Earth, Sky, Star, Moon: Bringing Nature Inside Yourself

Buddha with stones at foot of the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.

 

I’m here in the North Woods of Wisconsin at our cabin on Deer Lake. It’s mid-June. The pine and spruce are as we left them last winter, stalwartly evergreen. The phoebe has returned to her nest under the eaves; the snappers are hatching; at night the thousand stars offer their cool ardent light. Sound good?

“Adopt the pace of nature. Her secret is patience,” says Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggesting that we would all benefit if we could align ourselves with nature’s rhythms. Isn’t this something we already know but disregard, our lives entwined and structured by a digital clockwork that takes no notice of the rising and setting of the sun? It’s too early in our embrace of digital technology to diagnose its effects and benefits, but our conversations betray what we already know: stress and anxiety lead the descriptors.

One of our greatest thinkers, researcher and biologist E. O. Wilson, writes, “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.” I must have intuitively known this when I moved into our cabin to complete my first novel, The Conditions of Love. Every writer has days of frustration, days of fear and despair, when words won’t come and some unknown interference blocks thought and inspiration.

Deer Lake at sunrise, as seen from the Great Red Pine. For Nature blog post.On those days, I would walk to the Great Red Pine by the lake, place a stone at its base and ask for guidance. The breeze off the water lulled my mind, the pounding of the waves induced a kind of trance that released me from what had been hindering me. I was now able to dip into wiser insights. No one told me to perform these rituals. They occurred spontaneously as though all along I had sensed my need for a more profound attunement to the natural world. To come back to myself, nature was telling me, I first had to disentangle myself from a web of troubling thoughts and open my senses to something larger.

We have these longings—to be soothed, to be at peace, to inhabit our deepest selves. At the same time, we want to feel at home in the world, connected to earth and sky. Mostly we ignore these instinctual needs. Force of habit, the imperatives of productivity overwrite them. At what cost do we forsake them?

On the website for the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing, I find this:

“Research reveals that environments can increase or reduce our stress, which in turn impacts our bodies. What you are seeing, hearing, experiencing at any moment is changing not only your mood, but how your nervous, endocrine, and immune systems are working…Being in nature, or even viewing scenes of nature, reduces anger, fear and stress and induces pleasant feelings.”

Even if one does not have the good fortune to own a cabin in the woods, the point here is one of values and attitude. This is what Albert Camus might have been alluding to when he wrote, “In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” To internalize and have at one’s command an inner state of the natural world is just the ticket.

Henri Matisse put it another way, “There are always flowers for those who want to see them.”

Deer Lake at sunset. For Nature blog post.



Four Principles of Survival My Characters Taught Me

The gate at Auschwitz -- for Survival post
The gate at Auschwitz (“Work Sets You Free”)

 

As many of you know, I was recently honored to receive an invitation from Psychology Today to join their impressive roster of bloggers. I’ll be cross-posting here what I blog there, so regular visitors here won’t miss anything. But if you have any comments on my blogs that you think the Psychology Today community would appreciate, do stop by and share your thoughts. Here’s the link. Below is the entry I posted there on April 17, 2016.

A story has haunted me from the moment I read it. It haunts me still. It’s a true story set in a death camp: March 1945, and the German forces are on the run. An inmate tells a young psychiatrist he has had an auspicious dream: a voice promises to answer any question the man asks. The man wants to know when the camp will be liberated. The voice gives him a specific date, March 30.

Dr. Viktor Frankl -- for Survival post
Dr. Viktor Frankl

The night before the prophesied liberation no Allied armies appear, and the man falls ill. The next day he is delirious, and the following day the man dies of a disease his body has resisted throughout his years of imprisonment. In Man’s Search for Meaning, the book in which this story appears, Viktor Frankl writes: “Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man—his courage and hope, or lack of them—and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.” Speaking of his comrade, Frankl explains, “His faith in the future and his will to live had become paralyzed and his body fell victim to illness…”

Even as a youngster I knew that terrible things happened to people. I yearned to know how these people survived. This was at a time when Hollywoodized battles from World War II played nightly on the TV, the days of “duck and cover” and Sputnik. Paranoia was in the air.

Nothing would have alerted an outsider to my unconscious data-gathering, (well, maybe the perpetual furrow between my brows), but I was like a lot of kids who seem normal, (that shudder-inducing word that conjures its opposite, abnormal). I can’t say how young I was when I began taking notes on the subtle and not-so-subtle variants of suffering. Decades would pass before I realized that this is the proclivity of the novelist, observer and recorder of human miseries.

I create characters. My characters have a will and destiny of their own. They come from me, but are not me. They are separate entities that dwell in a less egocentric part of my psyche. As such, they often surprise me with their wisdom.

Martin Buber -- for Survival post
Martin Buber

And so, unbeknownst to me while I was writing it, The Conditions of Love, my debut novel, has at its thematic core my childhood inquiry about resilience. How do we survive the afflictions that besiege us? Martin Buber wrote: “The world is not comprehensible, but it is embraceable.” The word embraceable, with its fleshy emotive overtones, reveals something about Buber’s philosophical stance. For him, all life was encounter, a meeting between I and Thou. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” he wrote, and I would add, “all journeys offer secret lessons and meaning to be mined after the journey is complete.” This seems to me the heart of hope. Self-awareness requires hindsight, but hope is forward-looking.

Through what I call a writer’s hindsight learning—what the writer doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book—I’ve distilled four principles derived from the characters in The Conditions of Love, each of whom has a talent for surviving.

  1. Keep your heart open.

Bitterness has a tangy sweetness, as does resentment and revenge. They shine brightly with allure but their pleasures are brief. Keeping one’s heart open sounds treacly, but it’s a kick-ass practice that requires rigorous faith in what is unseen and rich with possibility.

  1. Recognize the absurd in your situation.

Even under monstrous circumstances, or dreadful circumstances when mind, body and spirit have begun to wither and love has gone to hell, humor may rise up to break through the armor of fear or despair. In its bleakest, blackest form, humor can be a life-saving way of acting out.

  3Confide in a friend: animal, mineral, vegetable.

We need the Other. We need some one or some thing to listen and bear witness. We’re pack animals and suffer more in isolation.

  1. Trust your creative instincts.

I love that Mern, the mother in my first novel, a single working-class woman raising a daughter in the Fifties, kept herself sane (well, sort of sane), by constantly changing her hairstyle and looks to mimic famous movies stars. Maybe our most outrageous instincts offer the most original boost to our resilience.

Whether we are storytellers or not, the things that obsess, fascinate, and concern us deserve our attention. They are, I believe, clues to our deepest longings that wish to become known. The sorrowful story of the camp prisoner who succumbed to typhus when his dream of liberation proved false could be our story if we lose hope. Hope is the jewel in the crown.



Treating Patients or Creating Characters? Making the Choice

Zurich-Switzerland-948x362

 

A number of years ago I took myself to a small town in Switzerland outside Zurich where Carl Jung founded his training institute for Analytical Psychology. I was exploring the notion of becoming a Jungian analyst and had signed up for a summer intensive training program as a litmus test for a career change. My mother had been calling me her psychiatrist for years, a title I would gladly have shucked if there had been anyone else for the job. I was a dutiful daughter, a patient listener whose sympathetic clucks my mother enthusiastically interpreted as “Poor you.”

By the time I arrived in Küsnacht, I’d earned an MFA in Poetry, had numerous publications in prestigious literary journals and was enjoying teaching writing workshops. It seemed enough. More than enough. My children were still at home, and I could hardly keep up with myself as it was. And yet… something else was calling.

Something else was calling.

Jung himself would have been interested in my choice of words. “Call” from the Old Norse Kalla, meaning “to summon loudly.” What was calling me and to which calling was I being called? The motivation to study depth psychology was nothing as jolting as an angel (or devil) sitting on my shoulder directing me to change my life. It was something more akin to a still small voice that, had I not been listening, might have been drummed out by the cacophony of the daily round.

simone-weil-1200Something else was calling. Actually it was nudging me, poking into my dreams. I didn’t know what IT was, but I was paying attention. Just about this time, I had begun to write persona poems, that is, poems in the voice of a speaker who is not the poet, dramatic monologues really, and mine were in the voice of famous women—Simone Weil, Mary Magdalene, Marilyn Monroe. I see now that I was beginning to need a larger canvas than poetry to tell the stories I wanted to tell. I was evolving from a poet to a storyteller, and soon a writer of fiction, but none of this was clear to me when I stood on the steps of the Jung Insititut at Hornweg 28 on the Zurichsee.

Something was calling. Most of us know the feeling—the nameless, faceless prompting that niggles our mind and causes us to flail in our sleep. It’s the road we fear we might not take to an unknowable future.

In my case, the impulse turned out to be writerly, leading me away from crafting lyric poems toward writing a novel. I needed to understand better those paradoxes and conundrums of the human soul that are the basis of good fiction. Therapists and fiction writers share a lot in common: our charge is to observe and empathize with our clients/characters, to listen to their stories and help them discover new ones, to excavate the strata of their experience and bear witness to their motivations, their secrets, their unspoken desires. To do this with grace and objectivity, we need to know our own biases and personality ticks.

My “aha” moment, when I realized becoming an analyst was not for me, occurred while chatting with a fellow trainee. The day was postcard perfect—grazing sheep and gardens of Old-World roses scattered among the colorful medieval houses of Küsnacht, the Alps outlined against an enameled blue sky. My friend and I were discussing “transference,” the phenomenon in which a patient’s unconscious feelings are projected, “transferred” onto the analyst/therapist. (Say you resent your father and have never been able express it, but hey, it’s easy to cuss out your analyst.) Much of the healing in analysis, I was learning, got accomplished through transference whereby the analyst remains a mirror for the analysand to see his own feelings. Bad behavior on the part of the cussee was never to be taken personally by the analyst.

The “Paul/Laura” episodes of HBO’s In Treatment dramatized transference

I remembering thinking on that perfect afternoon in Switzerland: Do I really want to be so intimate with the anger and grief of others? Was my skin thick enough? All day I would be listening to stories and trying not to absorb the emotions behind them. These would not be invented stories either, but narrative tales bound to the real world and woven out of real suffering. Though I knew myself to be the best of empathizers, I didn’t know if I had the emotional stamina for the job.

I realized I wanted to explore the stories in my own psyche that were not bound to time and fact. The writer and analyst/therapist share a preoccupation with narrative and a love of mucking around in the unconscious where personality incubates and where the inexpressible is born into metaphor and image, but the desire to create art is vastly different from the intention of analysis. If I were going to explore inner worlds, it would be my own inner world, and by extension, the inner worlds of my characters, a much more selfish and self-serving goal than that of a becoming an analyst.

Embedded in the art of writing is the art of listening, true listening without the ego’s ready assertions, those automatic habits and defenses that define our public selves. This is listening the way I imagine a horse “listens” to the shifting musculature of its rider. I was just beginning to sense that I housed characters who wanted me to listen to them in just this manner, whose stories I needed to uncover and disclose.

800px-Jung-InstitutI knew that if I decided to continue with analytic training, the experience would profoundly transform me, and that I would have to make a choice between becoming an analyst and writing, between treating patients and creating characters. I wouldn’t be able to sustain both.

I listened to fabulous lectures for two summers at the C.G. Jung Institut, but I did not stay to get my diploma. Instead, I opened myself to a new way of looking at the world, its shadows and archetypes, the likes of which would surface in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love.

And here’s an afterthought: the something else that calls us can manifest in cunning ways. Both summers I attended the Institut I was called away before the program finished, once for a family celebration and once for a sudden death in the family. Was the fact that I was called home early both times a coincidence or something more? How to interpret the interruptions? I would have to dig into Jung’s explanation of synchronicity and its relationship to fate to understand.



Anne Frank and My Birth as a Writer

Anne Frank at her deskI first read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl when I was about nine years old. As you may remember, Anne received her diary as a gift for her thirteenth birthday and she used it to chronicle her life, thoughts, and feelings for two traumatic years, from June 12, 1942 until August 1, 1944 while she and her family hid from the Nazis in several rooms concealed behind a bookcase in a building in Amsterdam.

At the time I was fascinated by what’s now called Holocaust literature and remember also reading John Hersey’s novel The Wall about the Warsaw Ghetto. I grew up in postwar New Jersey and in our house World War II was never discussed, though Roosevelt and Churchill were considered saints. Yes, Jews have saints! It might have been the whispery conversations in the kitchen among the women that piqued my curiosity about the unsaid. Undoubtedly, some of those whispered phrases contained the words Auschwitz and Treblinka.

"Kitty," Anne Frank's original diaryBut it wasn’t Anne’s description of the terror of the Nazi occupation of Holland that intrigued me. Rather, it was that she, like myself, had undisclosed feelings—about her mother, her father, her sister, about Peter van Pels, the young man whose family was in hiding in the Annex with the Franks. It was Anne’s private voicings of her feelings, so similar to mine at the time, that captivated me.

Reading Anne Frank, with whom I identified as a young, sensitive, intelligent Jewish girl, gave me the idea that I could also find words and a place to express myself. I loved the confidential tone with which she addressed her Kitty, the name she called her diary. Anne wrote in her diary: I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

From my perspective, this statement describes the ideal relationship between a writer and her work: truth-telling in the form of an interior monologue. Only later, when I was in high school, did I begin to keep my own diary, never once imagining that I would become a professional author. Almost two decades after that, I returned to school to earn a Master’s in Fine Arts in Creative Writing, but I trace the seeds of my career to that first intimate relationship with Anne’s voice.

As we all know, Anne was not a survivor, but through her words she has survived and changed us.

Pages from the original diaryPost-script: sometime over the years my original copy of The Diary disappeared. In the foreword to the edition I now own, The Definitive Edition, the translator writes that Anne had hoped to someday publish her diary. In 1944, a member of the Dutch government in exile had announced on the radio that after the war he hoped to publish eyewitness accounts of the German occupation. Anne heard this broadcast and planned, after the war, to publish a book based on her diary. So she began to keep two diaries, her original one and an edited version.

This passage has special meaning for me as a writer. Eunice, my protagonist in The Conditions of Love, also keeps a diary. Like her, I believe our words matter. I believe our suffering matters. I believe that out of the raw material of our lives we form art and create beauty. As Eunice’s downstairs neighbor and confidant Mr. Tabachnik says, “From the terrible the beautiful comes.”

Title page of first Dutch edition of The Diary of a Young Girl



Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience and What I Learn from My Characters

It may not surprise readers of fiction that fiction writers have a very intimate relationship with our characters. We hear their voices waking and sleeping. Their stories live in us, they become family, that is, family we choose. Or perhaps I should say, family that chooses us. When I talk about my characters to a new audience, it’s almost as if I am introducing family members to strangers.

My characters reveal their stories to me, but not all at once and not in any linear way.  And not surprisingly, the complications that arise in their lives echo subjects I’m drawn to. One subject that has concerned me for some time I call “Girls at Risk: The Enigma of Resilience.”

Gala Eluard by Max Ernst 1924One of the threads in my debut novel, The Conditions of Love, is emotional resiliency, what qualities enable us to flourish despite bad beginnings. I didn’t realize I was writing about this subject until after I finished the book. I call these post-publication revelationsWriter’s Hindsight Learning.” It’s what the author doesn’t know she knows while she’s writing the book! What I mean is that when I’m engaged in the discovery aspect of writing, moving the story forward scene by scene and trying to be a good listener to my characters, I’m not in an analytic mode. For me, writing is a process of discovery. The themes pick me. This might sound counter-intuitive, even counter-productive, but it isn’t. It’s about trusting your unconscious mind to lead you where you need to go. That means I don’t outline or write out a plot before I begin. It means risking being in the unknown. It means suffering the woes of creative vulnerability. But I know no other way to get to the deeper layers of a story, to the story INSIDE the story.

In fiction as in life, nothing destabilizes the identity of a young person as profoundly as turmoil in the home. I don’t mean this in any judgmental way. Quite the opposite. As a writer, I’m compelled to examine and speak the truth about the light and darkness inherent in human beings—the guilt, the sorrow, the joy, the indiscretions, the desire for freedom, the desire to survive no matter what.

By destabilizing one’s identity I mean the confused and painful experience of not knowing who one is or where one belongs. It’s the feeling of rupture from the familiar and stable structures of one’s life. These can be existential crises that set us on a journey to find out who we are.  We ask ourselves, “if this and this and this are no longer true in my life, who am I now?”

“You are not going to use me an an excuse again.” James Dean as Jim Stark arguing with his parents (Ann Doran and Jim Backus) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
This dilemma—of finding one’s true self against the background of loss and impermanence—is at the core of The Conditions of Love, and now I see it shaping my second novel, a work in progress called Digging to China.

In both my novels, the young protagonists find themselves in home environments that are about to be disrupted. Their mothers are going through big changes. Their fathers are either absent, (Eunice in The Conditions of Love), or about to be left behind (Reenie in Digging to China). In his book, The Child, the psychologist Erich Neumann wrote: “Once we appreciate the positive significance of the child’s total dependency on the primal relationship, we cannot be surprised by the catastrophic effects that ensue when that relationship is disturbed or destroyed.”

1721mandalajungSomething Carl Jung once wrote has always haunted me and in some way has been an impetus for my work.

“What usually has the strongest psychic effect on the child is the life which the parents (and ancestors too, for we are dealing here with the age-old psychological phenomenon of original sin) have not lived.” —Carl Jung, Introduction to The Inner World of Childhood by Frances G. Wickes (1927)

As a writer, I’m very interested in the entangled and entangling relationship between parents and children. In both my novels, the mothers are the major destabilizers in their daughter’s lives, while their fathers are absent and idealized. The unfulfilled desires of the mothers affect their daughters. These desires are either thwarted or encouraged by the decades they live in.

In The Conditions of Love, Eunice’s mother, Mern, has a craving to be a movie star. Hollywood and what it represented in the Fifties is quite different from the Hollywood of today. It’s hard for us to imagine how significant movies were in the Fifties. Movies stars were these gigantic, dazzling national icons. Everyone knew who Marilyn or Bogey was. So, we have a mother who yearns for a richer and more exciting life, and a child who yearns for a normal family.

marilyn monroe handprintsBut I have sympathy for Mern and hope readers will too. Her creativity is stifled. The novel is set in the Fifties before Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique, before the birth control pill, and women’s lib. Mern IS over the top, but what can she aspire to? She’s trapped in her single mother, working class life. To be discovered as a starlet was one big dream for a lot of American women at that time. Of course this situation is horrible for her daughter. Indeed, a set up for calamity.

In Digging to China, Reenie’s mother Nate is caught up in the political turbulence of the late Sixties. The novel begins one week after Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in June I968. In the course of the novel, Nate becomes radicalized and an activist for social justice. In Digging To China, specific political events precipitate internal transformation. Reenie becomes caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, and like Eunice, is launched on a journey of self-discovery.

Here is the opening of Digging to China. Reenie is listening to her parents fight in the room next door. You’ll hear how her imagination serves her in providing a sense of magic and wonder that leads to empowerment as she plots how to escape her distress.

Maplewood, New Jersey

May, 1968

Cages

 

They are at it again in the bedroom next to hers. Slippers thrown across the room, her mother’s scorched voice exploding in disgust. Her father commanding Control yourself, Nathalie. Reenie waits in the void of their aggrieved voices, ear to gap, the silence, and imagines her father smoking by the window, mother tense at the edge of the bed, cigarette butts burning to ash in the big glass ashtray. Her mother is Jewish and unhappy. (No one but Reenie notices this association, what she thinks of as her mother’s Jewish strangeness, the vague smile that twists into anger, the constant argument in her eyes.) Temperamental. Stubborn. Infuriating. Words her father labels her mother to be avoided at all costs, though Reenie is nothing like the brave and beautiful Nathalie. Nothing at all.

 

She should be used to this live rage scattershot in the night, but its randomness (her mother mutely seething at dinner, her father preoccupied but polite, cheerful even) undoes her, the violence chipping away at her confidence. Now she sits up in bed, hands clammy, heart sinking in a sea of blood and plugs her ears, Row row row your boat useless against the parental gale. Wakeful, she can’t not listen: her survival depends on it.

I want my fictional worlds to accurately convey the paradoxes, confusions, and moral dilemmas of human beings. Novels give us the experience of being alive in another person’s skin. How would we know about worlds we could never enter otherwise without our Toni Morrison, our Tim O’Brien, or Khaled Hosseini. Novels are direct avenues to compassion, something our world sorely needs to cultivate these days. And I have to say, writing my characters has taught me so much about risk, survival and resiliency. This is the great mystery of being a writer. We are transformed by what we write.

Varo_Armonia Continue reading…



How Do We Know We Have Come of Age?

The-Three-Ages-of-Woman KlimtI want to tell you right off that I had every intention of writing this blog about coming of age, what it might mean here and now in the States, and even dip into a look at classic and current coming-of-age novels, of which there are many, and which has, at times been a moniker for my own novel, The Conditions of Love.

But true to how my writerly, associative brain works (I’ll actually be exploring using the associative mind to deepen one’s writing in a workshop I’m giving in July—see events page), I started investigating one thing and it led me somewhere other than where I intended.

My mind led me to the HBO series Girls, a show that has garnered much acclaim, as has its author, Lena Dunham, and which, having recently spent evenings in the company of that most deliciously malevolent of couples, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in House of Cards, and awaiting the availability of the last episodes of Mad Men, in a restless, between-series state of hunting new characters to adore, I discovered Girls.

girls_sexscene14I’d read some interviews with Dunham, heard it was touted as the next Sex and the City, and well, I’m interested in the lives of women and mighty curious about the inner lives and politics of twenty-something contemporary American women. I’m interested in this because I’m a woman and these things concern me, because I have daughters, and because, in part, I write about girls growing into womanhood.

Not too far into the pilot episode of Girls, after Dunham’s character Hannah Horvath loses her job and is rejected by her parents who refuse to support her, Hannah drops by a buddy’s apartment to cheer herself up, and, as therapy or an antidote to despair, has what looks like anal sex.

My first thought was—why this sex scene, front and center, naked butt in the air? Sex depicted so dispassionately, so lacking of the erotic, of ecstasy, fury or fetishistic delight, Samantha from Sex and the City would have yawned and walked away. I had to wonder: what is this about? What’s the meaning here? Is there meaning?

girl-at-mirror-Norman RockwellAnd then I thought—am I watching a rite of passage, a coming-of-age ritual that signifies something I’m too out of it, too focused on the romantic to understand? Is casual, non-emotive sex a marker for a generation that honors irony and detachment, a way of claiming authority over the often urgent needs and drives of childhood, those pressing I needs, I wants of the Id? (Does anyone still talk about Ids?)

I had to wonder, what, if anything, marks the transition from adolescence into adulthood for the representative Hannah and her cohort? Gone, long gone are the days in which the start of menses and a woman’s ability to bear a child held that stature. Especially now when many girls reach menses at the astonishingly young age of eight, long before they are emotionally mature, physical development outpacing moral, ethical, emotional development, it is impossible to consider an eight-year-old menstruating girl an adult.

coming-of-age-sunrise-ceremonyLosing one’s virginity, separating from parents, becoming self-supportive. Marriage, giving birth, at one time these too set the definition for female adulthood. No longer. In other places, rite of passage ceremonies are intact. We do not send our daughters to live for a time with the wise grannies in the Moon Hut; we do not scarify the faces of our young men or set up contests for them to jump over a castrated cow. We do have Sweet Sixteen parties, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, our Quincenaras, but largely these ritual celebrations stay within their communities and do not translate to a feeling of adulthood in the larger world.

Girls’ Hannah H. is twenty-four, unpartnered and unmarried, broke, and seemingly brimming with despair. From Dunham’s portrayal of Hannah, it’s difficult to discern if the character considers herself part of the adult world, or not. Something seems to be missing in her self-image that places her between stages of development. But how does she feel? In this age how does one know they’ve come of age?

So my pondering continues. How do we know we have come of age? But then, how do we define middle age or old age these days? Aren’t our longer lifespans and the changes in our economy changing how we think of age and aging in general? If only humans had clear stages of development, a discreet and recognizable morphology like the cycles of butterfly development, the lowly earth-bound caterpillar so vastly different in shape and function than the gracefully winged creature that emerges from it. Our human skeleton keeps us bound to one form, but within that form our minds change, our hearts hopefully grow wiser. But we have no rituals or ceremonies, no real way of letting others know this has occurred in us.

Or do we?

tout-est-psycho

 



Mother’s Day 2015: Struggling with Being a Mother and a Writer

As Mother’s Day 2015 approaches, I feel called to write about a subject I’ve lived intimately, a subject I’ve explored in The Conditions of Love and is now shaping my new novel Digging To China—the conflict many women feel between their creative and domestic selves.

Mother. Writer. Are these dueling destinies? How much do the roles oppose? Do the separate roles fracture our identities? How permeable or dense is the membrane between them? Mother. Writer. Where can we find the energy, the juju, the concentration, the tremendous love, care, and devotion needed in equal measures in both domains? Do you know what I’m talking about? I think you do!

Here’s what I can tell you about my own experience: I struggled. And I still struggle with finding a balance between putting myself into my written work and into relationships.

I love these two poems for their recognition of the split between the “milk-giver” and “the moon-ridden girl.”50s

Night Feeding
Muriel Rukeyser

In Mind
Denise Levertov

Even before I took up writing professionally, I was jolted awake by the voices of certain poets, women poets who were shoving open the windows of their houses and shouting in wrath and fury, despair and righteousness, about their lives.

The essay that I read and reread dozens of times, that spoke to me so directly I was astonished anyone could know so much about my life was Adrienne Rich’s When We Dead Awaken: Writing As Re-Vision. Her words startled me into recognition of my own guilt, my own confusion and isolation.

Rich in ColorShe writes:

 …I was also determined to prove that as a woman poet I could also have what was then defined as a “full” woman’s life, I plunged in my early twenties into marriage and had three children before I was thirty…I went on trying to write: my second book and first child appeared in the same month…If there were doubts, if there were periods of null depression or active despairing, these could only mean that I was ungrateful, insatiable, perhaps a monster…about the time my third child was born, I felt that I had either to consider myself a failed woman and a failed poet, or to try to find some synthesis by which to understand what was happening to me.

To feel oneself a monster…to suffer this in silence…to be at odds with one’s deepest desires…and to be isolated in one’s suffering—do these conditions still exist for women writers who are raising families (and male writers who are the primary caregivers in their homes)?

KaliThe truth is, the very attributes that contribute to a rich, deep, profound, and thrilling creative life are antithetical to sustaining a stable home. Writing, at least as I know it, thrives on the chaotic and unpredictable shifts and flashes of the imagination; it demands devotion, loyalty, ruthlessness in the face of despair, enormous amounts of energy and attention—all of which might otherwise be directed toward one’s beloveds.

Rich says:

But to write poetry or fiction, or even to think well…a certain freedom of mind is needed—freedom to press on; to enter the currents of your thoughts like a glider pilot, knowing that your motion can be sustained, that the buoyancy of your attention will not suddenly be snatched away… To be maternally with small children all day in the old way, to be with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity and demands instead a kind of conservatism…

Your attention suddenly snatched away. Split loyalties. The soccer game, the swim team, the poem, the essay: they all shouted at once, a confused and confusing cacophony that sent me hurrying in ten different directions.

But like Rich, I felt rise up in me an unquenchable desire to speak the truth about things unsaid and unspoken. I housed a hunger I hadn’t let myself feel until I heard the words of other women writers describing, most desperately, their hunger to have a voice. This is what we can do for each other: mirror, echo, witness, model.

creation-of-the-birdsOver time, I’ve come to adopt a different perspective, one that expands the view of what we are doing when we continue to embrace the warring imperatives of our souls—what the Jungians call holding the tension of the opposites. By creating a literal home we build a place to contain and house all our parts. This place/space holds our love, our security, grounds and shelters us against storms and unpredictable weather—I mean the turbulence inherent in a creative life. We need our homes just as our homes need us; we need a place where the offspring of our imaginations can grow and thrive.

Terry Tempest Williams writes with great eloquence about women’s voices and women’s silences in her poignant memoir, When Women Were Birds, an ode to her mother who died of cancer at 54. Her mother had bequeathed the author her journals—all of them blank inside. Williams writes:

She left me her “Cartographies of Silence.” I will never know her story. I will never know what she was trying to tell me by telling me nothing. But I can imagine.

terry tempest williams book coverAfter reading When Women Were Birds, it struck me that I did not know my own daughters’ experiences of what it was like growing up with a mother who also happened to be a writer. So I asked them each if they would write a few words for this blog.

Jennifer:

  1. I recall falling asleep to the click, click, click….. zing… of the typewriter in the room next door.  There was something rhythmic and reassuring about it.
  2. I grew up with poetry infused into everyday life in a way that most don’t.  It was not uncommon to have you recite a poem (not necessarily yours; often not) in what seemed like random moments.  Before meals… at gatherings…   And to this day, I think I’ve picked up this propensity.  I’m often quoting/reciting poems or openings to books… quotes… at random moments.  I reference you whenever I do this with new people.  I just say “I grew up in a house with a writer.”
  3. Honestly… there were books everywhere in our house.  Before the bookshelves were built in the living room and sunroom, there were piles of books everywhere.
  4. You have this incredible and unique capacity to offer exactly the right “text” to someone (including me) at precisely the right moment.  Did then, still do.
  5. I have poetry books you gave me as a kid (kid versions) that I still have poems memorized from (e.g., “Who has seen the wind…” or “Jenny kissed me when we met…”)
  6. You seemed to struggle then (and still do) with trying to find a balance between being in your writing space and in normal everyday space.  When we were growing up, your writing space seemed to be more around the margins of your life with us (after hours… when we were at school). Now it is pretty central. But I think there is still the tension of how to immerse and be present with your writing and not disappear forever.  Not that you’d want to. . . but it seems the structure of when to go in and then pull out was more defined by us and your wanting to be present with us.

Dale & Young Daughters canoeing in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northeastern Minnesota

Jessica: Growing up with a mom as a writer certainly set me aside from my friends. I was encouraged to learn the language of colors and moods, not of apple pie and golf. My friends did not make the acquaintance of Mary Oliver, Robert Frost, or the man at the mic bravely sharing his work at a poetry reading on campus. A world unheard of by my friends was at my fingertips. Beyond poems and prose was the way I was encouraged to view the world: ripe, aging, new, dying, tragic, humorous, raw… full of suffering and hidden miracles. I would not trade my upbringing, second daughter of an amazing writer, artist, and poet. I am lucky to have learned and lived (and still do!) the language and veil of creativity from the best, my mom.

My daughters have been kind. Hugely supportive, always. I was, at times, a “space cadet,” a distracted mom, cranky and preoccupied, sometimes gone for weeks at a time to write, but I’ve always been haunted by what Jung said: that our children live out our unlived lives. And so, isn’t it better to live our passions honestly and not drop the burden of unfulfilled desires onto our kids? We never do know when we are launched on creative projects that compel and enthrall us—raising children, writing a novel—how smooth or bumpy the road will be. But follow it we must. And if we are lucky, as I have been, our children will also reap the rewards.

Dale & Adult Daughters at Luna Loon Lodge, Conover, Wisconsin

 

 



On Writing, Climbing, and Resilience

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-female-climber-rapelling-off-cliff-image28558900A number of years ago, I did something I thought I’d never do: I scaled a forty-foot inflatable climbing tower, jumped into a net, and was belayed down to earth. How did this happen? I was with my daughters, one of whom was on the Outward Bound team that had set up the towers on a cross-country bike tour to raise awareness for girls Outward Bound expeditions. We were in Chicago’s Waveland Park, and I was standing around watching teen girls grab the rubber handholds and scramble up the towers like monkeys.

A curious thing happened. As I observed these limber young women, I suddenly felt my own body get juiced. Inside my head a voice was prompting me to go for it. You can do this, Dale. Never before had I been propelled to take this kind of physical risk. And heights? I don’t even like to look down from high-rise windows! Then how to explain what came next? I turned to my astonished husband and said I am doing this! (Spoiler: climbing that tower was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done, and it sure helped to have a squadron of my daughters’ friends yelling, “Dale rocks!”)

Anatomy of an Angel Damien Hirst IMG_7213Every angel is terrifying. I find myself quoting this line from Rilke’s Second Duino Elegy often because it clarifies so many situations. It seems that when we come face to face with the magnitude of who we are and the vast possibilities inherent in our lives, we often retreat in fear. But that breezy summer day I latched my harness and donned a helmet, I wasn’t thinking about angels, symbolic or otherwise. I was focused on which footholds to place my feet and how far to extend my arms. I wasn’t looking up at the clouds or down at the ground. Earth and sky had dissolved. What existed was my heartbeat, the burn in my calves, my breath in gulps.

After the climb, my daughter Jessica, who with her partner, Troy Gosz, now runs an amazing non-profit program called FLYY* which serves youth-at-risk through wilderness programs, explained that the towers are used as educational tools to teach confidence and climbing skills, but also provide a concrete, physical metaphor for how we face life’s challenges.

Climbers who try to race to the top of the towers often handle their fears the same way, rushing through difficult situations to get them over with as quickly as possible. Other climbers start slowly and cautiously, but speed up at the end gaining confidence as they go, while yet others begin energetically and poop out at the end because they haven’t paced themselves and have run out of steam. That’s what happened to me. A few feet from the summit, my strength failed. Arms and legs splayed against a swaying rubber cylinder, for several long minutes I could move neither up or down and so hugged that blasted tower with everything in me and prayed I wouldn’t fall off.

http://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-rock-climbing-image24416860During the pause, something shifted. My mind refocused, veering away from fear toward the shouts of encouragement from below. Excuse the cliché but soon onward and upward I went, one step up at a time, until, voila! miraculously I’d made it, panting but victorious. At that moment, I couldn’t have guessed how frequently I’d return to my climbing experience as a touchstone when I’ve needed to unfreeze from fear. Here I’m thinking of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous aphorism: You must do the thing you think you cannot do.

Writing a novel is more like scaling Mt. Everest than climbing a rubber tower: bravery, resilience, and unshakable determination are required. How many times did I despair that I would never finish The Conditions of Love, or if I did, never sell it. How often did my self-confidence flag? Doubt is one of the Five Hindrances to enlightenment in Buddhist thought and I can see why: doubt is a contagion of the mind that infects the creative spirit, an energetic equivalent of a mind on strike. While writing my novel, when self-doubt buckled my knees, I’d pull my climbing achievement out of my back pocket and remind myself that without practice and a strong inclination to vertigo, I’d climbed a forty-foot tower. I had done the thing I thought I couldn’t do. I could also write a book.

doubt6aI don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish. I don’t believe we can do anything we set our minds to. Accepting one’s limitations seems paramount to maturity. But… but…especially when it comes to creative work, for most of us discouragement, doubt, and stasis plague the process. But – what if that’s not a bad thing? What if, when we feel stuck, we think of it as a pause rather than an end stop, a reminder to see how far we’ve come? What if we take some deep breaths, push away the demons and attune to the encouraging voices? Hand over hand, foothold after foothold, ever so slowly if need be, we climb to the summit.

Afterclimb

*FLYY is a community-based non-profit that offers wilderness expeditions, intensive parent/guardian skills and support groups, and ongoing community-based aftercare for teens and families. FLYY serves as a catalyst and resource for youth and families to transform their outlook, their capacities, and their contributions to others. For more information, you can visit their website at www.flyyexpeditions.org.



Men respond to The Conditions of Love

young_man_reading_candle_ligh_hiPeople sometimes ask me who I write for. Do I have an ideal reader in mind while I’m writing? The question always surprises me. My focus has always been so much on living with my characters, listening to them, observing them, trying to help them make decisions. Thinking about who I’m presenting them to always struck me as a distraction from where my attention needed to be. Because Eunice was so central to the writing of The Conditions of Love, I suppose I did want women readers to recognize a part of themselves in her, to respond to her as a living, three-dimensional character. And at readings and in letters, I’ve had the delicious pleasure of hearing from many women about how much they identified with Eunice.

But what really surprised and delighted me was that I would hear from so many men. Not that they identify with Eunice, but that they were moved by the story, that they felt they learned something about love from the book. Was I really able to do that? Here are some samplings:
men-who-read-jane-austen

I treasure books where the characters stay with you a long time after you finish the book; and this was definitely one of those books.  The Conditions of Love resonates with the experiences and feelings of real life.  In that regard, I felt that every character in the story was like someone I have personally known in my own life.  It is a book that, after turning the final page, left me with a feeling of being fully and wonderfully satisfied at the finish.—D.F.

 

Eunice is one of the most complete, believable, sympathetic, occasionally annoying characters, I’ve discovered in a long time. . . . I’ve been reading a lot of women writers again and, though this is not a ‘woman’s book,’ whatever that means, it’s the best I’ve read this year along with A.M. Homes, Spiotta, and Oates. –D.W.

 

FW 2010Your story and characters were so original and unusual but somehow in the context of your tale completely believable. . . . You made me think and ponder. You made me want to share your insights with others. At times you made me think about my life and the people who have come and gone but most of all the people who are here and now and how I might use your wisdom to help me heal those relationships which need healing.—R.B.

 

I don’t real as many novels as I should, as I am so often disheartened by the language.  I have underlined so many sentences for their sheer beauty, and the characters are riveting and so multi- dimensional. This is a tour de force.—R.M.

How does reading these make me feel? Surprised does not begin to describe it. I’m so much more than pleased. It’s much like the excitement you feel at the beginning of a new relationship. I feel like the book has achieved so much more than I expected. And I’m gaining a new appreciation of what men are capable of – and perhaps falling a little in love with this new idea of an ideal male reader.

johnny depp on train



On Enchantment and My Writing

alice-in-wonderland-cheshire-cat-147978-2000x1476

Enchantment. I hope the word sends a thrill up your spine! When was the last time your conversation turned to enchantment? Who talks about enchantment these days? That may be one of the reasons it interests me. As a writer, I’m interested in what isn’t being said in the public sphere—the unsaid and the unspoken.

The German philosopher Wittgenstein explored the subject of enchantment. WittgensteinAccording to him, enchantment transports us beyond our finite selves. To be enchanted, he wrote, was “to show the fly the way out of the bottle.” To show the fly the way out of the bottle! The French poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” I agree. Enchantment is with us here, now.

And yet we seem so attracted to enchantment’s opposites—cynicism, irony, mistrust—qualities that show up in lots of contemporary fictional characters who reflect our twenty-first century discouraged and disenchanted point of view. Enchantment, instead, would have us stand in the place of wonder and consider ourselves apprentices in the mystery of Being.

I’ll share a recent discovery—the role enchantment has played in my writing—paul-eluardand how the enchanted state in a writer, in this case me, seeps into the work itself. Another way of saying this is that what’s in the psyche of the writer shows up transmuted on the page. Transmuted is key because sometimes only the slightest aroma of the original idea is evident in the final written form. Think of it this way: The rapture expressed in Mozart’s The Magic Flute is directly related to the rapture Mozart presumably felt while composing it. If Mozart was filled with rapture, rapture will be in his music.

marc chagall die zauberflote_fullsizeThere’s plenty of enchantment going on in my novel The Conditions of Love. (Check out Mr. Tabachnik’s relationship to opera, or Eunice and Rose’s relationship to the natural world, or Mern’s intoxication with Hollywood.) I myself was in an enchanted state while writing a lot of the book, but I also admit that my characters, in turn, enchanted me. This is the moment when I might explain that the novel’s origins began when I started to hear voices, but that’s another story for another time.

This writer has experienced her most enchanted states at our cabin in the north woods where much of The Conditions of Love was written. You might say that in solitude and stillness, my apprehension of and connection to the invisible world ripened. The wind spoke to me, the pines spoke to me, the sun-diamonds on the lake and the slap of water against the shore worked their magic. At other times while writing the novel, I took myself to foreign towns where I’d rent a bungalow and sit myself down to write. Enchantment can occur at any time, but it does seem to appreciate an escape from the familiar.

We don’t talk much about enchantment, but most of us have experienced it and still get glimpses. For example, music shares an ancient relationship to enchantment. Think: hymns, chants, rattles and drums. On a more modern note, I recently read that melody and rhythm trigger the same dopamine system in the brain that rewards food and sex. Absolutely! Who didn’t think that whirling dervishes and ecstatic dancers of every stripe were having more fun than the rest of us!  It appears neuroscience has finally caught up with what the sages always knew.

There’s so much violence and terror in the world today. whirling dervishes of istanbul“You name it, the world is aflame,” said Gary Samore, a former national-security aide in the Obama Administration, to New York Times reporter Peter Baker. I wonder where we can find an antidote to the dread and doom? Where can we look for relief? Couldn’t an engagement with enchantment, that is, to stand in wonder at what does exist, open worlds of possibility and present a wedge of light in the darkness?

Here’s a very brief list of fiction writers who play with enchantment in their work. Poets need their own list.

Suggested reading:

Lewis Carroll: The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

Steven Millhauser: Little Kingdoms; The Knife Thrower and Other Stories

Louise Erdrich: The Plague of Doves

Tea Olbrecht: The Tiger’s Wife

anything by Jorge Luis Borges or Edgar Allan Poe

anything by Angela Carter

Bersabea_big



The Five Best Questions To Ask a Writer

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photos-open-text-book-question-mark-pen-drawing-icon-white-background-image30529978
Since May and the publication of the paperback edition of The Conditions of Love, I’ve been on the road visiting bookstores and talking to readers. Book tours are not without stress—Will it rain? Will the fine weather keep people away? Who will show up? Will the book sell?—but no matter how these external circumstances play out, without fail I personally have been touched by every audience, even the reader who told me she threw the book across the room because she was so angry with Mern in her outrageous mother incarnation. I took the reader’s response as a compliment (which it was!) since it means I must have created a believable world in fiction.

I hope to write more about my encounters with readers and the experience of being a private person who assumes a public life, but at the moment I still am on tour, about to head up to the Wisconsin’s Cape Cod , the Door County peninsula for several book events. I expect that once again I’ll be engaged in thought-provoking discussions about TCOL and about the writing life. Just for fun, I came up with this list of the Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer. Every writer will, of course, have different preferences, but here are some of mine.

The Five Best Questions to Ask a Writer 

1. What were the early influences on your writing and how do they manifest in your work?

2. How does writing change the writer?

3. What books have fortified you as a writer?

4. Why is the unconscious mind a writer’s best friend?

5. What are you working on now?

This leads me to wonder if you’ve ever received a surprising answer when you asked a writer a question. I’d love to hear about it.

[This has been such a popular post that I wrote a follow-up to it with “the four questions I’d like to ask myself” in the post “What Do We Really Want to Know About a Writer?]



The sweet glow keeps Georgia on my mind: when a cheesehead reads in the Peach State

Inman b and b yardHave you ever felt unaccountably drawn to a city, country, or continent you’ve never visited before? Have you ever journeyed to a foreign, unfamiliar place and yet felt perfectly at home? I’m just back from a mini-book tour of Georgia and wondering about these questions. This is one of the very great things about being a published and public author: not only do I get to meet readers and future readers, something I love to do, but I’m traveling to parts of this country I might not have gotten to visit otherwise—New Paltz and Woodstock, New York (Yes, THAT Woodstock!); Nashville, Tennessee; Athens, Georgia to name a few.

Georgia charmed me. What a flirt! Even with her dirty face and smeared lipstick, she was all soul. My plane touched down in the dusky Atlanta twilight, and after an endless, color-deprived Wisconsin winter, the first thing I noticed was the glorious lushness of the landscape. Every shrub and sapling seemed to be flowering, and the scents intoxicated. Ancient willows and huge old oaks sashaying in the wind were the trees in the childhood fairy tales books I wished to inhabit. I might be romanticizing here, but it was hard not to fall in love with Georgia.

Georgia seduces you with her melancholic, regal and faded glory. Avidrdng-Janna Dresden Alice and Bruce kent silverWe know she lost the Civil War to us damn Yankees; we know internally she still carries herself like a queen and we can’t forget that once she ruled like a queen, but now Georgia is everywhere diverse, a stew of the peoples, and diversity—of ethnicities, genders, ages, and incomes—certainly gives a place soul. Maybe losing a war and burying a way of life along with the dead makes for a kind of graciousness and humility wrought out of sorrow we Midwesterners can’t quite know.

This is all speculation on my part, of course, but when I think of Georgia now I see the South of Alice Walker and Carson McCullers, the grand and not-so-grand houses with their commodious porches where the elders rocked and waved howdy to their neighbors. Those porches still exist as do the friendly and welcoming howdy-dos.

Friendliness was in the atmosphere from the moment we checked in near midnight at the Athens Marriott Courtyard. The jovial desk clerk was not only unfazed by our late arrival, she proudly gave us details to AthFest, Athens’ yearly music festival and street fair occurring that weekend. With a hug, she sent us to bed.

John Olive at AvidguyI’m a hugger (including a tree-hugger!) and a hand-holder and have been known to give near strangers an affectionate kiss, so I fit right in with the local custom of appreciative smooches and cheek-pecks. Hmmm—how to say this? Are Southerners more erotically (as in Eros) connected than the rest of us?

I’m also happy to report friendliness took the form of genuine enthusiasm for The Conditions of Love, a novel set in the Wisconsin that has nothing Southern about it. Janet Geddis, (owner), and Rachel Watkins, (events coordinator and local politco), and staff at Athens popular Indie bookstore Avid Bookshop (with help from new writer friend Sara Baker, and Janna Dresden and Ron Cervero), did a fabulous job of pulling in an enthusiastic group who might have otherwise skipped off to hear a band at AthFest. Those of you who know me know how much I love to talk about books, writing, and the creative process with audiences, and the folks who showed up at Avid’s were both wonderfully attentive and great question-askers. One question that I’m often asked, and was asked in Athens, is what motivated me to write fiction after studying to write poetry. The answer is definitely a blog-post in the making!

bob the duck at Inman b and b crIn Atlanta, I stayed at the historic Inman Park B & B and was hosted by the ever-hilarious Eleanor and her heartthrob, Bob the Duck. (No kidding!) Inman Park is the place to go if you’re interested in historic mansions. Right around the corner from my B & B was Windcrofte, the spectacular mansion once owned by the Woodruff family of Coca-Cola fame.

My friend from VCFA graduate school days, Liza Nelson, brought out the crowd at A Cappella Books. I’d promised event coordinator, Courtney Conroy, I’d bring genuine Wisconsin cheese curds (the brilliant idea of my local PR maestro, Danielle Dresden) to lure an audience. Who would have guessed that the humble and unsophisticated cheese curd is exotica to Southerners? dalecourtney conroy acappella crCharis Books in Atlanta, one of the oldest feminist bookstores in the country, where I signed a few copies of The Conditions of Love, also rolled out the welcome mat in style.

Merci and gracias to all including Marti, owner and chef of Marti’s at Midday in Athens, closed for lunch the day we arrived at her door. Nonetheless, the ebullient Marti ushered us in, showed us around, then after a firm embrace sent us to chow down at another local wonder, The Grit.

I conclude that I must return to Georgia to further explore its memorable juju of hospitality, warmth, and soulfulness. Does a place reflect our inner world? Can we find out more about ourselves by investigating certain places? I think so. A great deal of our identity is tied to place, but we are so much more than our hometown selves. In the past, I haven’t been a reader of travel memoirs. Now I may become one. Book suggestions?



My Interview With Stephanie Bedford for The Capital Times

CapTimes

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Here’s my interview with Stephanie Bedford of The Capital Times appearing just a week before the Wisconsin Book Festival. The timing is perfect.

EVP Coffee

We actually chatted a few months ago at our local EVP coffee house. Being a fiction writer herself, Stephanie and I got into wonderful conversations about fiction, about being a mother and a writer, about being an introverted person who suddenly moves into the public domain.

What I am discovering about this last issue is that I LOVE being with and talking to readers. It’s an intimate act to share a book with someone, an act that is almost like sharing a secret. It creates a bond.

Washington Island Literature Festival
Washington Island Literature Festival

Now that I’m on the road and meeting more readers of TCOL, I’m quite humbled by their astute questions and observations not only about my book, but about life. I shouldn’t be surprised. Don’t books provoke us into thinking about all sorts of things—including our own lives?

If you’d like to read the details of my Cap Times interview, please click here:http://host.madison.com/entertainment/arts_and_theatre/madison-poet-s-debut-novel-is-engaging-unconventional/article_583ab0ee-9c48-57aa-8461-5add81dbfdcd.html



The Dark Side of the 50’s, Suffering, and a Writer’s Education: Marshal Zeringue’s The Page 69 Test

Marshal McLuhan, last century’s great communication theorist, declared that if you turn to page 69 in a book and like it, you’ll like the entire book. It’s a fascinating concept, one Marshal Zeringue has used for his blog called The Page 69 Test.Mccluhan

Happily and gratefully, I’m one of the writers Marshal Z invited to contribute to his site. Happily and gratefully, I returned to page 69 of TCOL and learned something new about my own novel. I call this “a writer’s hindsight education.”

How could it be that after years spent writing a book, after the drafts and gazillion discussions with friends and editors, I’m just now finding new revelations in the work? The experience is not dissimilar to picking up an old dream journal, rereading a dream, and understanding them at a deeper level: the meaning of the text keeps unfolding and amplifying over time.

Some of my post-publication education has also come via the astute questions and observations of readers and reviewers. At a book group discussing my novel, I was amazed by a fervent debate among participants concerning why Eunice, the book’s protagonist, decided to leave home. An eavesdropper might have mistaken the conversation (to which I was only a witness) for a heated round of gossip instead of a discussion about literary characters! One of the pleasures of being a reader among readers, of being in a book group is precisely this opportunity to exchange of ideas and opinions, to try-on theories and to engage in an investigation about human nature. That night, after the group, I went home and re-examined what I had actually written.

horatioBut getting back to a writer’s hindsight, this makes perfect sense to me since one of the engines that fuels the creative process is the unconscious mind. We may think we know why we are writing something, but the unconscious mind, often in its trickster mode, contributes in subtle ways to the resonance and archetypal dimension of the work.

For instance, I very consciously set the novel in the fifties and did lots of research on that period, especially on popular culture. But it’s only now I see that I was also writing about the dark side of the fifties— its repressive gender and racial attitudes, its propagation of the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger myth, its stifling of women’s creative lives. algerbookThe Eisenhower years were a strange combination of hail-fellow-well-met optimism and rolling paranoia.

 

fifiescropped Mr. Tabachnik, a refugee from Eastern Europe, most concretely embodies the horror that was World War II. Only a few years before the novel begins, Americans saw the first pictures of the camps, starved prisoners in their striped pajamas that haunted our collective psyche. We hadn’t yet digested the scale of the holocaust or our role in dropping the atomic bomb or finished grieving our own war dead.

bomb-1 We believed most heartily that science and technology would usher us into a new and prosperous utopia. Our suffering was invisible to us.

(Pico Iyer has written a very moving piece in the Times yesterday called The Value of Suffering. He too addresses the collective/cultural aspect of grief. I take his words, “to survive is to make sense of suffering” as a mantra for the times.)

My character, Mr Tabachnik, is a student of suffering. I mention Mr. T. in my piece for The Page 69 Test. Mr. T is my hero and his declaration, “From the terrible beauty comes” is another piece of wisdom I didn’t know I knew. When those words first fell from Mr. T’s mouth, I was astonished. It would seem I put those words into his mouth, but the truth is that until he said them, I didn’t know I believed them too.

 

 

 

 



My post on Marshal Zeringue’s Blog Writers Read

1316794888_50_large1Writing my previous entry about Susanna Daniel reminds me that I did a post about what I’m reading several weeks ago for Marshall’s blog. If you’d like to read my thoughts on discovering Alexander Chee’s “hauntingly lyrical” Edinburgh, diving into Adrienne Rich’s “eloquent and empathic” A Human Eye: Essays on Art in Society, 1997-2008, or delving into the depths of The Ability to Mourn: Disillusionment and the Social Origins of Psychoanalysis by Peter Homans, Writers Read is the place to go.



What my new friend Susanna Daniel said on Writers Read about TCOL

Susanna Daniel 320x432I just met the wonderful Susanna Daniel several weeks ago and am completely humbled and delighted by the great things she’s saying about The Conditions of Love.  I haven’t had a chance to read her just released second novel, Sea Creatures, but when I do I’m sure you’ll hear from me about it.

Susanna kindly included The Conditions of Love among the books she cited on Marshall Zeringue’s delightful Writers Read blog:

I’ve just finished Dale M. Kushner’s broad and impressive debut novel, The Conditions of Love, and I’m stunned – stunned – that I’m not hearing about it every time I pick up a newspaper or open a browser. It’s a classic, sweeping story of a girl’s life and the relationships that define her, from birth to old age – exquisitely detailed, finely paced, deliciously ambitious.



Communing with readers at Arcadia Books

arcadiawindoI’m way overdue reporting on my joyous reading at Arcadia Books in downtown Spring Green, WI on a beautiful Sunday afternoon on June 23. Spring Green is a destination point for Frank Lloyd Wright fans who come to tour his Wisconsin home,Taliesen, and to see the fabulous American Players Theatre repertory company do Shakespeare, Miller, Brecht and other classics, but Arcadia Books should be a destination all on its own.

The store opened in 2011 and I gather is part of a very intriguing trend. Arcadia doesn’t just offer books. It also has a café with a decidedly local flavor. “The Kitchen” features Wisconsin beer and cheese and its pizza even uses locally sourced flour! I love that the chef uses cookbooks from the store to teach “Cook the Book” cooking classes.

John Christensen and Dale crThis should be a model for how local stores can thrive. Little signs dot the store, “Read it here. Buy it here. Keep us here.”  Housed In what was once the Spring Green post office, built in 1872, with high ceilings and big windows, Arcadia has a wonderful small town ambience. The store takes its name from the Tom Stoppard play, a favorite of its owner, James Bohnen, who also frequently directs plays at the nearby American Players Theatre.

In addition to great food, I’m sure one of the reasons Arcadia is such a popular community hangout is the geniality of its manager, John Christensen, who immediately made me feel right at home. He claims that Arcadia has “the best poetry case in the state,” which of course endeared him to me.  arcadiaaudienceIt was so sweet to see the reading room fill with interested, animated locals, coming to hear me read when they could be anywhere else on such a sunny afternoon. These were true readers, which I came to appreciate as they peppered me with questions. One that really made me think was something like “How did I deal with an editor’s suggestion to revise or cut material?” I responded truthfully: for every cut or revision I asked myself, Will this add to or diminish from the integrity of the whole? How does the editor’s vision line up with mine? Some of my decisions came easily, I realized, but to address some queries I had to shift things around before I was satisfied.

ArcJim_neilI owe a lot to readers like this one who help me understand my own process in hindsight. My gratitude to such thoughtful folks and their beguiling curiosities.  But back to Arcadia Books! If you happen to be near Spring Green, be sure to put it on your list of places to visit.