Archive for May, 2012

Postcards from the Lofoten Islands

May 29, 2012

My husband attended a philosophy conference in the Lofoten Islands last week. I got to tag along. From the air, Norway looks more like a topographical map than any other place I have ever flown into.

The Loftotens are an archipelago of islands strung along Norway’s coast, above the line where the Arctic Circle begins. The conference was held in Svolvaer, a city of 9000 and the Lofotens’ administrative center. Svolvaer’s deep harbors accommodate cruise and excursion ships, freight ships, enormous shipbuilding facilities, and the fishing and fish-export concerns that have driven the local economy for thousands of years.

We could watch the ships from the deck outside our rooms at Svinoya Rorbu, the conference hotel. A rorbu is a traditional fishermen’s house. The wooden red boxes, set on stilts, line harbors throughout the Lofotens. Some are still used for their original purpose, but many have been converted into tourist camps.

The “rorbus” at our place were two-story houses built to mimic the old buildings. We had two decks, two sitting areas, two bathrooms (one with a sauna), a fully equipped kitchen and three bedrooms. We shared it with two other philosophers. Meals were served in the hotel restaurant. Papers were presented in the art gallery across the way.

The gallery featured the work of Gunnar Berg, a painter who lived on Svinoya, the tiny island for which Svinoya Rorbu is named. A short walk to the east side of the island takes you past the house where Berg was born. The place where he is buried is a small park with rocks that offer quiet views of some of Svinoya’s fancier homes, and sublime ones of the wild Norwegian mainland.

On Tuesday, when we arrived, the weather was unseasonably warm (close to 60). The sun was astonishingly bright.  The conference would begin on Wednesday. A message at the desk where we checked in announced that Wednesday’s schedule had been changed. Breakfast would begin at 7, and at 8 there would be a three-hour cruise to nearby Trollfjord.

The philosophers and their families filled the boat.

The scenery was nothing short of spectacular.

Our destination, Trollfjord, is named for the Norwegian folklore figure that inspired those long-haired dolls I played with when I was a kid. The place is best known for the 1890 battle between people operating modern steam-driven fishing boats and fishermen in traditional sailing boats, over access to the fjord’s fish.

On the return trip, our guide started feeding the sea gulls. She whistled loudly and threw chunks of bread into the water, and the gulls swooped in. When she cut up raw fish, the birds perched on her hand to eat it. The whole performance was actually pretty alarming. Should she be interfering with the birds like that? Wasn’t it dangerous to have them swooping in so close? Do we even like seagulls? In lots of places in the States, it’s illegal to feed them. They’re considered dirty nuisances. Flying rats.

Then a sea eagle suddenly arced in, cut through the fluttering gulls, and grabbed a bit of fish the guide had laid before her. That shut up our objections. A little later, a second eagle appeared. For this one the guide tossed a whole fish into the water. We watched the eagle snatch it up.

That pose of the eagle’s — wings raised, talons forward, beak down — is a favorite in the Lofotens. You see it as a silhouette nailed to the sides of houses, always with a fish clutched between the claws. It suggests the power and brutality of the fishing life, and also a sense of the natural order. The naturalness of predation.

Houses with these eagles sometimes also have their own private line of fish hanging out to ferment. This is the torrfisk — stockfish — for which the Lofotens are famous (at least among fans of cured fish).

Cod, haddock, and other species are fresh dried (that is, without salt) on wooden racks for three months, during which they naturally ferment.

The fish is then taken inside to mature for another two months.

You see the racks everywhere. The smell permeates the air. Commercially packaged stockfish snacks are displayed as impulse items beside the checkout counter at the supermarket. And stockfish shows up at meal after meal. The taste is mild but distinctive. Not bad, but boring. Especially after the third or fourth go-round.

This meal wasn’t much better.  This was my lunch on Friday, eaten as I sat behind the wheel of my rented car in the parking lot outside the Mini Rimi supermarket in the fishing village of Stamsund. Tapioca pudding with lingonberries, and two moisture-sucking wasa crackers with a mildly nutty spread the texture of Crisco sandwiched in between. I probably could have chosen better, if I had been willing to ask someone to translate the labels on the packages. And I might have found a better place for my picnic if it hadn’t been about 45 degrees out, not to mention windy and raining.

Here’s the better lunch David and I had together on Saturday. His conference was over. We stayed on an extra day and used the time to drive the length of the islands, working our way west on highway E10. The weather was still nasty, and at noon we found ourselves in the sprawling metropolis of Leknes, which has more than 10,000 residents, as well as an airport. This is falafel, served on a “baguette” (really a soft, oversized hotdog roll), garnished with coleslaw and spicy, Indian-style lime pickle. It wasn’t bad. And the young woman who served it to us (dark-eyed, head-scarfed), had a nice, warm smile.  Smile or not, eating in the Lofotens isn’t the greatest. The food is horrifyingly expensive, and generally mediocre.

And it doesn’t matter. Because food is beside the point when the scenery is this spectacular. Here’s Glassoy beach, on the North Sea, where David and I watched the waves lick the sand and the clouds hide and reveal the surrounding cliffs.

Here’s the harbor at Reine, where we decided it was time to turn around. (If we had pushed on another few kilometers we would have come to the town of Å, where highway E10 ends.).

Oh, and here’s a little tidal pond we happened to pass on Sunday, on our way to the airport. How could I not pull over and get this one last glimpse of the sublime before leaving this place I never imagined I would get to visit — if I had imagined it existed?

The Lofoten Islands — Seeing may be believing. Or not.

May 23, 2012

Here’s how I heard the story. Philosopher A (let’s call him “Jocko”) is talking to Philosopher B (let’s call her Xena).

Jocko: What do you think is the most beautiful place on earth?

Xena: The Lofoten Islands, duh.

Jocko: That’s the place. I’ll bet you I can arrange for us to have a conference there.

Xena: I’ll believe that when I see it.

Jocko: If that’s the case, I am 100% certain that you will believe it.

And so, here we are. Or rather, here they are. A bevy of brilliant philosophers. And here I am, the lucky faculty spouse. Perq #1: I get to tag along for the ride. Perq #2: I don’t have to do any philosophy.

To get from our home in Providence, Rhode Island, to this island in northern Norway, in the Arctic Circle, we took four flights and two taxis. The total journey in real time (not accounting for time zones) lasted 24.5 hours. No one ever said philosophy was easy.

On our first flight, from Providence to Newark, I watched the preppy student-type guy across the aisle reading a book and taking notes in a little turquoise journal. He was taking a lot of notes, filling a page or two every few minutes. I couldn’t catch much of what he was writing, just a few stray phrases. “I believe,” “it’s important,” “humility.”

What book could possibly generate such interest? Something about it ( the layout of the page? The fact that the chapter heading I could see was “Next of Kin”?) suggested  that it was either a novel or a memoir. As soon as I made the guess, I had to know if I was right.

I kept watching until he turned to a page spread with the author and title printed on top. Anna Quindlen. Many Candles, Lots of Cake. Bingo.

On this same leg, the flight attendant was very pretty and young, her long, black hair worn loose and a little messy, a much more casual style than I usually expect from people who have her job. I couldn’t stop looking at her.

I wasn’t just attracted. I was also intrigued. She was obviously ethnically Asian. But was she Japanese? Chinese? Or something else? I guessed Japanese, but I didn’t really know, and this bothered me. People who are Japanese and Chinese have no trouble recognizing the differences. I don’t like to think of myself as ignorant in this way.

When she came down the aisle, I caught a quick glimpse of her nametag. I didn’t have time to read her whole name. But I did notice that her last name was relatively long, maybe six or seven letters, and that it started with an I. From my limited knowledge of Chinese and Japanese names, I decided that my guess had been right. But maybe if I had guessed Chinese, I would have found some evidence to support that conclusion.

This is what I do when I’m bored. I make guesses about things, and then try to prove that I’m right. Temperature, time, distance, weight, the name of a song, the meaning of a word in a foreign language. That sort of thing. The actual fact of the matter isn’t what I care about. It’s showing that I can find clues, draw inferences, and get it right.

Among the passengers on the leg from Newark to Oslo were eight or nine generously tattooed men in their thirties, several carrying guitar cases. Obviously they were members of a head-banger band, come to Norway for a gig. I say obviously, but I didn’t know for sure until Passport control in the Oslo airport.

I happened to be behind one of the guys when I heard him him tell the Norwegian border-control guy, “I’m with [indistinct]. [Indistinct] tomorrow. I’m handling security.” Right again! Maybe. Unless those indistinct utterances completed the sentences so they said, “I’m with The International Society of Salt-Water Aquarium Enthusiasts.” And “I’m getting my wisdom teeth out tomorrow. And even if I did fill in the blanks correctly, that would only tell me that I correctly guessed the story the guy told about himself. How do I know he wasn’t lying? Or speaking in code?

While I was busying myself with these idle speculations, David was doing his homework for the conference. The branch of philosophy that brings us here is epistemology, the study of knowledge. How can we know our beliefs are justified? What counts as reliable evidence? That sort of thing. His own particular corner of this corner of philosophy is disagreement. He’s an expert on why he shouldn’t trust his own view too much if someone equally smart and well-informed has a different opinion. (And for this we get to go to the Lofoten Islands!)

As the trip dragged on and on and I got more and more tired and stiff and bored, I kept telling myself it was worth it. After all, how many people ever get to visit the most beautiful place on earth? But is it really the most beautiful? Maybe the jaw-droppingly gorgeous photograph Jocko pasted into the invitation he emailed to David was a fake. And even if it wasn’t a fake, why should I believe that just because that one incredible view existed somewhere in the Lofoten Islands, the rest of the place wasn’t a dump.Or maybe everything had been spoiled since the picture was taken. Those breathtaking cliffs removed to make room for a Wal-mart. I wouldn’t know until I actually saw for myself. Seeing would be believing.

As I write this, we have been here for twenty-one hours. In that time, we have seen some jaw-droppingly beautiful vistas – from the third plane (from Oslo to Bodo) and the fourth plane (from Bodo to Svolvaer), from the “maxi taxi” that took us to our hotel, while walking around town, and from a boat ride we took up Troll Fjord this morning. The beautiful vistas aren’t just occasional sights that take you by surprise when you crest a hill or turn a corner. They’re everywhere you look. In every direction.

Do I believe that Jocko and Yolanda are correct when they claim this the most beautiful place on earth? In order to form a truly informed belief, I would first have to visit every other place on earth and make a comparison. But until I am able do that, I will say this. In terms of amount of  jaw-dropping natural spendor per square inch, this is place is about as good a candidate for the title of Most Beautiful Place on Earth as any place I have ever seen.

Crab Moons

May 18, 2012

When I wrote Crab Moon, I hadn’t seen a live horseshoe crab in ages. I wrote the picture book  – about a boy who watches horseshoe crabs spawning on the beach in the night, and in the morning helps one that has been stranded go back to the sea – based on the experience of my aunt.

I’m lucky to have an aunt who not only spends a lot of time at the beach, but also pays attention to the natural world and, best of all, eloquently describes what she sees. I was living in Vermont, hundreds of miles from the nearest salt water, when her evocative emails about her adventures rescuing horseshoe crabs the morning after their annual love fest struck me as the perfect story for a picture book. The summer after the book came out, I had a chance to visit my aunt at the beach, and to experience for the first time what I had written about, based on her descriptions.

I started writing High Tide of the Horseshoe Crab (its original title) in 1997 or 1998. I’m not sure of the exact date. I do know, because it’s written right there inside the cover, that it came out in 2000. It feels as if a lifetime has passed in the 14 or 15 years since, so much has happened in that time.

My mother died. I published two more children’s books, easy readers about a pet cockroach. I wrote several more children’s books, “quiet” books that are all are currently sitting in a drawer in my home office. 9/11 happened. I started writing a story about some of the objects I brought home when we sold our childhood home. My brother and sister-in-law adopted a baby who is now about to become a bar mitzvah. My story turned into a big, ambitious novel. My children graduated from high school and college, and one of them got married. I finished the novel, and began the process of seeking a publisher. Oh, and we moved to Rhode Island.

Today I live in the sort of place I never imagined I would be able to live. We can see the sun rise over Narragansett Bay from our bedroom. We can smell the salt breeze and the fishy stink that sometimes comes with low tide. And we can walk just one block and come to a sheltered cove where we can watch nesting swans, migrating ducks, wading herons and egrets, and, once or twice a year, horseshoe crabs spawning on the beach.

It’s not a huge orgy, like what happens at my aunt’s place, and in my book. If we’re lucky, we might see a few dozen pairs creeping through the sea grass or burrowed into the wet sand. You have to look carefully to see them. They tend to be submerged in the dark water. But that just adds to the thrill.

It’s a thrill to actually live in a place where the horseshoe crabs come. It’s a thrill to feel a special, secret connection to the creatures. And it’s a thrill to know that while I have been busy doing other things, the horseshoe crabs have been keeping their annual appointment, just as they have been doing for hundreds of millions of years.

Radishes and Revisions

May 9, 2012

Next time I plant radishes, I’ll sow the seeds more thinly. But I’m new at growing vegetables. So I just sort of dumped them. Ten rainy days later, they had become a gorgeous green mass, as luxuriant as ground cover. Unfortunately, they need room to grow as big as, well, radishes. The seed packet says to thin them to two inches apart. So today I went out in the rain and did just that, getting muddy and feeling like a bad-ass. I had to take out more than I could leave, but the sprouts I aborted will add a spicy bite to tonight’s salad.

What does any of this have to do with revisions? Not much, except that thinning my radishes was my reward for sending my latest set of revisions back to my agent. Also, after I’d finished tackling some biggish issues in the story (Where is the ghost now? Who’s talking? Is that sex consensual, or rape?), I went through the text at a micro level and tightened a lot of the language. That is, I thinned out a bunch of verbiage that was clogging up the story.

Here, for you list fans, are 5 (five!) types of excess verbiage I eliminated. The sentences are from my book, but if you’re a writer, you could probably find similar examples in your own work.


I am not a member of the We Hate Adverbs Club. I kinda like them, in fact. Parts of my book are lavishly embellished with them. But those parts are written in a voice that is deliberately baroque. In the parts of the book where the writing is more simple, adverbs can just clog up the works. So, for example,

 “Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on conversationally.

should probably become

“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted, ” Betsy goes on.

2.Dialog tags

“What’s a dialogue tag?” you ask.

“It’s the little bit of verbiage that’s attached to a line of dialogue and tells you who’s speaking,” I say.

“And you want to eliminate them?” you ask.

“Not all of them. Just the unnecessary ones,” I say.

“But aren’t they always necessary?” you ask. “If you don’t have them, won’t you get confused about who’s speaking?”


Come to think of it, in my first example, there are only two people in the conversation, and it’s obvious from context who would say what. The sentence above should probably read,

“Adam tried so hard to have everything today the way your mother wanted. ”

3.Telling and showing

You know the line, right? “Show, don’t tell.” It means that it’s better to demonstrate a character’s motives or feelings or whatever through dialogue or action than by explaining. I get that, and I’m pretty good at showing. I also have a tendency to tell as well as show. (My husband will confirm that I don’t just do this in my writing. I’ll say, “Monday is Memorial Day.” And then I’ll add, “So we shouldn’t put out the recycling Sunday night.” And then I’ll feel compelled to explain, “Because the town doesn’t pick up recycling on national holidays. And Memorial Day is a national holiday. So we should wait and put it out on Monday night.” It’s a wonder we’re still married.)

Here’s how it works in my writing:

Laurel hesitates, letting the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.

Well, sure she hesitates. You can see that in what she does while she hesitates. That sentence might be stronger this way:

Laurel lets the bristles prick her fingers as she remembers all the times Mouse brushed her knotted hair.

4.Too many sub-actions

This is sort of like #3. It seems I’m not content to get the character out of the car. I have to document each step in the procedure – grabbing the door handle, pulling it forward, pushing the door out, putting one leg on the ground, etc. Okay. I’m exaggerating. But how about this?

 Neil steps forward with a grateful smile, his hand raised like a kid asking to be called on in class.

Unless the individual steps show something important (fingers fumbling, a fist swinging harder than intended, something spilling), why not just say what happens?

Neil raises his hand like a kid asking to be called on in class.

5.Too many examples

I managed to keep this list to just five items, but my natural tendency is to include every last thing that comes to mind. The house in my book is based on the house where I grew up. After my mother died in 1999, the house was sold. Setting my book there let me spend more time in a place I loved and missed. As I looked around the rooms in my mind, remembering more and more details, I had trouble not writing down every last paperclip and dust bunny. When I was revising, I spent a lot of time pondering sentences like this one:

Fringed cowboy vests and crushed plastic firefighter helmets and slippery skeleton suits spill from the costume box.

Could I have lost one of those details? Maybe. In this case, I kept them all.

How was it that after going over this book a billion times, I still found things to fix? Maybe it’s the advantage of having more distance. Maybe I’ve become a better writer. Or maybe the passages I fixed were newer material, which hadn’t gone through as many rewrites as the rest. In lots of cases, I was taking out things I’d put in as I figured out what was happening. Maybe those excess words are the extra seeds you sow, because until they sprout, you don’t know which ones you’ll keep, and which you’ll end up thinning out.

Are You Writing This Down?

May 4, 2012

I have been reading (and re-reading) Alison Bechdel’s just-released Are You My Mother?

If you don’t know about Alison Bechdel, you should. Her lefty lesbian soap-opera comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For ran in alternative newspapers for 25 years, and earned her legions of dedicated fans. In 2006 she published her first graphic memoir, the critically acclaimed Fun Home, which examines her closeted gay father’s probable suicide through the lens her own coming out as a lesbian. Or maybe it’s the other way around.

Bechdel’s new graphic memoir, Are You My Mother? purports to be about her relationship with her (still very much alive) mother. But it’s also several interwoven essays — about mother-infant bonding, psychotherapy, the perils of mining your life for literary material, and the difficult and fraught process of writing Are You My Mother?

Turns out it’s trying to write about trying to write about the trying thing you’re trying to write while you’re trying to write it. Who knew?

Are You My Mother? is also about journal-keeping. That’s what I’m thinking about now.

Alison and her mother, Helen, both keep daily journals, but differently. Helen sticks to the externals, treating each entry like a completed to-do list.  Alison documents everything — dreams, flights of self-analysis, even the minutiae of her daily phone calls with her mother, which she secretly transcribes on her computer in real time as Helen chats. And while Helen never re-reads her entries, and sometimes even discards her completed journals, Alison saves everything in such meticulous order that if you asked what she discussed with her shrink the week she got her firewood delivered ten winters ago, she could probably pull out the relevant volume and tell you.

I have kept journals from time to time. I have been sort of irregular about it. For months, I will loyally fill notebook after notebook. Then I’ll stop for no apparent reason, and years will pass before I take the habit up again. Even when I’m out of the habit, I always keep my notebook and a jar of pens by my bed, just in case. When I’m in the habit, I record the major events of the day, what’s on my mind, stuff about my current writing project. In the habit or not, I always record the onsets of my periods, because doctors always ask, and I always feel stupid not remembering.

I started my first serious spell of journal keeping in ninth grade. A well-meaning English teacher who was worried about the crowd I was hanging out with gave me a copy of Go Ask Alice – the supposedly real (but as it turned out, fake) diary of a teenage girl who does drugs and gets in trouble. Mrs. Upton meant it as a warning, but I took it as inspiration. I started keeping my own diary, and when I decided I didn’t have enough interesting material, I started seeking out experiences in order to write them down. The process carried me through high school. And gave me plenty of material.

I had another good run of journal keeping in the 1980s and 1990s, when I was a stay-at-home mom trying to squeeze in time to write picture books, short stories, and newspaper stories. Rather than seek out experiences to write about, I welcomed the chance to write about the experiences I was having. I wasn’t just documenting my life and clarifying my thoughts. I was also practicing the art of writing. As much as anything else, keeping a journal was a discipline, a daily exercise in free writing.

I started writing in my current notebook eighteen months ago. So far, I have only managed to fill a few pages. And those consist almost entirely of lists of dates followed by the word, period. To read it, you would think that since September, 2010 I did nothing but monitor my bodily functions. My daughter’s wedding, my son’s first solo art show, trips to Denmark and France, visits with family, hopes and frustrations around my writing career, taking up running, planting a garden, a blizzard and a hurricane all go unrecorded.

Why? Because rather than saving my thoughts for a journal, I can tweet, update my status statement on Facebook, or, if I really feel like I have something to say, write a blog post; and once I’ve mentioned whatever it is in one of those places, no matter how thoughtlessly, I’m ready to move on. So topics that might merit closer scrutiny get lost. And since I censor what I put out there for the world to see, I end up never writing about lots of topics I really care about. Damn.

After I started writing this post last night, I went upstairs to bed. On the table beside me were the book I’m currently reading (Alice Munro’s short story collection Friend of My Youth) and, under it, that nearly empty, 18-month-old notebook. I took out the notebook and plucked the best, smoothest-writing ballpoint pen from my jar, and I started free-writing.

I had thought that my fingers had become so accustomed to the keyboard that they couldn’t produce decent longhand anymore. I was wrong.

I had thought that I had nothing to say. Wrong again.

And I had thought that after spending the whole day revising my novel and then composing this post, I would have gotten the sheer joy of writing out of my system. Wrong, wrong, wrong.