Posts Tagged ‘Writers’

Just Sitting, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Just Sitting, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

I’ve been in a daze since I got back from the trip. Tired, unfocused, full. Obsessed with flashes of detail, and snippets of conversation. I’m getting closer to laying down my stories.

I want to write memoir. And the recent trip to the South, researching history, family, and roots, ignited a fire in me. The coals are still glowing. They infuse and invigorate my desire to write.

But it’s one thing to dig up details and memories, and write them down in practice. And another to risk the exposure of mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, fathers, lovers – and me. Every detail I write reveals more about me.

Detail, truth, and honesty – how are they related to writing and art? Every time I post a piece on red Ravine, or write a draft of a story I want to publish, I’m faced with exposing my truth.

Who might it harm? How will they take it? What if my truth isn’t their truth? Will the photograph or drawing I post be offensive? Will I alienate my friends, my family, my writing or art communities?

All good questions. And some need to be quietly and ethically considered in an immediate and public venue like the Internet. And in regard to the space where we work to uphold red Ravine’s mission and vision to foster community.

But in my personal and creative writing, the work I plan to pitch to the publisher, what is okay? And what’s not? If I go for the jugular, what do I have to lose? And what part of my dignity will I sacrifice if I don’t?

The teachers I have studied with, in both writing and art, have told me that it’s okay to go for the jugular, to ask the hard questions. But don’t worry about the answers. Not until I’m ready to publish. It will squash my creativity.

Rainer Maria Rilke addressed the same questions in 1934, in Letters to a Young Poet:

…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.

Live the questions now. Part of the living is asking. While at the same time, being willing to get your hands dirty: pulling up waterlogged, granite rocks, exposing wriggling bits of ant egg, smelling ancient, earthworm underbellies.

I try to listen for the answers, ragged, tenacious blades of grass that poke through cracked cement to reclaim the ground around them. Skeletal fragments of dead frogs, dried up into compost.

I see by the conversations and comments on recent posts (this post, and this post) that writers are at different stages of coming to terms with telling their truth. It’s a process I, too, must go through if I want my work to be public and published.

After travelling and interviews and meeting with long lost family in the South, I have all this memoir material I didn’t have a month ago. I know more than I did before. How do I be authentic and credible, while maintaining personal integrity?

I have a responsibility to tell the truth as I understand it; and an equal responsibility to take time to reflect on the questions. To live the questions.

In the meantime, I keep writing. And practicing. And reading other writers. What do those who have walked before me have to say about truth?

I pulled out Anne Lamott. And I’ll end with this excerpt from Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Part Five: The Last Class:

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.

Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act – truth is always subversive.

Friday, June 29th, 2007

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roar, still, ebb, flow
herbicide, hamburger
swaying limbs, pine needles
swift, clouds
exhaust, chemical lawns
i wish i was a mountain

cracked leather, brass penny
gray stitches & socks
worn sole, aged & ancient
keds, flat-footed
rolling rubber, unfettered, grounded

spots like eyes, no eyelashes
knobby ears, no ears
sticky mouth, no mouth
nibbling on a daisy, no tongue
understanding me, the moment, the afterglow
in flight, landed, no feet

ram, dodge, uterus, flows into aries head
subjugated, relegated, to low status, low rider
rimmed by a rubber tire, spoked corroded metal
rubber meets road, i’d rather be home
standing to the side, sitting on the curb
i am at the same level, butt on the ground

rust in the pocket
pocked & dipped
i smell cement & car metal & rubber
cracks & the edge of a blade of grass
pokes its head out of hard manmade
crumbles, crumbs, chirps of a cricket
lunch is over, i rise

milliliter after milliliter
ounce after ounce, thirst, hunger
hungry for what? mark line, fault line
boundary between air and water
glass half empty, glass half full
refraction – florescent amber
blonde desktop water saves
me from cubed ice and pods
the size of a manhole
underground refreshment
heavy the weight of water

dots, dots, dots
green dots, yellow dots
bright avery triangulated red
lines like paper cups & beige
with the thumbprint over the logo
logo – type – typewriter
who uses a typewriter?
Dorothy Brett, i have 2
and these old dotted labels
begging to stick

rhododendrons, mt. hiijidake
scarlet pink, hovering clouds
6, the number 6, for months
Giant 6 –
Red sundays on 3, 10, 17, 24
japanese, i wish i spoke japanese
elegant characters
calligraphic boundaries
days of the week, months of the year
all start with sunday

container, containers, marion woodman
containers archetypes vessels
square, rectangle, cardboard
corrugated, no lid, missing lid
destroy date, obscured
contents – drawback
exp – holes for handles
oh wait, lid is not missing
it’s stuck to the bottom
snug – safe – tight

coffee stains, jitters, duluth
superior, travel in stainless steel
black plastic, dips and holes
thumb holder handle
skinny bottom, wide top, reflects
myself back to me
and in between, liquid gold

 Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

-from Topic post, Gesture

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Curve, 1993, woodblock print, from private art collection of student work, artist unknown, photo alteration © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Curve, 1993, woodcut, from private art collection of student work, artist unknown, photo alteration © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

While perusing the health and vigor of our categories last night, I had a realization: writers rarely write about sex. Our Sex category has a measly 5 posts, which leads me to wonder, why bother to have a sex category at all?

I thought about my favorite literature writers and tried to remember what they had written about sex. I did come up with a chapter in Stoner, a book assigned to us in a Natalie Goldberg Taos Intensive last year. It’s a favorite on my bookshelf now, and contains one of the most subtly erotic accounts I’ve ever read about making love.

(If you don’t know about Stoner or John Williams, read the dynamic interview, John Williams: Plain Writer by Dan Wakefield in the 10th Anniversary issue of Ploughshares.)

Some see making love and sex as two different things. And now that I think about it, so do I. But different how? I’m not sure I can answer that in an on-the-fly blog post.

I remembered last night, that about 4 years ago, I wrote a tasteful erotic piece called Lean Into The Curves, about the virtues of making love as compared to learning to ride my Honda Rebel. There is something sensual about motorcycle riding; and the instructor who wore scarlet Harley boots with flames shooting off the sides, only added fuel to the fire.

I stood up at a microphone (dressed in a crisp, white, open-collared blouse, dangling silver earrings, black Levi’s, cherry lipstick, and a black, short-cut blazer) and read the piece at a venue in Minneapolis (no longer in existence) called hotBed. The audience was full of 150 women who all laughed at the right places and cheered at the end, wildly clapping when Ella Fitzgerald’s At Last echoed through the room as I read the final lines.

The sound woman was right on cue.

It’s hard to imagine standing up and reading that same piece today. Have I lost my edge? Or are there too few places to submit that kind of work.

Most people have sex at least once in their lifetime. And it’s alive and well on family TV and in G-rated films. So why don’t writers write about sex? Or the erotic? Or making love?

I don’t have any answers. Only to say that, thank goodness, some do.

Here is a poem from Galway Kinnell called, simply – Sex. Exquisite. I heard him read it at the Fitzgerald Theater earlier this year. I’m heading to the writing table right now. Maybe I’ll get inspired.

by Galway Kinnell

On my hands are the odors
of the knockout ether
either of above the sky
where the bluebirds get blued
on their upper surfaces
or of down under the earth
where the immaculate nightcrawlers
take in tubes of red earth
and polish their insides.

-from Strong Is Your Hold, Poems, Houghton Mifflin, 2006

posted on red Ravine Tuesday, June 26th, 2007

-related to post, Forget Vonnegut – Jane Kenyon Lives On 

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By Carolyn Flynn

I keep telling my father to go away. But here he is in Austin, Texas, on the sign at the construction site one block from my hotel. FLYNN it says in all caps, Flynn Construction, and it’s red, white and blue like the logo for my father’s home building company. Just like it, except not, because here I am in Austin for the Agents & Editors Conference to pitch my book, and it’s Father’s Day 2007. He’s been dead for 12 years. He’s not supposed to be here.

I am staying in a hotel that is four blocks away from the conference hotel. I feel away, very away, though it is just two ups and downs on the pebblestone sidewalks. I feel exiled from this group of Texas writers. They are writing books about rodeo queens and trailer park murders. I am writing a memoir I call All: The Too-Blessed-to-Be-Stressed Life of a Single Mother of Twins, a title that strikes me as capturing the Zen (before the colon) and the frenzy (after the colon) of 21st century parenting life, which is in fact what the book is about.

Essentially the character in that post-colonic string is, well, me. Pitching a book about yourself is a challenge, not because people won’t read it or buy it – most of the people here are pitching memoirs. That is the literary fashion, the fastest-growing market, according to Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, professor at the University of Pittsburgh and godfather of the genre. The agents and editors gathered here want memoirs. In just two days, I have learned the sorting out words. They are “prescriptive” or “practical.” Prescriptive is the new “how-to,” and it’s the kiss of death. Apparently, and I would agree, there are already a lot of books telling us how — how to do anything from being a sex goddess to creatively visualizing your life. I have published six of them. No, the challenge of pitching a book about yourself is that, well, people might not like it.

Every morning, or really just the past two, I have walked the four blocks down the hill and up the hill to the Sheraton, which stands like an obelisk of Kenyan soapstone against the sky. It’s raining this morning, and on the radio cheerful people were expressing relief, because it hasn’t for two months and that’s not normal, like it is in Albuquerque, where I live. Every day I have walked down this hill, but on this day, what’s rolling around in my brain like a very Southern thundercloud is the NPR interview with a woman who wrote a memoir about her father, who was haunted by his time in the Vietnam War. Her father would take her along to the bar, where he would tell vivid stories, trying to purge the memories.

On my trail up the hill to sell my book, these are the cairns that keep me true to the path: the purple triangle flowers, the brilliant orange Mexican bird of paradise, hedge-thick clusters of spearmint, the limestone antebellum building that could easily be a courthouse on the square of any little town in Kentucky, which is where I grew up and where I like to keep my father. I’ve tucked him away in the memories of growing up there and not here, in a city to which he’s never been. But here my father is, his name on a sign on a chain-link fence, right at the doorstep of my hotel, reminding me: Time to write.

It’s annoying he would find me here. I told him I needed to do this alone. He has been hovering over my heart, echoing around in that atrial chamber that didn’t sound right on the EKG. They heard turbulence there.

For nearly 40 years, he tells me to write write write. I am driven, driven to the point of obsession. This past week I was up at 4:15, the witching hour, every morning to complete the book proposal. Let me just say I am not a morning person. I know why they call it the witching hour. In those pre-dawn moments, my twins’ new puppy, Snowflake, sat on my lap, occasionally popping her paws up on my keyboard to get a look at my screen. One of the last photos I have of my father is of him typing on his laptop with my sister’s cat Savannah stretched over his forearms. I am just like him. I don’t want to become like him. With each passing year, I am increasingly desperate not to be him.


It’s intense to be in a room with 350 hopeful writers and 25 picky, snobby agents who don’t want to like what you’re pitching because they’ve heard it before and they’ll hear it again. Each of us signed up for a 10-minute moment with an agent to make a pitch. It’s like taking your muse on a speed date.

Only just one problem, my muse doesn’t date. If my muse were to be on match.com, it would definitely check off “quiet dinner at home” or “sunset walk on the beach” as ideal dates. Contrast that with the Agents & Editors Conference: “raucous whitewater rafting misadventure” or “three days in the Amazon jungle wrestling with boa constrictors.” Pitching your book to an agent is an extreme sport.

Speaking of dating, the first night mingle yields a few new contacts, including a single man who reminds me of my twins’ pediatrician (ybonesy knows who this is!). I had a wicked crush on him when I was a new mother and I didn’t get out much. That is, unless my twins had a sinus infection. So dressing to the nines for my children’s doctor appointment became a ritual, an event that required actually putting on makeup in front of a mirror as opposed to in the car. This continued until I realized I was in danger of becoming a pathetic post-divorce cliché. I’m guessing the twins’ pediatrician had seen this sort of thing before. Was I really that transparent?

So with the single guy at the Agents & Editors Conference, it occurs to me to respond the way I normally would upon meeting a creative, attractive single man — that being to flirt. I think about all the usual tried-and-true ways, and I just feel tired-but-true. It’s time to be true to myself. Do I really want to put my brain through the cat-and-mouse chase-and-retreat game – or do I really just want to ask him interesting questions, then move on? I’m here to find an agent, not another boyfriend. I have plenty of those, currently two, fortunately in different states, though July could get dicey when one heads to a zip code near me. But this is June, July’s a long way off and I need to put on my war paint for the battle at hand: selling my book. I switch my brain over to longtime SAGE contributor Miriam Sagan’s definition of flirting: Flirting is attention without intention. This definition allows her to enjoy flirting as an extreme sport. The way she puts it is this: “I have an unlimited interest in people.” I get back on track: I mingle.


My father has been here the past few days, in secret, the same way he comes back in my dreams, looking very swank (my first clue that it’s not real), trim (my second clue) and not bald (the confirming clue). He announces he has been living in South America because he had been working as a spy and he really couldn’t tell us that, he just had to go into hiding. He hasn’t really been dead all this time. Today I rather suspect he’s been being a spy again, even though I have sent him away, only this time he was pretty stealthy, hiding in that sign. It took me three days to notice.

What haunts me is that last image of him alive, typing with the cat sleeping on his arms. I know what he was doing there. He was writing his mystery novel. And he was dying. He didn’t know he was going to die a week later. His heart gave out. I wonder now if it was the atrial chamber. I wonder now if anyone heard the turbulence.

I say I wonder if he knew a sudden death was near — because he typed so feverishly. I have been typing feverishly ever since. For 38 years, it seems, I have typed feverishly, from the moment I knew I was going to be a writer and he told me he believed in me, when he bought me a Brother typewriter and a collection of Hemingway short stories. In the 12 years since he died, I have typed, I think, because that’s how I know I’m alive and he’s not. It’s an important distinction.


Last night the agent from San Francisco gave me a kick in the pants. The agent said, “go write it. What are you doing here? Go back to your room. Write it!” I protested that I already had six published books, that I had most of this written and I was knocking on the door of refinement. I have one more essay (“Have a Plan: Nitro and Baby Aspirin Wasn’t It”) yet to write, maybe two. But he smoked out what no other writer, agent or editor had: I had yet to write what I really cared about. Even six published books can’t protect me from the turbulence. If 480,000 words won’t do it, what’s the cure?

“Write it,” he said. He wouldn’t let me protest.

“You’re flustered,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why are you divorced?” he said.

“That’s not what the book is about,” I said.

“You have to be willing to lay yourself bare,” he said.

“But …” I said.

“Write it.”

Lately I’ve been reading Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage, about the author’s spiritual journey on the Road to Santiago through France and Spain. At the beginning of the journey, one of the first people he confronts is a person disguised as his guide. He assumed that the man under the tree at the dusty edge of the southern French village was his guide. When the real guide shows up, Coelho learns the first man was his devil. Coelho had momentarily forgotten to confirm the identity of his true guide with the password. The true guide shows up, speaking the password. “It is good that you have met him early,” says the true guide. “Some people don’t encounter their devil until they are midway or later on the path.”

I greeted my devil early on at this conference. Coelho says in The Pilgrimage to name your devil so you will know him. Three weeks ago I named mine. I recognize him all the time now. (You never share the name of your devil.) The devil brings you to the brink; he is free and rebellious. He is the messenger, the main link between us and the world. He has much to teach us. Coelho says when we let him loose, he disperses himself. If we exorcise him, we lose all the good things he has to teach us. So the trick is not to banish him, but to hear the message. You have to live with him.

You thank your devil, but you always dictate the rules of the game, not your devil. It’s how you win the good fight.

I am typing now, typing feverishly as Boarding Group A clusters at the gate. That’s plenty of time to write this blog post; I’m in Boarding Group B. Natalie Goldberg says, “Write until the atom bomb goes off. And when it goes off, write until the radiation gets you.”


I had “an Elaine moment” when I pitched my book. An Elaine moment refers to Seinfeld when they were always getting themselves into awkward social situations – remember Jerry screaming “Delores” out the window when his girlfriend challenged him to remember her name, hinting that it rhymed with female genitalia? By then it was too late. Jerry and Elaine were always too late. Past the point of apology.

The morning of my pitch, I met my angel. It was Irish Goddess (Celtic knot tattoo on her ankle) from Wide-Spot-in-the-Road, Texas, and she needed business cards as much as I needed business cards, so we decided to join forces to get the job done at Quik Print, which turned out to be a few blocks away near the Capitol and the only place open on a Saturday. My angel let me rehearse my pitch as we sat at a café table outside Starbucks. From the corner of my eye, I saw a young woman sitting across the corridor from us, and I wondered if she was an agent. Because my agent was not pictured on the conference board, I thought briefly, “I wonder if that’s my agent.” Truth: I thought neurotically, “I wonder if I’m really blowing this because that could be my agent over there.”

My angel liked my pitch, but moments later in the waiting area before pitching, I asked the timekeeper to point out which agent in the room was mine. It was the young woman who sat across the corridor. Well, no matter, you make the best of it. Time to go Zen. No attachment to outcome, full mindfulness of effort. When I greeted her, I confessed my neurotic moment. It was a great opening line. I was lucky: She hadn’t heard the rehearsed pitch. I was even luckier: She liked the pitch and asked me to send a proposal.

“Send me a proposal” is like getting a third date when it comes to the Agents & Editors Conference. It was cause for high-fives all around.

One note: I got my first “send me a proposal” on the first mingle night, right after I cut myself off from flirting with intention. Like I say, I know my devil.


“I’m still speaking to you,” I say to the San Francisco agent the next morning, though I really don’t want to see him again so soon. I am still raw. I have every reason in the world not to speak to him. At one point the night before he said, “Am I being an asshole?” I was too Southern to answer the question.

Last night I left the hotel feeling the ground shaking beneath me. In the cab, the driver was listening to sad Latin music, full of yearning. My eyes watered up. I bit my lip to hold myself down. I rested my brow on my interlaced fingers. The windows were open. I felt the breeze, felt it in my hair. The Latin song rose, unfettered, through the night. I was in tatters, white pulpy scraps of paper.

Natalie Goldberg says, “Don’t get tossed away.” Earlier in the day I had said, to encourage Fort Worth Dan, who did his pitch just before me. “It’s just a matching game,” I said. “You have to believe that. And don’t let yourself get tossed away.”

I almost got tossed away last night.

Your angel is your armor; your devil is your sword, Coelho says. You can use your sword, or it can fall to the ground and be used against you. But this morning the kick-in-the-pants agent reminds me that everybody here wants to publish good writing. He’s speaking softer now. “I just want you to write it,” he says.


Here’s why I sent my father away. I came to Austin because I wanted to get to the next level. I’m not making enough money writing books, and I’m not writing the books that are about what’s closest to my heart. I don’t have time to write that book because my clients come first. I have to feed a family. After eight intense hours in the Top Gun cockpit of a daily newspaper, my multitasked brain is too fried to remember the title of my book, much less keep writing it.

I’ve been doing what my father did in his 40s, running on fumes, taking financial risks — some shrewd, some scary — letting myself die inside because I’m not pursuing my dream. My life as a single mother of twins has become an extreme sport. I have vowed I wasn’t going to let my dreams die like his – cut short. He died at 62. I was 34. For most of my life, since I was 14, my father’s tragic life has motivated me to do the impossible. I’m unsinkable; I don’t know what impossible means.

It was feeling too heavy to believe “I have to do this because my father didn’t.” I could say I was doing it for me, but I have always been doing it to prove something about his life, to create a restoration of sorts, the happy reunion in my dream that there’s another outcome that doesn’t involve an alter-identity in South America.

Two months ago, I told my father I was going to take this from here. “You are making this too hard,” I said. My heart was turbulent. He had a hook in it. His ghost was haunting that atrial chamber. A clot could be forming. I told him I was going to go it alone. “This is my deal,” I said. “Not yours.”


Alisa’s here! Can it be? The godmother of chica lit, who got a half mil advance for her first novel? Upstairs, waiting to talk to an agent is a woman who must surely be Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, best-selling author of The Dirty Girls Social Club and three others. But Alisa lives in the North Valley, is moving to Scottsdale to get her son in a gifted education program and was the keynote speaker at the SAGE Making a Difference luncheon. Alisa got a $500,000 advance — did I mention this? — for her first novel and doesn’t need to be waiting outside to meet an agent. But this woman has Alisa’s sleek hair. She’s stylishly dressed in a robins’-egg-blue A-line coat dress. I almost say, “Alisa,” but something stops me. I notice, for starters, that she’s with a woman who looks like Sara Ford, who moderated the panel on which I spoke at New Mexico Press Women. Then the two of them are whisked in to meet Agent-Who-Will-Later-Kick-Me-in-the-Pants.

I’m sure this can’t be Alisa, whose book is being made into a movie (and did I mention she got a half mil advance?) yet I’m stunned at the resemblance. I go down to the registration desk to ask if they have anyone by that name registered. Yes, they do. Are you sure? Yes, she’s a volunteer, they tell me. How many double-named people can there be? I want to say, “Well, lots.” But I think she just heard “big long Hispanic surname” and she figured it was a match.

These alter-identities are coming up everywhere. Alisa, Sara, the twins’ pediatrician … who knows where my father has been hiding, though.

It’s time to write. At breakfast, I skip the sessions on publicists and query letters and I find the table next to the power outlet so I can charge up the laptop. A woman I met on the first day invites me over, but I say, “No, I need to write a blog post.” I have an assignment. It’s to keep the pen moving. My friend ybonesy and one of her Natalie Goldberg intensive friends have started red Ravine. I have a deadline. This is comfortable.

As I am writing, I feel the sudden stretching of time, a bliss wave. It is 8:52 for an hour. Diners come and go. My friendly, forgiving agent of the Elaine moment goes by. The godfather of creative nonfiction slips in with his son. I don’t even notice. When I look up, a woman is standing before me, asking me how I did. I tell her something that makes her sit down, and her proposal is a nonfiction book about motherhood. She writes for Austin Monthly and other magazines. We talk for 45 minutes. We’re speaking the same language. We see the same issues. I’m good now. I’ve reconstituted myself. Here’s another someone like me.


It is Father’s Day. Of course that’s why he’s back. That hits me on my way upstairs for the last mingle. Fort Worth Dan walks up as I’m texting the firefighter I’m dating to wish him a Happy Father’s Day. I’m telling the firefighter that it’s been rough.

He texts back, “Are you OK?”

I text, “It’s all material.”

He texts, “It will all be OK when you are back.”

The room is emptying out. My shuttle has arrived. This all has a tinge of sweetness to it. On the way back down and up the hill, past the FLYNN construction sign, I break off a sprig of spearmint. I crack the stem to release the scent. I notice the building my father is working on is a buff-colored brick. Brick by brick, I think. The shuttle driver is waiting.


In the security checkpoint line, the woman behind me is reading Paulo Coelho, only it’s El Diablo y Senorita Prim (The Devil and Miss Prym). The devil again. She tells me she lives in Panama City, but she’ll be spending the night in Atlanta tonight because her plane is delayed. Panama City is a great city for international living, she says, clean and beautiful. “I love Paulo Coehlo,” I say. She got started reading Paulo Coehlo with The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream. Hmmm… I had forgotten that was the subtitle. The devil is my messenger.

On the plane to Albuquerque, I’m in Boarding Group A. I don’t hardly know what to do with myself; I am always a B boarder. But this means I have a choice about who I sit with. Near the front of the plane is a little girl sitting alone by a window wearing a child travel tag. She is so small, smaller than my twins. I whip back one seat to sit in her row. She tells me she’s 7 and going into second grade. She’s got curly red hair and a sprinkling of freckles like my son’s. I call them angel kisses. She’s got a Highlights magazine and a bag of candy. Her name is Faith.

Faith loved first grade, and her favorite subject was math. But they don’t make it hard enough, she says. “I could do math all day.” She has 12 cousins, and there are lots of babies in her family. She has sisters who are twins, but they are older. Her family took her to Paris, where she got to see “the Awful Tower” or the “Eye-full Tower,” she’s not sure. Faith is going to see her father because it’s Father’s Day.

Another mom sits in our row, and we two moms look out for Faith. I can’t imagine letting my child travel alone on a plane. She sparkles with innocence. She radiates pure sweetness. She will come to no harm. Faith has done this before, and she knows what to do. She’s not worried.

“I had curly hair when I was little,” I tell Faith. And I did. Just that color. The other mom asks her the question I always got asked, “Are there others in your family with red hair, or are you the only one?” I was the only one. There is a photo of me with my father, and my hair was still that vibrant auburn, the color no one could bottle. My father is prematurely bald, but young and slim, the way my mother remembers him, the way he comes back from South America in my dreams. We are playing with a toy Model T.

When the plane lands in Albuquerque, the flight attendant leads Faith by the hand down the jetway. She is tiny, a little gummy bear with stick legs and plump hands. She is wearing pink crocs that rattle loose on her stubby feet. When she sees her father, she runs and gives him a jump-up hug. He holds her there like a little X. Her arms are too short to fit around him. Faith asks her father how he’s been. “I’m OK, but I’m really good now that you’re here,” he says.

About Carolyn Flynn:   As a single mother of twins, Carolyn has a big long to-do list. It includes catching snowflakes, flooding the house, saving the soccer world, doing Sufi laundry and pursuing economic independence, for starters. She is editor of the thought-provoking and ground-breaking women’s magazine, SAGE, published monthly in the Albuquerque Journal. She has six published books and is currently working on a memoir, All: The Too-Blessed-to-be-Stressed Life of a Single Mother of Twins. The only way Carolyn has time to write is because she keeps the pen moving, no matter where, even if the atom bomb goes off. Lately, she’s discovered no one will interrupt her at 4:15 in the morning, so that’s when she gets up to write.

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Savannah River Near Augusta, June 8th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved. 

Savannah River from the Bridge, Augusta, Georgia, June 8th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

“It seems I have always lived near rivers and trains.”

The day we went to Eve Street, I remembered I hadn’t taken any photographs of the Savannah. I had zipped off a couple of shots of the 5th Street Bridge, a landmark in disrepair. My grandfather helped build that bridge. It was strange to go back to a place where my family had so much history. I’m used to living in towns and cities where I have no immediate blood kin.

It stands to follow that in those places, I have to forge my own bits of history. But spending time in a city where family members are woven through architecture, church, field, and stream, made me feel connected. Close. The water there plays a big part in my childhood.

The Savannah River is about 350 miles long and its source is in eastern Georgia at a confluence of the Seneca and Tugaloo Rivers. The headwaters originate in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia near Ellicott Rock, the point where the borders of those three states meet. The river flows from a cool, clear stream in the Blue Ridge Mountains and empties through tidal plains into the Atlantic.

Savannah and Augusta are the largest cities on the Savannah River and most of their history evolved from commerce and trade on her waters. Savannah is on the Atlantic, Augusta on the fall line.

Lake Hartwell is a 56,000 acre manmade lake built in 1963 by the Army Corp of Engineers on the headwaters of the Savannah. The 71,535 acre Clarks Hill Reservoir was built by the Corp in 1954 and is 22 miles north of Augusta. Clarks Hill is where my mother wants her ashes to be scattered. She says she spent some of the happiest times of her life waterskiing and swimming in Clarks Hill.

The Savannah River’s history goes back some 12,000 years to the Ice Age. That makes my 400-year-old family history look paltry. Human history along her banks includes Hernando de Soto, James Edward Oglethorpe, the Westo Indians, and a wandering tribe called the Savannah Indians, armed by a group of Carolinians, who drove out the Westos in the Westo War of 1680 and gave their name to the river.

Part of my ancestry can be traced back to Oglethorpe. But the memories I have are of Grandmama Elise picking me up from Belvedere Circle in her black, 40’s Pontiac and singing The Good Ship Lollipop to me as we crossed the 5th Street Bridge. (My great grandfather told them they would run into quicksand when they built it, but they didn’t listen.) When we drove across the river border between South Carolina and Georgia, the wind from the rolled down passenger window roared through my hair; the smell of the paper mill on the river is something a child never forgets.

The memories I have are of rolling over the river to Reynolds Street and my Granddaddy’s shop where my step-dad worked part-time as a mechanic (in addition to his full-time job). I remember the girly calendar on the wall, the smell of grease and Gojo, and pulling an ice cold Coke out of a shiny, red vending machine that gripped the blue-glass bottles like a vice. Then we’d drop salted peanuts from a bag of Planter’s into the lip and alternate swigs of Coke with the soggy crunch of peanuts between our teeth.

My memories are from four years ago, scooting along the Riverwalk in Augusta with my sister and her family when we drove down to visit relatives. We were fresh and tan after body surfing in the Atlantic at Ocean City, Maryland, and spent the day ambling around the Riverwalk museum where we stuffed ourselves into a photo booth for a couple of crazy, animated snapshots. 

My memories are from a week ago, driving back and forth across the Savannah River, photographing landmarks, recording conversations, creating new memories with my step-dad and mother, laughing and conjuring up times long past. My memories are of breaking and mending, of leaving and of coming home.

Here they are, details on the page, the beginning of something much bigger, a creative force spawned from the bowels of rivers and oceans and mountains and trees. Bones. Here are the memories of last week’s water wings, and the flowing, dry humidity of the Savannah.

But I sit on a gray deck near the banks of the wide and rambling Mississippi whose mouth bubbles out not far from the Canadian border in a lake called Itasca.

Sunday, June 17th, 2007

-from Topic post, Water Wings

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Time at St James, June 6th, 2007, Augusta, Georgia, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 -Time at St. James, by the Madison Clock Company, 1847, on the wall at St. James United Methodist Church, Augusta, Georgia, June 6th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Home Haiku

the thing about home
home hangs its weathered straw hat
on what used to be you

After we circled twice, the landing gear whirred and dropped with a thunk. I saw the top of Minneapolis clearly from the air. Hot, humid haze. I could not feel it. Liz said it rained and rained while I was gone. And then summer came.

I slept most of the flight, Northwest 150 from Baltimore. There was an empty seat between me and the 82-year-old man from a place 47 miles west of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

He asked me where I was going. I pointed down and said, “Here.” He asked what I did. I said, “I’m a writer.”

“What?” he said, cupping his right ear. “I’m a writer,” I repeated, a little more loudly.

He said, “I’ve written two books. I started a boarding school in South Dakota many years ago. The first book’s about that. The second is about, uhh, my family and my kids. My wife and I have held each other together for 56 years.”

“That’s a long time,” I said.

The man had cauliflower ears, a wide-brimmed straw hat, round Buddha belly that rolled over his belt, faded jeans with one of those western buckles, big-framed glasses, navy T-shirt, and a large, beige hearing aid. I smiled at him when I could muster it. But mostly I stared at the diminishing feet between me and the ground.

My mind rambled over the last few weeks. Then we landed.

Liz threw me the biggest kiss when she scooped me up at baggage. She’s glad I’m home. I’m glad to be home. And there is a sadness about it, too. All the connections I made, the bridges I walked.

Doors have opened to me, people from the past who remember who I was. Now I find myself missing them.

Twenty, thirty, forty years. There are not many people left who knew the girl I used to be.

Which home is home?

The answer to the riddle: every home is home.

For the time that it is home.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

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Sweet William, June 10th, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Sweet William, Sunday, June 10, 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

We completed the 11 hour drive from Georgia to Pennsylvania at midnight last night. We took our time driving, soaking in the Blue Ridge Mountains, whizzing under the green sign for Virginia Tech, stopping at the Waffle House and Cracker Barrel for slow, relaxing meals.

My mother and I were both exhausted this morning. We slept late and I woke up to a pot of French Roast. “Let’s sit on the breezeway and drink our coffee,” Mom said. “I’m exhausted.” I knew exactly how she felt. It was something I had not bargained for.

I wonder what color exhaustion is?

It is something to consider when planning to research a memoir. Note to self – next time plan in down days, days of silence, writing, and processing. If you go, go, go you are bound to hit a wall. I’ve been away from the routines of home for 15 days. I’m longing for time to myself. To process. Write. To sit with everything.

For now, I’m heading over the river to see my brother’s new place. This time the Susquehanna. The color of exhaustion is not the Sweet William from my mother’s backyard. But their vibrancy gives me hope that I will feel electric and rested again.

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

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A train whistle howls in the distance. I hear it every night at the same time. A night owl growl out the window. It comforts me. A ritual I’ve come to expect. Hearing. Ears. Sights. Smells. The smell of the sweatshirt I’m wearing, a combination of both me and Liz.

The taste of the sweet tea on the nightstand by the bed. Brushing my teeth with the pocket-size Crest, flossing in the morning on the way down the stairs, rubbing my hand across the cool oak banister. Coffee. French roast in the morning. While I am travelling it’s been International coffees with vanilla cream. Stirring, There is the ritual of stirring.

Travel rituals – checking emails, grounding on red Ravine, text messages from Liz, voicemails from home. Mostly I write late at night. And still try to get some sleep. The work here is exhausting. The rewards are many. When I am on a road trip, the rituals are different. I sometimes drive in silence, no radio. Mom fell asleep on the passenger side while I was driving through North Carolina on the way down, much needed sleep. I simply drove in the peacefulness.

Sometimes we talked, too, and caught up, and listened to old country like Patsy Cline and Merle Haggard. And Mom said she knew Brenda Lee when she was a kid. Lee’s family lived close by and she walked into the Winn-Dixie one night where Mom worked as a teenager.

I haven’t been home in a few years. I took advantage of the travel time to fill in the gaps. Other times, I slept and she drove. Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania. We landed here, near the Savannah. Rivers are grounding for me. The Savannah is the boundary between Georgia and South Carolina. It seems I have always lived near trains and rivers.

Something I’ve noticed when writing memoir, digging for gold, is to be around places, landmarks, music, and food that you want to write about. When you interview people, take them to these places, play the music, go out and eat the food. It excavates the memories even more when the senses are stimulated. Memory is connected to ALL the senses.

Daily travel rituals, the things I do every single day: shower, wash my hair, shave my legs, brush my teeth, put on clean cargo shorts and a T-shirt, walk down the stairs, drink two cups of coffee, eat a light breakfast, check email, check the blog, call Liz, usually morning and evening, write, take notes in my Supergirl notebook, check my horoscope, comment on the blog, make the bed, make sure I’ve got a pen and tablet in my pocket when I go out of the house, carry my camera and voice recorder.

I sit in silence first thing in the morning, and last thing before bed.

Everything in its place on my piles on the bed. I restore order before bed. Where Liz would normally be resting are notebooks and cords and camera bags and photographs I’ve collected from long lost relatives. Articles my mother has set aside for me to read, history travel books, information on the family tree. Maps and the TV remote. My bifocals fall from my wrist when I hit the tired wall and land right where they fall until morning.

I check the odometer when I drive. I try not to let the gas tank get too far below a quarter left in the tank. When we drove out to Clarks Hill and stopped for gas, a local rolled down his window and commented on Mom’s license place. It has GRITS (Girls Raised in the South) in part of it. He was a gruff looking guy with a scraggly beard and green baseball cap and scared me at first when he started yelling out of his beat up Ford pickup.

He wanted to make a point to ask me as I went to pump the gas, “Hey, does that mean the same thing up there that it does down here?” I laughed and said, “Yep, we were both raised down here. You can’t take the South out of the girl.”

At the moment, I’m finding it hard to concentrate while I write. So I want to gravitate toward making lists. It’s 1am and I have to get up fairly early. Time to myself is precious. So is time with my mother and my step-dad and uncle.

Time is a strange thing. You never know when you might not have it again. I keep digging. And the well is deep. It’s the daily rituals that keep me sane.

Wednesday Morning, 1am, June 6th, 2007

-from Topic post, Rich in Ritual

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  1. why I like midnight
  2. my favorite times to write
  3. blue moons
  4. what it is about being the oldest child
  5. fresh air
  6. what I learned from my favorite teachers
  7. the Tao of Underdog
  8. why I don’t write pulp fiction
  9. everything I know about State Fairs
  10. the last concert I attended
  11. the first concert I attended
  12. the day I learned to drive
  13. who taught me to drive and why
  14. classes I loved
  15. classes I hated
  16. the first time I thought I might like to write
  17. favorite places to write as a child
  18. where I used to hide out
  19. how to get space in a family of eight
  20. what was I like in junior high
  21. my first crush
  22. the last time I played on a seesaw
  23. bottle rockets
  24. the best intentions
  25. why loss is forever
  26. why no one wants to accept that loss is forever
  27. life after healing
  28. states I’ve lived in
  29. my favorite coastal town
  30. my favorite coast
  31. the first time I flew
  32. the last time I flew
  33. when I was in New York
  34. driving country roads
  35. why I wanted to be the Lone Ranger
  36. what happened to Dale Evans
  37. people I know of who came from Texas
  38. ways to identify your suitcase on the luggage carousel
  39. how many miles I’ve flown
  40. favorite places to visit
  41. my favorite vacation
  42. the year I turned 30
  43. old address books
  44. where to find memories
  45. where to lose memories
  46. the last time I was at the ocean
  47. everything I know about body surfing
  48. the last time I played hide and seek
  49. people who have forgotten me
  50. people who have remembered me
  51. people I’ll never forget
  52. people I wish I could forget
  53. the last time I ironed
  54. what I know about spray starch
  55. the unforgiven
  56. the last time I played chess
  57. walking in the park at night
  58. French fries and milk shakes
  59. where I go for a good hamburger
  60. the last ride to the airport
  61. old hangouts
  62. the first time I learned to ride a bike
  63. the first time I roller skated
  64. my favorite bike
  65. what I love about motorcycle riding
  66. what I remember about nursery rhymes
  67. what scares me
  68. what makes me stronger
  69. my favorite snacks
  70. frozen yogurt
  71. when I buy toothpaste I
  72. makeup counters
  73. my favorite color lipstick
  74. what I know about Crackerjacks
  75. towns I’d like to forget
  76. the last roller coaster ride
  77. last time I took the bus
  78. folding chairs
  79. picnics I remember
  80. last fly in the soup
  81. green inchworms
  82. rose bushes
  83. gardens and gates
  84. what I love about travelling
  85. what I hate about travelling
  86. last time I tasted buttermilk
  87. famous cow names
  88. famous horse names
  89. stone fences
  90. green is the color I
  91. when I get angry I
  92. Barbie and Ken
  93. slow boats and fast trains
  94. the last musical I saw
  95. fresh fruit
  96. mad dashes
  97. what I find unforgettable
  98. what I find unforgivable
  99. the nature of spring
  100. summer in the city


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It’s the day before I leave on a two week trip to Georgia and Pennsylvania to do some research for my book. A memoir. I talked to my mother this morning, a short check in before I fly out tomorrow. I told her I am keeping my heart and mind open and looking forward to the time I will get to spend with her. Since we live in different towns, different states, the visits become important. Every minute counts.

I’ll be excavating information, excavating lives and people and roots and history. Untangling loose ends. I don’t remember so many things that my mother remembers about the South. And I have my own memories that I now get to ask her questions about. I just thought of that Baldwin quote from that 1973 interview with Nikki Giovanni:

“Because the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him. The act of writing is the intention of it; the root of its liberation.”

Liz is down in the garden, pulling a few last minute weeds. I’m having French Roast on the deck. The clouds have lifted and the sun is peering through the oaks and ash that surround the house. It’s quiet. All the garden and yard work we did yesterday made my back sore. I’m no spring chicken anymore. In fact, wasn’t it just this morning I was noticing the spaciness of hormonal shifts and laughing about them with my mother? She confirms the craziness of aging because she walked it before me. More history. More bones.

I’m thinking of ybonesy near Taos with her father on their annual pilgrimage. Soon my mother and I will visit the graves of close loved ones and distant relatives in Georgia and South Carolina. We always go to my Aunt Cassie’s and my Grandmother Elise’s gravesites. I visit with them quietly there, spread out on the grass, and ask Mom the questions I might not have asked before. For me, this is memoir – excavating memories. Questing for truth. I want to hear her stories. And skirt the edges of the places I’ve come from.

There may be Myrtle Beach and Savannah. I’ve never been to Savannah. What writers are from Savannah? Flannery O’Connor for one. Maybe we’ll walk past the Cathedral of St. John, the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Georgia, and then one block south is where Flannery grew up. Maybe some of my relatives know of her. Maybe not.

I’m sad to be leaving Liz for so long. And our gardens and home. And Mr. Stripeypants, Kiev, and Chaco. I am fortunate to have a partner that understands. She is loving and supportive of me and my writing. She gets what it takes. I’m lucky that way.

I am lucky for a lot of reasons. I feel a great abundance in my life this morning that is hard to describe. This practice doesn’t do it justice. And there are next to no details. It’s mostly about feelings. And anticipation. And gratitude. For everything that has led me here.

Mom said my step-dad had read a piece on the blog and said, “I didn’t know she felt that way. I didn’t know she had positive memories of that time.” It’s true. Some of my memories used to make me sad. But I’ve done tons of work. It’s in the past. The river keeps flowing. And on the first day of summer, it feels like these steely memories make me who I am. Some writer from the Northwest and Southeast and Northeast who now lives in the Midwest. And once in a while, travels back for a visit.

Monday, May 28th, 2007

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Ten Thousand Views

This weekend red Ravine passed the 10,000-views mark and, well, we wanted to shout out to all you readers: Thanks for clicking! We went live on April 7, and we’re having a blast.

What all this has to do with Back of the Napkin? Nothing, except I happened to doodle on one. But that’s the beauty of blogging. It’s ours to make up along the way.

We really do appreciate you if you’re out there reading this. We especially love the commenting, but lurking is fine, too. We did that for a long time ourselves before speaking up. Hope you’ll eventually speak up, too, if you haven’t already.

Here’s to 100,000 views.

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I was going through an old writing notebook I filled in Taos last year, when I ran across some notes I had jotted down on Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin. It’s good to re-read writing practice notebooks. Sometimes there are helpful quotes, raw images, inspirational lines to be plucked from the pages of wild mind.

We read Another Country and Giovanni’s Room for the Intensive and I’d checked out a bunch of library books on Baldwin. One was called A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973), published by J.B. Lippincott.

I remember thinking the generational differences between Baldwin and Giovanni would add a richness to their dialogue. It was true. At the time, Baldwin was 49 and Giovanni was 30.

On February 28th, 2007, Nikki Giovanni spoke On Poetry and Truth in the Ted Mann Theater at the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. The talk ran on PBS the first week of April and Liz taped it for me. But I didn’t get a chance to watch it until after the closing at the Virginia Tech Convocation. I was riveted to the screen.

She started out talking about how her dog, her mom, her sister, Rosa Parks, and her aunt had all died unexpectedly within a year period in 2005; she started out talking about grief and loss. Then she went on to discuss in great detail, the children’s book she wrote about Rosa Parks, titled Rosa.

She considered the book carefully and wrote with historical precision, considering every detail. That’s the hallmark of a good writer. I could see that writing the book had helped transform her grief.

I wish I would have had a chance to see Giovanni and Baldwin dialogue. They are two writers who have a startling honesty and unwavering passion for what they believe in. Speaking strictly for myself, I am completely inspired by both of them. After hearing an archived Baldwin interview, or listening to Giovanni speak, I want to run out and write my next book.

In Taos last August, I shared some of the Baldwin and Giovanni dialogue with the writers in the Intensive. Some found it inspiring. I thought it might be good to capture here the parts on Truth and Love. You can also still buy the book.

It seems like famous writers and artists used to publically dialogue with each other more regularly than they do today. Maybe it’s my imagination. But I’m hungry to hear gifted writers speak about their work and have frank conversations with one another about the issues of the day.

And while they are at it, I’d like to give them a go at world peace or global warming. It wouldn’t be the first time creative intellectuals debated the truth – and came to a place of compromise and love.

A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973)
excerpt, p. 78 – p. 82 – On Truth

Giovanni: Exactly. And I’m talking about Chester’s [Himes] pursuit of truth. Because Richard Wright died, or was murdered, before he quit pursuing the truth.

Baldwin:  That’s right.

Giovanni: But Chester could say, Okay, I will pursue truth in this way, which looks a little better, so that you can make a movie out of it if you want to and it’ll still be true. And then takes it right to Blind Man with a Pistol.

Baldwin:  But, sweetheart, it’s the same thing we were doing on the plantation when they thought we were singing “Steal Away to Jesus” and I was telling you it’s time to split.

Giovanni:  But why do we –

Baldwin: Steal away, steal away –

Giovanni:  Why do we, as black writers, seem to be so hung up on the truth?

Baldwin:  Because the responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him. The act of writing is the intention of it; the root of its liberation. Look, this is why no tyrant in history was able to read but every single one of them burned the books. That is why no one yet really believes there is such a thing as a black writer. A black writer is still a freak, a dancing doll. We don’t yet exist in the imagination of this century, and we cannot afford to play games; there’s too much at stake.

A Dialogue: James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973)
excerpt, p. 92 – p. 95 – On Love

Giovanni:  People really feel the need to feel better than somebody, don’t they?

Baldwin:  I don’t know why, but they do. Being in competition with somebody is something I never understood. In my own life, I’ve been in competition with me.

Giovanni:  Which is enough.

Baldwin:  Enough? It’s overwhelming. Enough?

Giovanni:  Just by fooling yourself –

Baldwin:  That’ll keep you busy, and it’s very good for the figure.

Giovanni:  It makes you happy, you know.

Baldwin:  Well, it means that in any case you can walk into a room and talk to somebody, look them in the eye. And if I love you, I can say it. I’ve only got one life and I’m going to live my life, you know, in the sight of God and all his children.

Giovanni: Maybe it’s parochial, narrow-minded, bullheaded, but it takes up so much energy just to keep yourself happy.

Baldwin:  It isn’t even a question of keeping yourself happy. It’s a question of keeping yourself in some kind of clear relationship, more or less, to the force which feeds you. Some days you’re happy, some days you ain’t. But somehow we have to deal with that on the simplest level. Bear in mind that this person facing you is a person like you. They’re going to go home and do whatever they do just like you. They’re as alone as you are.

Giovanni:  Because that becomes a responsibility, doesn’t it?

Baldwin:  Well, it’s called love, you know.

Giovanni:  We agree. Love is a tremendous responsibility.

Baldwin:  It’s the only one to take, there isn’t any other.

Giovanni:  I agree and it’s awful; we’re supposed to be arguing.

Baldwin:  And we blew this gig.

Giovanni:  Goofed again. I think love is an answer but you have to be logical about it, you know.

Baldwin:  You say logical or rational and I say clear, but it becomes the same thing. You can’t be romantic about it.

Giovanni:  No, you can’t be romantic about love.

Baldwin:  That’s all, you know.

Giovanni: I think we’re in agreement.

Baldwin: You think we are?

Giovanni: Yeah.

Baldwin:  You asked the loaded question.

Giovanni:  I asked the loaded question?

Baldwin:  You did. You did ask the loaded question. But it’s all right, because we’re home free.

-posted on red Ravine, Monday, May 14th, 2007

-related to post: Nikki Giovanni – Hope at V-Tech

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Ancient Text, Taos, New Mexico, January 2003, photo by QuoinMonkey, © 2003, all rights reserved

Ancient Text, on the Mesa, Taos, New Mexico, January 2003, Kodak C-41 negative print by QuoinMonkey, © 2003, all rights reserved

I used to shoot one photo at a time with a solid, black bodied, manual Minolta: 5 lenses, 9 filters, and a viewfinder. The metal body was covered in hard, black cardboard that would later peel away with age.

To haul all this around, I carried a heavy, powder blue canvas bag with multiple packs of extra batteries, a hotshoe mount, dedicated flash (by no coincidence, the exact size of a shoe), and never fewer than ten 35mm film canisters strapped to my body. Cameras, lenses, film, and photo paper were expensive. Nothing was to be wasted.

Now I pick up my light, plastic, Canon digital, swing out the LCD monitor, try to make out the distant image through the sun’s midday glare, read the manual cover to cover to decipher symbols representing functions that can either do this, or that, and possibly my laundry, and take as many shots as I need to get the precise composition and depth of field I’m looking for.

I used to go to the darkroom and spend hours drenched in safelight red: developing and exposing negatives, moving sheets of FB (fiber-based) Ilford, Kodak, and Fuji paper between developer, stop, fix and two or three baths of rinse water. I would watch in wonder as black and white gelatin silver images rose to the surface as if by magic from the bottom of the gray troughs.

Then I’d throw the wet prints into the roll drum, wait for an hour while they rinsed, hang them to dry with wooden clothes pins or press them one by one through a heat drum dryer, then lay them between archival sheets of paper and tote them home.

Now I sit down beside my laptop, plug the white connector cord into the USB port which automatically pulls up the software I need to automatically download hundreds of photographs into predestined, neatly labeled folders of light and color. I can then print them, send them by email, view them as a slideshow, flick them across my screensaver, or do absolutely nothing with them. They take up virtually no space.

Virtual-ly. No space.

I used to spend hours writing in watermarked paper journals, choosing just the right tooth, texture, ink, and pen, and display them in neat rows on oak bookshelves. I’d go back now and then to read and touch and taste and smell how the paper had soaked up the odor of the place I was living in at the time I was writing on it. I would turn page after page and wonder at who I’d become.

Now I type everything into a plastic computer on a tone deaf keyboard at a speed that keeps up with my brain. Except when I’m doing writing practice by hand (by hand, now there’s an old phrase), or making a grocery list, or jotting down a quote I hear on NPR, Fisher Space Pen to ruled pocket notebook, while driving home from work.

Camera Icon, Clip Art                                        Camera Icon, Clip Art                                       Camera Icon, Clip Art

I’ve been thinking about choices. Choices have consequences. I’ve been thinking about sketch books and journals since reading One Journal, Ten Thousand Journals and handmade photographic processes since I wrote the Pinhole photo piece. I spend so much time in front of the computer.

And then there I was the other night, wooden pew 6, in the heavy, ornate, 150-year-old church that is Plymouth Congregational on Franklin, listening to Mary Oliver during the question and answer session mouthing, “Computers are bad,” with that little impish smirk on her face.

Mary Oliver doesn’t own a computer. She writes her poems on paper, draft after draft. She said she likes having all the crossed out words in her hands, holding the creative process. Natalie Goldberg is another writer who doesn’t use the computer. She writes her books by hand in large spiral notebooks and then has her assistant type up the manuscripts.

It got me to thinking, how many other writers, photographers, and artists are still using the old-style methods of creating?

Photoshop? Or sandwiched negatives, gurgling vats of water, and darkroom collage. Microsoft Word? Or handmade paper journals, brisk, soft, and cool to the touch.

I’m not the only blogger writing about changes and choices. Fluent had a piece last week, To Laptop Or Not to Laptop…. and Starting Over had a post about 10 Things to Do Without Technology. These are topics worth exploring. Because the thing about paper processes, notebooks, darkrooms, paint, graphite, and canvas is that they ground us.

Creative people are noticing because we are losing our ground.

When I’m at the computer 24/7, I’m often spacey and stir-crazy by the end of the day. It’s so familiar to me, I barely notice anymore. But there are days when I want to jog 10 miles (I don’t jog), yell at the top of my lungs, or run down the street screaming, “Stop the insanity!”

Why does everything have to be fast and speedy? When did we begin to need everything instantly and become afraid to patiently wait? What happened to slow and steady wins the race?

Writer’s Sketch of the Gate, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, January 2003, B&W negative print by QuoinMonkey, © 2003, all rights reserved

I want to be more in my body. I want to choose paper, not plastic. But I love the speed, connectivity, and community I have found on the web. A person anywhere in the world can read this post. Does anyone still find that astounding?

I predict there will someday be psychologists going to grad school to specialize in abnormalities resulting from constant computer use: time spent in the head, no time in the body. Maybe there already are.

Tonight Liz and I are going over to the Fairgrounds to buy perennials, annuals, shrubs, and trees for our gardens. Friends School of Minnesota is having their yearly sale.

They say they prepare children to embrace life, learning, and community with hope, skill, understanding and creativity. They are committed to the Quaker values of peace, justice, simplicity and integrity. That’s something I can really get behind.

I hope they remember to teach the little ones that everything around them will move at the speed of light – and they’ve got to learn how to stand still, how to stand up, in the middle of a tornado.

I’m suddenly longing to turn off my cell phone, slip the Dell into hibernate, and dig my hands into rich, wormy dirt. I’m suddenly longing to turn off all the buzz, and walk outside where my feet can be firmly planted on the ground.

Saturday, May 12th, 2007

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It’s hard to come up with only 10 books that have had the most impact on my life. I’ve lived long enough to know there are many more than 10. But once I sat down to write, and began crawling through the recesses of childhood memory, a solid list began to form.

It reads to me like stepping stones, cairns on a map of my life:

  1. Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, Walter J. Black Inc, New York, (1927)  – I used to sit and read his mysteries, rocking away and biting my fingernails. When I saw Galway Kinnell a few weeks ago, I was happy to hear that Poe was one of his favorite authors! See PoeStories.com for the latest and greatest on Poe.
  2. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse – this book had a huge impact on me, along with The Prophet which I read my first year of college. There’s a great e-book of Siddhartha online.
  3. The Prophet by Khalil Gibran – I was going through a change in consciousness at the time I started reading this book. Believe it or not, there’s an online fan site for Kahlil Gibran.
  4. Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene – what’s not to like about Nancy Drew? I loved the Hardy Boys series just as much, if not more. I have a few originals of each around my bookshelves and in my collections. Books like these kept my sense of wonder intact. Nancy Drew is alive and well!  Check out Nancy Drew Sleuth.
  5. Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton – first book I read by May Sarton. My favorite is Kinds of Love. I’ve read everything she’s written. May Sarton changed the way writers look at journals and their relationship to memoir.
  6. The Color Purple by Alice Walker – had a big impact. But my favorite book is Meridian. I consider Alice Walker one of my mentors. I’ve read everything by her and saw her speak at Borders a few years ago. She has an amazing quiet and calm about her. A peacefulness I want to cultivate in my own life.
  7. Illustrated Book of Bible Stories – One of my childhood mementos. It’s packed in a box somewhere. I ran across it when I moved in with Liz last December. I grew up Methodist and used to read these out loud to myself in my bedroom, marking the pages as I went. I think Aunt Cassie gave the book to me. Back then, it was tradition in our family to gift signed copies of Bibles and Bible story books.
  8. Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko – I read this book when I was going to art school. It changed the way I looked at the structure of books and writing. I love the story and her style; I recently read it again.
  9. Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley – first time I knew a woman could have this much chutzpah, blood, guts, all that and more. I loved this book when I read it at about age 11. I probably knew on some level right then and there that I wanted to be a writer.
  10. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – I read a lot of books of this type in the early 70’s. So I guess for me, this Vonnegut book represents a certain genre that I was reading at the time. It was nearing the end of Vietnam, but war and peace were still at the forefront of campus politics. I remember watching Slaughterhouse-Five (the movie) in a dark college auditorium my 1st year of college. We were having sit-in’s and chanting for peace. We still are.

 -from Topic post: Ten Slam Dunks.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

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The Topic is short, sweet, maybe not simple. List the Top 10 books that have had the most impact on your life.

Your entire life. From the time you first started reading – or were read to by your parents – to the present moment. Which books (and by extraction, writers) had the most influence on you?

It could be pages memorized at age 25 from a book you haven’t picked up since. Could be authors who jumpstarted you at 13 and now collect dust on your middle-aged shelves. Maybe it’s a book you read last week.

Was it The Pit and the Pendulum, Siddhartha, Rapunzel, Harry Potter, The Color Purple, Breakfast of Champions, Journal of a Solitude, or Watership Down? Some, all, none?

Top 10 books that impacted your life. Slam dunk. Nothing but net.

Thursday, May 3rd, 2007

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It was the 1950’s. Gas was 29¢ a gallon, cigarettes 25¢ a pack, a hospital stay was $35 a day. The Franklin National Bank in New York issued the first credit card, and the World’s first shopping mall in the U.S. – Seattle’s Northgate Mall was built. The First Grammy Awards happened, RCA’s Color Television sets hit the market, and the films, On the Waterfront, All About Eve and An American in Paris were released.

Marilyn Monroe and her husbands Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller were pretty big. So were Peanuts, Mad Magazine, Jonas Salk, James Dean, Fidel Castro, Rosa Parks, Billy Graham, the Korean War, and Israel invading the Sinai Peninsula.

In the decade of blazers, bermuda shorts, saddle shoes, and sack dresses, writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lillian Hellman, William Burroughs, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Maria Irene Fornes, Gary Snyder, J.D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Dylan Thomas were all doing their thing.

People change and grow. Countries have lives and spirits that change and grow. Would you say America is still in its adolescence?

You can tell a lot about a person by the books they read. You can also tell a lot about a culture. In the 1950’s, here’s what America was reading.

1 9 5 0 ‘ s – B E S T S E L L E R S


  1. From Here to Eternity, James Jones
  2. Return to Paradise, James A. Michener
  3. The Silver Chalice, Thomas B. Costain
  4. East of Eden, John Steinbeck
  5. Giant, Edna Ferber
  6. The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
  7. The Robe, Lloyd C. Douglas
  8. Désirée, Annemarie Selinko
  9. Battle Cry, Leon M. Uris
  10. Love Is Eternal, Irving Stone
  11. The Egyptian, Mika Waltari
  12. No Time for Sergeants, Mac Hyman
  13. Auntie Mame, Patrick Dennis
  14. Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor
  15. Bonjour Tristesse, Françoise Sagan
  16. Peyton Place, Grace Metalious
  17. Eloise, Kay Thompson
  18. The Tribe That Lost Its Head, Nicholas Monsarrat
  19. The Mandarins, Simone de Beauvoir
  20. Rally Round the Flag, Boys!, Max Shulman
  21. Blue Camellia, Frances Parkinson Keyes
  22. The Scapegoat, Daphne du Maurier
  23. On the Beach, Nevil Shute
  24. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
  25. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak
  26. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov
  27. Exodus, Leon Uris
  28. Poor No More, Robert Ruark
  29. The Ugly American, William J. Lederer and Eugene L. Burdick
  30. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D. H. Lawrence

1 9 5 0 ‘ s – B E S T S E L L E R S


  1. Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book; Betty Crocker’s Good & Easy Cook Book 
  2. How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling, Frank Bettger
  3. Look Younger, Live Longer, Gayelord Hauser
  4. Washington Confidential, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer
  5. Better Homes and Gardens Handyman’s Book; Diet Book; Barbecue Book; Decorating Book; Flower Book
  6. The Sea Around Us, Rachel L. Carson
  7. The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version
  8. U.S.A. Confidential, Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer
  9. Tallulah, Tallulah Bankhead
  10. The Power of Positive Thinking, Norman Vincent Peale
  11. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, Alfred C. Kinsey, et al.
  12. Angel Unaware, Dale Evans Rogers
  13. This I Believe, Edward P. Morgan, editor; Edward R. Murrow, foreword
  14. How to Play Your Best Golf, Tommy Armour
  15. The Saturday Evening Post Treasury, Roger Butterfield, editor
  16. Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh
  17. The Family of Man, Edward Steichen
  18. How to Live 365 Days a Year, John A. Schindler
  19. The Secret of Happiness, Billy Graham
  20. Why Johnny Can’t Read, Rudolf Flesch
  21. Inside Africa, John Gunther
  22. Year of Decisions, Harry S Truman
  23. Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, concise ed., David B. Guralnik
  24. Etiquette, Frances Benton
  25. Love or Perish, Smiley Blanton, M.D.
  26. The Nun’s Story, Kathryn Hulme
  27. Kids Say the Darndest Things!, Art Linkletter
  28. The FBI Story, Don Whitehead
  29. Where Did You Go? Out. What Did You Do? Nothing, Robert Paul Smith
  30. Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Jean Kerr
  31. The Day Christ Died, Jim Bishop
  32. ‘Twixt Twelve and Twenty, Pat Boone
  33. Masters of Deceit, Edgar Hoover
  34. The New Testament in Modern English, J. P. Phillips, trans.
  35. Dear Abby, Abigail Van Buren
  36. Inside Russia Today, John Gunter
  37. Folk Medicine, D. C. Jarvis
  38. Charley Weaver’s Letters from Mamma, Cliff Arquette
  39. The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White
  40. Only in America, Harry Golden


-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, May 2nd, 2007

-Resources: 1950’s Bestsellers List from Cader Books, The Literature and Culture of the American 1950’s

-related to posts:  The 1960’s — What Was America Reading?, The 1970’s — What Was America Reading?

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Mabel’s Lights, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February, 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, all rights reserved

-Mabel’s Lights, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico, February 2007, photo by QuoinMonkey, from the Wake Up series, all rights reserved

For all the writers who are meeting soon to write, read, listen, and keep the connections going. Here’s to community.

 Sunday, April 22nd, 2007

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