Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The end of my excellent NYC writers group




As obvious as it was, 

I didn't see the storm coming.



My NYC writers group imploded. The implosion happened in mid-June, out of nowhere, and it caught me by surprise.

Sometimes writing about something helps me understand it, or put it into perspective or, when necessary, let it go. Maybe I’ll land squarely on some nugget of truth we can all benefit from.

The breakup was ugly and wrenching, with accusations and tears and hurt feelings. Not only did our group break up, but at least one valued friendship ended. Since then, none of us has communicated. Our Thursday afternoon writers group was very good and now it’s very gone. I am still in disbelief.

Every week we listened to amazing stories — a handsome young husband’s cruel betrayal, a loving father’s midnight whiskey fogs, a single mom’s multiplying payday loans. We talked about the metaphors, the points of view, the sentences that worked and those that didn’t. We referenced other books. We brought luscious treats like chocolate chunk cookies and creamy gelatos from New York’s finest shops. Could it get any better?

We told each other how important this group was, how well it served us, how we wouldn’t know what we’d do without it and then … boom. Just like that.

Writers groups have to have rules. A few I’m familiar with are: Don’t debate another member’s critique; leave it to the author to take it or leave it. Be polite when you critique but by all means critique. Be on time. Don’t mistake the writers group for a pajama party. There’s work to be done and limited time. Yes, there are lots of rules and most long-lived groups end up adopting a few.

Sometimes you have to evict a member from your group. If you have to do it, do it right away. Better yet, have a very strict admittance protocol so that you induct only those who fit in. I’ve heard myself tell groups: This is not a democracy. She has to go.

If she doesn’t, the group will go down.

My NYC writers group evicted one of our members a year ago last spring. She was reading a very personal, powerful memoir about her life as a sex worker and her battle with acute depression and hallucinations. She was a dominant that specialized in kicking men in the testicles. She had good reasons to like this. And the men that signed up for what’s called ball busting liked it as well. Though her stories were hard to take, they were well written. I thought her book had a chance if she were to pull the various chapters together into a cohesive whole.


NYC is often called the creative capital of the world. 
It's easier to find and connect with writers here. 
But there's a volatility, too.

  
Our group took a retreat and spent a long night helping her produce an outline with chapter synopses. She wore us out and the next day one of our key members said she’d had enough. The schizophrenic had to go. We ousted her for being too needy and too oblivious to us. The previous afternoon, while we were in the swimming pool, the about-to-be-ousted member asked me to photograph her. I noticed that she was always aware of me, always posing, always turning herself toward me provocatively. One of her attributes was her beauty. If she was a narcissist, as some thought, she was oddly vulnerable and sweetly likable — attributes she used to her advantage.

This spring another group member got targeted as disruptive and insensitive. The complaint: She talked too much and she interrupted others to the point that some felt the quality of our critiques had suffered. The objecting member proposed a slew of rules meant to eliminate all the chitchat and keep things more orderly. In an instant we were to go from collegial and friendly to no-nonsense workshop. The transition felt undoable. The two members locked horns, laying down boundaries that essentially took both from the group.

With two of the four core members gone, that was it. Immediately prior to all this happening, I had recruited three new members who knew nothing of the dispute. I still haven’t had the heart to tell them. I’ve been hosting a virtual group with the new members this summer in hopes that all will be forgiven and that our group will miraculously reconvene this fall. This kind of protracted hoping is an example of me needing to work the serenity prayer:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.  

I think the clarity I’ve been looking for is starting to materialize.

There are good reasons this implosion happened. Groups need rules but rules are hard to implement after a certain critical point — specifically, when patience has dried up. Second, writers groups resemble therapy groups even if they’re not therapy groups. Lots of psychology gets revealed in the process of reading, critiquing and rewriting. In other words, we know a lot about each other. Thus, and third, trust and sensitivity are essential. Had we trusted each other, we could have brought up the issue of excessive chitchat a lot earlier and simply helped each other through the hurt feelings.


Our writers group retreat in the Hamptons 
felt like a gift till one member tried our patience. 
The rest of us planted the seeds of our eventual destruction.



I once started a writers group that functioned for years with me as host. We met in a conference room at the newspaper where I worked as an arts magazine managing editor. I invited the people. I disinvited them. Once, one of our long-term members plagiarized a short story. She put her name on another member’s story, changed the beginning slightly and got it published. When I found out, I did what I thought was the logical thing and told her to leave. I loved my writers group more than it loved me. When I took a job at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and asked if we could move the group’s starting time up 15 minutes to accommodate the train schedule, they said no and that was that.

Which proves to me that a writers group is not a family. It’s not a bunch of best buddies. It’s not therapy. And it’s not school. Its primary purpose is to help you produce good writing. If that stops happening — for any reason — expect an implosion.



   

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The immigrants close to home


Salvador and Enriqueta Padilla, 
my grandparents, journeyed from
Leon, Mexico, to Santa Barbara,
in stages. They battled hardships
along the way, stopping to earn money
as farmhands and railroad section hands.


My grandparents, Enriqueta and Salvador Padilla, made their way to the United States on foot and on trains during the Mexican Revolution. For part of the trip, rather than share a freight car with enemy soldiers, all thirteen family members rode on top. Danger is relative and the soldiers proved the greater threat. The story goes that my great-grandmother, Porfiria, sold the family homestead during the revolution so her family could get to safety in the United States.
As my family journeyed toward the border with the United States, Grandpa made a little money roasting pieces of meat in the earth over hot coals, and selling this food as they went. I’ve seen him butcher pigs in his backyard in downtown Santa Barbara, so I suspect he may have had held onto a few goats or other livestock to slaughter on their long trek to safety. The enterprise reminds me of a nomadic version of the taco trucks we see on city streets. Perhaps Grandma, admired for her superlative Mexican cooking, helped prepare these al fresco offerings. When they crossed the border in El Paso in 1915, they had $20 left between them.
Salvador and Enriqueta, so busy working to raise and put all twelve of their children through college, rarely sat still. I knew them hardly at all. Grandma always wore an apron and never learned English. She communicated with me in sign language, a big smile on her beautiful face. I learned how to iron and make flour tortillas by following her nonverbal instructions. Both of my grandparents went to church every morning at dawn and slept with a large and rather gruesome crucifix hanging on the wall above them. The graphic natures of Jesus’ wounds clearly did not dampen their physical love for each other.
These days my significant other, Jim, and I find some of the best Mexican food at NYC’s Union Square farmers market. Hidden between the farm trucks and tents, a handful of immigrants dish up similarly complex, aromatic Mexican dishes from a bunch of coolers, steamers and vats. I’m told they are routinely rounded up and evicted from the market. We locate them because long lines of hungry patrons point us toward these accomplished, hard-working cooks like a stem to a rare bloom. The enterprising women charge $2, a pittance, for the most delicious tamales you’re likely to eat. And I’ve had to argue to get them to take a tip.
As I read Deval Patrick’s remarks about the 50,000 homeless migrant children between 3 and 17 years of age that no one seems to know what to do with, I do so remembering that I am blessed by my grandparents’ fortitude and courage, and by the bounty of this country. My gifts — a home, an education, a daughter, friends and loved ones — were not won by me exclusively. We are all buoyed by our amazing privilege at having landed in United States, recently or generations past. Our schools, libraries, roads, systems of jurisprudence that ensure fair practices in business and in life, our neighborhoods with our town governments that oversee our safety and quality of life — these are resources I inherited by virtue of sheer good luck. Except for the Native Americans, we are all guests here and our occupancy is, indeed, quite temporary. As I see it, we are stewards with responsibilities that we now must be reminded of.
The 50,000 migrant children who risked their lives to escape dire conditions we probably cannot imagine, have become, like everything else these days, a bullet point in a political rationale for why we must do nothing. These children are but one more proof of Obama’s bad judgment, some politicians aver; therefore, they are, I fear, fatally tainted. What will become of them is anyone’s guess. Patrick and those of like kind are going to have to shed additional and copious tears to get these unfortunate children minimal resources.
According to this morning’s Boston Globe, a woman living in Bourne said the children should be sent back to their countries. “We will do anything for illegals, and we won’t do anything for Americans. I don’t have sympathy for people breaking the law.”
We don’t do anything for Americans? Just look around. Is not Bourne, on the mouth of glorious Cape Cod, a gift in and of itself? Is not your life, free of constant threat of rape and starvation and extortion, not a gift our individual tax payments could never pay for by themselves? Is not that salt air and the road that leads you home every night from your job in a nursery not a gift? Is your job, all by itself, not a gift?
These are just children, our Massachusetts governor reminds us. It bears remembering that these are children alone in a foreign land. He quotes scripture, though I hasten to insist that we don’t need religion to know right from wrong. Yes, he’s correct in framing this as a moral issue. We don’t need Cardinal Sean O’Malley to remind us of that.
But if the idea of God is going to move us closer to helping these children, then fine. Here’s what Patrick says: “Every major faith tradition on the planet charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t, and won’t, turn to it in moments of human need.”
We should give back, not once with an envelope dropped in saintly humility, into a basket on Sundays, but every day. We must give of ourselves. Here on Cape Ann there sits an empty school, with empty classrooms, toilets, a cafeteria, offices and grounds. This looks, from my uninformed point of view, like a perfect location to house some of these children for the four months they are to be housed in this country.
Let us lend a helping hand in the same generous way we daily receive our own gifts of love and life and freedom — won for us by others who came before and paved the way.


Monday, April 21, 2014

Think of sentences as opportunities


“My writing process — a blog tour”

I always write in complete sentences, our journalism professor told our feature-writing class one afternoon. Don Murray was talking to us, as he often did, about his own writing life. Although I resisted a lot of what he (and everyone in positions of authority) had to say back then, his example shaped the writer I was to become.

The only time I use fragments is when I intend to do so, thanks to my teacher. Every opportunity to put words to a page is an opportunity to practice my craft. That is the lesson I was meant to learn. Even my journals are written in complete sentences, just like Don’s were. I do not abbreviate words and I do not use clich├ęs and hackneyed language.

It’s with Don Murray’s lesson in mind that I come to today’s blog entry, “My Writing Process — Blog Tour.” I promised my good friend and fellow writer Betsy Marro I would participate because she did a very similar blog tour for me last year. You can see Betsy’s current entry on thistopic here.

I’m tired of and unimpressed with my own thoughts about process despite the value of the exercise. Last year I learned that thinking through such process questions (see below) helped me step back and define my intent, my unique point of view, my motivation. And the exercise helped me to see if and why it all still mattered. I’ve had writer friends who, after such exercises, gave it up.  
The four questions:
What am I working on?
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Why do I write what I do?
How does my writing process work?

Today, I’m going to avoid obvious answers and attempt to turn this exercise into a writing session in the spirit of Don Murray.


What am I working on?

These people pictured above, some of whom are friends, have gathered, as they often do, in late afternoon for drinks. For me, the theme is loss. A key member has died and this is the first time I’ve sat with them in this way, and in this lovely setting, since her death. It’s a terribly sad moment for me and yet I want to see everything. What do I see happening here? What are the details around me? How much do I miss when I look? How much do I, aged 65, infer due to experience and longevity when I believe I should infer nothing at all.

How much do I misread because of my own emotional point of view in that moment? What does it take to look harder and deeper? Can I even do this? What does this white wine I’m drinking do to the picture I’m taking in as I sit with these people? What can I do to make myself see everything as if for the first time, with fresh eyes, without assumptions and expectations? How do I forever access that sense of wonder? What will I come away with when I stand up and get into the car to drive away? What will I forget? What will I turn this moment into, back home in Rockport?

What am I working on? I am working on concentrating my effort, whatever it is, to make it as fruitful as I am able.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My father Angelo a few years before he died, is seen here wearing what’s called a Mexican wedding shirt. He’s with is wife Carolyn and his older sister Jennie. We are at Jennie’s house in Carpinteria, about to head to a gigantic Padilla family reunion in our hometown of Santa Barbara. I am writing about this Padilla family and my early relationship to them in the Santa Barbara of the 50s and 60s in a memoir I’ve titled “Partial Recall.” This writing project is a journey of discovery, a problem-solving work of writing (all creative projects are problems to be solved), another attempt to go deeper, with any eloquence I can muster. How is this memoir different from all the others? It started with Angelo, who made me who I am whether or not I like it.



Why do I write what I do?

Betsy, in the middle wearing the wide-brimmed hat, strolls along the San Diego pier toward her home a few blocks away. I am over to the right, happily remembering the aroma of the air off the Pacific I grew up loving. It feels in every way like home though I have just come in from NYC, where I now spend a great deal of my time. All impressions, ideas, reactions, thoughts — everything — start with this primal connection to the micro-universe from which I came. Betsy, my new and better family, is one of the reasons I have the courage to do this. And Betsy, many years ago, showed me how creative nonfiction writing can be.


How does your writing process work?

It’s a daily discipline that’s energized by wonder. I can go back to question #1 for details on how to recharge. 

Next up


On April 28 author and my longtime friend Susan Oleksiw will blog about her recent work. She has a new Anita Ray mystery novel coming out. This series is set in India where Susan has lived and visits often. If you have an opportunity to view exhibits of her photographs taken in India, don’t miss it. And, of course, don’t miss her wonderful Anita Ray series.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

My bad day with Maxine Kumin


Maxine Kumin loved horses. 
 I guess she thought everybody else did, too.


It was a beautiful fall morning in 2000 or 2001 when I drove north to Warner, N.H., to spend the day with Maxine Kumin. I was working on a profile of Kumin for The Larcom Review, a literary journal published by author Susan Oleksiw.

Reading last week about Kumin’s death at the age of 88, I thought back to that absolutely horrid afternoon at her farm in Warner. It was the worst interview experience in my career as a journalist. It provided me with a new truth: I could not salvage something just because I put my mind to it. My usual tools — research, persistence, compassion, curiosity — were as useless as my questions that she slapped down, one after the other.  By the time I left that farmhouse, Kumin was sputtering.

I was motivated to do the interview because I’d recently read and reviewed her unforgettable memoir, “Inside the Halo and Beyond,” about her arduous recovery from a broken neck and numerous broken ribs. One of her most beloved horses was pulling the carriage she was racing when a truck spooked him. Kumin flew off the carriage and the horse pulled the carriage over her. More than a year had passed. She and her husband were back to maintaining their farm and her horses. I remember her saying she had no intention of ever leaving there.

A few years before that, Kumin had been keynote speaker at a small writers conference I attended in New Hampshire. She spoke about her close friendship with Anne Sexton and about her profound grief after Sexton’s suicide. She was so honest and heartfelt the whole room felt a connection. Kumin was a feminist, a part of history, a survivor, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet as well as the U.S. poet laureate. I loved her. After reading her book, I had to see and hear from the person who beat 95 percent odds. Not only had she lived but she walked and she wrote and she farmed. I wanted to see that kind of will up close.

The first thing she did was introduce me to her horses. “Come out back and say hello,” she said. Was this a test? Or did everybody but me want to snuggle up with a bunch of horses?

I didn’t have time to put down my purse or my notebook. We walked to the corral in back of her farmhouse. The horse who’d been spooked by a truck was among the six or seven horses gathered there. I was paralyzed with fear when all of them — so much taller than I, it seemed — galloped over to greet us. We got into a bit of a tussle over who would get to have my reporter’s notebook. They nudged, nuzzled and bonked me repeatedly. I could barely keep my balance as Kumin stood back, smiling as her brood enthusiastically welcomed me. Words like stampede and crushed and horseflesh were whirling through my anxiety. I tried, of course, to conceal my terror but I’m sure it was obvious. By the time we left the corral, I smelled like wet hay and mud and manure. My reporter’s notebook was slimy. My Ferragamo flats were caked with dirt. I slipped into the living room, ahead of Kumin, to find her husband on his knees, tending the fire.

Though my stated purpose that day was to follow up on the accident and see how a working writer had found her way back to the writing, Kumin wanted to elevate the discussion. She wanted to talk about her poetry. I could not oblige her. Despite the serious homework I had done, I’m no scholar and no poet. And even though I lived with a poet, I had no insights that could carry me through this excruciating mismatch.

Of course my intention was never to annoy or frustrate Maxine Kumin. But I had. I persisted with the questions she didn’t want to answer. Call me inflexible. I took notes. I acted like everything was okay when, in fact, I was assuring that this fiasco would fully fledge and that I would bring her down with me. Guess what? Sometimes you just have to give it up and walk away.

I left at dusk, spent the night at a local B&B, explored the fabulous bookstore and somewhere around midnight, after a couple of glasses of wine, I stopped shaking. When I got back to Massachusetts, I called my editor and said, “I’m going to write about Andre Dubus III going on the Oprah show instead.”

I saved my notes from the Maxine Kumin interview, not for whatever value they may have, but to never forget. I don't want to forget her, and what she means to me. And I don't want to forget the lesson she taught me: There are times when I will fail. But there are good and bad ways to fail.

It's always good if you can see it coming before the horses slobber all over you.



Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Endangered


The alligators can thrive in this protected environment. 
Below is a much smaller gator.



I’ve been visiting the Everglades in southern Florida for a couple of decades. Especially since Hurricane Rita in 2005, it’s been hard to watch the slow deterioration of one of our most unique and important national parks. Rita played a role because there was never the money or willingness to repair the devastation to Flamingo, in particular.


This wood stork is good news. A ranger I met on the trail 
told me it's an indicator that water levels are improving in the Everglades.

On our brief visit to the park late this afternoon, we were shocked to find empty water bottles and candy wrappers floating in the water along the Anhinga Trail. An alligator swam up against a plastic, baby blue mechanical pencil caught up in an imperceptible current. Boardwalk railings are swayback and wooden fences are missing rungs. This is in sharp contrast to what was once the pride and joy of the Everglades. The Anhinga Trail was meticulously maintained and watched over.


Snowy egret, in flight. Perhaps it 
tired of tourists photographing it.

People from all over the world visit and photograph the Anhinga Trail at Royal Palm just outside of Homestead. I spoke with a woman from France and a couple of men from Germany. What must they think about the way we prioritize in this country?

There is only one Everglades. The part that’s truly visible — the national park — serves as an important symbol for all that we don’t see of this vast river of grass. People regularly make pilgrimages to the Everglades. Today I met one man who comes here every other year. Everything is cyclical, he says. Someday our attention will come back to this spot. 

Let’s hope it’s not too late.

For the first time since I’ve been visiting, there was no gatekeeper to take the $10 entrance fee, just a handwritten sign that said: Enjoy.


This is what the river of grass typically looks like, 
with a hard-wood hammock to the left.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

What Hemingway read. Or did he?


Go to the Hemingway House in Key West and be a voyeur. 
Check out his personal library and do what voyeurs everywhere do: 
make assumptions about people based on their reading habits.

The reason I went to the Hemingway House in Key West was to have a destination for a much-needed afternoon outing. I’d finished and sent off my book review so I had the afternoon free. It was either the Hemingway House or the Butterfly House.

The last time I went to Key West with Jim, we parked the car, got out, walked a couple of blocks, got back in and drove north. “Been there. Done that,” was Jim’s response to whole Key West experience. He’s not much of a sightseer. Rather than risk a reprisal of that failed outing, I took my friend Rod’s advice and made a pilgrimage to the great American writer’s house where he lived for 11 of his most prolific years.

Hemingway’s beautiful house, built by a wealthy salvager from Connecticut in 1851, cost him $8,000 in 1931. After 11 years or so, Hemingway left Key West, preferring Cuba and another wife.

It’s hard to separate a vacation from reading so Hemingway makes sense in lots of ways. My vacations always start with: What books should I bring? For this trip to the Keys, I had to bring two books to read for review and anything else I could squeeze in after that. Jim, who reads even more than I do, picked up two of Rod’s library books and consumed them in a day each.

So naturally, when we got to Hemingway’s house I asked Stan, our guide, what Hemingway read. “There, in the upstairs hall, you’ll find some of his library. They are the actual books he read,” Stan told me. The other books, those written by Hemingway and arranged throughout this grand house, are basically props, Stan said, put there after the fact.

In checking out Hemingway’s library, I saw a book by Jackie and Jeff Harrigan called “Loving Free.” I learned from an old newspaper clipping that it’s about the pressures American couples face and the difficulties they have keeping their relationships vital and exciting. This summation comes from a librarian writing about the book in 1971. This book, she writes, offers techniques and methods for keeping things fresh and interesting. Hard to believe Hemingway read or even needed this. He had three marriages and lots of affairs. Perhaps while in Key West he did try out a few techniques with Pauline before moving on. Who knows? The fact of this book in his personal library casts Hemingway — bipolar and prone to gravitate toward that which is most exciting — in a new light, that’s for sure.

I suppose the next step for me, before I get too wrapped up in re-imagining Hemingway, is to call the Hemingway House and confirm the publication date of that book. I want to know if it’s been indexed in some official archive. I might even ask if there are any margin notes inscribed by the author. Imagine that!


More likely, the book found its way into Ernest Hemingway’s library after the divorce, perhaps as a mean prank played by his ex-wife Pauline. Both were somewhat vindictive pranksters. Visit the Hemingway House and Stan will give you an earful. Be sure to ask about the “last red penny” Pauline had encased in concrete by the swimming pool, the first to be built in the Florida Keys.


Descendants of Hemingway's cats are everywhere. 
Up next for consideration: Why do writers love cats when their 
cats do everything possible to interfere with the creative process?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Modern-day vacations


Here's my Marathon Key "desk." Working outside like this 
in 80+ degree heat requires plenty of hydration!



No wonder I’m making no progress letting go. No wonder I’m not feeling it. No wonder vacation mode hasn’t clicked in. It’s not really vacation. 

I spent all day at my “desk,” a makeshift work area facing a translucent tropical green canal that I barely noticed. I paused once to contemplate a pelican and I did see the silhouette of a great blue heron. Mostly, though, I tried in earnest to catch up to my responsibilities and I never quite made it. Ask anyone depending on me today.

Work, these days, is a gift. If you’ve got it, you do anything you can to keep it. That means working on vacation. We bring with us everything necessary in terms of tools to do the job — except for the frame of mind. That’s where it gets tricky because some of us remember a time when a vacation was a vacation.

Just being in Marathon Key creates a conflict that takes the best of my energy to manage. Aren’t I here to lollygag?

No.

I’m not saying it’s worse working here than up north because up north, it’s snowing and it will be snowing through Wednesday evening. Everyone at home is complaining, with good reason. I’m not complaining. Not really. 

Here, I hop out of bed, take a run and then drop into a plastic chair by the water where I work. Today I took occasional side glances at lizards. I saw a kingfisher chase a gull. And I remembered that my friend once swam with a visiting manatee in this very canal, mere feet from where I’m working.
Is this vacation or not?

At 5 pm I closed my laptop, got up from my “desk,” and said, in a burst of frustration, to Jim, “Let’s get out of here.” He said, “Can I put on my sandals first?”

There is no lesson here. If you have work, you’ve got to do it. Pity those around you who must make sense of the sentence: We are on vacation.