Monthly Archives: May 2012

Feeling virtuous today for having finished a full edit. I hit ‘send’ on the manuscript. I’m full of curiosity to see what the publisher’s editor tells me to do, and my firm plan is to be obedient! We’ll see how well I keep to my fine intentions.

I don’t know how many of you writers have had to do this type of clean-up, but I went through every chapter for dates, since I wanted a simple chronological progression, and I found a couple of time transgression issues to fix. I ended up with sheets of paper scribbled with chapter numbers and dates. You’d think I would have done all this before and the truth is, I have. About three times, all the way through. But little gremlins were at play and I’m grateful now that I’ve tweaked the whole thing back into order. Gives me cold sweat to imagine how I would have felt if I hadn’t done this run-through and made sure.

But then again, I’m a doorknob rattler, one of the folk who can’t leave the house for a walk without verifying that the stove top is off, the microwave controls cleared, knobs on my oven turned to ‘off’ and ‘Warm’, the taps checked for drips and the refrigerator doors fully closed. There’s this tale I heard about a cat named Cicero who got into the fridge and consumed five pounds of red snapper before being discovered. He slouched off to sit in the sun and warm up a bit afterwards, but it seemed to do him no harm. However, his people had to think out dinner all over from scratch. That was one cool cat.

I’m sure they’ll still find some typos.

Modern technology is splendid but just a keystroke makes all the difference. What was the bit in the news about the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs having a typo on the front of the Commencement Program proclaiming it the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Pubic Affairs? A cautionary tale indeed!

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lemon juice

I wrote many drafts of this story based closely on a real conversation with my father some years ago. I workshopped it a few times, but the fascinating thing is that the original had more life than the rewrites. So this morning I went back and recast it and I think this is what it is, a piece that gives you my father scarcely edited, doing what he did best, amazing his children even as he pushed all of our happy assumptions off the shelf.

At our house, we gloat over velvety chanterelles from California oak forests, we nurture artisan-style loaves with our hoarded sourdough culture, we brew our own hoppy ales, and we dissect the relative merits of rival lemon varieties in passionate terms at the dinner table. The farmer’s market looms in our minds as an event, glowing with the orange and scarlet globes of tomatoes, redolent with basil, vibrant with dark strawberries. I mention these things to give you context for the conversation I had yesterday.

My father called, and since I suspected that he might be lonely house-sitting for my sister Marie up in Oregon, I pulled the gray cat over my lap and settled in to talk.

“What’ve you been doing while they’re gone?” I said, stroking the cat’s fuzzy chin.

“Well,” my father said, “I decided it would be nice if I made cookies, because neither your sister nor Cole seem to cook much and those commercial things they call cookies are full of fat and stabilizers and are terribly over-sweetened. But you know, Marie doesn’t keep brown sugar in her house.”

What I remembered was my father holding forth on the pretensions of brown sugar, accusing it of merely being refined white with molasses added back in. Posturing, in his opinion. Worse, the refinery raised the price for this bit of masquerade. If Marie possessed brown sugar I bet she’d hid it somewhere in the back of her pantry before our father arrived.

“I decided I’d add some molasses to the white sugar,” he said, before I could respond. “But you see, Marie doesn’t keep any molasses, either. So I thought I’d add lemon juice.”

“Lemon juice?” I had sent some lemons up to Oregon seven weeks ago.

“For the acidity. You know baking soda won’t work in cookies without something acidic, and if you don’t have the acidity of the molasses in the brown sugar you need something else. I was lucky. I found your lemon here in the shipping box. She had exactly one left; it was a little soft. At first I thought she must be saving it but I realized I needed to use it up or it would go to waste.”

Waste was the ultimate sin where my father was raised in a fine Yankee community of farming New Hampshire.

“It looked a little gray but I’m sure it was all right.  I squeezed some juice and put it in my bowl. Next I found out that we had one egg in the place and I needed two for this recipe. So I added extra milk. There wasn’t any vanilla, but Marie does have cinnamon. What with one thing and another, the dough really came out rather runny.”

He sounded confident, but I was picturing ‘runny’.

“Then I couldn’t find a single cookie sheet. I even looked in the basement and discovered that Marie and Cole haven’t finished unpacking. But I could hardly open up all those boxes…. Fortunately I remembered Marie has a Teflon coated muffin pan.”

“Did you…?”

“I simply poured the batter in. You realize I saved a lot of time. I’d already spent a while just assembling the ingredients so I really appreciated how much faster this went. Though I’m not sure what to call the result — they don’t look exactly like cookies. I was afraid they might stick to the pan, so I tried tipping it, and do you know, they fell right out. It’s a pity– because I’d taken them onto the porch to cool, so several fell on the porch. I didn’t worry; since it was raining, the porch was perfectly clean. But I shouldn’t have stacked them; the cookies didn’t stick to the pan but they sure stuck to each other.”

“So are they like little cakes?” I said helpfully. The cat shook its head as if I rubbed its ears too hard.

“Hmnn.” He wasn’t going to commit. “When I finally finished this up,” he said, “I did something else. After all, the dishes needed to be washed and I figured why wash them twice? Might as well mix up something else first. You know, I haven’t much chance to cook in recent years. Mother doesn’t like it when I cook, though I find it quite enjoyable. I don’t know why she feels this prejudice. I used to bake bread, and all types of things.”

“Yes, I remember. I baked a cake with you, back when I was in high school. We experimented.”

My father always approached life experiences such as cleaning, repairing, and cooking as he did the scientific research he used to conduct. You might call his investigative sense, if not his appetite, insatiable.

“So I made an apple pie,” he said. The cat pressed its face against my fingers, reminding me of its claims.

I responded to the pride in his voice.            “You did? Great!”

“Well,” his voice took on an apologetic color, “I was taking a walk and I found apples. You know how some people never harvest their own fruit — and it has snowed here, so I couldn’t feel too guilty. The apples had fallen onto the sidewalk from branches overhanging a wall. Still, I guess a stickler could say I stole them. The apples had some rotten spots, quite a few, and they were pretty scabby….

“I cut out all the bad spots and sliced those apples up. It was quite a job — took much longer than I’d expected. I was afraid I hadn’t quite enough apple bits when I had cleaned them, so I added some others. Marie forgot three on the windowsill and they’d gone cottony, or mushy, so I squeezed in more of that lemon juice.

“Then I started on the crust. But Marie had no shortening in the house, only oleomargarine and butter. I wanted Crisco. I remembered that you can’t use butter. My mother used to say butter made a tough crust.”

“You want unsalted butter,” I piped up helpfully, “and you chill the crust before you roll it.”

“Oh yes, I remembered the chilling. That may have been what saved it,” he said with satisfaction.

“But what did you use for shortening?”

“Well I looked through the refrigerator. I found some olive oil, but I didn’t remember anyone using that for pie crust and it smelled like garlic. Do people ever flavor olive oil with garlic? Then I found the bacon. Marie cooked up a lot of bacon before they left; I’m sure it isn’t good for Cole to eat so much;  and she’d kept the fat from it in a small bowl.”

I did not dare interrupt at this point. Surely he was pulling my leg. He’d always maintained that my husband and I cared too much about our food.

“I carefully took off the top, the white part.”

“But you didn’t…?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “It seemed by far the best solution and I thought it would help the flavor deficit. And I must say everything seemed to be working very well indeed as I collected the grease. Except that I made one big mistake.”

“What happened?” The cat decided I did not have my mind on my job and rose with decision, leaping down and stalking away, its tail held banner-wise.

“You know I put lemon juice and cinnamon on the apples with the sugar, but no nutmeg because I really don’t like nutmeg even though the recipes call for it, but then I did a completely absentminded thing and put all the flour for the crusts right in with the apples. When I realized what I’d done, I scooped up as much flour out of the apples as I could. But you know how apples emit juice when they have sugar on them? An awful quantity of the flour stuck. When I got to rolling out the dough, it was wet and glued itself to the counter. I had a dreadful time getting the crust loose. But then I did a truly smart thing.”

“What?”

“I pre-baked the bottom crust. For a long time. Maybe eighteen minutes. Then I finished the pie off and put it into the oven. The bad part was that after all the apple trimming and the looking for things I only got that pie in the oven at half past midnight and I was exhausted — but I had to stay up until the pie was cooked. In the end since I couldn’t really tell if it was done yet, I just shut off the oven and left it in.”

“How does your pie taste?”

“I don’t know yet. But I have to say it smells delicious. I’ll save it for Cole’s birthday party when he and Marie get home tomorrow. We still aren’t sure how many people are coming so I think I better bake a cake. After all, I still have the last of that lemon juice to go.”

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non sibi

This is an older piece, I share it from my other blog because of mothers day and all the funny things that brings into my mind about regrets for not having done as well as I wanted, ambition and hope, and having kids in my life.

        Last night I dreamed that dream again, the one of a wet and windy evening of the first day at school where I am back at Exeter as a new student, looking around at other faces in the dim lit Assembly with my blood running fast and knowing that this time, this time I will do it right. I will really know this time how to be here. I woke up thinking it, still charged with the excitement — if I had this fresh chance — if I could re-turn the clock, what might I make of it?

            I read while I wait for the children to come home, and it so happens that the piece I read has been written about Frank A. Weil in Non Sibi. “I was among those who were slow getting going,” he said, about his experiences at Exeter, and felt “certain that his Exeter teachers would have described” him as ‘hopeless’. Now he has endowed the first prizes for ‘most improved’; a wonderful concept, but not one I would have ever merited while at Exeter, even though I too was certain that my teachers must have shaken their heads in despair in the beginning and called me hopeless. My fear was that they never stopped.

            I hear the children in the passageway as I finish reading the piece. Manuel thumping his eleven year old one hundred and eighty pound self against the wall as he peels off his sneakers, the high excited voice of my own daughter Theo as she bumps into either Amanda, Emilia or Leyla in the narrow way where all of them are supposed to leave their shoes. Hanna will be later than the rest since she has an orthodontist appointment.

            Slow starters, fast starters, stumblers and sprinters; I have them all here on Tuesdays to work together on schoolwork and homework. Some days we touch on everything from current events to the cross tides of religious influence. Others we just grind away at math. And when I think of math I always think of my teachers at Exeter; Brown, Kilgore, Clark, and how they struggled to make me possible. I heard a rumor of Mr. Clark in my senior year telling my advisor Mr. Tremallo, ‘Finally I can stop giving quizzes; Robin’s going to pass.’ Now I have my motley crew and I tell them about fractions and decimals, go delving in books to find out all we can about agnathans and try to make stories that will help us remember history and where in the world we are.

            They tumble in, straight to the cookies hot from the oven and crumbly with oatmeal and cinnamon. I chivvy them to seats and pencils, scratch paper and pads and try to find out the assignment range. I think of assignments, of the long standing one from Ms. Kendrick who told us to reread J. Alfred Prufrock when we had our thirtieth birthdays in the then inconceivable future. Have I missed a year since then of reading it and thinking of the slow curling smile on her face and the sleepy certainty of her hooded eyes? And all that algebra I struggled through, have I ever been able to stop fighting towards a better grasp of it in these twenty eight years since? What of all the assignments I have given myself, to find out what I did not know nor easily understand?            

 Maybe doing it right is here, at my crowded diningroom table with five kids and a sixth coming in the door soon, only one of them technically mine, and crumbs and scribbled paper everywhere. Questions about Shay’s Rebellion and why a compound isn’t the same as a molecule and why fractions work the way they do. What do you know and how do you know? Simple stuff.

            Maybe the dreams aren’t even dreams. Eric F. said to me years ago that the trick to happiness was knowing when you had some. Well, now I know.   

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the writer’s plan

     I’m looking over the author’s marketing plan and the first prompt is a question about ‘what were your goals in writing the book’. Gives one to think, doesn’t it? Or if you’ve been doing too much editing in the past few weeks, gives you the urge to scream and run out of the room.

    But it is a reasonable question, isn’t it? After all, a lot of people would wonder why a woman who looks like a meek hausfrau but is busy already with one career painting and having shows, would be sufficiently obsessed to  create a novel about the Nigerian Civil War. (No, I’m not going to talk about the other eight novels in the brains of my computer. Not yet.) Here is what I dredged up about this novel.

    I wrote the book to entertain, but that’s never enough for a writer; I also wanted to provoke, to inspire and incite. I lived in Nigeria, grew up there, watched the violence of coups and demonstrations, the strength of its incredibly varied peoples. I was forced to leave, I had to see Nigeria torn apart on the news by war while I lived as an exile in New Hampshire, safe and cold. I went to college and met amazing women, and had and have still their friendship. So in this novel I spin together these themes, one of women in friendship, plunged into war, and how the things they bring with them from the heart of their pasts twist everything that follows in the light of day. I have known powerful women, and I know we limit ourselves. My point is not that we are as good as men, it’s that we are as good as ourselves, and our genders are incidental. So in this book, we have women with and without men, just as in novels of all times we have had men with and without women. A man is never the meaning of any of my womens’ lives. There is my human agenda. 

     Then there is the political aspect of a white expatriate writing about the most powerful black African nation. I hope I do this humanly. I’ve read obsessively on Nigeria, lived there, smelled and tasted it, and I have loved it. But I know there is no going back and that it does not belong to me. This is one of the themes pervading every page, the push-me pull-you adoration of a superb and vibrant land, and the inevitable parting from it. There are the conflicts of feeling in the presumed superiority to  native peoples, struggling with the eventual realization that those feelings are contextual and all the strength of one kind of society cannot be transposed or infused into another. There is no simple way to help, there are only human individual ways. Ways that must be rooted in humility.

      I also remember the Nigerian Civil War. The Biafran War. Not many Americans do. It was short, it was messy. I was an evacuee watching TV in New Hampshire, glued to those images of starving babies the newscasters warned ‘might be disturbing’, but my parents felt that they could not edit what I knew even if I was ten years old. I believe they were right, and this novel is my answer.

 

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working with an editor

I’ve had the rewarding experience of working with two editors, Aviva Layton and Toni Lopopolo. My first experience  was with Aviva Layton some years ago and that was the customary situation where I hired her to read and critique, (not line edit) two different manuscripts. One of them she read twice. She gave me more than I paid for. I was looking for an overview from a sophisticated reader who could tell me where my plot flagged, where my characters mystified, where I talked too much when I should have let my characters show. I killed a couple of characters under her advice, and man, was it satisfying. An editor will see things you never did, ask questions even the best writers group doesn’t, and ruthlessly guide you to a cleaner clearer story arc. After all, that is the point — to tell a good story.

You might find it odd that I mention Toni, who is also my agent, but you know what? I got lucky. I ended up with an agent who does it all — she has over this past year helped me rewrite my novel about Nigeria from beginning to end something like ten or eleven times… I think we’ve both lost count. Did I pay her? No; when Toni signed me it was in accordance with all the rules you see on Writers Beware and other such sites. She did it on the speculation that I’d make something saleable and worth this tremendous investment of her time and energy and patience.

I tried very hard to be good because I knew the work was flawed. The novel Toni fell in love with was my tale of four women in Nigeria who are caught up in the Nigerian Civil War. I wrote it starting in 1976, when I was in college at Wellesley. Fellow students got accustomed to seeing me hunched over my old electric typewriter in the commonroom picking at the keys. Never learned to touch type, and even though I write a lot, I use four fingers on my right hand and four on my right. It’s a wonder my pinkies haven’t atrophied, but maybe they keep exercised by waving about in the air cheering the others on.

I digress. The problem with this particluar novel was that it had morphed over the decades. It was in purely awful shape. It had swelled at times to something over 600 pages, shrunk down to 200 and swelled again. I’d never even shown this manuscript to Aviva — I knew it wasn’t ready. It was pure chance or my father’s ghost that made me take a couple of excerpts to the writers workshop where Toni heard a section and fell for it. So when Toni told me it was a mess, what could I do but nod? The miracle was that she didn’t give up. We waded through issues of point of view, adverbs and masses of beautiful description that stopped the story in its tracks, too many people– and started the process by killing of some characters. Sound familiar? Is that my trope that I tend to pack too many people in?

Now I have a contract with an independant publisher, and I’m setting up the nitty gritty of publicity. We are, fingers crossed, looking at this September. My father, who took us all to Nigeria in the first place, would be pleased.

What I wanted to say in this post is that if you are a writer, use your resources. Run the novel or the story through your writers groups (and yes, I put that in the plural form.) Make yourself go to writers’ conferences and force yourself to your quaking feet to read aloud. Don’t just read the first chapter over and over again. Most chapters should have their own arc, and with the briefest of descriptions of the set-up, you should be good to go. Remember that if your book makes it to a bookshelf in a bookstore, you may be picked up by a potential reader who follows my evil habit of opening to the middle to see what the fat looks like.

If you are told by two or more people to change something, you need to think it over real hard. If you hear it from three, just do it. Do it in your own way, but do it.

When it comes to editors, I’d say wait until you’ve done the groups and the conferences. Take your shining clean typo-free copy and pay an expert to tell you what isn’t working. The neater your copy the less your editor will be distracted by the detritus. When you finally corner that agent who signs you, she or he may not be as old fashioned as mine, so don’t be surprised, but make sure that your manuscript is as ready as you can make it. I think I’d even recommend springing for another editorial run-through. Your writing is an investment, not only of the time in your life you’ve spent making love to a keyboard, but of your funds, in the sensible use of professionals.

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May start

Had a grand walk this morning with the fog beginning to lift off the trees and sun breaking through. Husband was quiet, I was too, a few regrets for the pillows still hanging on like the mist. But it’s a fine new day with peas to be picked and catboxes to be cleaned. Lots of tasks, dinner for a friend, and I must mix up some fresh catfood for the threesome. The real list lies in the ether, typing responds to the prompts on my ‘Author’s Questionnaire’ from Imajin Books, crafting fresh and provocative synopses (how many times we all do this!)  long and short autobiographies, and, there’s in the back of my mind an itch to write something entirely new.

I have a file of ideas, but they only gain life if I dream about them, so I am forever waiting to see what my back brain will decide to give life next. Of course I’ve heard of lucent dreaming, but I’ve never yet tried to direct the show; haven’t had to. I love surprises.

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