The Other Half of the Story

P&L-Cake-TopperYou can’t stay married to the same person for almost twenty years without amassing a goldmine of writing material. In some form or other, I’ve used a lot of events from our “real life” in my fiction, good and bad. The bad ones somehow end up funnier. Heck, if life gives you citrus fruit, why not squeeze them into tasty adult beverages for other people’s entertainment?

This past weekend, we were with family, and one story led to another. It never takes much prompting for my husband to start telling the Tale of the Worst Day of his Life. Although the years have magnified each horrible turn by a factor of ten, it originally started like this: Continue reading

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Tools of the Trade: Graphic Artists

SD505One snowy evening last year I was goofing off taking a well-deserved break on Facebook when I started chatting with a woman from Rhode Island. It turned out we’d both worked in graphic arts in the days before desktop publishing. We grew nostalgic about the tools we missed: T-squares, melted wax, non-reproducing-blue pencils, drafting tables. I told her that I’d worked late every Thursday night for three years in the bullpen of a Boston advertising agency to type-spec and paste up ads for the Sunday newspapers. Every sweater I owned had bits of border tape stuck to the elbows. One time I even found a piece on my cat. Soon we’d attracted a small crowd of our former colleagues, and we swapped X-acto knife horror stories and fond memories. Continue reading

The Writing Hat

LAURIE_1982_WIDMER-RDIn three months and one day, Husband and I will celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary. And we were together for six years before we made it official in the eyes of New York State and a rabbi who spilled wine down my dress. Anyway, that’s a heck of a lot of years to live with the same person. It’s made me kind of lazy about some things. Grooming. Watching my language. Putting away laundry. Whose turn it is to toss the dead mouse into the back woods. But one thing I’m trying not to get lazy about: defending my writing and editing boundaries.

Fortunately, I have a door that closes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a door that locks. Also, I need to get out of said room from time to time, to attend to certain vital functions like recaffeinating and grabbing snacks. Husband is a sensitive and intuitive guy, an artist as many of you know, but it’s only natural that he, well, forgets once in a while that even though I might not be actively pounding keys at the point when he chooses to interrupt me to tell me something funny he just saw on the news or that he’s going to get the mail, THERE’S STILL A BOOK GOING ON IN MY HEAD AND YOU’RE NOT INVITED.

Maybe I need a hat of some sort. Nothing fancy like those silly things Fergie’s daughters wore to Prince William’s wedding, but just a particular accessory to alert Husband that I’m not mentally present. So when he surprises me with the fact that I need to get in the car because we have to be at such-and-such’s house in fifteen minutes because I TOLD HIM IT WAS OKAY and even that I’d make a side dish, I can avoid further argument by hat default.

Yes, hat default. Was I wearing the hat when you asked about it? Yes? Okay, your protests are now null and void. Have a nice day. And don’t forget to put black olives in the pasta salad.

Challenging Your Preconceptions

iStock_000002423329XSmallEunice Scarfe, a Canadian author and professor, led (and presumably still leads) a popular workshop at a women’s writing conference I used to attend regularly. We were given prompts: a few words, a sentence. We were to write whatever spilled from our brains and when time was called, draw a line beneath what we had written. Under that line, she asked us to write what images, emotions, and conclusions that exercise had stirred up.

One prompt she gave was “my mother’s hands.” Start with your own hands, she suggested, and drift back through the generations, to your mother’s, and her mother’s. I looked at my little paws and thought about my mother’s hands, the relief river map of the crisscrossing tendons and blood vessels, the elegant fingers, the carefully-coiffed nails. And then I looked back at my own. I had a hell of a time getting inspired. So I wrote about my mother’s hands, and the strength within them no one would suspect, and what the years and the Florida sun and had wrought upon her skin. But the words came in lumps and had no connection to my ten digits.

Eunice called time. I looked at my paltry prose, my weak words, and felt…uninspired. So that’s what I wrote below the line. Uninspired. Nothing. Feh. And I looked at my hands again. Still nothing. My hands are small, unlined, with squarish palms and utilitarian nails kept short through years of training on piano keys, typewriters, computer keyboards. Then Eunice invited women to line up against the wall if they wanted to read their wanderings to the class.

I chose not to. I listened, still thinking of my below-the-line comments, when I took another look at my squatty little hands. I realized why I had not connected with this exercise. My hands more closely resembled my father’s. And that was my biggest revelation of the week. Even though our faces, our noses, our eyes, our hair, so much the same that nearly everyone gasps and says, “Oh, you are your mother’s daughter,” I am more like my father than I’d ever considered.

What am I writing below the line for these few freewritten paragraphs? That it’s good, every so often, to have your conclusions about yourself challenged. Good as a writer, good as a daughter, good as a human.

Honor a Banned Book

Sometimes we won’t read a classic work of literature until a teacher plops a copy on our desks or they show up on a college “recommended reading” list. True, I have randomly picked up books like Moby-Dick, The Catcher in the Rye (banned as late as 2001), Cat’s Cradle, and The Sun Also Rises (also banned, and burned in Nazi bonfires), but I’m more likely to go for a contemporary novel. As a novelist and as a person I want to be well rounded, but since I write contemporary novels this is what I usually like to read.

Then I got an interesting freelance assignment: to help write test prep questions for an international academic competition. Each year the organization chooses a theme; that year it was The Great Depression. The students were to address it from a bounty of angles: the literature of the times, popular music, the economy, politics, the legal milieu, and how geological conditions contributed to the Dust Bowl in the Midwestern United States that further depressed the economy and pushed a large chunk the population west.

Before the category assignments were given, I bought a copy of The Grapes of Wrath. I applied to the company to write about literature, film and poetry, so I thought I’d get a head start. But because I was fairly new to the team, a freelancer with more experience scored the literature category and I was assigned to geology.

Although I find the fossil record and many aspects of geology fascinating, science was never my strongest subject. But I still had my copy of The Grapes of Wrath and I felt it calling. All I knew of Steinbeck were the novels my teachers assigned me – The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men (banned and/or challenged so many times the references take up two pages in the list of classic banned books.) I didn’t know much about Steinbeck’s life and why he chose to write about this particular subject, but his prose style hooked me from the first page.

As I read, I could see why some people wanted it banned. Yes, we have the usual complaints about taking the Lord’s name in vain, the cursing and the sexual references (which are laughably tame by today’s standards) but the biggest one was that Steinbeck took the side of the fledgling unions, which, at the time, was tantamount to declaring yourself a communist. Although the record shows that nobody who wanted this book off the shelves or out of the hands of young people referenced its politics.

Many an artist, writer, or filmmaker had been blacklisted for writing about communism, back in the days of the McCarthy witch hunts, and it was extremely brave of Steinbeck to write this novel. Which made it that much more appealing to me.

Not only is he a brilliant writer, but in pinpoint focus he takes a snapshot of what life was like for a subset of Americans during this time. How deep their struggles, how they bore their losses and kept their heads high and moved on. In a community where you lose your land, can barely afford to eat let alone bury your loved ones when they die, it makes complete sense that a preacher would lose his faith in God, a father would want to work to feed his family no matter the consequences, and occasionally people would swear. I can’t imagine a world where a book like this would be banned, where the only fossil record of the Dust Bowl years would be found in dry textbooks and not through the eyes of the Joad family.

What’s the last banned book you read? Did you like it? Do you think it deserved to be banned?

Celebrate Writers and Editors!

Like every month, September contains a basket load of oddball holidays and observances. There’s National Lazy Mom’s Day, Wonderful Weirdos Day (technically, September 9th, but celebrated every day in my house), Stay Away from Seattle Day, and the delightfully amusing Talk Like a Pirate and One Hit Wonder Days. Although we just missed International Enthusiasm week, I hope you might have a little excitement left for one of my favorite September observances: Be Kind to Writers and Editors Month. No, I am not making this one up. In 1984, someone at Lone Star Publishing fielded one too many questions about to when use “lie” or “lay”, went completely off his nut and covered the entire office with red-Sharpied conjugations of several naughty Latin irregular verbs. Continue reading

It’s Showtime, Folks…

In 1969, I was probably the only eight-year-old in Hopewell Junction, New York who knew the entire soundtrack of Fiorello!

For that, I blame my mother. Her love for Broadway show tunes meant that the soundtrack of my youth was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Or Lerner and Loewe, depending on her mood.

They reminded Mom of her own underscored childhood in Brooklyn, escorted by her family (when ticket prices were much cheaper) to original productions of Oklahoma! and South Pacific.

The comforting and sprightly melodies of shows like The King and I, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Oliver! were perfect, she said, for cleaning. In her clever way, I’m sure she knew that a jaunty tune would make my two brothers and me more likely to join her. Little did Leonard Bernstein know that his beloved scores were the backdrop for vacuuming or dumping out the kitty litter box. To this day, I can’t listen to West Side Story without wanting to pick up a little here and there. Continue reading

An Experiment of One…Hundred Thousand

I am a social media experiment. No, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t plastered electrodes to my head to test my brainwaves while I look at adorable, spelling-deficient baby animals on Facebook, although his calls are getting more insistent and frankly, a little disturbing. I think somewhere in the depths of his underground California lair, he’s training newborn badgers to sing Justin Bieber tunes. But I could be wrong. Since I read it on Wikipedia. Continue reading

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A local author had asked me to participate in an event sponsored by the Woodstock (New York) Library Forum called, “Four Funny Writers.”

Now, I have this love/hate relationship with public events. A natural introvert, my first instinct is to cringe, lock the doors, and hunker down in front of the television, eating junk food and watching episode after episode of The Big Bang Theory. But getting out and meeting people can be a very good thing. So I do it. I even wrote this blog post on public events, and how to stop doing pointless and mentally poisonous things like imagining the audience in their underwear. Continue reading

Child’s Play

Whether it’s the special treats, presents, traditions, videos of cats climbing Christmas trees, or the shiny tinselly delight of it all, the collective winter holiday season can bring out the child in us. Which made me think of a bunch of childlike and childish words for being in a state of newness, where we are wet behind the ears and smell faintly of talcum powder and New Car.

  1. Childlike: An adult who has not lost his or her innocent sense of wonder at the world. Think Dr. Seuss, Mr. Rogers, or Robin Williams off his meds.
  2. Childish: A more negative connotation, drawing up references to “childish behavior” discouraged by parents, such as pouting and selfishness, or how some adults act. Especially on reality television programs or on Black Friday.
  3. Juvenile: From Latin. On the surface, this word refers to “one who is youthful.” It has also taken on the negative connotation of juvenile or immature behavior. Especially on reality television programs or Black Friday.
  4. Neophyte: From the Greek words meaning “newly planted”, first recorded use 1590. Has a bit more sophisticated ring than “newbie.” Does not refer to any of Keanu Reeves’ battle scenes from The Matrix. Sorry. I know how badly you want it to.
  5. Noob or N00b: From the world of online gaming and internet forum slang, short for “newbie” but used in a more derisive fashion. Say, a newbie who refuses to learn the rules of a group, blusters around obnoxiously pretending they know what they’re doing but ends up wiping out your landing party with an enchanted hand grenade.
  6. Green: From Old English, meaning young or raw, also gullible. Greenhorn (a young buck, elk, ram or other horned beast just sprouting his horns) is another variant, a slang term applied to a newly arrived member of a group who hasn’t yet learned the secret handshake. As in, “That greenhorn thought Dr. Seuss made house calls.”
  7. Novice: One Latin form of this word, novicius, was used in reference to newly acquired slaves. Odd that it’s also used to describe someone in a religious order. Coincidence? Discuss.
  8. Apprentice: from Old French, “one who is learning.” Perhaps Donald Trump could apprentice to someone who has some humility, and maybe hair styling experience.
  9. Amateur: “One who has a taste for (something)” from French and Latin. Amateurish is an entirely different matter. Even if you are an amateur, you want to avoid looking amateurish. Context is also important here. While amateur athletes are revered, amateur brain surgeons are shunned.
  10. Tyro: From Middle Latin, meaning “young soldier or recruit.” Not to be confused with “Tyra,” which according to the Urban Dictionary, means to throw a tantrum if things don’t go your way. You know, like a child. But not “childlike.”