Monthly Archives: January 2012

Other Skins

Seeing all the old Christmas trees out on neighborhood tree lawns, waiting to be carted away, reminds me of the year my daughters felt so sorry for the discarded trees they decided to rescue them. The next thing I knew, our back yard was heaped with prickly, dried-up evergreens.  Come spring, it was  a tumbleweed farm out there.

These are the same girls whose hearts broke for an office building.  Cleveland has a somewhat meager skyline, so when BP built a brand new skyscraper on Public Square, it was a very big deal for most of the city.  (Never mind that BP has since booked–this was then).  But my daughters felt sad and also a little indignant on behalf of the Terminal Tower, which up till then and for many years had been the tallest, most beloved building.

Studies have been done on how empathy takes root (and in the case of the Christmas trees, I guess I mean this literally).   I like to think that all the stories they read and heard helped my kids connect with the rest of the world, both the world they themselves directly experienced as well as that of their fellow creatures.  I recently read a comment by a teacher on why so many of her students valued reading the novel “Between Shades of Gray”.  It’s the little-told story of how horrendously Lithuanians suffered under Stalin, and it doesn’t pull any punches.  This teacher said something along the lines of, “I think they liked being included in a more adult world with big, difficult issues, and also being trusted to examine and to experience human suffering and triumph.”   I love this teacher!  Her respect for what kids are capable of is wonderful.

Yet it doesn’t have to be so big a story as that to poke a hole in them or any of us.  A poem or a picture book will do just as nicely. Come to think of it, one of my favorite books as a child was “The Little House”.  How I suffered with that little pink house as the city pressed in all around it, and it grew dirty and ramshackle and neglected!  I still remember my relief when it was once more restored to a sunny hillside, with flowers all around.  Maybe that’s where my daughters got their sympathy for our own sweet, unfortunately named Terminal Tower…

What We Don’t Know

 Flannery O’Connor said, “Like the old lady, I don’t know so well what I think until I see what I say; then I have to say it again.”  This is hard to believe, right?  If any writer ever knew what she was about, I’d guess it was O’Connor. 

     But it’s totally true for me–my revising begins more or less at word one.  I start blabbing, then pull back to see if I said anything worth listening to, then try again.  O’Connor also said, “I write to discover what I know”, but I’m more with Grace Paley, who went one better.  “We write,” Paley said, “about what we don’t know about what we know.”

What you don’t know is the tantalizing thing, at first.  The story stays just out of reach and you race along behind, a little out of breath, first trying to keep it in sight, then gain on it, at last catch it. 

By contrast, revising is like rearranging a familiar, well-loved room, only instead of furniture and paintings you move around bits of plot and dialogue and back-story, always looking for what works better somewhere else, what’s gotten worn out, what doesn’t need to be there at all, what you’ve got too much of—and what is still missing.  When you revise, you know what you know about what you don’t know, or whatever.  Except, that is, when the story surprises you all over again.

 A (very) few of the revisions I’ve made (so far) in my new book:

–Biggest of all was switching from third person.  First is a voice that makes me wary and that I rarely use, but it made all the difference with this story.

–My hero discovers something valuable that doesn’t belong to him.  In my first two drafts, he puts it back.  In the third, he steals it.  Eureka!

–The book is a mystery of sorts, set on an island, and I have a thick fog that, originally, rolled in about halfway through.  It was very island-y and great fun to write, but duh!  What a waste to use it in the middle of the narrative. I moved it to the ending, where it’s not only atmospheric but actually heightens the suspense.  (No free lunch—every element needs to earn its keep.)

–I’ve revised almost all the dialogue to some degree.  During revision I find I pay more attention to how the real-live people I’m around speak (as opposed to when I’m drafting, when I’m in my own fog).  I listen for the silences, too.  Something important I’ve discovered is that when I’ve given a character a big hunk-a-chunk of a speech, it usually means I was stuck, and trying to explain myself to myself.  Alarm bells! 

–Fixing appalling sentences goes without saying. That’s a part of revision housekeeping that’s kind of like doing the laundry—a few stubborn stains, a lot of wrinkles, and man, who left a leaky pen in this pocket?  Could it have been me?

Humbling stuff, don’t I know it. 

Over the Moon

MO WREN, LOST AND FOUND, has been translated into German.  “Mondstrahl”  means “moonbeams” and if you’ve read the book you know what a lovely choice this is for a title!

Fond Deceiver

Where I grew up, in a ranch house built on what had only recently been a potato field, we had no sidewalks or street lights or, at first, storm drains. I remember a bright morning when I stood on our little front lawn and watched a parade of blow-up rafts paddle gaily by. This might have been after a big storm, maybe even a hurricane, flooded the street, and it must have been when I was very small, because the memory has that misty, apocryphal feel to it—did I really see that?   Did all our neighbors really have blow-up rafts, and would they have been out there waving and frolicking as their basements flooded?  

Everyone’s got untrustworthy memories tucked away, jumbled with dreams and stories other people have told us about ourselves, and liberally laced with yearning for what we wish had happened.  For a story-teller, that is a rich good thing.  Not that I’ve ever written a scene featuring a cheerful suburban flotilla, but I love thinking about the possibility, which opens out into the possibility of all the other surprising, not to say astonishing, things that go on behind the closed doors of even (or especially) the most staid and solid families. 

In our neighborhood, every house was just alike, so that we kids could open any front door and know precisely where to find the bathroom or refrigerator.  This was comforting then, though, snob that I’ve become, I’d despise it now.  As time went by, people installed bay windows, and added garages, and paneled basements (water-proofing, first), and some cobbled on additions that took up most of their backyards.  My father laid a patio and built a cinder block barbecue.  We bought a redwood picnic table where we ate our hotdogs and corn.  Summer nights, he and my mother sat up late out there, talking and drinking.  I remember—I am sure I remember this—perching on tiptoe on our blue toilet, pressing my ear to the screen, straining to hear what they were saying out there in the muggy darkness.  I desperately wanted to know what the grown-ups had to say, especially those things I was not meant to hear.  The thought of all I didn’t know yet both thrilled me and filled me with a strange, irrepressible dread.  It still does.    

I recently read Matthew J. Kirby’s remarkable middle grade novel Icefall.  At its heart is how young Solveig earns her place as a skald, a poet and story-teller who bears her people’s history.  Woven throughout are discussions of what it means to tell a story that is true—really, what truth itself might be.  I was reminded of one of my favorite writing quotes, from Jane Yolen, who says that as she revises her fiction she asks herself, “Is it true yet?”  Solveig struggles with how to tell a story that honors both the memory of past glory and the reality of present travail. Alric, the master skald, tells her, “The question you must ask is what a story has the power to do.  The truth of something you do is very different from the truth of something you know.”  At another point, debating whether a story that provided hope and comfort was a sham, they have this exchange:  

“And was the comfort real?  Was it true?”

“I thought it was.”

“Then the story was true.”

Substitute amazement or fellow feeling or belly laugh or grief for comfort.   There you have it.

I could ask my brothers if they remember those rafts. But I’ll probably stick to my own version.

Ying and Yang

Behold the two cats I live with.  Billy is wild and runty, while Habibi spends his days perfecting his cushion impersonation.  Yet they are best friends, just like Frog and Toad.  (This photo was taken over the holidays by my girl Delia).


In this new year I mean to post here once a week.  To start things off, here’s a characteristically pithy quote from Charles Baxter.  He’s the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, the incandescent “Feast of Love”, as well as the eminently useful and provocative book on writing, “Burning Down the House”.  Baxter is a genius and also, so far as I can tell, a truly humble guy.  Not that I’ve  ever met him, but I imagine him as one of those writers who live in that rare state of grace where the work is all.  This year when I get distracted or sabotaged by all the other stuff, as for sure I will, here’s what I’ll tell myself.  “Art is not a sack race.”