Archive for March, 2012

La la la la la lovely Linda

March 23, 2012

Clink clink clink. (That’s the sound of my spoon tapping the side of my glass.)

Thk thk thk. (That’s me testing the mike.)

Chrm. (That’s some crap in my throat.)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am pleased to announce that I am now represented by Linda Epstein, an associate at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency .

I couldn’t be happier!

Linda and I have been (mostly email) friends for a while. She’s warm and smart and thoughtful and funny, and she knows from books. Most importantly, though, she really gets me, and she totally believes in my writing (maybe even more than I do, sometimes).

After reading queries and interning and otherwise learning the ropes by working for other people, Linda recently joined the well-established and highly respected Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency. When it was time for me to make a move, I was absolutely delighted that Linda (and Jennifer) agreed to take me on as a client.

The way I see it, it’s the best of several worlds. I get the experience and support of a proven agency, the energy and enthusiasm of an emerging agent, and the familiarity and fun of working someone I already trust and understand.

On to the next chapter. Woohoo!

Thank you for your attention. (And thank you, Linda!)

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Ask Autocomplete

March 21, 2012

When I was writing that last blog post about crying and reading, I went to Google and started typing in, “why do we cry when we read?” But before I had gotten past “Why,” Google gave me a drop-down menu of questions that might be on my mind.

why do cats purr?

why is the sky blue?

why is my poop green?

why am I still single?

O autocomplete, how I love you! Google claims  it’s not trying to write poetry. Well, actually, its explanation of how autocomplete works doesn’t even raise the possibility. Ask how autocomplete works, and it tells you about algorithms and other users’ search activities.

But I’m not the first person to catch on to this secret.  Search for autocomplete poetry, and you’ll find more examples.

I decided to see what sort of poetry other open questions would produce. (I didn’t find out until later that someone else had already done exactly that)

Like other forms of poetry, autocomplete poetry reveals something about the world. It reveals a world of lonely people searching for answers

about the elusiveness of fame and fortune

where is my refund

where is Chuck Norris

and how we act the way we do

why would you work for

why would you buy me that

why would you wear shorts in winter

Ask when, and your period is likely to be late

when can you get pregnant

when can I take a pregnancy test

when can babies see

when can babies eat eggs

when can I take a pregnancy test

when can I get pregnant

when can I file my taxes

when can I claim head of household

when would a servicing liability be recognized

when would I be due

when would my due date be

when would implantation bleeding occur

when do you ovulate

when does the time change

when does the narwhale bacon*

when do babies start teething

*at midnight, fyi

But if you follow the when with did, you’re probably doing you homework

when did the titanic sink

when didHawaii become a state

when did slavery end

when did Shirley Temple die

Where do is associated with animals, for some reason

where do fruit flies come from

where do penguins live

where do polar bears live

where do bed bugs come from

A single word can make a world of difference.

Why do suggests alientation

why do Indians smell

why do dogs eat poop

why do cats purr

why do men cheat

while why do I evokes personal shame

Why do I sleep so much

Why do I fart so much

Why do I sweat so much

In why do they, the they turn out to be the arbiters of language

why do they call it the clap

why do they call it black friday

why do they call it the birds and the bees

why do they call coffee joe

Why does makes human connections

why does she hate me

why does she like me

why does she love me

why does he do that

why does he like me

why does he ignore me

While why won’t targets technology

why won’t my kindle fire turn on

why won’t pinterest invite me

why won’t my itunes open

why won’t my ipod synch

My favorite? How big. 

how big is an acre

how big is the universe

how big isrhode island

how big is a cord of wood

Could have been written by William Carlos Williams.

Why Cry?

March 19, 2012

Do you cry after reading? I do, if the book I just finished was good enough. Correction: the book I’m just finishing. The tears don’t usually start after I close the cover. They come as I’m immersed in the last pages.

This can make reading in public awkward. I tried reading a novel while I worked out at the gym once. And only once. As the finale unfolded, the tears flowed, and I felt caught.

Should I let loose and humiliate myself in front of my work-out buddies, or should I try to suppress my response, and spoil a good climax? Neither option appealed. I decided: no more literature on the elliptical.

I had a similar problem the one time I drove from Rhode Island to Vermont and back by myself. I figured a good story would help the miles pass more easily. The first half of Charles Baxter’s Feast of Love was great for the ride up. When conditions got dicey, I paused my iPod, so I could pay attention to the road. Listening to the second half on the return trip was trickier. Just south of Boston, the story reached its climactic crescendo, I could hardly see the road through my tears, but I couldn’t turn the thing off, because I needed to know what happened. Damn, that was a good. If dangerous. My new rule: no more driving under the influence of fiction.

David doesn’t get any of this. “Why do you like to torture yourself like that?” he asks.

“It feels good,” I tell him.

He thinks I’m weird. I know that I’m not alone. What I don’t know is why books make me cry. Or why those tears feel so good.

Maybe you read Anne Murphy’s piece in the Times, in which she summarizes studies of what goes on in people’s brains while they read. Words associated with smells (leather, lavender) activate the brain’s olfactory region. Descriptions of bodily movements ignite the cerebral sites that make those body parts move. The same neural networks we use to understand fictional characters in literature also come into play when we interpret interpersonal relationships in real life. It seems that our brains don’t distinguish between fiction and reality.

Anyone who has ever been immersed in a good book already knew this, of course. But it’s nice to know that perennial precepts of good writing such as “Use Active Verbs” and “Show, Don’t Tell,” can be backed up scientifically. What I would like to see is a study explaining why a great novel will leave so many of us reaching for the tissues, even if – and sometimes especially if – everyone lives happily ever after.

David has suggested that it’s a form of grief. I’m saying goodbye to characters who have come to feel real to me. I’m sure that’s a part of it. But I’m also sure it’s only a part. The full answer has got to be more complicated. And primal.

For me, crying at the end of a book can feel a lot like crying at a wedding. Or over that Amica commercial where the father hands his daughter the keys to the car, or those videos of people in the armed forces coming home. That swelling in my chest and watering of my eyes can feel like longing. But they’re not really sorrow. They’re surges of chemical empathy.

Blame it on the oxytocin, says neuroeconomist Paul Zak. Explaining why we cry at movies, Zak says, “Oxytocin engages brain circuits that make us care about others, even complete strangers…We cry at movies,” he says, “because the oxytocin in the human brain is imperfectly tuned. It does not differentiate between actual human beings and flickering images of human beings. Either one is enough to kick oxytocin into high gear and impel our empathy.” Why shouldn’t the same thing happen when we read riveting writing?

The oxytocin theory would also explain why this kind of crying feels so good. The empathy hormone evolved to help mothers bond with their babies. The rush it provides is Mommy’s reward for cuddling and carrying for a helpless child. We’re hardwired to crave compassion – not just getting it, but also giving it. Cry-worthy books tap into that same innate circuit.

If this is true, why does it happen most at a novel’s ending? Maybe because that’s just how this sort of book is written. The early parts of the book conjure the characters and create the situations that will pay out in a satisfying emotional punch at the end. And because we’ve been taught to expect this pattern, we’re primed to help make it happen. Finally, the goodbye factor David suggested pushes us, happily blubbering, over the edge.

That’s my theory, anyway. I’m sticking with it until some scientist comes along and tells me it’s fiction.

Holi hamantaschen, Mardi Gras!

March 8, 2012

I love it when holidays correspond across cultures. It’s like peering through a crack in the armor of particular traditions to see the universal human sentiment behind them. The darkness of winter makes us long for light, and kindles the fires of Hanukkah, Christmas and Diwali. Spring’s return renews hope, and inspires us to tell the story of freedom on Passover, celebrate the promise of rebirth on Easter, and begin the new year on Nowruz.  And now, with the worst of winter behind us and spring is just ahead, we feel a need to let loose. So we wear crazy costumes, get drunk and overturn the social order with the raucous festivities Purim, the pre-Lent blow-outs of Mardi Gras and Carnival, and the riotous colors of Holi.

I was a big fan of Purim when I was a kid, and when my kids were kids. We did the costumes and the carnivals and the noisemakers, reveling in the freedom of dressing ridiculously and screaming our heads off in synagogue. When we lived in Burlington, we never missed a Mardi Gras parade. I rode the Seven Days float a few times, throwing beads to the crowds. But most years I was on the sidewalk, caught in the crowd, euphorically catching. And once, about 18 years ago, our family visited Pakistan and India with David’s parents and sister, and we played Holi in New Delhi, getting smeared with colors by passing strangers on the street.

Experiencing Holi was a once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And I haven’t been to a Mardi Gras parade since we left Vermont. That leaves me with Purim, which my local synagogue does up in a big way, with an expertly arch reading of the Book of Esther and a first-rate Purim Spiel. But aside from baking my own hamantaschen and sending some to my kids, I haven’t done much about Purim lately, either.

I live a quiet life these days, and it’s left me sort of allergic to noisy crowds. But I like knowing that there are people out there wearing crazy costumes and putting on ridiculous plays and running around the streets with powders and liquids, turning strangers into rainbows.

And I especially like that people in different places and from different backgrounds are singing and dancing together, without even knowing they’re doing it.

Happy almost Spring!

Spellbound

March 5, 2012

I’m a crappy speller. This fact often surprises people, since I’m a writer. It surprised them even more when I worked as an editor. I would explain that my focus was more big-picture: things like content, structure, and clarity. I fixed grammar and spelling mistakes when I found them, but those details were really the purview of the proofreader.

A writer’s finished products need to be spelled perfectly, but it’s fine to get outside help. And these days, for me, that help is usually, literally, right at hand, in the form of  the spell-check on my favorite word processor. For proper nouns, or words I’ve mangled so badly even Word can’t decipher them, I use Google. Thank God for the feature that lets you type any damned approximation of what you’re trying to say into the search bar, to be answered by the oh-so-tactful, “Did you mean…?” Way better than that know-it-all bitch and her condescending “recalculating” on my GPS. But I digress.

Do you need to spell well in order to write well? My mother told me no. And she was a librarian. “Marcel Proust was a terrible speller,” she reassured me. I still keep this fact close to my heart. It doesn’t just erase the stigma of those horrendous spelling-test scores, but is also, obviously, a clue to my secret genius.

My mother also liked to blame my trouble on the fact that when I was 7 and 8, and just learning to write, we were living in France. She claimed that I’d internalized rules like needing to add an E after any final consonant that wasn’t supposed to be silent, and that for years after we returned to the States, I was still describing the sky as “bleu.” Her theory has provided lots of excuses to brag about the portion of my childhood I spent abroad. Like what I’m doing right now, for example. But I don’t think my waywardness with words can be really be diagnosed as a case of permanent orthographic jet lag.

The real problem, I believe, is that I don’t see words in my head. I hear them. That’s why I do things like mix up my bees and pees, label the device that broadcasts wifi in our home as a “rowder,” and view so many unstressed vowels as basically arbitrary. After 30 years of marriage, David understands this so well that all I have to say is, “If you wanted to spell humorous,” for him to answer, “o, and then ou.”

These questions usually come up when I’m doing a crossword puzzle. That’s how I spend my free time, when I’m not playing Scrabble or Words With Friends on line. Besides all the business of scoring and strategizing, of solving clues and remembering stray facts, I love turning the jumbled nonsense of my tiles into nuggets of meaning. And I love taking my absolutely sharp Dixon Ticonderoga #2, and filling those inviting blank squares with the most perfect block letters I can form.

Why would some who can’t spell get such pleasure from playing with letters? I find one possible answer in the place I so often look: Judaism. Traditional Torah study reduces the words of scripture to the level of spelling. By breaking words down into individual letters, or rearranging a few vowels, the Rabbis read hidden meanings in the text. Jewish numerology, or gematria (a word I just searched for as “gamatria,” only to be politely asked, “Did you mean gematria?”), assigns each letter a numerical value, calculates the value of words or phrases, and finds mystical significance in the results. Jews like to give money in multiples of 18, because that’s the numerological value of “chai,” the Hebrew word for “life.” Convoluted calculations link the number 613 (the number of commandments Moses conveys from God in the Torah) to the number of major bones and organs in the body, and the numerological value of Judaism’s central prayer, the “Shema.”

What I find most revealing about these exercises isn’t the hidden meanings they presumably uncover, but the impulse behind the search. The Rabbis were awed by a God they envisioned divulging sublime secrets within a complex system of linguistic clues. I look at the sublime system that is language, and am similarly awed.

Think about it. There’s this set of abstract squiggles that we have agreed as a community to assign value to, and have preserved and perfected and passed along from one generation to the next. Anyone who wants to communicate meaning — news, desires, theories, gossip, poems, apologies, prayers, jokes – has only to arrange these squiggles in the right order. The number of meanings the squiggles can convey is infinite. If that’s not awesome, I don’t know what is.

I may not always know which letters belong where, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them. And just as the Rabbis expressed their love of God through word play, I celebrate my love for reading and writing and by savoring the stuff they’re made of. For me, filling blank squares with beautiful block letters can feel as reverential as stopping to admire an unusual tree, or pausing to appreciate the bread I’m about to eat.