Monthly Archives: February 2014

In The Cloud

I’m an out and proud fountain-pen-and-notebook-aholic. I might have written about these addictions a few (hundred) times, like here and here. I love inking up my pens, opening a pretty notebook, and journaling for days. In fact, I’ve been keeping handwritten journals forever, well, since I was in middle school anyway.

But recently, I made a big change and, so far, I’m really liking it. I switched from keeping a physical journal to using a digital one. There are many choices out there for digital journaling, something for all kinds of computers, tablets, and phones, but the one I’m using is called Day One. (There’s a version for Mac, iPad, and iPhone, and yes, I have them all!)


So why switch to a digital journal?

One reason I made the change is, when I kept a handwritten journal, I always felt there was no reason to open the journal unless I had something to write about, something important-ish. And the prettier (and more expensive) the journal, the more pressure I felt to make each entry meaningful. Last year, I bought a journal in Paris that is so adorable, I’ve NEVER written a word in it.

With a digital journal I never feel that way. Hey, it’s just words on a screen; there’s no need to be fancy. And if I ramble on and don’t make any sense, I can just delete the words and rewrite it. No need to worry about marring my beautiful journal!

Another thing I like is that digital journals seem to encourage quick entries. Of course, there’s no limit to what you can write, but with a digital journal it’s nice to just pop open the app on your phone and write a twitter-length entry, just a line or two about what’s on your mind. I also really like how easy it is to attach photos to your post. These make the journal entry beautiful to look at, and I’m sure in a few years, when I look back over this journal, I’ll be glad to see all those pictures, too.

Digital journals also let you tag entries to help you find them later, save your location and weather information, and if you’re the kind of person who likes to share entries with other people (do people really do this?), you can export your journal as a PDF, which looks great, especially with all the pictures.

Does this mean I no longer use my fountain pens and notebooks? You would have to pry them from my cold, dead hands!  I just don’t journal with them anymore. Now, when I want to do my so-called deep, introspective writing (ha ha), I reach for one of my devices instead.
  And I can say without a doubt, I’ve written way more entries now than before. It’s just so easy. And so beautiful.

There are so many people who want to keep a journal but never seem to find the time to get started. If that’s you, try keeping a digital journal instead. They’re fun, as easy as posting something on Instagram or Twitter, and totally private (and password protected.)

Keeping a journal is so important, especially for writers. If you’ve been hesitant about taking the leap into the world of journaling, try one of the digital journals out there. You might find it more fun than you thought it would be.



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The Crazy Boy



By the time we actually saw the lion, I had given up hoping for it. Nairobi National Park is small by comparison to the other game parks in Kenya, but forty-five square miles is big enough that spotting a lion is not at all guaranteed. “It depends on your fortune,” said Wilberforce. I guess he meant luck. Like fishing, you have to get up early to see a lion. I get that. “You need to come when the lions are angry,” said Wilberforce. He must have forgotten that I had asked, days ago, if we could leave at 7:00 but that he’d insisted on 8:00, so that he could go to church.

In any case, we got to the park not twenty minutes after leaving the hotel, a Sunday morning miracle, I guess. You usually can’t get to the end of the block in twenty minutes in Nairobi. Twenty minutes. Think of it: a wilderness, lying along the flank of the just waking city of four million.

Anyway, about giving up on the lion. Like fishing, you have to remember that the real joy of the experience is not about catching the big one. It’s about the pleasurable anticipation of the catch, about being in the moment and more deeply aware of being alive. Right? It’s about being up early; it’s about bird music, the sweetness of the grass, the greenness of everything. Yes, okay. Sure. In hardly any time, we saw ostriches, giraffes, wildebeasts; it’s not as if the day wasn’t already far from ordinary. But there is always that hope, isn’t there: the big one: the king of this incredible kingdom.

Once I asked Wilberforce to stop just so that I could listen. That required also turning off the church service he had on the radio. (I wonder what Handel would have made of ululation? I bet he’d have loved it.)

It’s all right if we don’t see a lion, I told myself. I had made my peace with the day. We stopped at a picnic area. A picnic area, just on the edge of “Lion’s Valley.” Whose idea was this? Gary Larson came to mind: I pictured some enterprising lion learning his alphabet and scoring some paint and a brush.

We stopped at the Hippo bath site and I walked into the woods with an armed Wildlife officer and ten other hopeful souls. We looked where the hippos were supposed to be and where the crocodiles were supposed to be, but nobody was home. Probably at church, I thought, gloomily. There were two huge tortoises sitting on the muddy bank. They probably don’t bother with church, I thought; by the time they got there the service would be over.

The warden showed us lion prints in the mud and an imposing lion turd. Very impressive, but… you know…

Then we learned in the parking lot by the Hippo Bath that someone had seen a lion, just up the road a piece — that one, to the right. We headed off.

And there they were — not one, but two — deep in shadow, one Sphinx-like, the other lolling on the ground. If they had woken up angry a few hours earlier, they seemed fine now. Sated, I supposed, and having a nice sit down in the shade to digest.

It was about two kilometers further along that we saw the boy.

With the sun behind him, I assumed he was a ranger. He seemed to have a rifle. What else could he be in this place? But as we slowly passed him by we saw he was a lanky teenager with nothing in his eyes. What I had taken for a rifle was a jacket slung over one shoulder. He didn’t look at us as we passed.

Was he naïve? Was there a car just over the rise and he was walking ahead filled with teenage bravado? Was it a dare?

This is a game preserve. There are not only lions, but leopards and cheetahs as well. There are signs commanding you not to step out of your car, but really, who would need to be told? I wasn’t sure what to do. Wilberforce didn’t suggest we pick him up. Was that my call? I mean I was the paying customer; what was the protocol here?

A little further on we met up with another car. Wilberforce stopped and chatted with the driver. Apparently, the gate towards which we were heading was closed. We doubled back. I was so glad. The road was rutted and rocky but soon enough we caught up with the boy. The driver of the car who had informed us of the gate closure was talking to him, already. Good. We crept up behind them our windows wide open. We stopped and listened. They were speaking in Kiswahili, so I had no idea what the driver was saying, although I could guess. The boy replied, and Wilberforce made a low sound in his throat, somewhere between a sigh and a groan. “This boy, there is not much of him upstairs,” he said.

“He’s crazy?”

“Yes,” he said, but it sounded like “Yayse.”

Then he put the car in gear and we carefully rolled past the other car and headed back the way we had come. When I looked back, the other car was pulling away from the boy, as well. No! This can’t be right! But the thing was, the boy had pulled away from the car. Away from the road.

When we got to the place where we’d seen the two lions, they were gone.

“They have probably gone out for lunch,” said Wilberforce, in a voice filled with implication. “Yayse?”

“Yes,” I said and we drove on.

Wait. Isn’t this where all the stops are pulled out? Why didn’t my driver phone the front gate? Why didn’t I even think to tell him to phone the front gate? Why did we not hurry back to the Hippo Bath, where there were armed rangers? And why is it only now as I write this that these questions are even occurring to me. When we got to the gate I did alert the man on guard. He was astonished and asked where this had happened. We gave him as precise information as we could considering the roads are unmarked. He said he would get in touch with the rangers, immediately. He thanked me. Right.

The thing is — and it is disturbing to admit this — all I could think of at the time was how the whole weird, tense scenario seemed to me to be an urgent metaphor of what it is like to be a teenager.





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A Valentine from the Teacher

If you’ve recently accompanied a child or grandchild to the store to look for Valentine’s Day cards, you’ll have noticed plenty of choices for cards to send their friends, and even a great many options for cards to give their teachers. But, at least in my neighborhood, there were no Hallmark-type greetings for teachers to send their students. Which is fine, because I really want to write my own. And here it is:

To every student I ever told to put their novel in the drawer and start all over; to every new writer I asked to scrap a character, a scene, a metaphor; to every one who wrote me for advice and to whom I replied, however gently, Kill your darling, THANK YOU. Thank you for your grace under fire, your courage, your resilience, your can do/won’t surrender attitude; for teaching me so much about starting over unafraid. On this day, when we remember the people we’re thrilled and deeply grateful to have in our lives, I remember you. Image

Why now? Yesterday has a lot to do with it. Yesterday, I shared my latest draft with my writers’ group. I was more than a little excited about this manuscript, a novel whose opening some students and colleagues heard in a reading at VCFA. It’s a book about the young woman who danced John the Baptist to death. Working title? The Gospel of Salomé. But the story took an interesting turn after those early chapters—it acquired a second narrative voice, that of John’s most famous follower, Jesus Christ. The idea sprang, not from free writes or from any plot imperative, but from the headings in my Scrivener outline. Since I’d grouped the early chapters together under a section heading, “The Good Daughter,” it felt intriguing to connect the next (unwritten) chapters with the title, “The Good Son.” And who would this Good Son be? Who else?

Wow! How risky is that! And scary! And BIG! Flush with my own daring and feverish from leaping off one of the biggest writing cliffs I’ve ever contemplated, I wrote like crazy. I don’t eat breakfast, anyway, but I started skipping lunch, too. I wrote around the clock, skipping niceties like showers, walks, and answering the phone. Which means that, yesterday, when I finally turned my draft into the group, I had a great deal invested in it. But I wasn’t really worried. The whole risky concept was sure, I thought, to bowl them over. Besides, I knew the language was incantatory, even hypnotic at points, and I was, frankly, looking forward to hearing this reflected in their comments.

It wasn’t. Now everyone in our group is a published author, so we can all take an ego punch. (You can’t be published multiple times without having been rejected multiple times.) Still, I was stunned when my dear and precious readers, instead of praising my Jesus’ slightly ADD but enchantment-laced voice, asked me why I needed Him at all! They didn’t mean this in a religious sense, mind you. They were asking from a purely literary, craft-oriented perspective—why had I developed this second view point? What did it add to the story? How did it grow my central character, Salomé? How was it worth the risks, historical, motivational, and structural? Why not tell the story without it?

And this is where my students come in. You see, without the precedent they’ve set, I don’t think I could have possibly taken this in stride. But their example has been lodged in my psyche each time I ask a new writer similar tough questions, each time he or she rolls up their sleeves and tries whatever I propose. Sure, there is sometimes gnashing of teeth, not to mention moaning at the bar; but almost always my students are willing to put aside their disappointment, their agendas, even their ideas about why they write. And just go for it.

So I will, too, Sweethearts. I will, too.


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It was 50 years ago today….

In 1965, I was apparently a deranged human being, and I was madly in love with John Lennon. Weren’t we all (those of us who were alive then, that is)? When the Beatles came to DC, I went to see them with my next door neighbor. Here in full is a carbon of the letter I then wrote to my roommate, which I must have saved for just this opportunity. Obviously I have no pride whatsoever and am willing to damage whatever good reputation I have left by posting this drivel, but I admit that I find it amusing. Who was that person?  I hope you can read this; had to play computer games to insert letter, complete with typos. One sentence is redacted to protect the innocent, and it’s in two sections.




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