The Good Word

I read somewhere that if you think you have a good story, put a dog in it. The dog will make it even better. I tend to agree. Here are three great books that aren’t necessarily about a dog, but have a dog (or two) in them.

IMG-7702 Edgar Sawtelle is one of those books that takes you into another world, that of a mute boy and a fascinating, over-sized dog. At 608 pages long, it’s a bit of a commitment, but I absolutely loved this book.

IMG-7705 I originally purchased this book because my daughter, Lisa Baril, is a wildlife biologist and science writer.  She lives and works in Yellowstone National Park and worked for Doug Smith. The researchers gave the  wolves numbers instead of names in the hopes they would not get too attached. Of course, that didn’t pan out. In Decade of the Wolf, you’ll read about a famous female wolf, Number 9. And yes, you’ll fall in love with her even if she doesn’t have a proper name.

IMG-7704 Definitely not a tear-jerker, of course, but very spooky and well worth the read. Read the book first and then pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch the 1939 Hollywood version, featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.

an ordinary day with Grace Paley

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We all have heroes. If you don’t have one, find someone. Today.

I keep more than my fair share, so that on any given day, in any situation, I can look to my heroes for encouragement. For example, when I feel like giving up, I turn to Winston Churchill, who inspires me to “never, never, never give in” even when faced with really bad odds.

When I need writing encouragement, I turn to Grace Paley. She’s my literary hero. She shows me that even an ordinary life is worth writing about. Her work brims with characters who are so expertly crafted you’ll see them hanging laundry from a third-floor window in the Bronx. When I read her stories, I understand that even though I haven’t fought wars in the Crimea or been kidnapped by a band of renegades in Australia, my life is worth writing about, providing I have the guts to shine a light on it.

Many years ago now, I signed up for a writing workshop taught by Grace Paley at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I saved for months for this workshop, which was well out of my working-writer’s budget. I remember walking down Commercial Street to get to the Fine Arts Center; a grey dawn breaking, early morning fog weaving in and out of the shops. The merchants swept sand into the street and set chairs at sidewalk tables for the early breakfast crowd. I hugged my new journal to my chest.

At the Fine Arts Work Center, I signed in at an outdoor table and the girl pointed to a steep exterior staircase that led to a second floor conference room with windows that overlooked the sea. This is where we gathered, a handful of writers, waiting for Grace Paley to arrive, with the sea lapping like a dog outside the window. We smiled, coughed a little, introduced ourselves. You could see we all felt a bit shy, even the long, cool writers with their legs stretched out, some of whom had published work in literary presses.

Every once in awhile one of us looked towards the stairs. Voices down below. Was it Grace Paley? yes, it must be. We could hear her chatting with the girl at the table.

Then a slow, steady tread on the stairs. It seemed to go on forever until we caught a glimpse of grey hair, round shoulders, a baggy sweater. Her face was broad and round and friendly, her eyes deeply set in shadow. Her hair was kind of flowzy, caught in the sea breeze and it blew every which way, except across her face. She smiled at us and said, “Well! If that isn’t a flight of stairs all right! Give me a minute to catch my breath.”

Grace Paley.

She’s considered one of the best short story writers of her time. Among many other accolades, she won the 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the American Award for Achievement in American Literature. Her 1994 Collected Stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

I don’t remember knowing all that then. I just loved her stories. If you are not familiar with her work, here is an excerpt from one of her stories. It’s about a husband leaving his wife.

An Interest in Life
By Grace Paley

My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No-one can tell me it was meant kindly.

“I don’t want you not to have anything for Christmas while I’m away in the army,” he said. “Virginia, please look at it. It comes with this fancy dustpan. It hangs off a stick. Look at it, will you? Are you blind or cross-eyed?”

“Thanks, chum,” I said. I had always wanted a dustpan hooked up that way. It was a good one. My husband doesn’t shop in bargain basements or January sales.

Still and all, in spite of the quality, it was a mean present to give a woman you planned on never seeing again, a person you had children with and got onto all the time, drunk or sober, even when everybody had to get up early in the morning. 

I asked him if he could wait and join the army in a half hour, as I had to get the groceries. I don’t like to leave kids alone in a three-room apartment full of gas and electricity. Fire may break out from a nasty remark. Or the oldest tries to get even with the youngest.

“Just this once,” he said. “But you better try to figure out how to get along without me.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Grace taught so well, which is rare for a great writer. Very good writers often make terrible teachers. I confess I don’t remember what she said or worse yet, what I said. I tried hard to listen, but I was star struck. I wanted Grace Paley to think I was the best emerging writer she’d ever met. As if Grace Paley was a talent scout.

She gave us a writing prompt and we bent our heads over our papers, but my hand froze. I couldn’t write a single intelligible sentence. I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person. They could tack me to the wall and it would make no difference to me or the other writers. Here was Grace Paley trying her best to teach me something and I was too breathless to take it all in. What would she think?

When it came my time to read, I was so disappointed in what I wrote, the writer’s version of tongue-tied, but I read it anyway. Blah. Blah. Blah. Grade-school composition stuff.

Oh! how I’d love to say that she was blown away by my prose. If only she had said, where have you been?! You don’t even know how good you are! But, that wasn’t the way. She made a few very, very kind comments and then it was time to break for lunch. We talked about where to eat. Grace raved about a codfish sandwich she’d had the day before at one of the outdoor cafes. Delicious! We all filed out.

That afternoon, as I listened to the other writers read their work I felt warmed, sustained in the white hot light of the summer sun over Provincetown. If you haven’t been to P-town you should go. Colors are brighter there; reds more red, blues more blue, the yellowest yellow you’ve ever seen. We sat in a room overlooking the sea with Grace Paley, surrounded by dunes and an incoming tide, and it was all so good. Even if I was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, it was a fine thing to have met her.

It was the most extraordinary kind of ordinary day.

Find yourself a hero that leaves you breathless. It will do you the world of good.

(Please feel free to share your heroes in the comments section. I’d love to hear about them.)

 

 

The Art of Rage

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One of our Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association members attended a first annual literary event held recently in Hartford. Eileen Albrizio is a former ABC and NPR news host and journalist. She is the author of several books, including, The Windsome Tree, Messy on the Inside, Perennials; New & Selected Poems, and The Box Under the Bed. In short, she’s no amateur. She hoped to promote her books and meet some of her readers.

Instead, she was met with anger. And rage. The literary event was more of a poetry slam. A poetry slam is a contest in which poets perform spoken word poetry. The idea was conceived in Chicago in 1984 and was seen as a way to bring poetry back to the mainstream. Poetry can feel inaccessible and poetry slams help make poetry feel accessible.

Eileen put a bowl of candy on the table with her books. One ‘artist’ scooped up a handful of candy and said, “I’ll eat your candy, but I won’t buy your book.” She found that rude and rightfully so.

Eileen is careful to point out that she felt the artists’ rage was not directed towards  her and that the motivation was real, even if the execution was offensive and a little scary. She left disheartened.

Art can be employed to promote change, start revolutions, or just make you say….huh…I never thought of that situation in quite that way. Art has been shining the light on our human experience since prehistoric man first painted images of the hunt on cave walls.

What art should never be is rage itself. Rage is not an art form. Rage may show itself in the art form, but it is not the art form.

Story, freedom of speech, transformation through words; that’s an art form. Rage is just rage. Some think of rage as a badge of honor, an exclusive badge to an exclusive club. Scientists will tell you that rage is an aphrodisiac as powerful as love or lust. It’s addicting as meth.

But, it is not art. It is rage.

And it’s important to note the difference. Because if art is not rage, then it is something else. And that something else is the purpose, the thing that needs to change or be exposed,  whether it’s racial equality, LGBT rights, or women’s issues. This way, when we get what we want, the rage we suffer can slip naturally away. But, if it’s just rage for rage’s sake, well…what then?

I finish with a poem by Langston Hughes. I love Langston Hughes because he was a great poet. I love him because he helps me see the human experience first, rage second. I don’t know if Langston Hughes felt rage. My guess is he did from time to time, but his motivation was grander. And, in the end, that is what makes art.

I Too, Sing America by Langston Hughes
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

 

 

 

Somethin’ About a Road Trip

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US 89 north of Bozeman isn’t much more than two narrow strips of pavement. In 2012 we drove its northern section,  404 miles from the boundary of Yellowstone to the Canadian Border. To easterners, like Dave and I, calling US 89 a highway is a stretch. Hour after hour, we’d see maybe one or two cars pass in the opposite direction, heading south. We traveled north in a borrowed jeep with Willie Nelson on the radio warbling his way through Whisky River.

Earlier in the day, we’d stopped in Helena to fill up the gas tank. We wouldn’t see another gas station for a bit. The wind in Helena is so fierce we had to walk with our torsos bent against the gale. The locals weren’t daunted. They looked to be strong, sturdy, resilient types. When I paid the cashier, I asked about the gale force winds.

“Honey, this is Helena. It’s always windy here!” She was a stout woman, no more than four feet and change. I imagine Helena’s winds stunt growth, giving rise to a people of short stature, like the stunted scrub pines we’d seen on the highest peaks in Yellowstone.  I see a culture of deeply rooted people forced to hunker down, their growth curbed by the wind.

Once we got back on the road and had traveled a while, I touched Dave’s shoulder.

“Pull over.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. Just pull over.”

He shut the jeep off. We stood outside the car and listened. Nothing. No radio, no traffic, no planes. The crunch of gravel under our shoes and the ticking of the jeep as it came to rest reverberated in the deep quiet of the landscape. The Rockies silently observed us at the horizon. I had this notion that if we started walking toward those peaks, just walked and walked, they’d keep moving away. We’d never arrive where we thought we were headed.

We know better than to break the quiet with words. This patch of earth, this one breath, this silence and no other, will live in the memory. It hits you. The way you’re living is a choice. You remember you have the freedom to carve a new life if that’s the idea that comes to you.

We stood on the side of the highway with the mountains in the distance and the flat, golden valley all around, feeling like we could drink it or take it in somehow, take it with us, back home. Back east.

There’s something about a road trip.

I met William Least Heat-Moon at a writer’s conference in Hartford years ago. I waited in a long line to have him sign my copy of his book, Blue Highways. When it was finally my turn to speak to him, I was struck by how ordinary he seemed. Just a regular guy who reminded us of the importance of journeying by car, how it can break down the barriers we build between the landscape and our souls.

He told me that his book was inspired in part, by Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I love Steinbeck, but I love Least Heat-Moon’s story better. The book chronicles his three month long road trip of 13,000 miles through the heart of America, most of it on secondary roads. In his book, he writes that the trip allowed him to return to himself after the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his teaching job.

Blue Highways stayed on the New York Times Bestseller lists for 42 weeks in 1982-83. If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy. You’ll visit places like:

Nameless, Tennessee.

Simplicity, Virginia.

Why, Arizona.

Whynot, Mississippi.

The world feels upside down these days, but I have an idea.

Let’s have a Road Trip Renaissance. I mean we’re all in a hurry to get somewhere. Where, we don’t always know. Only on a road trip can we get intimate with the landscape and the people. We’ll eat at the diner on the outskirts of town, shop at the local five and dime, talk to the old-timers hanging around outside the P.O.

Here are the rules:

Choose a destination. Think of it as an abstract, a point on the compass you might never reach.

Take the back roads.

If you’re traveling alone, bring a dog. Preferably one that likes to stick his head out the window so the wind can blow his fur a little.

If you don’t have a dog, borrow one.

Take a side trip when opportunity presents.

Stay in a mom and pop motel.

Eat at a local burger joint. Start a conversation with the waitress or the short order cook.

Play the right music. Play it loud. Sing your heart out.

Stop the car. Get out to stretch your legs.

Listen.

Enjoy the moment. And the next one. And the next one.

As William Least Heat-Moon once said in an interview,  ” I think it’s still important for Americans to roam extensively as we have done…after all, roaming makes coming home that much richer.”

Well, I don’t think any of us could say it better.

 

 

 

Are You Good Nuff?

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My nickname is Katya Goodnuff.

I thought of it myself. I was binge-watching a series on Netflix that had a lot of Russian-born characters and I loved all the names; Smirnov, Michailov, Chernov.

It’s only natural that while vacuuming one day I put my finger on the off button and shouted,

“Good nuff, Katya! Goodnuff!”

And just that easy, Katya Goodnuff was born.

I love her. She’s the first to step up when my fear of not being good enough keeps me from trying. Not nice enough. Sexy enough. Young enough. Old enough. Talented enough. Not enough.

“Good enough for who?” she says. “In what situation? And for how long? Who gets to decide?”

The fear of not being good enough can stop me from launching a project. I’m not alone. In every writing workshop I’ve attended there’s a fellow writer who is scared to death to read their work aloud.

To a bunch of amateurs, mind you.

One woman in a local writer’s class introduced her poem like this:
“This isn’t very good. Um. In fact, it’s awful, and I just want to say…” until the teacher interrupted, asking her to just read the damn poem. So she read this five line poem about her mom. It took our breath away. It was a perfect, perfect poem. We loved it!

Even so. Who were we to say?

What if, instead of praise and support, we were in a collective bad mood that day? What if we’d attacked her syntax? Poked holes in her rhythm? Insinuated that the time for writing about mom was over—I mean moms were sooo 80’s.

A couple of years ago, I had my face figuratively smacked in a workshop. It was one of those workshops that had gathered an unfortunate mix of writers who honestly didn’t like each other. This happens in some groups and it’s always either dreadfully boring or alarmingly mean. This one was both.

The teacher was bored stiff, and rightfully so—the writing was truly awful and I was probably the worst of the lot. But I do feel a teacher can rescue a wayward writing group, provide a little inspiration. This guy didn’t. He was large as a barge this guy and he sat in his chair looking for all the world like Jabba the Hut. He spent most of the class in some sort of somnambulant state just above snoring. (This sounds mean, but this class brought the meanness out in all of us.)

Week four. I read a heartfelt piece about my dad who had recently died of cancer.
Yup.
It was a terrible idea in hindsight. Too soon. Too raw. Risky environment.

The critiques went something like this:

Well, maybe if you change the main character to a boy. That would work so much better for me.” This was from Will, who was writing a fictional account of his boyhood growing up in Tennessee. I pointed out that I’m a girl. This was a personal essay!

“Still,” he said.

We moved on to a guy named Jeff who was writing a police story. Jeff was one of those guys who signed up because his wife wanted him out of the house.

Before he spoke, Jeff shook his head, sighed, smirked a little. (I’m not making that up. He smirked.)

“In every writing class I’ve ever taken there’s some woman who has this thing with her dead father.” The words leaked out of his mouth and down his chin like tobacco juice. “I can’t even comment. It’s so boring and overdone.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I waited for a collective gasp from the group who surely were as shocked as I was. But, no. Nothing.

I felt like I’d been clubbed in the sternum with a turkey leg.

My cheeks blazed. I slid my eyes to the teacher. He gave me a bored, but sympathetic look, sighed, belched (okay, I could be making that part up) and said, “Okay. Great work everyone. Let’s reconvene next week.”

I kid you not.

I felt for my Leatherman knife in my pocketbook. I could slash Jeff’s tires before he gets to his car, I thought. But, Jeff made a fast getaway.

What a chicken.

When I got home, I made up my mind to quit the class, but first, I’d shoot off a caustic email to the instructor while the rage was fresh in my mind.

Dear John,

In every workshop I’ve ever attended, participants bring open minds and hearts. Your participants left them at home. Most instructors would have stopped someone like Jeff and reminded him what constructive criticism means. You didn’t. Perhaps you were napping.

Furthermore, your critique of my essay fell short as well. Comments on the placement of asterisks? A repeated phrase? It was a first draft! What kind of a writing teacher are you? And how much time did we need to spend on Gail’s story? You critiqued her story ad nauseum while barely spending any time on my essay. I imagine it would be easy to dismiss me as an angry wannabe, upset over how my work was received, but that’s not it at all. The work was not received. And that’s the problem. I wish your group a happy remainder of the session. I won’t be back.

Sincerely,
Karen Elizabeth Baril

I did say I was mad, right?

Karen, hi–

I’m very sorry you felt this way about the workshop and I take your comments very seriously. I did get a twinge when Jeff made his rather sexist comment & should have responded at the time about his attitude. (If he had been at the first class he would have been reminded about the ground rules of constructive criticism only) I meant to address it at the time but the subject changed quickly, as Keith chimed in about his own interest in non-fiction, whereupon I discussed the common elements of high-quality writing in both fiction and non-fiction. Jeff was out of line and I should have gone back to his attitude.

I don’t believe my critique of your piece was as limited as you suggest. I complimented the touching impact of the father’s caretaking, your shift to the adventurous daughter (I may have digressed too much to my own experience), and the excellent carryover into the courage it takes to be a writer– the metaphor of being in the wilderness with only a tent as protection. I suggested you might expand and develop this short piece to make it even stronger and more substantial. As I mentioned, the piece is full of excellent writing.

I ask you to reconsider dropping out of the class. I can’t guarantee that all the participants will respond with open minds and hearts, but I certainly will.

Thank you, 
John

Well. Fair enough. I returned to class the following week. I met Jeff in the parking lot on the way in.

“Hey, I hear I offended you.”
“You did.”
“I meant no harm. I’d had an argument that day with my wife. She’s always comparing me to her dead father. Evidently, I don’t measure up.”

Shocking. The part about him not measuring up.

He shook his head a little. “But, you know, even without that, I don’t like your style of writing so I probably shouldn’t offer any advice. But, I’m sorry. I really am.”
I accepted his lame apology and finished the class…

As Katya Goodnuff.

Remember, you are young enough, old enough, sexy enough. You are good enough.

 

Sacred Spaces

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I believe in sacred spaces. These are the places you happen upon and for a reason that is not known to you, (and will never be known to you), feel like home.

As a kid I knew I wanted to write so I understood the value of sacred spaces early in life. I’d tuck my body into the below-grade casement windows of our apartment house and hide from the world. This was the very first room of my own, a place to write, daydream, practice solitude.

Where is your sacred space? It should be close to home so you can visit it whenever you need to. I have several:

The foot of a yellow birch tree in the Naugatuck Forest. Someone carved a date, 1969,  into the bark years ago and now the numbers are as broad as children’s blocks.

Meigs Point, Hammonassett Beach.

My writing room.

These are places where it feels natural to be alone, go inward, be still. There’s too much talking in the world and I’m the worst offender, filling exquisite silence with nonsense chatter. I don’t know why I do it. I think it’s an uneasiness with silence when in human company. Shouldn’t we talk? Engage in polite, filler conversation? Silence is uncomfortable.

Say something.

Seeking solitude can be misinterpreted by those around you. Anti-social, detached, self-indulgent, a loner. I’ve been called all of the above, but only in solitude can I find the solution to a niggling problem, get creative, find a new way of looking at my past or my future.

When I’m in one of my sacred spaces, I don’t feel any pressure to talk to myself. Silence is easier. More natural, a welcome change. Think of a piece of music that never pauses. It’s the pause between notes, known as a ‘rest’ or ‘breath’ that allows us to hear the music, understand it’s significance. Without the pause to rest, music would be exhausting to listen to. Life is a little like that.

Solitude helps me feel grounded, centered, connected to my life. No phones, no social media, no reaching out. Social media is often a two-edged sword for me; too much posting or scrolling and I feel separated. I have in mind an image; an ocean of hands grasping for something just out of reach. For me, that’s social media.

Solitude. It can feel dangerous. It takes courage to step away from the rabbit-like heartbeat of the world and pause for a moment or two, but it’s the ‘rest’ you need and it can change your life.