Archive for January, 2011


January 28, 2011

So here’s last night’s dream. I’m driving a car, holding between the tips of my thumb and index finger a scrap of paper the size of a Post-It on which is written the key to my new novel. It’s crucial that I not lose this piece of paper, but it’s hard to hold onto it and drive at the same time. Making matters worse are the three thugs – broad shoulders, sunglasses, shiny suits – riding beside me and in the backseat.

I’m not sure where I’m supposed to be going, only that it better be wherever these scary guys want me to go. They never utter a word, but I know that whatever they’re thinking can’t be good. All of this is making me super nervous, especially when I realize that the place I’m about to drive is suddenly filled with people.

They’re sitting all over the pavement, all facing the same direction and in the same straight-backed, crossed-legged pose, like some kind of art installation, or movers in a board game. Each one represents a different type: Business Man, Homeless Woman, Hipster, African Market Woman, Soldier, etc. This is like a hokey dream sequence in a movie, my dream self thinks.

The dream people look up with concern as I approach, but not one of them moves, and it’s immediately clear that unless I do something different, I’m about to run them all over. I throw the car into reverse and hastily back out of there, squirming with self-consciousness as I sense the thugs’ silent criticism.

I turn onto a new street, this one filled with different figures from a different kind of movie. Like the last group, these figures are also perfectly still, evenly spaced and facing the direction. But they’re standing, wearing coats and hats from the 1940s. Some hold luggage, like they’re waiting for a train. And this movie is in black and white.

Before I can think of what to do, I lose hold of my little piece of paper. It floats across the lap of the thug beside me. I lunge and snag it, then lock it safely inside a have-a-heart trap, which I set on the console beside my seat.

Did I mention that yesterday I hit a snag in my new book?

It was bound to happen. For the last few weeks, the work has been flowing so beautifully. A little encouraging nudge from my agent and I’d managed to turn off my inner editor. Once I started trusting the process, scenes and characters and conflicts blossomed. I didn’t try to write well, or even to write. I just started making notes and watching to see where they took me. They’ve taken me pretty far — far enough so I now feel like I can safely say I’m actually working on something new.

This process got a jump-start about a week ago, when I switched to new software. A bunch of the writers I follow on Twitter rave about Scrivener, which is specifically designed for writing long manuscripts. I didn’t pay attention. I’d managed to complete a 103k-word novel, with multiple characters and interwoven plot lines, on my plain vanilla word processor. I didn’t need to stinkin’ special software. Also, Scrivener was only available for cool Mac owners, and I’m still a PC dork. On the other hand, when I saw that the program was available in free beta downloads for Windows, I jumped at the chance.

I don’t love everything about this program. The fill-in-the-blanks character forms feel a little, um, formulaic. And the name generating tool is just silly. Also, the program froze on me a few times, which was very scary, though I suppose par for the course when your working with a beta. And in the end I didn’t lose any material.

The beauty of Scrivener is that it makes it really easy to see your manuscript as a whole, to navigate within the book, and to move back and forth between jotting down or referring to notes and drafting actual text. I did that with my last book, using an imperfect, byzantine system I spent way too long cobbling out for myself. Having that infrastructure already laid out for me, and working in a program that actually encourages my sort of non-linear thinking – let me follow my natural inclinations and kept the creative juices flowing.

When my energy flagged, I could turn to Scrivener’s progress meter, which lets you set your goals, and then tells you how you’re doing. It seems idiotic, and it’s nothing I can’t – and haven’t – done for myself. But, like the read-out on the elliptical machine at the gym, Scrivener’s word meter turns the process into a game. And sometimes that’s just the jolt you need.

What Scrivener can’t do is actually write the damned thing. Or tell you whether you’re headed in the right direction. Or figure out the solution to that big mystery you’ve hung your whole plot on. That’s the problem I bumped up against on Wednesday — the solution to that big mystery I’d hung my whole plot on. I actively wrestled with the problem all day Thursday, without success. It was still on my mind when I went to bed last night, and had that dream.

Your analysis, Dr. Freud?

The barely-in-control car is one of my standard worry tropes, a motif that arises when I have some problem on my mind. I’ve dreamed variations on this dream countless times. But last night was the first time I can remember a dream so literally identifying the problem that inspired it. The two sets of dream-sequence figures I was trying not to run over might have been the characters whose fates I’ve been trying to figure out. As for those thugs forcing me to go forward even as they silently second-guess my driving, let’s name one Inner Critic and another Publishing Industry. The third guy we might call, well, Drive.


Tree of Life

January 18, 2011

My mother died on February 1, 1999. According to the Jewish calendar, her death occurred in the year 5759, on the 15th day of Shevat. It’s easy for me to remember that date, because the 15th of Shevat is also Tu B’Shevat, the birthday of the trees, a minor Jewish holiday.

I do mean minor. When I was a kid in 1960s, Tu B’Shevat meant raising money to plant trees in Israel. Our Hebrew School teachers passed out cardboard cards with pictures of trees with slots among the leaves, each one the right size to hold a penny. Fill the card with enough pennies and the cardboard and copper magically morphed into a real tree that would transform the desert into a forest.

By the time my kids hit Hebrew School, 30 years later, pennies for trees were passé. Our Burlington synagogue celebrated Tu B’Shevat with a special seder based on a mystical model developed by 17th-century Kabbalists. Progressive hues of wine (or, in the kids’ case, juice) suggested the cycle of seasons, and different categories of fruit – with inedible shells and edible insides, with inedible pits and edible outsides, and with no inedible parts – symbolized, well, something.

Spheres of spiritual enlightenment? Personality types? Aspects of our relationship with Earth? Whatever. As someone in a college English class once said, “I know it’s a phallic symbol, but I don’t know of what.” That’s the great thing about ritual. It’s plastic. Also fun, even if you have no idea what it means.

But about my mom. By dying on a holiday, she did me a favor. Determining the Gregorian date of my dad’s Jewish death anniversary could be a pain. But every Jewish calendar came with my mom’s yahrzeit pre-labeled, making it oh-so-easy for me to know when to light the 24-hour memorial candle and show up at evening services to recite Mourner’s Kaddish.

On the other hand, anyone who has lost a loved one knows how holidays magnify the absence, and how holidays on which tragedies take place are never the same.

As earth-focused Tu B’Shevat took deeper root in my Green Mountain congregation, I grew increasingly resentful. Noshing on nuts and singing songs about trees hardly seemed suitable for such a sacred, somber day. Especially when the silly celebration’s eco-vibe and trippy mysticism were so appallingly appealing to an aging Deadhead and former Flower Child wannabe like me.

It really shouldn’t have been such a big deal. Except it was. Until it wasn’t. I didn’t do it on purpose or even consciously, but when we moved to Rhode Island, the mourner in me also moved on. First I forgot to buy the yahrzeit candle. Then I got lax about saying Kaddish.

David and I do go to synagogue more Saturdays than not, though, and when we do, I play an active role in the service. And every month we get together with the five other couples in the informal eating-and-schmoozing circle one of the rabbis organized. This month it was our turn to put together the program. When I realized the meeting’s date was the 11th of Shevat, I decided to do something I had never done before: put on a Tu B’Shevat seder.

We blessed and sipped various hues of wine, and blessed and nibbled different categories of fruit. In lieu of the Talmudic excerpts suggested by the Tu B’Shevat haggadah I found online, we read poems celebrating trees and their fruits: Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, Joyce Kilmer. Then we dug into a sumptuous potluck. Before and during and after, we teased each other and told jokes, passed around a phone with texted updates on the Pats/Jets game, and generally enjoyed being together.

Did I think about my mother? Of course. Mostly what struck me was how right it felt to remember her by getting together with friends to celebrate trees and anticipate spring, rather than closing myself off and nursing resentment.

I didn’t realize how really right it felt until David and I were cleaning up, putting the house back in order before we went to bed, as my parents made a point of doing after every party.

My parents never attended a Tu B’Shevat seder, and they died before cell phones and texting. But they loved food and friendship and jokes. Dad was more into baseball than football, but he would have eagerly reached for that phone when each update came in. And as a lifelong Jersey Boy, he would have been the one person in the room celebrating the game’s outcome.

My mother would have particularly appreciated the poems, especially the ones by those great New Jersey poets, William Carlos Williams and Joyce Kilmer. It was my mother who introduced me to poetry, sitting at the side of my bed and reading verse after verse before finally turning out the light.


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

William Carlos Williams, 1883-1963


I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918