Archive for May, 2010

My Other Garden

May 28, 2010

I spent the morning of my birthday completely away from my writing, tending to my other garden: the one I’m cultivating in my yard.

First I tweaked and polished projects I already had well underway. I cleared out the yellow daffodil leaves, pulled some weeds, uprooted grass that had confused the flower bed for the lawn, and tucked two basil plants (one Genovese, one Thai) and one hot pepper (Thai) in among the flowers in the front bed.

Then I turned to my main work in progress: the veggie patch near the garage. I had my first veggie garden last year, using compost I purchased. Because I wanted the garden to look good with the curving line of the flower bed behind it, I made it circular. Because it was my first attempt at growing vegetables, I kept it to a modest 3 feet in diameter. And, also because it was my first attempt at growing vegetables, I crowded in a little of everything: lettuce, parsley, basil, peppers, several varieties of tomato, and some flowers to make it pretty. It worked out okay, but like a short story with a novel’s worth of characters and subplots, it really had too much going on for such a small space.

This year, I decided to focus, with just four tomato plants. I stopped by a plant sale and bought one “Sun Gold” (which I adored eating off the vine at my beloved Intervale Community Farm in Burlington), one “Super Sweet 100” (because my mother-in-law swears by them), one “Yellow Brandywine” (because they’re heirloom and, well, yellow) and one “Paul Robeson” (just because).

Before I put them in the ground, I opened the drawer at the base on my Soil Saver compost bin, and shoveled out five or six heaping helpings. This was the most miraculous part of the whole process. For the last year, I had been filling that bin with things I would have otherwise discarded: garden clippings, fall leaves and kitchen scraps. With time and turning, those leftovers had magically morphed into soil: sweet, black, nutrient-rich and deliciously soft. I mixed the compost with last year’s soil and smoothed the surface with the back of a square metal rake. I scooped out four little pockets, and nestled my tomato plants in place.

I haven’t always had gardens. Before I got interested in plants, I raised two children. But I have been making stuff up forever. They’re miracles, too: bits and scraps of experience, hearsay and fact that have turned through time until they magically morph into stories.

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Haunting Houses

May 14, 2010

Early in my novel LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, a woman returns to her childhood home for her mother’s funeral. When her teenage daughter balks at spending the night in the house, the woman sees for the first time how this place she so loves must appear to the unbiased eye.

The rhododendrons out front are overgrown, almost feral, and the bricks in the path are broken and misaligned, like bad teeth. Inside, windows and drawers either resist opening or refuse to close. Bedside lamps turn on and off of their own accord. Toilets flush themselves capriciously. Pillows poke you with the shafts of their leaking feathers. The profusion of peeling green paint at the top of the back stairs suggests something seriously wrong.

I grew up in a house like that. My childhood home in Montclair is, in fact, the only “character” in the book I took directly from reality.

My family bought the house when I was a year old. We sold it after my mother died, forty years later. It haunted me for a long time. It visited my dreams and crowded my consciousness when I was awake. At random moments I’d find myself fixating on some closet or cupboard, and realize that I could never again sort through its contents – not because it was no longer ours, but because it was no longer there. It hurt. A lot.

Then the people who’d bought the house put it on the market. My brother and his family went to the open house, and he took lots of pictures.

I pored over those photos, absorbing the new landscaping, the repainted living room, the refinished floors and all the other differences between the place I ached for and the one that now occupied our old address. Seeing the changes helped. A lot. Since my old home now existed in only as I memory, I was free to return to it whenever I liked. And as I wrote my book, I did just that.

Then, somewhere between the fifth and sixth drafts of my novel, my husband and I moved to Rhode Island, to a rambling Victorian with dark shingles and a wrap-around porch – like my childhood home.

Like my childhood home, the house in Rhode Island had been in the same family for decades. Like my childhood home, the house in Rhode Island wasn’t in the greatest condition. But unlike my old home, house in Rhode Island had a sad story. One of the daughters had died tragically four years earlier. Her picture was everywhere, and the place felt suffused with grief, from the neglected yard to the dingy walls and the destroyed floors.

Our real estate agent assured us that with new plantings, fresh paint and refinished floors, the place would feel entirely different. She was right. This summer will mark our third anniversary here. The house is clearly ours, as bright and open as it was dark and closed the first time we saw it.

And though I often retell this house’s history, I know that the story of the place doesn’t end with the previous owners – any more than it does for my childhood home. Except, of course, in memory. And, perhaps, in a book.

Pants on Fire

May 7, 2010


I lied a lot when I was little. This was nothing dramatic, you understand – just run-of-the-mill fabrications, the sort most kids make up. I might embellish facts to keep the listener interested, invent excuses to wheedle out of trouble, stretch the truth to make my hardship seem more onerous, my accomplishment more worthy of praise. Sometimes the lie would simply slip out as if on its own in a sort of conversational twitch.

True story: At Girl Scout camp when I was ten, two older girls trapped me in my tent and pinned my arms to my sides. The feeling of confinement made me panic. I flailed out with all my strength, and when that didn’t work, I said the first thing that came into my head. I told them they’d better let me go, because I had a history of mental illness and might go berserk. They let go, and I escaped. But the humiliation of the lie I had told about myself burned long after the summer had ended.

Also true: My first year in college, I took a media class, for which I was required to watch a certain amount of TV watching. Two kids on my hall claimed TV was evil, and told me I shouldn’t be watching it. To convince me, they cornered me in my room. One kid held me still while the other kid stretched the sleeves of my sweatshirt over my hands and tied them behind my back, like a straight-jacket. I thrashed and flailed in such a panic that they backed off. “Better watch how you treat me,” I told them, cringing at my dishonesty even as I gloated over their alarm. “I have psychological problems and they get set off when I’m teased.”

Thirty years later, I called my own bluff and actually did go to see a shrink. Sitting face to face with the man who would be my weekly confidant for the next five years, I felt more compelled to tell the truth than I had ever felt at any other time in my life. How could he help me sort through what was on my mind if I didn’t narrate my thoughts to him – and do it as truthfully as possible?

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I understood that I would have to push past some excruciating embarrassment. What I didn’t count on was how hard it could be to pin down my own thoughts. To know what was truly true.

“I’m not very good at telling the truth,” I confessed, and presented as evidence my humiliating lies at camp and in college.

“You’re doing fine,” he assured me. “In this room, the truth isn’t just conveyed by what you say, but also by how you say it, and by what you don’t say. The truth is what happens here between us.”

Or words to that effect. To be perfectly honest, I’ve forgotten what he actually said. What I remember is what I heard: not just his therapeutic affirmation, but also a deeper insight into how communication occurs.

I remember it – or try to – when I write. Whether I’m writing fiction or an essay like this one, I know it’s going well when I feel compelled to tell the truth. I know it’s going very well when that truth is hard to get at, but I find my way nonetheless. And I know that I’ve succeeded when a reader tells me, “I know what you mean.”

This is Your Brain on Writing

May 1, 2010

When we lived in our first home in Burlington, Vermont, I liked to prepare to write with a quiet walk by Lake Champlain. With repetition, the routine became a ritual. And like any ritual in the hands of a True Believer, when it worked, it worked like magic. As I walked, I carefully set aside extraneous thoughts, and concentrated instead on the working of my legs, the beat of my breath, the smells of the season, the sound of the wind, the colors of the lake and the sky. By the time I’d reached the second overlook and turned back towards home, some unbidden insight into my writing would be percolating up from my subconscious. It might be solution to a structural snafu, a turn of phrase that tickled my ear, or a usable detail from some long-forgotten event.

What made my ritual effective? The calm and the quiet certainly helped, and my faith that it would work probably had a placebo effect. And I suspect that the physical movement of my body played a role, as well. In a sense, what I was doing on those walks was, um, jogging my memory.

Funny phrase, right? As in, funny weird? Makes it seem like past experiences are etched in the vinyl surface of our minds, and the stylus that brings them to life has gotten snagged on a scratch and needs a little nudge in the tone arm. Or substitute your own analogy, in which recollections are posited as physical entities, and mechanical manipulation brings them in focus. Wacky idea? Maybe not no much.

Think of all the cool work psychologists are doing with MRIs, mapping the geography of thoughts. Look at the various studies connecting the meaty hardware of the brain and the amorphous software of the mind. (The jury seems to be out on whether gym time helps older folks stave off forgetfulness, but young adults who work up a sweat before taking memory-related tests do better than their couch-potato peers.)

Consider the amygdala. In that bitty chunk of brain matter, emotional states get linked to sensory stimuli. That time I got sick in Mexico, and for years afterwards, couldn’t even hear the word enchilada without heaving? That’s the amygdala. The Iraq War vet who panics at the sound of a backfiring VW? Yup.

I know a woman in Colorado who treats people suffering from post-traumatic stress. In one of her techniques, she has the client deliberately remember the big scary thing that happened, and while the memory is vivid, she makes them move their eyes back and forth, back and forth, really quickly. The idea is that when the big scary thing went down in the first place, the brain was too overwhelmed to properly process what was happening. The impression got stuck in the brain’s short-term parking lot, where it continues to feel like it happened just yesterday. My friend’s approach, called EMDR, somehow shakes the memory loose, so it can move into long-term parking and recede into the past, where it belongs.

So maybe it’s a stretch to try to compare that with I’m doing when I walked my way into writing. But I like to think that my ritual wasn’t random. True Believer that I am, I like to imagine that when I undertake the audacious act of creation, all the mysterious, interlocking systems that make me me – brain, mind, muscle, memory – are secretly conspiring to make it happen.