February 12, 2009
Posted in

Ian McEwan’s book is seriously troubling. One of the most troubling things about it, of course, is that the ending is exactly what you expect, but totally different from where you thought you were headed. An entire book spun on the last page.

I figured the movie would never work because so much of the story was deeply internalized and subtle. In fact, the movie is lovely and exactly right, and brings a different tension to the layered perspectives of the book. (The use of the typewriter in the score is genius.)

Some books I can’t ever shake. An image will sneak up to me, and whisper something enticing, and I’m back with that book in my hands, my heart clenching. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is another one. Jesus that book wrenched me. I was in so much anguish reading the last third that I couldn’t even cry.

Atonement is perplexing for a number of reasons, and I think, the one that I struggle against most is that there is no atoning. When I first had that thought, I kept wanting to limit it to the drama of the story, but I just don’t know. Maybe it’s more widely true. 

A buddy of mine told me recently that she thought the universe was punishing her because she wasn’t good at forgiveness. That’s the kind of thing that wheedles inside me. How do you develop your forgiveness skills? Practice? Natural inclination? 

McEwan gave us a story for atonement. And may be story is the only way to change the past: the intersection of what was, what is remembered, and what we desire.  

Read More

Editorial hijacking

February 10, 2009
Posted in

A week and a half ago I finished what seemed to be part one in the latest novel. So, I took a day to reflect, and critical editor guy came into the writer’s room and staged a coup. The writer leaned back in her chair, put her feet up on the desk, and went to sleep. Editor guy is still storming around talking about structure and thematics, and a bunch of other jargon that isn’t helping the creative output, and meanwhile, the writer has checked out to watch season 4 of Numb3rs. 

When I’m writing, the editor is engaged but never in charge. I’m aware, for instance, if a scene becomes melodramatic, or stiff. I know when the intentionality gets a little thin. When something out of character happens, it’s evident. When I’m playing too hard with language…. So, the editor-mind is always present, but, for me, it must be subordinate to the writer during the writing process. (Later, during the editorial process, it’s a different scene altogether. My editor/critic has free range to dig and shift and expose.) I want the editor out of the writer’s room. For this to happen, the writer needs to assert herself, reengage, and quit talking about how tired she is.

Read More

Jazz Age

February 9, 2009
Posted in

I didn’t really get into theater until college. Once we read Pinter, I determined I’d be a playwright. At that point, I was reading plays, and watching the occasional performance. In Dublin, I attended the Pinter festival, and the experience became markedly different. Plays are meant to be performed. That may seem terribly self-evident, but, in fact, it’s experiential. I’d read every Pinter play I could get my hands on, and so I thought I knew his work. But I didn’t know the first thing about it until I’d seen it performed. A single insinuating line. Silence. Eye contact. These things can change a scene, an act, a play.

My dad played trumpet in a dance band all through junior high and high school. By all accounts he was exceptionally good. And then his lung blew. As a kid, I have exactly two memories of my dad playing a little riff on the trumpet. I mean a little riff: two measures. I heard a lot of piano, but in our house jazz was something we talked a lot about rather than listened to. Until college. Then I started seeing live performances and what I knew about music changed. Music is supposed to be subjective for the listener, right? The listener interprets the song and the performance. In jazz, the musician’s performance is subjective. The same band will be different every performance. (Incidentally, I’m referring to good jazz, not crap standards.) 

I’ve seen a lot of jazz with my dad. The first time I saw a trumpet player double blow—use the same initial intake of breath and recycle it like a jet plane—I was in the audience with my dad. On Saturday we watched the Victor Goines Quintet and both of us took turns exclaiming, “Did you hear that?” An upright bass playing the melody. The pianist countering the note by thirds and fifths. The trombone and saxophone mimicking so sweetly that both players erupted into laughter, and played harder. The longest, most elaborate drum solo I have ever heard. Because I’m not a dancer, the dissonance of jazz has never bothered me. I’ve always looked at it as a musician: sweet solos, yes, but the group has to work too. You’re watching these guys watch each other because the tempo changes so quickly they have half a breath to alter it. Each time they play they might add extra measures or alter a solo. Quick on your feet, fluid, beautiful, innovative. Cooperative music. 

Read More

For the censors

February 4, 2009
Posted in

Amanda Palmer posted an interesting blog yesterday ( about the fact that her single Oasis has been banned by every television and radio outlet in the United Kingdom, and the consistent stance from those outlets is that the song “makes light of abortion and date rape.” I’m not particularly a fan of the song, but I do understand what she’s trying to do, and the fact that it’s being censored is wicked worrying. It’s kind of like saying that The Producers makes light of Hitler. The Producers is a romp through everything the Nazis hated: sex, intrigue, comedy, scheming; it’s lavish and clever and was written by a Jew. The fact that the movie could be made and watched by a general audience is proof that Hitler and all his minions lost. 

Is it valid to suggest that some topics are not appropriate targets for humor? Was Monty Python wrong to make jokes about the Spanish Inquisition? Isn’t one of the commonalities about despots and totalitarian regimes that they can’t take a joke, particularly at their own expense? When Shirley Jackson published her story, The Lottery in the New Yorker, people canceled their subscriptions and wrote nasty letters. They took the position that the story condoned violence, and certainly the most disconcerting thing about the story is how commonplace the violence seems to be. A little something to be resolved before lunch. I think artists have a responsibility to explore the places their lives and their work take them. Black humor is sometimes the hardest to take because it exposes every darkness suddenly with a brilliant laugh. 

Read More


February 3, 2009
Posted in

I didn’t develop insomnia until I began writing short stories. A buddy of mine had had insomnia since elementary school. He’d worked out an entire routine to cope with it. Sometimes, during college, I’d sit up with him in the middle of the night, and just think, You poor bastard

It’s worse for me in the winter, probably because I’m less active. If I take a walk at night, I sleep better. Something about walking in the dark helps my mind settle down.

In Ann Patchett’s book Truth and Beauty she discusses the experience of writing her first novel, and how terrified she was of accidents, or anything else that might kill these characters that she was hosting. She worried that she’d die before she could finish creating their world, that they would never exist beyond her.

Is it the aliveness of the created world that breeds such restlessness in my brain? It used to be that I couldn’t write in the evening because I’d be up all night thinking. Now, it can be the best time, because if I work through a scene, and exhaust all possibility, I’m spent and sleep well.

When I was a small child, I’d imagine a cradle, and myself in the arms of it, gently rocked. Now I plot arcs and character details and the night has become several more hours of productivity. More time. Another few hours for building. 

Read More

In the ranch house

January 30, 2009
Posted in

I’m a small kid—either 3, or 6, because it had to be right before Germany, or right after—and I’m standing on white tile in a bathroom. A woman has her jeans rolled up to her knees, and is rinsing mud from her calves and feet in a white tub. The light is bright in the corner of the bathroom nearest the window, and dull everywhere else. The woman is young, in her twenties, with long hair that falls below her shoulders. 

The way I remember the story is like this: the woman is my aunt, and her car—a VW bug—has gotten stuck in some mud (again) and my father has had to go and help her get the car moving, and they’ve just returned. My mother and grandmother have been a little snide about the car, telling my aunt it’s irresponsible to drive something that’s always getting her stuck someplace. 

There’s a bottle of Tab on the side of the bathtub, and it’s sweating because this is Arkansas in the summer and everything sweats. She’s wearing a red and white football jersey. Despite the mud, and the jersey, she’s glamorous. I know this. Whether I’m three or I’m six, I know this. I admire her. 

In my twenties, I ask my aunt about this, and she doesn’t remember any of it, claims never to have had a VW bug, or any other car that broke down all the time and left her stranded in the mud. When I ask my parents, neither remembers anything about it. 

Still vivid all these years later: the room striated with light, the mud caked up to her knees, the Tab emptied in deep swallows. Rebellion, wasn’t it? Quiet, and familial, but rebellion all the same. The youngest sister scrubbing her legs in the bathtub while the rest of them sat in the living room with their iced tea and their disapproval. She was on her way out, even if she was the only one who knew it. She was on her way out of that sad, failed town. She was about to be somebody. 

And if I dreamed all that, so did she. 

Read More

A little triagulation

January 29, 2009
Posted in

We caught the movie, Defiance earlier this week, and it has been weighing on me ever since. I didn’t know the story, and I won’t spoil it for you here, but it’s the kind of film that I love: one that leaves you with more questions than answers, one that doesn’t settle comfortably in your belly, one in which the heroes are equal parts villain. The movie punctuated Clive James’s book Cultural Amnesia admirably well: the horrible tug between Stalin and Hitler, the ethical quandary of an appropriate response to devastating totalitarian annihilation, the persuasive compulsion of liberal humanism.

This week, for the first time, I read Catcher in the Rye.  Proof of the story’s success is how frequently I wanted to strangle Holden. But he gets inside you, doesn’t he? Reminds you of the baffling complexity of even the most mundane encounters with other people. Kind of makes me wish I were a better dancer. 

Read More


January 28, 2009
Posted in

Gavin’s Christmas Concert is tonight. Rotten weather resulted in the cancellation of the original program, and subsequently every other class dropped out, so Gavin’s preschool class will perform on their own. They have three songs, and then we’ll all eat some cookies.

He loves these crazy songs. I’d never heard of any of them before:  Every Little Wish, Little Toy Trains, and There Was a Little Baby. We sing them every night after stories. (Well, sometimes I sing, and other times I’m scolded, and told, “No, not you,” and then he sings solo.)

I dig school concerts. I performed in them all the way through senior year, and then was in a band during college. Our elementary school music teacher—this wicked thin, tall woman with feathered hair (imagine Mary Tyler Moore grimacing)—actually got the elementary kids to sing together, and on key, and ultimately had us enter competitions against other schools. She’d play an autoharp and holler emphatic commands at us. She was a spellbinding conductor. I was a little terrified of her. (And cannot, for the life of me, remember her name.)

I’m looking forward to this. I even feel a little nervous about it. Gavin on stage singing for an audience. Rock on. 

Read More

Night reads

January 25, 2009
Posted in

My father usually read to us, although my mother gave us Little Women aloud on a road trip across the south when we were in grade school.  But Dad had the gift of doing voices, and reading with a coherence that always felt rehearsed.  (I mean rehearsed in the best sense, as though he’d practiced his delivery.)  The first novel he read to me was The Wind in the Willows and his Toad was magnificent.  No one will ever deliver mayhem quite so well again.

He read the Chronicles of Narnia (one of the best characters was named Jill!), and that little known beauty of Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.  He read The Secret Garden and Kidnapped and Treasure Island.  He read poetry to us, and Shakespeare.  The first time I ever heard a monologue from Hamlet, my father recited it.  He made those books alive and vibrant:  the language a breathing thing.  

Every year, my mother would re-read Jane Austen’s novels.  Her favorite, Persuasion, was regarded as a lesser novel, but my mother made a case for its being Austen’s finest work.  This was all before the Jane Austen revival in America.  Back when she was considered subordinate to the Brontes.  I cannot imagine my life without these books, and the voices of my parents reading them to me.  The finest of all their gifts was their love of stories.  

Gavin and I are not to novels yet, though I have shelves of books awaiting his interest.  Right now we are still in first readers.  But the other night I read Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Two Bad Mice to him, and he loved it so much that he asked for two more of Potter’s mischevious stories.  Occasionally, he’ll fall asleep before we finish a book, and I’ll watch him dreaming, and wonder if he’s still inside the story.  Sleep makes him timelessly my child.  And I know now, the pleasure of reading aloud, of introducing a child to a story for the first time, the eagerness and curiosity, the delight.  To discover, again, the adventure. 

Read More


January 22, 2009
Posted in ,

The last year we lived in Missouri, I was a fourth grader, and my father had taken over the division chapel where the basic trainees came every Sunday by the hundreds (if they went to a church service, they didn’t have to participate in drills). What I remember most from that year, was a family that moved in down the street from us, and discovered, in a heavy trunk in their garage, the body of their four-year-old son, who had climbed into the trunk with three newborn kittens and suffocated. My father performed the funeral. He cried when he told us.

It was called a family tragedy, as though it could be contained by that single group of people.

In January of the following year, the space shuttle Challenger exploded. Someone came to the door of our classroom, and Ms. Moos, our teacher, announced the news in a trembling voice. We watched the shuttle explode again and again that afternoon. The teachers consoling one another, while we sat at our desks, awestruck. Alive and then not. Momentum and then pieces. I had just turned eleven and was startled to discover that it could all be over so quickly. Blinked out. That’s what could happen. 

It was connected, the boy in the trunk and the astronauts in the shuttle. The horror of it. The senselessness. And I was too young to know there is never sense in it. Never reason, though later someone might offer explanations. That is how tragedy binds us, how we are drawn together by the weight of what we cannot set down. 

Read More