I am thinking of the lilac-trees,
That shook their purple plumes,
And when the sash was open,
Shed fragrance through the room.
–The Old Apple-Tree by American novelist Mrs. Anna S. Stephens
Nothing smells more like heaven than lilacs. Maybe that’s why Manet and Van Gogh were moved to capture their likeness on canvas, and writers like Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Louisa May Alcott were inspired to put pen to paper. There is something about the sweet-smelling flowers that takes me outside myself, transporting me into a world where I’m reminded of my past, and my future.
As a child, I would lie under the lilac trees in our backyard and inhale deeply while I plucked the sweet blossoms from the branches. One by one I sucked the nectar from the tiny flowerets and nibbled on the petals while I read a book and watched my brothers chase each other. Their heads were in their game, while mine was in the flowers, dreaming of summer clouds and rhubarb pie.
Emily Dickinson wrote,
The Lilacs — bending many a year —
Will sway with purple load —
The Bees — will not despise the tune —
Their Forefathers — have hummed —
My mother died in May, just when the lilac trees were bending with purple blooms. That year the fragrance filled my yard with sadness I could taste, just like the sweetness I sucked from the flowers as a child.
I cannot bring back my childhood days anymore than I can bring back my mother. But as bees hum around the lilacs in my yard, I can remember those days with a smile in my heart and inhale deeply. Perhaps that’s what the artists experience when they put brush to canvas and pen to paper. A fine spring day, fragrant with eternal love.
A couple of years ago I was attending a writer’s retreat and our assignment was to write a Christmas vignette. When it came time to share, I was frustrated–to cop a cliche–to tears. I had no Christmas memories, no stories to share, and that left me feeling empty inside.
Since then, I’ve tried to be more present in my life, to pay more attention, and here’s what I’ve discovered. I am an observer, rarely a participant. People fascinate me and I love to watch them. I am transparent. Joyce Carol Oates explains it beautifully in this interview. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2013/06/video-joyce-carol-oates.html?mbid=social_retweet
Phew, for a writer, I’m normal.
We are fortunate to have one of the oldest buildings in Idaho nearby at Stricker Ranch. Old Rock Creek Store and Stage Station, located approximately sixteen miles southeast of Twin Falls, Idaho, sits on the original wagon trail to Oregon, and is a great place to reflect and listen to stories. Here I am at the pioneer cemetery west of the store contemplating those buried there. The Friends of Stricker Ranch conducted a tour of the ranch that night and plan to hold more in the upcoming months. What a fascinating way to step back in time and brush up on history.
If you know anything about me, you know that Alice Hoffman is one on my favorite authors. Now, before you turn your nose and dismiss me like a clerk in a bookstore did recently, let me tell you why.
I stumbled across Hoffman’s books years ago at a writer’s conference. Hoffman wasn’t there, and she wasn’t well known among the audience of genre writers. But an author whose work I admired commented on Hoffman’s books, and when I got home, I looked up Hoffman. I went to the library and read about her in the journals of literary criticism. I read all her published novels. Then I read them again. I took out pen and paper and rewrote some of her paragraphs to get a sense of her rhythm, voice, and style.
When I tried to tell my son the English professor why I liked Hoffman’s work, I could only falter and say, “When I read her books I feel like she is sitting across the kitchen table from me, and that we are drinking coffee and telling each other our truest secrets.” Not that her work was brilliant or sent me to the dictionary, or even avant-garde. Not that her writing was political, or historical or made me want to move to New York City or Massachusetts. But that her writing made me deal with my emotions, and do it honestly.
Wow. I wish someone would say that about my work.
This observation comes today because I just finished Hoffman’s latest novel, The Red Garden. Now, I have read every book Hoffman has published including the books for young adults, and at first this book didn’t speak to me. It is not a novel, but a collection of short stories that act as a novel. And if you read them fast, you miss the message each story contains. There isn’t much of a plot. Some of the characters lack motivation. But if you read them slowly and listen to the voice of the author and try to keep in mind the connection of the characters, you get to the underlying gist of the stories, an eerie sort of longing and contemplation about life and death. A Tree of Life that bears Look-No-Further fruit. I can usually finish a Hoffman book in one sitting. With this book, I had to slow down and let the simple, common, haunting words hit their mark. After reading “The Principles of Devotion,” I had to set the book aside for the rest of the day. It is one of the shorter stories in the book, but did it ever punch me in the gut. A dying sister, a loyal dog, small and unfulfilled wishes. Wow. I was so paralyzed by her words I had to stop reading.
This is not meant as a review of the book. I do not believe in critics’ reviews because each reader brings something different to a book or to a movie. Who’s to say which interpretation or experience is the better? What I’m trying to convey is how this author evoked my emotions. Did the book make me laugh? Yes, a couple of times. Did the book make me cry? Yes, once. Did the book make me feel? Absolutely, all the way to the end.
The same thing happens when I listen to the music of country and pop artist Taylor Swift. If I were fifteen and falling in love for the first time, I might be drawn to Taylor because she has spunk, energy, and charisma. But I’m nearer sixty and I’ll tell you what draws me to Taylor — her talent and ability to tell stories honestly.
I was first drawn to Taylor because I was writing about my 16-year-old protagonist Abbie Buchanan and wanted to capture the raw emotion of a teenager. When I would write about Abbie, I would put on Swift’s music from Fearless and let Abbie’s emotions bubble. In my Hoffman tradition, once I discovered Taylor, I devoured everything she released. For Christmas, I asked for and received her first album, Taylor Swift. I was expecting a so-so album since it contained songs Taylor wrote in her early teens. But these songs are as powerful as those in Speak Now and Fearless. I love Taylor’s songs and find myself waking up with them in my head. Like Hoffman, the stories Taylor tells stir my emotions. They make me remember I’m human, the elements of life–the breathing, the loving, the hating, the messing up, the forgiving and accepting.
And then there is me, inspired by these talented artists who dare to tell it like it is without any apologies, who inspire me to face each new day with enthusiasm and deepened insight.
To that I say, Wow. Absolutely, Wow. And a very gracious Thank You.
Tell people you’re a writer, and the first thing they ask is, “What have you published?” There are lots of ways to answer this question, but I really like award-winning author and blogger John Shore’s observations on the book publishing industry. Check out his recent Huffington Post blog, “Why You Want a Big Book Publisher to Reject Your Book.” Being a writer is not the same as being published and here are some of the reasons why.
Those who know me know that I don’t write in July and August. Because, for me, writing requires that I set myself apart, enter a dreamlike world that creates a positive place where words and ideas flow. This is a selfish place and doesn’t accommodate “What’s for dinner?” or “Where are my shoes?” Some writers can write even when distracted, and I envy them, but when I sit down to write, I lose track of time. I forget to eat. I don’t like interruptions. And in July and August when my grandsons visit, I want to bake cookies, go swimming, and play.
This leads me to the topic of this post, balancing life and setting priorities. Today I’m sitting in my son’s living room in Hillsboro, Oregon, hanging with my grandsons while my son and daughter-in-law spend some much needed time alone. In a couple of days I will be back home, and back at my keyboard. As I check email and plan my September schedule, I am overwhelmed. One friend has uploaded a book to Smashwords, and is already selling copies. Another has sent a manuscript to her list of dream agents. Another is blogging about her latest release. Another is designing a trailer for her new book. When I look at everything my peers are doing, I feel inadequate, like a slack, because the only writing I have done in two months is write a blog.
If it sounds like I’m whining, I want you to know that I’m not. I’m just stating the facts. July and August belong to my family, and I have learned to schedule my writing time accordingly. Along with this, I’ve learned to use my time wisely, to be present in the moment so I don’t look back and say, “I wish I had . . ..”
Laurie Halse Anderson, the successful author of Speak, Prom, and Wintergirls touches on this topic in her own blog today. Laurie’s blog is thought-provoking not only for writers, but for everyone. Basically, it boils down to deciding what’s important, and then making time for it.
If you struggle with finding time to do something you love, hop over to Laurie’s blog (http://tinyurl.com/36eqzvk) for some wonderful suggestions to make that happen.
I was probably ten years old when I first read Jane Eyre. I followed that quickly with Wuthering Heights, and even wrote a paper on the light and dark elements in Wuthering Heights when I was in college. These books remain my all time favorites, my go to books when I want to be transported. I still read them today, even though they were written over 150 years ago. I could go on and on about these wonderful classics, but I won’t. Instead, I’d like to share a video link my friend, Robin Lee Hatcher, posted on Facebook today. She did not make the video, she was just passing it on because it’s too good not to share. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NKXNThJ610
It’s cold in Idaho. I’m in my office wrapped in a blanket, trying to type with gloves on. Yes, my furnace works. Yes, I have heat. But the cold has crawled through the windows into my bones, and short of soaking in the hot tub all day, I can’t get warm. Instead of sitting at my desk, I want to snuggle on the sofa with a cup of hot tea and a good book. But I’m a writer, so rather than give in to my whims, I’m here struggling to make sense out of words.
It may look easy, but writing is hard work. On gray days like this it’s tough to stay motivated, and it isn’t surprising that right now circulating on many writer’s loops is this article “Ten Rules for Writing”. It’s probably circulating now because February is so dismal. Just yesterday a friend said the only good thing about February is that it connects January and March. But I digress. Combine dismal and hard work and it’s easy to see why so many people go south for the winter. Or so many writers stop working.
For me, this article hit the loops at just the right time. Writing is solitary work. Often there is no feedback, nothing to judge if all the time spent at the computer is fruitful. Many times I find myself wondering if I have picked the right profession; if maybe I shouldn’t be doing something else.
Therefore, it’s encouraging to know that even successful writers struggle with self-doubt, and the advice given in “Ten Rules for Writing” is uplifting on this dreary day. I particularly like Margaret Atwood’s comment, “You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.”
I love Idaho. I choose to live here. I love writing, even on dark gloomy days. So maybe it’s time to quit whining, and get back to work.
(you can read the second part of the article here)
With the new year, I’ve been thinking a lot about starting over. Starting over is hard to do because it feels too much like failure. As a writer, I expect myself to be so brilliant I get the book right the very first draft. How silly is that? I know writing books is more about rewriting, honing, tightening, and bringing clarity and unity to the work. I know that few published books (if any) make it through without a lot of hard work and editing. But the truth is I am lazy.
I have a book I have been working on much too long. I even put it away for a couple of years because it felt dead-ended. But I love the concept and the characters, and the story keeps taunting, “Do the work. Do the work.” Because, you see, the easy part is done. I have my characters, I have my location. I have a high concept. But what I don’t have is a convincing story. I haven’t learned how to connect the dots so this story sings.
When I shopped this book a few years ago, I received many favorable comments, but the book just wasn’t ready. An agent that I respect said I could write well, but I didn’t know what my story was.
Maybe she was right. Or maybe I just didn’t do a good enough job of telling my story. So today I begin the long journey of beginning again. I’ll dig out the old character sketches, and create new ones. I’ll rethink goals and motivation. Today I’ll bite the bitter bullet, and with any luck and a lot of hard work, I will finally get it right.
Judi Baxter, who owned and operated Judi’s Bookstore in Twin Falls from 1978 to 1992 wrote this review for BookChat. Check it out. Thanks, Judi, for the positive review. Thanks also to the Times-News for letting us reprint the article here.
Three ‘writers with stories to tell’
It is always thrilling to hold a treasured book in my hands – rediscovering a childhood favorite, inhaling the scent of an old, leather-bound tome, perusing glorious pictures from a beloved illustrator or gently opening a much-anticipated title for the first time.
The thrill was certainly there when I received a copy of “Voices From The Snake River Plain,” the collection of essays, short stories and poetry from three talented local writers, Bonnie Dodge, Dixie Thomas Reale and Patricia Santos Marcantonio.
The lawn mowing, leaf raking and sidewalk sweeping went by the wayside as I sat on my deck and immersed myself in their worlds. I laughed, sighed, held my breath for a few moments and even cried while reading of families and friends, journeys and jealousies.
Marcantonio’s “The Hitch,” an engaging short story about a camping trip gone bad, left me giggling and nodding my head in agreement: Been there, done that! Forget the spectacular Stanley Basin scenery, mountain air and sparkling Salmon River; a lost trailer hitch leads to pointed fingers, heated words and thoughts of divorce. But her wise old character, Earl, quickly snaps everything back into focus: “Earl pulled up his welding mask. ‘You folks should have a good time once this is fixed. You can hike the trails, cook over a campfire, fish a bit. See the stars together. That’s the only way to see the stars, with someone you love so you know you aren’t dreaming.'” Beautiful!
In the chapter “Remembrances,” Reale captured my heart with “Mush.” Anyone who grew up having to eat oatmeal-the-texture-of-wallpaper-paste for breakfast every morning will immediately identify with the feisty, stubborn little girl. Her mother said she would eat it. Period. She was determined not to. Period. It became a royal battle of wills and more than a little ingenuity on young Dixie’s part: feeding it to the dog, tossing it out the window, dribbling large spoonfuls around her bowl. Since she didn’t have to eat the slopped part, that maneuver became her answer:
“I decorated the room. The entire bowl was drizzled and splattered one spoonful at a time across the mahogany tabletop, the wall, the bench and onto the floor. There was so much of it that gray puddles ran into one another making small lakes. Once Mama saw the mess she scraped it back into the dish and slung it in front of me. Now it was cold and slimy, had a faint flavor of English wood oil, and smelled a bit like floor polish. ‘You will eat this,’ she said.”
At this point, I was chuckling, but it was nothing compared with the laugher that erupted when I came to her final solution. What a creative little girl!
After reading Dodge’s “Surviving the Storm,” set a few days after the attack on the World Trade Center, I barely moved for many long minutes, reflecting on her words, recalling the overwhelming feelings of those haunting days as our nation sat in stultified silence and pain.
The women debate their plans to attend a bookfest in Boise and a trip to Idaho City for their annual mini-retreat, struggling with their own fears and doubts about leaving home and families so soon. “It’s what they want,” writes Dodge. “They want to terrorize us into inaction. I think we should go.” And so they do.
They spend hours exploring the former mining town, picking wildflowers, spontaneously attending a Catholic Mass, sharing homemade peach cobbler at Trudy’s Diner.
Dodge writes: “Heading for the car, we stop when we see an area of the cemetery marked with weathered boards, each etched with only one word: Unknown. Like rubber bands, we’re snapped back into reality as we think of the many new graves in New York City, some of which will soon be marked: Unknown. We exchange glances and, unembarrassed by our tears, embrace, holding onto each other longer than usual.
“We pass tissues like candy. Our hearts hurt. We have no words, no stories to define our nation’s massive devastation. As we travel the road that will take us back to our families, smiles chase away sadness and the desperate need to be home … Even in this troubled time, when our nation is stunned and nothing much is moving, we are. Because we’re still writers with stories to tell.”
And our lives are richer because these three writers have gathered and shared those stories with us.
Kennedy after trip to the dollar store.
Just because I haven’t posted a blog since May, it may look like I’m doing nothing. But the truth is that I’ve been busy with summer, gardens, grandsons, and laying out a book for The Other Bunch.
The garden is producing generously every day with more broccoli and cabbage than I can eat. The grandsons spent the month of July with us swimming, riding ATVs, and looking for ghosts. It was an honor to watch Kennedy at age 5 jump off the diving board during swim lessons. Dante, who turns 8 next week, adopted our orphaned cat Lucy Smith and hunted up grasshoppers and caterpillars for his bug box, while big brother Dmitri helped make banana bars, birthday cake ice cream, and Twinkie cupcakes. All boys are now back in Hillsboro with their parents who are glad to have them home and underfoot again. And yes, I miss them, but now that the house is empty, I’ve been busy laying out our new book, “Voices from the Snake River Plain”. This is a collection of essays, short stories, and poems written by Dixie Thomas Reale, Patricia Santos Marcantonio, and me. With any luck and a lot of patience, the book will be available soon. Just so you know, when it looks like I’m doing nothing, I’m busy living life and enjoying every minute of it.
Things are pretty grim in America. The economy sucks; jobs are hard to keep, and harder yet to find. With markets for writers shriveling up like last year’s apples, it’s hard to stay positive. But maybe Elizabeth Gilbert’s video, author of Eat, Pray, Love, will inspire you to keep writing in these uncertain times. Enjoy.