Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Watching the Door

I'm reading Watching the Door: Drinking Up, Getting Down and Cheating Death in 1970s Belfast by Kevin Myers. This on the heels of Here, Bullet, a book of poems by Brian Turner, who served in Iraq after getting his MFA. Both are fascinating meditations on war.

The most striking contrast between the two works (although they probably shouldn't be compared at all as one is by a journalist observing one war and the other is written by a soldier who participated in another) is the distance the narrator has from the material. I often stress to students that they need distance from what they're writing, which can come in the form of time, or in the form of some narrative stance that is distant from what you were feeling when the events occurred. The tone of the work has to be separate from the mood you're trying to create. Myers has first the distance of time. The events he writes about occurred thirty years before the publication of this book. Also, he has taken on an extremely self-mocking stance as a narrator. He seems to truly dismayed by the young man he was, which is a difficult posture to maintain for 250 pages. The book opens with a description of him watching, calmly, while a group of gun toting boys ambushes a group of British soldiers, killing two of them. He explains that he never filed a story on that ambush in part because he could never have explained his presence there or the fact that he made no effort to intervene. This is the eternal moral quagmire for a reporter, one that seems to have haunted him ever since.

He also uses a lot of humor, which is not easy to do when you're writing about people killing each other. One of my favorite anecdotes so far is one about how the young Myers liked to invite friends up to Belfast from Dublin for a visit. In his hubris, he would take them out in his ratty old car at night on a tour of the most dangerous areas in Belfast, presumably so he could enjoy their fear. He describes one of these trips on a rainy night:

We drove through the control-zones between Catholic areas and Protestant areas, where no one but the security forces ever travelled at night--no one, that is, apart from me. Finally, I drove once again down towards Henry Taggart hall, turning off my headlights on my approach, as one always did. With only the sidelights on, the Renault eased over the speed ramps outside the sangar containing the sentry, and then right on cue it backfired--crack!--before stalling, stone dead. Jesus.

Backfires had often attracted fatal gunfire in Belfast, and here was I perched on a speed ramp beside the most fired-at sentry post in Ireland. Grinning through inanely clenched teeth, I turned on the engine. Nothing happened. I tried again, pressing the accelerator hard; and the engine burst into life with a series of short, sharp explosive bangs that sounded precisely like the Browning 9mm my old shoulder-to-shoulder friend used to favor me with. Yards away, invisible, a British soldier was calmly making a decision about my life.

The car moved forward, then backfired loudly, and stalled again. Jesus. What was I to do? I was nearly paralysed with terror, and outside it was dark dark dark, not just here, but across Belfast, and vertically upwards, a deep black to the very edge of the universe. And now in this fathomless vault, lit only by the sidelights on my car, with the frayed rubbers of my wipers forlornly trying to wipe the Niagara from my screen. I had to decide how I should manage this crisis. If I got out of the car, how would the sentry respond? In his shoes, what would I have done? In his shoes, I would already be dead behind the wheel. 

I had no choice but to start the engine again. My companion sat rigid as a corpse beside me, whispering in terror, his pallor dimly luminous in the utter dark. I turned the ignition, and the engine burst into life. Then I drove slowly away, sending a single sharp bang in farewell. Behind me stood a young working-class British soldier on sentry-go whose name I will never know, who was sitting in the most fired-on place in western Europe, and who had stoically and unflinchingly endured the gunfire-like sounds from a stationary car at point-blank range, without firing once. By such men is civilization made.

Most of what he describes in the book is terrifying, and appalling, as Myers intends. My one complaint about the American edition is that it includes no map of the region. I'm slowed by my need to google the locations and roads he mentions, hampered by my own ignorance. I suppose it's a small price to pay for this narrative.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

First Pass Galleys

The galleys arrived by UPS on Monday. We co-authors have until April 10 to read and correct them. This is a great step up from the days when I worked on a book on heart disease. I remember giving birth to S, then coming home from the hospital to a 300-page package of galleys and a note from the publisher saying, "You have 48 hours to make any corrections." I read the entire book and marked it up while sitting on an inflatable donut and nursing a newborn. Then I wrote a glossary for it, which is the other thing they wanted right away. My co-author at the time, a really, really nice cardiologist, wrote me an email. It said: "You seem annoyed." I wrote back. "Do I?"

Now we have more than two weeks to read and obsess about every detail. The note attached to the galleys thoughtfully reminds us that any changes we make at this point are expensive and could be charged to our royalty account. Any changes that are not factual in nature or that involve adding more than a few words should be submitted on disk in a certain format. There's a whole tea ceremony involved for that. This is good information, because I read the first page and wanted desperately to rewrite every word of it. I felt visceral, palpable shame while reading those first paragraphs. I thought: This is a disaster. The whole book is a disaster. We have to stop this from happening.

Fortunately, I called my co-author at home. He answered and before I could get into my shame-a-thon he went on and on about how much he loves the book. This is the book he wanted us to write. This is the book he's ready to promote. "Don't the galleys look great?" he asked. And I found myself saying, "yes, yes, they do" while my worry leaked out of me. The good thing about having two authors is that we can take turns being crazy.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Reading in Cantonese

We had a Memoir Project reading this past weekend, one to celebrate the participants in the project's second anthology, My Legacy Is Simply This: Stories from Boston's Most Enduring Neighborhoods. It was a good turn out. The seniors read their stories and signed each other's books, and even signed those of some people who had bought books.
This reading was in Chinatown, which meant that Alexis and I were the only ones in the room whose first language is English. Almost all of the conversation among the participants and their assembled family members was in Cantonese. The seniors brought copies of their books to the front of the room and read entirely in Chinese to the crowd of onlookers. I introduced each of the four readers in English, while Kwan, our translator, turned my words into Cantonese. This is how the entire class was taught two years ago. 
I'd forgotten how exhausting it is to break up my thoughts into bite sized chunks to be translated
into another language, and how disorienting it can be to listen to others speak in a language I can't understand. I found myself staring at the faces of the people reading in vain hope to understand some of what they were saying, to figure out where in their story they were. I also watched the audience, alive to every gesture, every nod and smile, hoping that they were enjoying themselves. Often while teaching the class I felt alone in the room, isolated and
humbled by my ignorance of their language and culture while at the same time grateful that they were willing to share so much with me, so much affection and honesty. I miss them. At the end of the reading, they sang a bit, and opened up for hugs. And one or two of them offered a goodbye in English and a gift of sweets to honor the new year. It was a celebration of story telling and gratitude, just like the class itself.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Prompts in JP

We started teaching the Memoir Project in Jamaica Plain last week. For the first time in several months, we have a group of participants who really want to write. They write in class for twenty minutes at a time. That's not easy. Try it. And they have great stories. One woman is writing an incredible account of how she became a ward of the state at the age of 12 and went into foster care. Her description of her first subway ride in Boston, alone, with no idea of where she was going, is chilling. She ended up at a wonderful home for girls  in the Back Bay run by a woman called "Mother Agnes." Another woman was a young nurse during Boston's last polio epidemic in the mid 1950s. She worked with the most debilitated patients, those who depended on an iron lung to breathe through the night.

I've come up with new prompts for them because they're so inspiring. In general, people have a better time starting a writing project if they start with a list. All writers use lists because they are so much easier to generate than paragraphs of perfect sentences.

This past week I asked them to make a list of every job they've ever had. They had no need to limit themselves to paid work. They should list every job they had in the family, every formal role they played at home as well. Once they'd made a list, I asked them to focus on one job, perhaps a favorite job or least favorite, and describe it in more detail. Then I asked them to describe a memorable co-worker. Finally, I asked them to offer written advice to anyone entering the workforce now. Our participants love giving advice, and they're pretty good at it, too. 

Well, the stories came pouring out of them. One man described his jobs shining shoes and selling magazines as a very little boy and how he was expected to strip off his clothes when he came home to prove he wasn't hiding money from his parents. Another woman wrote about her first after school job, which was helping an elderly shut in bake cakes and pastries to sell. She remembers what she baked, how much money she made and what she bought with it. 

Try it. It works.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Exits & Entrances

Larry and I went to see this last weekend. Fitting, as this is a memoir or memory play by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright and novelist. This past winter, I've been teaching a writing class that used lots of prompts to get people to access new personal material. I was shy about asking students to write bits of drama or scenes, but no more. You can dramatize your past as long as you're willing to be aggressive with the form as this play shows.

I had two fears at the start of the play. First, when the lights went up and actor Ross MacDonald, who is the Playwright in this piece, began to write in his diary while reading aloud what he was writing, I cringed. Oh, no. Oh, no. This is so wrong. Writing in a diary is not dramatic. Reading out loud while you write is not something anyone does except in a 1960s era sitcom. No. Make it stop. And the prose itself is so flowery and writerly, and not in a good way. It was a rough moment, but fortunately the playwright moved quickly to addressing the audience. That's still strange in my view, but not as awkward, and the writer uses this technique to set up the rest of the drama by introducing the other character, the legendary actor Andre Huguenet, who is nearing the end of his career of playing leading roles in classical plays. We learn that the actor has just died, and that the rest of the play will be a smooth series of flashbacks.

My second fear was that I was not going to be able to relax and watch Will Lymon, the actor who plays Huguenet. When he opened his mouth and out came the voice that narrates the movie, Little Children, in that oddly deadpan, NFL Films-style voice of God, I thought I wasn't going to be able to shake the association. His voice is too distinctive. Not to worry. By the time he got to his sudden soliloquy from Oedipus, that association was gone. Both performances were wonderful.

Apparently, critics don't like this play because it's not up to the playwright's usual standards of throwing grenades at political injustice. But I found it fascinating as a series of insights about how a sea change in art can coincide with and even lead something similar in society. It also meditates on the artist as an earnest young agitator and shows him alongside an older artist who looks at the young man and knows himself to be irrelevant. The fear of being displaced by an ever-changing world is surprisingly powerful, at least for those of us in middle age. This fear and empathy sneaks up on the audience, I think. At the end of the play I was astonished to find myself in tears, and I looked over to Larry to find him in the same condition. We weren't the only ones, either. So when the play ended with the Playwright reading aloud from his diary again, it was sort of okay. Not that anyone was listening. We just needed time to sit in the dark and mop up before it was time to clap.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

OK, I Lied

Three more things from Ireland. This is the view from the house we stayed in. Every morning I made a pot of tea and sipped and watched the outdoors until the tea grew cold. I said to Larry, "See, it's like Nebraska." To which he said, "No it's not." What I meant, of course, was the tough grasses, the absence of trees, the long horizon, the whole agrarian scene. It made my heart ache. Larry was having none of it, and truth is that there aren't a lot of mosses in Nebraska, and thorny bushes? None. Stone walls built of flagstone are tough to find as well in the midwest, and I saw birds and bushes and weeds in Ireland that I didn't recognize at all. Still, I found it all oddly familiar, no matter what Larry says.
We stayed in this house, which is beautiful. 

Inside the house is this ornament, which stopped me cold. Here is the central image from The Seafarer, a plate with an electric flame flickering in front of it. And on the plate is a Jesus who could be mistaken for a very pretty bearded girl. It opens the play and closes it. And here it is hanging on the wall in this house. I felt suddenly as though I understood the play in a way I didn't before. 

Ireland, Again

I'm thinking of Ireland today. Who isn't? The weather is warming in Boston, so I'm wondering how it is in the surf community in Lahinch, which is where we stayed not three weeks ago. Here (above) is the sign on the tourism office in town. 

On the Saturday we left town, these folks were parked in the lot by the beach, ready to rescue surfers (on the last day of February) who might have smashed against the rocks. Truly, the EMTs were stalking the walkway while looking grim. No fatalities while we were watching.

But there were plenty of takers on this extremely brisk morning. Nothing would have tempted me into that water. As you can see, they wore full body wetsuits and ran full tilt into the waves. Maybe that reduces the shock.

It's much more fun to huddle in your parka against the wind while gazing at the beautiful green cliffs.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Legacy Reading

More pics from Ireland to come. But first, tonight Grub Street is hosting a reception (yes, free food is included) for the authors of the latest anthology of the Memoir Project. This volume, called My Legacy is Simply This, features short memoirs from seniors in four Boston neighborhoods: Mattapan, Chinatown, East Boston and Charlestown. It's being held at the Borders in Downtown Crossing, which is 10-24 School Street. Around the corner and down the Street from the Omni Parker House (which is where we hold the Muse conference each year). 

Most of the seniors will be on hand to sign copies of the book. We did this same thing last year for the first volume and it's very cool. Last year the bookstore set up little tables with vases of roses on them and we had a huge spread of good food. The seniors sat at the little tables and after people bought a copy of the book, they toured the tables and asked the seniors to sign their memoirs, and they chatted and had a grand time. Yes, many of the people buying the books are relatives and friends of the seniors themselves, but there are lots of people who wander in off the street, too, and buy a book and have a hell of a time talking about old times and what it's like to be a writer. For those of us who teach or coach the seniors, it's a chance to meet their families and friends and chat about the project, which is a very neat project. The room really buzzes. Last year the bookstore sold out of the books, and the people in charge of the event couldn't have been happier about that. 

All are welcome.

Monday, March 2, 2009


The last night we were in Ireland, we stopped into this pub, one of the last of its kind. Our proprietor (pictured above) who is 90 years old, poured us a whiskey the old fashioned way. We'd come in at 9 p.m. and we were interrupting his evening news. He took very little notice of us aside from pouring us a drink. We sat and drank in silence, all of us watching the little TV hanging in the corner.  When it was over, we stood up to leave and he held a hand up to stay us. "The weather," he said. And we sat back down. Sure enough the weather report came on. It wasn't good news.

Then he wanted to chat a bit, about Obama and the state of our economy, both of which are favorite topics in Ireland. Or maybe that's as much about America as they care to discuss. Then we said our goodbyes and left and he turned back to the TV. He lives in apartment in the back. At dinnertime, a neighbor brings him food and sits with him. In the photo you can see the rows of bottles. These aren't for serving to customers. They're for sale. It's almost like a pharmacy, but with booze. You can buy aspirin, some over the counter remedies, bottles of soda, and whiskey. But this is a truly old style pub. You can sit at his bar and drink and you don't have to say a word. He might even doze a little while during your stay. 

Sunday, March 1, 2009

My New Boyfriend Sings a Song

This is the scene we walked in on at O'Neil's in Newmarket on Fergus after our visit to Ballycastle. This guy brings down the house. Wait until you see him play the accordion. I'm in love. (I've since heard that there was a video glitch on this. I think it works now.)