Posted in Art, Personal, Reviews

Joseph Raffael, 2018: Joseph and David Pagel Talk: Some Thoughts About “Talking Beauty”

TALKING BEAUTY: A CONVERSATION BETWEEN JOSEPH RAFFAEL AND DAVID PAGEL ABOUT ART, LOVE, DEATH AND CREATIVITY

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Joseph Raffael and David Pagel are among the small handful of people who would dare to call a collection of emails “a conversation . . . about art, love, death and creativity.” Yet that is precisely what they have done. Between February 2015 and the early spring of 2016, in an exchange of emails, David and Joseph carried on a richly layered conversation  on precisely those elusive subjects.

They could not be more different, these two. Joseph is eighty-five years old. David is at least a quarter century younger. The photographs of David show him with his wife and two young children at the Grand Canyon, or on a bike participating in a rugged event called the Mullholland Challenge, an annual competition that describes itself as

“an epic challenge with tons of climbing in the incredibly beautiful Santa Monica Mountains. This event is geared toward the adventurous cyclist who loves to climb.
106 miles with about 12,700 feet of climbing!”

Joseph and Lannis stand quietly in front of one of Joseph’s large paintings, two of life’s warriors who have walked away from the battle. They look a little worn, beautiful, and filled with the joy of the day and each other.

David and Joseph share in common a love of beauty, an acquaintance with great loss, and an urgent interest in ideas. Much of their conversation is about their children.

While they do not always agree, their dialogue is full of mutual respect and affection. They possess the wisdom of experience and the curiosity of those who are always beginners.  A light shines on their journey and illuminates the path for all of us.  I, for one, am enormously grateful.

I have known Joseph since the 1970’s, toward the end of his time in California and not long before he left for the South of France. We saw one another once after the move, in 1989, at an exhibition of his work at the Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. After that, we lost touch until 2015.

I discovered David Pagel–his writing and our mutual appreciation of Joseph Raffael’s painting–only when Joseph sent me a copy of his book, Moving Toward the Light (2015), in which David’s essay figures prominently.  I subsequently reviewed the book, both the visual and the literary art.  The two men have never met.

I don’t expect I will see Joseph again in this life, nor will I ever meet David face-to-face.  And yet, here we all are, no more than a breath apart. Art, love, and death.

Perhaps the only thing as good as waiting for the arrival of a book from Joseph Raffael is being caught entirely by surprise by the arrival of a book by Joseph Raffael and David Pagel. These are beautiful volumes, a pleasure to the senses of sight and touch before they are opened.  On the publication of Talking Beauty, Joseph’s website reminded us of both.Screen Shot 2018-12-02 at 8.32.01 AM (1)

The first thing I did after lifting Moving Toward the Light out of its box was to take a photograph of it catching the afternoon sun on the deep ledge of my old casement windows. I felt the clear light of grace fill my home.

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I had prepared for this book, thought about it, longed for it, and when the postman put the box in my hands I knew it for what it was, finally here, and I stood for a long time just holding the box, stretching out those last minutes of anticipation

Talking Beauty announced itself in quite a different way. A phone call from my publisher informed me that a package had arrived for me at his office.  Although I knew about Talking Beauty=–Joseph had sent me part of the manuscript, with a request for editorial suggestions–I had not expected this gift. When John read the return address, I knew and asked him to open the box.fullsizeoutput_50c5

He took a photo of the book and sent it, appropriately, via email.

A friend drove me to Koehler Books at the beach to collect my treasure.

If you have stood in the presence of Joseph Raffael’s paintings, you have already heard much of his conversation about beauty–a conversation he has carried on, from New York and northern California and, for the last three decades, from Cap d’Antibes. It is, according to Joseph, a conversation whose language is  color and energy.13902673_10153782561553263_9140044180703641337_n

If you have read any of David Pagel’s writing, you know the meaning and the music that threads into the fabric of the language that belongs to this man of words.

 

“For me, beauty is the kind of thing for which there’s no one-size-fits-all definition . . . my surroundings . . . suddenly seem to be clearer and crisper and more immediate–as if the distance between me and them has disappeared and everything is where it belongs.”

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To which, the man of color and energy responds, “This is a subject that leaves me speechless.”

 

The pages turn. The conversation deepens.  What began as a philosophical exchange about the nature of beauty, jumps to the deep sharing between them of the more intimate search for the divine, the children, the long journey of Lannis Raffael into the realms of death, and back again,  And, in a section called “Devastation and Destruction and Instruction,” David concludes that

“Suffering and discovery go hand in hand, and loss and beauty are intimately linked.”

The loss of pets, the death of a son and the healing of a daughter. Joseph begins the next section, “Rachel and Matthew,” like a diver,

“Here goes. Rachel first, then Matthew” 

Fifty pages in, they communicate in the shorthand of intimacy.

In this tapestry of words and color, there is the music of a kind of call and response of poetry.  Back and forth, they offer up not only their own creativity but the poetry and prose of Oliver Sacks and T.S. Eliot; Wallace Stevens and James Taylor; Rilke and Dante and Walt Whitman.  It is the kind of eager and unplanned quoting of favorite and remembered lines that two friends, both well-read and thoughtful, throw out in a conversation to make a point, reinforce an idea, or for the pleasure of a dance with the beauty and meaning they are seeking.

Joseph recalls something that Oliver Sacks wrote:

“I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done . . .

My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty” (Oliver Sacks, “The Joy of Old Age,” NYTimes, July 6, 2013)”

JR: “I say, ‘Ditto'” And after a moment’s silence, he continues,
“Thank you, David, for moving along the path with me in this wonderful and mysterious journey.”

DP: “To that I say, ‘Double ditto.'”

To that, I say, “Thank you David. Thank you, Joseph.”

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(August, watercolor on paper, 36″ x 36″ 2018)

 

Posted in Art, Personal

Joseph Raffael, 1975-77: Meeting; Parting; Haiku Fish.

(Haiku Fish I – White, lithograph in colors, from an edition of 32, signed and dated, 22.5” x 28.5” 1979)

 

Below are two excerpts from a long essay, “The Elements: A Southerner in Northern California” (2018), in which I tell the story of meeting Joseph Raffael and of his gift of the lithograph, “Haiku Fish.” The original essay, written for a specific purpose, contained no images, but it seems impossible to write about Joseph very often without his paintings. I have included especially the koi, which continue to be my favorites.

MEETING

“On one of those afternoons in Northern California when the air is sharp and the light is high and fine, almost translucent, Reuben took me to have dinner at the home of his friend, Joseph Raffael. On our drive down from Sonoma County to San Geronimo, he told me only that Joseph was an artist and that they had known one another for a long time.  We had made our way slowly, taking the old Point Reyes-Petaluma Road into the San Geronimo Valley. I was aware of the distance we were travelling from the life we had left and of something not yet known growing closer.

And then we were there. As we drove onto the property, the pale gold of the early evening light danced on the roof of a tall green redwood building directly in front of us. I felt the wind pick up.  It was Joseph’s studio. Having grown accustomed to signs and symbols, I suppose I should have been prepared, although I don’t believe that anything could really have helped me. I was about to come face-to-face with a mystery that would change forever the way I saw the world around me. It was a mystery about light.

The canvas must have been five or six feet across and nearly as tall. I could see that it was raised and lowered by some peculiar system of pulleys and that a trough had been cut into the floor just the right size.  Relaxed on a stool in front of it, holding a paintbrush in one hand and periodically reaching up with the other to run his fingers through dark, paint-specked hair, was a tall, very handsome man whose concentration on what he was doing was absolute. The canvas had been lowered, and he was painting a section at the top. He obviously hadn’t heard us open the door, and Reuben touched my arm to let me know we were to be still. I could have stood, just as I was, indefinitely, because by then I had finally stopped looking around, had raised my eyes, and had seen the canvas. It was the half-finished painting of a pond, in which light played back and forth across the small waves, overlapping in half circles, behind the submerged bodies of large swimming fish. Even under water, even on the canvas, they were alive. They looked ancient. Probably koi. But the important thing for me was the light on that water.

There is no way to describe it except to say it was moving. No matter how long I looked, or how often I blinked, or turned away, then back, the surface of that pond was never still. I could hear the sound when a fish jumped. I could feel the breeze on the back of my neck. Light opened into more light, color into deeper color. It was a pond, filled with fish, on an afternoon in summer when the wind was up, perfect to the last detail, and yet it wasn’t a pond at all.  Many years later, Joseph Raffael wrote, “I don’t paint flowers. I paint energy.” From that first encounter with the art that was Joseph Raffael, when I look at the world, I always see the energy first.  Today Joseph tells me that, for him, what happened in that studio in San Geronimo, California, “wasn’t so much the light as it was a gentle, open, expansive air in which my soul could express itself, perhaps for the first time.” Perhaps the light is his gift to the rest of us. From the studio, the driveway ran uphill to the house, painted a dusty blue. Beyond the house, there was a path to Mount Tamalpais. In Northern California, there was always a path.” (The Elements, pp. 10-12)

34878cf2a55ef2c03cdc3c4be1248d38(Two Fish in Dark Bubbly Water,
watercolorwith brush and black
ink, over traces of graphite,on
off-white heavy woven paper,
21″x26″ 1977-78)

 

PARTING
HAIKU FISH

“By mid-morning, we were on the road, planning to make several stops on the way so that I could say last goodbyes to friends. I found the actual saying of those final words was too much for me, and so I didn’t. We reminisced, laughed over our best times, and they told me about their own days ahead—driving children to soccer practice; shopping for vegetables; getting to an afternoon lecture at one of the museums in the city; washing the dog. We embraced, perhaps for a few seconds longer than usual, and Reuben and I got on our way.  Our last stop was to see Joseph. He was working, but he took a break when we came in. He talked about the painting. It was a short visit, shorter than the others. Although he was happy to see us, it was clear that his mind was on the canvas.

We had walked about halfway to the car, when Joseph came running out of the studio with something rolled up in his hand. “It’s a lithograph of a fish. I know you like the fish best, and I thought you might like to have it.” He seemed almost shy in offering it. I said that, yes, I would, very much.” (The Elements, p. 17)

A Note:
During the time I knew Joseph and was falling in love with the water paintings and the koi, I was also aware of older paintings that were every bit as rich but in some ways very different.  I learned in time, and when I paid attention, that they were not so different after all. hydrangea_joseph_raffael_oil_on_canvas

(Hydrangea, oil on canvas,
66″x108″1976)

 

 

(Lizard, oil on canvas, 85″ x 85″ 1971)blackfoot_joseph_raffael_oil_on_canvas2401_0

 

 

 

(Blackfoot,  Oil on canvas,
80″ x 61″ 1970)

 

For most of the time since I left California, “Haiku Fish” has travelled with me, usually the first thing mounted on my living room wall. Then it hung in my son’s house for a few years.  Recently it has moved again, to my three-year-old grandson’s room in my co-op. He watches Joseph’s video, “Moving Toward the Light” and recognized right away that “Blackfoot,” “Hydrangea,” and “Lizard” were painted by the man he has always called “The Flower Guy.”  He is very proud of that fish.

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Posted in News of the Day

The Facebook Robots: Down, But Not Out

Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg (photo from NYTimes article below)

“Delay, Deny and Deflect: How Facebook’s Leaders Fought Through Crisis

  • A Times investigation revealed how the social network responded as it faced one scandal after another — Russian meddling, data sharing, hate speech.
  • The executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg stumbled. Bent on growth, the pair ignored warning signs and then sought to conceal them.” 

 

The first thing I noticed when I saw Mark Zuckerberg at his early hearings, was that he  doesn’t look quite human. I can’t be the only person aware that his facial expression never changes.  I made the same observation recently about Brett Kavanaugh, but that was, of course, before he pitched a fit because someone threatened to take something he wanted. Anyone who has raised children will have recognized it for exactly what its was–a temper tantrum, and will also have understood pretty quickly that Brett Kavanaugh was threatened with the loss of more than a toy. Someone had said to him that he might not be wanted on the Supreme Court.

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Kavanaugh

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I can’t help wondering if we will be in for the same sort of entertainment if they put the screws to young Zuckerberg..

 

And now, in the Facebook fiasco, there are two of them.

Who knew?

In fact, Sheryl Sandberg is the CEO of Facebook and, judging from the investigation and reporting of the New York Times, possibly the deadlier of the two.  But Mark Zuckerberg is the boss. Mark Zuckerberg either invented Facebook or stole it from a friend at Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg, if he had even the appearance of reactions and emotions, if he weren’t just so weird and creepy, would be in the position of the typical male in our culture and in all the primary mythologies of the world. Mark Zuckerberg would be seen as doing exactly what he has been doing–sending a woman to do his dirty work. It’s as old a story and Adam and Eve.

In any case, both Zuckerberg and Sandberg are revealed as ruthlessly ambitious and willing to tell any lie or practice any deception to protect Facebook and, one would assume, their own bank accounts.

I have discovered in this last, long two years, that there are people–public figures–who just scare me to death. Zuckerberg and Kavanaugh are two. Mike Pence is another. Men who are too calm and whose rage, when it appears, seems staged, false, unfocused, and childish.  Even in the middle of his apparent melt-down (scripted, we are told, by advisors to the President), no emotion reached those eyes.

Over many years of active interest in what happens in our nation’s capital, I have a gallery of these guys. Smile or scream though they may, their eyes look nothing but dead.

Zuckerberg and Sandberg will eventually be old news. Even the story of the social media giant, Facebook, won’t hold our interest forever.  But there will always be people in power with eyes that do not register human emotion. I believe those people are dangerous.

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Posted in My Writing, Personal, Writing Fiction

On Writing #7:I Hate Chapter Nineteen and am feeling none too charitable toward my high school boyfriend.

First, about the boyfriend. He actually was my high school boyfriend. Our subsequent relationship is to let twenty or so years go by until something puts us back in touch and we exchange a flurry of emails, have long phone conversations, and generally wonder why we let twenty years go by. As we are both now seventy-two years old, I have pointed out that we most likely don’t have another twenty-two going forward.  For months we have had our usual talks that combine rehashing old memories with catching each other up on what we’ve been doing since we turned fifty–which was our last contact. We have exchanged photos of our grandchildren. I sent him a copy of a photograph of my father and the essay I wrote about it.  He knew and liked Daddy.  And somehow, I am sending him the current manuscript  (still called The Wife) and he is reading it out loud to me over the phone. This week he was having some back pain and couldn’t sit for long, so he read two chapters and I began reading at Chapter Nineteen.

I hate Chapter Nineteen.

I’ve lost control. The Wife, which began as an attempt to write a short story, doesn’t show any signs of being a short story. It is fast approaching a length at which I can’t even call it a novella (a genre I’ve never really believed in, anyway). It seems to be nearly a hundred pages of a novel that is driven by two strong and fully developed main characters, and at least two others who have great potential.  Nothing wrong with that. I like character-driven novels, and they are generally what I tend to write.  So far, so good. Until I got to Chapter Nineteen that, now I consider it, is the point at which I attempted to let the plot carry me. The only problem is there doesn’t appear to be any plot.

But about Chapter Nineteen. It is dull. It is wooden. It goes into great detail about things like the hallway in a new school building. The dialogue is unconvincing. People don’t talk that way. What scant plot it manages is, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.  As I read the chapter out loud to my high school boyfriend who appears to be enjoying watching my chaos at a safe distance (we have been at a safe distance since high school graduation in 1963), I was so appalled that I stopped at several places to exclaim some version of, “This is really terrible.”  And so it is.

I believe this chapter, and possibly parts of  a few others, can be salvaged. But it will not be an easy fix.

The alternative to fixing it is abandoning it, and I’m not ready to do that yet.  So, instead of slipping away from Thanksgiving festivities to discover where Camilla and Martin will go from here, I will be avoiding for as long as possible facing the unwelcome task of a substantial rewrite of at least one chapter.

Maybe I’ll try designing the cover instead.

 

Posted in News of the Day

Vote!

I do not intend for this blog to be political, and I have spent my days since my last post on  October 10 working on a story about my grandmother.  It is decidedly apolitical. I have also spent the month watching the headlines and thinking about what is happening in the world and in the country. I have spent the days leading up to the mid-term elections hoping I am not alone in my understanding of just how important they are.

We must vote.

While I am firm in my commitment to write here almost entirely about writing, in all its many, glorious, and frustrating manifestations, there are times when it is no longer possible to leave it at that. There are times when remaining silent, or objective, or neutral, is not only difficult; it is destructive. There are times when a writer must write about what is happening in the polis. 

The state of the union in the year 2018 is alarmingly bad.

To remedy that, we must vote.

The foundation of our system of governing this polis that is America is crumbling, and what is at stake in the elections on November 6 is the basic safety net that makes it possible for all sorts of poor leaders to make an almost unlimited number of mistakes and bad decisions without razing the entire structure.

If the Republicans retain control of the House and the Senate, there will no longer be a functioning structure of checks and balances in the government of this country.

Those responsible for the atrocities of the last two years will have thrown off the last of their shackles and will be free to do precisely as they want. They won’t need my approval, or yours.

I keep believing that each new horror from this administration is as bad as it can get, that there will surely be a reckoning this time.

I believed it passionately when toddlers and infants were separated from their parents at the border. There could be no chance that the people of this great nation would be silent and passive in the face of what anyone who watches “Law and Order: SVU,” knows– what happens to children alone on city streets. The media talked and wrote about the lasting psychological scars that result when a small child is pulled away from all sense of safety and left to languish among strangers. The information was there. A remedy would be found.

It was not, and many of those children will never see their parents again.

This week eight hundred armed soldiers are amassing at our southern border to protect us from people much like those whose lives were shattered when their children were taken from them.

Last month, a man whose smug entitlement and the thin veneer of his privileged world collapsed in a red-faced, spittle-throwing temper tantrum for the simple reason that he had been questioned, had been accused, and might be deprived of what he wanted–and believed he deserved.

Our president, at a campaign rally during the same week, openly mocked the woman who dared to accuse him.

Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to a seat on the Supreme Court. Christine Blasey Ford was discredited and tossed aside, her utter irrelevance underscored.

Last week, a man with rage in his soul and Trump stickers covering his car, mailed bombs to prominent politicians and celebrities, including two former presidents.

Our president bemoaned the fact that “all this bomb stuff” had slowed down Republican momentum heading into the mid-term elections.

Yesterday, eleven people were killed in a synagogue in Pittsburgh by a man shouting “All Jews must die.”  It was a chilling echo of the war cries of the white nationalists who marched on the University of Virginia campus.

Today, our president assured us that the gun laws had no bearing on the shooting and that the incident would have ended more happily had the synagogue had the proper security  in place.  He joked later in the day that he had almost cancelled a rally because standing in the rain and wind, answering reporters’ questions, had made a mess of his hair.

And, so, this blog post isn’t about politics after all. It is about those things that are so clearly immoral, so firmly opposed to the basic standards of human decency, that they can no longer be addressed in terms of liberal vs. conservative or Republican vs. Democrat.  They are, or they should be, an insult to the good sense and acceptable values that are common to us all.

It is time now, for the women and men of this nation to stand up.  If we don’t stand now, it will be a very long time before we have the chance again.

We cannot afford to be partisan. We cannot afford to dither about the imperfections of this or that candidate. We cannot afford to stay at home or to vote for an independent or a libertarian or Aunt Sue’s best friend.  We must vote for survival. We must vote for the salvation of these United States of America. We must vote in spite of the irrefutable evidence that every effort is being made to keep us from voting.

WE SIMPLY MUST VOTE.

 

 

Posted in Personal, Reviews, Writing Fiction

Editing With Pizza and Salmon

Before you start reading this blog, ask yourself one serious question:
Have you ever seen anything that looks better than that slice of “California Dreaming” pizza from Cogan’s in Norfolk, VA??
As I am laboring away at this story, “The Wife,”–which is feeling less and less like a story and more and more like the very bad start of a novel–I have taken a break to open a Patreon account (patreon.com).
There is a good deal of figuring out the site, which always feels like wasting time to me, although I will confess to a thrill of accomplishment when I actually do master any small detail.
And there is a good deal of writing. You know the kind of thing–biographical details that somehow make you sound charming, witty, serious, and a tiny bit eccentric, nothing excessive.  What’s wanted is just enough to enhance your charm and your  seriousness with a soupçon of spice, nothing to make you seem like a whack-job.
However that might be, the writing–in fact any writing–provides the deeply desired sense of Doing Something Important.  Doing my work.
What follows describes an absolutely delicious editing experience I had a couple of years ago.  I hope you enjoy it.

The Author
Rachael Steil is the author of Running In Silence: My Drive for Perfection and the Eating Disorder That Fed It (Koehler Books 2016).
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I know Rachael because her mother knows a good friend of mine in Michigan, and my friend asked me to talk to Rachael about a book she was writing.  And that is how it all started.

For over three months, from early February to sometime in May of 2016, Rachael and I edited her manuscript.  When I first read it, Running in Silence weighed in at approximately 100,000 well-crafted, sometimes lyrical words. By the time I finally met her in person, Rachael had cut it down to a more manageable 80,000.  I remember that almost the first thing she said to me was, “I’ve cut 20,000 words!”

Running in Silence is a memoir, powerful and personal, the story of one young athlete’s war with the siren songs of binge eating and starvation as they play out on the running tracks of high schools and colleges coast to coast in this country.

On her first trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, to Norfolk, Virginia, I took Rachael out to meet John Koehler, founder and guiding spirit of Koehler Books, the Virginia Beach publishing company that had released my first book almost a year earlier.  John took us to lunch and gave Rachael the benefit of his experience  from many years in the worlds of publishing and marketing.  He was clear: “Memoirs don’t sell. You have to turn this into a self-help book. You need a good editor. I suggest Dean.” Although she was clearly charmed by John and grateful for all his advice, I saw the look of near-desperation on Rachael’s face as she absorbed his words about a self-help book.

When she climbed into her rental car the next morning, headed for the airport, I told her to think everything over and call me if she had any questions.  We parted on good terms, having enjoyed a couple of very pleasant days together talking about writing in general and our own writing in particular.  She had made a connection with my cat, Isaac.

It was about a month later that Rachael called and asked me if I would edit her book, and that was the beginning of an editing and writing partnership, and a solid friendship, that was more and certainly different than either of us expected.

THE CONVERSATION
Rachael
—“I don’t know how I feel about turning my memoir into a self-help book.”

Dean—“I know exactly how Ifeel about it, Rachael. I won’t have anything to do with turning your manuscript into anything other than what it is. We have to figure out a way to impose a self-help apparatus of some kind onto it, almost like a frame.  But no violence to that text. I won’t do it.”

We were both relieved, I think, and we were soon to discover that we had set ourselves a formidable task.

THE MONEY
I charged Rachael by the hour and considerably below the going rate for professional editing, because I had absolutely no idea how long this would take.  I sent her regular invoices, I think monthly, so she could keep track of exactly where we were.

THE WORK SCHEDULE
**Rachael recently sent me this series of photographs from the four days she spent with me doing a final editing of her book.  I think they pretty well say  it all.

editor

virginia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A NORMAL WEEK
Sunday Rachael sends a chapter or two.

Monday Rachael and I do the first reading, out loud, over the phone, and we stop when we hear that “sour note,” continue to read the sentence or short section over and over and over, often going backwards and reading a paragraph or two before it, hoping to identify the problem in context. When we find the sentence that is out of tune, we take the time to rewrite if it can be done quickly and easily.

Mon-Wed Rachael integrates all the corrections we made or discussed in our reading; I go through the manuscript and, using Track Changes, make more suggestions.

Wednesday, as early as I can,  I send my corrected version to Rachael and she reads it over and either integrates my suggestions or marks them for questions.

Thurs We discuss the chapters as they now exist, Rachael again making changes as we go through.

Friday We read the chapters aloud again and Rachael takes them home over the weekend to write the changes into the text and file these chapters away for the time being.

This describes the rhythm of most of our weeks.  Once Rachael flew in to stay for four days of editing.  We turned off our phones, locked the doors, and read aloud and edited.  Our only contact with the outside world was the guy who delivered the pizza.  The next morning, I introduced Rachael to the thrill of cold pizza for breakfast.

 

California-dreamin-e1486494743701-600x600

 

 

Somewhere in there I cooked salmon and vegetables.

THE SELF-HELP BOOK
I started looking at self-help books online, not liking them any more than I ever had, but this was a mission.  We ultimately came up with a very simple formula.  At the end of each chapter we wrote questions for thought and short assignments for journals. Our goal was to engage the reader in as active a way as possible.  I began to take some delight in this entirely new area of creative thought. For example, and I’m proud of the sheer corniness of it—in this book about eating disorders and running, I labeled the two sets of questions “Mile Markers” and “Food for Thought.” I got us started, but Rachael soon picked up the rhythm and took over.  By the time the book went to Koehler Books’ editor and to press, she had fleshed out all the chapter challenges and had attached a Glossary and an exhaustive worksheet at the very end.  It is an amazing achievement. And the whole experience has led Rachael down some unexpected paths.

THE MISSION
Rachael Steil has become a spokesperson for her cause. She travels to high schools and colleges, speaks to students, teachers, coaches, and counselors, raising awareness of eating disorders among serious student athletes, especially runners.

I believe she will back me up when I say that she never saw herself doing any of this, starting with that self-help book we were both so determined not to write.

Posted in My Writing, Personal, Writing Fiction

A Story Continued. First draft title: “The Wife,” Chapter Two

Chapter Two
“I Supposed Mr. Ainsworth Had Taken a Room”
Camilla Considers

For a good long while, several months at least, I saw almost nothing of our boarder, Mr. Martin Ainsworth.  His days were entirely taken up either by long sessions when Father provided detailed instructions on what needed doing and how it should be done or by the work itself.  Judging from a few pretty spectacular changes around the place and from Father’s increasingly happy mood, I concluded that Mr. Ainsworth learned quickly and there was more work than instruction.

Although Father was by far the best educated and the most successful–with a profession, a wife, a daughter, and a home– somehow their relationship was always one between equals.  I never heard Father speak to Mr. Ainsworth with anything other than genuine respect and liking.  And Mr. Ainsworth, for his part, clearly did not feel inferior or beholden to Father.  He soon was a comfortable member of the household.  His plan for taking his meals alone in his room was abandoned at Mother’s insistence, and we all sat down together as if we had been doing it forever.

I was aware, almost from the day he arrived, of his attention. In the beginning, it was so understated that I might not have noticed it had we not been such a small group, and even then I wasn’t sure all at once. But thinking back, and whether I was aware of it or not, I feel sure that Martin’s attention explains the discomfort I felt in the beginning. It was something new. I wasn’t accustomed to it.  Often, Mother and I would excuse ourselves to take the dishes out to the kitchen, get them washed and put away, make a pot of coffee, and generally get the house into order for the next morning. By the time we had finished with all that, frequently the men had either gotten into one of their discussions–the two of them could talk for hours about nearly anything–or they would have already gone off to bed.

So, with one thing and another, Mr. Martin Ainsworth and I exchanged very few words and hardly even saw each other except at the dinner table.  His presence in the house changed almost nothing in my daily life. Nonetheless, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, a man’s constant awareness of you whenever you are in the same room exerts a pull, no matter how subtle, that is nearly irresistible. These are lessons we learn only with hindsight.

But the day came–and I knew that it would–when Martin and I found ourselves alone.  Mother and Father had made one of their rare trips to town together. Our small Post Office had secured a display of photographs of some of the fancy vehicles used in the cities to deliver the mail.  Once Father heard about it, he just couldn’t stay away and Mother felt up to joining him, a treat for them both. Although they always denied it,  I have wondered over the years whether they had planned this.

I was sitting comfortably at the kitchen table, pages of schoolwork spread out in front of me, when Martin came in. It was early for him to have stopped working, and he surprised me.

“Oh, Miss Camilla, I’m sorry if I made you jump.  I have run out of the nails to finish the fencing around back, and I guess I missed your parents. They could easily have picked up what I need.”

“Yes, Mr. Ainsworth, they left almost an hour ago.”

“Well, the fence will just have to wait a day or two, and I can start on something else in the morning. That’ll work just fine, and I’ve got a couple of jobs in mind.”

“I know Father is very grateful to you for all the help, Mr. Ainsworth. And I think he is also grateful to have the company of another man around the place.”

“I’m the one should be grateful, Miss Camilla. This place, the work, the way you all have welcomed me, it’s just about saved me.”

I remember the conversation between us was awkward at first. It felt odd to even be in the same room with him with no one else there–not improper or anything, just unusual. I honestly couldn’t think of another thing to say, so I looked down at my papers and started shuffling them around, like I was about to get back to working on them.

“I hope it’s alright for me to say, but if that’s any kind of arithmetic, anything with numbers, and you ever need help, I’d be glad to offer it. It’s the one thing I did just about better than anyone in school, and a good thing since you need to know something about numbers to work on machines.”

I laughed, “I might take you up on that, Mr. Ainsworth, because arithmetic is the one thing I did just about worse than anyone else.”

There was silence again, not quite as awkward as before, then we started at the same time.

“Miss Camilla, would you mind if I sat down here at the table for a spell?”    “Can you explain how numbers are important for working on machines? Did you just mean you have to take measurements?”

This time we both laughed and, as he started to describe some of the machines around our place, and how knowing numbers let him use them in new ways, Martin pulled back the chair next to mine and sat down. Even at the time, I noticed how smoothly he managed it, and yet he didn’t seem conniving. I didn’t feel he was tricking me. And I noticed, too, that when he was talking about work he was doing, he talked more easily and seemed more relaxed. His voice even sounded different.

After a few minutes of numbers and machines, most of which I didn’t understand, Martin all of a sudden just stopped talking and sat looking at his hands. I completely forgot the proprieties and just blurted out, “Mr. Ainsworth, is anything wrong?”

“I expect so, Miss Camilla. I expect there is. I don’t even know what I think I’m doing sitting here at this table. I don’t think William and Megan would like it one bit. And they especially wouldn’t like what has been in my head from the minute I walked in and saw you.”

“Mr. Ainsworth, now I think would be a good time to stop. I’d like you to leave me to get back to my schoolwork.”

I remember how sad Martin looked as he stood up from the chair, and I didn’t want to let him go without saying something.

“Mr. Ainsworth, thank you for explaining about the machines and the arithmetic. It gave me some new ways of seeing things. But now you should go out.”

He left without any fuss, and I sat without doing much of anything until Mother and Father came home and I got up to help with dinner.

I must say that Mr. Martin Ainsworth impressed me when he appeared at dinner, the same as always, greeting Mother and describing to Father the nails he needed and the way he intended to use them.

There was one change, though, and I wonder if my parents noticed. Without appearing the least bit nervous or embarrassed in front of Mother and Father, he turned to me, and said, just as if he said it exactly like this every day, “Good evening, Camilla, I hope your day was worthwhile.”

Posted in Writing, Writing Fiction

On Writing #6:Still struggling with writing a story and getting a little worried. Is it really all about page length?

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THE BLOG BEGINS:

FIRST DRAFT: It has occurred to me that my insecurities about the short story are mostly grounded in a fear of the constraints of length–or lack of length. (27 words)

SECOND DRAFT:  I think I am afraid of the short story because it isn’t long enough for all my words! (18 words)

In the novels I have written, my characters have what seems an unlimited amount of time and space to lead the story toward its conclusion.  It isn’t so much how the novel ends as how long it takes to reach that end.  In a novel, I can begin my descent into my conclusion chapters back–with nothing more than a hint, certainly nothing resembling a plan or outline–meandering along, taking detours, tossing down red herrings, changing course, anything I like.  There is no page limit, specific or implied. A novel can go on for hundreds of pages; some of the best ones do.

In a story, I feel rushed toward the finish line, pressured to have that final paragraph composed in my head before I have finished typing the first sentence.  I can already feel the edge of panic. I have written the Prologue and Chapter One of whatever that untitled work is–story, novel, warm-up exercise–and I don’t know where it’s going to end. Nonetheless, I feel strongly that I should know. And what about that length question? Obviously, there is no set number of pages, and some stories even expand beyond whatever the unspoken limit is and then they belong to that mysterious genre, the novella.

Part of my problem is that, if length is to be restricted anyway, I want something more concrete. Show me a rule that a short story must not exceed 65 pages and a novella is between 65-125. These numbers are completely arbitrary, and that  is my point.  It is all much too vague.

I saw a contest  just last week for “Short Short Stories,” maximum length 1500 words.  That is perfectly clear, and give me the great luxury of facing my personal limitations and admitting that I am not, at least today, capable of producing anything like that.

And that leaves me with the Prologue and Chapter One–1600 words–of a piece of writing that has no plot or character development beyond those 1600 words, no idea where it is going and less of how it might get there.

All that said, there is no question about the relative quality of the first and second drafts of the sentence that begins this blog. Shorter is better. The grand and verbose southern writer William Faulkner had no doubts about it–shorter is better or, more to his point, great skill is required, and better writing is produced, by the author who can say the most with the fewest words.  The hierarchy, in his mind, is that those who can’t write poetry, write short stories and those who can’t write stories, write novels.

Perhaps those who can write neither poetry, stories, or novels, sit around trying to write definitions of those genres.

I believe I’ll take a look to see where the characters in my story want to go next.

Posted in My Writing

A Story With No Title Yet: Prologue & Chapter One

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Prologue
Camilla
1908

 It was an odd sort of day, in spite of the predictable late August weather.  As always in this corner of northwestern Georgia, it was hotter than blue blazes and so humid that even the rambunctious new puppy was panting on the front porch, his chin drooping half in the fresh bowl of water that Camilla had just put down.  The late afternoon skies held out the familiar false hope that this time the storm would cool things off a bit. They grew ominously dark, in anticipation of the first peals of thunder, the flash of lightning that startled Camilla every time, even though she’d grown up with it every summer for fourteen years, and finally the downpour that, for the few minutes it lasted, felt like it would drown the world and save them all.

“I suppose Father will be going out with the rest of the post.”

Camilla was angling to find out not just whether her father was about to leave for his afternoon round of delivering the mail but whether she might be able to get her mother’s permission to go with him. She knew perfectly well there was work needed doing in the house and that her mother was feeling worse in this heat, but she would gladly promise to get every single thing done the minute she was back. Camilla was a responsible girl, and her mother knew the work would get done. Still, and even as poorly as she was feeling, she couldn’t resist teasing her serious daughter.

“Mill, honey, you know he’s going out, at least down to that house by the creek and back, so that’s seven boxes to fill and a lot of miles between them. You’ve got these chores in the kitchen to get done.” Mill’s mother, whose name was Megan, had a hard time keeping her smile back when she saw her daughter’s face fall, but she managed for a minute more before putting an arm around Camilla’s shoulder and squeezing.

“And I expect you could drive on out with your father and still have time left over for housework when you get home.  I mean, if you want to go.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am. I do. I will. Oh, yes.”

Years later, Camilla remembered the unexpected sound of the knock on the front door, the quiet, raspy voice in conversation with her father, and her father’s deep call back into the house to her mother,  “Meg, could you come out for a second? I’d like you to meet someone.” Her mother pulled off her apron, smiled at Camilla, and said only, “It’s fine. I’ll be right back. You go ahead and get ready to go on the mail run.”

 

Chapter One
Martin

 “Yes’sir, I expect I could be of some help around here. I’ve always been handy in that way and the Cavalry kept me busy most of the time fixing whatever was broke, including equipment I’d only laid eyes on for the first time when it needed repairs. So I learn fast.”

“That sounds very impressive, Mr. Ainsworth. I’ll not deny I could use some help around here. I’m trying to keep up the little bit of farming I do, and I am pretty much the only person delivering the post.  Young Harley Brown takes a day here and there, but the boy’s not but twenty and he gets distracted. Anyway, you don’t need to hear all that.”

“Oh, no sir. I’m interested. I had a feeling when I walked in and saw your place that I might be able to stop here for a while, unpack my bag, do some honest work, and settle in.  I’m a quiet man, Mr. Whitfield. I’d get as much work done for you as I could, eat my meals in my room so as not to disrupt your family, and mostly keep to myself.  I’m just looking for a place to be and anything I can do to make your life easier I’d like to do. I’d need a good bed, a bath once a week, and my food at regular times.  And that’s about it.”

When Megan stepped out of the kitchen to join her husband at the front door, the men were talking, and she stood back so as not to interrupt.  Her husband was facing away from her, his attention on whatever their caller was saying. Megan couldn’t yet see the man and she was curious; normally, she would have joined them, but this time she decided to wait.

Although she couldn’t make out his words, she could hear the stranger’s voice. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it had the slight twang by which her father would have immediately labeled it “uneducated.” Her father, a pastor with his own church, wasn’t as interested in a man’s formal schooling as with whether or not he read books.  Meg was fairly certain this man at the door did not.

Megan Elaine Whitfield, William’s wife and mother of fourteen-year-old Camilla, was of average height, with thick, dark hair that she pulled to the back of her head in a heavy twist. The typical symptoms of her illness–extreme thinness and unnaturally pale skin–only seemed to enhance her appeal. Megan Whitfield was a beautiful woman.  She had suffered for years from consumption, and on her worst days was unable to get out of the bed.  Although the weather had made breathing even more difficult than usual, she was feeling better, and happy, after the easy banter with Camilla and ready to see who this stranger at the door might be.

She heard William say, “Well, come in, Martin, and meet my wife and daughter.” Then he turned and held out his hand, “Meg, come and meet Martin Ainsworth. He has stopped by to ask if we might give him room and board here in exchange for work.”

Meg stepped forward and held out her hand, “Mr. Ainsworth, welcome to our home. I am Megan Whitfield. Could I offer you a glass of water or tea on this hot day?”  Martin looked Megan straight in the eye, shook her hand firmly,  and said, “Ma’am, that would be very fine. I thank you.” He was reticent, but Megan didn’t think it was due to a lack of confidence, possibly only some habit from childhood of staying mostly alone. Whatever the cause of his shyness, she noticed that he was, at the same time, relaxed and at ease, not at all intimidated by these new surroundings.

Pushing open the kitchen door, she nearly walked into Camilla, who was crouched on the other side, listening as hard as she could, but without much success.  While she was making a glass of tea, Megan tried to describe Martin and to tell Camilla what was happening.

“May I come out, Mother? I will be very quiet–silent, in fact. I will sit in the very far corner of the parlor and only listen. Much like a small mouse.”

They both smiled at that wildly inaccurate description of Camilla’s personality.  She was  not a mouse of any size.

Megan was delighted with her daughter, as usual, but didn’t for one second believe her capable of holding her tongue.  Still, there was little for a girl of fourteen to do, and she hesitated to deprive Camilla of any new experience.

“I’ll tell you what, Mill. Let me take in this tea and I’ll ask your father what he thinks.  Will that suit?”

“Yes, Ma’am, it will.” Camilla knew her father had a difficult time saying ‘No’ to her about anything.  And, of course, she was right.

A few minutes later, Camilla was almost tip-toeing into the living room and seating herself, as she had promised, in the chair furthest from where everyone else had gathered.  As she had hoped, her father said,  “Oh, for goodness’ sake, Mil, come and join us.  Sit next to me and be formally introduced to Mr. Martin Ainsworth who might be coming to live here for a while.”

Mil smiled in her straightforward way–she had a great deal in common with her mother–and simply said, “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Ainsworth.”  It was enough to make an impression. Camilla Whitfield had inherited her mother’s exotic good looks, as well as her open manner–but not her illness. Already at fourteen, she drew attention without realizing it.

Martin Ainsworth had spent very little time around women. His mother had died when he was young; he had no sisters; and he tended to keep to himself most of the time. In response to Camilla’s greeting he was unable to do anything but smile and duck his head. For just that moment he was sure he had made a mistake coming here.  But it didn’t last, and soon he was answering questions for Megan, talking about various work that William had in mind on the small property, and smiling occasionally at Camilla. The Whitfield’s daughter was a child, and Martin wanted very much to fit gently into this family.  But still he was conscious of the girl.

They all liked him. Only Camilla went to bed feeling just the slightest bit of unease, and she didn’t really know why. Her impression was of an older man, tall, extremely thin, with large ears and the high cheekbones of hill people.  Not a handsome man at all.  He was polite, soft-spoken, and mostly concerned with the particulars of the work her father might want him to do.  Everything he said about repairing or building things sounded like he knew what he was talking about, and she could tell already that her father was feeling relieved at the idea of having some help.

She shook off her reservations and was asleep within minutes.  When she woke, just before dawn, she heard Mr. Ainsworth and her father talking in the kitchen.  She supposed Mr. Ainsworth had taken a room.

Posted in My Writing, Writing, Writing Fiction

On writing #5: I have turned blogs into essays and chapters of novels into short stories. I have been professionally published and have published independently. I have entered contests. Recently, I’ve been giving some thought to that woman on the waterfall.

I want to write a novel about her.

The woman on that waterfall, probably in her fifties when the photograph was taken,  was my father’s mother, and I have a great deal to say about her. Far more than enough to fill the pages of a novel. The only problem, and it is a big problem, is that I just can’t seem to muster the–whatever we should call the Whatever-It-Is that is absolutely necessary if you intend to write a novel.  You need it up front, long before you begin. You need it months before you touch a pen or a keyboard, weeks before anything other than notes–anything resembling a sentence–appears.

I have experienced it as a cluster of physical sensations and behaviors that I never recognize for what they are: my breath catches in my throat; I smile spontaneously at people I don’t know; I cry midway through hilariously funny movies, and I laugh so inappropriately, and so loud, that I am often asked to leave public places; I have ideas. Oh, my goodness, I have ideas. Thoughts almost literally spill from my mind, too fast for me to catch them. I am alive with ideas, some of which might belong in a novel about a grandmother climbing down a small waterfall, others clearly never will. On long walks around my neighborhood I imagine wonderful new ways to prepare salmon, and I am stunned when I hear myself speaking aloud a lovely sentence that contains a semi-colon–used correctly.

Slowly, this first rush settles. I am disappointed to lose it but by this time have begun to understand what it is. It is my grandmother’s novel.

She has always fascinated me. A schoolgirl, a bride, a mother, and a schoolteacher–all before I knew her–too many of her stories have come to me only second-hand and, as a result, only piecemeal.

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And, although I have, perversely, been able to make notes, to write whole sentences, to outline something resembling a plan, I have neither grinned at a stranger nor wept at “The In-Laws.” There is no novel calling to me.

I think back to the past year or so of writing and, after the most recent novel, I filled in the time by pulling chapters from the novels or by combining old blog posts and confidently sending off short stories and essays to literary competitions.  This activity allowed me to hide from the fact that I was not writing a novel.

I have run out of familiar choices. Two of my fellow-writers have thrown down the gauntlet, accompanied by a rolling of the eyes that no novelist could ever describe as subtle.  “Why don’t you just write a short story?”

Why, indeed, don’t I just write a short story?