Questions and Answers or a Virtual Book Tour for Growing a New Tail

•August 26, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I had been asked by writer and friend Alan McMonagle to participate in a blog tour almost a year ago. It’s taken me this long to actually do it! As I prepare to launch my first book of fiction, a collection of short stories called Growing a New Tail, I’m beginning to think about my process, my future projects, and my evolving artistic aesthetic. Thank you, Alan for raising these questions!

  1. What am I working on?

I’m one of those people who can write a poem on Tuesday, spend Wednesday fawning over a new writer I discovered, and Thursday drafting a short story. I seem to have stories on my mind these days, odd people who drift in and out of my consciousness. Although the collection of short stories is finished, I am still engaged in giving birth to characters whose lives have been irrevocably altered by random events or trauma. One of the stories tugged on me so hard, it became the draft of a novel. The characters grabbed my arm and would not let go. I trip over narratives on my way to the store. Sometimes run into a character in my favorite coffee shop or waiting for a bus. I’m intrigued by millennials and their adaption to the changing world. They are redefining family, aging, and commerce. As a writer I also must adapt to this new world, making it up as I go. There are questions without answers. Dwelling in ambiguity is necessary.

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Genre is such a broad term. Writers share a common language. It is the arrangement of the words that can transform an ordinary sentence into poetry or art. I’m an ardent revisor of my work. Like others, I strive to create something of value, to take risks and leaps with my writing. My poetry tends to be imagistic, my prose follows suit though I’m drawn to edgy and dissatisfied characters. I try to be an acute observer of the life around me. That involves being in the world. I listen and I watch. If I’m lucky, an idea begins to form and I dive in, uncertain of where the bottom is or if I’ll be able to surface to take a breath. I’m not sure if I’m different from others in the genre but I do believe each writer brings his or her own life experience to the act of writing. There is a process of winnowing to determine what will remain in a final piece.

3.  Why do I write what I do?

It may sound overly simplistic to say that writing has saved my life more than once. It was my “go to” activity as a teen and young adult. I could scribble in a notebook and be spared the awkwardness of social contact I was not yet prepared for. I began writing at the age of twelve, winning a National Scholastic Writing Award for Poetry at seventeen. It became my escape and then my life, this dwelling in the imagination. Later it was a discipline though it was a long time before I had any aspiration of publishing. I strive to reinvent every time I sit in front of my computer. Can I write out of sequence? What about characters who behave badly? Dare I risk offending people? I’ve learned to shut off my censor and just see what comes of the process. I write because I can’t imagine a life without writing. Even if I never published another word, I would write.

4. How does my writing process work?

I’m a procrastinator. Have I logged onto Facebook or Twitter yet? It’s necessary for book and event promotion, isn’t it?  I had to delete Facebook from my phone. Social media is too greedy, gobbling up time. I don’t trust myself so I log out of Facebook on my computer and make rules that I sometimes break. On a good day, I am aware that time is finite and there is nothing I’d rather do. I write well in public places, particularly if I don’t know anyone. I begin a writing day by reading. There is no better way for me to get started than to read the work of someone I admire. Richard Bausch says “Trust this, and stop trying to be so intellectual about it: This work is much closer to the cave than it will ever be to the drawing room.” I think of that often (he has great advice that he publishes on his Facebook page). It’s easy to intellectualize and pontificate. It’s the raw emotion that I’m after. Sometimes I must go into dark places to retrieve something of value.

I have a writing room, filled with books, objects and art important to me. Ironically my best writing doesn’t happen there, it happens wherever I am in the world. Daily discipline yields better writing. I tell this to my students and I believe it. It takes a long time to get past the chatter, the truck engine revving, and the dog barking but there will always be quiet underneath the noise.

Stay tuned for nominations of writers to continue this conversation!

Translating the Wild Atlantic

•May 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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I return to Ireland to see dear friends, hear literature, walk on the craggy cliffs and seaweed strewn beaches. As I again glimpse life from the other side of the Atlantic, I am reminded about how insular we can become.  Parallel lives move forward in other places and we are unaware.

In Ireland, I was awakened by noisy crows each morning.  One evening we held a literary salon featuring writers Geraldine Mills, Alan McMonagle, Ted Deppe, Annie Deppe, Hedy Gibbons Lynott, Pat Lynott, Pete Mulllineaux, Moyo Roddy, and Aideen Henry.  As we shared work, drank wine, ate smoked salmon and goat cheese, I felt that enchantment that I find in reading a good book–the sensation of being transported somewhere else.  The genres ranged from narrative poetry to fiction to memoir.  Round one moved to round two and those who could stay read some more.  How lucky we all were to have the time to listen, pause, and listen again.

I return to Ireland because Ireland is now a part of who I am as a writer.  I can’t imagine my life without the brightly colored villages, buskers in Galway City, Kennys Bookshop, and friends I miss when I must board a plane for what is home for now.

When I go back, it will be to launch my collection of short fiction Growing a New Tail published by Arlen House and distributed in the United States by Syracuse University Press.  My writing is yet another translation of the world in its dark meanderings and sudden bursts of emotion.

Small Gratitudes, Sudden Graces

•January 2, 2015 • Leave a Comment

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For many, the holidays are fraught with expectations: the gathering of family members near and far flung, the introduction of new friends and partners, and a flurry of food preparation. Those without dear ones can find themselves alone, or on the periphery of a group of near strangers. Although I love my own traditions, hard-won and honed through the years, I know that time and circumstance will transform them eventually. When it became clear that my family of origin would never host a holiday event, I created my own rituals: initially baking my presents and collecting ornaments,and later finding the perfect tree with our children, making ornaments, and sharing a no-holds-barred brunch of our favorite foods.

The children are grown now, returning this year to share what may be one of the last holidays with just our nuclear family. We will continually redefine connection as we navigate geographical challenges. It is a necessary part of being human, this reassessment. Once we were the caregivers, orchestrating what was to all of us a magical day. Now we are beginning the process of backing off, and inviting the younger generation to create and include us in their own traditions.

Yesterday we saw seven wild turkeys. Today there were a dozen or more in the field by the house. Some had their tail feathers fanned out, like drab peacocks. They were endangered in numbers once but now they appear to have returned. I see them regularly on my drive down the rural side roads to work. As they congregate, they nuzzle against each other congenially. This reminds me of a group of woman I see regularly in the local coffee shop, sharing the heartaches and joys of daily living. One friend is ailing, another suffers from chronic pain. Friends gather around them, offering words, soup, company. None of these things will change the circumstances but they do offer a glimpse into the grace that we humans can radiate, sometimes unexpectedly.

In this new year, I strive to understand and celebrate the paths of others even as I redefine my own. I plan to see more sunrises, mountains, craggy coastal vistas, share more wine and coffee. Imperfection defines all of us; the mistakes we make in our striving for connection. Nature doesn’t dwell on the imperfections but rather revels in them–a chipped-off rock ledge, the tangle of weeds choking a rhododendron,a new landscape made from a volcanic eruption. I look forward to experimenting with the myriad configurations of language, a mixed media creation, or just joining friends and family at a holiday table set for eight or more.

Sunsets and Heirloom Tomatoes

•July 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

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It has been a month of beginnings, walks, boat rides, long afternoons spent editing stories, writing poems, and reading new writers.  Ah, summer.  With an expanse of time, it is possible to make pesto, pick heirloom tomatoes, and still watch the rain drench the garden and slick the road.  This afternoon I walked to the farmer’s market in the rain, listened to clarinet and accordion players under a white tent while I browsed tables laden with zucchini, curly kale, fennel, and blueberries. 

Editing fiction is new for me though I try to use my poet’s ear to hear the sound of the words.  I think of the wisdom of Stephen Dobyns: Best Words, Best Order.  

I ask myself: what do my characters want?  How will my words advance the story?  What can I do to break stance in order and style?  It is daunting to tell a story in a new way.  Although the ideas for stories flow easily, the mechanics are still less familiar to me.  Poetry was my first writing language.

A writing friend is battling cancer, and she recently wrote of savoring every moment.  A story is a moment and each of us lives stories. Poetry speaks of possibility.  Imagination can dignify the ordinary.  In the end, all any of us have are moments that strung together make days, weeks, months, and years.  In writing, we lengthen our memory by offering these observations to the world; the taste of that first ripe tomato of summer, the electric smell of the air in August, and the sweet chatter of friends on a summer evening sitting on the porch, listening to the cicadas and tree frogs while waiting for the first stars.  May all who are fighting a challenging diagnosis find strength and beauty in our “mutilated world” as Adam Zagajewski so aptly called it–“…the gentle light that strays and vanishes/and returns.”     

 

 

Anticipating an Explosion of Lilacs

•March 31, 2014 • Leave a Comment

 It has been months since I’ve added to my observations.  During that time, I’ve been immersed in living, observing the changes that winter brought with its needle sharp icicles hanging from the back porch, the winter-weary cracks in the road, and the thick fur my cat grew to stay warm.  The thaw is beginning, reluctant but steady.  Birds are returning with their morning cacophony, and there are tiny sprouts of green in the garden.  I’ve been hypnotized by the world of story, reading many excellent novels this winter including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Colum McCann’s Transatlantic, Wally Lamb’s We Are Water, Baron Wormer’s Teach Us That Peace.  I’ve also enjoyed the short story collections Hellkite by Geraldine Mills, Psychotic Episodes by Alan McMonagle, The Isle of Youth by Laura Van Den Berg, and many others.  Fiction has taken hold in my creative life; my own short stories emerging seemingly from a place I cannot identify.  All I know is that the characters come to me and I try my best to represent their yearnings.     

April will arrive with somber colors but leave like a gaudy tourist.  The insects will return, chirping and buzzing.  My cat will slim down and lie lazily in a patch of sun on the porch.  I will continue my walks past the grist mill and the river, inhaling what this is: another awakening.

 

Fragments

•September 5, 2013 • 3 Comments

ImageAfter days of heat, a sharp chill has returned,  reminder of shorter days and the darkness already beginning to lay claim to waking as well as sleeping hours.  It is a time to contemplate, make hearty soups, bring out wool sweaters, and remember. 

Seamus Heaney died this week.  The two times I met him, he was gracious and powerful, a quiet presence.  A outpouring of grief flooded blogs, social media, classrooms, and households.  This loss, like the losses of those who touch us in some way, is palpable and permanent.  

Perhaps it is the seasonal change or death; lately I’ve been thinking about how little we know about some of the people in our lives.  We invent familiarity from fragments in much the same way that we might write a poem from a memory of the sky at dusk or use a photograph to paint a portrait.  I wrote a story from a painting by Robert Sparrow Jones. We assume strength, carelessness, or disdain because of facial expression, posture, misunderstood words.  The intricacies of humanity remain mostly hidden, except to a few.  This happens in workplaces, relationships, emails and texts.  Sometimes we are cartoon figures filling in dialogue bubbles for other cartoon figures.  The actual dialogue might look different without our filters.  

It does not show on my face that I have moved my mother three times in the past nine years, spent two and a half months sorting through the possessions of her life and mailed boxes to anyone I thought would want her memorabilia. I keep a plush yellow ball in my briefcase that I can toss to my college students because surprise matters in teaching.  My characters are unlike anyone I know; a widower preyed upon by a young girl, an obsessive compulsive conservationist, a woman with a twenty-year-old secret. I am the youngest of three daughters. My father died while I was in Italy, and they elected Pope Benedict.  Now there is a new pope, Pope Francis.

From my porch, I heard a fisher weasel’s shriek last Saturday.  Barred owls call frequently.  In an article about the recovery of forests in the northeast, it said that black bears have returned in numbers large enough to accelerate the chances of an encounter. I know for certain that it will grow colder in the upcoming months.  I don’t know what he’s thinking or feeling and I’d like to tell her that I’m trying to understand the complexities of communication.  Sorrow, joy, and fear are universal languages.  When I waved from the car the other day, it was because I saw something in the tilt of a head or the shape of a face.  We are driving on the same road, not always in the same direction. The light will grow scarcer. My characters don’t always choose wisely and I can’t prevent them from falling.  Come inside when the temperature drops.  There will be soup and conversation.   

My heart is a untouched path above the sea in Ireland

•July 10, 2013 • 3 Comments

Lucky enough to spend a month in Ireland, I have wandered its bogs, crossed fields of gorse and bog cotton, counted lapwings, sheep, and magpies, paid homage to foxglove and fuchsia.  Beyond the raw physical beauty of this country, I dream the sound of fiddles, tin whistles, colors of clothes flapping on a line in near ceaseless wind, and snippets of conversation shared in pubs, across a dining room table, in the back of Kenny’s bookshop, or on a mountain path.  Each time I return, I discover.  This time it was the tenuous give of walking on bogs, temperamental weather that shook shaggy clouds until whiteness spilled into clear and the path softened, remembering my footprints; the unparalleled joy of warmth and sun, now edging into its third day–unprecedented for this cool and misty place.  There are no snakes, predatory animals, poison ivy, hurricanes, or tornados, yet wildness lives in the vast expanse of undeveloped coastal and mountain territory.  Sometimes I’d see a single stone cottage with a red door, precipitously perched atop a steep hill, sheep grazing on the incline.  I’d wonder who lived there and if it was lonely or liberating to look out, seeing nothing but the sea and mountain paths.  Would I be courageous enough to define my day by what the sky and ocean had to tell me?  I will return to the questioning which is the process of translating this geography, its mossy outcroppings, and the people who invite me in, again and again.