Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Words to Write By

I'm taking a writing class and the instructor likes to post inspirational quotes for us to read. My friend Jack used to do this when he taught writing classes. He would get to class early and write something on the board. I loved those quotes, but I never understood why he used them. I didn't really think that the students cared about them.

Now I'm clinging to these quotes. 

One recent one came from poet Nikki Giovanni:

"Writers don't write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don't. ...If you wrote from experience, you'd get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy."

And yet I like this statement of hers even better:

"A lot of people refuse to do things because they don't want to go naked, don't want to go without a guarantee. But that's what's got to happen. You go naked until you die."

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Favorite Music

The kids like to listen to this channel on XM called "Kids Place Live." I've never liked to give in to the kid music thing because it can be so divisive. We have Sweet Honey in the Rock, which sets Larry's teeth on edge. We have another CD that is sort of like those corny old fashioned sing along things in which about 25 kids are singing "Bingo," but they're singing it as funk. The "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" song is like some kind of over the top Sinatra-esque thing. But kids are singing like that. The kids used to tolerate it, but now G shrieks and moans and rends his clothing if we play it.

Kids Place is okay, if you can get past the talking, of which there is a lot.

Their top four songs are:

1. The Butt Song.  It's actually called "I've got a butt" and it's by this guy who calls himself Uncle Jim. Their favorite part is when the singer stops the song in order to call his mom and ask if he can use the word "butt" in a song. That and when he says that George Washington had a butt. And Abraham Lincoln.

2. The Mom Who Yells at Her Kids Song. This is the audio version of that mom who tallied up all the nagging that moms do in a day and sings it to the tune of the William Tell Overture. They think this is hilarious. We can't get out of the car when this is on.

3. That Enchanted Song. This is the best song from the movie. It's called a "Happy Working Song." Watching others clean, that never fails to satisfy. It's what being a kid is all about.

4. Henrietta's Hair. This is the only song they know by name. It's by Justin Roberts, and don't listen to it here or you'll be singing the chorus to yourself for days. There's room enough to spare up in Henrietta's Hair...

They also hate certain songs. Who doesn't?

The top four songs they hate are:

1. The Balloon One. There's a group called Lunch Money that does "indie rock for kids." Yeah. That's right. About 60% clever and 40% insufferable. And sometimes it's the other way around. I kind of like the song called "It Only Takes One Night to Make a Balloon Your Friend," but the very first notes of this song are enough to send G into spasms of dismay. That's why it's so fun to sing it loudly and way off tune at the dinner table when certain individuals are getting rowdy and not eating their vegetables.

2. Never Smile at a Crocodile. This is that old song from Peter Pan. I really like this version by Captain Bogg and Salty. It's silly in an old fashioned way. Both kids beg to have the channel changed when it's on, but I never can quite reach the button. Sorry guys. The channel is stuck. Too bad you're strapped in back there.

3. Peanut Butter Polka. This is by the Jimmies, and it's the kind of earnest and inclusive song that kids and parents can hate together. The message is that you can have your sandwich however you like. Well, duh. I'm a kid in suburban America. I have everything however I like. Or else.

4. Harry Belafonte. They hate his music. Are they kidding? First, I'm shocked that they play it on Kids Place Live. It's too cool, too retro, too 1960s. That's what I was listening to as a kid. My kids are having none of that. Too bad mommy needs to turn up the volume and sing along. They're horrified by that.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Nothing Personal II

A few months ago, I described getting an anonymous acceptance letter from a journal. The journal in question sent me a pre printed card addressed to "Dear Writer." On this little half page, they wrote "We are happy to inform you that," and here they left a space in which the title of my story had been hand-written, "has been accepted to appear in a future issue of" (name of journal withheld). There wasn't a signature on this. There wasn't an address or email address on this paper. They offered no way to reach anyone. 

I found online an email address for the publication or so I thought. And I wrote them a nice note saying that the piece had been accepted elsewhere, so they couldn't have first rights. If they want to publish it anyway, that's okay. If they didn't want to publish something that had already appeared elsewhere, that's okay, too. I gave them contact information for me. Nothing. No response for three months. I hear that this is uncommon but not unheard of. Many literary journals are run by college students who are pretty busy, and who may not have a firm grasp of business communication.

Then yesterday a little package arrived in the mail. It was the latest issue of this journal. Interesting. And on page 41 is my story, or at least the first two paragraphs of it, followed by a big blank space. Presumably the rest of the story would have fit in that space if only someone had read the galleys. Like me, for example, or the editor. Or anyone who had read the original. Or anyone at all, really.

The funniest part of this was the letter that accompanied the journal. This letter was again addressed to "Dear Writers" and it was a sort of chatty missive thanking us (I'm going to include myself here) for being "such a pleasure to work with" and further for "being so patient with the arduous publishing process."'re welcome. I guess.

Unlike the acceptance letter, this letter was signed by an actual person. Still no contact information for her or the journal. I found another email address inside the journal and sent a note to let the editor know that in my case the publishing process could have been a tad more arduous. Then I noticed that it's after May 1 and their offices are closed for the summer. Oh well. 

Friday, May 8, 2009

Helen and the Rucksacks

I've had very bad luck the past few weeks. The writing has been dismal. Awful. And I'm taking a class in which we're studying writers and borrowing narrative techniques from them. That's all well and good when the model text is great. Less so this week, when the model text is a book of aggressively cryptic poetry. 

Last night I handed the book to Larry. "See what you make of this." I was sitting up in bed trying to write, trying to get a handle on this nonsensical assignment and I needed a second opinion. He read out loud the first line of the poem in which the narrator is having what must be a one night stand, but who has also decided that she's Helen of Troy. the first line is something like, "We had a drink and got in bed." So far so good. 

Then, Larry read the second line which is about how a boat set sail in the narrator's mouth. He sighed. He read it quietly to himself. He read it out loud again.

Me: What the hell?
Larry: Oh, wait. The boat is her tongue and it's setting sail, you know, going out of her mouth.
Me: Yeah? 
Larry: So, they're making out.
Me: And? That's it?

Larry kept reading out loud until he got to the line: "I found all the bric a brack of your attic gloom." 

Larry: Bric-a-brack. She's licking his rucksack. 
Me: Gimme the book. She is not.
Larry: She is! The boat in her mouth is licking his rucksack.
Me: It's Helen of Troy. Helen of Troy never licked a rucksack.
Larry: Are you sure about that?
Me: Do you want me to Google it? Gimme that.

Larry held the book out of my reach and kept reading until he got to the line about "the woven rope tethering me to this rotting joint."

Larry: What the fak is that?
Me: Bondage?
Larry: You gotta tee off on this bullshit.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

He's Just Drawn That Way

This is a line drawing of my husband, in which he looks like he escaped from the most wanted list that hangs in the post office, or from a wall of those tacky caricatures of mobsters and celebrities that you find in some Italian restaurants. It was created for a book project he's working on, which is a good project and one that will likely be published, although nothing is certain these days. Don't know why the contributing writers and editors have to be rendered instead of photographed, but there it is.

I keep telling him that he's thinner in person and much better looking. Not that he's asked.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


 I've just picked this up. Apparently, reading this isn't just an exercise in studying how an older narrator looks back on an earlier self. Not so, as I've now discovered. There's this article about why everyone hates this writer. And by everyone, I mean everyone who published a book of poems last year that was not gushed over in the NY Times Book Review. While that could be a long list, I have to confess that I don't actually know anyone who would be on that list. And I know a lot of writers. Then! Then there's this article about why this poet is deplorable for...well, I can't figure it out. Something to do with the "Syles" section. 

At this point, I'm sort of hoping the poems live up to the anti-hype.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Olive Kitterige

I just finished this book and it's wonderful. Stunning. Sometimes I read something and then I just have to go in the corner and cry for a few minutes because it's that good, and because I'll never write anything half so good, so generous to the characters. I'm no fan of collections of linked stories, but this one is worth it. 

The most chilling story is called "Tulips."

It starts like this:

People thought the Larking couple would move after that happened. But they didn't move--perhaps they had nowhere to go. Their blinds remained drawn, however, day and night. Although sometimes in the dusk of winter, Roger Larkin would be found shoveling his driveway. Or in the summer, after the grass got high and sad-looking, you might find him out mowing the lawn. In both cases he wore a hat far down over his face and never looked up when someone drove by. Louise, there was never any sight of at all. Apparently, she'd been in a hospital down in Boston for a while--the daughter lived near Boston, so that would make sense--but Mary Blackwell, who was an X-ray technician in Portland, said Louise had spent time in the hospital there. What was interesting was that Mary was criticized for reporting this, even though at the time, there wasn't a soul in town who wouldn't have chopped off a baby finger for news of any kind. But there was that small outpouring against Mary.

At this point in the story, there isn't a reader who wouldn't chop off a baby finger to find out what's going on with these two. The rest of the story is worth the wait.