking, but never lose the sense of what’s come before. Learn from the good and the bad. Acknowledge the mistakes of the past. Appreciate the work of those who came before, but consider new perspectives.

I took all that to heart. My imagination spun its magic. In my new novel-in-progress, Birg Sponski, son of a Polish immigrant, buys a trailer park to start an empire and discovers his ragtag tenants are not only trouble, but offer a wealth of talents. And so grows a community with, perhaps, a more lasting value than any empire.

Close your eyes and embrace your imagination. Travel beyond your front porch. Feel the power of Becket saying to his best friend and king, there’s a better way than pummeling a man into submission. Listen, Becket said, I have a different idea. Listen. And try to imagine that better world.”

Beyond the Wall by Gail Wilson Kenna

Gail Wilson Kenna’s chapter entitled Duel in Sun and Shadow falls in the middle of her latest book, but it describes most precisely her 1990’s saga of searching for justice in an unjust prison system in Venezuela. In her four years there as a diplomat’s wife, Kenna took up the cause of imprisoned Americans who languished in Venezuelan prisons in inhuman conditions because their embassy’s policy was no aid for drug-related offenders, no matter the facts or the legitimacy of their arrests or convictions. With thirty years of teaching experience, she recognized the systematic bullying of the quieter, slower students. Claiming ‘moral innocence’ with certain American prisoners who had been roped into their drug ‘middling’ gave her cause the momentum to persevere through seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Kenna’s memoir of her duels inside and outside Venezuelan prisons tracks her tense and dangerous mission to wrest justice where none existed.

Kenna’s list of ‘The Dirty Dozen’ and her efforts to free them are set out in careful details from files she kept at the time, newspaper articles, letters of reference, legal documents, complete with official reprimands against acting as anyone’s intermediary. A seasoned, well-traveled wife of the military attaché, she brought magazines and catalogs to the prisoners, listened to their stories, and witnessed the dehumanizing prison conditions. First hand details of widespread bribery, and last minute orchestrations of airport departures to avoid subsequent arrests, are the stuff of mystery thrillers. Kenna, though, sets out the tale in such a personal way, linking her life to the strangers she felt compelled to help transition back to the real world. Her succinct explanations of complicated meetings and timelines ease the reader’s anxiety over the dangers she undertook for fellow humans. In the end, Kenna’s own definition of freedom and what it means to be human becomes a kind of mantra that inspires. The definition of ‘good Samaritan’ is broader and more heroic because of Kenna’s courage in taking a stand. While her intent in recording her journey is something far less heroic, to illuminate the wrongs done to those with less, this memoir serves as a reminder we are inextricably linked as humans and ‘to serve the lesser of these’ is a duty inherent in that humanity.   

More at Kenna’s website: http://www.gailwilsonkenna.com

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.