General, Journal

Admiration/Envy

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

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.

Pilgrims  Monument in the center of Provincetown
Pilgrims Monument in the center of Provincetown

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.

Provincetown beach with birds
Provincetown beach with birds

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.

Book to Read, General, Uncategorized

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

 

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General

A Book for a Haircut

A Book for a Haircut?

I sold my novel for a haircut. I collected on the haircut two mornings ago and I must say it was clearly worth it.  For about fifteen minutes afterward, I felt like I was back in my teens when I could get a thrill styling my hair, making myself “prettier” in the mirror, a thrill as wild and satisfying as writing a good story. Now my hair is wavier, lighter, and fuller.

You see, my hair has been carefully sculpted because the hair cutter is also a sculptor. Hair designer, Aaron Poovey, specializes in metal and marble.  He makes marble polar bears 2-1/2 feet tall that you can sit on while you are waiting for your haircut outside his “salon” in  his one-story house in Sebastopol, CA.  In his yard, colored glass and metal sculptures twinkle in the morning sun from where they stand tall on their pedestals and on beds of white stones.

Sitting in the styling chair, I feel special. Because hair is important–or has been for me since I was seven and jealous of one classmate’s long ribboned braids and another’s dark Shirley Temple curls. Going gray in my twenties, I decided natural was best, and for better or worse, that’s what my hair is now. I’ve never paid for a hair cut with my book before. So this is a special event.

In the chair, I notice the small bears of green and brown marble, the miniature spiraling, dancing metal figures perched on chairs and small tables, cluttered countertops and window ledges. Sculptures rest on top of magazines and used paperbacks, framed by hair spray and  “mud” as Aaron describes the gel used to style hair.

Why did I sell my book for a haircut? It was because of what Aaron Poovey said to me when I met him at an “Art at the Source” event at a nearby artist’s house (AKA “art at the source”), produced for the last 17 years by the Sebastopol Art Center.  We were talking about how to succeed in the business of being artists, being fully self-expressed. We were talking about what it takes to be creative, to write a book for example or play music or make a sculpture like that gentle marble polar bear I sat on in Aaron’s front yard, head bending low as if weighed down by melting ice flows and the increasing possibility of extinction.

I mentioned that sometimes friends, family, or anyone else I talk to, tell me they have an idea for a book, or they’ve always wanted to write a book, or they know they can write a book because they’ve been thinking about it for years. They want to know how to go about it, how to publish it, how to make a success of it. “So do I! I’m learning as I go,” I want to say. Still I yearn to launch them on their creative journey, but what guidelines are there?

Here’s what Aaron said and it’s the truth. “When you start out, you don’t know how it will end up. I never know what I’ll make, what the marble will become. It’s an adventure, a process and you have to do the work. Give yourself permission to fail.” Yes, yes, I agree. And again he says, “You have to do the work.”

Aaron has designed a perfect artist’s life; he has no need to create art for money, since hair design, which Aaron began in San Francisco when he was 18, provides a good livelihood. PLUS (and this is what really inspires me) he loans his big pieces to friends and admirers for six months, after which time they can return it, or buy it, or borrow another. He has created his own lucrative fan base irrespective of the traditional marketplace.

All this is music to my ears. So of course I rush away from the spectacular art show in the artist’s house and soon return with my two books. “This is a novel of one family, two worlds and many lifetimes, “I tell him, holding up Sundagger.net. “And here is Dreamers, a dangerous romance of the ’60s. It isn’t for sale yet,” I say as he rifles through my paperbacks.

He doesn’t have fifteen dollars for Sundagger.net and I don’t have the hundreds required to buy the marble bears, but he gives me his business card for a haircut and I give him my book. When I come for the haircut, Aaron says he is enjoying Sundagger.net. He likes the details, the genre–New Age types meet Native American culture is how he described it. I can live with that.

A haircut for a book. My hair looks great. I have his number: 707-829-9848. I’m going to keep going to him. I can check out the still, white marble polar bear. I can sit on it again, if it’s still there.