Archive for the ‘Fiction for adults’ Category

Mapping Memories

August 18, 2013


My dad was double jointed. He could lay his palm flat on the kitchen table and fold his hand until the back of it touched the backs of his fingers. He didn’t realize he could do it until one day when he was leaning with his hand on a wall. Someone saw how his hand was folded, and said he should be in the circus.

The tips of the middle and ring fingers of my father’s right hand were missing. A month short of his twentieth birthday, he’d gotten shot during the Battle of Arnhem*, in Holland. He was crossing a field to deliver the message that his infantry unit needed more ammunition. I don’t know why it was his job to deliver the message. Maybe his commanding officer thought he was the one most likely to find his way to where he needed to go. He was his unit’s map reader.

I remember him reading the Times from cover to cover, and mysteries on the beach, and phone books in your hotel rooms (“lots of Polish names in Columbus,” he might say). But I don’t particularly remember him reading maps.

On car trips, he drove while my mother navigated. When they wanted calculate their progress, she would read off the mileage between the towns along the route, and he would respond with the running subtotal. From the backseat, it sounded like this:

M: 10 and 14.

D: 24.

M: 37.

D: 61.

M: 12.

D. 73.

…and so on, call-and-response, neither one missing a beat, until they had added up how much more road lay ahead. Hearing him add all those numbers in his head, I was dazzled.

He could read a map and he could fold back his fingers, but he couldn’t fold a map to save his life. That was also my mother’s job –smoothing the wrinkles, figuring out which way the pleats went, and closing it into a tidy accordion with the pretty tourist picture on the front, like the cover of a book.

In the book I’ve been writing and sending around and rewriting and sending around again and rewriting again since the beginning of this century, a ghost becomes displaced in time and ends up eavesdropping on events that took place before she was born.  At one point, a woman’s perfume stirs memories from times that are in the ghost’s past, but years to come for the people she’s watching, so she’s simultaneously remembering and predicting the jasmine of her mother’s perfume, the woods outside her cabin at camp, the smell of steam rising from a particular pavement in the rain, the skunky must of her husband’s skin.

“Odor by odor, [her] memories unfolded. Fold by fold, they told the forgotten flipsides of stories she’d thought she remembered.”

The flipside of my father’s injury was that it took him out of combat. My mother used to say it may well have saved his life. Another way of putting it is that those two fingertips was the price he paid so that my siblings and I might be born.

It boggles the brain. As another character in my book puts it, “The gears that grind God’s universe are beyond my understanding.”

Tuesday is the anniversary of my father’s death. On the secular calendar, the date was August 20, 1994. That’s the date I remember each year as I try to grab one more beach day before summer winds down. On the Jewish calendar, the date was 14 Elul, 5754. That’s the date I remember each year when I stand up to say Kaddish for him for in synagogue.

Sometimes 14 Elul falls closer to the end of August, sometimes it comes in early September, and sometimes it comes within a day or two of August 20. As a Jew, I’m used to tracking time on two not-quite-aligned systems. The surprise is that this year, for the first time since my father died, the calendars converge. It will happen again in 2032.

I’ll be 75—older than either of my parents lived to be. I have no road map to predict what will unfold between now and then—just two syncopated calendars to help me count how far I’m come, and enough memories to keep me writing.

*Also known as Operation Market Garden, and dramatized in the film “A Bridge to Far.” Thanks to my brother Ben for clarifying this detail.

Seed Season

September 24, 2012

Seeds are usually associated with spring, and fall with fruit. But autumn is seed season, too.

Yesterday I snipped the spent flowers from the tithonia, aka Mexican Sunflower, the brilliant orange annual we grow beside the garage. It grows to nearly six feet, and is apparently indestructible. Last year, when Hurricane Irene snapped its stems almost in two, our tithonia kept on stubbornly producing its fiery flower heads. We’ve been starting it from plants we buy at our local land trust’s yearly plant sale. But my mother-in-law wants to try it at her home in Colorado, and asked for some seeds.

Maybe I’ll keep some more myself and try it from scratch next year. We’ll see. The point is, I’m thinking about seeds.

Take my new novel, for example. The seed of the idea is still compelling, but the story refuses to grow. I have been vacillating between two desires: to submerge myself in a whole, long book, and to write a series of connected short stories, which would be easier to commit to than another big book.

When I admitted to my agent the other day that the big book wasn’t going, she gently suggested I might want try the short stories, instead. So yesterday, after collecting those tithonia flower heads, I started writing a new short story, taking the seed of my novel idea and trying it out in compressed form. We’ll see.

And then there’s that old picture book idea of mine. The one I’d set aside years ago, and recently retrieved and revised. My agent is now sending it out. And although it hasn’t found a home yet, one of the editors who read it liked my writing enough to invite me to try my hand at a picture book idea she has had in mind for a while.

I started working on it last week, and completed what I would call a serviceable first draft. I went to bed last night thinking I needed a stronger “hook,” an approach to the idea that would be fresh and compelling, something that would deepen the story, make it be about more than just itself. This morning I woke up with four ideas of how to do that. I’m hopeful and excited. But we’ll have to see how it goes.

You never know what’s going to work. At least, I don’t. At the risk of belaboring the metaphor I started with, some seeds never germinate, either because they land in the wrong soil, or they don’t get enough water, or they weren’t any good in the first place. And even when they do grow, you don’t know how they’ll end up. Some flowers are cut at their prime and brought inside to be admired, and some get left to mature and create the seeds of next year’s plants.

While I was outside collecting those tithonia seeds, I spent a while with our tomato plants. I harvested ripe fruit, removed withered leaves, propped up sagging stems, and took stock of what was left of the season. Dozens of tomatoes were still green or just beginning to redden, and a few cherry tomato branches had new flowers.

And then I noticed a fruit I had forgotten all about. It was one of our first black krims. I had waited too long to harvest it, and it had split and rotted on the vine. I had considered removing it, but it was too slimy to touch. So I left it where it was, and before long the growing vines and leaves and other tomatoes had obscured it. But now that the plant had died back, it revealed itself once again.

It was paper white, pleated and creased like crinoline, as wrinkled and puckered as a scrotum. Beautiful in a way I had never imagined a tomato could be.

Here’s to autumn, the season of new beginnings.

Fictitious Afflictions

August 10, 2012

The other day I sat down with a friend who’s a healthcare professional, and picked her brain about various medical conditions I might inflict on a character. I knew how the event needed to play out in my plot. Certain types of symptoms were preferable to others, and it needed to take a specific amount of time for them to develope. The ensuing crisis should require a specific level of intervention. There were certain types of medical procedures I wanted to come into play. And I needed to leave my character in limbo for a specific amount of time.

As my friend ticked through different possibilities, I thought about how well each scenario would meet my fictional needs.

“There could be abdominal pain,” she said.

“Good.” I wrote it down.

“Nausea or vomiting.”


“Spotty vision.”


Anyone listening in from a nearby table would have found the whole thing pretty strange. I know I did.

“This is exactly what I was looking for!” I told my friend when we had gotten it figured out. All sorts of pieces were coming together. The story I had been hoping for seemed real and possible. I was so happy and grateful.

“I’m glad this is going to happen to a fictional character, and not one of my real patients,” my friend said with a smile.

I readily agreed. But her comment got me thinking.

At this point in the project, I have a pretty good grip on the logistics of my plot. I know how the medical scenario I’ve been imagining will affect my main character. And I’m beginning to understand how the imaginary crisis will play into my book’s broader themes. But beyond the basic facts my friend helped me figure out, I haven’t considered the situation from the point of view of my poor, afflicted character. I don’t even feel especially bad for her.

Why? For starters, she isn’t really real to me yet. More importantly – at this point, I don’t even especially like her.

This isn’t some random reaction. Most of the characters in this story aren’t really real to me yet. I have barely started writing it. But I like the other characters just fine. I even have a soft spot for the one I know has acted really badly. And I know that another character, whom my main character can’t stand, is actually a perfectly decent human being, even though I understand completely what my main character has against her. And I really, really love my main character, even though she has all sorts of bad qualities.

If I don’t love my characters, how can I write well about them? And if I don’t care about a character’s suffering, how can I expect readers to care? I’m pretty sure that once I really start writing about this one holdout character, the one I don’t like, she’ll start to flesh out for me. But first I need a point of entry. And I need to remove what’s standing in my way. So what is that? As I sat there with my friend, I figured it out.

The original kernel of this story occurred to me a while back, at a time when I was feeling hurt and angry. A certain someone needed to be punished, and I was going to do just that, through fiction. By now I have gotten (mostly) over being pissed off in real life. And the make-believe world of my story has grown and developed far beyond the real-life situation that spawned it. But my original associations with the character who set the whole thing off have persisted.

When I confessed this to my friend (who, besides working in healthcare, has also done some writing, herself), she very sensibly suggested that I pick someone I do like, and keep that person in mind as I write about the character in question.

So that’s my next task. I’ll be scouting around, holding a sort of secret casting call, considering real-world characters to graft onto the one I already have in mind. The result should be a richer, more complex character. One I can think — and write — about more sympathetically. One the reader can better identify with. Or at least better understand.

And who knows what might happen if I were to imagine the worst-case scenario I would inflict on my enemy afflicting my friend? Besides making better fiction, it might turn out to be just what the doctor ordered.

Looking Up

July 24, 2012

I had a not-so-great night last night. Woke up around 2, spent way too long trying to go back to sleep. Hormones? Humidity? A dear friend’s illness? The election? The fact that I got zero writing done yesterday? The fact that while I was getting zero writing done, a friend of a friend’s debut novel just sold at auction?

Whatever the cause, my lousy night left me feeling too washed out to go to the gym this morning. And the fact that at 10 am I would be talking to the friend whose friend sold her book probably figured into the equation. Despite what I would like to think about myself, the idea of this other person’s success was not sitting well with me.

So I made the bed. Took a shower. Folded the cold wash. Tried (and failed) to fix a leak in the soaker hose that snakes through the petunias. Then I tried something harder. I switched to a new dentist. And that turned out to be surprisingly easy. Two phone calls and it was done. When I told our old dentist’s receptionist where to send our records, she even said, “I’ve heard great things about him!”

I still had about 45 minutes before my phone call. I figured that conversation would be a more fun if I went into it from a position of writerly strength. So, buoyed by my dentist-switching success, I opened the draft of my new novel, and wrote. And that turned out to be surprisingly easy, too. I wrote about someone finding a squashed doll’s head in the garden, until the phone rang.

The conversation was great. My friend was so thrilled for her friend, and the story of how the book got sold was so interesting and exciting, that I couldn’t help but get happy and excited, too. “It means it can happen!” My friend said when I confessed about how I’d been feeling. “It’s good!” And of course she was right. And then something else happened.

You know how in the Disney version of “Beauty and the Beast,” after Belle decides she loves the Beast for his inner beauty, he magically transforms into a Rod Stewart look-alike, so she doesn’t have to marry a beast, after all?  That ending has always pissed me off. What kind of lesson is it teaching when her reward for not being shallow is the very thing she would have wanted if she were shallow? I mean, come on, folks! Well, what happened to me next was sort of like that.

Just as I was feeling good about my friend’s friend’s success, and feeling even better about myself for feeling so good about my friend’s friend’s success, the Fed Ex truck pulled up in front of my house. I never get things from Fed Ex. But this time, I did. It was 10 contributor’s copies of Lilith magazine’s Summer 2012 issue, in which my short story, “Letdown,” appears as the third-place winner in the publication’s annual fiction contest.

As my friend continued recounting her happy story, I quietly sliced the box opened, removed the packing paper, pulled out a copy of the magazine, and found my story. It looked great.

And that wasn’t the end of it, either. After I got off the phone, I returned to my writing, buoyed now not just by my dentist-switching success, but also by my friend’s friend’s publishing success, and by seeing my story in Lilith.

I lingered deliciously over the details of the squashed doll’s head’s appearance. I described the hell out of my protagonist’s delight in her find, and I compellingly explored her ambivalence about sharing her discovery with the woman she would be meeting for lunch later in the day, someone she was just beginning to know. Would her new maybe-friend understand her fascination with disembodied doll parts? And if not, what would that mean about the future of their friendship? I was brilliant.

And then the last thing happened. There I was, writing like nobody’s business, when the UPS truck pulled up. WTF? Two deliveries in one day? Who could it be from? And what could it be?

It was from was from a guy I have been friends with since the fifth grade, when we went on an ice-skating “date” in the park. We were closest in high school, which was when I started collecting disembodied doll parts. He was there for my sixteenth birthday, when my cake was decorated with a doll’s arm holding a molar with its braces band still attached. He baked the cake for my seventeenth birthday, which was decorated with an icing portrait of Jerry Garcia. We haven’t seen each other in years, but we have renewed our friendship through Facebook. He is a sculptor now, living in Los Angeles. One of his recent pieces was an enormous hand – basically, a gigantic, disembodied doll part. He had sent me three baby dolls’ hands and two feet, the models for his latest project.

My hormones are still incorrigible. It’s still way too humid. My dear friend is still ill. The upcoming election still scares me. And my first novel is still out on submission. But publishing success is possible. Thousands of readers will find my short story in Lilith. And my good old friend knew exactly where to send his doll parts.

Building a Book

July 2, 2012

I’m trying to build a book. I began about eighteen months ago, with a very clear concept of my protagonist. Like me, P has recently entered a new phase in her life, and is a little bit at a loss. She knows what she’s done and who she’s been. But what’s next?

I asked myself, what if just as P was beginning to figure stuff out, a stranger (S) walked into her life, making a claim that not only threatened P’s plan for the future, but also cast doubt on her assumptions about the past?

That’s the basic idea. I knew what P’s plan was, and what S claimed. I knew, in a broad sense, how P’s response to S would evolve, and how it would all end up.

I understood P’s motives, but wasn’t sure of S’s. I had a basic idea of the most important auxiliary characters – their roles in the story, if not their specific characteristics. I knew the story’s beginning, middle and end, but had only a vague sense of all the stuff in between.

But that was okay. Those details could work themselves out. Right? I just needed to start writing, go with the flow, get as many words down as quickly as I could, and sort it all out later. There’s a technical term for this approach. It’s called pantsing. As in writing by the seat of your pants. Which comes from flying by the seat of your pants. Which, according to this, comes from the early days of aviation, before today’s fancy instruments, when pilots “read” the plane’s reactions by how it felt under their butts. But I digress.

With only the broadest idea, I pantsed the hell out of my story for about nine months, producing many words very quickly, vowing not to stop or look back until I had reached the ending. Following some advice a then-soon-to-be-famous writer gave me in a writing class some time in the 20th century, I kept adding complications. It worked for a while. And then it didn’t. I added so many complications and side tracks that I lost track of my ending. In fact, I never even go to the middle. One day I looked up and realized I had made a huge mess. And I had no interest in cleaning it up.

So I wrote some columns. Played with some picture book ideas. Told myself I sucked. Told myself I didn’t suck. Got a new agent. Revised my other book manuscript. Wrote a short story. Started another short story, but lost interest before I finished. Searched through my files of unfinished projects, and rediscovered my germ of an idea about P trying to plot her future, and S showing up with her inconvenient claim. There, waiting for me beneath the mess of complications and the wild rumpus of unchecked verbiage, were my original beginning, middle and end. And they were still warm.

I decided to try again. Only this time, I would do the opposite of pantsing. I would plan.

I began with the broadest possible, most generic outline. Act I: Introduce character and establish problem. Act II: Complicate. Act III: Resolve and conclude. I divided each act into five chapters, flagging chapters 3, 8 and 12 as tipping points, the halfway-point peaks in the narrative arc of each act. Chapter 8, the dead center of the book, would tip the entire story.

Next, I turned my generic outline into a questionnaire. For each chapter, I asked myself the same set of questions. Where and when does it take place? What are the main events? Which characters are involved? What are the characters’ mental states – the assumptions, dispositions and desires that drive their behavior? What background information does the reader need to learn at this stage? How could the chapters’ beginnings and endings create suspense and help draw the reader through the story?

As I filled in the blanks, I kept a running list of characters and their basic information in a separate document (it’s amazing how easy it is to forget things like someone’s name). When I got frustrated that I wasn’t writing, but only writing about writing, I added first and last sentence(s) to my outline. How many of these sentences will end up in the draft? It doesn’t matter. Writing them helps me figure stuff out. And it helps me remember what this whole exercise is about.

I’ve gotten my form about two-thirds filled in. I think I know how to get from chapter 1 to chapter 8 (the book’s midpoint), and how to get from chapter 12 (the tipping point in Act III) – to the ending. But I’m still a little murky about what how to get from chapter 8 to chapter 12.

But that’s okay. Right? We’re about to go visit family for a few weeks, and I won’t be doing much writing. When I come back, maybe I’ll discover that my unconscious has filled in the rest of the blanks while I was thinking about other stuff. Or maybe I’ll decide it’s time to start writing. If at Chapter 8, I’m still confused, I can always pants.

Like my protagonist P, I’m on the brink of something new. But while P believes she has finally figured everything out, I know that any minute, some unexpected S could wreck havoc on my plans. If and when that happens, I hope I handle it better than my poor protagonist.

Making Up Stories

June 13, 2012

One of my favorite games when I was a kid was making up stories. Using plastic figurines or dollhouse dolls or myself as the actors, either talking aloud or inside my head, I would narrate – what? Not exactly stories, now that I think about it. I can’t remember very many actual plots.

Making up stories about myself was more like adding an authorial voice-over that commented on whatever I was already doing. The joy of the game was that it turned the mundane act of walking down the street or taking a bath into something fascinating. Something you might read in a book by Sydney Taylor or Eleanor Estes, or maybe even Joan Aiken.

With the figurines and dollhouse dolls, it was about creating characters in relationships – families, neighborhoods, friendships. These characters rarely did much. But the personalities and jobs and back-stories I invented for them suggested all sorts of possible stories, if I ever got around to making them up. Only I never did. As soon as I had figured out who everyone was, the game was pretty much over. And the next time I took the toys out, the joy of turning them into a whole new set of characters was impossible to resist.

When I was around 10, someone  (my aunt? my sister?) gave me a box of cards designed by Charles Eames. They have notches that let you hook them together and build with them. But what’s really great about them is that each one has a photograph of some small object or set of objects – ordinary everyday objects like spools of thread, pills, vegetables, eyeglasses, and less familiar objects like a katchina doll or an abacus.

The set is meant to convey a multinational, we-are-all-one message, something like, all of humanity shares a single home. Which is great. But what interested me more were the different personalities the pictures suggested. The pills might be a sickly old woman, the eyeglasses a professor, the hard candy a happy child. Each time the cards were shuffled and sorted, a new set of family units emerged. The challenge was to assign the cards in each set personalities to construct a plausible household. Again there were no actual stories. But the process of creating a story-esque aura was an indescribable pleasure.

At some point, I started writing the stories down — first in spiral notebooks, and then at the typewriter, and finally on the computer. You might think that committing words to a page would force me to quit fooling around. And I have managed to  complete a bunch of kids’ books, some short stories, and one rather ambitious novel. But for each completed story, there are at least ten that I have abandoned in various stages of incompletion, because I got bored or frustrated or, most often, because I started writing in hopes that a plan would unfold, and it never did.

How do people manage to write stories? Even though I have done it myself, each time I start anew, I’m at a loss. Should I figure everything out in advance, or just start writing and see where it goes?

Right now I have what feels like a very promising idea for a new book. I know my protagonist and what her situation is when the story begins. I know what the event is that’s going to throw her life into turmoil and make her question everything she thought she knew. I know how she will respond, and how she will be changed, and I’m pretty sure I know how it will all turn out and where the ending will leave things.

I know where and when it takes place, and who the subsidiary characters are, and I have a pretty good idea of what motives them, and how they will be changed in the course of the book. I know how long the book should be, and how the narrative arc should flow from one chapter to the next.

But there’s so much I still don’t know. For example, what all these people’s jobs are. And where they grew up. What they look like. What sort of music they listen to. Whether they believe in God or read books or know how to cook. Do they wear glasses? Get along with their parents? Have speech impediments? Follow sports? Vote? There are so many questions, and so many possible answers. What if I get it wrong?

Maybe what I need to do is stop taking the process so seriously. Maybe I need to forget that I have a finished book and an agent who’s shopping it. Forget that being a writer is my only job now. Forget that I’m trying to start a new book. Maybe I need to remember the fun of making stuff up, and just let myself play.

Wish me luck.

(These aren’t my toys. They’re my kids’. But you get the idea)

Dealing With Darlings

April 13, 2012

My agent recently sent me her editorial letter for the book I’ve been working on ever since I was in diapers (the diapers part isn’t really true, but it sure feels that way).

Two years ago, I did a major rewrite on this same book. It took me  months, and made the book much better – tighter, more coherent and consistent, easier to follow, better paced. When I was done with it, I thought I was done. I mean, I thought I was done with this phase. I figured that when (God willing) someone offered to publish the thing, more revisions would be necessary. But that round would be backed up by a contract. I would have received half my advance upon signing the contract, and the second half would be due to me when I turned in the completed manuscript. That’s how it happened with my previous books, anyway.

If I knew more revisions were in store, I shouldn’t have been surprised when my wonderful, sharp-eyed, savvy agent, who has absolute faith in me as a writer, and is totally in love with this book, would not want to send the manuscript out until she knew she had done everything in her power to make it as perfect as possible.

I have been writing for most of my life, and have always been edited. I count on being edited. I come from a family of editors. I have worked as an editor, myself.

I could kiss my agent’s feet for ferreting out my typos (mostly errors that got inserted in the last set of revisions). I’m grateful for her suggestions of where I might add a phrase to make some bit of specialized terminology accessible to a general audience. I’m glad to have pointed out to me that I over-use a certain sentence structure. And about those places where she says I need to clarify the point of view? Well, yeah. I knew that was coming. I just hoped I could land a contract first, and then make the fixes.

And yet. Her editorial letter (kind, encouraging, reasonable) arrived in my inbox like a fist to my solar plexus. Why? Because of my darlings.

“Kill your darlings,” Stephen King advises us writers. He means those bits of verbiage we fall so madly in love with that we resist removing them, even if they have no reason to stay in the story. My agent singled out two chapters that are most definitely my darlings. She didn’t say I should kill them. She even said she likes them. But she also very strongly suggested I change them.

I secretly call these chapters my “fugue chapters.” One is the funeral fugue, and the other is the unveiling fugue, describing the ritual that takes place a year after a death, when the headstone is dedicated. Throughout my book, point of view shifts from character to character. But all of the major characters are present in these two chapters. They all participate in these rituals, but bring very different perspectives to it. I wanted to convey the simultaneity of their thoughts. I wanted the sounds of their thoughts to bump up against the sounds of the boilerplate liturgy, and the sounds and sights of the damaged headstones, the airplanes flying over, the rain and the mud and the other distractions. I wanted to convey the sacredness of these two events – to show that they take the participants out of normal life, that they can’t be experienced in the normal way. I laid the chapters out like poetry, cutting and splicing the different trains of thought and interweaving them with the words of the prayers to create interesting, accidentally-on-purpose juxtapositions, contrasts, images, alliterations and rhymes.

Years ago, I staged a public reading of an earlier version of the funeral fugue. Six friends participated, each one reading the point of view of a different character. It was awesome. The audience couldn’t necessarily follow every detail (especially since it was out of context), but they could definitely feel the mood I was trying to convey.

Of course, because I had six difference voices, they could distinguish the different voices in the text. The trouble is, I’m writing this book for the page, not the stage. And it’s not a poem, but a novel, in which the reader wants to be pulled forward and find out what happens. And the trippy kaleidoscopic composition is just too hard to follow. I want the reader to slow down. It’s okay if they feel challenged. But they need to be able to meet the challenge. I don’t want them to give up and stop reading.

So, what to do?  Fire my agent? Ignore her advice? Rewrite those two chapters so they’re just like the rest of the book?

My solution: Take a deep breath, wait for the pain to subside (it took two days), and then look at the chapters, and figure out why I’m so attached to them (the fact that I wrote them, and that they came to me spontaneously, doesn’t count). Then find a way to create the effect I’m after without losing the reader.

Back in college, I studied linguistics and literature. I used linguistics to analyze literary style. What makes Hemingway sound like Hemingway? The usual answer is something like that he writes in short sentences. But if you analyze his writing, it turns out that he doesn’t really. He writes short sentences in key places, like the beginnings and endings of paragraphs. In between, he writes sentences of all different lengths. If he wrote the same length of sentence over and over again, his stories would be really tedious to read.

The take-away for me is that a little bit of a cool stylistic effect can go a long way. That will be my watch word as I revise my fugue chapters. I’ll figure out how to be judicious with my juxtapositions, how to pace and place my special effects so they’re effective, but don’t undermine what I’m trying to say.

I love these darlings. But I love the book they’re part of even more. 

What’s that smell?

August 15, 2011

It started with this musty smell in the kitchen. We first noticed it earlier this summer. It was worst on humid days, and strongest near the trash bin. Taking the trash out didn’t help, and neither did scrubbing the plastic bin, itself. So yesterday we (well, David) removed the wooden frame that slides the bin under the counter, and all the other drawers in that cabinet.

When we shined a flashlight into opening, we found some very, very dirty floorboards. But no dead mouse or decomposing peach. (I should probably mention that we have an old kitchen. We think the last time it was updated was 30 years ago. The bead board  and most of the drawers and cabinetsdate back to around 1900, when the house was built.)

We (well, David) scrubbed the floorboards with a bleach mixture, and then with a wood cleaner. The rinse water came up just as filthy each time, but after several go-overs we (well, David) decided enough was enough. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

My real point, though, is those drawers. Having them sitting out in the open gave us a chance to really look inside them – something we haven’t done since we moved in, four years ago. The silverware and food wraps and dish towels each have their own space, and that makes sense. But three other drawers hold our over-stock of spices – jars and boxes and bags that don’t fit in our go-to cabinet beside the stove.

“Maybe this would be a good time to do some weeding,” David suggested, and I reluctantly agreed. And oh, what we found.

–The last teaspoon of herbes de Provence from our South of France vacation in 2006.

–A vanilla bean from the house in Rochester David’s parents sold that same year.

–The lifetime supply of dried chiles given to David by my mother, who in February, 1999.

–A  jam jar filled with black salt, an ingredient used in Indian cooking, though in none of the recipes we ever make.

–A  jar of chervil from which all scent expired years ago. Ditto a jar of green peppercorns.

–The same plastic container of garam masala David and his parents used to secretly plant in each other’s possessions – a game no one has played in at least five years.

I could go on, but you get the idea. We threw some stuff away, though probably not nearly as much as we should have. The whole exercise reminded me – a little too much – of a scene from LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, the novel my agent is currently shopping. Adam’s mother has died, and he’s hired Kitty Klein, a professional estate liquidator, to help him dispose of the family home.


Kitty Klein wears a fancy gray hat and shiny black boots that hug her calves like ballroom gloves. Her long red fingernails make it all the more unbelievable when, after her I’m-sorry-we-couldn’t-meet-under-happier-circumstances handshake and before Adam finally manages to jimmy open the door he has never before had any trouble opening, she announces, “I’m a roll-up-the-sleeves gal. Do everything myself. If you want something done right, you know what I’m saying?”

Inside the kitchen, she pulls a notebook and a pen from her suitcase-sized handbag and starts opening cabinets and drawers and stirring through the unopened mail. “Your mother was sentimental, wasn’t she?” She says delicately extracts from the paper slush a laminated name tag Mouse wore at a convention she attended sometime in the nineties. “A keeper.”  Kitty’s nose twitches. She sets the name tag back down as if it were some frail archeological shard. “They’re the hardest.”

“The hardest in terms of what?” Adam asks, helplessly tracking her tight-lipped inspection of the aluminum-foil pans amassed against Armageddon, the expired spices in their dusty bottles, the ten-year archive of handwritten holiday menus hanging beside the stove from a grease-encrusted string.

“Letting go.” She writes something down on her pad, then taps her perfect white teeth with her pen. “The kitchen definitely has potential.”

“For what?”

“To be something really special. A little paint. New appliances. Reface the cabinets. But the buyer would have to have some imagination.”


Adam and Kitty are products of my imagination, but the kitchen is definitely my mother’s – which sometimes smelled a little musty, too. Some things just linger, no matter how much you scrub.

Cutting and Pasting … and Pinning?

June 5, 2011

I’ve just started reading What There is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell. There’s so much to love about this book: the warmth and humor between these two good friends; the leisurely, literary exemplars of the largely lost art of letter writing; the insider look at literary life in twentieth-century America.

The letters span five decades. Eudora writes from Jackson, Mississippi, Bill from New York. Both wrote short stories and novels, and they regularly read each other’s work – he not only as a friend, but also in a professional capacity, as Eudora’s editor at The New Yorker.

In September, 1953, Bob sends Eudora his latest story, “What Every Boy Should Know.” He tells her, “It’s the only copy I have with me – the other having gone off, but I thought it would amuse you anyway to read the past-up version.”

Eudora replies that it’s a lovely story, and spends a paragraph telling Bill why she likes it. Then she writes,

I do see from this how elegant rubber cement is. I’m so used to writing with a pincushion that I don’t know if I can learn other ways or not, but I did go right down and buy a bottle of Carter’s. The smell stimulates the mind and brings up dreams of efficiency. Long ago when my stories were short (I wish they were back) I used to use ordinary paste and put the story together in one long strip, that could be seen as whole and at a glance – helpful and realistic. When the stories got too long for the room I took them up on the bed or table & pinned and that’s when my worst stories were like patchwork quilts, you could almost read them in any direction […] on the whole I like pins. The Ponder Heart was in straight pins, hat pins, corsage pins, and needles, and when I got through typing it out I had more pins than I started with. (So it’s economical.)

Pins! To hold a story together! I’m old enough to remember the days when “cutting and pasting” was something you did with scissors and bottles of rubber cement. But pins???

For years, I wrote my first drafts in spiral notebooks, with Flair felt-tip pens – green, brown, peacock blue and, by the time I was in college, black. Second and third drafts got typed, but never first drafts. In my romantic, pseudo-flower-child world view, typewriters were impersonal machines that would interfere with my natural, creative flow. But once I finished something in longhand, there was nothing as satisfying as typing out my words – and often making small changes in the process. Subsequent drafts got marked up and retyped until I was satisfied, or gave up. (I usually gave up.)

I promised myself that when I sold my first story to The New Yorker, I would invest my earnings in an IBM Selectric typewriter – complete with feather-light keyboard touch, correcting ribbon, and interchangeable font balls that would let me produce beautiful typed pages in different fonts.

My dreams of a Selectric faded around 1980, when we bought our first personal computer – a Leading Edge with a cool amber display, and an accompanying daisywheel printer. About that same time, I also lost my aversion to composing first drafts at the keyboard. But for years I continued to print out every draft I wrote, mark the pages up manually, and then key in corrections.

Now I hardly ever print anything out. Everything happens electronically, including revisions. It’s so convenient, and it’s much more economical than replacing toner cartridges, not to mention better for the environment than using all that paper. And I’m running out of space to file multiple drafts of abortive writing efforts.

Still, reading a Eudora Welty’s letter makes me a little wistful.

I’m still waiting to sell that first story to The New Yorker. If that ever happens, maybe I’ll invest part of my earnings in a pincushion.


May 25, 2011

This month I studied a little Talmud. And I do mean a little. Once a week for three weeks, the senior rabbi at my synagogue led a handful of us through several sentences of discussion around the Biblical injunction, “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.”

“This class will not teach you how to keep kosher,” the rabbi warned when we began. It didn’t. But it did give us a look at the structure and style of the 1500-year-old compendium of law and lore that’s the framework of the Judaism practiced today. It introduced us to some of the rhetorical rules the rabbis followed when they argued. It offered a tiny taste of Aramaic, the vernacular spoken by Jews at the time of the Second Temple, (including Jesus). It offered up fascinating factoids about how folks in Babylonia in the 1st millennium C.E. understood the world. Blood isn’t part of the body. It’s the life force that passes through it. The relationship of the placenta to the body is similar to that of excrement. Milk is meat while it’s still inside the udder. It only becomes dairy when it’s expressed.

The most important thing I learned is that although I’m intrigued by Talmud’s odd logic and charmed by its arcana, I’m not intrigued and charmed enough to devote the effort required to study it for real.

The truth is, what attracts me isn’t the book itself, but the idea of it. Or maybe what I really mean is the layout. A page of Talmud is like an archeological site, where successive layers of the life that happened in that single spot over time are all laid bare at once. Only in Talmud, the relics revealed aren’t pottery and bone, but arguments and ideas. A page of Talmud lays bare a train of thought passed from one mind to another over the course of 700 years.

I first encountered the Talmud about 10 years ago, when I was teaching Torah at my synagogue in Vermont. Around this same time, I had also just started writing Little Grandma’s Mirror. At that early stage, I had a lot to say and a great urgency to get it down, but no idea of what approach to take. Rather than stop and consider structure, I just wrote in whatever format attracted me on any given day. Sometimes it was journal, sometimes a personal essay to be published in Seven Days. For a while, I compiled an annotated list of all the objects I remembered from my parents’ house. The most fun was a fanciful tale set in a 19th-century shtetl.

When in came time to get serious and pull the pieces together, I thought about the pages of Talmud I’d been poring over. What if I tried creating something similar – not picking and choosing between my texts, but presenting them all at once and letting them reflect on each other? I spent hours cutting and pasting and fiddling with format, and printed out three sample pages. It looked cool. But how was anyone supposed to read the stuff? How could I control the different narratives so the appropriate pieces were juxtaposed? Which of my texts should I present as the original, and which as commentary? Just thinking about it all made my head hurt.

In the end, I set aside all the texts except the shtetl tale, which I wove into a contemporary family story. The result is much more reader-friendly, but multifaceted enough to satisfy my taste for layered narrative. The book I’m working on now is even more straightforward, and I’m pleased with the way it’s going.

But spending these three evenings this month studying the possible implications of “You shall not cook a kid in its mother’s milk,” sent me back to those old attempts at Talmud-formatted composition. They don’t work at all, the way they are. But they do make me wonder, once again, about the possibilities.