CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS!

August 29, 2014 in Writing For Fun!

Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing sponsors an online literary journal called Mason’s Road, which combines literary excellence with education, as each issue is focused on both a theme and a specific element of the writing craft. Each issue features literature in the form of fiction, creative nonfiction, drama, and poetry, as well as Q&A’s with established authors in these fields. The hope is that not only will you be inspired by the stories, dramas, and poems in the journal, but you will learn something that you can take back to your own writing life as well.

Mason’s Road is currently accepting submissions for its tenth issue with the theme of Memory. The submission guidelines can be found here. So send in your most riveting fiction, your most poignant creative nonfiction, your most compelling drama, or your most moving poetry and because I’m in the MFA program, I might have a chance to read yours!

My official title is “Fiction Reader” and my job is to read the stories I am assigned and decide if they warrant a look by the Fiction Editors. This is much harder than I thought it would be. Some days I think I’m a big softie: “These are all great stories! They should all be seen by the editors!” Other days I think I’m being too critical: “Is it too much to ask for someone to proofread their submission?” Sometimes I ponder a story for a day and a half before I make a decision. But every day I read with hope and excitement: “Maybe this will be the story that rocks my world!”

Being on this end of the submission process has taught me a lot. For those of you writers out there, here are some tips that might make your story stand out above the crowd:

  • Proofread your submission.

I am a bit of a snob about correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation. When I see such an error, a lot of thoughts run through my head, but the problem is that not one of those thoughts is about your story. The error pulls me right out of the world you have created, and that is not good. Proofread, proofread, and proofread again. (My best proofreading tip: read your story out loud. You will be amazed at what you catch.)

  • For short stories, limit the number of characters.

There is not enough time to fully develop multiple characters in a short story. The more there are, the more confused I get. If you have a sentence that goes like this: “Eddie, Nancy’s oldest son by her first husband George who had an affair with Nancy’s sister Emily, resulting in the birth of Eddie’s cousin/step-brother Harold, was mowing the lawn,” it is time to go back and simplify your story. (My best keeping-the-characters-straight tip: have your characters’ names start with different letters. A family with three sisters named Emily, Ellen, and Elena is going to be harder to keep track of than Emily, Kelly, and Sue.)

  • Start your story with a bang.

A lot of writers (including me: that is about to change), like to start off with back story, such as a description of the character, the setting, or something else to help ground the reader in what’s about to happen. But the thing that is about to happen is so much more interesting! So use that first sentence to grab your reader by the collar and pull them in. The details can be sprinkled in along the way.

  • End your story with a twist.

Twilight Zone was a master at this. Those old black and white Twilight Zone episodes were short stories in television format, and they all had a twist. Some were sinister and some were heartbreaking, but they all ended in a surprising way. I still remember that episode with the man who only wanted to read. A nuclear war struck, and he was the only one who survived. All he had left were mountains of books and all the time in the world to read them. But then he broke his glasses…my God. The heartbreak of watching this man get so close to reaching his dream only to realize that it will never happen is still crystal clear in my mind. You want your story to do that to a reader too.

Check out  Mason’s Road and submit your best work. I can’t wait to read it!

THE ART OF PARIS

August 26, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself, Reflections on Pop Culture

Disclaimer: As this is a blog about art, nudity will be discussed. (Not my own, of course.)

As an art lover and a volunteer art teacher at my son’s elementary school, I was thrilled to visit the most famous art museum in the world: the Musée du Louvre in Paris. I wanted to be inspired and to bring back new art to my students to inspire them too.

Visiting the Louvre requires stamina, perseverance, and the ability to (gently) push your way through the masses of people gathered around some of the more famous pieces of artwork.

Behold! Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece is way, way, way over there!

The Mona Lisa is small considering the magnitude of it’s influence.

I apologize to everyone I stepped on, pushed, elbowed, or glared at on my way to the front of the line to see the Mona Lisa up close and personal.

The Louvre is huge: roughly 650,000 square feet, three wings, and three stories housing almost 35,000 pieces of art. If you think you can see everything in one day, think again. If you think you won’t get lost at least five times even with a map and an audio guide directing you, think again. Every room has two or three different exits leading into more rooms with more choices of which direction to take. It’s like a giant Choose Your Own Adventure book, and just like those adventures, I frequently found myself back in a room I had already been in several times.

There was some beautiful artwork on display. The marbled sculptures, like Venus de Milo and Michelangelo’s Slaves were stunning depictions of the beauty of the (naked) human body that I wouldn’t be able to share with my students. There were entire wings of religious paintings with some of the boldest use of color I have ever seen, and because we are a public school, I can’t show those either. Then there were the precious cherubs, some with wings flitting about in the sky and some taking a sip of milk from their mothers’ casually exposed breast, none of which I can share with my students. And then there was this painting, which had me at a loss: http://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/gabrielle-destrees-and-one-her-sisters (Warning: nude bodies ahead.)

If you want examples of a healthy body image for women, look no further than the Louvre and  Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe at the Musée d’Orsay. These women are gorgeous and feminine and strong and confidant and naked. In Manet’s painting, the woman is having lunch with two (clothed) gentlemen, while she is completely naked. Not only that, but she’s sitting with her knee pulled up to her chest, making her stomach fold over onto itself, which, by the way, is what the abdomen is designed to do. She’s not worried about the rolls on her stomach brought on by her sitting position. She’s naked and she’s eating because she is comfortable with herself and her body. That is my take home lesson from the art at the Louvre.

For my artistic sensibilities, the Musée d’Orsay was perfect. The works of Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Seurat, and my new favorite pointillism artist Paul Signac were not only breathtaking, but they were accessible to elementary school students.

Paul Signac, Woman at the Well. Opus 238.

Pointillism, especially, is a must see in any museum. To step close enough to the painting to see the individual dots or swatches of color, and then to step back and watch them coalesce into a cohesive painting is magical. I sense a pointillism art project in my future.

I would like to go back to these museums in Paris. I didn’t see nearly enough, and what I did see, I wish I could see again. Perhaps someday…

 

 

 

 

PARIS: OOH LA LA!

August 22, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

Being in Paris is like being in a completely different atmosphere. It’s cultured. The finer things in life are celebrated here: architecturally, artistically, gastronomically, and of course, romantically.

A simple walk down a narrow Parisian street will enchant you with the intricate wrought-iron designs lining every balcony and the stunning statues adorning every cathedral. You will pass by charming bistros with chairs and tables set up outside for a delicious breakfast of croissants and jam or a relaxing dinner with French wine and an artisan cheese platter with bread. Couples of all ages, sizes, and shapes will walk alongside you, their arms wrapped around each other as they stop periodically to kiss for no other reason than they are in love. In Paris, no one thinks twice about standing in line for an hour before gaining admission to an art museum. I could get used to Paris.

There is a lot to see and do in Paris, but one of my favorites was a wine tasting class at the OChateau Wine Tasting and Wine Bar. We gathered at an insanely long table in the basement of OChateau. Baskets of bread and multiple wine glasses were lined up at our places and my cheese platter was on the way. Our host and sommelier Olivier Magny was utterly charming with his French accent, his vast knowledge of French wines, and his accessibility. Wine appreciation can be snobby, but Olivier was down to earth. As he says in his book,  “Jargon always masks ignorance.” He approached our class that way, helping us to make sense of wine-making and wine-labeling, and learning that a wine making region may be a more instructive way to select a wine that simply naming a type of wine, like a cabernet. Plus, he was funny! He taught me to love champagne (Champagne Premier Cru Monmarthe Secret de Famille: best champagne ever), and he autographed his book for me, with the words “Happy Drinking!” What is not to love about that?

One of the most stunningly beautiful buildings I have ever visited was the Palais Garnier, Paris’s Opera House, also the home to the Phantom of the Opera’s Box #5. Charles Garnier, the architect, spared no expense, and his building is a masterpiece.

From the grand staircase (that’s all marble, people)…

…to the Marc Chagall painting on the ceiling…

…to the sheer opulence and beauty of the Grand Foyer…

Palais Garnier is breathtaking everywhere you look.

Notre Dame is a lovely cathedral, and home of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

I stood in one of the slowest lines in Paris, beat only by the line for going to the top of the Eiffel Tower, to climb all 400 steps to the top before going inside to look at the splendor of this magnificent cathedral. They happened to be holding a service while I was there. Can you imagine living in Paris and going to Notre Dame for your church services? Like I said, Paris has a completely different atmosphere.

Stay tuned for The Art of Paris!

 

 

LONDON THEATER

August 18, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself, Reflections on Pop Culture

Honestly, I don’t know why I don’t go to the theater more often. I love everything about it: the spectacle, the drama, the humor, the music, the amazing effects that can be achieved through sliding doors in the floor and secret panels in the walls, and the majesty of a show being so well done that the audience members leap to their feet in a standing ovation at the end.

Except for my high tea and the large bag of M&Ms from London’s M&M World, I only ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I made in my hotel room, so I was able to splurge on three shows: all dramatic plays based on books or plays.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Gielgud Theater, West End

Based on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name (which I had read previously)

If you haven’t read this novel about a 15-year-old named Christopher with symptoms placing him on the autism spectrum, you should. It is an amazing experience getting inside the head of a person with autism. Not only is Christopher a mathematical genius, but the way he looks at the world, as if the rest of us are the ones with the problem, makes a lot of sense. We speak in riddles, saying things that mask what we are thinking and using confusing metaphors that literal-thinking Christopher cannot understand.

There was a lot to like in the stage production, but the real star was the set. Simple, muted squares and cubes, probably much like Christopher sees the world, dominated the set, but the way they were used to create a street lined with houses, a school, a home, a subway, and his room were so creative. Every time Christopher found himself speaking with his teacher Siobhan, he’d build a train set, complete with train tracks and accessories like trees and buildings for the tracks to pass by. Just before intermission, the lights dimmed and the buildings glowed as the lighted train finally began its journey. It was stunning, especially when we realized he wasn’t just laying down train tracks on the floor: he was building a functioning railroad.

At the end of the play, we were treated to a Q&A with the actors. I moved out of my nosebleed seat and into one of the front rows to listen as the actors discussed their roles, their performance choices, and how Graham Butler, who played Christopher, prepared to portray a person with autism so authentically. It was a great way to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes.

The Crucible

The Old Vic Theater

Based on Arthur Miller’s play of the same name (which I read immediately afterwards) 

The Old Vic is Kevin Spacey’s theater, and this production of The Crucible’s theater-in-the-round stars the brilliant Richard Armitage, who you may know better as Thorin Oakenshield from The Hobbit.

This play was long—3 ½ hours—and it was intense. The tone was set instantly with a smoky, incense-smelling mist taking over the stage and Tituba, one of the characters, creating percussion with the rhythm of her bare feet on the wooden floor. It was eerie and mystical and compelling, just like the rest of the play.

The Crucible is based on the Salem witch trials, where young girls in the village, perhaps out of revenge, perhaps out of frustration at the stifling restraints their religion placed on them, convinced the leaders that certain members of their community were in contact with the devil. Unfortunately, there is no way to prove or disprove this claim, and somehow the girls’ accusations were believed over those of the adult innocent, probably because the girls seemed to go into cold trances, have fits, or occasionally fly through the air. One of the most affecting scenes in the play, and there were many, was the one where the group of girls displayed a sort of mass hysteria supposedly puppeted by the devil.

The punishment for being a witch was hanging, unless the witch confessed to being with the devil, in which case he or she was allowed to live. This all leads to a dilemma for Armitage’s John Proctor. He has lied before and betrayed his wife, but he would like to be an honest man, a good man. So when he is accused of witchcraft, should he lie to save his life, or go to his grave telling the truth?

This was a fantastic production with strong acting all around, particularly Armitage and Samantha Colley’s Abigail. It also left an impression. I read the play before I left London, and I’m not going to lie: this kept me up at night. It was disturbing in all the right ways.

Let the Right One In

Apollo Theater, West End

Based on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel of the same name (which I will read soon)

Ultimately a tale about bullying, this Swedish novel is put on by a troupe of Scottish actors. Young Oskar, played by Martin Quinn, who nailed this role, is essentially friendless. His father has left, his mother has trouble with boundaries and alcohol, and at school he has captured the attention of a group of bullies because of his lack of skill in the athletic arena. In addition, there is a killer on the loose in the woods. Naturally, as a young boy, Oskar heads directly out into the woods and there he meets a friend.

But this friend is strange. Eli smells like his dead dog, for one thing. She talks oddly, with “old people” phrases and a grating timber that took awhile for me to get used to. She lives next door and is frequently overheard arguing with her father. But when it comes to dealing with bullies, there is no one better equipped than Eli. As we discover is a rather graphic way, Eli is a vampire. She never ages, and her “father” is actually her husband from years past. Eli develops feelings for Oskar, and vice versa, and Hakan is not pleased.

There is a lot of humor, which is good because there is also a lot of gore; vampires do like their blood. I loved every second of this play, even the ones that had me leaping out of my seat in shock. Scary? Yes. Bloody? Yes. Endearing? Surprisingly yes!

You don’t need to fly all the way to London to see this one: it’s also a movie. I recommend watching it in the bright light of day, though. Between The Crucible and this, I had several sleepless nights in London.

 

 

AMAZING RACE MEETS ABBEY ROAD

August 15, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting

 For my last day in London, since I had already hit the big tourist spots, I had lined up a medley of random London experiences I wanted to try. Of course Notting Hill was on the list, as was a proper English tea. I had tickets for a show at 7:45pm, an obscure Scottish production called Let the Right One In at the Apollo that promised thrills, and if everything worked out right, I could attend a Beatles Magical Mystery Walking Tour at 11:00am, which included a visit to the world famous Abbey Road in honor of my dear friend and Beatles fanatic, Frankie.

I got off to a later start than I had planned and then calamity struck. I, formerly the Queen of the Tube (read about that here ), got completely turned around on the Circle line, the one that was supposed to take me to Notting Hill. You would think if it was going in a circle, I could do no wrong, but as it turned out, the Circle line is not truly a circle. It zigs and zags and backtracks, making me think I was going the wrong way, when in reality I was doing just fine. I hopped on and off the Circle line a bunch of times to change directions before I finally realized what was happening. When I arrived at Notting Hill, the helpful directions on the website said “Follow the Crowd!” Except it was a Thursday, and the market is in full swing on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. It was just me. Alone. With no crowd to follow. Needless to say, I wandered around Notting Hill for quite some time before I found my way and missed the Beatles Magical Mystery Walking Tour. But no matter…I could still get to Abbey Road, right?

After my proper English tea at Fortnum and Mason (thanks Sam!) and a side trip to M&M World London (my guilty pleasure), I found myself walking around Leicester Square at 5:00pm. The play didn’t start until 7:45pm, so I had roughly 2 ½ hours to fill. Using my trusty iPhone, I discovered the trip to Abbey Road by tube was only 30 minutes: I could fit it in!

The journey was hard. It was rush hour, and I was squished in with about 20 people in one small corner of the tube. It was about 1000 degrees and I, and everyone else, was dripping sweat. The intimacy I shared with this group of strangers made me think those dating services are missing out on a prime dating technique: cram a bunch of people into a small space, turn up the heat, and see what matches transpire.

At one point I had to leave the subway and transfer to a real train, which was confusing, but I did get a free bottle of water out of it (not sure why). Then my iPhone battery died, leaving me completely at the mercy of signs, which I don’t really trust, and with no way to check how I was doing on time. When I finally arrived at Abbey Road Station, I left all my anxieties behind and practically skipped up the steps. I was about to stand on a pivotal site in music history! Except…

There, at the top of the stairs, was a sign that said Abbey Road is not actually located at Abbey Road Station. No, it is miles back in the direction I came from at a station called St. John’s Wood.

Seriously? What marketing genius did that?

I had no time. But I had come all this way, and who knew when I’d get back to London again. Could I possibly still make it?

I ran back down the steps, took the train back to the subway, transferred to the right line, hopped off at St. John’s Wood, and rushed out onto the street, where a man promptly blocked my path.

MAN: Do you live in London?

ME: No. Where’s Abbey Road?

MAN: I am looking for someone to sign this petition. Do you live in England?

ME: No. Seriously, where is Abbey Road?

MAN: Where do you live?

ME: The US.

MAN: Oh, so you’re foreign!

ME: WHERE’S ABBEY ROAD?

The nice man gave me directions, but here’s the thing: Abbey Road is very far away from the station. As in, I had to run it. Now, I run all the time, but I’m not usually carrying a giant camera bag, several small bags with souvenirs I had purchased, and a half empty bag of M&Ms I had indulged in and now regretted. But I had come this far: there was no way I was going to miss out on Abbey Road.

So I ran, sweating even more, and finally came across the infamous Abbey Road, where people were blissfully risking being run over by staging their own version of the Beatles’ album cover in front of oncoming traffic. I took two pictures and spent two seconds soaking up the atmosphere of this historical site before sprinting back to the subway.

I was late to my play, but not by much. At a good moment, I was ushered into the auditorium in pitch blackness. I stumbled after the usher, hoping I wouldn’t lose her, when the lights came on. There on stage, hanging upside down from a tree, was a man with his throat cut while another man was collecting his blood in a container as it drained out. Let me just say that it was a hell of a way to walk into a play.

I didn’t sleep a wink that night. The play was scary (but very good), I ate too many M&Ms, and I was all revved up and dehydrated from my pilgrimage to Abbey Road.

I later found out that I was there one day before the 45th anniversary of the date that Beatles picture was taken, and that plus the fact that my friend Frankie was delighted I was there made the entire trip worth it.

Dedicated to Frankie: I never would have gone there if it weren’t for you!

QUEEN OF THE TUBE

August 13, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

 

I have been a huge fan of the British culture for as long as I can remember. My favorite movies of all time are British, and most of them happen to star Hugh Grant (coincidence?). I have devoured Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary and the novels of Jane Austen and Sophie Kinsella. So for my first trip to London last week, I did not go as a tourist. Well, not entirely; I did spend a fair amount of time doing every touristy activity I could think of, but I did it like a true Londoner. I went everywhere on the tube.

If you’re not familiar with it, the tube is an extensive underground subway system akin to New York City’s subway, except that every station name is either utterly charming, or reminiscent of a 20-something single female London protagonist in a novel I’ve read. It is impossible to be depressed when you are riding the Jubilee or the Bakerloo line, or are about to step off the tube at Piccadilly Circus.

I stayed off the beaten path near Pimlico Station, which Edward St. Aubyn referenced in his novel Bad News, and where native Londoners live their lives out of the way of the tourists. My hotel was affiliated with a fitness center where I was fortunate enough to take a couple of classes. I learned that fitness in London is no joke. I could not lift my arms above my head for three days.

Changing of the Guard

A Buckingham Palace Coach

But who needs to lift their arms when surrounded by the sheer beauty and opulence of Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey? All I needed were two working eyes and my faithful audio guide to give me insight into the wonders I was seeing. The history and the wealth on display were almost overwhelming.

The Tower of London

My favorite site of all was the Tower of London, for it placed two dichotomous aspects of London history side by side and asked you to accept both. The Tower of London is a prison, and it’s a rather brutal one. As I walked through its rooms, I saw many intricate designs and messages carved into the walls by the prisoners, some so deep that it must have taken a long time to work on.

I walked through the torture chamber, where prisoners suspected of high treason against the king or queen were worked over, and near the grass by the chapel was a memorial where some “special” prisoners, like the young Lady Jane Grey, who reigned as queen for only 9 days, could be executed privately within the walls of the Tower of London, rather than being dragged out into the streets and having their heads chopped off in front of a crowded viewing gallery. The Tower of London was a gory place.

It was also the home of the kings and queens. They had their rooms on the top floors, above the prisoners and the torture chamber. To this day, the Yeomen of the Tower live on site, and although it is no longer a prison, I can’t imagine living adjacent to the Bloody Tower, where two young princes were mysteriously killed, possibly to end their claim on the throne. Then again, the Yeoman also live across the courtyard from where the crown jewels are housed, including the 105.6 metric carats Koh-I-Noor diamond set in Queen Elizabeth’s crown.

How do such violence and opulence co-exist? I don’t know, but England’s history is rife with examples like this, and I found it fascinating. In fact, this may be the first time in my life I have ever been interested in history, and I brought home two thick books on the history of the Tower and Anne Boleyn to prove it.

Stay tuned for my Amazing Race-like pilgrimage to Abbey Road!

 

 

LOVE IS A MIX TAPE: A BOOK REVIEW

July 28, 2014 in Book Reviews

I know I’m not the only one with memories of lurking around the AM/FM radio console/cassette player waiting for my favorite song to come on the radio. Every time a song neared its end, I would kneel before the cassette player, place my finger on the Record button, and wait, hoping that finally my song would be played next so I could record it.

I spent many hours making mix tapes of “the best songs ever!” for my friends and they did the same for me. I even made a “Labor Tape”, a tape filled with songs that relaxed and inspired me through the births of all three of my children. My oldest was born to Paul Simon’s Mother and Child Reunion (no joke). My middle son came out in a Counting Crows Rain King/10,000 Maniacs Trouble Me combo (which is actually quite fitting for him), while my youngest was born to another 10,000 Maniacs song Like the Weather, from which you may conclude that either a) I am a huge 10,000 Maniacs fan, or b) my youngest’s mood can change on a dime.

The days of mix tapes are over, but you can re-live them again in Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time. He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone magazine, so he is no music slouch. It is a trip down memory lane to be reminded of songs from quintessential music groups like The Cars, Supertramp, ELO, and Stray Cats. But Sheffield does one better: he uses his mix tapes to tell a story. Musical era by musical era, he chronicles several key moments from his own life, but the majority of his memoir covers his seven years with Renée, the woman he fell in love with, married, and lost much too early to a pulmonary embolism at the age of 31.

I was in high school and college during the 80s and 90s, the decades Sheffield covers in his memoir, so these are my songs. They have woven their way into my DNA. Whenever I hear so much as a refrain or a signature chord, I am  transported back to a moment. Cruel Summer by Bananarama drops me into the landlocked traffic in Newport Beach, my portable cassette player beside me in the passenger seat cranked to high, the windows rolled down, the sun shimmering off the cars and asphalt, as I try to worm my way into a parking lot near the beach without running over a lackadaisical barefoot surfer crossing the road where no crosswalk exists.

They are Sheffield’s and Renée’s songs too, and Sheffield has no shortage of songs linked to the memories of his life. It is a delight to be reminded of these old songs and of the highlights of the era (they loved the The Cutting Edge too!). It is also a delight getting to know Sheffield and Renée. When she died, instantly, with no warning, she left Sheffield anchorless, swimming in grief and unable to turn to music for solace because every song reminded him of Renée, and they were simply too painful to listen to anymore. (I have a few of those too. Don’t we all?)

Sheffield’s writing is engaging. He lures you in with music, holds you close with anecdotes from his relationship with Renée, and then slams you with loss and grief (I confess I shed a few tears). But music continues to evolve, and eventually Sheffield found his way to new music, a new place to live, and with time, a new love.

We carry our memories forward, and the key to accessing them is through a song. Or in Sheffield’s case, a mix tape.

 

WHAT DO YOU DO AT AN MFA RESIDENCY?

July 24, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

When I left Seattle for my first residency in Fairfield University’s Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Nine full days on an isolated island off the coast of Mystic, CT, living in a dormitory-style hall, sharing a room with a complete stranger and a bathroom with an entire floor full of women, and having to eat whatever they place in front of me? Are you kidding?

Then the magic began, for I found myself in a community of writers. We come in all shapes and sizes: my cohort is composed of a group of young men who call themselves the “brohort,” a group of us mommy-aged women, and everything in between. We write poetry and screenplays; fairy tales and myths; creative non-fiction and memoir; and fiction in all its variations.

I know some of you are serious writers and want to know the nitty gritty of what this program entails, while others are only interested in a general overview, so I am going to give you both. If you’re a writer, read the sections headlined as such, and if you are a member of the general population, then skip ahead to those sections. Thank you for all of your support in my new adventure!

WORKSHOPS

WRITER: The workshop is the meat of this program. Small groups are assigned to a workshop leader, who is also a published author and teacher. Before the residency, we received each other’s writing samples and critiqued them on our own. We then meet in the workshop to discuss the craft of writing as it pertained (or did not pertain) to our own writing. While I did learn a lot when they critiqued my own writing sample, I learned even more when we examined the work of my fellow group members. We covered broad areas such as structure, voice, and imagery, as well as lessons at the microscopic level, like sentence structure, word choice, and how despised adverbs have become. It was the most valuable part of the entire program.

GENERAL POPULATION: You sit in a room with a group of people who tell you your writing sucks. It was the most anxiety-ridden part of the entire program.

SEMINARS

WRITER: Every afternoon we attend a seminar. Some are led by the faculty and cover topics such as how to write a memoir, fairy tales, and the structure of a novel. Others are put on by small publishing houses and literary agencies, so we can learn about that side of the business as well, namely that because literary agents are so discerning and the number of publishing houses are dwindling, our chances of getting published are slim to none.

GP: Every afternoon we sit in a room that is freezing cold and try to stay awake because the anxiety of the morning workshop and too much wine the night before has caught up with us.

READINGS

WRITER: Every evening we gather in the little chapel on the island for readings. Published authors read excerpts from their novels, short stories, essays, or poems. I am a visual learner, so listening to these readings is a challenge for me.

GP: Every evening we gather in the little chapel on the island to sit on the hardest pews imaginable (people bring pillows—no joke) and I try to pay attention to the reading, but my mind drifts away so easily and suddenly everyone in the chapel is laughing and I have to wrench myself away from thinking about what happened at the end of Season 1 of The Killing.

EVENING

WRITER: After dinner, when we are not listening to ghost stories or attending a clam bake, we break off into our self-defined social groups. Us moms have commandeered the gazebo where we discuss serious literary topics, motherhood, and surviving difficult situations in our lives.

GP: After dinner, we sit outside, drink wine, gossip, and place dibs on which of the cute young kids in the program we’re going to adopt.

 

 

 

FAIRY TALES!

July 21, 2014 in Book Reviews

I love fairy tales! I always have. I am enchanted by unknown princes (the Beast, the frog) and princesses (Cinderella, the Little Mermaid) finding their true loves, the ones who can look deep into their soul through the covering of fur, frogskin, raggedy clothes, or silence and know who they really are. I love the initial stirrings of romance, the obstacles along the way, and the “happily ever after” endings. But if you look at the dawn of fairy tales in the form of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, they are nothing like the Disneyfied fairy tales I grew up with. No, these fairy tales are creepy and disturbing, to the point where they are divided into two sections: one for children, and one for adults only. These ones should not be read aloud to children under any circumstances.

One such tale is The Juniper Tree. The evil stepmother (of course) does not like her stepson, so she kills him, feeds him to his own father, and buries the bones beneath the juniper tree. Hmm. Since when do fairy tales feature murder and cannibalism? Since the beginning, it seems.

These original fairy tales have been told and retold over time and across countries, and that is what makes reading My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: 40 New Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, so much fun. In this collection, 40 different authors tackle their favorite fairy tales by adding their own twists. Some  authors are well known, like John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and my new favorite author Aimee Bender. Some fairy tales originate from other countries, like Russia, Ireland, and Denmark. But they are all modern takes on age-old fairy tales.

Just as with the Grimm’s Fairy Tales, some of these short stories were disturbing. Kelly Link’s Catskin, based on the English fairy tale of the same name, described horrifying images of people dressing up in catskins. I Am Anjuhimeko by Hiromi Ito is based on a Japanese tale of a brother and sister separated and sold into slavery. This story focuses on the journey of the sister. Her father buries her in the sand at the age of three so he can get rid of her. She escapes, is brutalized and raped, and then falls in with a yamanba mountain witch who has intercourse with a stone pillar. She immediately births a leech-child, whom she gives to Anjuhimeko. Creepy? Absolutely. Odd? Yes. But can I say it’s any more disturbing than The Juniper Tree? (Maybe. I’m not sure about that yamanba.)

Then again, some of the stories were just as enchanting as any fairy tale I’ve ever read. I am now a huge fan of the Russian Baba Iaga, a witch/fairy godmother type who lives in a hut that rests on chicken legs. Should a visitor appear that she does not wish to see, the hut will turn around and around so the visitor can never find the door: magical! Joy Williams Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child is one of my favorites from this collection.

Halfway People by Karen Joy Fowler is a heartbreaking, beautifully written tale based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Wild Swans, and Aimee Bender’s The Color Master is a stand out as well. Based on the French Donkeyskin, it is the story of a dying color master teaching her young apprentice how to take her place. The descriptions of colors and how they are mixed to meet the needs of the royalty are stunning, such as when the Duke’s son needs a pair of shoes the gray color of rock so when he walks, no one would see his feet (he doesn’t like to see his feet). Orange by Neil Gaiman is told entirely in the format of a questionnaire, where all you see are the answers:

“7. Several times a day.

8. No.

9. Through the Internet. Probably on eBay.

10. She’s been buying colors and dyes from all over the world…”

If you are a fan of fairy tales, or short stories, or the power of the imagination, this is a fun book to pick up, especially over the summer. Pull up a towel and an ice-cold glass of lemonade, select a story that looks interesting (the first line of every story is given in the Table of Contents), and while away some time in far away lands of magic and mystery.

 

 

 

 

BECOMING A CHILD AGAIN

July 17, 2014 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

From the moment we are born, we are taught. We learn how to walk by holding our parents’ hands, we learn the correct pronunciation of words by being corrected over and over again (“It’s not ‘bluebabies’, it’s ‘blue-ber-ries. Now you try.”), and we learn the appropriate way to behave after suffering from the consequences (“You just lost your iPhone, buddy.”).

If you read a transcript of what I say to my kids on any given day, about 80% of it consists of a correction, an instruction, or a simple “no.” If you listen to their teachers and coaches, it’s roughly the same. Children are constantly being told they are doing something wrong. But I have discovered something amazing about kids: they are unfazed by this fact of life. They accept the correction or instruction, try to weave it into their inner workings, and move on. They do not take it personally because it is simply a part of their everyday life. They have never known anything different.

Adults are not like this. Perhaps we’ve decided that once we’ve achieved adulthood, or a degree, or a good job, there is nothing left for us to learn. Those who try to offer us corrections or instructions are no longer considered helpful mentors. Instead, we call them show-offs, control freaks, or micromanagers to try and make ourselves feel better because unlike our kids, we have taken the remark very personally. Then when we still don’t feel better, we go home and suffer a bout of incompetency, or in the words of Cher in Clueless, we descend into a shame spiral.

But whoever said that just because we have become adults, we no longer have anything to learn? In the words of the fabulous Eartha Kitt: “I am learning all the time. The tombstone will be my diploma.”

I am still learning too. I am flying across the country to my first residency in my quest to become a writer, and it will involve many corrections of my writing. In other words, I am fully prepared to be ripped a new one. There are many ways to deal with this, but I am going to try to meet it as a child: take the correction, try to weave it into my writing style, and move on. After all, I am not a writer, yet. I’m learning to be one, and the more corrections I get, the better I will be: no shame spirals allowed.

This won’t be easy. But I notice that when I correct my eight-year-old son’s writing, he doesn’t get angry (well, sometimes he does), he simply says “Oh, yeah. I forgot to capitalize that.” He knows I still love him and he knows I don’t think he’s stupid. So maybe when my instructor or fellow classmates offer their suggestions, I can be as graceful in accepting them as my son is.

If not, I hear there is wine available.