I’m so happy to be offered the chance to introduce Shelley Buck at her book launch for EAST at Diesel bookstore in Oakland. I am her publisher, after all! And what a wonderful high-flying ride I’ve had helping Shelley to bring EAST to print, like watching a kite in the wind. Shelley will be reading selections from EAST, recreating her travels (of the mind and spirit as well as body) from Oakland through Europe, Greece, Turkey, Iraq and beyond. I will also be reading from my novel, Dreamers. It would be great to see you there too.
Book Launch at Diesel Bookstore
Sunday, October 13, 3 PM
5433 College Ave.
Oakland, CA 94618
East is the true story of one woman’s overland journey across Asia. Inspired by a book purchased at Fred and Pat Cody’s legendary bookstore on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, Shelley Buck took off alone in 1972 on a journey she hoped would take her from England to India and Nepal by public transit. East chronicles that journey and Shelley’s emergence into adulthood.
Following her return to California, Shelley Buck became a founding editor of the feminist news syndicate, Her Say, now archived at Harvard. Shelley currently edits ePícaro.com—an online journal of travel narratives. When not breakfasting with white-faced monkeys in Costa Rica, or hitchhiking through the Khyber Pass, Shelley lives with her family in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.
EARLY PRAISE FOR EAST
“She captures a bygone time and place when young people took to the road, crossing the Bosphorus and then the steppes and deserts of the Middle East, to the Indus Valley and the Himalayan foothills beyond, often by public transport. Buck’s unique vantage point as a female traveler who refused to be deterred by those who said she couldn’t or shouldn’t travel on her own across lands now long-closed by war, makes for riveting reading.” —Judith Pierce Rosenberg, author of A Swedish Kitchen
“A compelling read, sensitively written by an informed and courageous woman. I felt that I was taken along, tucked inside her backpack.”—Nancy Pringle, Eureka, California
Feeling both envy and admiration, I picked up the novel, The Maytrees, by Annie Dillard.
Annie Dillard and I have some things in common. Both she and I grew up in Pittsburgh on the East Side. As a teenager, I tutored a 7th grader in the exclusive girls’ school she attended several blocks away from mine. I probably passed her in the halls on my way to the library. I never knew about her until I read her memoir, American Childhood, A Writing Life, twenty years later. Needless to say I was subsumed with envy at her publishing success. I also admired her insights about being a writer-girl in Pittsburgh during the ’50s. There’s at least one more connection we have. The main character in my second novel, Dreamers, A Love Story of the ’60s, is called Annie too.
A story of marriage on Cape Cod after WWII, The Maytrees is also a diorama of Provincetown, Massachusetts, the iconic artist’s colony where Lou and Toby Maytree’s marriage takes place and where the land itself splashes over the pages like surf crashing on the shores of Race Point.
Marriage is not exactly in one’s mind when thinking of Provincetown, the ultimate Rave party of artist colonies by the sea. I came to P-town on the Greyhound Bus at nineteen, my first summer away from Pittsburgh, and got a job as a waitress at Howard Johnson’s. The second time I came was five years later when I became a writing fellow in the acclaimed Fine Arts Work Center. There were seven of us in 1969, two women and five men, the most famous of who won a Pulitzer Prize and became US Poet Laureate. It was in P-town that I began writing the novel that turn out to be Dreamers.
Sunrise over the ice blue ocean, snow covering the dunes, the curled hooked spit of Cape Cod; it’s all there in The Maytrees. The writing itself is luminous. Dillard’s style simple, yet exotic, as befits a naturalist. Each sentence seems unique and cultured, pristine and studied. The lack of quotation marks, just dashes instead, a convention popular abroad, adds to the foreign flavor.
That winter I spent in P-town I might have met Dillard’s characters, the reclusive sometime artist, Lou, and Toby Maytree, poet and house mover. Many couples befriended me and the other young artists. Eccentric, alluring, stylish, cultured writers and painters with their boyfriends, girlfriends, wives and husbands greeted me at those parties they held, full of drugs and alcohol, patched with celebrities. I attended many on those sea-blown nights. How I envied those couples arm in arm and yearned to get close to them. I envied the literary celebrities too. If Annie Dillard had been there, she and I could have been friends.
For sure I met Deary, Lou’s best friend in The Maytrees, who slept among the beach peas and had a degree from MIT. Deary who makes random pronouncements like, “Every place you injure on your body grows more alive,” which Lou takes seriously.
Then there’s the marriage itself, pure and simple like the acclaimed white dunes around P-town, like those welcoming couples inviting me into their well-lit, warm, houses so close to the beach.
What Toby loves most about Lou is her laugh (as she rarely talked or shared her thoughts). What Lou loved were Toby’s hands, his simple directness and their sex together–Lou describes herself as “shipwrecked on the sheets”. Much to envy and admire in that!
But then, seemingly out of nowhere, catastrophe happens–the usual adultery, abandonment, and betrayal, with no going back. The wild, blue blood, gregarious Deary goes off with Toby, breaking up the marriage. But there’s no fighting or discussion, no tears or rancor. Just plain old numbing pain for Lou and benign dismay for Toby.
Avoiding the comfortable, the Wi-Fi tech-driven twenty-first century life, the fabled bars of Provincetown and old friends is what Lou aspires to after the marriage dissolves. As for Toby and Deary, they’re driven to build a successful home contracting business in Maine. But it’s not over, not yet.
If marriage is the message for the couple, it’s rolled up in a bottle you have to search for.
All in all Annie Dillard, a naturalist as well as writer, has spawned a rare, gentle deviant to the marriage of two minds, embracing an often hidden truth that any good marriage ends in old age and death. I admire her for that and for telling the story in such a rare way.
I left Provincetown the end of that winter back in 1970, though I was invited to return to the Fine Arts Work Center for a second year. Now I can see how good that might have been for me and my writing life. But then I was running too fast, frightened of being exposed as unfit to be a writer, and trembling for success in spite of it. In Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees, I get to go back again and enjoy it all.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve been reading some good books though. One I recommend is The Snow Childby 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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?
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.
Last week I began my first-ever Writing Workshop. It was cold and dark in the parking lot when I arrived at Infusions Teahouse in downtown Sebastopol, CA with my Mac computer, a few books and materials. Why was I here? I am passionate about writers and the power of words. We writers are translating our hearts to paper (or computer screen) and our work needs to be nurtured. All our work begins in the heart. If you want to be a player as I do, a writing activist as it were, you want to do more than observe; you want to join in. You need a certain kind of community, a community of literacy.
In my writing workshop I want to build community to explore our written self-expression. To write, we need an audience. And to build the audience, we need to become it. That’s why feedback from our peers is so important. We need a safe place to share our work-in-progress and David Gambil, owner of Infusions Teahouse, offered me that safe place.
The teahouse, a small rectangular room, had one side devoted to a long counter containing exquisite chocolates behind glass fronting a wall of teas. The place was busy, humming and full of customers. All sorts of local people were in animated conversation, reading or deep into their laptops. Three men in heavy coats were talking in big armchairs around a low table. The space I was hoping for in front of the window was taken as was every other chair and table.
What a crowd! I sat down at a round stool at the counter and wondered where we could sit. With all the activity and buzz, would we be able to hear each other talk, not to mention read our work?
Soon I found my participants–a poet, a novelist and a writer of interactive adventure ebooks. Minutes later, helpful employees cleared several tables after generous patrons offered their tables as they left.
“Let’s begin by introducing ourselves,” I said when the four of us were facing each other by the window. Why were they here? The responses were moving, exciting and inviting. What were their intentions for this workshop? Really, there was only one, repeated over and over, using phrases such as “committed to the work”, “need to finish” and “get my work out into the world”.
I brought up the different writing genres and mentioned how skill in one genre leads to skill in another. We talked about the origins of my two novels, Sundagger.netand Dreamers as well as the non-fiction travel memoir of living on a boat in the Bay by Shelley Buck, Floating Point. One participant read aloud the magical poem, The Dove by famed songwriter, Leonard Cohen, which I had copied from Everyman Library Pocket Poets.
Quoting the truism that 80% of writing is reading, I showed two novels I had read recently and couldn’t put down. You remind me of me, by Dan Chaon, is a story about the power and pitfalls of family and adoption. I quoted the author from his interview at the end of the book, adding that his experience resonates with me: i.e., Dan Chaon’s belief in the power of story and how he starts out with a title only and “dreams” himself into the story.
The other book I just read was How to Buy a Love of Reading, by Tanya Egan Gibson, a very literary, quirky-punk coming-of-age story of an unhappy teenager from a wealth, dysfunctional family. The chapters are divided into Setting, Plot, Devices, Backstory, Theme, Time and Tense, and Point of View in that order. You can find out more in my review on Goodreads.
Additionally these novels appealed to me because of how and where I found them–not through national bookstore chains or media publicity but at a grassroots level. I had met the author of one at the Northern California Storytellers Festival while my favorite librarian at the Hercules Library recommended the other.
Now we had arrived at the heart of my workshop–the writing itself. One courageous woman brought her poems, explaining their context and what kind of feedback she was looking for. We listened as she read a few aloud to us several times.
We discussed the poems while the writer took notes. No questions were asked of or answered by the writer. It was as if the writer were not present. Why? I explained to the group that this way no writer is put on the spot and does not need to defend her work. More importantly, she has the space to actually hear how her writing is being received. Also, the group can compare, question or respond to each other’s impressions, feeding each other’s responses and building on them, rather than directing every comment back to the writer. New ideas are generated in this spirit of brainstorming and the entire group becomes committed to having the piece (in this case, her poetry) be as successful as possible, as opposed to merely criticizing or pointing out limitations. Of course, at end of discussion, the writer is free to reply or not and free to take whatever she can use from our feedback. Honestly, our poet was thrilled with the feedback of the group. I know this because she emailed me later.
We ended up with a short 7-minute writing assignment on the subject of age (a topic brought up regarding our own ages related to point of view). Each of us chose an object we could see around us in the teahouse to include in the writing about age exercise.
At the end, I let everyone know that any work they wanted to submit could be emailed to me and reposted to the group. In addition, I would provide written comments on their drafts. Next Wednesday we would meet at 6:30 p.m., an hour later.
Leaving, I felt so grateful, so inspired. My first From Heart to Paper Writing Workshop was a success!
This was to be my first ever reading in my old hometown of Pittsburgh, PA and I was returning not only for this event but also for the reunion of Sacred Heart High School, Class of 1962. I’d be reading from my latest novel, Dreamers, A Coming of Age Love Story of the ‘60s, a story that echoes and frames my own childhood like an old family photo album.
The sky was a perfect blue, made bluer by the white puffy clouds floating between skyscrapers. My son, Jonas, also participating in the reading, led me down historic Liberty St toward Awesome Books. The light through the fall leaves on the tree-lined sidewalk radiated with pure possibility. A Columbus Day Parade was marching by as we walked into the bookstore for the first time.
Awesome Book Store is a small, vintage, independent bookstore, classical in style. Every item–counter, cash register, bookshelves, tables, chairs, and the books themselves–was carefully placed for maximum artistic effect. There was an old typewriter casually positioned on a small wicker chair below a framed sign promoting future book events. Large, well-shined wood tables held all the latest titles of books I yearned to read.
Where would I be reading? The Awesome clerk, Dan, motioned me to a door, part way open, in the back where the event would be held. Inside I found a dark room, dreary, nearly empty too, cold and gray and windowless with a swath of scribbled brown paper on one wall, a bookshelf, a mirror and lots of boxes. It reminded me of the old coal cellar in the basement of my house on Foliage St. There was a small circle of green folding chairs set up surrounding a circular card table below one overhead light bulb.
The starkness emphatically spoke to the economic precariousness of independent bookstores working on a shoestring in this age of corporate, internet book aggregates.
This was not a medieval dungeon such as appears in any popular fantasy novel. It could have been Les Miserables, La Boheme or another romantic musical. Yet it felt so familiar and spoke to those deep stark roots where Annie and Thomas, the main characters in Dreamers were born. Maybe it was that dungeon where I locked myself in all those years conjuring up Dreamers I thought.
But even so, a dungeon is a dungeon, but dragons are both different and personal. My dragons were spewing their usual fire, taunting me with gloomy predictions; you’ll have no audience, no books sold. You’ll fall flat on your face. You’ll get dizzy and confused. And so on. The flames were full of general, debilitating angst.
Still, looking around, I realized that this small room reminded me of something else–the dark, cold inner circle of the Native American sweat lodge that I write about in Sundagger.net. It would be empty too, barren and cold before the door was shut, before the hot stones were brought in, and before the singing and drumming began. Here appearances meant nothing.
This was a place of purification, where all distractions were eliminated, where all that mattered was the story.
I began my reading by saying, “You are my hardest audience.” Oh, I could feel those dragons hanging from my neck. Facing those classmates of long ago and my family from far away, you could say I had more to lose here than in any other place I had read.
But my dragons were just ghosts. The audience filled the room in a very big and inspiring way, like the sky outside on that beautiful October day. I had no doubt we were together again for a reason. Listening to my son bring alive the powerful role of Thomas, I felt free of both dragons and dungeons too, transported into that space where I wrote the book. It was the ‘60s again, when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, when all was romance, epic and life-changing, and dreaming was as common as breath. I had come home at last.
The most popular question I was asked at the California State Fair Author’s Booth two weeks ago was, “Is this story true?” The person before me would often be holding a copy of my novel, Dreamers, A Coming of Age Love Story of the ‘60s that they had just picked up from the display. On the cover is a close-up of an intense, attractive African-American male and a lovely, smiling Caucasian female.
Also displayed on the table is my first novel, Sundagger.net, a story of one family, two worlds, and many lifetimes. But no one seems to ask if Sundagger.net is true. It is only Dreamers that prompts this question.
I felt put on the spot. Did I hear an assumption that a book is better if the author says it’s true? Is non-fiction better, more serious, more worthy of attention than fiction? With the exception of writers who specialize in niches like thrillers or children’s books. the best sellers at the CA State Fair Authors Booth appeared to me to be the writers of non-fiction. After all, readers were excited by the accounts of authors who stood right in front of them speaking to the truth of the tale.
Is Dreamers fiction or non-fiction? More aptly, did it really happen to me? You might think that given the frequency with which I was asked, I would have a short (or long) definitive reply that resolves the issue. But the truth (!) is, I anguished over my replies and each answer I gave was different.
It’s not an untenable question to ask. Anyone can infer looking at me that I was coming of age too in the ’60s like Annie Ryan, the young white woman in Dreamers who falls in love with the black actor, Thomas. And then, flipping through the book, you can see that Dreamers is full of many well-known facts of the era, for example the Birmingham bombings, Watts riot, Martin Luther King, Jr’s, “I have a dream” speech and Johnson’s landmark civil rights legislation. But the question carries a special importance to the person asking. I can feel that their urgency. It’s not a light matter.
Sometimes I said jokingly, “It’s all lies. ” Sometimes I threw caution to the wind and struggled to explain what I meant.
I mentioned whole scenes in Dreamers that I remembered as true. Not only did they happen to my character, Annie; they also happened to me. One such scene is where Annie goes to Midnight Mass alone and reflects on the beauty of the traditional Catholic Christmas ritual, holding her nostalgia for the faith of her family and her youth like an old, precious doll. This happened to me–not the doll part– but the nostalgia and sense of loss. But then (I have to confess) I gave the church in Dreamers a different name from the one I was really in that Christmas eve back in the sixties. Why? I wanted a bigger truth than fact. I wanted the truth of fiction.
I could have marked whole paragraphs of Dreamers with colored markers; pick one color for truth, another for fiction. Each page would be checkered in both colors! The same with each sentence, even phrases.
It started in high school when I determined to be a fiction writer rather than a journalist, taking Hemingway as my example, because the prospect of being accountable for the truth of any set of facts, any situation, seemed just too big and impossible to take on. This book was years in the making; finally I began to trust my own inner eye, looking for the other, better story than whatever I remembered had really happened, a story that came through fiction like a phoenix rising from the ashes. In short, I lied as much as I could.
It was easier to talk about the truth of the times in Dreamers. I had one great conversation with a man from Youngstown, Ohio, right down the river from Pittsburgh where I was born and grew up and where much of Dreamers takes place. We both were excited by the similarities between those two steel-driven cities, now dinosaurs of the coal industry. That led to good talk about gentrification and the destruction of the inner city.
At the fair I had many people tell me that it could be their story or their mother’s, an aunt or their best friend’s, even the mother of a best friend. One woman asked me if I had had the baby, referring to the obvious outcome of Annie and Thomas’ romance being the birth of a multi-racial child. This led to an intense conversation about the dilemma of being multi-racial in America today (as if we all aren’t in fact relatives, descended from that one dark couple in Africa eons ago.)
I was amazed by the deep emotions I saw on all their faces. Humbled too. Along with nostalgia and a pervading sadness at loss, I sensed fear–not of the story, not the romance, but a fear of hope hovering over the book. “After all, I’ve worked hard to put all that behind me,” I imagined them saying. There was a sense that the story wasn’t finished, that somehow it shouldn’t be over. One person asked when I would write the sequel. As it was, it took me too long to write Dreamers I replied.How many more lies I’d have to conjure up! We both laughed at that and for just a moment I thought, Yes! I found the right answer. The answer to “Is it true?” is “I hope so.”