Monthly Archives: September 2011

Who’s Afraid of Thomas Wolfe?

Two months ago, as I walked through the front door of the Weymouth Center for the Arts, in southeastern North Carolina, I noticed a pleasant, capable woman arranging a magnificent bouquet in a large vase in the entry hall. When I complimented her on the arrangement, she responded that she was glad I enjoyed it. “It’s all for you, you know,” she added. “Everything we do here is for writers.”
If you push a pen for a living, you are probably as surprised as I was to hear that anyone, anywhere, devotes themselves to writers. But then you haven’t heard about the Ladies of Weymouth. A volunteer group, these dear and tender souls maintain the lushly manicured gardens and the antique-filled rooms of Weymouth. They host events and fundraisers to supply the writers’ quarters of this southern mansion with fresh flowers, shelves full of books, and a bountifully equipped kitchen, study and library.
Perfect for some. But not, apparently, for my on-again, off-again muse (whom long ago, in the throes of angst and deep irony, I christened Constance). I found myself sitting determinedly at my laptop, waiting. And waiting.

After the first day, I broke out the white chocolate.

After two, I stopped showering and started sweating.

By the next day, I heard time’s winged chariot revving its engine behind me. (I had signed on for only five days at Weymouth.)

Perhaps, I thought, Constance was an old fashioned girl and would prefer to be wooed by hand rather than computer. I was, after all, a guest in a house once visited by North Carolina’s most famous writing son. In fact, the plaque on my door announced that I was sleeping in the Thomas Wolfe room!  I didn’t own a typewriter like Wolfe’s, of course, but I had brought a tablet with me. Dutifully, I took it out and waited, pencil in hand, for free-written descriptions and dialogue to flow. I waited. And waited.

By the fourth day, I was biting my nails, over-snacking, and completely demoralized. I went to check my email in the ball room.

That’s where I met another, newly arrived Writer in  Residence (there are four bedrooms at Weymouth, with space for four lucky authors). She asked me which room I was in, and when I told her, she replied with delight, “Oh, you got the haunted room!”

“Haunted?” I inquired, not quite as thrilled at this prospect as she seemed to be. She told me that she had been coming to Weymouth for years, and that I was fortunate, indeed. Thomas Wolfe’s ghost, she explained, was mischievous only to writers who didn’t cotton to restless spirits. “He’s always wonderful to people who aren’t afraid of him,” she assured me.

Was I afraid of Thomas Wolfe? I asked myself this on my last night, as I sank into a bed tucked under the famous writer’s photo. The answer, it was pretty clear, was no. When I was a teenager, I’d put myself to sleep by repeating those lush, extravagant  lines from the end of You Can’t Go Home Again: “Something has spoken to me in the night, burning the tapers of the waning year; something has spoken in the night, and told me I shall die, I know not where. “ Later, when I began writing my own books, the way Wolfe always gave himself so completely to feeling became a benchmark, a touchstone. So my once and future idol hardly frightened me; in my current depressed state, I was much more daunted than haunted. My muse and Wolfe could fight it out, I decided, yawning. I was going to sleep.

Not, as it turns out, for long. At 3 AM I woke in a cold sweat. Something had changed; something was different –about the room, about me. It took my sitting with the voice in my head, then padding to my laptop to transcribe it. It took my writing at break-neck speed my last morning at Weymouth. It took those five frantic hours to accomplish what I’d been hoping for — I had the two new scenes I needed for my novel! Someone had grabbed Constance by the scruff and shook poetry into her. She was on fire! And even now, long home and the book submitted, I’m filled with relief and swamped with gratitude — to a ghost. Thank you, Tom!!!   


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I have trouble with antagonists.  The minute I start to invent somebody mean or unethical I start reforming him/her and soon I’ve got Fred or Flora Fly-Right and, oops, no conflict.  My “yes but” mechanism kicks in too soon and I’m explaining and excusing some manipulating, self-involved liar because said baddie was bullied in preschool.  I can’t seem to sustain antagonism long enough to impact on my protagonist. 


         When a writer does a good job with a bad guy I’m in awe.  In Ursula K LeGuin’s Gifts we meet a father who lies to his son, in a particularly devastating way.  His motivation for the lie is a complicated combination of fear, love, pride and a feeling of responsibility for his community.  To make this even more nuanced, we’re not really sure how deliberate the lie is.  Possibly neither is he.

         This kind of delicious, subtle conflict makes me feel as though I’m functioning at a kind of Goofus and Gallant worldview.  Remember Goofus and Gallant from Highlights magazine?

         While I’m waiting for enlightenment maybe I should  just experiment with monsters.  Here’s an inspiring abecedarium of terrors by the wonderful Tom Gauld.


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Thanks Shakespeare

This has been going around the internets, but in case you missed it, here are some expressions we got from Shakespeare, courtesy of the blog F*ckYeahMoleskines. Some of these surprised me, like, “Knock knock. Who’s there?”  I mean, they weren’t saying that before Shakespeare?  Really???





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A number of years ago someone gave me a leather-bound journal with a silver, Celtic-knot closure.  The leather is deep green and tooled with the image of an oak tree — aged, arthritic, bare.  It is exquisite.

I was immediately stricken with a notebook-specific case of writer’s block.  What did I have to say — in my cramped longhand scrawl — that would be worthy of this journal?

It sat blank on my shelf for years.  Every so often I would take it out and admire it.  But write in it?  No.  I couldn’t.  Not until earlier this year, when I encountered in Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor the idea of a “lexicon practice.”

“What I call the Lexicon Practice,” Long says, “is the specific process by which you put actual time — regular time — into collecting words and phrases.”  You collect “words that strike your fancy, words you want to own…the juicy words, the hot words.”  Do not, she cautions, try to force them into your writing.  “Just work on the Lexicon…as a form of play.”  The words, Long says, will creep into your work of their own accord.

In the past, I have made word lists specific to particular books I was writing.  In Ancient, Strange and Lovely, for example, I wanted to convey the sense that ancient mysteries undergird modern science and technology. I made two separate word lists: one leaning toward mystery and the past (i.e., bone, ghost, night, rune); the other technological and contemporary (i.e., morph, kluge, halogen, matrix).  When I found myself reaching to express an emotion or idea that kept slipping between my fingers, I looked to my lists for clues.

For most writers, words are more than just tools; they are delicious.  I love the idea of a lifetime, personal lexicon unattached to any particular project.  Lexicon!  My too-beautiful journal has found its calling at last.

Samples from my personal lexicon:

Moonglade: The bright reflection of the moon’s light on an expanse of water.

Lickspittle:  A fawning underling; toady.

Crepuscular: 1. Of or like twilight; hazy, dim. 2. Becoming active at twilight or before sunrise, as certain birds and insects.

Afterwit: Information or wisdom that comes too late to be of use.

Syndactyl: Having two or more webbed digits.

— Susan Fletcher



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The Day After, But Ten Years Later



The arrival of the 10th anniversary of 9/11 shook me up more than I expected. I’m puzzled about what I still feel about that day, having lived through other momentous news days with sadness or awe, but not trauma – the JFK and Robery Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. assasinations, the shootings at Kent State, the explosion of The Challenger, all horrifying. The moon landing – glorious. Two big Seattle earthquakes that knocked mirrors off my walls and books from my shelves – personally unsettling. The eruption of Mt. St. Helens, which sent ash floating across the sky and down onto my car, parked in the street – no other word can be used but “awesome.” But  nothing marked me and stayed with me like 9/11, where I sensed, along with millions of other people, that the world was changing. I wonder if my mother’s generation felt this way after the attack on Pearl Harbor? Of course, there was no instant news feed then, and people didn’t watch the attack as it unfolded. They didn’t have an internet, they didn’t have YouTube, they didn’t watch it unfold over and over and over again.

At times, I felt as if I were watching it all from above, like a page from Google Earth – seeing the grid of Manhattan streets and those billowing clouds of dust and debris  – as well as people running to escape it all. When Jim Dwyer’s and Kevin Flynn’s remarkable book, 102 Minutes  came out, I stayed up all night reading it. 

Over the last week I’ve been looking back at some of my saved newspapers and magazines from that day – most memorably, Art Spiegelman’s cover for the September 24th issue of The New Yorker – all black at first glance, until you notice the towers, one shade darker, standing like ghosts or – I didn’t realize this at first – like tombstones.  Recently, I re-watched the heartbreaking inteview of Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete for Frontline’s hard-to-watch Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero. My sister sent me two poems  – “Atlantis – A Lost Sonnet” by Eavan Boland and My Sad Self by Allen Ginsberg – that felt, when I read them, as if they echoed off the tangled steel, re-bar and cement at Ground Zero.

Here we are, ten years later – add two continuing wars to that count – with anniversary documentaries and articles surrounding us. The saddest of these, to my ear, is Paul Simon’s singing of “Sounds of Silence” at Ground Zero yesterday. The most reasoned of the batch that I’ve seen so far is a video the New York Times posted online as part of its series “Artists Respond to September 11.” In it, the choreographer Bill T. Jones talks about the impact of 9/11 on himself as an artist. He perfectly articulates what I’ve been feeling. 

If you are a writer, or any kind of artist who draws from your own deep well of memory and energy and wonder, ask yourself if the fatigue you’ve been feeling the last few years is a version of post-traumatic stress. Does it flare up every time another news story about terrorism, war and senseless violence comes at you? Does the dust from 9/11 seem to settle over you once agains as you watch political debates, or as you listen – exhausted – to the talking-points and the spin politicians put on the news?

If the answer to those questions is yes, I hope you’ll watch the interview of Jones. It’s only a few minutes long. He is calm, balanced, sorrowful – yet optimistic. What he says in the final moments of the interview – about the lasting lesson of it all – is important.


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Time for the Mother of all Mock Newberys and Calling the Caldecott

I love the feeling of excitement and promise that fall always brings. There’s something about Labor Day weekend — one last barbeque, one last picnic, a trip to the beach or a long hike, and then it’s time to quiet down. The fog is rolling in through the Golden Gate here in the Bay Area, and the light has shifted to a lumious kind of glow.

I always feel like I should be sharpening some pencils and putting paper in a new three ring binder on a day like this. But even not in school, the need to settle back in — find your class, sit down at your desk — seems to flood across the children’s and YA publishing world.

Here’s two ways to get your fall fix:

Over at Hornbook, Roger Sutton has started a new blog on all things Caldecott: callingcaldecott. Bound to be interesting and infused with Roger’s irreverance and wit. And no doubt, lots of gorgeous illustrations to check out. Actually, the link isn’t hot just yet — there is some heavy praying to the gods and goddess of technology going on over there, but it’s expected to be live any moment now, so check back for it soon. 


And for the third or fourth year in a row, School Library Journal is hosting Nina Lindsey and Jonathan Hunt in the mother of all mock Newbery blogs: Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog. Refresh yourself on the rules with their links, and send in suggestions for some of your favorite books for 2011.

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Blood Oranges and Mirages

We’re vacationing in Burgundy, in the hilly country southeast of Dijon. But a writer is never truly on vacation, so I find myself constantly on the look out for ways I might describe this glorious place if I were to use it in a story. Setting? Well, yes, but what is that to a writer; how does one start? Do I simply sketch this three-hundred-year-old farmhouse, rough in some French countryside, and – Voila! Done. And then get on with the real business of plot? Too often, setting is accomplished in just this way: setting as mere backdrop. When I read that kind of thing, I recall grade-school plays in which the gray rocky shore, blue ocean and HMS Pinafore, sitting in the middle distance, have been painted by Mrs. Clayborne’s seventh-grade art students. Setting must be something more, something teased into the fabric of story, not plunked down and dismissed with.

  What if I start like this: He poured a glass of blood-orange juice, cloudy with its bittersweet secret, and stepped out into the yard. This sentence obviously does not describe a place but one might say it is an entry to “somewhere else.” Les oranges sanguines don’t grow in Bourgogne – more likely Spain or Sicily — but I have never drunk blood-orange juice anywhere and so a tiny bit of literary transportation is accomplished by this simple gesture of pouring a glass of it and taking a moment to describe its flavor. But, you might say, isn’t that atmosphere rather than setting? Possibly. But, at best, atmosphere is inextricably wrapped up in place, isn’t it? Let’s start out like that anyway, and then push our imaginary character a little further into the yard.

            He walked out past the blue ceramic pot of sage by the cottage door, across the gravel, past the wisteria to the orchard. He had brought a basket to pick blackberries that were newly ripe on the bramble down by the swimming pool.

            At home in Ontario we grow sage in our garden. But the blue ceramic pot feels nicely “elsewhere.” And, for me, the wisteria is also exotic. Depending on the story I wanted to write, I might find a moment to describe the grasping roots of the wisteria, the dangling velvety seed pods that I find disturbingly like something from a horror story. But I won’t talk about that now; now, my character is only collecting blackberries. If he’s got something on his mind (plot) maybe some of that will come out as interior monologue. And then his thoughts might be interrupted by a noise from the house that will draw his attention back that way. Here would be a chance to describe the shuttered dormers set in the red clay tiles, the crumbling distemper, revealing old yellow brick. Distemper? That’s an art school term I remember. I’ll have to find out what these walls are really made of. My host calls it rendering, which doesn’t really help describe it; limewash does. For now I’ll call it that. Limwash is slaked limestone, says Google. Sounds good, but it will take research to get the exactly right word.


            The sound is thunder and not thunder. He looks up, out across the valley, doesn’t see the source of the explosion, but knows what it is: a jet breaking the sound barrier. A Mirage.

The French Air Force practices low-level flying in these parts. That’s not likely something you’d find in a pretty coffee-table book about Bourgogne. But can this be called setting? Not exactly, but what I’m trying to do here is integrate setting and atmosphere and revelation of character into the actual telling of the story, rather than relegating it to some info-dump paragraph. In the end, maybe all I’ve done is start some kind of objective correlative. Are the blood orange, the sage in its blue pot, the wisteria and the sound-barrier-breaking jet all ways of objectively painting in the emotional landscape of this blackberry picking as yet unnamed character?            

Detail is the life-blood of good fiction. The gite is worthy of more vivid description, but I will weave it in, as need be. For this blog let me just explain that it is the cottage-end of a one-hundred-foot-long, farm-worker’s cottage/barn/shed, which the present tenant, my hard-working cousin, has, over twenty years, turned into an exquisite warren of rooms with shuttered windows and oak beams. (The oak is infested with deathwatch beetles. Fabulous! Well, not for the owners, but as an exquisite detail.)

Detail. Maybe, upon returning to the house, his basket full of blackberries, my character will run his finger along the inexpertly carved inscription in the sandstone lintel over the low door. “F19, 1786.” Does the “F” stand for Février, the month and date that the stone was laid? No one here can say for sure, but the sandstone grit on my finger is the very thing I want to write into every story.


Tim Wynne-Jones 



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