Dear Diary, General

From my backyard

When I stand in my backyard and look up at the night sky, I feel both very small and very big. The small part is my physical body, the big my spirit, from which I am able to imagine any story. Each night it’s a different sky I see and a different story.

All my stories begin with what I see from where I’m standing. It’s the forested hills, valleys and rivers of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in Dreamers. The Oakland Hills, San Francisco, Death Valley and Chaco Canyon, New Mexico in Sundagger.net.

With my upcoming novel, Spiral, I take the old story family of Sundagger.net on the same migration route as the prehistoric Native Americans took in their struggle to survive in a dying culture, one that built Great Houses as big as the Roman Coliseum at a time when medieval Europe was still in the Dark Ages.

Spirit and story begin with the land and the sky. The ancient people of the Americas knew this too.

Many readers of Sundagger.net have told me they were awestruck by the sense of the spiritual upon visiting the ruins of Chaco Culture Natural Park. Here’s a short video of the ruins of Chaco Canyon with music by my son, Chris Goslow, that recreates this awesome feeling. Notice the sun dagger at the end.

 

The primitive people saw, felt and witnessed the deep spiritual connection between earth and sky too. In the bottomland of a desert canyon sometime near the end of the first millennium, a native American climbed a butte and cut a spiral in the sandstone behind four 2000 pound boulders that just barely allowed the sunlight in.

Fajada Butte, Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Sun Dagger on Summer Solstice

This artist positioned a 19-circle spiral so that, on the one day of the summer solstice, the center of the spiral was split by sunlight in the shape of a dagger. Furthermore, this spiral pecked out of sandstone was of an exact diameter so that, at the winter solstice, sunlight framed its outmost circle by two smaller daggers of light. Likewise, the equinoxes were shown with smaller daggers.

What an artistic feat to show such brilliance and balance between earth and sky! And that’s not all. Great Houses and kivas, incredible feats of engineering, were constructed over centuries with their outer walls matching the path of the sun and moon light across the land at solstices and equinoxes.

 

Little House, Chaco Canyon
Little House, Chaco Canyon

Visiting Chaco for the first time, I first “saw” the story I would come to call Sundagger.net when I stopped before a nondescript ruin of a small house, a house that called out to me with an ancient sad face and spoke of sweet dreams and great disappointment.

I had just come home from Chaco where I had taken many notes on the land and its history. The first scene I wrote describes a man–he didn’t have a name yet–walking in a circle on the desert floor. It didn’t make much sense, except that it did. Sitting at my desk in Pinole, CA, I created my novel around this troubled man like you might if you drew circles without lifting your pen from the center point.

The man became Rowan, a big boss at TekGen, a network communications corporation in Silicon Valley. Why is Rowan obsessively circling? He’s been taking photos of the wild turkeys in the Canyon, talking to them. He’s rethinking his business venture scheme and worrying about the young woman he convinced to come with him, who’s waiting back in the rented car at the Visitor Center. When finally he looks up toward the sky, he spots his ancestor, a primitive man in skins and feathers, RoHnaan.

Wild Turkey, Chaco Canyon
Wild Turkey, Chaco Canyon

 

Spiral, my upcoming novel, takes on RoHnaan’s story, beginning with the young Willow, his mother, waiting at the deep, dry, jagged bank of Chaco Wash, frantically scanning the horizon for her much-older lover.

The Anasazi too had their love affair with the sky beginning with the land. Their first structures were circular pit houses, underground mostly, entered through a hole in the roof by ladder, but by 800 A.D. they were building above ground, raising up to 5-story Great Houses with hundreds of rooms and no evidence that anyone lived in them, round kivas likely used for spiritual ceremonies, as are the kivas of the present-day Hopi and other Puebloan tribes.

This past summer on my third trip to Chaco Canyon, when I came out of the only entrance to the biggest Great House, Pueblo Bonito, the interpretive ranger remarked that I was in the exact spot to watch the sun rise at its southern-most point on the winter solstice. She also pointed out that the east-west wall of Pueblo Bonito precisely divides day and night at the equinoxes, marking the middle of time.

What happened to these pre-Puebloans called Anasazi (“Enemy Ancestors”) by the Navajo arriving three centuries later?

Earth, Sky, Spirit. Story. Before the sun dagger, there was the spiral. Each time the Anasazi migrated, they left behind a spiral to show they were leaving. Why? There are so many questions to ask, so many secrets remaining.

Spiral by Margaret C. Murray. Coming in 2015.
Spiral by Margaret C. Murray. Coming in 2015.

 

“It’s a mystery in another dimension”, as famed Southwest mystery writer, Tony Hillerman, said about Sundagger.net. So might he say about Spiral.

Spiral is coming soon.

 

Dear Diary, Events, General

Dear Diary #7—An Open Door

“The right ending is an open door you can’t see too far out of.”–Michael Ondaatje.

Looking Southwest from Chimney Rock, CO
Looking Southwest from Chimney Rock, CO

Dear Diary,

It’s time for me to take the trip to Chimney Rock, Colorado where Spiral, the prequel to Sundagger.net, is set. I have to do it in order to write the ending—the right ending. It’s no accident that you, Dear Diary, a decrepit yellow fifty year-old notebook, end with a trip too.

That September of 1964 when I returned from my summer in Provincetown, MA I hadn’t added a single word to my diary or to the 25 pages of a novel I took with me and planned to write. How would l know all those words were not to be abandoned but revived.

There are no entries about leaving home in my diary. Dad must have driven me to the bus station. My mother would have stayed home, crying angry tears, shunning me. She didn’t approve of me going to that godforsaken place, Provincetown. Did I even hug her goodbye? Did she push me away? Did I thank my father for driving me to that dingy Greyhound terminal in the smoky bowels of downtown Pittsburgh? I know I took a brown suitcase because I remember lugging it back home from the airport on two streetcars and a bus at the end of that summer.

My trip didn’t begin pleasantly or easily. I went with Maxine and Carole, fraternal twins, friends of a friend. I can see the small lights over my seat on the Greyhound Bus that night we left. I sat next to Maxine, the older and more gregarious twin. We were on our way to Providence, Rhode Island to transfer to another bus to Cape Cod.

On the bus I would have felt chastened, though stubborn and determined, free. Maybe also frantic, an imposter, with only a few hand-written pages in my suitcase to mark my identity as a writer.  I didn’t know the twins well either. Maxine offered me the paperback she’d brought, a fey, quixotic novel of Anias Nin who I’d never heard of before; Anais proved a seemingly perfect companion through the unknown doorway.

That summer I worked as a counter girl at Howard Johnson’s, renting an old, wooden two-story summerhouse on the outskirts of P-town with the twins. I remember once looking out the smudged window above a double bed I shared with a different twin each week, realizing I wasn’t going to write a single sentence here. I considered throwing my writing out.

Map of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Map of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

How different is the trip I’m planning now, how different and yet the same. I’ve been frightened of and yet determined to travel from Chaco Canyon, N.M. to Chimney Rock, CO where Spiral takes place since I first started writing the prequel five years ago. Chimney Rock is the furthest settlement of the Anasazi culture from Chaco.

I’ve discovered much fascinating research, e.g, light-talking. One of the best resources is Greg Childs’, House of Rain. In this book the journalist Childs replicates the migration route the Anasazi travelled from Chaco north to Chimney Rock, east to Mesa Verde and the Utah Canyonlands, and then south through Arizona and back toward Mexico.

I can’t decide which route I should take from Northern California –going North or South from the Bay Area. I haven’t camped for five years and I’m not talking R/V camping but a 2-person tent where the 2nd spot is usually reserved for my 12-year-old Shepherd. But Ele won’t be coming this time. She’s just too frail and elderly.

When I follow the Anasazi migration route in my 2005 Honda Civic, my manuscript of 300 pages will be right next to me in my front seat. I’ll be scribbling, taking notes from the points of view of my characters, Willow and her son, Little Hawk (who becomes RoHnaan from Sundagger.net). They walk the nearly 100 miles  from Chaco Canyon to Chimney Rocks, following the Anasazi light-talking mounds, small hills in the high desert where the Anasazi signaled messages from great distances using fire and mica mirrors.

 

Inside a Chaco House
Inside a Chaco House

At the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park campground, I’ll  face the cracked mesa ridge where Willow waits impatiently for her lover Water Hunter. I’ll walk along Chaco Wash and talk to the crows like she does after Water Hunter abandons her. What would she have seen climbing up Fajada Butte after the despotic Elders to take back her infant son? I’ll see her leave Chaco with Little Hawk years later, sneaking away with a loaded travois and a stray dog.

Their route along the North Road across the desert is gone, just gullies, canyons today. How does the wind feel at night? Will I see the sky crowded with millions of stars that the 12th century Anasazi studied too? Or the bludgeoned skulls of the ancestors that traumatize Little Hawk and his dog inside the Salmon and Aztec ruins?

From Durango in southwestern Colorado, I’ll look for a narrow four mile road leading up to Chimney Rock National Monument.  Can I see the Piedras River from the top of the mountain?  Watch the Standing-Still Moon rise between the two jagged promontories?

 

Atop this high, desolate settlement, I’ll surely walk along the First Ridge Mesa to the two stone towers. Like Willow and Little Hawk, I’ll be anxious about seeing Grandmother after all those years she was imprisoned in the tower.

Last Entry
m Last Entry

 

Dear Diary, I have reached the end of you. After my trip to Provincetown that first time, I returned to the cocoon of  my junior year at Carnegie-Mellon. From my last entry, September 23, 1964, I see how my spirits are rising “bright and quick” as I realize there was work to be done and I could do it now. Back so long ago I gave myself a job that I still have today. That first journey opened the door.

I just have to open the door a little further, take that trip.

Standing Still Moon, Chimney Rock, CO
Standing Still Moon, Chimney Rock, CO

 

For more about my experiences in Provincetown:

The Poet & The Baby

Admiration/Envy

Dear Diary, Excerpts, General, Journal

The Poet & The Baby

The Poet & the Baby

A Short Story by Margaret C. Murray

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
—W. B. Yeats

Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod
Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod

Blue ocean, white dunes, strong wind, fall leaves. Provincetown shimmers emerging out of the translucent Atlantic. At the window of The Anchor Cafe, I sit writing in my notebook. I am on my break from waiting tables. Today, as usual, I see P-town’s famous young residence poet and an older bearded man in tweeds walking down Commercial Street. Judith Woodchild is taking slow measured steps like an egret stalking in still marshes. Maybe she’ll come into The Anchor again?

I glance down at the story I’m working on called “The Icebox”. The last paragraph reads:

“Ice. Myself. The doubt image of constancy and playfulness twists my face in a pose of betrayal. I will come through. I must. The jealousy melts on the other side of the trick door, my coffin, my cage.”

As quickly as I write, I cross out–whole lines, paragraphs even, as if instant obliteration confers value on what is worthless.  Each time I cross something out, I stop and look out the window.

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Pilgrim’s Monument, Provincetown, MA

The picturesque street is too quiet. Shop owners have shipped their inventory of jewelry, objects d’art, bikinis and Givenchy purses back to Greenwich Village. Fancy restaurants are opened on weekends only. The beaches are empty.

With my fingernails I scrape at the built-up residue on the edge of this small table by the window. I can see Judith’s slight, compact figure posed against a background of blue sky, wild waves and glittering sand. What does she think about? How many of her riveting poems materialize out there on the dunes, jutting into her consciousness like small-jeweled crabs. I wonder if she carries a notebook in her pocket or maybe her purse. Does she even carry a purse?

Sipping coffee, I look up just in time to see them come in. Banging the door behind them, Judith and the bearded man enter. Countertop rumor has it that this man is her lover.

“Good morning. Do you have any herbal tea?” she asks Don, The Anchor owner.

Don looks to me so I get up and go behind the counter to get the teapot and tea bag.

How neatly the red Pucci scarf is tied around Judith’s long nearly black wavy hair. How clean her diction is, how delicately she crosses her legs in their smooth brown high-healed leather boots. Instantly I see the thread of her passionate writing life and follow it, each one of her days like a pearl-white line of a new poem.

Provincetown Beach
Provincetown Beach

Rising early, walking to the beach where she meets her lover, stopping at The Anchor for tea, writing until three or five, her poetry flying off into bookstores like flames atop the apostles’ heads. She’d be attending book readings where she’s featured, going to those literary parties about which I overhear wild drug-filled stories at The Anchor counter.

After setting down the cup, saucer and a full teapot with teabag, I stand over her table with my pad and pencil.

“I don’t know if I dare eat,” Judith says, looking sleepy-eyed and seductive like a baby at the man who has just suggested they order omelets. He has crinkly blue eyes, a strong chin, and big hands. I wonder what his name is. He must be her lover.

“I feel like I’m gorging myself,” she says, a dimple showing in one cheek. “Maybe that’s why I threw up last night after that lobster dinner.”

They both laugh conspiratorially.

“Tell me,” Judith looks up inquiringly. “Do all women feel like they’re gorging themselves whenever they eat?”

“You asked the wrong person,” I say. “I don’t eat much.”

“May I ask why?” Judith crosses her legs the other way.

“Working here. . . you get tired of food,” I say.

“You look so thin, doesn’t she, Eric? Isn’t it awful what our work forces us to do,” she says. As she speaks to him, I noticed how Judith’s eyes jump away, how her mouth, the soft red lips, tense as if to say, “This is so difficult but I must make the effort.”

He smiles too brightly at her question. I back off, realizing I’ve been dismissed. Hurrying back to Don calling from the kitchen, I miss out on the rest of their conversation.

That night in my rented room on Pearl Street, I reread my story, “The Icebox”.  In it, Celine, a big girl of five, hides on the porch in her grandmother’s old-fashion wooden icebox. Celine suffers from a bad earache. Her new baby sister has just been born that night. She’s frightened and wants her mother to come home from the hospital. She’s ashamed of crying too and angry with her father and aunt who are arguing inside the house about whether or not they should get the doctor.

Inside the icebox, Celine discovers a trick door that leads her to. . . . Where? I’m stuck again.

I have a sister too but we’re not close. She’s a statistician at the University of Pittsburgh. I think it started with grandma’s icebox. My mother always referred to my grandmother as Grandma-in-Heaven. I only knew her from the small picture on my mother’s bedroom dresser and her old ice chest that sat out on our front porch on Foliage Street for years. She died four years before I was born.

To download the complete short story . . . Sign Up on the Top Right to receive updates from Margaret C. Murray.

Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary #5—Dying for Approval

Dear Diary,

The Scull of Persistence by Charr Crail
The Scull of Persistence by Charr Crail

 

It’s beyond imagining. You would never believe it. I just received an email from my favorite high school teacher praising my novel, Dreamers.

Sister Mary ___ (Alas, she hasn’t yet given me permission to use her actual name) is a nun in the Sisters of Charity religious order. She was only twenty five or so when she became my English teacher. She was funny, smart, and even prettier than the character Amy Adams played in that telling movie, Doubt.

Sister Mary loved literature like I did.  Once I found her after school sitting at her desk next to the window looking out on Sacred Heart Church. She was reading Shakespeare’s MacBeth, in another world, transfixed. I hated to interrupt her but of course I did. I remember she used to pound the floor with her little black shoe as she recited the poetry of Langston Hughes. Yes, Sr. Mary was both wonderful and frightening.

Her email of a week ago flows over me like honey. How thankful am I that she has had the persistence to stay in touch. What a different young woman I would have become back in 1962 if I had carried Sr. Mary’s words in my pocket. At seventeen I would have done anything for her approval. That small Irish-faced nun with twinkly eyes framed by her black Sisters of Charity bonnet held the keys to my fragile self-worth.

Writer with closed mouth
Stitched Mouth by Charr Crail

No, you won’t find anything about Sr. Mary in this diary. By the time I left high school, I had relegated her to the dustbin with all my other memories like old dolls turned ragged, ignored. I desperately wanted to leave everything connected with childhood behind.

Entering college, I put on a dark mask of disillusioned doom, the pose I thought I needed to become a serious author. I spent entire days attending classes without saying a word,  my mouth stitched tight with fear and resistance.  I remember the sensation of walking from class to the streetcar stop on a cold November day and not being able to breathe. By my sophomore year, I was literally dying for approval.

But things change. In my junior year, I signed up for Creative Writing, Playwriting, Poetry, English History and China & the Far East, classes that I found I loved.  Even better, I started to write. A September 1964 entry describes my first attempt at writing a novel.

“The excitement of writing is nerveless; my words are suspended. I have never felt so peace-like. Everything is warm and deeply comfortable to me.”

Hobbyhorse was the title of my first “book”, a florid stream-of-consciousness describing the up and downs of two young lovers told from alternating points of view, a style I just realize I duplicated in Dreamers. In Hobbyhorse, each chapter seesawed back and forth, the characters sifted like fool’s gold from the sluice box of my first experience falling in love.

Suddenly I felt joyful, happy to be alive. My diary for November 12, 1963 reads,  “I don’t even try to deaden my joy. It is slow-moving, calm.

The writer in me
Pondering by Charr Crail

And then another miracle! I found a teacher willing and eager to read my work. Dr. John Hart, English professor from Yale, was a small, thin man with a pronounced limp. Walking across the Tech campus, I’d stop to greet him, He’d be dragging his leg, his jacket blowing in the wind. He had a pale Irish face with a big squashy red nose. A few strands of light hair fell across his brow as he answered my questions in a quiet dreamy way. Each week I’d give him my chapters, typed double-spaced and folded lengthwise. He’d put them in his coat pocket. Oh! how eagerly I pondered his response.

__________________

Excerpt from Sr. Mary’s email:

Congratulations on your beautiful novel, Dreamers!  I love it!  You’ve caught so well the mood of the Sixties—the glories as well as the mistakes, the feelings, the actions, the many causes, and, yes, the dreams.  Your work is excellent, as you must know from the many descriptions on the book cover.  I especially like that by Vicki Weiland.  Your writing is indeed “taut, nuanced, sophisticated, and multi-layered.”  I’m sending your novel to my oldest niece, a psychologist who will understand well the beauty and the anguish of the sixties. I’ll let you know how she reacts.  Meanwhile, I just want you to know how proud I am of you and your work.  You’re in my prayers, now and always.  God bless you—and all those dear to you.

Artwork by Charr Crail
www.charrcrail.com

Dear Diary, General

Holding my violin, watching the movie

A character can haunt you without you even knowing it, even when the story is finished, even after you’ve written it off! That’s what happened to me with Annie, the main character of Dreamers, after I saw The Late Quartet, a masterpiece of a movie about a string ensemble.

I wish I still had my violin. I just want to hold it.

The “late quartet “of the movie title is Beethoven’s Opus 131, String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, composed in 1826, one year before he died. In the movie, it is being prepared for presentation by the world-renown (fictional) Fugue Quartet, now in their 25th year playing together.

If the first violin part is the heart of the piece, the second part is its nerves, its soul. Robert, the second violinist, played brilliantly by actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman, offhandedly explains to a woman he’s soon to seduce that it’s not a competition thing between him and the first violinist, Daniel, just different. But in fact Robert lusts after the First Chair. He’s tired of Daniel, played by Mark Ivanir, calling all the shots for the Fugue’s performances. I can understand that.

I too played the violin, taking lessons from 4th through 9th grade.  While pretending to practice diligently, I was actually reading novels. Up in my bedroom, my door closed tight, I sat on the edge of my bed mindlessly and repetitively sawing on my violin while reading books, looking over the moving bow, turning the pages one after the other between scales. I never was part of a string quartet, but after being stuck in the second violin section of the Wilkinsburg Junior Symphony for three years, I was thrilled to move over to the first violin section in 8th grade.

This all comes back to me now with Beethoven in the background. Watching the movie, I experience the grief of the cellist, Peter, the oldest Fugue member, played by Chris Walken, upon learning he has Parkinson’s Disease; the anger of Juliette, the violist, played by actress Catherine Keener, discovering Robert has betrayed her; the longing of Daniel for young love (who just happens to be Juliette and Robert’s daughter) and the passion of Robert for his marriage and his art. All together the quartet unleashes amazing, ferocious and yet gentle music in the high artscape of New York City, a place that Annie would have understood. After all she fled there like I did too.

But Annie would not have blown off her practice sessions. And she would surely not have remained with the second violins as long as I did. I loved the music, but honestly, it stayed in the background while I concentrated on fashion and style. Before each junior symphony concert, I spent hours getting ready, ironing my short, tight, black wool “orchestra” dress with the pearl buttons down the bodice, attaching my stockings to those cold metal clasps hanging from my new garter belt, slipping into my black, pointy high heels. I couldn’t wait for that moment when we all walked on stage holding our instruments, when the audience became silent and the conductor, Mr. Reichenfeld, put up his baton. Out came the elegant soloists, young musicians like myself, whom I envied for their inscrutable, focused faces and those perfect notes they played.

In his glowing review, the late, great movie critic Roger Ebert comments that A Late Quartet is a unique movie in that it actually shows professionals at work. And the way I imagine it, Juliette is the professional musician Annie would have become.

Forget Annie’s painful, confusing family, her star-crossed love affair with Thomas. Forget the fear and racial upheaval of the Civil Rights era in Pittsburgh and New York City. It’s her possibility for success as a professional violinist that excites me now, a possibility I gave up all thoughts of achieving myself.

I can see Annie playing Beethoven’s late quartet, Opus 131, on that grand stage. Annie does the work, stays the course. After all, she’s a graduate of Julliard, the same prestigious music school Daniel graduates from and where Peter teaches.

When you meet Annie in Dreamers, it’s during Christmas break. She’s practicing in her room when her father interrupts her to listen in. But who else listens?  Who hears her play other than her family through her closed bedroom door? These are the thoughts I was having in my bedroom while I read my books.

Who’s listening to Annie? Not her embittered, dissolute teacher in Dreamers. Not Thomas, the actor she falls so much in love with. Only rich, addicted, openhearted Lana, Thomas’ ex-girlfriend, befriends Annie and demands to hear her music.  I want to hear her music too.

Holding my violin, I will now open the door of my bedroom.

Dear Diary, Events, General

Dear Diary #4—Remember the Fun?

Dear Diary,
California State Fair, Sacramento
Race Horses Leaving the Gate

Come on. Get out of those diary dumps and come with me to the 2013 California State Fair.  Life’s excruciating between the covers of my old diary.  Get a grip. I’m tired of reading about my incessant self-absorption! Take this lament I wrote after the end of my freshman year in college:

A horrible thought is my uncanny recollection of the pain and my inability to remember the happiness. I fear the remembered joys for should I expect joy, I suppose I should fall apart.” –June 23, 1963.

I was tortured alright and I didn’t know how to get out of it.

I know now the world is a much bigger place and remembering joys can’t make me fall apart. They often lead to present ones. Take the Fair for example. How I love to watch those majestic race horses bolting from the gate.

Remember how I loved going to Kennywood Amusement Park in Pittsburgh? (No,  Kennywood isn’t mentioned in you, dear diary. That’s because it’s too much fun!)  Remember screaming with excitement and delight on the Racer roller coaster with Dad?  Remember being on top of the Ferris Wheel looking out over the Monongahela River  beside my best friend, Ginny, in our new matching shorts and tops, applying fresh lipstick between each new ride? The California State Fair is big fun too.

At the California State Fair Authors Booth
At the California State Fair Authors Booth

What’s so great is I get to be one of 40+ featured authors. I apologize to the literary critic and outright snob of eighteen, the judgmental author of said diary, when I freely admit I love presenting my novels Dreamers and Sundagger.net at the Fair. I revel in meeting and greeting everyone. We have great and small conversations about authors and books and I love selling mine. In fact, I enjoy the whole damn show.

Each author has his or her own unique story. For example, at the Authors’ Booth you’ll find Naida West, the long-time manager of the booth, author of the California Gold Trilogy, and a penetrating writer with a big heart and an even bigger vision.

I remember it was 1997 and I was going to an open-air book fair on the Embarcadero when I met Naida. I had been rewriting Dreamers for it seemed like forever and working on another novel too called Pillow Prayers, a desperate story of Age of Aquarius hippiedom.  That one’s still under my bed waiting to be sprung loose. That October day I took BART to the San Francisco wharf to rub shoulders with published authors and booksellers at a free book event that featured the best-selling Jane Smiley. But the author who really made an impression on me that day was Naida West.

Naida approached me smiling, as if welcoming me into her ’49er world. She wore a long paisley dress and matching bonnet, a pioneer outfit clearly meant to promote her novel on the small folding table,  River of Red Gold.  (I can hear my eighteen-year-old literary critic mumble, “But this is so obvious! So blatantly crude and sales-directed.”) As if a writer has to wait on a pedestal, hoping for a scraps, nods of recognition, pennies in remuneration.

After I read Naida West’s breakthrough California historical fiction, I realized here was a courageous woman at the helm of authordom, courageous enough to tell the gold rush story of San Francisco  from the authentic, Native American point of view. She was steering her own ship, a small press owner and publisher, while the infant self-publishing digital revolution had barely broken the surface of the Bay waves.

I’ve  met other writers at the Fair too who have opened my eyes to bright possibilities I never dreamed of.  Jody Horner was the inspiration for my present novel-in-progress, Spiral,  a story of migration. The animated author of a series of Golden History books compiled from primary source documents, Jody encouraged me to write a sun dagger series. I remember the moment I actually saw it was possible. In my mind’s eye I followed a besieged primitive Anasazi mother and her young son on a migration to a mountain top more dangerous than anything they left behind.  Where a few moments before I had never even considered the possibility of a prequel to Sundagger.net, now. . .now?  I can do it, I thought. I can see how it will go. The writing will be easy.

MMandMargie
Talking with Author Margie Yee Webb

 

For more about  the 2013 CA State Fair, click on:
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Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary #3—Once Upon a Time

Dear Diary,

mm looking forward & back

Remember those words “Once upon a time”?

Remember the comforting lulling adult voice reading, leading you into the magical world of beasts, princesses, orphans, witches, godmothers, beanstalks, dwarves, pumpkins, mice and giants?

As I read my dairy of fifty years ago, I’m imagining a fairytale that begins the same way.

“Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to be a great writer and to do this she knew she had to go to the Underground. Nobody told her how. Nobody wanted to talk about becoming a great writer so she figured it was a secret and she had to find the keys to Queendom of Writerly Greatness for herself. Arming herself with a bunch of famous books, she set out right after high school when she thought she had grown up.

It proved easy for her to get Underground. The authors in the books she had read left clues. She had her diary to write in. She didn’t even have to leave home. It wasn’t hard to find the keys.  She took one key from her father who read Shakespeare each night in his pajamas, the second from her high school boyfriend who abandoned her with no explanation, the third from the girlfriend who shared her dreams of literary greatness while betraying her, and the last from her college English teacher who critiqued her first novel without reading it.

But once Underground, she didn’t know where to go or how to achieve her dream. Though the keys opened the door, she found no use for them thereafter. Carrying them weighed heavy on her. They dragged her down as she crossed the murky, foul-smelling wasteland of the underworld,  the heavy metal keys clanking, mocking her  feelings of shock, fear, disappointment and loss. There had to be something else she thought. So she threw the keys away. Now all she had were those old books and her diary. She was simply and utterly  lost.”

This is all the further I’ve been able to get, Dear Diary. Maybe you hold the rest of the story, maybe not. It’s just that it’s the beginning of May and I’ve been distracted by springtime here in the Bay Area. All the roses in my front yard are blooming. Plus I just bought a second-hand stove after being without one since Christmas. Then there’s my dog who always wants to take a walk. There’s more reasons. I like to talk to the moon and stars at night.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

I’ve been reading some good books though. One I recommend is The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, an author who pulls you into a fairytale like no other. The story takes place on the barren lonely, raw and austere wilds of Alaska where Mabel’s just come with her husband Jack.They want to leave their old lives in Pennsylvania behind and start over, have a new life. But Mabel is haunted by the cries of the stillborn child she and Jack had lost many years before.

During the first snowfall, in a rare spirit of playfulness, Mabel suggests they make a snow child, a girl. She’s remembering a fairy tale in a book her father read to her as a child, a fairytale that haunted her.And so the story unfolds.

Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome, Shena Guild and Tom Bower
Little Daughter of the Snow by Arthur Ransome, Shena Guild and Tom Bower

I had to stop reading The Snow Child for awhile.  I think it was the thin red fox “with narrow golden eyes like a cat” on the book’s cover, a fox who is the snow girl’s familiar, her spirit animal. I felt like the fox sometimes. And sometimes I felt like the snow child. Of the two, it was the fox I couldn’t bear to see in so much danger.

I couldn’t take up the novel again until I was ready to face losing the fox. But, as with any  good fairytale, I had to find out the ending. I did finish the book. You can find my review on Goodreads.

I learned that the author Eowyn Ivey, a young woman from Alaska, modeled her story after an old Russian fairytale she found in the bookstore where she works. Could I conjure up a haunting fairytale from my old diary the way Ivey did with that children’s book?

Dear Diary, you are my familiar, my fox. It doesn’t matter to me if I finish this fairytale or not. I swear I’m ready to face you. Just let you go. Read to the end.

 

 

The Snow Child by Freya Littledale and Barbara Lavallee
The Snow Child by Freya Littledale and Barbara Lavallee

View all my reviews

Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary #2—Sour Grapes

Dear Diary,

Yesterday’s Grapes

You’re a work of my teenage literary angst, a time where I was in free fall, a teenager with a bad case of sour grapes who rejected love the more she wanted it, who wouldn’t be caught dead writing the commonplace salutation, ‘Dear Diary’. You’re the Phantom of the Opera without the magnificent and haunting music, an angry, lonely rant born of frustration, like the ferocious hip-hop booming from car loudspeakers.

There’s a reason you’ve been buried for fifty years in assorted cardboard boxes stacked in dark closets and damp garages, moved from my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA to the places I’ve lived–Cape May, New York, Honolulu, Provincetown, San Francisco, Concord, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Santa Cruz, Clear Lake, Sebastopol, and now Pinole.

And yet I’ve kept you. There were other diaries that I didn’t keep. The first ones would have been gifts–small blue or black stitched books with gold painted clasps that you could lock with a tiny key. The lock and key signified secrets no one else could know unless I shared them. At eight or nine I loved secrets and I still do when they are mine.

When I was about ten I had a black and white composition book like you can find today at Safeway or Walgreens. This diary had a name–Fiona. I remember I spent a long time thinking it up. Fiona was a Celtic name, rare and mysterious like I imagined Ireland to be and where all my relatives came from. Fiona would be that perfect, secret friend within the covers of a book I could talk to whenever I wanted.

I remember working hard for short spurts at Fiona, failing to fill more than a few of the blue-lined blank sheets. Each word I wrote shut me up further. I just couldn’t think of anything important enough to matter to the big world outside. My desire to write died in the act of trying. I threw that diary away like my mother threw away those novels she disapproved of.

When I thought of being a great writer, I thought of male writers, not women. Back then I hadn’t even heard the word ‘feminist’, nor yet reached the point of claiming God as “She” or perhaps even Me. I took for granted that ‘man’ referred to humanity in general, as if the generic ‘man’ could ever include the woman I would become.

Everything I wanted felt impossible to attain. I was a young woman doomed in Catholicism I decided, struggling with “a strange knotted mixture of love and sex”. Yet how I want to talk to God, spelled with a capital ‘G’. I wrote prayers while declaiming how I hated to read them.  Once I lapsed into bad French as if to make my prayer more exotic and interesting.  “I shall reverse the incarnation,” I wrote. What did I mean by that?

In truth, I was heartbroken to leave childhood behind. The summer I began to write in you, dear diary, I read many books I decide are “unsatisfying and hopeless” (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for one). I’m afraid “I shall never get out of myself.” Maybe that’s why I wanted to write a sequel to Catcher in the Rye. Along with Holden Caulfield, I felt despair at the idea that my childhood was gone–forever.

But things were changing. Something happened in the middle of winter during semester break.  I was having all my wisdom teeth out (the irony didn’t escape me then or now) and had to spend the night in the hospital. I remember lying in the hospital bed. The day was overcast, the room dark and poorly lit. It must have been the next morning after my teeth were pulled. I had been drugged and didn’t remember a thing, feeling relieved that the whole experience was over.

My cousin came to visit me. I felt embarrassed to have my mouth all swollen. It was hard to talk. Intermittent noises, loud and soft voices, bangs, the clank of medical equipment, sounded from outside in the hall. There was a knock on the door. In came a Catholic priest on his usual morning rounds. He was a short, compact man of middle age with a receding hairline, wearing a long black cassock. Carrying a chalice in his hand, he asked if I wanted to have Extreme Unction, the last sacrament given to Catholics who are near death. “No!”, I answered, shocked at the offer. He left quickly. I  was worried. Had I offended him? My cousin and I looked at each other and burst out laughing. How hilarious! How funny to imagine I would die having my wisdom teeth removed!

Kathy left and I was all alone with only the hospital noise outside for comfort. These unknown sounds made by strangers, people I would never know, reverberated in my mind. I realized I could write stories for these people and for everyone. I imagined my writer’s journey ahead as full of discovery and play. I didn’t find this idea impossible, not at all.

Now my diary bursts into an awkward joy. “I believe I am beginning to hope,” I write, while in the next sentence complaining that “working at the Sun Drug store does nothing for my self-possession”. Kathy found me that job the summer after my first year at Carnegie-Tech. She worked at the cash register, the better position, while I ‘manned’ the counter, serving up Cherry Cokes and a 29-cent breakfast (one piece of toast, one egg, one piece of bacon and one cup of coffee.) As usual these juicy details were not recorded.

“I shall never destroy innocence,” I wrote on the Fourth of July, 1963. Where was I that holiday?  At a family picnic? Did I go to the fireworks at the Point? What did I experience that prompted me to take such a stand for innocence?

“This happy day–September 21st, 1963,” begins another entry. It’s the start of my sophomore year and I’ve been reading Shakespeare’s early comedy, Two Gentlemen from Verona, which I find “so entertaining and sweet.”  I want to record how happy I am before the happiness disappears, describing how I prance about my bedroom eating grapes and listening to Johnny Mathis sing of true love. I write at length about the grape stems, marveling with awe and wonder at the purple-sweet fruit in my mouth.

Even now, every day when I start to write, it’s like I hold those grapes in my hand. I begin from that same unknowing, that blind innocence and hope. With the unknown yearning part of myself, I call up the story I want to tell. I might even dance around my room or listen to music about love.

 

 

 

Dear Diary, General, Journal

Dear Diary

Dear Diary,

Heart Love
Heart Love by Sophie

Reading my very old diary seems like a perfect way to celebrate Valentine’s Day, a time for nostalgia and love. Diaries go along with flowers, candy, lace-trimmed red heart-shaped cards, romance, passion, flirting, secrets and wide-eyed innocence.  And diaries are where we reveal our true love. But so far, reading you, dear diary, leads me to just the opposite–shame, embarrassment, and sadness.

It was June 9th, 1962 when I began this diary. I had a new bright yellow Easyrite notebook, all the pages blank. However, I wrote my first entry on the last page, following my penchant for doing the opposite, the unusual, a habit I had perfected.

My Diary, 1962-1964

“BITCH BITCH BITCH,” are the first three words I wrote and now read. The words are in capital letters, underlined three times. I’m sorry to admit that my mother is the object of my fury. Why am I so angry with her? Putting it simply, we had a love-hate relationship.

That June day I was furious because my mother had “banned” yet another of my precious books, yet again torn it up and thrown it in the garbage. The book my mother threw out three days after my high school graduation was Norman Mailer’s “Advertisements for Myself”.  In the first paragraph I made a list of the other books she’d thrown in the garbage can. They included Andre Gide’s “Point Counter Point”, Aldous Huxley’s “Barren Leaves”, Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and something by Kahil Gibran which might have been saved because his name is crossed it out.

When I realized what she had done, I rushed down the driveway to retrieve the book. I remember those garbage cans standing in the alley at the foot of the driveway behind our newly built two-story red brick house on Fairlawn St. All along the alley were backyards like ours with only a few lawns, mostly coppery, yellow dirt left from the tractors of the construction crews bulldozing this new small subdivision in the East Hills. The street dead-ended at an open woodsy area where I walked my dog and seven years before read the complete Sherlock Holmes in a tree by a stream where violets grew.

Dear Diary, 1st sentence

Oh, I was seventeen and unsatisfied, lovelorn and resentful, rebelling against my parents and their expectations, contemptuous of the status quo. My only recourse was books, their wonderful stories, and from them I fashioned the story I desperately imagined for myself. Obviously, my mother suspected that these books were corrupting me and would not fit me for success. Maybe she blamed the books for my lousy, jaded, faux-superior attitude?  Maybe she wanted her first daughter to be as sweet as those pink, lacy, Valentine cutout cards?

But I had decided I was beyond romance. I had read “Gone With the Wind” too long ago. Now I was desperately yearning for significance, wanting to be grown-up and a real writer too. I think I was hoping that if I were angry or bitter or isolated enough I’d feel as important as the characters Dostoevsky, Hemingway or Charlotte Bronte wrote about. In the poetry of Keats and Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas,  I took “love” to mean “loss” and “desire” to mean “despair”.

Everyone knew those Valentine cards were corny, didn’t they?

After I graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school, I felt like I lost my school friends. My boyfriend, with whom I was desperately in love just like those Valentine cards promised, disappeared from my life. I thought I should leave everything I loved behind.  Angry and bitter, hard and brutal were the desirable characteristics of the new adult world I saw I must enter.

Hell. Death. Suffering. These were the important words. On the back of my diary I had printed in a quivery hand three quotes from some famous philosopher that I don’t recognize: “Hell is the inability to love. Death is the inability to hope. Suffering is the inability to believe.” I thought if I could embrace hell, death and suffering, I’d be important too!

But the irony did not escape me. I was nothing if not ironical. I confess, dear diary, all I glean from reading you now is the contempt I felt for myself then. Who dared to care about that bookish seventeen year old girl from the comfortable suburbs of Pittsburgh in no apparent danger or distress?

Dear Diary,  With shame I write in you.
Dear Diary, I write with shame.

I admit I’d love now to read more scenes like my first angry one.  But “BITCH BITCH BITCH” may be the only really compelling line in the whole diary. I don’t know because the truth is I can only bear to read a little at a time. Dear diary, I confess you are boring and repetitive, empty of any meaningful characters or memorable details. Each sentence requires that I step back and forgive myself for my unpleasantness and the insufferable righteousness I claimed for myself while blaming my mother. Such tortured, melodrama! I guess I thought I was a true romantic.

Now I promise to read you. Taking my cue from the Buddhist practice of meditation, I will become aware of all that isn’t said, all that is bungled  or disguised.  Reading you will be my challenge–my practice, like the practice of zazen. Think of me sitting on a pillow,  naming my thoughts and letting them go while I read on.  You, dear diary, hold all I have left of that lonely teenager who was myself. I want to embrace that girl.

Maybe I could fall in love with her.

 

Happy Valentine's Day!
Happy Valentine’s Day!