Sunday, May 27, 2012


Today I have been packing to go away for a month, and sorting through the research material I will need for this part of the book. The documents are mainly personal; photographs, nurses' notebooks, official certificates, obituaries. Later I will have to do archival and library research, but for now I have what I need. More than usual.

Meaning...more than none. This book is the first one for which I'll do a substantial amount of research. In the past, I have always relied upon imagination and memory. I am writing fiction or personal essays, after all; I am the research.

I cannot do so for this book. I have to know what the city I am writing about looked like for all the twentieth century--the changes, buildings torn down and put up. There is a business plot to contend with as well. I remember the event, but even my brief searches into what happened are confusing. I have work to do.

Two events this spring inspired me about the prospect of research. One was a lecture by my colleague, the brilliant James Goodman, about recent research he'd done. The other was a panel at AWP where the brilliant Bonnie Friedman, Marina Budhos, and Kathryn Harrison discussed research for their books. Hearing them actually made me eager. So I am now officially a researcher.

Beginning with reading the nurses' logs. I have never before read them, and they are shocking. I couldn't finish them today; I will have to take them a few pages at a time. There are many aspects of this project that hurt. I hurt when I write. The research will hurt, too.  It is time this story becomes mine, though, and if it hurts, so be it.

Speaking of which, I got a terrible animal bite last night, and have no use of my right thumb. Yes, I did go to the emergency room and got the necessary drugs and treatments. Let me tell you--the opposable thumb is truly a gift from evolution to us.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

An Exercise

If you were only allowed ten memories, what would they be?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Fare Thee Well

Is it worth getting an MFA in writing? Can writing be taught? Here's an answer: these brilliant, kind, generous, strong, honest people. These are MFA students (backed by their great professors.) These are writers. These are people who have spent two years bringing good into the world with their hard work and decent intentions, their wonderful writing, their incredible care for each other. They will go on doing so. I will continue being so so proud of them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Summer Rules

Summer rules. Or, to put it another way, play it as it lays.

Where I grew up, to shout "summer rules!" conjured drinking at lunch, no shoes, and water, in some form, as often as possible. A pool, an ocean. Sensuality.

Now it means writing time. During the school year it is very difficult to keep a novel in mind; though by not writing a novel, I did manage to write a few other long pieces this year, one just finished. Now it time for the novel. This summer won't be about much else. I have a few responsibilities, and fall classes to prepare, but mainly, I will be in this book. On this blog, I'm going to write about it--not the book itself, but the work of it. I never tire of hearing about other people's processes. I lean forward at readings when some unsophisticated person has the inexperience to ask, how many hours a day do you write, Famous Writer? I want to know, too. How many hours? Why do you stop when you do? Do you laugh at your own sentences? And so on. 

There's nothing really instructive in the answers to these questions, unless the answers are so extreme as to be the lodestar. For example, I recently read Haruki Murakami's What We Talk About When We Talk About Running. Oh, brother. I loved the book--I will say that. I have never read any other thing he wrote--but this one was enough to make me agree he deserves a happy reputation. But--oh, brother. It's about running, serious running, yes; but it is also about writing, and everything you must not do if you want his level of output and focus. You must not have any semblance of a normal life is the basic message. No nothing that doesn't support the writing. Bed before 8. A simple routine, never broken. Of course he's right. There's no balance in this work. No normal life. I sometimes ask my students to name me one recognized genius who cared for his or her kids. Not had kids--cared for kids. This is an angering question, because it asks--how much do you want of it? Not it--I assume you want it. But how much of it? What level of attainment? How massive and comprehensive a view of the times, or a time? What success at penetrating art and nature? How good at getting out of one's own way? 

I certainly wanted more than I have had, but that is my running book. A running from book, as it were. Here I am, with this book to write. First thing: I am trying out Scrivener. I have it set up so I cannot read what I am writing. This is good for me, because it means I can choose when to correct the sentences. If I see them, I mess with them. I hear them differently when I read them, and I try to match my reading sound, as opposed to the voice in my head. They are different. The voice in my head is more visual, whereas my reading voice is more poetic and rhythmic. I need both. But if I go for the rhythmic and poetic over the visual, there isn't enough emotion, and I get lost. Seeing things moves me. Hearing things delights me. I need to be moved first. Move my fingers.

So I chose a font I cannot read, which means I can look without reading, which is good. I don't look at the screen when I'm writing anyway, because I can't touch type. But I need some degree of orientation, so this method is perfect, for today. I wrote about 1000 words last night. I am back to night writing. Summer rules.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


A nice lunch in the city with my pal Stacey, months worth of catch up--and then home to answer emails when...a great scrabbling in the bedroom. Two pets were with me; and my cat Rosie, the one absent from the room at the time, is quite regal--would never scrabble! So I went to look. Well, it was one of those woodland creatures who is about as wide-eyed and adorable as anyone could imagine or want, but WILD. Did not want to be where it was. Wanted to jump out the window, but that would have hurt, at best. I didn't open the window.

Instead...I spent 2 1/2 hours trying to catch it. That is 150 minutes. I did finally with great cunning manage to trap it, but it wrestled free. It was so so so strong. I was super patient for about 145 minutes, talking in a low voice, cooing, singing back to its chirps, and then felt like tres Dustin Hoffman in Straw Dogs. Get out my house, buddy! NOW! I tried a different tack, and he followed my lead and left. So I am having a glass of wine as I clean up all the scat all over everything. My bedroom looks as though I was burgled, and murdered, too. But I am alive, and so is the creature.

Why is it for the last 25 years 90% of my life has been about cleaning up excrement? Is that right? Was it meant to be this way, or have I not been planning well enough?

The groundhog had strength you wouldn't believe. I think it could have killed me, fo sho. I routinely get chipmunk bites while saving them from my pets; the teeth go clear through my fingers. Ho hum. But this guy could have done a lot more damage.

How did he get in the bedroom? I don't have a screen door. Why don't I have a screen door? Because my house is too old to hold one up. Why is my house so old? Because I had no idea what I was doing, and bought for charm. But why did he come in?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


The Marlon Brando version of Mutiny on The Bounty came out in 1962. It was a three hour movie with an intermission in the middle, a long dramatic telling of the famous story of the mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty caused by the sadistic cruelty of Captain Bligh (played in this film by Trevor Howard.) The film was well along in a line of others made on this topic. The historical event has had a perennial allure; the dramatic mutiny at sea, Captain's Bligh's success at returning to England, and the subsequent settling of Pitcairn Island by the mutineers who created their own tropical paradise. 

I was a small girl when this film opened. It comes with a painful memory of my separated parents both buying tickets to take my brother and me to see it--one night apart. I swore my brother not to tell my father, thinking we'd just sit through it twice, but the truth managed to slip out. We went, but when it became clear we'd already seen it, we left at Intermission. I was completely heartbroken, afraid my father was disappointed. I don't know how he felt about it, really. In any case, the movie is enmeshed with my memory of him, and has a power over me like no other film. My father looked very much like Marlon Brando, and when I sat next to him in the theater, I kept looking back and forth between the two. As a result, I wrote a series of poems at a later date of being a girl disguised as a cabin boy on the voyage, and living on the island.

The islands--the glancing version of them portrayed in the film had the most indelible effect. I have never been to Polynesia, but part of me lives there at all times. I once told my grandfather I wanted to move there and he said "People who live in hot climates never amount to anything." I guess this affected me, too, because here I am in a cold spring, trying to amount to something. I still want to go there, but probably never will.

I know the film by heart, every line. I have watched it twice in the last two days as I went through all the papers piled up in my office. It is a wonderful piece of writing, apparently accomplished by six people. The mutiny is thrilling; Fletcher Christian, as a gentleman, simply can't take it anymore! Bligh, in his latest bit of horror, has decided that if the men want a sip of water, they must climb up to the yardarm, fetch a ladle, bring it down and drink one, only one, ladle full, and then carry it back up. A seaman is dying from drinking sea water. Fletcher decides to give him a sip of fresh water.
Bligh: "You'll give no one water without my permission. Take that ladle below."
Fletcher: "Yes, Sir." But he gives the water to the delirious seaman anyway.
Bligh kicks it out of his hand and Fletcher backhands Bligh onto the deck!
Fletcher: "You bloody bastard! You'll not put your foot on me again."
Bligh laughs. "Thank you. Thank you. I've been puzzling for a means to take the strut out of you, you posturing snob...." Bligh says Fletcher will be confined until a court martial can be convened in Jamaica.
Flecther grabs a sword from one of the men and announces, "Ship's company, I'm taking command of this ship!"
Bligh countermands him. Fletcher stabs Bligh through the arm! Yikes!
The mutiny proceeds. Lots of fisticuffs. The mutineers arm themselves. Bligh and Fletcher are staring at each other like big cats.
Bligh says to Mr. Brown, the botanist: "You, too, Brown? You join these swine?"
Brown: "A man like yourself Sir leaves me no choice."
The men want to kill Bligh, but Fletcher won't let them. "There will be no more killing aboard this ship and that includes Captain Bligh."
Bligh: "If that's an attempt to earn clemency I spit on it!"
Fletcher: "You remarkable pig. You can thank whatever pig god you pray to that you haven't quite turned me into a murderer."
The captain's followers are put in the long boat.
Fletcher: "As you know Tafoa is due west forty leagues. You have your compass, and this book is sufficient for its purpose. The sextant is my own so you know it to be a good one. Now Mr. William Bligh..."
Bligh: "Quite polite and formal of you. Playing the gentleman again, you bloody traitor?"
A bit more action among the seamen as everyone settles into their respective camps.
Here are the final parting words between Bligh and Fletcher.
Bligh (to the mutineers): "Has your murderous friend told you what to expect, or is he going to keep you in the dark? Now hear the truth. The King's navy will not rest until every mutineer is captured and executed. Wherever you go, wherever you hide, a thousand ships will search you out."
Fletcher: "Will you step into the boat, or will you be thrown in, Mr. Bligh?"
Bligh: "I'm not leaving you, Mr. Christian. Not ever. Got to the dirtiest little corner in the world and I'll be there right behind you with a rope in my hands."
Fletcher seems as if he is going to flog Bligh with the cat 'o nine tails, but he decides against it, and drapes it over Bligh's shoulder instead. "Take your flag with you." (Meaning the whip. Snap!)
Bligh pulls it off and wraps it up, and tosses it onto the deck. "I don't need a flag, Mr. Christian. Unlike you, I still have a country. What a big price to pay for a little show of temper."

This whole sequence takes about ten minutes. These dramatic lines are perfectly embodied by Brando and Trevor Howard. Something happened! These is a big scene, played out to the max. Not one possibility for conflict or character nuance is left out, for Bligh and Christian or for the many supporting characters we have come to know by this point in the film. (This scene happens slightly after the 2 hour mark.) It is difficult to stay in a big scene, not to rush. But such scenes are so so satisfying when they are given the amount of space and time that they require for a reader/viewer to respond with full emotion.

At the end of the film, Fletcher dies. My father died not much later.
Are they in paradise? I don't know.

Sunday, May 6, 2012


It is Saturday night and I am doing what I do on many Saturday nights--watching videos on YouTube. Often I stay up nearly all night doing this, if I am alone in the house. Tonight I have watched (a partial list), Freddie Mercury's entire 25 minute performance at LiveAid; Neil Young--Old Man, Helpless, Heart of Gold; Cat Stevens, How Can I Tell You; several versions of The Only Living Boy in New York; as always, Sinead's Feel So Different; Coldplay 2000 Miles; What Do All The People Know, The Monroes; Somebody I Used to Know (Glee version!); Helplessly Hoping, CSN....

This is a lonesome activity, meaning nothing to anyone. Yet I am listening for a feeling--for the one where he says, "Play me every song you love, every single one, and I will listen/watch with you, no matter how long it takes." And I say, "I want to hear all yours, too, no matter how long it takes."

image by Banksy