Dreaming of Home

Dreaming of Home

A few years ago I changed my life by leaving a career I loved. Deciding to quit was especially hard because I did not really know what I was going to do next or how I was going to make a living. But I did not spend my whole adult life thinking I would be a teacher. So now I am facing another life-changing decision that may be even more difficult. 

At this point you know I love the beauty and complexity of English. There are more words in the English language than any other world language. Obviously, there are redundancies because of the origins of some words, but I’ve always thought that this abundance of words makes it easier to express exactly what you want with brevity and precision. Yet I am struggling now with writing about how I feel. 

Sometimes other languages have words that say in a single or few words what takes many in English. There is a word in Swedish that does this. The word is lagom. Translations include “sufficient,” “adequate,” or “the perfect amount.” But it encompasses much more than that. One translation I’ve found is “perfect-simple.” I love that.

I’m coming to the point: I have been obsessed with owning my own home since I was a child. When my peers were still playing with Barbies, I was looking through real estate guides and dreaming. I didn’t just “play house,” I went to church bazaars and bought sets of dishes with the idea of setting up my home. My greatest goal in life was to own a home. When I dreamt of the future, I didn’t envision college, career, marriage, kids. But I knew exactly what I wanted in a house. 

I could talk about wainscoting or soft versus hardwood floors before I could discuss assessment or apostrophes. My best nightly dreams were not of flying, but of touring houses. Unlike Ahab, my monomania was not a whale, but a house. Because of this, I left my home to be able to attain a house.

And I found a house, and I thought it would be an interim place to stay while I worked to make my home dream come true. What I didn’t expect was to fall in love. You see, my house is lagom for me. 

Bittersweet. There’s a perfect English word to show how I feel about putting my house on the market. Over the years I’ve made it perfect for me in every way. From the paint colors to the original artwork to the renovated kitchen to the gardens and the Adirondack chairs looking out over the little pond, I love it. Leaving my lagom house will be bitter.

But sweet because I was never meant to stay in Connecticut for this long. I have nothing against this state, but over the years I’ve realized that I am not just a New Englander, but a northern New Englander. Part of it is being closer to family and friends, but part of it is simply a sense of place. So while my house is lagom, it was never going to be my lagom home. 

I know listing the house is not selling it, so it could be a day, a week, or a couple of months. If it were in a different place, this house would be my forever home. But it’s not, and it’s time to let it go. And I have to say it’s going to be really hard. I also know that it’s really just a building–a material thing–that I will be leaving behind. But I can’t help feeling that when I inevitably pack up my final box and head north, I will not just be leaving a house, but that I will also be leaving behind a bit of my dream. 

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The Clockworks of Editing

The Clockworks of Editing

“I didn’t break it.” This was the note I left in the face my sister’s alarm clock in lieu of its innards. It was a simple wind-up alarm clock I had noticed wasn’t working, so I took it apart to see if I could figure out what was wrong and fix it. I fiddled with the small parts, laying them out, trying to determine how to piece them back together to bring life back into the clock. Obviously, I was unsuccessful. The note became a joke in my family; honestly, what did I know about the mechanics of a clock?

Like a clock, writing is complex. Writers pay attention to the finest details, crafting unique and compelling stories that flow. This painstaking process is challenging on so many levels, but it is especially hard to look at all the pieces and admit that as a whole it just does not work.

Every part of a story needs to be perfectly balanced to make it function as it should. Minutiae matters; grammar, punctuation, verb tense, and word choice can make a piece soar or sink. Likewise, characterization and plot need to be clear and succinct, offering just enough to understand what is happening, but not so much as to make the story predictable or burdened with excess detail. A beautifully written passage may move the plot forward, or it can stop a reader and add little to the piece.

Unlike with my brief foray into clock repair, with editing I find myself on steadier ground. I so enjoy laying out all the parts of a piece of writing. From punctuation and paragraphing to language and pacing to story line and characterization, I look at all the parts of a piece of writing with a critical and expert eye before putting it back together. That is why I love doing what I do: I help get the machinery ticking.

Occasionally, my family will remind me of that episode with the clock, and I recall how much I wanted to be able to get it running again. I remind myself that I know very little about getting a clock’s mechanisms whirring, but I know a lot about making a manuscript’s details start working.

Dear Melania, Don’t Google “Nominee’s Wife’s Speech”

Dear Melania, Don’t Google “Nominee’s Wife’s Speech”

They all be dead,
Every one.
Off to war they went.
They’d be back, they said;
Wrong were they,
But that’s enough said.
They all be dead,
Every one.

I wrote this poem when I was about twelve. It doesn’t sound like my writing voice, and even at the time, I wondered where the idea came from. Was it from watching episodes of M*A*S*H? Or an idea from a book I was reading? Back then, it was impossible to research all the possibilities. Now, I am lucky to have the power of an Internet search to discover if these words were even mine. In fact, I can’t seem to find them (please tell me if you can find a source), so I have to assume I just experienced some sort of inspiration at the time.

Years later, as a teacher, I came across plagiarism all the time. Perhaps the worst case of this was when students wrote and delivered a eulogy for Jay Gatsby. One dozen of my 85 American literature students used the same lines in these short pieces. It turned out that these juniors—all diligently seeking further examples of eulogies beyond what I had shown them in class—did a little online research and found one particular eulogy for Gatsby, and they felt inspired by the words. Despite their earnest denials of plagiarism, it was obvious when comparing the online document to their pieces. Some had whole paragraphs from the one they had used as a “model” for writing. In retrospect, I should have told them not to Google “Jay Gatsby eulogy.”

Any teacher knows how hard it is to address plagiarism. However, in most schools, the honor code dictates that the offending piece receives a grade of zero, the instance is reported to administration, and parents are informed. I always told my students and their parents that it was a cheap lesson, considering the repercussions should they plagiarize later in life, where they could be expelled from school (but thank you very much for your tuition), lose a job, or face public disgrace.

Obviously, this topic has received some scrutiny in the last few days. Regardless of your politics, one thing is clear: Melania Trump’s speech is pure plagiarism. I will not vilify or defend the speechwriters, but I would offer similar advice to what I should have given my American lit students: don’t Google “nominee’s wife’s convention speech.” Jokes aside, I do think the fact that the speech was plagiarized should be a lesson for all of us.

Good writers read a lot. Reading other authors’ words and ideas can serve as inspiration. I know when I am reading a wide range of books, I find my mind churning with ideas. I mark passages that I find compelling or beautifully crafted so I can return to them later. I jot down notes for my own writing. I brainstorm ideas of how to use a particular style that appeals to me. Reading makes me want to write.

Sometimes a line or idea can get stuck in my head. I might inadvertently use an author’s idea or even a line that is buried in my consciousness. If you are a diligent reader and writer, it can happen. But here is the beauty of the world we live in today: if you read your work and you are not sure that it sounds like you; if you have a sudden inspiration that is so off-the-wall that you can’t imagine where it came from; if you are in any doubt about a characterization or line, you can do a simple Internet search. After all, as a writer, don’t you want acclaim for your own words?

The Rainbow Connection

The Rainbow Connection

Last night I dreamed of colors. Well, perhaps not colors so much as the words of color. Upon waking, “indigo” and “azure” among others lingered in my mind as the tendrils of dreams often do.

The language of color is evocative and compelling. I am not speaking of the descriptions of fashion, design, or paint created by marketing minds; I am talking about the colors of nature.

The vastness and specificity of these words are a part of our creative consciousness. There are the gem colors of ruby, emerald, sapphire, carnelian, obsidian. The rich depth of the words sparkle in communal awareness for readers. They also include the glimmering shades of beach and sea to recall warm days at the shore: cerulean, sand, coral; the green tones of the fecund forest bring to mind a quiet, contemplative hike: moss, forest, fern.

Metals bestow us with the glowing colors of gold, silver, copper, bronze, and pewter. Flowers offer delicate or riotous lilac, rose, goldenrod, and fuchsia. Harvested woods give us the depth of mahogany, cherry, ebony, and walnut. Agriculture contributes its own bounty with hay, cream, honey, wheat. Spices lend the richness of saffron, cinnamon, turmeric, and nutmeg. I could continue almost endlessly.

“Nature’s first green is gold,” wrote Robert Frost of springtime, and those words invite images of ephemeral forsythia and daffodils. Chris Bohjalian has written about how he loves the word “cerulean” and uses it in every one of his books. Each of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee tales used a color in the title, inviting readers into his story before opening the book. Writers from Shakespeare and Poe to Fitzgerald and Morrison used color imagery and symbolism to create meaning.

The literary rainbow is powerful. That these words can produce an image or convey mood is remarkable. Any writer must revel in the connections readers can make with a simple mention of color. As with any powerful tool, the color palette in writing must be respected and used with caution. I once read part of a self-published romance novel that repeatedly described the hero as having “sapphire eyes” and it became overbearing. I found myself thinking, “OK, I get it—he has intensely blue eyes.” She should have had a good editor.

The eminent philosopher Kermit the Frog* asked, “Why are there so many songs about rainbows?” I would suggest that it is because colors evoke feeling—and that is the purpose of good writing.

*“Rainbow Connection” was written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher.

The Camaraderie of Books

The Camaraderie of Books

I am an unapologetic book-carrier, meaning that I almost invariably have a book with me wherever I go. We are a dying breed, unfortunately. When you walk into a coffee shop, restaurant, even a movie theater, I am the one reading a book while I wait whereas most folks are perusing the feeds on their smartphones.

Recently, I have noticed something almost magical happening though. Like NPR donor or convertible drivers, we book-carriers recognize and acknowledge fellow enthusiasts. But, unlike the isolation of the mobile “social media” movement, we sometimes strike up conversations—with complete strangers—regarding our shared passion.

The book I have been carrying recently is The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. You should be familiar with the title, regardless of whether you have read the book. It won the Pulitzer Prize last year for fiction, an award that stirred some controversy because of the book’s polarizing effect on its readers. Some say it is overwritten and could have been half the length; others just hate the story.

Perhaps that is why this book has sparked a few discussions among my fellow book-carriers. For instance, a few days ago a customer saw the book on the counter where I work. She asked how I liked it. Though I do have some issues with some of the punctuation (which is more of the editor’s job to correct), I told her that I was enjoying the book’s intensity and the narrator’s train-of-consciousness style in relating the story. She assured me that it is worth the read and told me to “hang in there” until the end. A few days later, I saw a woman carrying a copy of the book and it sparked another interesting conversation.

But The Goldfinch is not the only book that has had this effect; it is only the most recent. We book-carriers are interested in the world, in other people’s thoughts and ideas. That is why we are readers, why we are book-carriers, and why we want to talk about what we are reading.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” I would suggest that in addition to creating a sense of belonging through the stories, literature also creates camaraderie among the increasingly-rare breed of book-carriers. We are not alone.

Heavy Reading

Heavy Reading

Though I know that e-books are light and transportable, I am still devoted to the print book. I do not even have a Kindle, Nook, or e-reader app. I have written about it before, but it bears repeating: the concrete nature of books—the paper, cover, font, margins, even the placement on the page of particularly engaging passages—enthralls me. Their heft is to a large degree part of the texture of books that I love.

For many people, summer reading should be light, both in mass and content. Don’t get me wrong, I love good popcorn reading. In recent years, I have reread all of the Travis McGee series in paperback and explored books by popular fiction authors. But most summers I eschew this traditional lighter fare.

I am reading two books right now, one fiction and one non-fiction. Their content is intellectually engaging. But this is also literally heavy reading: each book weighs about three pounds.

On lazy summer days, I love to lie on my chaise lounge and read while soaking in the sun. But these books pose a challenge with their heft. Holding them for significant periods of time over my face in a way that blocks out the sun inevitably leads to not only arm fatigue but also shooting pain down my neck and shoulders. You try holding a three-pound weight above your head with arms outstretched for an hour or more. It’s exhausting.

Yes, I can just roll over and prop the book in front of me, but vanity dictates that I ought to try to get equal sun on both sides and my back is already much darker because of the time I spend working in the garden.

In terms of heavy reading, it’s a weight I am willing to bear, as long as I get to keep my books.

Rediscovering My Muse

Rediscovering My Muse

In middle school I had a language arts teacher who insisted on a specific writing process. First brainstorm, then outline, then first draft, second draft, and a final. She would not let us deviate from this rigid route in creative writing.

I was more of an organic writer. From the time I could write, I crafted stories and poems without brainstorming or outlining ideas. A single autumn leaf inspired a poem about the season. A political classroom rivalry brought about a short satire about the presidency. My teacher’s dismissal of the word “ain’t” prompted a title that led me to write an award-winning short story about teen suicide.

But for the grades, my teacher would not yield. If I did not have a written brainstorm and outline, I could not receive an A. So I fudged it. I wrote the way I always had, then I backtracked and wrote brainstorms and outlines. These falsified papers were as much original creations as my writing: they would appear crumpled with soda stains and doodles on them. For one longer story, I think I even smeared mud on the outline. I manufactured them in order to convince her that I followed her process. I finally got my As.

Because I was not good at using the methods taught by language arts and English teachers, I found teaching creative writing the most challenging of tasks in my own classroom. Certainly I had support in the form of colleagues and books, but none of it seemed natural to me because it all began with teaching students how to find inspiration—how to imagine. From the time I could remember, the ideas just came to me without using any process. My Muse was just there.

For the ten years I was studying education and then teaching, I did not have much time to dream up stories. My creative spark atrophied to the point where, when I left teaching and decided I wanted to try to write a book, I hardly knew where to begin. I had to teach myself to write again; I needed to reawaken my Muse.

I did not brainstorm; I still have an aversion to that particular task. But I did write an outline, which I planned to follow as though it contained the tenets of a religion.

For the past few months, I have been writing the book and I am about two-thirds of the way through the story. But now the unexpected has happened: I am trusting my instincts instead of following the map I laid out when I began this particular journey. My characters make decisions that I did not plan on. In fact, my story is not going to end at all in the way I outlined.

I suppose I have always been a bit of a rogue writer. I challenged teachers and assignments because I thought that writing is a dialogue. I have discovered since returning to writing that I was right, but not in the way I imagined. It is a dialogue with the Muse, the characters, and me. And I like the discussion.