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What We Keep

The Story Mine

People ask writers where stories come from, and all I can ever say is that they just are. We are stories already, even if some are inadvisable to tell.

I treasure what I remember of my parents’ storytelling. They were both writers and had been married for seventeen years before they had me, and as a child I always thought of that time as a sort of exotic landscape, peopled with characters who were now dead or mad or lost in some other way.

The Depression era house in Flushing, New York that they shared with multiple relatives and in-laws, all writers, had an interdimensional feel to me when I thought of it. Two enormous box turtles roamed the halls, the residents stocked up on groceries and whiskey when someone sold a story, and the cook carried on conversations with the cats until said whiskey was locked up. My uncle drove my aunt, the only one with an actual job, to the train station every day in a horse and buggy. When a lady in a chauffeured car pulled up and asked him, “My good man, who do you drive for?” he tipped his hat, gave his own name, and added, “the noted author.”

There were always dogs, including the ones who independently charged an ice cream cone at the drugstore the day they weren’t taken for their usual walk and cone, and the one who bit a Senate candidate. Later in California, there was a house in Topanga Canyon with a tree growing through the living room, and a goat that was serially sold to each new resident, a kind of initiation. They weren’t inclined to censor their storytelling for youthful ears, so I heard about night my [relative redacted] showed up on their doorstep with a lamp and said, “[wife redacted] threw this at me but I caught it.” I heard about the wicked multiple-great uncle who murdered his brother-in-law, and about the attic where my father made bootleg beer with a bad-influence friend while his own father, a circuit court judge, was out of town.

Why does their life always sound more interesting than mine? There is a sense of not having lived up to a sufficient number of mad friends and improbable road trips. And yet it takes a span of years for dangerous and not-thought-through to transmute into interesting. Maybe the interesting stories can safely be told only when the participants have left.
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The bedridden heroine

Being bedridden in Victorian fiction always sounds so lovely – sitting piled against lovely pillows in a lovely lacy bedjacket while people bring you cups of tea and soft boiled eggs and sit at your feet for advice on how they should conduct their lives. I could get into that. It is definitely not the same as being in bed because you are too sick to get up and stagger around. The Victorian heroine has a small fluffy dog with a pink ribbon to keep her company. I have three pugs who all snore and hog the pillows. The cats arrive too, in the hope that you have a fever and are warmer than usual.

The bedridden heroine is a variant of the woman known as “the angel in the house” who was just too good to be true, and whose little dog didn’t snore. She has her origins in a mid-nineteenth century poem by Coventry Patmore about the ideal woman whose only wish is to please her husband. As Virginia Woolf later said of her, she “was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it...”

Children’s Literature scholars know her as Katy in What Katy Did, or Pollyanna who when her legs are paralyzed is cheerful that they are at least still there. And then there’s Beth in Little Women. We all wept over Beth and promised to grow up to be just as good and kind as she was, if at all possible, which it wasn’t.

An incentive to get up and out of bed. If I turned into her my husband would assume that goblins had taken me and left a changeling.
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Present tense irregular

I have always thought that a mad aunt locked in the attic gave a household that certain je ne sais quoi that lent a literary feel to the whole establishment. Now we have the next best thing, a mad grandfather clock. It’s really more a great-grandfather clock, that being who it belonged to, and apparently it has lost its ability to count, perhaps the first sign on the road to clock dementia.

Keeping it running has always required regular house calls from the Clock Man, a mad genius whose idea of fun in his off hours is reassembling clockworks. Occasionally it gets grumpy and stops chiming, and he came out so many times to fix it that he taught my husband how to reset the chimes. Apparently it doesn’t like being fooled with by amateurs. It has started chiming again but in an odd pattern. Mostly, it chimes one, two and three quite adequately, then starts with one again at four o’clock, two at five, and so on until it gets to nine, at which point it chimes seven, then gets on the spot with ten at ten and good for eleven and twelve.

It requires interesting math to keep time by it. It’s striking four so it must be seven. Time to get up. Unless it really is four. Is it dark outside? No. It must be seven. You can’t quite trust it. It may really be four or it may just be sulking.

We had high hopes that it was actually self-correcting for a while when it started chiming eight at nine, but last night the hour hand began dangling at six no matter what time it actually is, and this morning the minute hand fell off and is wedged somewhere in the bottom of the case.

We have called the clock psychologist.
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A fall meditation for the classroom

My first fall class meets tonight. It’s not a writing class but I keep thinking anyway about a poem I read last month in The Sun, by Ellery Akers. In it she mentions the professor who wrote “crap” on her first poem for his class. Disconsolate, she decided that it must be crap. Obviously she didn’t take it entirely to heart since she has published regularly. But I’d like to find that professor and ask him how many other writers he imagines he did destroy. The ones not as thick of skin, not as resilient. The ones who decided that their work was crap. And who does he think he is, I would like to inquire in my imagined conversation, to decide what is crap anyway? Most of us aren’t very good at the beginning. Most of us regularly aren’t very good now, and only with considerable biting and chipping and tearing of hair and revision after revision do we approach good. Sometimes we approach and it takes off into the bushes.

The idea that writers need to toughen up in order to survive rejection is true if you don’t want to spend all your time as a puddle. But it is not the job of your teachers to do it for you by browbeating you. Being able to withstand bullying does not make you a better writer, as I once heard a well-known writer insist that it did – he was going to cull the sheep from the goats among his students by sheer meanness in the guise of critique. Sheep who fled baa’ing weren’t meant to be writers after all and didn’t deserve to be. I imagine the goats who stuck it out might have become pretty good writers, or at least thick-skinned ones, but I hate to think what their marriages are like if they took his approach to heart.

Personally, I’ve found that kindness and useful suggestions go a lot farther. You owe them truth, of course, but the package it comes in matters a lot.
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Next summer at Hollins

Already in planning mode for next summer at Hollins! The wonderful Han Nolan will be returning as Writer in Residence.

Han is the winner of the National Book Award for her young adult novel Dancing on the Edge, and author of other acclaimed novels for young adults, including Send Me Down a Miracle (a National Book Award nominee), If I Should Die Before I Wake, A Face in Every Window, Born Blue, When We Were Saints, A Summer of Kings, Crazy, and Pregnant Pause. She’ll meet individually with students to read their manuscripts and give feedback and critique.

We will also have a Scholar in Residence again this year. The equally wonderful Lisa Rowe Fraustino, wearing her scholarly persona (as opposed to her novelist alter ego) will meet with students, read their scholarly papers and give advice on turning those into polished conference or journal submissions.

Lisa is associate professor of English at Eastern Connecticut State University and has a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Her newest book, the middle-grade novel The Hole in the Wall, won the 2010 Milkweed Prize for Children’s Literature. She is a past president of the Children’s Literature Association, and is also the author of I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials; The Hickory Chair; and Ash. As Lisa Meunier she is the author of the poetry chapbook Hitching to Istanbul.
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Guest post on Elizabreth Dulemba's blog

I have a guest post on artist and writer (And Hollins summer faculty member) Elizabeth Dulemba’s wonderful blog.
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MFA?

I’m pondering my words of wisdom for October’s Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators conference, “Writing and Illustrating for Kids,” sponsored by the Southern Breeze SCBWI folks in Birmingham, October 11-12. Topic: Is an MFA Program for You?

Well, obviously I think it is, mostly, since I direct one at Hollins University, so it’s really a matter of articulating why. Community is the first thing I think of – a readymade gang of writers and artists who know that children’s books are literature and book illustration is art. No one at Hollins is ever going to ask you, “So, when are you going to write a real book? When are you going to make real art?” If you write or illustrate children’s books, a children’s book MFA program is where your craft will be taken seriously. A lot of the faculty will feel the same way incidentally. Outside of the children’s lit MFA they may not get to teach children’s literature, or teach it much, or teach it to students who are actually interested in it.

Then there’s the motivation factor. Do you want to make stories and art? Then get going -- hit that keyboard, lock yourself in the studio. You will have supportive faculty to push you to do that, and to teach you how to polish your craft.

You’ll learn to really think about writing. I can’t say it better than this blog by Sarah, one of our soon-to-graduate students.

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Books as decoration

Everyone has their guilty pleasure. Well, if you don’t, you should have. Mine is interior decorating magazines, particularly of the “what you can make with that thing you found at the flea market” variety. It’s cheaper than shoes and it keeps me off the streets, although my husband runs the risk of another fine idea about converting the kitchen window seat to a storage cupboard. Lately though, being a bookish type person, I feel the need to express Deep Disapproval over the idea of using books as decoration. Choosing and shelving them by their jacket color, for instance. Or shelving them with the spines facing in so “the marvelous texture of the pages can show.” Shelving books spine inward or by color makes a statement that is probably not the statement the designer is aiming for. This statement says, “You are an idiot who does not read books. Otherwise you would shelve them so you could find what you are looking for.”

I’m not against using books that are not particularly rare or valuable to make art with. My toaster lizard (see photo) sits on two Reader’s Digest volumes and a book by Dan Quayle. But my other gripe with books as decoration, as long as I am on my soapbox, is taking apart old children’s books that are in perfectly good shape. As someone who makes her living with children’s books, the fact that someone would rather decorate a lampshade with pages from Alice in Wonderland than read it makes me suspect that person was deprived of suitable reading in her own youth and this is the tragic result. Her children will grow up obsessed with sticking clichés on their walls with craft shop lettering instead of what they ought to be obsessed with, which is when is the next book in Ian MacDonald’s Planesrunner series coming out?

Stacking tchochkes on books to make “tablescapes” falls in the same general category. Yes, you can get at the book if you actually want to read it, but you can’t get at your bedside table because it is artfully draped with a scrap of old lace, two spineless molting books with marvelous texture, the spigot from an outdoor faucet, and a rusty baking soda can from 1935.

And now I have to go read Romantic Homes, which just arrived today, so I can disapprove of something else and find that piece on pressing flowers. I have some Queen Anne’s Lace and the OED all ready. Read More 
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The Vernacular

It’s quiet at Hollins this week, with my grad students gone and the undergraduates not yet arrived, which means that thinking can be done, and possibly writing. One, alas, does not necessarily lead to the other. When you make your living with words, one way and another, writing, teaching, editing, it becomes a lovely time-waster to ferret out what things actually mean, and why. And lord knows the South is fertile ground for that.

I’m from Southern California, but my mother was from Birmingham, and clearly there was something latent in the blood that came out when I moved to Virginia. Occasionally it’s a matter of outlook, but mostly it’s a figure of speech — lots of them, acquired from Mama, who I had always assumed to be speaking a private language of her own, until I went South.

In Virginia, however, when my husband, exasperated that I call the refrigerator an icebox, says, “An icebox has a block of ice in the top; no one has had an icebox in seventy-five years!” more faces than mine will give him a wide-eyed stare. They all call it an icebox too, because their mothers did.

Mama also used to say that it was cold as flugens, on the rare California days when it was cold. I assumed it was a made-up word of her own, until I read Eudora Welty, and there it was, in Delta Wedding. What’s more, it’s not just a Southernism, it’s a Deep South Southernism. No one in Roanoke knows what it means. Mama probably got it from her mother, who was from the Delta.

Now I know why I was the only one of my California childhood friends who called her father “Daddy” and why no one else had relatives with names like Aunt Sis or Uncle Sonny. I know what “sorry” means when used as an adjective, and what a branch is, as in bourbon and branch water. In my youth I assumed it was water with branches in it. I never asked why. I know that acting ugly has nothing to do with your looks and everything to do with your behavior (see “sorry,” above). I know what a bottle tree is, and what’s more, I know what it’s for. I know why you should always paint your porch ceiling sky blue. I know what it means to snoot someone, and why my mother thought I needed a deviled egg plate. A raft of phrases and traditions from my childhood suddenly make sense. The first time I heard someone say “bless her heart” with my mother’s intonation, I knew exactly what was meant — as in “She likes a little drink, bless her heart,” which means, “The woman is falling down drunk by two p.m. and last week she set the biscuits on fire.”

Even my grandmother’s story about the yard man who shot the town bootlegger makes sense. This yard man had a way with roses, and four hours after he was arrested, he was out on bail. The judge’s mother, my grandmother assured me, and every other woman in town with a rose garden had called their husbands and made sure the fix was in. No one minded about the bootlegger (well, the men did) but the spring rose show was in two weeks and that was another matter. That is not how they do things in California.

When we teach fiction writing, we teach world building, but really all you have to do is look around, and eavesdrop.
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Life imitates art, so watch out

No one can gauge the power of a story while they’re writing it. My mother once published a serial in the Saturday Evening Post that made her little sister notorious because everyone knew where she’d gotten her material. I believe it took monetary considerations and something to do with a set of rhinestone earrings to smooth that over.

My least financially successful novel has had the greatest effect on my life. I write this in a household that arrived straight from the pages of that book.

It was (and is, reissued through the Author’s Guild’s backinprint.com program) called Pomegranate Seed, and it was published by a small press which promptly went out of business. But I had set it in my home town, thinly disguised, and written into it the character of an old boyfriend, also thinly disguised. I gave my main character, Liza Jane, a herd of pugs, and wrote an earthquake into the plot. The boyfriend reappeared before the book was finished (we have been married over twenty years now), as did the earthquake (I felt bad about that). It took longer for the first pug to arrive, but the numbers shortly got out of hand, as these things do, and now there are four, snorting at me to indicate that it is dinner time. Liza Jane had five, and we wonder if we ought to set some sort of spell on the door to ward off another one.

Having just finished another summer of teaching writing at Hollins University to a fine bunch of young adult novelists, I wonder how to warn them, or whether I should. Life will find you anyway, I expect. If you write about it first you are probably just pulling some mysterious thread of knowledge out of the weave of the universe. So go ahead, tug on it. You don’t know what’s on the other end.
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