April 23, 2013
If you don’t live within spitting distance of Boston, maybe you missed the sad news that the Boston Phoenix abruptly quit publication last month. This alternative newsweekly began in the heyday of the sixties, and quickly became the go-to source for more than just the other side of the story, spawning dozens of nationally recognized writers and critics along the way. For decades the Phoenixhad the best and most comprehensive arts and entertainment reporting in Boston—even according to the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, who poached many Phoenix writers over the years. The Phoenix also had a pit bull approach to reporting that’s required when you’re breaking stories like the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. This foundation of excellent and intelligent reportage and writing was made possible in large part because—in addition to their desire to get to the heart of every story they published—the Phoenix had a paid staff.
Click here to read the rest. . .
March 31, 2013
While I work on my next blog for Ploughshares, I wanted to share this little TedED talk on the power of fiction. If you’re not familiar with Ted talks, and you’re ready to slip down the Internet rabbit hole for a few hours, check them out. Ted talks are the best of what the Internet has to offer–a free exchange of valuable ideas, insights, and inspiration.
I’ve watched many on my own, shared many with friends, and shown the shorter TedED videos in my classroom. I show Vi Hart videos in math and science (and after I showed Hart’s fabulous fibonacci video this year, I followed it up with this great video of a kid in NY who created a solar collector based on the fibonacci pattern of oak trees), and I also show TedEd videos on linguistics and writing techniques during literacy. This morning I watched this video on the power of fiction.
I wasn’t surprised at all that I’m not the only one believes that sometimes the greater truth–and power–is found in a novel rather than a newspaper article, a song rather than a speech, and a painting instead of yet one more proclamation from a politician who cares more about his reelection campaign than he does about his constituents.
March 14, 2013
Another blog of mine up on Ploughshares begins thus:
February 25, 2013
It was with a heavy heart I received the news from my friend, Scott Sargent, that his father had died. Memory and distance can trick the brain into freezing time altogether, and this can be particularly true when it comes to teachers and friends we leave behind after high school. I hadn’t seen Mr. Sargent since my graduation from Gilford High School decades ago, so in my head he’s still the same as he was then, flattop haircut and short-sleeved dress shirts, a different striped tie for every day of the week.
Mr. Sargent didn’t look like an English teacher, he looked like a math teacher or an engineer or like an actual military sergeant—the kind who would flip a quarter onto to your bunk and give you two weeks of latrine duty just because it didn’t bounce high enough off the blanket.
It didn’t help that while the other English teachers at Gilford got to serve up The Great Gatsby or Catcher in the Rye or Lord of the Flies—books with enough intrigue or violence or adolescent angst to make any lesson slightly more manageable—Mr. Sargent had the trying task of teaching early American Lit. The curriculum consisted of Pilgrim journals, Puritan sermons (mainly of the fire and brimstone variety), Emerson essays, and, worst of all, Henry Thoreau’s Walden, a book that seemed just as torturous to a sixteen-year-old as calculus or SATs or a gym class first thing in the morning.
And we didn’t even have a proper classroom—we were shoehorned into a tiny, windowless space in a corner of the library that probably had been storage at some point or an office where the librarian hid to catch up on reading the Life or Outdoor magazines that never seemed to remain on the racks. There were no desks, so we all just sat on the floor in a semi-circle around Mr. Sargent, who sat in one of the only available chairs, crossed his legs, balanced whichever thankless text we currently had to read, and began to teach.
And we all know what happened next, right? Even Mr. Sargent would have to agree that this is one of the oldest stories in the book, whether it was part of his early American Lit curriculum or not. I know I wasn’t the only one who ended up scrawling Emerson quotes on my notebook—the most popular was “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist”—or the only one who grudgingly admitted Thoreau had some pretty good points. (I was probably the only one who tacked a poem on my bedroom wall by the Puritan Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, but that’s a story for another time.) Emerson and Thoreau were rebel punks and Wigglesworth was possibly the original Goth—as for the deceptively meek Emily Dickinson? She was easily the trickiest of the bunch.
I’m not sure how Mr. Sargent led us to a place where we could find value in what we read, where we could somehow connect words that were centuries old to our own world of Joe Strummer and John Hughes and the all-too enticing anti-Thoreau sentiment of “Greed is Good” from Wall Street. I think his gift had something to do with his sense of humor—this wry little smile he’d get once we wore ourselves out with complaints and finally happened upon the truth that he knew was there all along—but more to do with a deep and genuine kindness. His smile didn’t mean he was laughing at us—though we sure deserved that more often than not—it was just benevolent amusement that it took us so darn long to figure everything out.
And I wonder now if we were shoehorned into that tiny room by design rather than lack of space. It wasn’t much smaller than Thoreau’s cabin had been, and it certainly was spare. There was just us on the floor with our notebooks and pencils, and Mr. Sargent sitting in his chair, legs crossed, book on his lap.
I suppose you could say that in addition to having this frozen-in-time image of Mr. Sargent from my 11th grade English class so long ago, memory and distance also have allowed me to idealize his impact on me as a writer and teacher and an ever-evolving nonconformist, but I really don’t think so. With that vintage flattop and a different striped tie for every day of the week, he was probably the first real nonconformist I ever knew; Emerson and Thoreau would be proud. I’m proud too, that I could call him my teacher.
February 24, 2013
Because I’m going to see the Who tonight (or, Who’s left, as I now refer to them while saying a quiet little prayer for John and Keith), I wanted to post this snippet from an essay I published in Prairie Schooner.
The piece is about how I was an actress in high school, both on and off the stage, just like we all learn to be one way or another. As children, we’re often told the importance of “being ourselves,” but truthfully most of what we learn is how we’re supposed to act–what we’re supposed to show on the surface, and everything else we’re supposed to hide. And in high school when there’s a constant mix of hormones and yearning running through our thoughts, playing to a background of rock music that only amplifies those feelings, it’s amazing that any of us survived all the battle wounds we both suffered and inflicted as we learned exactly how to “act.”
The essay ends with the story of two boys from my school who went to see the Who in their first “last tour” almost thirty years ago. I suppose they were friends with each other because they had a lot in common, including a love of music. They also shared the distinction of being ex-boyfriends of mine–here I’ll remind you that I’m from a small town where, if you don’t date boys who are friends with each other, you run out of boys pretty quickly. I had coldly dispatched them, one after the other, in large part because I hadn’t yet learned how to act and so I gave into a human’s most primal instinct to flee in the face of danger (or love, which often amounts to the same thing).
And maybe I love the Who because Pete writes songs that express that mix of loneliness and love and terror in a way that keeps me connected to those feelings, I’m not sure. Anyhow, here’s the clip, from my essay “Method Acting”:
That December, Troy and Jeff became the toast of the school—or at least the toast of the drama geek/gear head/band nerd contingent—when the two of them somehow made up a plausible story for their moms about why they’d be gone all night on a Saturday and hopped on a Greyhound bus to Worcester, Massachusetts to see the Who on their last tour (their first of many last tours but no one knew that then). They had a hundred dollars between them plus a few dozen T-shirts Troy had silkscreened with the classic Maximum R&B image of Pete Townshend in all his windmill splendor, and they traded everything for tickets in the nosebleed section.
The real adventure began after the concert, when they had to spend the rest of the night outside a gas station as they waited for the 5 a.m. bus back to New Hampshire. Because it was December of course there was a blizzard and because they were self-respecting New Hampshire high school boys of course they were without hats or gloves or boots, and they probably barely escaped freezing to death in the cold. Following their triumphant return they told and retold the story to everyone who asked; my version came from Jeff who I ran into a week later outside the band room.
I remember asking Jeff what it was like watching Roger Daltry toss his microphone twenty feet in the air and if he really caught it every time, and asking what John Entwhistle’s bass solo sounded like in “My Generation” and if he had his water bottles lined up in front of him like we’d seen in photos from Rolling Stone, and I remember asking how many times Pete did that lead guitar windmill, how many times he recreated the classic picture from the Maximum R&B poster that Troy silkscreened on those T-shirts that got them in the door in the first place. And Jeff answered all of my questions, giving me more details than I thought anyone could possibly remember, especially when I finally asked what everything was like when it was real and large and loud and right before you instead of frozen in a picture from a magazine or T-shirt. But I didn’t ask Jeff the one thing I really wanted to know, the one thing I hoped he’d be able to share.
I didn’t ask Jeff what you talk about with someone when you’re on a Greyhound Bus for three hours to Worcester and three hours back, what you say when you stand all night in a blizzard as the minutes tick slowly by wondering if you’re going to make it through the night. I could see Jeff and Troy in my head—those two skinny bespectacled boys, those two boys I’d walked away from—huddled together in their jeans and sneakers and their coats far too thin for winter. While I knew they hadn’t talked about me, or if they had they’d never say, I did wish they had saved at least part of that long night figuring out how on earth I could fix what was wrong inside of me. I wished they had come back from that infamous odyssey with some answers we all could use.
I also wanted to post photos of an air band contest from back in 1985 when my brother Kevin dressed as Pete Townshend and his best friend Scott was Roger Daltry (I’m pretty sure they got second place but I could be wrong about that) in part because Kevin is who I’ll be with tonight, just like Kevin is the first person I watched Quadrophenia with way back when. Lucky for him, I can’t find them, but maybe one day. . .
February 12, 2013
Yes it’s true. I’m finally starting to make good on this writing gig. It’s small change, as the visual above indicates, but I am excited nonetheless. Today is my first post for the literary magazine Ploughshares, based at Emerson College in Boston. The Ploughshares blog is a great conglomeration of deep thinking, shallow thinking, and everything in-between.
There are posts reviewing literary boroughs around the world, proving over and again that you don’t have to live in New York City to be a writer. There are posts that create Spotify playlists to go along with your favorite novel and posts to reinforce your deeply held belief that some reality television might actually be good for the soul.
For my first blog post, I decided to encapsulate this idea of one-stop shopping by writing about fly-fishing, Buddhism, the Dewey Decimal System, and more. All I can say is that if you could pick one blog post to take with you onto a desert island–something beyond the wikiHow post on surviving on a desert island (too obvious!)–this would be the post. Click away and happy reading!
February 7, 2013
I’ve been quiet on the blog posts lately because I just got a new job writing . . . . blog posts! Yes it’s true, you CAN write from home and make at least enough to buy a ream or two of paper at Staples. . .
Along with several other “guest bloggers” I’m posting on the blog for Ploughshares, a literary magazine in Boston that’s part of the Emerson College writing program. My post will appear sometime in late February, but until then check out this great blog by Rebecca Makkai on what we can learn from reality TV. . .
December 14, 2012
My daughter Emily and I have sometimes talked about collaboration. Not collaboration when it comes to doing homework or dishes–for those issues she’s on her own–but instead working together when it comes to collaborating as artists. And as an artist, Emily reminds me a lot of my mom.
As a kid, I remember watching my mother talk on the phone with her mother or her friends, not so much because of what she said or how she laughed at whatever they said back, but instead because of the pictures I saw the next day. My father was careful about leaving a pencil and paper next to all the phones in our house so that anyone who answered could take messages if necessary, and when my mother talked on the phone, she used that paper to doodle and sketch.
The images she left were more often than not close-ups–a face, a profile, a single lushly lashed eye. I was amazed at what she left behind, if only because I was completely incapable of drawing myself. Sure I was only in elementary school, but I instinctively knew my artistic abilities were limited, no matter what the medium–Crayolas to Cray-Pas to Charcoal and beyond. Every week, I thought about filling out those art school tests that were tucked into the Sunday Boston Globe, and every week I knew I didn’t cut the mustard while I suspected my mother surely would.
When Emily was three, I had to bring her to work one day–my boss was amazingly understanding as well as delighted that I considered her Emily’s “grandma away from home.” I had crayons and Hilda had index cards, and soon enough Emily had scribbled a red crayon onto a pink index card. “Bird,” she said to both of us, and Hilda and I took a look at what she’d done. “You need to save that,” Hilda said. “That’s precisely what it looks like.”
And as always, Hilda was right. And now I think I’m right to say Emily is a crack illustrator, if only because I see pencil doodles and sketches–and here and there an artfully-rendered close-up of an eye–all over her math and social studies and English notes–and one day I hope for the privilege of collaborating with her on a book. Emily and I have discussed it, but right now we can’t really decide. An ABC book of lost or unloved cars–for example B is for the Subaru Brat, one of the most beautiful and ugliest cars on the planet? Or perhaps a visual history of the Marsh Mallow, the plant Egyptians first used to create a delightfully sweet confection? Or perhaps just an illustrated fairy tale in which the mother isn’t required to die before the story even begins, and the step-mother doesn’t necessarily have to be THE most evil character in the book? We’re not sure yet–we’re still brainstorming.
As I wait for Emily to decide I think a picture is worth a thousands words, which means Emily is clearly in charge. So I will post her newest creations. This year, her holiday gifts to her friends are illustrations–a unique illustration for each friend. Because I begged and pleaded and agreed to help with the above-mentioned dishes chore she’s responsible for, she said I could post her pictures. Enjoy!
December 1, 2012
In case you didn’t already know, writing and revision can be endless, but after a little crisis of confidence a year-and-a-half ago, I decided to revise further rather than send out too soon, killing countless trees in search of a first final copy. But the manuscript is officially now out with publishers–and if you think writing takes a long time, it’s nothing close to how long book publishing takes. That is, unless you’re writing a tell-all book about a celebrity already on her 14th minute of fame or you’re a reality star on her 14th minute of fame and you have to get that beauty book/self-help book/cookbook/YA novel out before no one remembers or cares who you are.
So, as I wait to find out the book’s fate, I thought I’d share a link to the Winter 2012 Ploughshares magazine, which has published a chapter of the manuscript. You can think of it as a free preview . . . . I’ll have one more preview chapter appearing in the new online magazine 1966, and then I hope I’ll be able to say you’ll have to buy the book to find out the rest!
This chapter is about The Miracle Worker and about body image and about the lovely and mysterious Heather, but primarily it’s about how quiet and secretive the culture of northern New England is.
Maybe it’s the climate, maybe it’s the careful conservative natures that seemed necessary for survival, but more often than not northern New Englanders never reveal our deepest fears and desires, and we certainly don’t reveal our secrets. As I write in the essay, “What I believed to be true was true—if you don’t say something, no one will ask you. If you don’t ask—and you hardly ever ask—no one will tell you anything.” Hope you enjoy; I’d love to hear your feedback.