Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Laureates of yesteryear

I'm reading, and enjoying, Phyllis Rose's The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading. I may discuss it more later, but for now I want to mention a mental tangent I went off on when she mentioned "Sigrid Undset, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist whose work my mother's generation of women revered, who is now largely unknown." And I thought: It's true. I've heard the name before, but couldn't name anything Undset has written, let alone describe her work. And this made me look up the Nobel laureates in literature, out of curiosity as to how many I would know. I've read at least one poem or story from 15 of the 107.* Which was rather more than I'd expected, since I've become aware that although I read a lot, my reading tends not to be canonical.

I'm glad to see Sinclair Lewis there, although I fail to understand the enduring appeal Arrowsmith seems to have for others (which I rank far below his Main Street and Babbitt, and even Free Air). But I wonder: how many people besides me are still reading Lewis? Or Pearl Buck? John Steinbeck was a darling of the American educational system through which I passed a few decades ago; probably more of his novels appeared in our class assignments than the work of any other author but Shakespeare. (I discovered and read East of Eden on my own, which is probably still my favorite of his works.) Are teachers still as enamored of The Red Pony, Cannery Row, The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, Travels with Charley, and The Grapes of Wrath as they once were?

Are people still reading Rudyard Kipling? Or even Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner? These are authors people talk about so familiarly that it's easy to think we've read them, whether we have or not. Some of us read them in school back in the day. But are people reading them now with fresh enthusiasm, or are they on the wane?

Should we read the literary giants of the past, or should we move on? Styles change, culture changes, themes change. Should we focus only on the present and the future? Is letting go of yesterday's art just part of the natural process?

As you can see, I have more questions than answers. But sometimes I like raising questions to think about.

*If you're interested: Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison, John Steinbeck, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway, William Golding, Albert Camus, Pearl Buck, Sinclair Lewis, Kenzaburo Oe, Alice Munro, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pablo Neruda, William Faulkner, and W. B. Yeats.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Odds and ends

"Solitude itself is a way of waiting for the inaudible and the invisible to make itself felt."
--May Sarton, Plant Dreaming Deep

I find that the waiting and listening I do in solitude has a different quality than that I do while surrounded by other people. And so I have been thinking about this line, ever since I reread it this morning.

In other news, I blogged about what it's like to get an editorial letter from a good editor, over at YA Outside the Lines.

And for dessert, have a hummingbird webcam (birds only visible when it's daylight in Texas; if the camera's down, you can watch the pre-recorded videos that are posted on the page).

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Does decluttering work?

A while ago, I wrote about decluttering, clearing out my space, letting go. I accepted that it would be a long process, and it's still ongoing. But I thought I would check in about what has happened with the spaces I've already cleared.

I relied to a great extent, although not completely, on Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I did not follow her recommendation to do my whole house in a short period of time. For one thing, I share my house with another person who is not invested in this process. For another, I did not have that big a chunk of uninterrupted time.

I started with the bedroom (or really, my half of the bedroom), then moved on to the linen closet, the bathroom, the kitchen junk drawer, the bookshelves, and finally my writing office. My writing office is the room where most of my stuff is, especially papers. I have been going through these papers a little at a time. I've made progress. But I still have a long way to go.

Interestingly, the areas I cleaned up first have, for the most part, stayed neat and clean. The linen closet looks just as it did when I first reorganized it months ago. My side of the bedroom has stayed neat, and so has my bedroom closet. The kitchen junk drawer is still organized. I do love the restful feeling I get from clean, uncluttered spaces. Marie Kondo swears that with her method, there is no backsliding--once you apply her method, your space stays organized. So far, it's working for me.

For me, her best tips were: winnow down your possessions first, keep only what you love, and organize them so that you can see your entire collection of any given item at a glance. (For example, fold socks in a drawer so that you can see them all when you open the drawer, without having to paw through them.) While I don't fold my clothes exactly the way she recommends, I have found a way to fold them so that I see them all at once. Which really does help me realize that, for example, I don't need new socks. I used to think I did, because the same two holey pairs were always at the top of the drawer, but now I can see all the pairs that used to sink to the bottom. Seeing everything I have has also prompted me to use things that were formerly hidden away in closets: I hung up a few pictures and posters that had been stashed away before.

One thing that helped a lot was using all the little boxes and plastic trays I had previously been saving without being sure why. I cut the tops off of them and used them inside drawers to organize the contents. This worked miracles in the kitchen junk drawer: batteries in one box, pens in another, rolls of tape in another, etc. Now we can always find the scissors right away in that drawer.

One thing I wish I'd done when organizing the medicine cabinet was to leave some space for new medicines. When new medications are prescribed, I have to rearrange and fit them in. If I'd left space in the beginning, this would be simpler.

Books are still hard for me to let go of, and although I've cleared off some shelf space, I still have piles (the to-read pile, the to-donate pile, the currently-reading pile, the finished-reading-but-needs-to-be-shelved pile). That's OK. Marie Kondo urges us to aim for perfection, but so far improvement has been good enough for me.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Five Days at Memorial

In the early days of my day job, an older coworker told me: "Whenever you see a group study a situation and make recommendations, one of those recommendations will always be, 'We need better communication.'"

It has amused me over the years to see just how often this happens. But I thought of it again, in a deadly serious context, as I read Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial, an account of Hurricane Katrina's effect on a Louisiana hospital. Throughout the tragedy, there were miscommunications, conflicting and contradictory information, and confusion about what decisions had been made, when, and by whom. It can perhaps be best summed up by this quote from the book: "... since the storm, government agencies, private organizations, and journalists had churned out reports that analyzed and found fault with actions and inaction at nearly every level of every system."

What is clear is that after the power and running water and infrastructure failed--even with the continued presence of food, bottled water, pharmaceuticals, and ongoing rescues by boat and helicopter--it did not take long for the hospital to become its own world, a world that felt divorced from normal life. As Fink writes about one doctor's feelings during the emergency: "She was no longer able to envision what would happen when life returned to normal; many people seemed to be wondering whether that would ever happen. Having an end would give them a reference point for their options. Yes, she had heard they would all get out that day, but she couldn't see it, couldn't believe it, wasn't convinced ..." It took less than a week for the hospital to go from "normal" to this beyond-normal state. Those lines reminded me of the way I have felt during multiple-day emergencies (e.g., hurricane, ice storm) when power was lost and roads were impassable. It only takes a few days for "normal" to feel long lost, almost unimaginable. And I have never been in a situation of the magnitude of Katrina. Katrina was horrific enough to watch from the safe distance of my living-room TV.

The book raises many ethical questions about the treatment of the ill and injured during such emergencies, including: Who should be evacuated first, the most critically ill or the most ambulatory? If medical resources are limited, how should they be rationed? Do different ethical standards apply during emergencies? Should euthanasia ever be on the table? Who has the right to make such decisions? It's an utterly gripping and haunting read.

Friday, September 18, 2015


Today was a day for Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, which is, as its website says, "One of the best places in northeastern North America to view the annual autumn hawk migration." Apparently the configuration of this Pennsylvania ridge, and its wind patterns, funnels the migrating raptors into a relatively narrow area. Every fall, people gather on the rocky overlooks to enjoy the stunning scenery, watch, and count the birds.

My husband and I only did concentrated bird watching for about 15 minutes, as we also had plans to hike the sanctuary's challenging trails, but we saw dozens of raptors: circling, wheeling, passing over the ridge. (We also saw a monarch buttefly flutter by.) The sanctuary's official count for today was 1589 migrating birds observed, including 1532 broad-winged hawks.

In Pennsylvania, it's not uncommon to see hawks. But today I had a special thrill over each one I saw, because in this place and at this time, each was part of something bigger: this migration, this mass flight. It has been happening since long before I was born and will, I hope, continue long after I'm gone. It's one of the patterns we find on this planet, a milestone in the turning of the year and in the lives of the creatures around us.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The great outdoors

This morning, my husband and I took to the woods.

It was a perfect hiking day: cool, dry, with a hint of breeze. The leaves are just starting to turn, a few bright accents of scarlet and yellow among the greenery. It refreshed me, the way it always does.

I've noticed that my fictional characters often run to nature when they need to regroup: Colt in The Secret Year heads for the river; Ryan in Try Not to Breathe explores the woods and the waterfall around his home; Maggie in Until It Hurts to Stop climbs mountains. This echoes my own fondness for the natural world, and my regular forays into it. My characters' experiences reflect my own childhood seeking out any scrap of woods, any "unimproved" lot I could find. Those lots have become fewer and fewer, and I worry about children who don't have some tree or rock to climb, some bed of moss or sand to rest on, some trickle of water to explore. It doesn't have to be deep wilderness--mine certainly wasn't, and a child's imagination can turn a quarter-acre lot into a vast tract of frontier land. I have found pockets of nature even in the most urban neighborhoods I've lived in, in places as built up as Atlanta and Philadelphia.

I do realize that not everyone finds, or needs to find, solace in the outdoors. But I only understand that in theory. In practice, it seems, all my characters seek out that very solace. I only vary the ecological niche, the environment in which they seek it out.

Some parts of ourselves make it into our characters whether we consciously plan it or not.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


I have a note here for a blog post I wanted to write: "The stories we tell ourselves."

I wonder what I meant by that?

It's not unusual for me to be puzzled like this by my jottings, my story ideas. It's not unusual for me to be completely unable to recall what I meant. (It's also not unusual for me to recall what I meant, but to find it unimpressive and not worth writing after all.)

It's okay. I figure that anything really worth writing about will excite enough neurons to resurface when given the prompt. If the prompt fails to elicit anything, then that little spark that seemed so brilliant in the moment must've flamed out pretty quickly.

At least once a week, I get a story idea that seizes me, convinces me of its depth and brilliance. I can envision the finished story in my head, complex, juicy, powerful. Over and over, these ideas lose their luster within days. Sometimes hours.

So few acorns sprout into oaks. My notebooks are full of acorns.

In closing, I'll note this upcoming appearance, for those of you in or near New Jersey:
September 17, 7 PM. Author panel and Q&A: "So You Want to Write a Book!" Gloucester County Library, Mullica Hill Branch, 389 Wolfert Station Road Mullica Hill, NJ 08062. Appearing with members of the New Jersey Authors Network.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Going all out

Sometimes it seems that the biggest lesson in writing, and the one I have to keep learning over and over, is not to pull my punches.

And I keep seeing reminders everywhere: in tennis players who run all out and lunge at the ball; in singers who seem to draw their voices up from their toes; in dancers who pour fire into their performances. I want to write that way.

But the more you invest in a work, the more vulnerable you are. It runs counter to our instincts--or to mine, anyway--to drop self-protectiveness, to take risks. It's like sending up a balloon and hoping nobody sticks a pin in it.

It also takes tremendous energy--physical, mental, emotional--to give 100% at the writing desk.

Many things about writing become easier with time and practice. This part doesn't. In fact, I think it gets more difficult.

Thursday, September 3, 2015


In Hold Still, Sally Mann writes, "And then, as often happens to me, the self-doubt that had dammed up so much behind its seemingly impermeable wall allowed the first trickles of hope and optimism to seep out, and through the widening crack possibility flooded forth. Insecurity, for an artist, can ultimately be a gift, albeit an excruciating one."

I've read that last sentence many times, turning it over and over. Whenever insecurity appears in my writing life, it generally cuts into my productivity and the quality of my writing, so I wouldn't call it a gift. But is there a post-insecurity rebound, a feast to follow the famine, as Mann describes?

Writers can turn almost anything into fodder for work, even insecurity, so there's that. Does self-doubt serve other purposes--not just by keeping us humble, but by prodding us to certain questions and self-examination that we might otherwise skip?

As you can probably tell, I'm thinking a lot about this.