December 23, 2016
I have seen it so many times: the look of a young writer who is calculating the odds that they will ‘make it’ in literature. They are checking the ranking of their book on Amazon.com, the hits to their blog, books sold, hours clocked, word count checked daily, tracking shares and likes or any other mathematical measure to give one solace, or some faint indicator that they are approaching their goal of success, at the same time that they practice an art that always raises the bar on quality and holds many in obscurity without reason.
It is akin to using a ruler to judge the taste of cake.
Since we do these numerical calculations while we know that the quality and impact of art cannot be measured with mathematics, I would like to offer some additional math about fiction and the writing life:
First, the math of the art:
• You will have 10 ideas for every story you complete
• It will take up to 20 published stories to discover the thematic thread that runs through your work (more…)
December 16, 2016
The key elements of good storytelling apply to writing the story of your family. I teach a five-week course or one-day workshop that focuses on the material above and the keys to storytelling below:
• concentrate on the place where the action is greatest
• be very clear about the catalyst for change– the pogrom, the famine, the opportunity
• begin on page one with as much of a punch as you possibly can
• evoke many if not all the senses
• make sure that all characters are nuanced. Even villains must have redeeming qualities or flaws that can be understood.
The Personal Advantages of Writing Your Family Story
Anyone who writes, and anyone contemplating writing knows that it can be a daunting task. The New York Public Library article also reminds us of the personal advantages of writing this story: a better understanding of (more…)
December 3, 2016
I am obviously a big fan of historical fiction (my last two novels are based in the Middle Ages) and I tell my students writing their family stories that there are advantages to crossing the line into fiction – either fictive biographies or historical fiction.
First, fictional characters can be the personification of important forces (more…)
November 21, 2016
‘Tis the season for increased energy usage but I’d like to suggest something else: let’s do away with Christmas lights on the tree and the house altogether. Let’s go for a natural light Christmas. #naturallightchristmas
Watching Before the Flood I am reminded that oil fuels our transportation section but the coal industry is the primary source that fuels the electrical grid so anything we can do to reduce electrical consumption can help battle climate change. Anything at all. Especially now that the White House will be driven by climate deniers and potentially even heads of oil companies, everything we can do, counts. Think of the trade-off: rising sea levels; increased tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons; and out-of-control wildfires, versus twinkly lights inside a house that is already lit, or outside while the occupants are inside. There have been plenty of suggestions (more…)
November 14, 2016
Happily, my new course on “Crafting the Story of Your Family: For Writers and Non-Writers Alike” at The Writing Salon has begun and I am reminded of what the New York City Library has listed as one of their “20 Reasons You Should Write Your Family History”: the historical and literary record needs more material from previously underrepresented people – women, people of color, the poor and working-class, the disabled. In short, if you think the historical record is too filled with privileged white men, get writing. (more…)
October 26, 2016
‘Had Jeannette Meyers Thurber put her name on the institutions she established, she would be as well-known as Carnegie and Rockefeller.’ That statement piqued my interest while enjoying the lecture series from The Great Courses entitled Dr. Robert Greenberg, Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances.
An accomplished but obscure woman? Just my sort of treasure hunt.
Thurber established the National Conservatory of Music of America in 1885 – the first of its kind and an endeavor that some say ushered in the first orchestral music with a distinctively American sound. But in a very radical stance for the day, Thurber championed the rights of women, people of color and the handicapped to attend her school, sometimes on full scholarship. This was 1885—not too long after the Civil War -- and her school was racially integrated, promoted women, and had an inclusive stance toward the handicapped.
“The National Conservatory of Music of America was the outstanding institution for professional musical preparation in the United States for some 25 years or more. At its height in the 1890s it boasted a faculty of international renown…and initiated a course of studies whose features became a basis for the curriculum now taken for granted in the colleges and conservatories of this country. Its achievements resulted from the endeavors of a single visionary: Jeannette M Thurber, a wealthy, idealistic New Yorker who devoted most of her life to the school…Although her innovative design for the Conservatory was influential in shaping the course of American music for the 20th century, Mrs. Thurber and her school have slipped into undeserved obscurity.”(1)
But the conservatory seemed to be her real love, and she grew it from 84 students when it opened to 3,000 students in 1900.(2) Her success was due, in part, (more…)
October 4, 2016
San Francisco Bay Area writers and readers: Please join me at The Writing Salon in Berkeley on Oct. 22nd, 7-9 p.m. as I read new work, introduce my student Agatha Hinman to her first public reading, and share the stage with Karen Bjorneby and her student.
I'll be reading from my unpublished collection of short stories, The Disappearing Andersons of Loon Lake, featuring a story that is particularly appropriate for an audience of writers.
The event is free but space is limited. Refreshments will be served and my books will be available for sale.
Please join me at The Writing Salon, 2121 Bonar St., Studio D on the Second Floor, Berkeley CA, 94702, October 22, from 7-9 p.m.
Looking forward to seeing you!
September 3, 2016
Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
Part #2: Screaming Through a Hole in the Window
This post, Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons
On the day of the flight from Shanghai to Beijing we arrived at the airport and I sought out the wisdom of an Irishman – his red hair and trim suit in such contrast to all of the Mao blue. Did he have any suggestions of places to stay, I asked him, since our hotel adventure in Shanghai had been so taxing. He looked at us incredulously. You come to China without hotel reservations? But he tilted his head and reached in his pocket. Go to this hotel, he said. My company keeps a hotel room there rented all year so their employees have somewhere to stay when they come to Beijing. Don’t go to the main desk, he said, go around the main desk to a small room behind it – Room 101 – and tell them that you’re there to do business with me. I was wary of his advice, (more…)
August 20, 2016
This is the second of three posts on my initial trip to China in 1986 -- light-years from the China I'm about to see in September, 2016...
Part #1: A Trio of Maps and a Challenge
This post, Part #2: "Screaming Through a Hole in the Window"
Part #3: Bobble Heads and Beijing Lessons
With our money in hand we headed out to make reservations to fly to Beijing. Our driver to the Waste Garden had told us it was very important to get the reservations right away and to be sure to go to the foreigners and diplomats line – both pieces of advice that I would never have taken during European travel. We got lost again looking for the main travel bureau, still operating under our American assumption that important things have big buildings.
The building we ultimately determined to be the main ticketing hub for all of Shanghai was tucked behind a cluster of abandoned buildings. It was a one-level, low-ceilinged building with half-dome roof tiles. When we stepped inside, it was filled, wall-to-wall, with men standing shoulder to shoulder (in matching Mao outfits of course.) There was no way to know which window to go to within the large general area and so I broke my own rule and went to the diplomats and foreigners window in the corner, the only sign in English. I bent low and talked through a hole in a plastic window to the woman to make arrangements – this was how I did all of my business in China, trying to communicate with women who were shouting at me through holes in plastic windows. To get to Beijing we had to rearrange our flight back to the US --back and forth numerous times. Had there been someone to help us translate? Did the driver help us? Doubtful. I was exhausted, riddled with anxiety (more…)
August 14, 2016
I write to protest the recent decision by the city of Cannes in Southern France to outlaw full-body swimwear. My reasons involve both health and feminism, though not the feminist line that one is currently reading, but because I maintain that this full-body swimwear is incredibly liberating and long overdue.
I have had four surgeries for Basel cell skin cancer and after my first surgery started to treat sunshine as if it was secondhand smoke – a carcinogen lying in wait for me. I not only upped my SPF, but started wearing full body suits from both Solumbra and Stingray, an Australian company. This was 16 years ago, before the rash guard, when the only full-body covering was a wet-suit. I looked like a professional kayaker or diver in the wrong place. I looked odd, I knew, and when I was on the beach in Italy, I quickly learned the phrase “contro il sole” – against the sun – when the matronly women on the beach gestured and asked.
What I discovered, though, was that walking around with my thighs covered was tremendously liberating -- I moved with ease, bent over, sat in the sand with my legs spread, frolicked as I hadn’t when worried that my suit would ride up, would expose my bum, gap at the breasts. Now there was no gesture or movement that would compromise my privacy. So I was free (more…)