My City Follows Me Around

thumbnailYesterday I read Benjamin Percy’s essay “Move Mountains: Activate Setting” (AWP Chronicle, Vol 49, No 3, Dec 2016, 98-105). He makes a convincing case for orienting the reader to place and giving place agency in the story. Things must happen that could not happen just anywhere. Although not exactly news to me, Percy makes a good argument to writers who might be less than clear about where in the world our characters live and love and die, or not. I’m there.

Regular readers here know that there in my most recent fiction is, obviously, Providence RI. In fact, the book is dedicated to the city, partly because of my connections to it: I was born there and educated, in part, there. It’s a historic and lovely city, founded as a refuge for religious minorities in 1636 by Roger Williams when he got booted from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Last fall I went back and walked the sidewalks on College Hill. Providence is home to Brown University, Providence College, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales, and Rhode Island College. I drove around the city, admired the restored homes on Benefit Street and got reacquainted up close. Like other old friends, we had both changed, but deep down we were what we had been, connected.

Lately, our connection has an other-worldly aspect. Within two weeks of launching the novel here in Colorado, I’m meeting people from Providence: two of the baristas in one of my regular coffee shops, a couple I met decorating our church for a benefit auction, and a poet who came to speak to our book club in Boulder. Last week I plucked, at random, a novel off the new-books shelf at my favorite library, and there, it was set in Providence. So first I went to the city and now the city has come to me. Ahh, that’s a fine twist.

Cowardly Reader

I admit it, I sometimes start books but set them aside before I finish. Right now LaRose, by Louise Erdrich, has been on my coffee table far too many days. Erdrich is a talented novelist and her work is important, illuminating as she does the lives of Native Americans when they fray from contact with the white establishment. I feel guilty letting this book go stale. I preach “Read for Equality,” yet I have not finished this important novel by a Native American writer of great talent. On the other hand, I listened compulsively to an audio version of Louise Penny’s newest Inspector Gamache mystery, A Great Reckoning. Penny too is talented and I took in every word.

My different responses to these books lies in my attachment to the characters. I become immersed in their lives. I care about them. And when their lives get too hard to bear, I back off. In LaRose awful things happen to the characters and I feel their suffering, abhor the cruelty and injustice, fear for their survival. My filter fails.

Both writers are capable of murder. Murder is, of course, Penny’s stock in trade, but she writes a series, and main characters in series survive to appear in the next book.  They may be wounded, troubled, or abused, but they live on in my imagination, and I know that as I open the next book. I mean, Ann Cleeves would no more kill off detectives Jimmy Perez and Vera Stanhope than she would poison a neighbor’s barking dog. I doubt that Penny will off Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. The reader is safe if the character is safe.

Erdrich has no such obligation to her characters. Her obligation is to truth. She does not write gratuitous gore, but given that truth some scenes are powerfully graphic, and I know that not all of these people will survive. I close the book, slip it back into the library bag, make a silent apology,, and slink off like a frightened child.

Writers Awake

Bad enough that the national news this week startled us and that people are taking to the streets in protest. That we have had another presidential election that thwarts the popular vote, the direct voice of the people. That my dear dog is fading slowly into infinity. That my daughter is dealing with her father’s serious illness. That my marketing of the new novel has been upended by someone else’s faulty scheduling. It’s been a tough week. My phone died, had to be shocked back to life by a new battery. Leonard Cohen died.

 So pour another cuppa joe and settle in. We need to talk.This week I heard Richard Russo (one of my favorite writers) comment on NPR that good writing is increasingly important in troubling times. I had had the same thought. More than ever we desperately need honest, accurate, thoughtful journalism, fiction, poetry, and essays. I am not interested in celebrity opinions or sensationalism, never have been. I want clear reporting and reflection about the people, their actions, and their plans that affect our local, state and national governments, our collective life. I want people to pay attention, not homage. We need good writing more now than we did even a week ago, whether it’s 140-characters on social media or an in-depth editorial in a balanced print source. We must read from Left to Right, and not rely on a single source.

I want, need, a diet of more than verbal popcorn. I want the hearty protein of research, investigation, and clarity, not a fast-food reading list, but an organic garden plot that I tend daily, weeding, harvesting, feeding my need for facts and careful reportage. I plan to be thoughtful and thorough. I’ll be skeptical but not cynical. I’ll be a good citizen, alert to false accusations and political shenanigans. Please join me, no matter what you write or what you habitually read. Or how you voted. You did vote, didn’t you? Please write from your heart, read with your head. Stay awake.

AND READ FOR EQUALITY

LaRose, a novel by Native American writer Louise Erdrich.

Odd Topics

 

Although I write mostly poetry and fiction, I read randomly—memoir, science, essays, whatever gets my attention, something strange, a book about a topic I would not have dreamed of. I welcome your suggestions, and here’s my sample reading list of twenty books:

Barnett, Cynthia. Rain: A Natural and Cultural History.

Beavan, Colin. No Impact Man (living with virtually no carbon footprint)

Bilton, Nick. Hatching Twitter.

Birkhead, Tim.  The Most Perfect Thing: Inside (and Outside) a Bird’s Egg.

Coss, Stephen. The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic that Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics.

Epstein, Randi Hunter, MD. Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth.

Hatch, Steven. Snowball in a Blizzard: A Physician’s Notes on Uncertainty in Medicine.

Hermes, Edward. Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.

Kean, Sam. The Violinist’s Thumb: Love, War and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses.

Pollack, Eileen. The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still a Boys’ Club.

Rogers, Heather. Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage.

Stanton, Mike. The Prince of Providence: The Rise and Fall of Buddy Cianci (flamboyant mayor of the city).

Stuver, Bill. Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places.

Terry, Beth. Plastic Free.

Toler, Pamela D. Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War.

Venturi, Brown and Izenour. Learning from Las Vegas (architecture).

Voigt, Emily. The Dragon Behind the Glass: A True Story of Power, Obsession, and the World’s Most Coveted Fish.

Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat.

Wiseman, Alan. The World Without Us (about the decay of buildings and return of the natural world, sans human beings)

When Writing Isn’t Key

Usually, I post a blog on Saturday morning, but yesterday the world intruded and I chose to commit to the living instead of the virtual. It’s a choice writers rarely talk about. More often we brag about or bemoan the need to be at our desks, a diagonal way of saying how dedicated we are to this art form.

But Stephen King (a fellow Mainer)  in On Writing, says to put the writing desk in the corner of the room, put life out front. So when my dog, who has two major illnesses going on in the same 21 LB body, had a GI problem first thing in the morning, all thoughts of writing vanished. No blog, no critique group. We headed for the vet clinic and I waited till 1:00 pm to hear the welcome words that this was not the day I’m dreading when we decide there’s nothing more we can do for the dog. This kind of day not only puts the desk in the corner but puts all thoughts of writing almost out of sight. Yes, I sat with my journal, scribbling while I waited, but the words were all about the angst of making decisions about treatment, expenses and eventually the need to let him go.

Duncan the Dog

Duncan the Dog

He’s home, he’s eating and napping and cheerfully taking his two additional meds. His belly looks bloated and he licks it like he’s soothing it, but otherwise, we are having our usual morning. I’m still a writer, but I’m also a person with a strong attachment to other living beings.

Why I Write

In the middle (I almost wrote muddle and that would work also.) of designing a marketing plan for my new novel, I’ve been consumed with lists of things to do to promote the work, to get it in front of readers. Note that I did not say to sell the book. It would be nice to recoup the expenses of self publishing, but deep down and high up, my goal is for the book to arrive in the hands of people who will read it.

Edward Abbey, outspoken guy that he was, writes in Postcards from Ed, that he “expect[s] the novelist to aspire to improve the world” (145). That’s a big expectation. He has challenged me to write from belief rather than ambition. Providence is about people caught up in the potential effects of climate change. The previous novel, Accidental Child, also grew from a what-if that had me musing about the disasters we face if we don’t curb our destructive use of natural resources.

People ask me how the book is selling, and they are puzzled when I say that I don’t know. Sales are only one indication of who might read the book and care about the characters about their lives and our future. Maybe pass it on to another reader. In the current political climate, I see little attention to issues that are drowning in the hubris and rancor that fill the news outlets. We still have racism, climate abuse, poverty, war and illness. I vote for a more reasoned, balanced awareness of what we should be concerned about. I write to remind myself, and you, that the world is complex, the people are sad, and the future needs our attention.

Read for Equality

Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger).

My Check-list Life

I love lists, the satisfaction of the little check mark when I’ve finally finished a project or task. I make grocery lists, project lists, to-do lists, books to read lists. A list is finite in an infinite world. Without these little reassurances, I might run screaming into the street and throw myself in front of a truck. No, that’s not true. But I do feel anxious when I don’t know what to do next.

This list-mania comes from all the years I spent as a mental health nurse. Nurses cannot forget things. They multi-task almost constantly and details matter. I used reporters’ notebooks, those long, thin spiral pads that fit into my scrubs pocket. I dated every page and started a new page each shift. I never tore out a page because at times when I wanted to review what I’d done previously. Of course, patient names were abbreviated or coded. And the whole thing went into the shredder when I was finally done with that list of lists.

My tasks and projects as a writer are not life-saving or enhancing. Well, maybe the latter. I like to think that all the little steps in creating and publishing a poem or story add up to entertainment, education or inspiration. Of course, I’ll never know. A reader, unlike a hospital patient, gets no discharge summary, no return appointment, no swelling chart in the records department. I go blind into this work and trust the list-less world to benefit from my efforts. The finite becomes almost infinite and beyond my control. Write it and let it go. Cross it off the list.