Sunday, May 24, 2015

My First Trip to New York City

So I have had many memorable trips to New York since my first in 1972, but the first was like none of the subsequent trips except that it involved theater.

The Shakespeare class at my college, of which I was not a member, was going to New York to see Much Ado About Nothing and Two Gentlemen of Verona. There were extra tickets available so I was invited along. The trip conflicted with a final exam in one of my other courses, but the professor said I could make it up.

“I do have an additional request,” he said. “I want to make sure you see all sides of New York City. Bring back a pack of pornographic playing cards.”

Well, many of the finest coming of ages stories have a quest myth and this was to be mine.

Our group stayed at The Times Square Motor Hotel which was cosily seedy or seedily cozy depending on how you see these things. When we first walked in a guest and the person in charge of the registration desk were insulting each other. Alas, I can’t bring myself to type what they were saying, but you can fill in with any number of colorful ethnic slurs. There was also a gentleman at a bank of pay phones going from one phone to another, picking up the receiver and shouting “Hello. Hello.”

We had some time to kill before the performance so we checked out the club attached to the motel. This was in the midst of Superfly craze and people were dressed as if they were movie extras. People ground their hips together and I sipped sherry. We couldn’t figure out why people were peering into the club. It was only later that we realized there were signs promising topless dancers.

The production of Much Ado About Nothing was wonderful. It was probably not the first live theater I had ever seen but it was the first that stayed in my memory. It starred Kathleen Widdowes as Beatrice and a wonderfully goofy Sam Waterston as Benedick. I can’t find that guy in the actor I’ve seen on Law and Order. The play was set in America at the end of the Spanish-American War and featured a marching band that came down the aisles and on to the stage. I was entranced all night but I had to get my sleep because there was hunting to be done the next morning.

So a small group of us set off in search of pornographic playing cards. We came to a promising location and went in. I didn’t know where not to look first. The guys on the trip, who I thought might make the request for me, headed toward the back of the shop. I went up the counter and and said, “I want to buy pornographic playing cards.”

The gentleman behind the counter took umbrage.

“I do not sell pornography. I do not sell pornography.” He took a breath. “I sell position cards.”

He slapped a plastic container on the counter. Yep, playing cards with people in positions. I thought I was set.

“That’ll be five dollars.”

Alas, my entire budget for the trip was eighteen dollars. No sale.

Our next stop was the musical version of Two Gentlemen of Verona. While I later saw a wonderful version of this play with Larry Kert in Washington, D.C., this production in New York seemed tired and the actors were playing to each other and not to the audience.

After that it was time to go. Much Ado About Nothing had been fabulous, Two Gentleman of Verona had been pleasant enough but I didn’t have the pornographic playing cards.

As we were about to leave, one of the women on the trip noticed that the motel had a gift shop. She went in and came running out.

“Stephanie! Stephanie! Look what I found.”

There for the low price of two dollars was a key ring with a small plastic container attached. Sure enough there were playing cards that featured a series of bare breasted women nestled in what looked to be kitty litter. (I’m sure it was supposed to be sand).

Pornography? Not really. But if my professor wanted proof that I had been in a part of New York that was sleazy, this was proof enough.

You know what they say. It’s a helluva town.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Writing Class Confidential Part II

One old chestnut holds that a writer has to be an observer. Like a lot of old chestnuts, it’s true, at least some of the time. Many writers became observers on the playground, relegated to that status by geekiness and the fear of yet another humiliation or beating. They learned to imagine themselves into the childhood games of their peers, and kept on imagining the lives of others from those miserable days onward.

One thing you can do if you are a geek or loser is, or course, hang out with other geeks and losers. This is the basis for the game Dungeons and Dragons, group therapy, and writing classes (yes, my tongue is at least partly in my cheek at this point, so don’t savage me if you are a devotee if any of these). With the wisdom and compassion one would have to have learned from all that childhood angst and rejection (cue the music for Janis Ian’s “Seventeen,” please) you would think the people in these writing classes (called salons by the pretentious, the percentage of which is high among writers) would not turn out to be bullies themselves. You would be wrong (being a writer, I am of course observant enough to have noticed this, having the time and inclination to watch while sitting on the sideline of life with nothing better to do).

I’ve heard that the Iowa Writer’s Workshop is a protracted, internecine, fratricidal (patricidal, matricidal, you get the idea, even suicidal, eventually, for some) free-for-all wherein the last one left standing gets the phone number of the teacher’s agent. I believe it. The psychological warfare can be intense, and the ability to wage it is not the same thing as being able to write. Therefore, the writers who survive are the most narcissistic, vicious, and self-deluded. Not that this isn’t like life in general, but it seems a shame. Success in writing comes from many things, but the three most important are confidence, long and sustained effort, and luck. Connections also help, and self promotion (the flipside of bullying?), and writing in whatever style is trendy. Talent is still important, but not more important than these.

Not every writing class I have been in has been a kind of community theater production of Twelve Angry Men (and Women), but many of them were. You would have been better off taking time off from your writing to study Machiavelli and Sun Tzu than trying to perfect your craft. The realpolitik of these type classes can crush the confidence of someone insecure about their abilities (and if you are worth your salt as a writer, you need to doubt yourself enough to keep trying to improve, to learn).

The first class I took, many years ago, was a fiction workshop. It was a nightmare. One guy (he actually smoked a pipe and wore a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows) told me that I was trying to be Hemingway and doing a poor job of it. He never said why, and I can see that this was because he wasn’t the kind of guy who was going to think deeply enough into what I was writing to find out. He was the alpha dog and he didn’t want me pissing in the same grass he was. Another woman came right out of Central Casting as a crusty, musty and dusty old dowager who lectured continually (as opposed to continuously, she would have pointed out) on not ending sentences with prepositions, or splitting infinitives, of not starting a sentence with and or but, and of the dire necessity of putting a comma before the last element in a series. She spoke of these things as if they had been transmitted to the writing community on tablets that she herself had acquired from God (or Fowler).

I have always had a real animus towards these captious types who elevate guidelines that are supposed to promote clarity into a kind of dogma, and then use their knowledge to cudgel people who aren’t quite so persnickety. They imagine that writing well is a result of following all the rules, but those rules are just the beginning of writing, not its end.

Gratuitous negative criticism is something my present memoir writing teacher, Marion Roach Smith, doesn’t allow. She herself doesn’t engage in it. She encourages observation and critique that is based on the text and is designed to help you get better. And her analyses are invariably spot on. Not everyone in her classes has had the same ability as Marion. I am amazed at how often people can look at a text and come up with a reaction to it that has nothing to do with what is right in front of their noses. As if a text was a Rorschach test, they see whatever they need to see in it. But a text is not a Rorschach, and not every interpretation can be said to be valid. Moby Dick is not about Ishmael’s homosexual passion for QueeQueg, for Christ’s sake.

In memoir writing classes there is an additional emotional danger: people feel that your criticism is about both their writing and their life itself. The classes often devolve into a contest to see who can tell the story of the most abject misery, and the prize for being the most pitiful is the most praise, whether the person eliciting the pity can write their way out of a paper bag or not. And if people don’t show the proper pity and praise for these tales of woe, people feel slighted.

One of the most interesting archetypes I have found is the unreliable narrator. I remember one woman writer of this type vividly from a memoir class. An unreliable narrator in fiction can be great fun, as we have the author standing behind that narrator and gesturing ironically at him, through other characters or through the ironical things that happen to said narrator. In memoir, though, such a narrator is unsettling, to say the least. And I don’t mean unreliable in the sense of making stuff up, like James Frey. This woman’s perspective on her own life was so warped that it defied imagination. She unconsciously satirized herself. Again and again she would describe how her husband and two sons did things she judged to be loving, even though it was obvious to us that all three of them were just mean, nasty and cruel (whoops, I didn’t use that comma). They (and she) excused their behavior on religious and patriotic grounds, and in the name of love, but none of us were buying it. Unreliable. And her assessment of everyone else’s work was way off, too. I took eventually to her as a kind of inverse acid test—if she didn’t like something I had written, I knew it had to stay in.

Another archetype is the genius (cue Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ in the Years”: You’ve been telling me you’re a genius since you were seventeen/ in all the time I’ve known you, I still don’t know what you mean). This is the kind of writer who will tell you he or she has never been tutored in writing, but has been writing on his or her own for years. They don’t need a class, but figure they have a kind of literary noble obligation to come and help you out. When the class doesn’t genuflect on cue, these types pack up and leave.

And then there is the expert. This person is invariably a middling writer, one who has gotten a lot on the craft side of things cinched, but has no voice or originality. They offer you a kind of contract—allow them to be your Maxwell Perkins and you can be their F Scott Fitzgerald. They get pretty upset if you don’t sign off on that contract. In one of Marion’s classes, five of us spun off our own group. One of the women (the Expert) decided that another of the women was using too many adjectives (apparently the Expert had read Strunk and White and managed to misunderstand them both), and she said so. This wasn’t so bad, as we were dedicated to learning from each other, and truly didn’t want to hear only praise for our stuff (although we didn’t mind the praise when it came). When the acolyte didn’t agree with the ex cathedra proclamation of the Expert, however, and no one rallied to the Expert’s side (even if I had agreed with her, I wouldn’t have done any rallying, since like many writers I am a notorious coward) the Expert accused us all of coddling the woman who would not prostrate herself. It became clear that the group was not going to survive with both of these women in it, and so we jettisoned the more annoying of the two (yes, the Expert). If it was a class where we were not running the show ourselves, it would have been a real tension convention.

The expert will also tell you if your stuff is postmodern enough, self-conscious and self-referential enough, if it is going to offend anyone, if you have a right to write it, if it is au courant. They know what aporia is, and lacunae, and instantiation, and deferral, and absence, and they will deconstruct you until it feels like there are no words left on the pages you submitted. The expert will drop a lot of names, as if he or she was in daily contact with Joyce and Proust, Derrida and Foucault, et al. They are supremely aware of all the nuances of writing, but not of how silly they come off as critics of it.

Next time, the writing teacher, and the efficacy of style-, guide-, hand- and how-to-books.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, May 22, 2015

Sparkle Week

It’s Sparkle Week in Lambertville. The city has promised to take away whatever we put out. All over town attics are being emptied, cellars are disgorging their contents onto the sidewalk, scavengers are collecting treasures, dreams are ending, and marriages are breaking up. Fortunately I have just been reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo, and so my marriage is safe. As Harold trundles curbward with armful after armful of formerly beloved craft supplies, decorating objects, building materials, and broken furniture, I am able to smile serenely. I thank the objects for whatever they brought to my life, and I let them go. My soul is Japanese. Sort of. Anyway I successfully resist the urge to grab them and haul them back.

Serenity is not the attitude everywhere in town. Some residents are suspicious and resentful of the scavengers, who come from far and wide in broken-down trucks to carry away our unwanted stuff. One resident complained that they root through the piles of discards like bears, throwing what they don’t want into the street. Well, that won’t do. Our streets are narrow enough as it is. Others mutter darkly that things you do want might be carried away along with your unwanted things. Better clear off the porch, just in case. Nevertheless all my porch furniture was still here this morning, along with my cookie jar. Somebody ate the last cookie, but I think that was Harold.

It’s good that people are taking this stuff away and keeping it out of the landfill. And there's no telling what scavengers might want. One box that Harold put out was clearly marked, “Broken Junk.” There were hard drives in there which he had beaten on with a hammer. Heaven knows what else. I didn’t dare look. What if I wanted to keep one of the junk things? Let it go. Wouldn't you know, that box was one of the first items to be taken. Harold had a good laugh over that.

I wouldn’t let him get rid of the puppet stage. Most likely I’ll never put on another show, nor will the children or grandchildren be interested in marionettes, since marionettes aren’t digital, but I loved it when he made it for me. It’s such an elegant thing. This is one of the problems with throwing things out. Yes, it’s useless; yes, it’s taking up valuable space; but it represents a dream of future achievement. I could put on a great show sometime. (Or not. Some of the pieces are missing.)

As for the crumbling marriages occasioned by this annual ritual, the signs are everywhere. Things carried out to the curb only to be carried back in again. Things carried in from other neighbors’ piles only to be carried back out and put back. I shudder to think of the arguments that must be taking place behind closed doors. In the back yard, I overheard this:

“Does Mommy know you're throwing that chair away?” “It's broken.” You know there will be trouble over that.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Rereading the Classics

Stephanie and I had an exchange last week about Trollope, and I admitted to her that, in addition to having a To-Be-Read (TBR) list, I have a To-Be-ReRead (TBRR) list.  In fact, I do have lists of books I think I might want to read, but most of my TBR list is a pile of books on a chair next to my bed and those lined up like soldiers on a nearby window sill.   The TBRR books sometimes get moved from their place on the books shelves to handier stacks.

Keeping up with all these books is a hopeless endeavor and has been since I was about twenty-two.  Falling behind makes me feel anxious.   I feel like a failure.  I feel as if I am missing something important, or delightful.  These emotions are just as strong as, if not stronger than the ones I remember from not doing my homework.  This guilt complex is crazy.  I know that.  But I can’t make it go away.

I have, however, found a way to make easy progress on the TBRRs.  It is called Librivox-- --and offers free recordings of books in the public domain. 

I much prefer to read a book by myself, sitting in a chair and reveling in the story.  Therefore, almost all the books I listen to on Librovox are ones I have read before.  Librivox gives me a chance to reread classics while I cook dinner, fold the laundry, or walk to the grocery store.  What a pleasure.

Volunteers do the reading.  Some are better than others, but all are at least adequate, and some are great.  If like me, you need more time to read than you have, I highly recommend hearing the classics.  It beats listening to the news on the radio.  Five minutes of headlines are all a sane person stand of that.  But the words of the greatest writers of the past await you as an antidote to mayhem and destruction.

Annamaria Alfieri.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

In Good Time

A Crime Writing Lawyer from Fitchburg, Mass

Hallie Ephron in my favorite Jungle Red Writers gave some excellent comments re the debut novel of Maine lawyer Brenda Buchanan on May 5. Now it struck me that… not only was May 5 my 99th birthday(!) but this writer was from the little mill town in Massachusetts where I made my own entrance on the planet! As I've never known any person from Fitchburg, I thought it would be fun to invite this Fitchburg gal to be a guest here.

She also studied with the noted Robert B.Parker, so I'm anxious to see if any of his genius trickles through her pages of Quick Pivot!

Buchanan, a former newspaper reporter at the Boston Globe, is now a lawyer in Portland, Maine. And my friends know how much I love Prout's Neck, a stone's throw from that Maine town—so I'm delighted to welcome Brenda to our wonderful group at
Crime Writers' Chronicle today!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw (not quite 99 yet!)

I write this early on a spring morning in Maine, which is a lovely time of year in this beautiful state. The songbirds are chorusing, the showy red tulips in our front yard are in bloom and soon my spouse and I will go to the fabulous Portland Farmer’s Market, which moved outdoors to Deering Oaks Park two weeks ago, about a week after the last of the snow melted.

Spring always is a happy time when you live in a winter-weary place, but this spring is especially happy because my debut mystery, Quick Pivot, was released in late April. I thank Thelma for inviting me to stop by Crime Writers' Chronicle today to talk about Quick Pivot and, at her urging, my long and winding path to publication.

First, of course, the book. Here’s the skinny on Quick Pivot:

In 1968, a cunning thief skimmed a half a million dollars from the textile mill that was the beating heart of Riverside, Maine.

Sharp-eyed accountant George Desmond discovered the discrepancy, but was killed before he could report it. After stashing the body, the thief-turned-killer manipulated evidence to make it appear Desmond skipped town with the stolen money. When the mill went bankrupt several years later, Desmond’s name was mud.

In 2014, veteran journalist Joe Gale is writing a feature story about the long-defunct mill being turned into condominiums when Desmond’s bones are found bricked into a basement crawl space. When Joe digs through the morgue at the fading-fast Portland Daily Chronicle, he finds his deceased mentor, an old-school reporter named Paulie Finnegan, covered Desmond’s disappearance in 1968.

Joe tracks down Paulie’s sources—now in late middle age—and begins to piece together the truth about Desmond’s death. But those who muddied the evidentiary waters in 1968 are determined to keep Joe from exposing the secrets they’ve harbored for more than four decades, even if it means killing again.

Though most of the action in Quick Pivot occurs in a fictional town, many scenes happen in real Maine places, including Portland, Kennebunkport, Cape Elizabeth and Peaks Island, where I lived for many years. If you love coastal Maine but don’t get here as much as you’d like, Quick Pivot provides a sweet virtual visit.

As for Riverside, it was inspired in part by my hometown of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, which—like so many proud industrial cities in New England—fell on hard times after the family-owned mills were bought out by large corporations in the 1960s and 70s. Having spent my youth in a community scorched by that painful economic transition, it was natural for me to set Quick Pivot in a still-proud mill town fighting its way back to respectability.

My road to the writing life began at Fitchburg High school, where I was bitten hard by the journalism bug. Like every aspiring reporter in the mid-1970s, the notion of investigative journalism lit me up. Shortly after adoption of Title IX, two other firebrands and I wrote an exposé about the enormous disparity in spending between boys and girls athletic programs. The story made powerful people decidedly uncomfortable, and resulted in significant improvement to athletic opportunities for female students. It was a heady introduction to the transformational potential of good journalism, and no doubt is why Quick Pivot has a reporter as its protagonist.

A few years later Northeastern University’s vaunted co-op program gave me the opportunity to work in the newsroom at the Boston Globe. My jobs included a reporter trainee stint on what was known as the lobster shift, riding around Boston (and sometimes farther afield) from midnight until eight in the morning, covering fires, murders and other breaking news. It was an amazing experience for a 21-year-old woman.

During alternating academic semesters I studied creative writing with Professor Parker, as in Robert B. Parker, who was adjunct faculty at NU in those days. As you might imagine, Parker’s courses were an inspiration. While he never minced words when presented with a badly written story, he was supportive. Keep at it, he advised. It’s a long process.

After graduation I moved to Maine, where I worked at a weekly newspaper based in Kennebunk, covering a variety of beats including the courts.

By the time I was ready to take the next step in my life journalism jobs already were scant in Maine, but I was too smitten with its charms to leave, so I hung up my reporter’s spurs and headed to Maine Law School. I’ve practiced law for 25 years now. I’m fortunate to have great colleagues and wonderful clients. But I’ve always remained a writer at heart.

Several years ago, I heeded the voices of Joe Gale and the other Quick Pivot characters and began writing their story. Now here I sit, on a beautiful spring morning, with my first novel out there in the world. Like Professor Parker said, it was a long process.

© 2015 Brenda Buchanan
Author of the Joe Gale Mystery Series