Today I received a heavy box in the mail, and I wondered what my kids had ordered without asking. To my surprise, the box contained Advanced Reading Copies (ARCs) of An Elegant Woman—such a beautiful cover and so many copies. I hadn’t felt that thrilling sensation of seeing a work of mine so composed, so ready to be read, in years. Ten years to be exact. In January of 2010 I received a similar box containing Dear Money, my last novel. My daughter was ten and my son was six; I was younger, too. My mother didn’t yet have dementia. Dear Money was my third book in a decade. I didn’t yet have teenagers. I hold An Elegant Woman in my hand, and the past ten years come rushing in—the challenge to write the novel, the fight for time while taking care of teens and a sick mother, the slow pace of the words making their way from my brain to the page, the false start, the long revision, the clobbering self-doubt. I had a professor who described that kind of self-doubt as “your shit bird.” “Swat it away,” he’d say. Swat and swat and swat, but the little shit bird kept landing again on my shoulder, a little bop-bag doll. Finally, somewhere along the way, with the encouragement of a patient, trusting, and believing editor, the characters took over. The book has a lot to do with stories my grandmother used to tell me about her life, her childhood, our ancestors, the way she made it from poverty in Montana to a bourgeois life in New Jersey. Across the years, I’d scribbled notes, first while she was alive and then after she was dead. I followed those notes like bread crumbs, followed them from Ohio to Montana to New York, Maine, to New Jersey—her life against the backdrop of the American landscape and the 20th century. Word by word, I followed her lead, and now I have a book. That’s how it is done, bushwhacking, swatting away at the bird. But the view from here now is very beautiful.
(One Pleasure A Day : Co-posted with Année Kim)
For pleasure and thought, Année sent me Joan Didion‘s At The Dam, a brief essay written in 1970. Année emailed it to me in the middle of the night, both of us sleepless and ready to enjoy perfect sentences and notions of our impermanence and vulnerability. Année wrote: If the Himalayas are doomed then Hoover Dam certainly doesn’t stand a chance, but I guess men can’t resist playing God.
In the essay, Didion speaks of the image of the Hoover Dam staying with her. This made us think of images by Andreas Gursky and how they seem to capture her words, especially his photo of the Super-Kamiokande neutrino observatory un Mount Kamioka in Japan.
I met Christina Ball first day of freshman year at Bowdoin College. She was my roommate and she arrived in our room with an entourage: a sister, a brother, a mother and father, a grandmother. They crowded in, inspected, turned over pillows, looked out windows, absorbed us — my father and me. We’d arrived first, in time for me to haul in a suitcase and a lamp and to realize the two small rooms would be even smaller with three people living in them. After Christina had surveyed the room, she went to my lamp and, not knowing that it was mine (a brass floor lamp that was now dark with age — it had been my grandfather’s at prep school), said, “This is ugly. We’ll have to get rid of it.” I wasn’t sure what to make of her. She was tall and had lots of dark hair and big dark eyes. She was gorgeous and self-possessed and had an eager curiosity that made her seem ready to alight. I was more introspective and quiet, happy alone, in love with an Italian across the ocean and to whom I corresponded endlessly. At first glance we were opposites, and what is it they say? We attract? It didn’t take long. We bonded over our desire to get rid of the third roommate, mainly because she was unhappy with us and because we wanted her space. After that mission was accomplished we became unstoppable. We labeled ourselves the Cosmo Bohemians and wore clothes that caused us to stand out on the rather preppy campus. We wore plastic high heels in electric colors (snow or shine), started wine tastings and a catering business to make some extra cash. She loved that I spoke Italian and that I’d been to Italy many times, that I’d lived there the previous year. She wanted to know all about it and dreamed that she’d be able to go with me the following summer. That was our first realized dream, paid for with our catering money. I took her to Italy, to Greece and to France. She had never been to Europe before. And, as my life was changed by a chance summer exchange with an Italian girl three summers earlier, her life was changed too, Italy creeping into it to take it over quite miraculously. She would marry an Italian, have an Italian daughter, run a thriving language school, Speak Language Center. She wouldn’t live in Italy, but that is just a detail; she was surrounded by Italy all the same. Now some thirty years later she has invited me to dream with her again, this time in Todi with writers longing to have time with their craft. She’s arranged a workshop at a boutique spa hotel with sumptuous food, Roccafiore. It is my honor. And I can’t wait.
Unforgotten Italy (an article I wrote for More Magazine on Christina)
Creative Writing Workshop with Martha McPhee
JUNE 9-16, 2012
Italianist, Christina Ball, is hosting a writing workshop at the luxury spa and wellness center, Roccafiori, in Todi, Italy in June 2012. She’s invited me to lead the workshops and I would love you all to come.
There are three necessary elements in a story—exposition, development, and drama. Exposition we may illustrate as “John Fortescue was a solicitor in the little town of X”; development as “One day Mrs. Fortescue told him she was about to leave him for another man”; and drama as “You will do nothing of the kind,” he said.
At the beginning of Jonathan Coe’s beguiling new novel, “The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim,” Max, in Australia visiting his estranged father, observes a Chinese woman and her young daughter at a restaurant. They are enjoying a game of cards, “bonded to each other, with a strength and an intensity” while the other diners distract themselves with cell phones and Nintendo DS devices – the protective wall of modern technology that keeps the other out.
Gone With the Wind
As young girl watching the Million Dollar Movie with my sisters, I met Scarlett O’Hara and fell in love. Her dark curls and green eyes, her swishing hoop dress–determined and strong and brave, Scarlett did as she pleased, both good and bad. My sisters and I rooted for her as she stole boyfriends, married men she didn’t love, helped Melanie birth her baby, escaped a burning Atlanta, tore curtains from windows to make a gown so she could look like a queen for Rhett, kneeled in Tara’s garden and vowed, “If I have to lie, cheat, or kill, as God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” She did kill, she did cheat, she did lie, and she was never hungry again. My sisters and I were good girls who already understood that girls were expected to behave well and be quiet. Scarlett struck us with awe. In tough times, my sisters and I would say to each other, “Pretend you’re Scarlett and push through.” I watched the movie many times until I was old enough to read the book. I learned through Scarlett that characters could be as real as living people. She infused me with courage and taught me what a freedom it would be to live life as she did, by her own rules, unburdened by the opinions of others.
From Stephen Koch’s wonderful and very useful Writer’s Workshop. He was a professor of mine at Columbia University.
“In Chapter 1, we pointed out that the Latin root of the word invent means “to discover.” Writers do not make up stories. They find them. They uncover them; they discover them. Sometimes they find them in the real world. Sometimes they find them in the depths of their imaginations. In either case, they invent stories by finding them and, conversely, they find those very same stories by inventing them. Which comes first? That’s the elusive part—the interplay between making it up and digging it up. Your imagination will not always know the difference.”
I find it incredibly helpful to remember and remind myself that stories don’t come out of thin air, that they are discovered. Koch’s book is enormously insightful. I recommend it to all writers and teachers of creative writing.