Playing Scales

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It’s not that I have nothing to write. I have a list of things to write. An essay nearly finished,  interesting exercises that I could run through, the writer’s equivalent to playing scales. Tonight an invented one: I found a website that generates random photos. When I asked for one, this is what it sent me.

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I can do something with this picture. I can invent a story about it. That might be fun. For awhile I noodled around with it, but other than riffing on themes of (first) abandonment and (second) longing I didn’t get anywhere. One of the toughest things about writing fiction is keeping out of the cliches that riddle our psyches like land mines. Maybe I’ll write a story about this photo, but I have to think on it awhile.

Years ago, a man disappeared on a jet ski in a local lake. It’s a man-made lake, and it lays like a little dimple on the Ohio landscape. You could sit in a canoe in the middle and see every shoreline and everyone on the shoreline could see you. They found the body of the man, may he rest in peace, but by then I’d already written a story — in my head, of course– complete with Maury Povich, Belize, and the underbelly of Dayton’s east side. I need to get that stuff down on a page.

Non-fiction is so much easier– you just tell the facts. Or try to. Journalists are human, so bias creeps in, even if it’s just in the choices of adjectives we make, or which quotes to include. Yesterday, the Register Guard newspaper of Eugene, Oregon ran a story about an elderly dog who was stolen out of her yard by “rescuers.” Not “a woman”. Not “a thief”, but “rescuers.”

The story, by Chelsea Gorrow, has gotten an enormous amount of play on social media lately. The dog turned out to be 17, and was being provided with palliative care by her life-long owner. This news story called the dog “Hope” the name the “rescuers” had bestowed on her and quoted them as if their beliefs were gospel. Even though the dog’s name was Zena and they knew that. Eventually she was returned to her owner, who felt his hand was forced and took her to be euthanized the day she returned.

I was moved by this example of bright yellow journalism to do something I rarely do anymore–  to correct the story and send it back to the writer and all four of her editors. They all ought to be ashamed. Of course, I didn’t hear anything back, they probably chalked up the email to “some crackpot old woman.”

But aside from those kinds of egregious lapses in judgment, writing non-fiction is just answering these challenges: make it plain, make it engaging, make the reader stick with it. Who, what, when, where and why is also helpful.

Of course, fiction has those too, but starts with the initial enormous hurdle: make it believable.

I’m glad I don’t have to deal with that.

Like I said, I have a list of things I intend to write lo, these 40 days. A list.

So, how is it that I find myself, once again at the keyboard after one in the morning, writing the equivalent to chopsticks? It’s everything I can do not to creep into the living room to watch Big Bang Theory’s Kunal Nayyar  host the Late Late Show. Bob Newhart’s his guest. But if I do that, nothing will get written. Nothing at all.

I am just so damned tired. I have projects on every burner, some of them in crisis, some of them boiling over. Today I took time out to go for sushi with my friend Rita. We’ve been trying to get together since before Christmas. It’s been close to a  year since we actually went to lunch. So even though I wavered for a moment this morning and thought maybe I should just work instead, I didn’t. I went to lunch, by God and I’m not sorry. Friendships deserve tending too.

Then I worked.

By the time I was heading home from the office, I felt crummy. One arm aches. I’m plagued with lightheadedness. There are weird twinges here and here and here. I keep dropping things. I believe that stress is either killing me or making me a hypochondriac. Maybe both. So I had a nap on the sofa, and didn’t get anything written and now I’m too tired and I have to go to sleep!

There’s a little flourish, there at the end, did  you hear it?

Maybe there’s some benefit to just dragging my carcass here to the desk and writing something. I hope so.

 

 

Searching for Patience

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I try not to be irritated by the internet. I already have a (somewhat unearned) reputation for being curmudgeonly, just because I can’t bring myself to post out of the mouth of Little Mary Sunshine. I know it will shock my fans, but I am not able to fart rainbows. Call me what you want: opinionated, passionate, cranky, a bitch on wheels. At least I try to speak with one true voice. Whether that voice is kind, or supportive, or outraged, at least you know you’re getting the real deal.

Given my recent little bout with blood poisoning, I have been hospital or house-bound for the last 25 days. Yes, I’m counting. That we’ve had the coldest winter since God-knows-when with ten times the usual snowfall has not done anything to alleviate one serious case of cabin fever. The Olympics are fine for awhile, but have you seen the rest of what America watches on television? Yikes.

So I’ve been on Facebook more, visiting with friends and reading what people post and trying very hard to count to ten or ten-thousand before I respond. Often I just hide the post so I don’t see it. Their politics, their beliefs, their spirituality is their own deal and not for me to comment. I’ve given up trying to educate people. Only recently, mind you, but I’ve given it up.

So who would think that something as milquetoast as “27 Foods You Should Never Buy at the Grocery Store” would set me off? A good friend of mine posted this with high praise (which I didn’t notice or I would have tempered my response) and I’m not linking it because a) the link is corrupted and only links to the comments and b) why would I want to drive more traffic to this awful piece?

It was so badly-written and ill-conceived that I assumed it must have been the product of a content farm. Content farms are those companies that pay you pennies per word to generate text blocks to fill their pages. They don’t care if you know anything about your topic, and they don’t care how well you write. They see text as a commodity and that’s how they buy it. Thus, the internet is full of stupid articles on how to wash your car, how to wash your dog, how to wash your hair and 27 Foods Never to Buy at the Grocery Store. Real writers have a lot of anguish over content farms, as you might imagine. Just as real painters are not thrilled with “painting farms” in China.

So, imagine my consternation when the author turned out to be a food writer of some limited renown. Yep, she’s written about food for O Magazine and Reader’s Digest (and it’s new spin-off, Dollar Savvy) and she’s even written book about how ten people turned their passion for food into careers and you can too. (And if you’re getting married, she and her husband can make a droll little magazine all about your coupledom to hand out at your wedding. ) Is this what writing has come to?

Every special interest group has a list of things you should Never buy at the grocery store. Those at work in the fight against GMOs have a much longer list of brands to avoid. People who are concerned about the locavore movement or organic gardening have bushels of advice for you. I have a personal list of things I Never buy at the grocery store.  For instance, I don’t buy Cheez Whiz. Or Velveeta. Or stuff with high fructose corn syrup. Or Wonder Bread.  I don’t buy weight loss products, I never buy anything that is billed as “low-fat.” I don’t buy anything with artificial sweeteners. I try to do most of my shopping around the perimeter of the store, and buy as few things from the processed food section as possible. But I would Never tell you what to buy. Or what not to buy. That’s your prerogative.

There’s no reason to go through the whole list of 27 Things, but I will tell you that the number one thing on the list was Parmesan-Reggiano cheese. You know the reason she thinks you should Never buy Parmesan cheese? Because good Parmesan cheese cost $22 a pound. And any other cheese will work just as well. (That’s a quote.) Well, first of all a pound of Parmesan cheese will last you a very long time. Secondly, it’s quite different than the stuff in the kelly green Kraft can. Thirdly, anyone who knows anything about food will tell you that “any other cheese will not work just as well”. Suggesting that you not buy good parmesan cheese is like suggesting that you not buy a good red wine, because Gallo “works just as well”, or never mind bothering with good chocolate, because you know, the other stuff is somehow equal.

Which is fine if that’s what you believe, and if you are just as happy drinking carboardeaux, and eating Baby Ruths, and using “cheese product” — then I’m happy for you. We should all do what makes us content. But to suggest that someone, anyone, should NEVER buy good cheese is ridiculous.

She also is hell on anyone who buys prepared vegetables in the frozen aisle. Now, I like to cook fresh vegetables. I love to cook fresh vegetables from someone’s garden. But you know how much work it is to do this when you’re sick? Or elderly? Or cooking for one? Or can’t afford to buy all the different vegetables? Since I have been sick (25 days and counting) I have lived on vegetables: roasted sweet potatoes, steamed spinach, and box after box of the frozen variety. And I am grateful for them. And while I will be glad to go back to cooking from scratch, this is what I am able to do now. This is all some people are ever able to do.

Another food item that earned her scorn were the 100-calorie packets of cookies. Okay, those people are paying a lot for extra packaging, neither earth-friendly nor wallet-cozy. But some people find that once they open a whole package of something they have to finish it. In one sitting. They can’t manage portion control and need someone to do it for them. Some people find that those little packets are handy to toss in school lunches or brown-bagging it to the office. For some people time is money and they are willing to pay for the convenience. Who is Rachel Hofstetter to say they shouldn’t?

No doubt she thinks Mrs. Butterworth’s is a much better buy than real maple syrup too.

So when I read this list of 27 Foods You Should Never Buy at the Grocery Store, I was peeved. And feeling peevish, I wrote the first thing that came to mind (sorry, I couldn’t even count to ten) “My suggestion would be to stop reading articles from Reader’s Digest. Talk about bottom feeding! That was the most ignorant and condescending list I’ve seen in awhile.”

(Oh right, she thinks tuna and swordfish should come off your list because they’re “bottom-feeders”. Apparently she has confused them with catfish.)

To which a friend of ours commented “Oh, Larkin… why you always so cranky?” and though she included a winky face and I know she is a bright spirit of a person; it only made me all the more cranky. People should be cranky when they read that list. I only regret that I may have hurt my friend Martha’s feelings, since she found something in the list that resonates with her.

In answer, I made my observation about content farms. When I realized later that the person who wrote this actually gets paid as an actual writer (which is somehow even worse), then it was clear to me that my answer was somewhat more lengthy and that the source of my irritation was manifold.

Earlier this week I responded to an ignorant blog post as “a load of codswallop” which earned me both praise and derision. Over the holidays when I posted on a WordPress blog of “Awkward Holiday Photos” that the post was mean-spirited and ugly, people accessed this blog and used it to make fun of me mercilessly in the comments. Ho Ho Ho. I don’t care. It was mean-spirited and ugly.

Sometimes you just have to call it like you see it. I am trying hard to be more tactful and more sensitive and more patient and to learn to simply pass over those things that irritate the hell out of me. Life is short, I don’t want to spend anymore of it irritated than I have to. But if I can’t stop myself, what you are going to see is cranky. At least you know it’s genuine.

 

 

 

 

 

The Story Inside You.

Or How I Came to Be a Writer Even Though I Didn’t Want to.
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Not quite a writer, at the grave of James Joyce.

Being a writer is a little like having a small stone in your shoe.  Perhaps it is inconvenient to stop, sit down and take off your shoe, but you must. Off it comes, a hand seeks the tiny kernel that nags each step. Sometimes you have to shake it out.

Do people choose to be writers?  I didn’t. In fact, I tried everything I could think of to not be a writer. In my high school yearbook it says I want to be a film director. I started out with broadcast journalism. I have a degree in performance. I’ve worked in museums, bookstores, libraries, newspapers . . . uh-oh, I see a theme.

It is my blessing and my curse.

Both of my parents were writers.  My father spent much of his life trying to pound out a biography on the somewhat obscure poet, John Berryman. The sabbatical year Dad took to work on the book, Berryman leapt off a bridge and died on the ice below. It would have been the opportune time (as much as any) to have a Berryman biography published, but he never did close the deal.  Years later, clearing out my father’s office, I found filing cabinet drawers full of research on Berryman. When I asked him what to do with it, he wrote on a notepad– cancer having robbed him of speech– “Pitch it.”  I did not.

I carry it around in boxes, instead, a cautionary tale as heavy and solid  as a bowling ball. Many bowling balls.

My mother’s writing time was sacred. One morning, my sixteenth summer, I had a bad fall from a horse. As I regained consciousness in the cool netherworld of the ICU, I saw her sitting there. My first cogent thought was to feel guilty that I had interrupted the writing time.

I had seen from the cradle what a writer’s life was like and it looked like lots of work for little glamour and I wanted no part of it.

The problem was that I kept falling into writing, the way one might stumble into a ravine. I was supposed to be studying radio and television at the University of Florida but I when I went to register for Freshman English I signed up for a senior level creative writing class with Harry Crews instead.  No one said I couldn’t.

Harry derided me when I said I didn’t really care for a story by Kafka. But then he discovered that I was the 17-year-old daughter of one of his former colleagues (“Well, how the hell is he? We were the dearest of friends!”) and after that he treated me with considerable kindness. Like you might treat a kitten. A kitten that had a little talent for writing. I miss Harry.

It was no surprise to anyone that I didn’t last in my chosen major.  I did get to do a stint at the Independent Florida Alligator before I left. It might have been the only “student” newspaper in the country that was a mid-market daily: becoming a journalist by the seat of one’s pants.   I wrote on the side, because writing was like breathing. Just something I did. Short stories. Record reviews. Interviewed bands every weekend. Met the Rolling Stones.  I couldn’t decide what I wanted to Be. Or do. I thought about learning to play bass, be in an all-girl band.

Instead, I wrote my way into Art School in Boston and wrote throughout Art school and somehow ended up with a degree in Performance Art.  Other students asked if I realized how “text heavy” my installations were. Audiences were often speechless when the performance ended. I don’t know what that meant.

After college, I got a job as a buyer for children’s books, no writing involved. I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to Be. At home, when it was quiet, I counted syllables and built poems. I read The New Yorker. I started sending them poems, which they politely declined each and every time. That was okay, I didn’t want to be a poet anyway. Did I?

FaulknerquoteMy mother suggested a writer’s conference with the poet Howard Nemerov. It was in her town, could I get the time off?  Well, I probably could, but The Poet was going to choose his students on the merit of their work, so let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, I said. I probably wouldn’t get in. I did get in, one of seven.

I confessed to Howard one afternoon that I didn’t think I would ever be a “real” writer.

“Too late for that, my dear,” he said lugubriously. “You’re about as real as they come.”

Well, perhaps I could be a poet then. Perhaps I was a poet. I read books of poetry and went to readings and kept sending thick brown envelopes to The New Yorker and getting thin blue ones in return. They didn’t care that the U.S. Poet Laureate thought I was already a “real” writer or not.

And then it happened.

It was as if I’d walked along the beach. I was quite certain that I didn’t want to get in the water. Well, okay, I might wade along the shore a little bit, picking up the odd shell or bit of driftwood. The water is refreshing, so perhaps I’ll venture out a little further. Now I am in it up to my waist. It is starting to carry me a little. I can splash around a bit, it’s almost like swimming. Eventually I choose to slip beneath the surface, and swim. Like Eliot’s mermaids, riding seaward on the waves.

I never did decide to Be a Writer. But when the story is in you, it must come out. Over the course of a thousand poems pecked out on an old Royal typewriter; and books started and never finished and literally millions of words lined up one after the other and forced to march along in some kind of cohesive fashion, it happened. I found my voice finally. Not a poet. Not a novelist. I write non-fiction. I am lucky that sometimes people even pay me to do so.

Essays. Profiles. News stories. Posts. Some come easily, practically writing themselves. Others, like this beast, hang around my neck for days at a time. You never know when you start which will be the problem children. Some stories compel me, haunt me, demand to be written. Often these are stories about crime, and this is a large part of what I have written about for the last twenty years. Hobbled by the limitations of deadline and column inches, conventional newspaper accounts often leave most of the story untold. The tenets  What-Who-How-When and Where are usually all the reader gets, and even then “Who” is little more than a name, age and gender.

No one even attempts “Why”.

Writing about crime has meant sticking my neck out. Way out. It’s one thing to write poetry in a quiet room, pulling the rhythm from your own drummer. Writing about crime leaves you vulnerable– not just to the wrath of the criminal (which is not insignificant) — but to an insidious malaise. When most waking hours are spent poring over the minutiae of a terrible event, of creating a portrait of the victim, of examining the unanswerable “why”, in time it feels like your very soul is being sucked right out of you. When you hold the mother of murder victim in your arms while she sobs, there is a price for that. After awhile, I couldn’t do it anymore. Oh, I still make notes. I still follow threads and even draft outlines. But I think that chapter might be done.

That only leaves everything else to write about, thousands of stories left to tell.

We All Shine On.

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Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
~Anton Chekhov 

 

Thought I was gone, didn’t you? Yeah, some days I did too. Certainly this won’t go back to being “Twelve Moons”– no more accounts of how many steps I took, or what I had to eat. Though I will still write about food. And aging. And self-image. But the narcissism that it takes to write about your own struggle with weight, day after day after day, was dull.

It was already starting to peter out. Then I hurt myself. I don’t even remember doing it– a foot put wrong somewhere along the way– and badly strained the Achilles tendon in my left foot. I am not quite recovered still. Some mornings I have to hold on to the walls so I don’t fall down.  For good measure, throw in a round of illness, and I wish I was talking metaphor. The day after my birthday in January, I was laid flat with the flu (I think it was the flu) and didn’t get out of bed for three weeks. I wasn’t fighting for my life. And it was a good thing I didn’t have to, as I hardly had the energy to walk six steps to the bathroom.

So to say I lost my mojo is to speak the truth.

I know I have to get back to writing. Every time I start a new blog I think my friend David Esrati must shake his head. He is most definitely of the opinion that one should have one blog and one blog only. David wears many hats, but he is a wizard at marketing, and he may have a point. Every time I have a blog that picks up a little momentum, I kill it. It comes to an end of its pre-ordained life and I start the next. I told him that the different blogs are like different books (he’s not a writer per se) and though that’s true, I missed the lightbulb going off over my own head.

So I didn’t start a new one this time. I re-kindled an old one, sputtering and smoking and creaking along.

Every time David introduces me to someone he refers to me as the best writer . . .   and when he says it I generally am the best writer in the room. I hardly ever go into rooms with other writers. But lately even that’s felt like false advertising.

A few weeks ago sitting with another friend I said “I don’t think I can write anymore.” Though I was deeply embarrassed to do so, I began to cry. It was the truth of the statement leaking out, it was the fear, it was the absolute desolation that I felt inside. I know I still have the skill to write, it’s the willpower that worries me. The discipline. It’s always the discipline.

I thought at the time that it was our precarious financial situation that left me paralyzed. And there may be some truth to that. But I choose this so that I won’t have to give up 40 hours a week to further someone else’s Big Dream.  So why have I stopped writing? My mother, self-styled expert on such things, would  (and has) deemed me depressed. But the depression is because I’m not writing. And of course it’s hard to get back to writing because I’m depressed because I’m not writing.

I’m just lying here in the sawdust.

But I’m going to try to clamber back up once again. I hope you’ll find me here, most nights, writing by the light of the moon. We’ll see how it goes.

 

 

Buckling Down to Write

As a child, I had stricken with horse fever. Lucky for me, I had access to horses, complete with lessons and a velvet hunt cap. It wasn’t enough to abate the fever; if anything the scent of the horse, the supple leather reins, the melody of hooves on the ground made it more acute. We lived in England and I was 11.

In school, Composition was taught by a wonderful woman named Christine Docker who had hair like Cher, except that it was silver. Her husband had been on university track team with Roger Bannister, the man who broke the four-minute mile. Isn’t it funny what we remember? Anyway, every day she’d write a title on the blackboard and we were to write a story using the title as a prompt.

Every story I wrote featured a horse. Every. Story. Mrs. Docker got creative, and each day’s title would seem to preclude horses: “Marooned on a Desert Island,”  “A Day in London,” “Flying Away,” “Stuck in an Elevator.” I  remember these because, of course, I managed to work a horse (or several) into the plot. One day, she called me up to her desk.

“Larkin,” she said, “you’ve got a real gift for writing.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.”

“However.”

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“No . . .  more . . . horses!” she thundered and the class laughed, and I laughed too. And I did give her a couple of stories that were horse-free.

Yesterday, I moped about having to write about diet and exercise, but since the raison d’être of this very journal is diet and exercise, I really need to just do it.

When I wrote for someone else’s newspaper, I wrote about groundbreaking for new banks and the oldest veteran in the county and school board meetings and really, whatever else I was asked to write about. Sometimes the best stories were the ones I dreaded the most, but there really isn’t a way to make writing about a new bank into something worth reading. And what I really wanted to write about was murder.

In our tiny town of six thousand people there’d been nearly a dozen suspicious deaths in as many years. And I did write about those deaths, for a while. I may write about them again one day.

But this, Twelve Moons,  is not supposed to be about writing. This is supposed to be about diet and exercise. If I want to really write, I need to focus all of that energy on the book. I should take a leaf from William Faulkner, who wrote “Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, to get the book written.” When I write about things other than diet and exercise then I take the pressure off to write about Orville. I can’t allow myself to do that.

Originally this was just going to be a record of what I ate, what I did and perhaps an observation or two. It’s grown beyond that, and while it’s okay that it has a bit more substance that what I originally anticipated, I can’t allow it to siphon off the best of my literary hours.

So, friends, diet and exercise it will be. And food, too, of course. I have drafts for quite a few things just floating around– fat jokes, a treatise on maple, bad dieting advice, the long-promised sex and peaches. We’ll be okay– and if you have something in particular about diet and exercise, or food, that you’d like to talk about, well, for Pete’s sake, do tell.

Today’s target 70  Steps 2552

Breakfast: yogurt with granola. Lunch: tuna with chili pepper, six Ritz crackers, a smore. Dinner: two cups of brussel sprouts, chicken sandwich, slender piece of birthday cake.