Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Overwhelmed? Me too

With so many issues capture my attention that I sometimes retreat into the safe and familiar, to projects that occupy my mind and hands. I write, work on genealogy, do chores. I read, a lot. My days fall into a pattern of virtual meetings with friends and writing groups, so something beckons on each page of my planner. But I cannot ignore the long list of issues that threaten to topple my sanity. I couldn’t escape this morning into my journal, too many huge problems plunged me into despair: climate degradation, homelessness, addiction, unemployment, famine, persecution, reproductive rights, inequality, health care, sex trafficking, child abuse, public education, fraud at high levels, immigration, international unrest, racism, shootings.

Every single issue is vital to our future. How to deal with it all? Well, good mental health often demands chunking a problem, not trying to do more than is individually possible. I stay informed, keep up with the news twice a day. Read in some depth about selected issues. And then I retreat into what I can manage, my own health and well being. I walk at a distance from neighbors, I wear a mask. I don’t eat out or go to the grocery store. Food and supplies come to me thanks to a caring family.

But when I look at that list of seemingly insolvable problems, I notice that climate degradation still heads my list. If we cannot breathe clean air, drink clean water, survive sea-level rise and increasingly violent storms, then we cannot begin to address any of the other problems. So, I’ll continue to do my best to live simply, pay attention to household trash, voice my concerns to people in power, and remind my readers here that we have only one planet. We won’t be resettling Mars. Please, be informed, be pro-active, be in love with the wonderful world we still have, and know that it’s at risk.

An Apology

In a long ago life and in two distant places, I taught college classes in composition. I tried to be helpful, but now that I’ve finally reached what passes for a belated adulthood, I want to apologize to my students. By now they too have reached full adulthood and perhaps forgotten that they ever had to take intro courses in composition. But here’s the problem. In teaching composition, I avoided or lost sight of what it means to write.

If I were to walk into a classroom now, I’d do a better job and departmental goals be damned. In the very first class I would ask each person to give a one word answer: What matters to you? I might make a list of the answers on the board. Then I would say, write for ten minutes about your answer. And I’d urge them to free write, non-stop, keep the pen moving. I’d hope they had pen and paper, but if they showed up with tablets, well, do the best you can.

And after the timer went off, I’d ask that they each underline what they like in what they have just written. Why that choice? Okay, now do it again, beginning with your favorite phrase, sentence, image.

“No five paragraph essay required. Take this work home with you and write what means something to you.” If someone asked about grades and things like punctuation and spelling and word count, I say that we’ll get around to those, maybe. But I’d also tell them that those rules are actually tools and when you have something to say, we’ll see if and where the tools help make your thoughts clear.

After decades of writing, I know how awful it must have felt to have to squeeze my words into a preordained form that has nothing to do with what I want my reader to see. I’m sorry, all you first year students. I didn’t mean to squish you into a corner and not let you out till after the end of the semester.

My Need to Read

Because my library is still off limits, I’m destined to read whatever crosses my path. (Imagine books with feet marching around my living room, poking their noses into every corner, wondering why I don’t pay more attention to them.) Of course there are temptations online and I admit to falling into that trap occasionally. But what about my resident writers who have long deserved space on my shelves, some in the big living room book case, some on a separate shelf that I call my stars, and four shelves of how-to-write books in my office?

Why not read what’s here, ready and eager to migrate from the shelf to the book box beside my easy chair. Greed? Yes, I admit to that. Given the room and the budget, I might buy more books than groceries. However, compulsive spending is not likely to happen. So I strive for moderation. This week I confess to buying two books–John Irving’s Witches of Eastwick (because Margaret Atwood mentioned it in a recent interview) and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The Kolbert book I devoured, the Irving book yet unread.

Instead, I browsed my top shelf and pulled out Jose Saramago’s The Notebook, a collection of his blog posts from 2008-2009. And wow! Many of the concerns he wrote about are timely now in 2020. I’m not sure if it comforts or disturbs me that our 2008 elected officials in the US enraged him. Imagine what he would say today!

Kolbert’s science is as disturbing as Saramago’s politics. And so far fictional witches seem superfluous. Wherever a book comes from, it has to win space in my life. This week, two out of three is a pretty good score.

Please visit #PoemsFor2020

What Happens in a Free Write


Corinne often stopped at the café but this morning she was headed to the mountains in a hurry. She did not yet know exactly why but it felt urgent and wise. She giggled as she turned out of the neighborhood, tuned the radio to jazz, and silenced her phone—freedom! She had only a vague destination, a decadent use of time and gas. She fidgeted with her hair, too long already but she need not fuss with it, just push it behind her ears now he was gone.

As she turned off the highway and navigated the confusing exit, she had an epiphany—this was freedom from both clock and calendar, a day dedicated to her need for altitude, vistas, space, a ramble as far as she could get from the swollen dregs of suburbia. The music was not what Phil would have approved. In her head he whispered that she knew nothing about jazz, so who did she think she was anyway, listening to KVJZ?

“Philip, shut up. You’re dead, remember?”

The road mesmerized her and she wondered how long it would take the neighbors to miss her, how long before they missed Phil? Well, he had diminished her for the last time. Now his voice shrank to a murmur. She meant to erase ever sour conversation, edit out his face, words, and of course, his touch and smell. Smell? Scent, an animal odor, earthy and soiled, like his dirty work clothes and boots. Oh, his boots, how long had he worn the same cowboy boots? Damned stupid, Phil, trying to be a tough hombre. Well, here she was a long way from him and when or if she turned back to the house, she would fling open the windows, scrub the tub, and empty the garbage. Garbage had been his job although at the end he had struggled to heft the bags up into the bin. Well, she would have to do it herself. Cheap enough cost for freedom.

Now the road was very steep and the car seemed reluctant to go higher. Maybe, she thought, this altitude was too much for her old Chevy. Well, she’d already ordered a new one. One more thing about which she need not take Phil’s advice.

The End


Lessons from a Virus

Each person has a unique response to life within the edges of home and neighborhood. Here in Colorado we are open, somewhat, so yesterday we had a driveway happy hour with our neighbors, well apart but close enough to talk, share a plate of ribs, and sip a favorite beverage. It was odd to maintain social distance and reconnect with those fine folks. Makes one measure what’s valued.

And individually, I suspect that many of us are reviewing our “normal” activities and adjusting accordingly. What does matter? What do we miss? What can we let go? I’ve done just that and, given the ghost of mortality flitting around us, asked myself how I want to spend whatever time is left to me. It’s been illuminating, an emotional temperature monitoring. And as a result I’ve advised friends and colleagues that some long-lived habits will change. I’ve trimmed my responsibilities (Were they really that?) in order to spend more time doing what matters most: fewer writing groups, more deep reading, getting back to my genealogy project and expanding it. I have enough material on hand without visiting the nearby NARA, and–ta da! I want to study archaeology. I’ve been watching a long series of programs that feature digs in the British Isles. Most of my ancestors come from that part of the world, so a balance exists  between the macro of deep history and the micro of my family tree.

Would I have arrived at this decision without the enforced time to consider my options? I’ll never know the answer to that question. But I do know that it feels right to back off and move forward. #genealogy #archaeology #SocialDistance #NationalArchivesRecordsAdministration

Synchronicity Reigns

I often make notes and mark passages in books, mostly little erasable dots, as I read. Then I flip through the book and decide if the dotted bits deserve to move onto my prompt list or into my journal for further attention. Just now I am close to finishing Bill Nye’s Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation (2015). Nye, of course, makes science palatable, convincing, entertaining. And this week, he’s served me a big gulp of awe.

Because I own this book, instead of erasable dots, I’ve written  marginal notes, most of which function as an index: “Oh, yeah, here’s that quote about the Cambrian Explosion.” And on page 290 I marked the date April 17, 2020 : “Viruses seem to have come into existence [as] self-replicating, stasis-maintaining organisms. …Viruses are a significant part of our world.” Indeed. Eerie to come across this now, in April 2020, what poet T. S. Eliot had years ago named “the cruelest month.” This year more cruel than usual.

Not that Eliot knew about Covid-19 or the evolution of viruses, but this is National Poetry Month and the overlaps between my random reading, my mental file of poetry, and the danger of viral infection strike me as marvelous–as in I marvel at the connections. Scary, but marvelous all the same. Now excuse me, I have eleven pages left in Undeniable. Stay home, stay safe, wear a mask, please.

Making Do for Now

Given this pandemic-enforced retreat, I’ve taken up a project that often surprises me. In the previous post I mentioned reading Let the Crazy Child Write. In this long quiet, I have challenged myself to do several of the exercises that author Clive Matson suggests, one of which directs me to interview someone. Well, that’s tricky during our sequestered lives. But Matson does say that one might interview herself. Hmm, could that work? As a matter of fact … it does. I came up with three questions that I imagine answering in an interview: 1. Tell me about your early experiences as a writer; 2. Which of your early experiences are most important or most memorable? and 3. What’s next for you?

Here then, is my answer to the first, understandably self-satisfying, but I am intrigued by the voice that responded to the prompt.

I remember writing bizarre and clumsy poems when I was in high school. And I wrote a theme every week for Hubert Clemons, my high-school English teacher at Potter Academy. Then I had a long hiatus in which I admired John Lennon’s poems but wrote none that I recall. I was drawn to visual art, took a mail-order drawing course and lessons from a local art teacher. But poetry still lurked in some mental back room. When I went to Yuba Community College, I took a creative writing course and a survey of English Lit, the latter with a wonderful teacher, Robert Mognis, and began writing again. From that point on I read and wrote plenty, but had no one to share the work with until several years later when I started grad school and published a poem in the Georgia Southern lit mag. And finally, a first acceptance from a stranger, a poem called “Last Supper.” Oddly, I don’t find a copy of that one in any of my notebooks.

Random Thoughts While Waiting

What I’m reading while I’m staying home:

The Moth, art and literature, Issue 40, Spring 2020

The Science of Storytelling, Will Storr

Let Your Crazy Child Write, Clive Matson–not about homeschooling, subtitle is “Finding and Freeing Your Creative Voice.”

Zoom Manual for Participants.pdf

Contributions by writing friends in what Wikipedia describes as “Exquisite corpse, also known as exquisite cadaver (from the original French term cadavre exquis), is a method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled.”

Cover to cover of the latest New Yorker.

By the end of the day, when my eyes are tired, I watch several episodes of a British documentary series, Time Team, all about archeology. By now the cast feels like family, and since I cannot visit with my family other than those with whom I live, it’s a good thing to see familiar faces. (Familiar deriving from family.)

However long our sequestering lasts, I’m sure I have enough to entertain and distract me. But right now, the sun is shining, I live in suburbia, so we have wide sidewalks, and spring temps, so for a while I will put away words and see what the birds and the neighbors are up to.

Oh, yes, I’m writing.

“I Search”

When I was teaching writing, I sometimes suggested to students that they do, not a research paper, but an “I Search.” Look online for this term and I now get advice about buying cars. Not what I had in mind. My version involves a deep look at something I’m interested in. One time, for example, I researched the history of printing. I read books and articles, and I visited a printer in Denver who now heads a museum and teaches the fine art of printing.

Lately, I’ve been studying the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Irish, a Nobel Laureate in 1995. I’ve long admired his work and it seemed an omen when I found in a thrift shop a fat book, Dennis O’Driscoll’s Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney. Their in-depth conversations range from Heaney’s early years in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, a hard era in which to be Catholic in that bloody land. Heaney not only survived, but as an outstanding student, won scholarships and graduated with honors from Queens University College Dublin. The rest, as the saying goes, is history, or should I say his-story.

Partly his enormous talent and depth of knowledge about literature and partly sharing a mostly Irish heritage has kept me reading. I’m  half way through the interviews, deep into a book of his essays about poetry, and a study by Helen Vendler, a noted literary critic. I’m keeping a notebook of whatever strikes me as useful. I’m reading again his poems.

If you look at the photo above, you’ll see what faces me on my coffee table. What you cannot see is the ink and pencil marks in the books that I own, nor the impact of his talent on my own writing. He is a poet of place and of the body. His ear is well tuned and helps me to hear the rhythms of the language.

But I remind myself that despite his huge talent, he’s male, through no fault of his own, and his artistic influences were male. So, the next round of deep study will, I think, take me back to Carolyn Forsché. Her newest collection, In the Lateness of the World: Poems, is even now creeping toward me and promises to enrich my understanding of this strange art called poetry.

#RedGoddessPoems #SeamusHeaney #CarolynForsché