Monday, November 4, 2013



            As arts education continues to suffer terrible cuts, I’m constantly looking for proofs that the arts are an important component of anyone’s education. Many educators still tend to see the arts as frivolous, and STEM subjects as being the real, demonstrable engines of progress. 
            One important thing the arts teach is the value of practice. Our musician friend, Nate Hundemann, recalls starting music in junior high, and being  terrible at it. But over the ensuing months and years, he learned that practice is indeed transformative. For with diligent practice, he became a very good musician indeed. Arts education teaches us that practice is the muscle of transformation.
Some people never learn that. Having been taught that talent is paramount, many people give up on subjects that intrigue them merely because they aren’t yet good at them. That giving up is the source of a lot of despair, especially later on in life.
We over-value early genius but are terrible at nurturing it. There’s this insidious idea that genius flowers without practice, that being naturally good at something is all, and that talent alone will take you where you want to go.
Practice can seem quite mysterious to the novice—how will scales help you play real music? Sometimes you just have to trust and do the work.

A few months ago, I attended an unusual performance in which a young violinist, Rafael Rondeau, played five different instruments—violins and violas—to demonstrate each instrument’s voice. They were all hand made by a local luthier, Doug Cox.
 I’m not a musician, so I blithely thought this should be as easy as picking up a story and reading it aloud. It was actually more like speed dating —in front of an audience.
You can’t just pick up an instrument, scrape away, and expect it to sound great. You have to get acquainted and that takes practice. He did practice, on his own violin beforehand, trying out pieces that might highlight each instrument’s unique voice. But it was a gamble. That Rafael agreed to perform in this manner, without prior introduction to each instrument, is testimony to his diligence, skill, and let’s face it, bravery.
I used to fling myself into new pursuits without warm-up. I was fueled by  impatience, curiosity and a vast ignorance that may have looked like overconfidence, even arrogance. I was not at all assured of success, though. More often than not, it was a bruising way to go about new challenges.
It began to occur to me that perhaps the fling n’ flail method could be improved upon. I like success, and have noticed that planning well increases one’s chances of achieving it.
Perhaps you could say that practice is a kind of blind planning, whose endpoint, mastery, isn’t always visible from where you are. Not very glamorous, but it’s essential.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How Facebook Got My Butt in Gear

How Facebook Got My Butt in Gear

            Everyone talks about what a waste of time Facebook is. As a new addict, I have been sheepishly agreeing, as I consider the time I’ve spent ogling beautiful photos of New England foliage, or signing petitions about the latest political outrage.
            But as I really think about it, I’m less sure it’s such a waste.
A few days ago, I came upon a wonderful clip from the movie, Girl Rising, that showed young girls getting ready to go to school all over the world. It was so uplifting, so lovely and modest, but at the same time, so important, I was in tears. I vowed to watch it every morning for a month, just to see where all that emotion could go, and how I could put it to good use.
Let’s be clear: I am a privileged middle-aged woman with an education, whose family is loving and stable, whose health is good. I am beyond fortunate, and am very grateful. So I see myself at one end of the female spectrum, being able to help women at the other end. Figuring out what form that help should take is a little more involved.
Facebook and the Internet inundate you with good causes. It doesn’t take long to feel overwhelmed. Or that whatever you contribute will go toward running another incendiary ad or sending you address labels as a “guilt gift” to get you to send in more money.
That is why developing a personal mission statement can be very useful. Does this sound too anal-retentive? If you write a good one, it will help you sort through requests for your time and money, work opportunities, even hobbies.  You will not be forever running around willy-nilly.
That very moving one and a half minute segment of film is helping me coalesce such a statement.
Here’s the other part. After a lot of soul searching, I’ve discovered that what I really want to get done while visiting this planet is to write. Fiction, mostly. As someone raised (albeit gently) in a do-gooder family, in earnest, hippie states and cultures (Vermont in the 60’s, Berkeley in the 70’s; you’ll have to trust me regarding the former) it took me a long time to come to grips with wanting to do something so, well, frivolous.
For some reason, I always separated Service to Humanity from Art.
I know some of you will be taking to your beds with cold compresses and/or bottles of gin after discovering how truly dippy your little friend has turned out to be. I mean, really: isn’t To Kill A Mockingbird a service? Or The Grapes of Wrath? Of course they are. Perhaps, on a more subtle level, so are the Stephanie Plum murder mysteries by Janet Evanovich. But I suspect my talents and proclivities are more in the Evanovich than in the Lee or Steinbeck camps.
Funny thing is, I’m writing a novel about a woman who’s been in a mental hospital for 20 years. Because of defunding, she’s being let out and must figure out the world. The woman’s name is Maria.
My saintly readers have just given me comments to the effect that what I thought was a pretty smokin’ second or third draft, is, in fact, a terrific first draft. And part of what I now have to do is to clarify what Maria (who is all over the map about all sorts of things) wants. She is not just there to be entertaining and kooky. This last bit they were too polite to say. I discovered it all by myself.
Seeing the clip from Girl Rising reminded me to take Maria more seriously. Perhaps writing  fiction and helping don’t have to be at odds.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

10,000 Hours

Ten Thousand Hours

I have put in 10,000 hours on writing—and then some. I may be slow writing royalty, having spent 30 plus years learning how to do it. I’ve published freelance nonfiction,  do freelance pieces for radio, and am now working on fiction, which I’ve also taken my time to learn. All I can say is that it’s been a privilege.

It seems fairly straightforward. If you are doing what you love, you will not resent the time it takes to master your craft.
Every once in awhile, though, I come across some bright young MFA whose life has been a beeline from one success to the next, and I wonder: Could I have been a teeny bit more efficient? Could my learning curve have been shortened by a couple of decades?
Here are a few things I have learned.
Read your work. Don’t just write for a year and then return to read what you have done. Which I did. It is a brutal shock to learn that the brilliant prose you remember having put down is actually closer to gibberish.
Read your work aloud. It is a brilliant and cheap way to edit out pomposity and boring asides. No audience necessary at first.
Let other people read your work. You have to choose your victim carefully. You want someone who’s insightful, sympathetic but also tough, who is not out to sabotage your desire to write just because you happen to write badly (which I used to do—so badly, I was afraid to show my work). A saint, in short, who also has great taste and is humble enough to know that we all must start somewhere, and wise enough to know that some very wonderful writers have started way, way behind the starting line. (If you don’t believe me, read Eugene O’Neill’s earliest work).
To edit, start by cutting out the boring parts. This is Amy Hempel’s advice and it remains the best I’ve come across. And as you reread your work repeatedly, more of it will bore you. The parts that you secretly questioned as not quite belonging begin to lie there, on the eighth time through, like road kill. Unload them.
Read what you love. There are masters in every genre. Powerhouse agent, Alexandra Machinist, once described her very serious, very well-educated German grandfather as emerging from his study to announce, “Georgette Heyer iss a geniuss!”
Oh, yes, and write every day. Start with three longhand pages—the Morning Pages as described by Julia Cameron--to get through the venting, awfulizing  and snarking. Longhand frees up one’s mind, and is, in my experience, a good cure for writer’s block. It’s also a sort of quotidian magic—by the third page, a new idea, a good phrase, something pops out. And sometimes it’s an idea that will take you wonderful places.

Monday, August 26, 2013



            I like revising. You have something to start with and then you get to make it better. That is the glory of writing—the good stuff stays put—more or less. I can’t imagine being a performer, and having the whole piece to mess up every time I came on stage—in new and awful ways.
            Of course there are always the issues of continuity, of flow, of making sense. You do have to “kill your darlings” as Hemingway so famously said of favorite characters or passages that need to be nixed. The story is all.
            I say this having just finished a draft good enough to get printed and bound at the copy shop for my two blessed readers. This is not the final draft—probably far from it.
            But I’m pretty sure that the characters who die only die once. Unlike the hilarious and awful story Marion Roach tells in her book The Memoir Project. She wrote a heartbreaking death scene, passed it in to her editor and received a note back in the margin, “already died on p. 56”.
            I’m less sure that  the characters don’t repeat themselves a bit here and there. Once a bon mot, always a bon mot, right? I will be going over the ms carefully a few more times to catch these embarrassing lapses.
            Continuity ‘s a tough nut, though. If I were the sort of writer who told a story from beginning to end, in a linear fashion, perhaps it would be easier. But I’m not. And that’s not how stories even occur to me in the first place. Since I write to figure things out, scenes often occur to me in order of emotional importance. It’s my job to see how (or if!) they fit.
            In his superb book, On Writing, Steven King likens fiction writing to archeology. And it’s true, you are dredging, cleaning off little bits, tying to fit things together to see what they make.
            The thing that’s helped me the most during this round was to outline the chapters on index cards, so it was easy to find certain scenes. It’s much easier to spot
Mistakes when you’ve outlined...such as someone referring to something that hasn’t happened yet as though it has. With my trusty index cards, I caught a few of those.
            Writing fiction is archeology without the dust and toothbrushes, then?
Here’s the pile of pages—actually the last two drafts.
And the tiny gizmo is the flash drive that holds the whole thing en route to the copy shop.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rhubarb: A Plebeian Transformation

Rhubarb: A Plebeian Transformation

One of the thrills of cooking is taking an overlooked or underused plant and cooking it in an exciting new way.

I have a friend who works late in a library one night a week. These sessions are often pretty boring, so one night she downloaded every rhubarb recipe she could find and then made a book out of them. And presented it to me.

There were some unusual concoctions, including rhubarb cordial (non-alcoholic) and rhubarb salsa (truly wonderful).

Rhubarb is too often treated with contempt. The prevailing attitude is that if it grows like a weed, it must not be very interesting, culinarily. Aside from dumping it into rhubarb strawberry pie, most people don’t do much with it. So I decided to enlarge my rhubarb repertory.

Somewhere I have a recipe for rhubarb bread given to me by a dyspeptic young wife who happened to be an excellent country cook. It is delicious—as moist and tender as zucchini bread but with a lovely tart edge that cuts the usual cloy of such dense, heavy sweets.

But there is still a Fridge Clean Out Day quality to the recipe that makes me suspect that if there were a few old tires lying around, they too would be incorporated into a loaf and served up with a smile.

My mother used to make Rhubarb Ginger Jam, which she got from a wonderful Scottish friend. I got the idea for this cake from that. I think it might top carrot cake in its surprising flavor.

Rhubarb Ginger Cake
2 c finely ground raw rhubarb
2/3 c sugar
2 c flour
1 ½ t baking powder
½ c oil
1 egg
1t vanilla
½  c crystallized ginger, chopped very fine (1/4 “ dice, max)

Grease and flour 2  9” cake pans, line with parchment paper.
Preheat oven to 375.
Whiz the rhubarb in a food processor or chop very fine.
Add sugar, whiz again.

Mix flour and baking powder. Add to stuff in food processor.
Whisk together oil, vanilla and egg. Add to mixture in food processor. Whiz. Then add ginger, whiz once more.
Pour into cake pans.  Bake 25-30 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick  comes out clean.

Cool in pans for 10 minutes
Then cool on racks for another 20 minutes or so, remembering to peel off the parchment paper.

Assemble and frost with your favorite cream cheese frosting. I sprinkled bee balm (monarda didyma), marigold and bachelor button petals--all of which are edible-- over the cake. This recipe makes a smallish cake—each layer under an inch high.

Cooking is a quotidian art form.  People need to eat, with a few decent recipes and a little know-how, a cook can bring good cheer and sustenance--if not always delight-- to the table. The terrible mistakes can go onto the compost heap or into the dog’s dish. Not a lot of pressure, and it’s nice to practice an art form that people know they need.
 I guess that’s it: with cooking you don’t have to battle the popular Philistine notion that people don’t need art. At least twice a day, that particular lie is scuttled.

While I’m pressing my case, let’s take this another step: cooking closely resembles writing fiction, because you are transforming raw materials—either experience or somewhat uninspiring bits of plants and animals —into something nourishing, interesting, welcoming, even delectable. Other people can enjoy it, and it becomes a new way of experiencing the world. It is deeply reassuring: we humans (surely the nuttiest, most nervous species) have found safe harbor in our often hostile environment. As literature assures us that we are not alone, good cooking assures us that we are not adrift.

And it’s a continuum, isn’t it? At one extreme end of the spectrum, say, is the much-touted Danish restaurant, Noma, which serves deep fried reindeer lichen. I have never eaten there, and have mixed feelings about tasting menus, generally.  But I am intrigued by using wild foods, and by eating (way) out of the supermarket box.

Some of the Noma menus described online are downright peculiar, but I think such an experience is analogous to attending an haute couture fashion show and seeing work by the late, and very great, Alexander McQueen. Few other designers come close to his audacious vision.
Sadly, I have nowhere to wear a bird’s nest on my head, or antlers festooned with lace. Perhaps I could try it for Halloween, the plebeians’ Let It Rip holiday. But I will go lichen hunting, and in the meantime, make a Rhubarb Ginger Cake.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Salamander Eggs in the Hemlock

“Look at nature, work independently, and solve your own problems.”
—Winslow Homer

Nature is, of course, the essence, the greatest example of creativity. I was reminded of that when we were cleaning out the old pool. A huge hemlock had fallen into it during Hurricane Sandy. Marshall had sawn up a few of the logs, but some of the tree was buried in snow and he couldn’t get to it. Things were no easier come spring, when the drain had clogged with gunk and the water was chest high, the tree half submerged, still.

We rented a water pump at True Value. It was a solid little workhorse with three inch suction and discharge hoses. They said that it didn’t matter if you had the machine on the edge of the pool and stuck the suction hose vertically down. Oh but it did matter. The engine had to work too hard to pull the water up, and we got only the most pitiful trickle of water for our trouble.

That night Marshall downloaded Honda’s instructions, which said to have the suction hose as horizontal as possible. The next morning, we put the pump in the pool, at the dry end, and soon had water gushing out.
            As the water receded, we noticed blobs of jelly with little black dots in them lying on the leaf debris in the pool, and one suspended improbably on a hemlock branch. I carefully collected them in a bucket, added some water and put it aside.
             After about five hours of pumping, the pool was almost dry. I started raking up the old leaf muck and found the most beautiful black salamanders with yellow spots hunkered down under the leaves—fifteen of them in a ten foot stretch of muck. I carefully put them into another bucket and brought them to the little stream that fed the pool. I put them in a mound of leaves right by the water.

            When I brought the pump back to True Value, I started talking with a woman who seemed to know a lot about spotted salamanders. They need to be in a vernal pool, i.e., no fish to prey upon them. They lay their eggs and then burrow down beneath the leaves; in fact their other name is mole salamanders. They can live to be 32 years old and usually return to the same vernal pool to lay their eggs every year.
            Now we have to find a good vernal pool to hatch these eggs. The upper pool that feeds the swimming pool is going to be dredged, since it’s filled with silt over the years. But only one side can be reached with the backhoe. So they’ll be placed carefully on the other side.
            Fingers crossed. I gave eggs to two different science teachers in two different states with two very different set-ups. The one in Mass says that 10% have some sort of activity going on, the rest of hers have withered. No word from the teacher in Vermont, though when I dropped his eggs off, he thought the eggs with a little white around them might have some sort of fungus.
            It’s a nail-biter. I want all 500 (or so) to thrive and live rich lives--to the age of 32, at least. But not all of them will—and I hope my intrusions have not doomed them.
            I’m rewriting my novel, current working title, Please Love Your Life. It’s mostly cutting right now; Amy Hempel’s advice is good—cut out the boring parts. I go through cycles of worry and delight, trying to keep some equanimity in the process.

Every inspiration is a surprise, like those eggs, dangling from hemlock branches. I try to do right by them; sometimes it works. What I learn from nature is to keep trying, with the same wild hope every time.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Going Really Public

Going Really Public

Recently I’ve been sent a lot of pieces of writing. I’ve learned enough about writers, especially fledglings, to know that people rarely want a critique. They usually want to be told they’re talented, to keep going, that what they have to say is important. From time to time, I’ve sought advice, and have gotten some very kind encouragement. I’ve also been scalded.
So I’ve been thinking about the ways we go public with writing, and how we can undermine ourselves by doing it half-heartedly.

            I suspect there is no more poisonous myth than that of Max Perkins taking Thomas Wolff’s enormous manuscript in hand, and editing it into an American masterpiece. It has fostered a terrible fantasy (particularly among young writers and grad students) in which  a writer can turn in an unfinished, formless pile of prose and have someone else transform it into art. It fosters laziness, entitlement and isolation in writers. Before, that is, it kills their talent.
            It happens at other stages in the creative process, too, alas. A writer I know has a habit of announcing he doesn’t have the knack for self-promotion, he just wants to do his work and have other people sell it. The implication is that he is too pure, too nice, to sully himself in the marketplace.
             I realize I’m talking about two different things, editing and selling, but I think they might be more closely related than they seem at first glance. Because in both enterprises, one must consider the reader.
Many of us enjoy the glorious independence writing gives us creatively. At its most basic, there is just a pen and a piece of paper to accompany the writer’s imagination--no committees, no votes, almost no limits. But if someone else is to read your work, you want to make it easy for her to follow your thinking, be swept away by your ideas and not distracted from that delicious journey by mistakes.
Soon enough one must edit: for clarity, for pace, to make the work more engaging. One must consider the reader. Is the piece clichĂ©d? Does it insult the reader’s intelligence or is it confusing? There are, alas, myriad ways for a writer to give up, and cling to the isolation that makes for self-indulgent writing.
And even the most assiduous self-editor has blind spots, or places where she just flags in getting the idea, in all its richness, across. Which is why another pair of eyes­‑‑or many pairs—can improve a book immensely. That collaboration is a fascinating one. You can have a real and very gratifying meeting of the minds with your editor(s) that pulls you from your ivory tower with a jolt of recognition.
Selling a book, whether to an agent, editor or book buyer, you have to capture the reader’s imagination immediately.
It’s true that you face rejection, indifference, other egos, competition. It’s scary. But it’s also a tremendous opportunity to connect with a reader. All readers want to be captivated, even the most dismissive and cynical. When that connection happens, it is transcendent.
The social media now available give us the opportunity to learn about our readers in many new ways. Let’s be curious.
I’m on my way to “The Muse and The Marketplace” Writing Conference in Boston. I’m hoping to learn more about social media, those powerful means suddenly at our disposal to get our words out as never before. I’m at least as nervous as I am curious and excited. Will I be up to the task of all that communicating?
We’ll see. The ivory tower now has wifi.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Creative in the Kitchen

Happy end of February….

I have just discovered a wonderful cookbook, newly out in paperback, so not all that new to the rest of the world, the brilliant and funny: Make the Bread, Buy The Butter, by Jennifer Reese. She prices out the cost of convenience foods vs. homemade, but here’s the genius part: she also factors in the hassle, the quality and the fun.
In other words, for once it’s not just about the dollars and cents.
Haven’t we all had that stubborn economizing voice whispering to us in the grocery aisle when faced with an absurdly expensive convenience food? “Are you kidding me? I could make it just as easily, and it would be better! Moreover I would be thrifty and uphold the lofty and creative tradition of home cooks who will not be dictated to by the ad department of some giant corporation!”

Here’s what else: the recipes really work.
I have made: the Fig Newtons, which are far superior to Nabisco’s, the Margaritas, which were the best I’ve ever had, the chicken soup with rice, lemony Greek style, which for some reason, I’ve always shied away from, and the croissants. A day into that last project I was convinced I’d killed off the yeast with too-hot milk. But no, it worked. I served a couple mini-croissants to my husband with tea and gloated over their success.

Aside from the croissants, this doesn’t seem like a very ambitious list. Yet I am a good cook: I’ve made individual beef wellingtons, my own puff pastry from scratch and swooningly good ice cream.  I also make a mean martini.

But this book is growing my confidence. I have now made the bagels am curing my own pancetta and will try making the Camembert. I am, in fact, thrilled as I make out my shopping lists.

The reason has to do with something Reese says in her afterword: “Big food companies flatter us by telling us how busy we are and they simultaneously convince us that we are helpless. I am moderately busy, but not all that helpless. Neither are you.”

That something so basic to our comfort and happiness should be surreptitiously swiped and then sold back to us in vastly inferior forms is criminal. Perhaps it’s not a felony, but it’s a sneaky and undermining misdemeanor.

Make the Bread has about it a certain trial and error toughness that allows for the occasional, educational failure that is momentarily mourned and then fed to the dog.
Consider Reese’s experiment with goats, which she decided to buy because she had become an enthusiastic cheese maker.

Goats are an exceedingly tricky wicket. Cooperation never, ever makes an appearance on any caprine To-Do list, so you can imagine what happened. Reese spent upwards of a thousand dollars on feed, housing, vet bills and stock—and never got a drop of milk. But Reese is a good enough sport to love her goats despite it all.

The great thing about her Trial and Error approach is that she admits that a certain percentage of her projects flopped, and were not worth repeating. But they didn’t stop her from trying something else.

Psychologist Carol Dweck of Stanford University says that most people have either a performance orientation or a learning orientation. In the former, it’s more important to do well, to get things right, than it is to learn. So if a performer flubs a new challenge, she will likely give up and go back to something that she can do well. Someone with a learning orientation will see a mistake as a temporary thing, requiring another try, a different way.

The performance orientation can kill creativity faster than almost anything. If all your attempts must be successful in order for you to maintain your self-esteem, you will live in a very careful, rather dull little box.

This is not to say that performance doesn’t count. There are times when you need to learn your lines perfectly, when you really need the soufflĂ© to rise, and when you must turn in clean, error-free copy.

But that’s not all the time. You’ve got to have some room for experiment. Give yourself a grade-free zone in which you can dare to make some mistakes. Your creativity—to say nothing of your dog‑‑will thank you for it.

The illustration is of my homemade pancetta hanging (unfortunately, sideways)—and we hope, drying, as opposed to lurking—in our cellar. Mice or raccoons have yet to discover it.