Wednesday, June 26, 2013

AFTER LONG SILENCE

I have been wanting to write about my father, but something stopped me, and in stopping me, stopped me from writing all together.  Not writing is not breathing.  All writers know this.

Having said it, why couldn't I  type “God and My Father,” or even “Food and My Father,” and begin?

It has always seemed to me that authors who fill their pages with recitals of the vagaries, cruelty, chicanery, faults and foolishness of their fathers, and their mothers,  haven’t done the main work of a writer: to make stone soup, to make the unfathomable events of our lives have meaning.

Why did my father do the things he did, why was he as he was?  I’ve turned that sow’s ear over and over in my mind.  He was unknowable to me then; he is unknowable to me now.  And yet my memory of him is as powerful as a Rembrandt painting.  He was the force, the drama that drove my childhood.

The story I wanted so much to tell about him was scary and funny, but somehow touching too.  It took place at the table – almost all my childhood memories were at the table – and it was the day of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of all.

These are things my father liked to eat: sour cream, sour cream with jello, sour cream with everything,  (“Sour cream is good; jello is good; sour cream and jello are good.”), corn on the cob with butter (he’d eat the kernels and then suck and chew the cob he loved it so much!), crumb cake (he would eat the crumbs and leave the rest to us), marble cake (he liked to carve out the chocolate part; we got the rest), Whitman’s chocolates that my Uncle Fred brought every Friday night, courting my pretty Aunt Rosetta (my father got first dibs, the nuts and Jordan almonds).  In our house
he was the Monarch, the Emperor of the table..

When he was little, his family was so poor that he took mamaliga sandwiches to school for lunch.  What was mamaliga?  A kind of cornmeal mush, I thought.  My father never enjoyed Christmas -- and yes, we celebrated Christmas; my mother loved Christmas -- and disdained his gifts.  His
usual comment was: “I don’t want anything.  You wasted your money?”  But one Christmas, out of ideas,  I surprised him with a dish of  homemade mamaliga, or what I thought was mamaliga.  He did a double-take, and laughed out loud, thanking me with genuine good humor --not his usual mood at all.

My mother was a stupendous cook; my father ate hugely, competitively, fought for the best piece, the biggest part, the gristliest soup bones.  Of course, the only time in the calendar that good Jewish men, bar mitzvah-ed or no, are not supposed to eat is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when God opens the book of life and inscribes the names of those who will make it through the year, and those who will not.

We were far from religious.  My mother would have liked to be a Temple lady, but my father would have none of it.  The few times that he consented to go, he acted badly, spoke too loud, criticized, did whatever he felt like doing to express his boredom and disapproval.  We had little money and the Temple needed money; maybe that was why he felt so uncomfortable there.

But on Yom Kippur my family -- my mother, grandfather, Aunt Rosetta, even my little sister and I -- tried to fast, or give the appearance of fasting, eating surreptitiously, feeling guilty, not really knowing, any of us, what God would think of us for flouting His commandment.

Not my father.  He sat at the table as he always did, eating lustily, smacking his lips.  But this year, the year that I remember, he suddenly pushed up from the table, waving his fork at heaven, saying, “See, God, see, I’m eating.  Yum, yum, yum!  What’re you going to do about it?”

God did nothing.

My longtime writer friend Rita Lakin once told me she’d read that any courage a woman had came to her from her father.  My father stood up to God like a mountain, taunted God, dared him to take vengeance.  How brave was that?  We, leaning back for fear of a thunderbolt, were awed.

I look at that memory now, and think...my father was an orphan, his mother dead when he was four, his father when he was twelve, just short of his bar mitzvah, the velvet cap and miniature torah scroll still in its box.  There was the stepmother, the mamliga, the marriage at nineteen, the two girls, the whole household, the hard, hard work supporting us.   The one place he was the Master was that table.

Afterwards, when we saw that God didn't strike him dead, we laughed about it -- not where he could see us, of course -- and those of us who still remember still laugh, touched, sad a little.

I will never be as brave as him.  But I do like sour cream with everything.

Friday, August 31, 2012

MATEOS

My uncle Mathew was a real man.  What that meant in my family was: he worked, he brought home his pay, he could fix things and make things, and was afraid of nothing.  He was also handsome and manly; he had dark eyes like Greek olives, brown skin, white teeth, and a fascinating, dangerous-sounding history.  He had an accent, too, and my Aunt Celia liked to say of her sister Lillie, who had been a spinster and, as far as we  knew, a virgin, till she married him, "Vy'd she hef to pick a forriner?" 

Mathew, or Mateos, Georgiou, born in Cyprus, married Lillie, born in Orsha, Russia when they were both in their forties.  Once he told me that she used to dance for him -- this was long before she died, and Mathew, a chef, had sold his knives to pay the hospital bills -- bare-breasted.  How she must have loved him, and he, her.

Mathew had run away from Cyprus as a teen-ager, run away from the British, who, he said, had stolen his family's land, and during the War he joined the Army, where they taught him to cook American style.  He knew Greek cooking, and somehow  learned how to cook kosher specialities, so in the summers he worked the big Catskill hotels, and in the winter, Florida.  He loved the sun, and Lillie did too; their life, which must have been so hard and lonely before they found each other, became a kind of long vacation.  No wonder she danced!

When Lillie got sick the doctors lied to her about what was wrong, but she came from a family where her mother died at thirty-four, and her father in his forties, so she was pretty sure she knew.  She and Mathew were living in New York then, and so was I, a newly-wed.  On one of the days when she'd had her appointment at Mount Sinai, she called and asked me to have lunch with her.  We met in a Chinese restaurant, and when the meal was finished, she took money out of her purse and said she was celebrating.  She had overheard the doctors talking about her.  "I used to stay awake nights wondering if I had cancer ," she said.  "Now I can sleep."  Shortly after that she went into the hospital, suffered every awful thing they could do to her, and died a bad and difficult death.

My Uncle Mathew, who was not my uncle at all, stayed in close touch with me all his life, partly, I think, because I was a witness to the happiness he had had with Lillie.  He married again, a woman who adored him, fathered three beautiful black-eyed girls, cooked, danced, laughed, fed everyone, tended a garden full of figs and lemons and olive trees, and lived to be almost a hundred. 

To this day, I can't eat in a Greek restaurant without thinking of Uncle Mathew, and how Aunt Lillie danced for him.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

HEART IN MY MOUTH

I remember my fat Aunt Celia running down Clinton Place to hide at my mother’s house because Staten Island’s one kosher butcher had been somehow unmasked as trafedickeh, and a fraud -- Aunt Celia, who was fearless, who had hidden in haystacks as a child and saw the Cossacks cut off women's breasts and throw babies in the air to catch them on their swords, Aunt Celia, who could pickle herrings and cucumbers and green tomatos in brine you could float an egg on,  and ferment, fry, boil, bake, make slivovits and cherry brandy that burned your throat and kept forever, twist the braid on a challah and make it shine, and shamed us all in her zeal to live as a blameless Jewish woman who kept the laws of kashruth in a strange land -- this Aunt Celia secretly bought her meat in the A and P and told her husband, Uncle Abe, that it was kosher, and ran now to her non-kosher sister-in-law, my mother, from whom she often cadged a ham sandwich and pretended that she didn’t quite know what it was, seeking solace and sanctuary, for she was about to be unmasked!

Yes, food was the drama and the joy of my childhood, food was my soft, chewy mother and my gristly, tough father, and my annoying little sister who was always there when you didn’t want her, like the strings of meat between your teeth.
 
Why shouldn’t  I write about that, then, while I’m waiting for this agent or that agent to stop telling me yes, I can write (“I loved your book, I really did.  I read it to the last page – but I can’t sell it.  In fact, I no longer represent fiction.”)?  I daren’t say anything about the state of  publishing, or how worried I am that books in covers, which is the definition of books in my world, are already lost to the cold breezes of the internet, and instead turn to something that is still the consuming – and that’s not a pun – pleasure of my life: great food.

I even like not-so-great food on occasion, as everybody does, if they confessed it.  That same Aunt Celia wouldn’t take the time, or maybe couldn’t afford to make real blintzes with sour cream and butter and powdered sugar and cherry jam, so she dipped  sandwiches of plain pot cheese and Uneeda biscuits into beaten eggs, fried them in fat and sprinkled them with cinnamon.  They were delicious.

So maybe I could write about my Aunt Celia, and my mother, who was a prodigious cook, so prodigious that nobody ever invited us to dinner, only came to our house to sample her roast beef and pork chops with sauerkraut and chicken and rice -- oh, and her potato salad.  If there's a heaven and I ever get there, I'm going to ask for that potato salad!  And I could write about my Uncle Mathew, my Greek uncle who would bring halumi cheese in one pocket and stuffed cabbage in the other -- in suitable containers of course -- and who taught me to eat sheep's head including brains and eyes, and lots of other things.  It was an eating family, never rich, but never hungry.

It's more fun than fiction.  What do you think?






                     
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Thursday, December 8, 2011

ANNA BLUE and A REAL WOMAN

                                                     
I'm still nowhere with the beginning of the new novel, THE BLUES.


I know my heroine's name -- Anna Blue -- but almost nothing else about
her.  I know that she thinks she's better than her husband, that she made a
mistake ("Everybody chooses the wrong person; sometimes it works out.").
I know that she has children, each of them different, maybe three or even
four, and that I want to know more about them, too, and where their lives
take them, and that each of them sees his/her mother differently -- each
seems to have a different mother.


What's missing, then?  Events.  What happens, and what happens then? 
The events in a story are like the cars in a railroad train; they connect; there
are no empties; each is necessary to pull the next one along.  So what
happens to Anna Blue and her marriage?  And what happens then, and
then, and then?


That's what I don't know yet.


So instead, and thinking of mothers, I turn to an old story about my own
mother that I've been trying to write for years, a true story, at least as I
remember it, called A REAL WOMAN.  Maybe I can begin it with the line that
keeps circling in my head these last few months  about Anna Blue:
"Everybody chooses the wrong person; sometimes it works out."


It has always been hard for me to write about my family.  Isn't it disloyal to
reveal secrets that no one else knows, to write in judgement as an adult
seeing them through the eyes of childhood?  I am amazed that writers can
strip their parents bare in memoirs so capricious, so shattering, so cruel.  Is
that why it's taken me so long to tell what is essentially a simple story about
my own mother and father?


Why did they marry?  I came along eleven months after the wedding.  They
hardly had time to know each other.  She was round and gentle, like a
feather pillow, and he was a prizefighter, only nineteen the day I was born,
tough and loud and with little schooling ("I went in the front door and out
the back door"; he would say that with pride).  She had an innate sense of
how to behave, and he did what he pleased.  She was a lady and he was a
ruffian, younger than she was to boot, though he didn't admit that until I
was on the way.  What in the world did they see in each other?  And why
didn't I ever ask them that?


The story I've been wanting to tell about them happened when I was six or
seven.  My mother was keeping house for her father, her sister, my father --
who was sworn by my grandpa not to go back to fighting -- and me.  She
had been a crackerjack private secretary to a company head and a bank
president, and could have gotten a job any time.  But my father, a hothead
who declared that he'd be damned if he'd work for nothing, had no trade
and no job; my grandpa had "retired" at 65, before Social Security or
Medicare existed, and had pretty much nothing except what his children
would reluctantly give him; my pretty Aunt Rosetta was in love with her
much older boss, who had gone belly-up in the Depression and couldn't
afford to pay her; and my soft, sensitive mother took care of all of them,
cooking and cleaning and comforting everybody but herself. 


So, stressed out and exhausted, she went to see the family doctor, old Doc
Amory, my father's friend, who told her she was nervous -- I wonder why! --
and that the cure for that was simple: have another baby.


This was awhile ago, remember, before the pill, or women's lib, or single
mothers, or plastic bottles, or diaper service, or even maternity clothes.  My
mother wore a big old housedress, and, when my baby sister appeared in a
merciless November (or so it seemed to me: a miraculous "appearance" like
the toys that Santa Claus left when he shimmied down the chimney -- and
how did he manage to get up again?  Life was full of miracles then!), my
mother boiled bottles and washed dirty diapers by hand and hung them
outside in good weather, and on hot water radiators all over the apartment
when it snowed.


Nobody, as I recall, helped.


In those days, too, women nursed, if they could, until the baby could drink
whole milk, sometimes two or three years, and when my mother came home
from the hospital with my baby sister, she sat the family down around the
kitchen table and told them that when she finished nursing she was going
to get a job and go back to work.


This news hit the family like a thunderbolt.  Married women didn't work!   
Men whose wives worked were shown up and humiliated before the whole
world as layabouts who couldn't support their families!  Nevertheless, my
mother was the only one in our family who could make a living, and she
had made up her mind to do just that.


The weeks that followed were very quiet in our house.  I, seven now, secretly
read to my mother out of movie magazines so she could brush up her
shorthand.   And my father, also in secret, made plans with my grandpa to 
-- what else did he know? -- go back into the ring..  While my mother
answered ads and went on interviews, the men in the family took me along
like "little Miss Marker" on visits to gyms and shaky road trips where my
father, in a big white turtleneck sweater, ill nourished and overweight, ran
behind a borrowed car that my grandpa who had no license, drove in wavy
patterns down the street.


My mother got a job.  My father secretly got a bout.  My mother bought
presents for everyone and took me to the beauty parlor for a "perm" to make
my hopelessly lank and straight brown hair curly.  My father. with my
grandpa as his "second," danced around on that first fight so he wouldn't
get marked and my mother wouldn't know, and was jeered and beaten and
limped home still bleeding.


My mother, shocked to see him, turned to my grandfather: "Pop! How could
you let him do it?" and my grandpa shot back,  "It's your fault!  A real
woman would never shame her man!"


I don't know how that argument was resolved, or if it ever was.  My father
vanished for a few days, and when he came back his bruises were yellow,
and he had done what he said he would never do: asked for a no-pay job as a
dry cleaner's apprentice.  My grandfather retired to his room and smoked. 
My mother went to work every day and loved it, and hired a part-time girl to
cook and clean and look after me and the baby. 


At Christmas, my mother got a raise and bought me a doll I desperately
wanted and a blackboard with pictures to copy and, since the perm was a
disappointment, she let me grow my hair into skinny braids.  My grandpa,
who had no money except what his kids grumpily gave him, bought me a  
copy of the complete plays and poetry of Shakespeare at the Five-and-Ten store for twenty-five cents.  Of course I still keep it, in its ivory and red fake leather cover, the edges of the pages shiny with what looks like real gold.


My Aunt Rosetta finally married her boss, and my father came home one
night and plonked a pay envelope on the kitchen table.  He had told the dry
cleaner that he was worth something now, and demanded to be paid. 
"Esther," he said, "quit your job."


Did my mother say  "Not on your life,"  or "You'll never make as much as I
do," or "I love my job?"  No.  She gave her notice, folded up her business
clothes and silk stockings, took out her old Mae Moon housedress, and
became again, "a real woman."


They stayed together.  My father made a living.  Ultimately he became the
owner of a big dry cleaning factory.  He was always the boss.


But for me, and my sister Bobbie, too, something was imprinted that day. 
For all our lives -- and we both married, both had children -- no man and
no man's paycheck could ever, ever order us to "quit our jobs."


So...what does all that have to do with Anna Blue, and my hopefully new
book about a woman, mother, wife, and her marriage?


Maybe nothing.  And if you believe that, I guess you're not a writer.







Thursday, November 17, 2011

P.S.: THE BURNING BED

If you're a writer or an actor, or anything at all, in any profession, you've probably been rejected many times, so I think it's important to tell you that THE BURNING BED, which ended up as the highest-rated TV movie ever, was turned down in its time by all three networks.

The script was commissioned by Arnold Shapiro and Anne Carlucci, who  worked for Norma Lear, one of the most powerful producers in the business, and when we submitted the first draft to CBS, the word came back that it was "perfect".

I had no idea what bad news that was.

The way the business worked then, and probably still works, experienced writers liked to leave a few holes in their script so the Powers That Be could discover them and make some suggestions of their own -- "give notes".  That way they have an emotional stake in the script, and if the writer could incorporate the notes without doing harm to the work, things usually moved forward.

But a "perfect" script has no holes.  And THE BURNING BED explored a topic most people thought they knew all about: battered wives, and why they stay -- or kill.  The comments on the script were mostly 'We like it but other people won't."
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I was shocked.  The producers were shocked.  My play about Sylvia Plath and her mother, LETTERS HOME, was opening in Melbourne, Australia, and I retreated there.  Months passed, and I submitted the script over and over as an example of my work and usually got the job.

And then, like a fairy tale, a producer, who had worked with me on other projects, and the agent who represented Farrah Fawcett, called in the same week to ask, "What ever happened to THE BURNING BED?"  In a matter of weeks it was set up at NBC, and aired the following May to glowing reviews, Emmy nominations, a Writers Guild Award, over-the-top numbers, and a kind of immortality.  Oh, yes -- I also got a few notes from the people who had turned it down, saying, basically "We're sorry."

Why do I tell all this?  Because it's something to remember when good work gets rejected over and over with: "Other people won't like it." 

Nobody knows what other people like.  Few people know what they themselves like.   Even fewer know what's good.  

I try to remember that now, when my latest novel is being read by agents who are quick to tell me I can write -- but slow, agonizing months and months slow, to tell me "I like it but other people, publishers, public..they might not like it."

So, writers, friends, anybody...I live for the day when -- like THE HELP (rejected, its author said, by multiple agents), like THE BURNING BED, like GONE WITH THE WIND, rejected, too, until it wasn't -- my new novel, THE WAY IT HAPPENED, will ultimately get out into the world and surprise and delight a huge audience who seems to have been waiting for it all along.

Don't be discouraged.  I wish the same for you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

THE BURNING QUESTION...

...
I was the writer of THE BURNING BED, or more accurately, the TV
screenplay based on Faith McNulty's book and bearing the same powerful
title.  Some other time I'll think about titles, but in this case, Faith's has
everything: symbolism, visual quality, onomatopoeia and a stunning double
meaning: the description of an incendiary marriage, and what Francine
Hughes, the abused wife, did to end it.  In a  ground-breaking trial that
changed law, police procedure in cases of domestic violence, and, many
people's attitudes towards battered women, Francine was acquitted

Soon after the movie aired in 1984, another woman tried to burn her
husband alive, claiming that THE BURNING BED was her model.  Since
then, for twenty-five years,  in almost every report of domestic abuse leading
to murder, THE BURNING BED is mentioned.

The story it told was true, painstakingly researched by its first producer
Arnold Shapiro (SCARED STRAIGHT), Faith McNulty, and me.  What was
our responsibility, if any, for a copycat attempt by a desperate woman who
was part of the huge audience that saw, and can still see, THE BURNING
BED on video and on cable -- the biggest audience, I'm told, for any
television movie ever?  In 1984 I would have said "none." 

In those years there were three networks, their contents scrutinized by the
FCC, which licensed them.  My script was "vetted" by Standards and
Practices at NBC; every line, every event had to be justified: a quote, a taped
interview, a dated note, a printed fact.  It was not my version of the story; it
was the story, dramatized, but not fictionalized.

Of course not every program was as scrupulously researched even then. 
Producers, directors, actors, directors' secretaries, producers' wives -- all felt
entitled to suggest changes, even wrote on the script if they chose to; writers
were not usually welcomed on the set, and -- as now -- since we don't own
the copyright to our work, we could be fired or replaced if we didn't do as we
were told. 

Still, when Budd Schulberg, a well-known and respected writer (WHAT
MAKES SAMMY RUN, ON THE WATERFRONT),  learned that a script of his
had been significantly altered by others, he held a press conference, took
his name off the project, and announced that the writer would henceforth
be known as "Richard Drecksler", because the script was now "dreck."

I'm not claiming that we were giants in those days, or that everything we
wrote was "literature."  But there was, in my experience, a general feeling
among writers of responsibility to the facts, and a commitment, as with
doctors, to "first, do no harm."

What comes onto my big screen now bears little resemblance to the dramas
we used to stay home on Saturday nights to watch.   The three original
networks are still here, but barely holding their own in a seemingly endless
sea of cable stations and "spontaneous" reality shows -- all accompanied by 
cameramen and cobbled into some kind of shape by directors and/or
writers.   Before there were dramas and series and soap operas and
newcasts; now there are Kardashians and hoarders and exhibitionists and
actors who read the "news" from monitors positioned just where we, the
viewers, sit, so that it seems they speak honestly and directly to us.

Is it just coincidence that  today the quality of life, everyday life, has
deteriorated so dramatically that those of us who have lived awhile can
hardly believe we are in the same country, the same world?  Many factors
are blamed: the huge gaps between segments of our society, an unintegrated
population, early sexualization of young people, poverty, racial inequality,
the toll of wars, widespread unemployment, and on and on.  But what about
the constant, insistent yammering of television, advertisements, unsavory
people, serial killers, vampires, all brought into our bedrooms and made to
seem justified, attractive, normal, fun?   What about the writers who
influence so much of what our world sees, thinks, desires?  Do we do no
harm?  Are we doing no harm?

Don't we have some moral obligation in our fingers -- these fingers that can 
make sex fun or sinful, make heros out of villains and villains out of heros
-- to tell our audience at least, what we believe to be the truth?

I wrestle with this, can hardly find the words to express my concern about
it, believe that others must too.  A trusted (yes, if it's in print, on TV, in the
movies; doesn't that give it a ring of truth?) writer who may indeed be doing
harm, shouldn't that writer tear up the paper or hit delete, delete, delete,
and start over?

Am I naive, or crazy?  What do you think?

Monday, November 7, 2011

THE NAMING OF NAMES

It's always seemed to me that naming something, or somebody, is a tremendous honor.  Naming a child, of course, a dog, even a car -- and maybe this is the best: no bad effects, eminently changeable -- naming a character in your story.
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If you're writing history, the names are there to be slipped into, given life, like air suffuses a balloon.  But in fiction, naming is demanding, delicious, and has, like real life naming, consequences.  A Serafina is not the same as a Susan.  Never mind Stacey.  What was Jonathan Franzen thinking of to name his FREEDOM heroine Patty?  (Well, I might be able to figure that out, but look what it does to her chances of being heroic?)  A Warren will have to be serious.  A Jonathan can be anything, but he is young, and maybe handsome.  A Gloria "rings"!  A Mimi sings.  An Amy cooks.  A Herman can never be President....

All right; maybe I'm going too far.  But naming a child can be accomplished even before birth; there's an ancestor to be honored, or a parental name to be juniored.  With a fictional character, so much can be implied, intuited, from a name.  Scarlett!  I wish I had thought of that.

My current heroine is, for the moment, named Anna.  What does that conjure up to you?  For me it is serious, grownup; not a kid, or she should be Annie.  Anne is prettier.  Anna is a bit more homespun, maybe stolid, maybe not as dainty as Anita or Annette.  Anna is married, and maybe not happily.  Where Anne might be carefree, Anna has problems -- at least as I imagine  her.  Anna is a woman, not a girl, unless she's a girl from an immigrant or  backward family.  You can see how different her life would be if her name was Annabelle, or how much there'd to tell be in the background of an Annabella.

In my last and current book, my heroine is Vicky, and I've stayed awake nights knowing it's the wrong name for her, not right at all.  She's the child of dumb, young parents; would they have named their baby Victoria?   No, they would have chosen a name like theirs: Rita, Roy.  Her name should have been Grace, or Marie, or maybe even Anna.  But Vicky came to me in the first lines of the book, and nothing else had quite the same rhythym, the same differentness; maybe what was right about it was that it was so wrong.

Neal, the anti-hero of STEAL ME! seems like the right name for a slick, handsome, adulterous older married man.  Neal has a shine to it; you can slip right off it.  Meanwhile, the narrator is Val -- what kind of name is that? Her parents were educated and old-fashioned, her father a college professor who did a little slipping around himself.  Valerie...not a pretty name, but a college professor's daughter?  I think so.

So the process of naming characters can take place under a writer's hands, like bread dough, sometimes after months, even years of thought, sometimes instantly, intuitively.  Those names carry with them something you will know, or maybe already do know somewhere in your subconscious, where so much of our writing is done anyway, about the person's inner life, appearance, past, qualities.

I wish I had thought up Nicholas Nickelby.  I wish I had thought up Jane Austen's Emma -- how pursed her pretty little lips are, this Emma, how bright her eyes, watching and judging everyone, knowing everything but her own heart.

But I thought up, or dreamed up, Val and Neal and Vicky and Jason and Sam and Gladys and Larry and Dina and Roy and Rita too, and Rita's sister Paula --

What name, I wonder, will Anna decide to marry, who will she turn out to be, and will she stay named "Anna" to the end?   Stay with me.  When I know, you'll know.

 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

MY BLUE HEAVEN

"Splinters from a wooden head."  Who said that?  I think it was my Uncle Eddie, the songwriter who never sold a song.  Everything he touched seemed to turn to sawdust.  He was handsome really, but he had those swollen-looking heavy-lidded eyes that made him seem sleepy and look like a failure.

He used to come to our house and sing his songs, "A Happy Ending," which was almost word for word "My Blue Heaven," a really popular song that came out just after he wrote his.  There was always a reason why Tin Pan Alley didn't take his songs and loved other people's.  When Uncle Eddie died, the rabbi who preached his funeral said something like, "He was a good man, even though he was a failure, and a creative man, even though none of his songs ever sold, and a kind man and a good husband, even though he never had any children..."

It was the saddest funeral speech I ever heard.

"Splinters From a Wooden Head.:  It might have been the title of a book of poems he wrote and published by himself.  Or maybe it was the title of a book he gave me.  I was a little fat girl who wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and he was my role model.  At least, he was the only writer in my family, the only one I had ever known.  In fact, there were no female writers as far as I could tell; all the books I read had men's names on the spine, except for maybe Baroness Orczy, who wrote the wonderful "Scarlet Pimpernel."  But maybe that was a nom de plume.  All the others were Rafael Sabatini and Arthur Conan Doyle and Alexandre Duman.  That was my taste.

I should have been warned by Uncle Eddie about how hard it was.  He never stopped writing songs.  During the day he earned a living as a draftsman, whatever that is, and the living was probably better than my father's, who was a route man for a dry cleaning store.  Uncle Eddie and his wife, Aunt Bessie, owned a little attached house in Queens.  My parents, who were only renters, were impressed.

But my father was a rip-roaring ex-prizefighter, as full of chutzpah as salami is of fat.  If he'd been a songwriter, I thought, he'd have battered down the doors of Tin Pan Alley and had everybody singing his "A Happy Ending" and fogetting about "My Blue Heaven."  He wasn't sleepy and hopeful like Uncle Eddie; he was a battering ram, but in those days he wasn't getting anywhere, just driving a truck and yelling at us and supporting everybody else in my mother's family.

My grandfather lived with us, and looked a lot like a skinny, shrivelled Uncle Eddie, and my mother's sister, Aunt Rosetta, who lived with us too, worked but didn't give much of her salary to the household, and attracted a lot of boys.  Then there was my sister and me, two girls, which bewildered my father.  Why hadn't all that testosterone -- did we know that term then? -- brought forth sons?  And, of course, my mother was there, an island of sanity in our strange world, which seemed normal to us because what else did we know?  An island of sanity, but also a sponge to my father's prickly temper.

Out of that family came me, with all my hopes and imaginings, me who didn't want to be a movie star or a pop singer, or a teacher or a librarian or a nurse or even a housewife -- who wanted to be, who grew up to be, a writer.  "Take steno and typing," my mother said.  "You can always get a job."  "Why go to college?" my father said.  "You'll just get married and have kids" -- grunting this while he was fixing my typewriter.

What don't I owe to them -- to my father's chutzpah, my mother's love, my grandpa's cautionary old age, my Uncle Eddie's faith in the face of failure.

What better charms to have in your pocket before venturing forth to become a writer?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

THE EASIEST THING IN THE WORLD


I think I’m quoting James Goldman: “The easiest thing in the world is to not write.” 

I’ve been not writing.  After all my bold words about the hanging bridge, and, discounting all the notes scribbled on the backs of envelopes, post-its, paper napkins, and other people’s business cards, I have not really written a word in over a month.

For one thing, I’ve been busy with the text of STEAL ME!, which is being metamorphosed into an e-book.  For another, I was in France for ten days, visiting and eating.  For another, I had bronchitis (horrible!) and felt tired and dispirited long after I stopped coughing.  As any writer knows, none of these are valid excuses.  The truth is, I didn’t know where to begin, so I didn’t begin. 

Beginning is crucial.  Although the first paragraph or sentence or even many pages of your work often fall victim to your better judgement,  in  media res really is where you should begin.  Often you – I – don’t know where the middle of the action is until we get there,  cutting away to it, “cutting to the chase,” is usually a good idea.

How full of quotes I am!  It’s an easy way of not writing.  And yet, paradoxically, writing about not writing is some kind of writing, isn’t it? 

Meanwhile, and between me and starting to write, my most beloved latest novel is in the hands of an agent who seemed eager to read it three months ago.   Just four weeks ago she emailed that she’d get to it “asap.”  What did that mean, I wonder?   But why start another book when the last one is metaphorically still unborn?  There are a million answers to that,  I know, and yet -- the muse doesn’t choose to speak. 

And so I write this to you, silent reader.  Yes, there are worse things in the world, far worse things than wanting to write and not really feeling like it, chasing ideas down dead-end alleyways, thinking of mundane things that have to be done right away, bills to pay, people to see, meals to cook or eat or order, sleep.  But falling silent doesn’t feel so wonderful, either.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll be energized, with a great idea that demands to be put on paper.  Maybe tomorrow the agent will call, or…something.  Maybe I’ll wake up panting to go ahead, with my foot on the hanging bridge.  And maybe I’ll think up some unimportant first pages that I can write and write and then mercilessly cut through to the promising, exciting, mysterious heart of media res. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

MISSING BORDERS


The big bookstore, Borders, where I bought books, stationery, CDs, occasional DVDs, gifts, magazines, and heard fellow writers speak about their books over the years, has gone belly-up.  I visited what's left of it today, and found myself saying to anyone near me, "What a loss,"  "This is a tragedy,"  "What will happen to books now?"

I think I know, for myself, at least.  I'll order them, sight unseen, from Amazon.com, or electronically on my Kindle, based on some friend's suggestion or a great review in the Times by a stranger.  But I can’t browse them; I can’t turn the pages in advance, drinking coffee in Borders’ little coffee nook, or look at the pictures, if there are any.

Well, what’s so terrible about that?

The Kindle is a wonderful tool.  In seconds, free and out of the air, I can summon a chapter or so of nearly any book ever written, just by pushing a few keys.  Then, if the sample intrigues me, I can make it appear in its entirety in another few seconds, by agreeing to pay a small -- but increasing -- price, secured by my credit card number.  Easy, yes?

So why shouldn't Borders disappear?  And maybe Barnes and Noble after that?  And maybe all bookstores everywhere?  Who needs them?

I do.  Old fashioned me, who likes to cuddle a book, to write my name in it, with the date and place I bought it, who likes to guiltily glimpse the last page like a peeping tom, or rifle back and forth when I can't remember the name of the hero's brother or how he met his first love.

And I'm a writer, a writer of books.  Who will cuddle mine, write their name in them, scrawl in a margin: "What?" or "I love this!" or "Stupid!" or "Shopping list: Get stamps"?


My passion for books began early.   I remember reading my way through the children's section of the Port Richmond (Staten Island) Public Library, then begging, when I was about ten, to be given the special privilege of a grownup card, and reading  my way alphabetically through the grownup authors: Austin, Bronte, Cather, DuMaurier -- my taste a bit rococo -- Baroness Orczy, Sabatini, Dumas.  I remember how those books, fingered by so many, smelled, how the paper felt, heavy and creamy, the look of the glue on the bindings, the purplish date stamps, stuck on the end of a pencil, that the librarians marked my library card and the book with, a kind of ceremony that bound us, for two weeks if my memory’s right, together.  In those ancient of days the penalty for keeping a book overtime was a penny a day.  I used to walk home with as many as the library would allow – boy were they heavy! -- and keep them only a few days, a day apiece, to read them. 

When I got old enough to have my own money, I bought books with the lust of ownership, improvising bookshelves out of lumber and bricks in the earliest places of my own, later buying bookcases, and then having them built to order, covering walls up to the ceiling with books, trying to arrange them by title, by author, by category, until I gave up and just stacked them in the order that I bought them, and read them, and loved them.  Did I ever throw a book away?   I don’t think so.  I have school books from high school, from college, hundreds -- I’m afraid to say this: maybe thousands.  On a few shelves. I have copies of my own books, books I wrote, that have my name on the cover.  What’s that like?  That’s like seeing your name on a list of “those whom love of God hath blesst,” like Leigh Hunt’s Abou ben Adam.

 And will there be nowhere else in the world, nowhere beside my own bookcase, where my books can stand with their fellows, an army of crazy, besotted, dedicated “writers who write”?   Is that groaning sound as Borders comes down and gives up its books, its records, it’s very fixtures, the creaking and cracking of a dying part of the world?

Over the years I’ve almost gotten used to losing things, places, dear ones that I’ve loved...but I will miss Borders bookstore!

                                                        *

Monday, August 22, 2011

Revision1

                                                          Men and women
                                                          made to fit;
                                                          who can doubt
                                                          the God of it?.            

I wrote this quatrain around the time of STEAL ME! and posted it yesterday as a

kind of place holder till I decided what I wanted to write next.  The next morning I

jumped out of bed, stumbled to the computer, and erased it.  I didn't know why I

felt so uncomfortable about it, but now I think I do.

The world has changed, and heterosexuality is no longer the single standard.  Yes, men and women do fit, and if there is a God at all, or a Goddess, or a Pantheon, the remarkableness of this method for pleasure and procreation should, or could, be ascribed to Him, or Her, or Them.  But that's not the only means of pleasing your chosen other.  In fact, it’s not even, any longer, the only means of procreation.  The world has changed enough for most of us to recognize that love is love, and the means of making love are creative and varied, and always have been, and exist between men and women, and men and men, and women and woman, and always have.  Always have.  The fact that I, or others, didn’t know that, or didn't recognize it if they did know it, has no bearing whatever on reality: it does.  It is.

Our world seemed flat once, and now we know it's round — more or less round.  My poem is dated, and its irony no longer "clever," as I thought it was when I wrote it.  I'm not facile enough to write another one more suitable to the age we're living in, but if I was, it might go something like this:
                                               
                                                Human beings!
                                                goodness knows,
[                                               regarding pleasure
                                                anything goes --
                                                as long as it’s mutually acceptable and
                                    represents the consent of all involved..



I know; it doesn't rhyme.   It's a different world.


*
                                              





                                               
                                               

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Hanging Bridge

Starting a new book is like putting one foot on the edge of a hanging bridge, not knowing what’s on the other side, or even if the other end is attached. 

I’m starting to write a new book now, a novel about a family, The Blues; I think that will be the title.  Everything is ahead.  I hardly know them yet; they can morph and change a thousand times till something, I don’t know what, tells me “That’s who they are.  I know them.  I can count on them.”  Of course I can’t.  As the writing and the thinking goes on they can still defy me and change, become other people, do what I won’t allow them to do, peter out and die…anything.  But the moment my figurative foot is on the imaginary bridge, the book is in motion, the journey has begun.

The first words: “Everybody chooses the wrong person.  Sometimes it works out.”  (Or should it be “everyone?  Or should it be “the wrong partner?”  Or should it be....?)

I will be wandering now in strange territory, together, maybe, with the characters, or maybe they will be strangers, unknown to me, to be discovered, or discarded, or changed, given bigger roles or smaller, loved, killed.

What power I have over them.   And they over me.

When I first start I have a vague notion of where I want to go -- but how to get there?  Sometimes I think, “I can do this in a year.”  Sometimes it is never, ever done; the end of the bridge is darkness; I lose my way.

And then there’s the voice – the voice of the book itself, which is my voice, and yet not.  If it comes in a kind of rhythym the book begins to write itself; I am the pen, the fingers.  And if there’s no voice – drudgery, hours and days of sitting mindless, waiting, “alone on a wide, wide sea.”  Nothing matters.  Stupid daily life takes over.  Maybe the journey will start again.  Maybe never.

This minute, writing this right now, I feel ready to start, to type the opening words: “Everyone (yes, everyone) chooses the wrong person....  I put my foot on the hanging bridge, and I’m afraid, yet giggly, giddy with excitement.  The bridge quivers a little; maybe it’s not anchored; maybe I’ll fall.

But maybe it will be the smoothest, most glorious time I ever had, maybe it will be wonderful, hungrily read, understood, appreciated, loved....

The bridge seems strong, as though it was made of steel.  There’s sun on the other side.  Avanti!  Let’s go!  It’s beginning!

*

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Last Words, First Words

The last word my Aunt Lillie ever said was “Mama.”   She was in her sixties, in Mount Sinai, dying.  She hadn’t seen her Mama since she was four years old.  The cancer that sapped Lillie’s life had killed her mother, too, at 34.

In writing, first words and last words have huge importance.  The first words a character speaks in a play, even if it’s “hello”…ah, but should it be “hello,” or “hi,” or “Yo,” or “Good afternoon?”; the possibilities are endless. These words are the audience’s first inkling as to what the character is about.  They should, if the writer is skilled enough, link somehow to the very last words that character speaks, better still, to the last words of the play itself.  The audience doesn’t need to know this; perhaps it shouldn’t.  Like the last notes of a piece of music, the beginning and the end of a play, or a story or a book or a poem, for that matter, should have a sympathetic resonance in – if I can draw this analogy shamelessly further – the key signature of the whole.  Do I mean that if the first word is “hello,” the last word might be “goodbye”?  Maybe.  Or maybe that’s too obvious.  It’s what the skill, the intuition, the – dare I say art? – of the writer should decide.

Not every writer knows this, not even the good ones.  Some do it by instinct, and couldn’t for the life of them tell you why the beginning and end seem right together, but they do.  If they don’t, if they jangle, if the end has no relationship to the beginning, then the work, whatever it is, is like an uncooked meal; it gives you indigestion.

In life, first words are often Mama, or Dada, or Gimme, or Light.  And last words – well, they can be as telling as Gertrude Stein’s: “What is the answer?” and then:  “Well, then, what is the question?” or Henry Thoreau’s when asked if he’d seen the Other World: “One world at a time, one world at a time.”

How much these last words tell about their subjects!   How much the first words and last words of a literary work tell about what comes between, and the skill of the writer who chooses them.

If I were writing this – and I am – I would tell you that my Aunt Lillie’s first word in this world was very probably the one she died on: “Mama.”

A Beginning . . . .

An old love's birthday just passed -- and it seems good to begin this conversation about him, whoever he was. This former love was hugely interesting to me. There was something about him that seemed unknowable, unpredictable, that I could never capture and contain. I wanted to own him, but feared always that if he chose to, he could own me.

This is what he looked like: tall, consciously in shape, careful about his clothes, hairy where you could see and where you couldn't, blunt-faced and handsome -- women took notice of him, and he knew that. He had what the Wife of Bath in Chaucer's CANTERBURY TALES had that marked her as sensual: a sliver-sized gap between his front teeth. I have always liked that. He had a grinny, superior smile. It took years for the warmth between us to flare up into fire, and in the meantime we thought and thought and fantasized about each other.

People often ask a writer: "is this story about you, your own life?" The answer is nearly always "Yes," and "No," and "I don't know."

If you read STEAL ME! you will meet him there, or a version of him. As the movies say, any similarity between the characters in this story and real life is purely coincidental. But that, of course, is a lie. Sausage isn't pork loin and meat loaf isn't steak. They are far from the same thing, but there's a relationship. The events in STEAL ME! are fiction, a fantasty. The book is wild and funny and a little crazy, but there's truth in it too -- at least that's what I think -- truth, or some human thing I found out, or think I did, about love and marriage and men and women in the years we knew each other. It took a long time to write the first line -- "He looked so sweet standing there..." and then came the story.

The first line of the new, new, newest idea for a book I'm working on is this: "Everyone chooses the wrong person. Sometimes it works out."

What, I wonder, will that book be about?