instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

What We Keep

The Voices in Your Head

In the post-Christmas packing away, while looking for something else (which I still haven’t found, of course) I came upon three cassette tapes in a chest in the living room. One contains folk songs and train wreck ballads sung by husband and sent to me as many years ago as a cassette tape implies, while we were courting from opposite sides of the country. He knows I am a sucker for hearing him sing (I have always, alas, been easily seduced by boys who sing, although not lately and not since him). The other side has a selection of love poems.

The second tape is poetry from me, to him. No songs, as I cannot carry a tune in a bucket, possibly why I am so susceptible to those who can.

The third is an interview with my mother, conducted by me before her death, sometime in the late nineties, about family history. It isn’t just the history and family tales I value that tape for, although the description of how to kite a check, an emergency banking technique impossible now due to instant communication, was worth the time in itself. It’s the voices. There is a carnal, earthly sense to the human voice that you can’t get from a sheet of paper. When it tells you a story or sings you a song, it is there, in your head, not outside you on the page.

My ex-husband’s widow kept his voice on their answering machine for years after he died. It may be there still and I know, oh I know, why she did it. They come back to us in those old recordings. If you close your eyes, they are here, next to you. The human voice says things that print cannot. We keep them, transferring them to each new technology lest they slip away. Each time they have something new to say to us. I have mined my mother’s stories for endless fictional details but the stories are always better when she tells them.

Sit your relatives down while you have them, and find out the family secrets. The older they get and the older you get, the more likely they are to spill the beans. Give them a glass of wine and sit at their feet. Turn the microphone on. Read More 
1 Comments
Post a comment

Turning the Sun Around

Among the pleasures of the holidays, we found candy and poems on our doors in the Hollins English department, just before the students left, offerings from someone unknown who nevertheless knows that a poem and a chocolate bar are just what you need to grade those last three exams.

We are making every effort to turn the sun around, lighting up trees and houses, but as soon as the lights come down I will start dreaming of spring, and especially of summer, when the grad students come back. Summer’s pleasures are many and sometimes surprising. Last summer the video for the annual student conference featured a cameo by Neil Gaiman, which an enterprising crew of grad students talked him into by lurking at the end of the book signing line at the Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. That conference rolls around again in March and we are already packing our bags for this year’s event as there are always a score or so of Hollins students and faculty in attendance.

Come summer we will have our writer in residence, the wonderful National Book Award-winning Han Nolan (and in 2015 Terri Windling!) who will read student manuscripts and give individual sage advice. Accompanied by our scholar in residence, the learned but compassionate Lisa Rowe Fraustino, who will read students’ scholarly work and give advice on turning that term paper into a conference submission or that conference paper into a journal submission. And for the artists and art-lovers, Judy Schachner, creator of Skippyjon Jones, will lecture and give a workshop.

Outside of academics, we look forward to the wild things: families of rabbits romping on Front Quad and the ducks who sometimes nest outside the faculty lounge in Turner. The great blue heron who fishes in the creek. And if you hang about on the bridge between campus and the student apartments you might see Ratty in the water. So far we haven’t spotted a boat or a picnic basket, but we are sure they are there. Read More 
3 Comments
Post a comment

Stealing from Margaret Wise Brown

Sometimes I feel guilty because I never post anything useful on this blog, while others are sharing recipes that will make you love brussels sprouts (they never do, alas), new uses for odd items, and occasionally unnerving crafts. So today I have one. I made these books for my children when they were young, blatantly ripping off Goodnight Moon (Margaret Wise Brown went to Hollins, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind) for a goodnight book based on their own rooms. Actually, she probably would mind, but this is legit if you just make it for your kid and don’t try to publish it. (Trust me, don’t do that.)

All it takes is a blank book, some photos of kid and room, and a practical grasp of rhythm and rhyme. Hand lettered text alternates with pictures.

Here’s a sample of the one I made for my son. The complete book runs down the right hand column. Read More 
1 Comments
Post a comment

Thanksgiving meditation

Yearly we are told to list what we are thankful for. Some years it’s easier than others. But I find that I am thankful at this season for odd things. That we are not promised a world without sorrow, for one. There are empty spots in the line-up of the beloved, and it makes it easier when Sorrow builds her nest, to remember that no one ever said you were immune and exempt.
Thankful for the power of story, the gift given to artists – to take sorrow and make art.
Thankful for the twinge in the right knee because, not to sound too much like Pollyanna, that means the damn thing’s still there.
Thankful for the freight train snore of the dog at the foot of the bed; in Edith Wharton’s words, “little heartbeat at my feet.” Thankful that someone has finally clipped his toenails.
... for people who used to drive me crazy who I can now make use of in fiction.
...for the grouchy old coot ahead of me in Kroger who insulted the checkers, and made me look like a saint.
...for ice storms that keep us from going places that we didn’t want to go.
...and that so far the cat hasn’t climbed the Christmas tree.
Not a bad list.  Read More 
2 Comments
Post a comment

Other people's business

I am inordinately set up about having (after several tries) got a piece in the Readers Write column of The Sun magazine. Every month they publish a list of topics and upcoming deadlines for submitting a short personal essay on each subject. Mine was “Cars,” a paean to my long-ago 1961 red convertible bug, in which I learned how to navigate the L.A. freeways and did many things my mother didn’t know about. My father bought it for me in the course of an evening’s poker game.

Readers Write is always the first thing I read when the new issue arrives. They are mini-novels, tiny memoirs of a moment or a person or, often, a trauma of some kind. But almost as often of a moment of joy, or understanding, on topics like Privacy, Trying Again, The Refrigerator, or Fire. Some are signed. Others are “Name Withheld.” Writers are instinctively interested in other people’s business, so small wonder it’s my favorite.

Years ago we spent the night at a favorite inn, Deetjen’s in Big Sur, where there are no telephones in the rooms, no television, just a fireplace and a journal for guests to write something in. I sat up most of the night reading the one in our room. There is something about anonymity, about knowing that the next guest is someone you will never set eyes on, that frees the tongue, or the pen. The one that I remember best was the entry by a woman who had come to the inn to break up with her lover, written as he slept beside her. I’ve always wondered what happened to them, written their story in varying ways in my head. Maybe she is someone I have read in The Sun.
 Read More 
4 Comments
Post a comment

We Twee

Hollins campus buzzards observing the death of the English language
For some reason I am driven absolutely batty by the fashion for shortening words cutely: nutrish, delish, merch...

I don’t know why this irritates me so much, but it absolutely does. It’s just so adorable and twee you half expect it to blow you kisses. Gack. I am sure there are other examples but these three are the ones I see everywhere, as if every copywriter in the country has suddenly had the same attack of Traumatic Cuteness Overload, rendering them tragically incapable of writing a dignified sentence.

Waste not, want not, however, so there is apparently also a corresponding urge to add the missing bits to something else: bootylicious, pinkalicious, and others no doubt even more revolting. When my doctor starts discussing my condish with me, I am taking whatever condition my condition is in to someone else. Read More 
4 Comments
Post a comment

Rocks

We have been stealing rocks. Since we live in an old riverbed, this is not hard. The alleys abound with them, and every time it rains, enough to build a chimney with wash onto the road that goes through the park. I feel a bit furtive with my sack of rocks, stealthily putting promising ones in as we walk the dogs. But a load of the things costs a mint, and I need flower bed borders, so we embark on a life of crime.

It’s very satisfactory setting the day’s haul in a line next to yesterday’s, slowly encircling the columbine and the hydrangeas, like coming to the end of a story and knowing you’ll have the ending in your pocket tomorrow.

Rocks can’t be rushed, any more than stories can. They takes eons to form (so alas do my stories) and they are particular who they will sit next to. They are heavy and you can’t swipe too many at a time in the same way that it is inadvisable to steal too much of your neighbor’s personal life for your fiction. A small bit here and there, then a chunk or two from a different person is safest.
 Read More 
3 Comments
Post a comment

A bug in the works

With the first frost last Thursday night, the spiders are gone. I can’t say it distresses me when cutting back the browning stalks of the black-eyed-Susan, not to come face to face with one of the big black and yellow orb weavers that put out their nets for lunch just at a kneeling gardener’s eye level. But I miss their busyness in the autumn Spider Moon when they are doing their part in the insect ecosystem, the Great Chain of Bugness, even if I scope out the coneflowers and the daylily stalks before I wade in there. One took up housekeeping in the lotus this year, stringing her web between the stalks. I fear that that’s the mister behind her in the web, victim of a fatal romance.
I still see the bumblebees but they are fewer and fewer. The agastache that they love to bumble in has died back. When the Mexican sage has gone, they will too.
The milkweed bugs have left too, to wherever they go. I don’t know where they come from either, they just show up in late summer, a crust of tiny yellow dots on the milkweed and butterfly weed, progressing to orange and black nymphs and then handsome winged fellows.
Earlier in the year there was a praying mantis on the lotus. She swiveled her head at me, clearly wondering if I was edible. Too big, she decided, and moved on.
A few crickets are holding on in the basement but the garden feels empty, so many bug lives wound up. Sometimes after a frost I find small crisp bodies. I have to remind myself that a winter garden isn’t dead. Somewhere there are eggs, next year’s bugs in waiting.
 Read More 
1 Comments
Post a comment

Dia de Los Muertos

Since we are transplanted Southern Californians, we miss the Day of the Dead and so we have an annual party to import our favorite holiday. For some reason I always manage to write a lot during the mad preparations for it. I have found that nobody has as many stories as the dead do.

In Mexico and much of the Southwest November 1 and 2 are celebrated as El Dia de Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. They coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day of the Christian calendar, but the tradition is older, with its origins among the Aztecs. On those turning-of-the-year days, when the borders between the worlds are thin, those who have gone through the door to the next world may come back to visit. The children, los angelitos, arrive first, on November 1, followed by the adults. Graveyards are spruced up and houses are decorated with skeleton figures and sugar skulls to remind us that death is just another world. Families make altars where they place the things that the departed loved. Candy for los angelitos, cigars and whiskey for the old men. I find myself shopping for them in October the way I shop for the living in December.

I like to think they appreciate it. Certainly they tell me stories. “Remember the gardener who was so good with roses,” they whisper in my ear. “Remember when he shot his wife’s back-door man and all the rose growers in town put the arm on the judge?” And I do. I remember as if I was there. “Remember Cousin Willetta?” they murmur, and I recall the family lottery of who-would-drive-Willetta, because Willetta didn’t drive, and listen to her complain for hours that no one could fit a shoe properly these days because she bought fives when she needed sixes. She was a sod widow and her sister was a grass widow and they lived together with six cats and made dreadful jam. My husband’s grandfather is there too, handsome and feckless, who sang for eight hours on a bet and never repeated a song. His wife stumps along behind him, a woman not to be trifled with, so tough that when he died, everyone called her Pa. They all come to visit, the newly lost a comfort to think of again, the distant ones just a nod through the wavy glass of the front window, their hands full of history.

 Read More 
3 Comments
Post a comment

Down South

A fine weekend in Birmingham with the Southern Breeze SCBWI for their Writing and Illustrating for Kids conference.

My mother was from Birmingham and my childhood summers were spent there with my mom, grandparents, and a large cast of aunts, uncles, and cousins, acquiring a Southern accent and a loathing for grits. My grandmother’s front lawn had tree wells, rock-lined columns surrounding the tall pines that had been there when the house was built and the ground leveled. We regularly lost badminton birds down them and had to crawl gingerly down after them, batting spiders from our hair. We slept in one of the two spare bedrooms (my mother and my aunt in the other) in an assortment of cots, a double bed, and a youth bed that still had rails on it, arguing about who got to sleep next to the fan (no air conditioning) and listening to the squirrels bowl acorns up and down the attic floor above us. One summer we packed up the Arkansas cousins and the Mobile cousins and went to Panama City for a week, probably just to get us all out of my grandmother’s hair. My cousin Lucy, the eldest of the lot, was given the job of letting us get in her hair instead. As a teenager I drove my grandmother in her ancient black and aqua Plymouth from her house to the grocery store in English Village every day and was rewarded with limeade from the drugstore.

I wish I had had the time to drive by and see that house again. I only spent one month a year there, but I remember it as well as the house I grew up in.

This trip to Birmingham, I gave a workshop on “Is an MFA for You?” and obviously hope it is. Four of our Hollins Children’s Literature graduates were conference participants, including the SCBWI regional advisor, the redoubtable Claudia Pearson, who not only did a lot of the conference organizing (and introduced me to shopgoodwill.com, to my husband’s dismay) but hosted the faculty and volunteers at her house for dinner afterward, and sent me on the road with coffee in the morning.

If you want to write for children or teens, there is no more supportive organization of writers. You’ll find them at scbwi.org and be very glad you did. And for anyone contemplating an MFA in writing for children, the text of my talk is here:
 Read More 
4 Comments
Post a comment