Friday, June 21, 2019

The Overstory: First Impressions and "Wild Orchard"

I’m afraid this won’t be a very rational post. I started reading Richard Powers’s The Overstory this week. I’ve read twenty-three pages: a prefatory section called “Roots,” and the first chapter, “Nicholas Hoel.” I read these twenty-three pages over two readings, with a few days in between, because it was so good I waited to pick it up again until I could give undivided attention. Twenty-three pages. In them: a saga that stretches over almost a century. Four generations of a family and a story about the chestnut tree brought west as a seed. Twenty-three pages full of characters and yet, I cared about each one. I cared deeply about that tree. Actually, I cared, already, about all trees. There were so many wonderful things happening in those pages and as I read, I couldn’t believe the things that were possible with words: descriptions, humanity, rhythm, emotion, so many universal, a-ha moments. Really. And at the end of the first chapter, I cried. I know that sounds very dramatic but I did. Like the way you’d cry if you saw a baby born, or a particularly impressive natural phenomenon your mind almost can’t process. Or an exquisite painting. Or how you'd cry if you just read fiction that fuels the part of you that believes in the boundless ability of words to touch hearts and souls, that part of you that has always believed but sometimes forgets, for a while.

I don’t know if the next 480ish pages will be able to maintain this level of wonder for me, but for now, I’m loving The Overstory, irrationally. Obviously.
This chapter also deals with the history of the chestnut blight in America, which you can learn about by watching this brief video:


And now, as promised, your first tree poem...


Wild Orchard

by William Carlos Williams

It is a broken country,
the rugged land is
green from end to end;
the autumn has not come.

Embanked above the orchard
the hillside is a wall
of motionless green trees,
the grass is green and red.

Five days the bare sky
has stood there day and night.
No bird, no sound.
Between the trees

and the early morning light.
The apple trees
are laden down with fruit.

Among blue leaves
the apples green and red
upon one tree stand out
most enshrined.

Still, ripe, heavy,
spherical and close,
they mark the hillside.
It is a formal grandeur,

a stateliness,
a signal of finality
and perfect ease.
Among the savage

aristocracy of rocks
one, risen as a tree,
has turned
from his repose.


Friday, June 14, 2019

All About Trees: Summer Reading Project, 2019

Readers of this blog may know that every summer, I like to have some sort of reading project. Last year, I read only novels by Michael Chabon, for better or worse. One year I read several short story collections and another, I tackled the Hilary Mantel series. My idea for this year's annual event started with a chunky novel on my to-read shelf, The Overstory by Richard Powers. The winner of this year's Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, it's "a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of - and paean to - the natural world." And from what I understand, it has much to do with trees. I bought the book and was very interested in it, but then it arrived and it was very long (500 pages) and so, because it was a hectic, non-summer time, I put it on the shelf. I'm quite excited about this read, which I know several of my friends have enjoyed.

Then I remembered that once I had really wanted to read a non-fiction title: The Hidden Life of Trees. So I bought that and suddenly, the All About Trees summer project was born. This book by Peter Wohlleben "makes the case that the forest is a social network," and claims "a walk in the woods will never be the same again."

After I decided on theme, things fell together. I already had an arc of Jessica Francis Kane's recent release, Rules for Visiting. This novel is a summer buzz book, about a middle-aged woman who is "more at home with plants than people" but decides to set out on a journey to reconnect with old friends. The book has lovely tree illustrations by Edward Carey, such as the one pictured here and so, more than qualifies for my project.

The final entry, Meetings with Remarkable Trees, I discovered online once I started looking around, and it's a gorgeous, illustrated book originally published in 1996. From the inside jacket: "With this astonishing collection of tree portraits, Thomas Pakenham has produced a new kind of tree book...The sixty trees are grouped according to their own strong personalities: Native, Travellers, Shrines, Fantasies and Survivors." And I think that last bit - the grouping titles - is what got me to buy the book. Not sure what a fantasy tree would be, but I intend to find out.

For those who have expressed interest in joining me on this reading quest, I'll read the books in the order listed above, with no particular timeframe other than to try to finish by Labor Day. If you need quantification, it's over 1200 pages of tree-filled goodness. I hope to post an update each Friday, starting next week, along with a tree poem or two. Join me! Spend some time embracing nature (at least, thinking about it) and learning about trees.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

About My Grandmother

I had a long dream about my grandmother’s house last night. I can remember every detail of this place that meant a great deal to me. And I woke up remembering that she passed in June, twenty years ago now.
My dad’s mother was Frances Ellen (Rivers) Vensel and we lived near her my entire childhood. I got my middle name from her—Frances—and although I thought I didn’t like being called Mary Frances growing up, I miss it now. I gave my only daughter the name Frances too.
When we were very small, there were many of us granddaughters and when she’d get our names mixed up, she’d call us Genevieve in exasperation. And this is partly where Geneva got her other name, from this imagined granddaughter. Grandma Vensel was kind, smart and funny.
Her house was immaculate, as my mom would say. Her bathroom shelves held amazing powders, creams and perfumes, and she was always put together—clothes, makeup, hair. I’d go to her house by myself and sleep until noon, then we’d play pinochle for hours. After a surgery she had, she didn’t like her voice, but she sang in church anyway—softly, a beat behind everyone else.
She showed her disapproval in quiet ways, and her affection and loyalty was matter-of-fact. She was a steadfast support and great friend of my mother’s. She loved my grandpa and I believe she missed him terribly every day after he passed.
She was the only person I ever saw stand up to my father. She loved golf—especially  Chi Chi Rodriguez—also Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and when I asked who her favorite singer was, she’d say Engelbert Humperdinck to make me laugh. Sometimes, she’d have a drink or two and be a little boisterous.
She secretly smoked in the garage, where she kept the 1972 Chevelle she truly loved. The car was also immaculate. She wore driving gloves and sometimes, scarves tied expertly around her throat. And she loved me, and all of us, and showed us how to be strong, dignified and true.
There was more to her, of course, much, much more, but she was very important to me, and still is. I keep the last picture nearby, to remind me how fun she could be.

Monday, May 27, 2019

More Considerations: Form in Fiction

I recently read a book about narrative form. Wait, don’t stop reading! The book is Meander, Spiral, Explode, by Jane Alison, an author and writing teacher. Her premise is fairly simple: the traditional story arc is a limited way to imagine the creation of fiction. Why not use other patterns, those found in nature and all around? Why not meander through the text, exploring side alleys. Or maintain a bit more focus, with a plot that spins in a spiral around a central point. Or construct a narrative in which “a powerful center holds the fictional world…tightly in its gravitational force." In other words, an explosion. Alison takes us through a variety of patterns, with examples from literary history and with an eagerness for discovery and creation. For a good summary of the book’s argument, read this.


I marked many passages while reading Alison’s explorations, but one stood above all others:

“The point now: Sebald’s Emigrants was the first book to show me a way beyond the casual arc to create powerful forward motion in narrative: motion less inside the story than inside your mind as you construct sense. This motion involved pattern, arising (I later learned) ‘from the spatial interweavings of images and phrases independent of any time-sequence of narrative action’ (Joseph Frank, ‘The Idea of Spatial Form’).”
Aside from the text mentions, what she’s talking about is that sense of figuring things out, that exercise of filling in white space with what your conscious (and subconscious) is absorbing as you read a story. Plot and character clues, yes, but also the building of elements such as repeated imagery, or the deepening of meaning when a phrase is repeated or used at pivotal moments. Stuff like that. Think about when you’re reading a mystery and something suddenly becomes apparent. A lightbulb moment. That feeling, only it’s about the entirety of the thing you’re reading.

And it occurs to me that this has been a preoccupation of mine from the first moment I began to write. My autobiographical first novel, about the experience of being adopted and finding my biological family, was written from the POV of three different women, each with their own story stemming from that event—the adoption—and how it shaped their lives. Alison might call that a radial, or explosion. The second novel I wrote was called ”Good Sunday” and although I did imagine a structure for it, roughly related to the Catholic Church’s Stations of the Cross (don’t ask—I was young!), this novel takes place over the course of the day and really is probably a meander, as it unifies the story and characters through a series of seemingly random events and imagery. In my third finished (and first published) novel, The Qualities of Wood, my initial impulse was to write a book that seemed like a mystery—with a dead body and cast of possible suspects—but surprise!—the real mystery would be the slow revelation of character, which would sneak up almost imperceptibly as the main character thinks she’s actually solving something else. (A note: as it turns out, readers of mystery, by and large, are not thrilled with a book that pretends to be a mystery but actually isn’t).

And I’ve yammered on and on this year about my most recent book, Bellflower, which is certainly my most obvious experimentation with form. I won’t say more since I’ve already said plenty, but you can read about its form here.
I think anything I write moving forward will start with a consideration of form. If you had asked me where those past projects began, I might have said things like setting, or character, or—in the case of yet another unpublished, untitled novel I wrote after TQOW—an idea. Form is something I deal with as a writing teacher, when I point out the traditional arc structure, show examples of novels that effectively employ it, and then, those that effectively don’t. All of teaching (and learning) about writing seems to follow another type of pattern: Here is what has been written already. Here are some “rules.” Here are things that follow the rules and are wonderful. Here are things that don’t, things that were a deviation and a surprise and yet, are equally or even more wonderful. What’s better than stumbling upon a new, unpredicted path? Writers have always pushed against constraints; form experimentation is nothing new. But flexing your creative muscles with new types of training is always a good idea and form is a good place to start.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Sudden Fiction

In 1986, Robert Shapard and James Thomas edited the inaugural offering in what would become a series of story collections. Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories is considered the first well-known compilation of what we now call flash fiction. Flash is what it sounds like: a story that occurs in a flash; typically, they are less than 1000 words in length. Make no mistake, however; these stories aren’t lightweights. Blaise Pascal famously said, “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.” Writers of all genres would do well to practice writing flash pieces as cross-training for scene impact, characterization, and conciseness at the sentence level. As a reading experience, flash can and should offer the same satisfaction and depth as a longer story. And all flash is most certainly not alike. Even at this shorter length, themes, genres and types vary as much as they do in longer stories. By way of example, here are three of my favorites from the classic Sudden Fiction.

Friday, March 29, 2019

100,000 Views: A Retrospective

I began this blog in October of 2010, at a time when I was beginning to envision myself as a writer. Sure, I had always written—had finished a few novels, even—but this is when I decided to see if I could make a go of it. Get actual people to read my writing, maybe get published. I dug around online for resources. I joined Facebook. I started this blog. And soon, I will have had 100,000 views here, which is certainly not in the range of many viral things you hear about but for me, it feels like a nice milestone.
During these 8 ½ years, I’ve written 303 posts. My most prolific year was 2014, during which I posted 51 times, followed closely by 2011 with its 50 entries. In 2016, I only blogged nine times. It’s easy, in retrospect, to recognize the reason for this scarcity: a very tough personal year. 2018 was the same: only 13 posts.
I wrote about dance and art, about current things happening in the news and routine, day-to-day events and observations. I worked out conclusions about the writing process, penned memorials for both people I knew and knew of; I wrote about television, movies, songs and poems I liked. I started a series about forgotten novelists with the intention of making it a regular feature, but it petered out after two posts. I began a long-running tradition: Poem for the Weekend, in which I’d share a new poem and info about the author. This feature ran for almost a year beginning in August of 2014, and was reprised briefly in 2017. I wrote about writers and books, of course, sometimes book reviews, sometimes analysis of theory or craft; infrequently, I shared fiction of my own. I wrote about my kids, and published their book reviews of my first novel. I wrote about the writing process, about things that inspired me and about the gifts and pressures of the creative life. And in December of each year, I shared my favorite films and books, until a few years ago when I quit doing the film list. The books are easier to track and so I still do an annual roundup. My most recent post (and only one so far in 2019) talks about my method and inspirations for my new novel, Bellflower.
So. At this milestone—100,000 views—I think it would be a good time to look back and remember what I’ve done here, at this outlet, and to maybe set a course forward. I’ve chosen fifteen posts that stood out to me, for a variety of reasons, and I present them to you here. It would seem that these writings of which I’m most proud or which touched something in me fall into five categories: Inspiration, Creativity, Writing Life, Personal, and Memorial.


A brief contemplation about one of my favorite prose passages of all time.

Focus and Layers – 1/27/15

Notes on a piece of art I saw at MOMA one time, and how it stayed and stayed with me.

A discussion and appreciation of the mastery of McCullers’s characterizations. She is a huge influence on my work.


A prose poem sort of thing, about feeling isolated and small, and at the same time, connected and complete. Reading this now brings back the exact moment and feeling in stark relief.

My most-read post of all time (3406 reads), this is where I shared my thoughts on O’Connor’s essay collection, a must-read for writers.

A brief post about the genesis of a short story, eventually titled “Driftwood,” which will be published, finally, this April.

For the past few years, considerations of form and genre have been at the forefront of my creative endeavors, and this post speaks to that.

An imagined conversation between “I” and “them,” this post could easily be filed under the Personal category as well. Another entry which brings me back to a specific feeling and time.

Writing Life

What happens when you get, perhaps, too much feedback on your writing.

Some thoughts on why a tendency toward melancholy is a gift and a curse for writers.


I know I said that O’Connor post was the most-read, but this one I also posted on Medium, where it picked up over 11K views. Combined with the views here, it has over 13K to date. It’s the story of the time my sister acted as surrogate for a couple in China.

I’ve had many losses in the past few years and unfortunately, learned a lot about grief.


When Neil Armstrong passed away, I wrote about my grandfather, who knew him, and about the Six Million Dollar Man.

Going through my grandmother’s belongings, we found some papers pertaining to a trip she took with her nurses’ association. I wrote about it here.

The post I most wish I hadn’t written, the eulogy for my mother, who passed away last year.

Dear readers: I appreciate all of your comments and feedback over these years. I was hoping to come to some conclusions through this process of looking back, and I think I have. In the next couple of years, I have plans to finish two novels, and I think what I miss doing most at this blog is writing about books. Other writer’s books, and the ways they inspire, disappoint and confound me. So look for more book reviews here, maybe. I’d also like to expand the types of things I’m reading. I’d like to get back to reading more biography and history, maybe even an occasional memoir, YA or spiritual book. Lastly, I’d like to read thematically—several books on a topic or theme. And I think I already have an idea for a summer reading project along those lines, so watch for that as well.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Life in Moments

When my grandmother—my mother’s mother—was dying, she was in and out of consciousness, not always lucid, and she often confused my mother for other people from her past: her own mother, a cousin, one of her sisters. She said things that must have come from memories and had no place in the present. And although sometimes my mother seemed hurt when she wasn’t properly recognized, I found my grandmother’s jumbled mental state—a series of moments, people and places, in no determined order—well, I found it to be of some comfort. It’s what's meant by “her life flashed before her eyes,” the most indelible moments rising up to illustrate who you have been.
Long ago, I had a wall hanging that said “Life is not lived in hours, days, or years, but in moments.” And I thought that to be a very deep concept, and I still do. Think about when you meet someone at a party. You don’t sit down and begin a linear introduction: Hello, my name is Mary and I was born in Los Angeles…. What organically happens with people is that we find things in common and we tell stories about our lives. For almost two decades I have been friends with a certain woman who recently told me something about herself I had never known, something that seemed so fundamental I couldn’t believe we had never discussed it. Such are life, and people, and the ways we can know them or never will know them.
I’m telling you all of this in a roundabout way of talking about Bellflower, my “novel-in-moments,” which will be published next month, and to perhaps give you some help if you decide to get a copy of the book (thank you!) and might be perplexed by its form. These musings about life and its moments (among other things) pointed me towards the method of the novel. But let me give you an illustration of what I mean.
Let’s say I want to tell you about a character, a person. I’m making him up now, as I type this. His name is David Price. I will tell you five brief things about him, five moments from his life. 

1.      When David was 41, he had a nervous breakdown. He was out of work for two months, and along with therapy and medicine, he took up woodworking. He made beautiful wall-to-ceiling bookshelves for the den in his house.

2.      David’s mother often tells the story of when he was four years old, and she came into his room to find him arranging his picture books into straight columns and rows on his carpeted floor. He explained the ordering of them, which had something to do with animals and also, children with and without both parents.

(Now, I’ll take a pause here to ask whether you are already drawing some inferences from these facts? Perhaps that David was an orderly sort of guy and maybe his breakdown had something to do with his sense of order, or perhaps from missing a father? This is the way our mind works, filling in the white space when we are given clues.)

3.      For David’s 70th birthday, his three children threw him a surprise party. He’d been quite antisocial for many months after the loss of his wife of 41 years; he hadn’t been in his wood workshop, or reading, or going to the gym regularly as he had most of his life, and they hoped to cheer him up.

(Are you thinking: Oh, good, he had a nice wife and a full life, despite that breakdown? Or did he? How did the wife handle his mental state? And were books a big part of David’s life?)

4.      When David was 54, his book about Vietnam was published by a university press. They threw a launch party for him but he was unable to attend when he developed a bad stomachache. David’s father had died in the war, and David had majored in history, eventually became a history teacher, because of this fact most likely.

(And now we have a timeframe, and can fill in some details about when David was born, etc. We can start thinking about what it meant to grow up without a father, the breadth of this loss.)

5.      David met his wife, Jeanette, at a faculty party, when he was 28. She was a science teacher, environmental. He brought her a glass of wine and told her about his mother’s recent marriage to a pastor. She asked if David believed and he said he’d have to think about it.

(Ah, this Jeanette. A scientific sort of person, serious and straight to the point. How did they counteract each other? And the mother remarried—how did this affect him?) 

Five moments and somehow, a pretty full sketch, at least, of David Price. And this is the method of Bellflower, which tells stories from the lives of three main characters and the family and friends in their orbit. The moments and stories can range from a few paragraphs to many pages. You may read the chapters, and the sections within them, in any order. And there is white space, plenty of it, and sometimes the characters reach across it to touch each other. I hope, if you decide to give the novel a go, you’ll let me know how you decided to read it and of course, what you thought.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka