Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Thoughts on 'Small Damages' by Beth Kephart

I'll be travelling through Spain when you read this post. I wanted to schedule it in advance to surprise the lovely Beth Kephart with my thoughts on her newest book, Small Damages, while in the country she loves, where the novel is set (well, a different region but still.) 

 A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to read an advanced copy of Beth Kephart's Small Damages, one of the most beautiful books I've read in a long time. I read the book in one sitting, at a time when a lot of emotions had started to crash and flood and crowd.  All I wanted to do was get lost in a book, and I fell easily, landed deep in the world of this novel, got tangled up in love with characters I want to keep in a jar for always.  Or maybe they are characters I wish would keep me.  It feels that way, sometimes, with the right kind of story.  And this, for me, is that kind of story.

Kenzie is eighteen years old and pregnant, sent away to live in a cortijo in Spain where arrangements have been made for her to give up her child for adoption.  Still mourning the death of her own father, Kenzie is left with memories of all she left behind: her boyfriend (the father of her child), a group of friends that remain carefree and unaware of her situation, and her mother, who grieves by forgetting, by quickly letting go, desperately trying to erase what can't or shouldn't be erased.  But, in Spain, Kenzie must live with people who do not forget, who linger, and hold on tightly to past loves and regrets. And, in my mind, this is where Kenzie is caught.  Between what should have been and what is, between forgetting and holding on.

There is a moment in the book that stopped me, literally, took my breath away. Kenzie walks away from the ranch and is later found and asked why she has left.

"I needed to get away," I say, knowing how stupid it sounds, how messy I must seem. "From me, I mean.  Away from me."

To me, that kind of moment is an everything moment.  I think a lot of people would say that it takes courage to embrace who you are. But, I believe, it takes even more courage to walk away from who you are in order to find out who you can be.  To capture that in these few words means they are everything words.  To explore this theme in a book means Small Damages is an everything book.

I feel lucky to know Beth Kephart and to learn from her. She is not just an amazing writer but an amazing person and that means more to me.  But when I finished Small Damages (due out July 19th), I thought, this is the kind of book I want to read, always.  This is the kind of book I want to write.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Getting Married and Biking To Work (What? You Don't See the Connection? Me neither.)

This weekend Tyler and I will be getting married on the North Fork of Long Island.  We will be surrounded by the people we love.  We will celebrate with wine and food.  We will start a life together and I think...it will be a good one.

After that we will travel to Northern Spain, a trip we've saved our hard-earned pennies for but one we never quite took the time to plan.  We have a place to stay, a car for exploring, and one reservation at an insanely-priced restaurant. Beyond that, I don't know...  But not knowing is what makes it fun.

There are, of course, many emotions that come with weddings and marriage. I don't want to sort them out here.  I just want to say how lucky I feel right now.

I'll be signing off the internet until June.  However! Next week, on the blog, will be a week of No-Read Stories for you. I've always loved to take pictures and, whether you know it or not (have I mentioned this?  I'll mention it now) I have you to thank for encouraging me to take even more (much to Tyler's chagrin.)  Because you tell me you like them.  They help me sort out story and I've seen some interesting things I'll post here.

Beyond that, I want to encourage you to make plans to bike to work this Friday, May 18th! It is National Bike To Work Day.

I know many of you live in areas of sprawling land and plains (how I envy you) so it may not be possible for you.  Maybe you don't even own a bike.  But if you can find a bike, I hope you will take it out to work or the grocery store or just around the corner.

Biking is my passion because it reminds me of childhood, of simpler times, of being happy and free on my bicycle with sparkle streamers falling from my handlebars and tick-tock popper thingys in my spokes.  I guess National Bike To Work Day is about exercising, about reducing your carbon footprint, about seeing the land you live on in another way and all that good stuff, but, for me, it really just means taking a day...to be a kid.  I hope you will honor May 18th that way, in a way you see fit.

And the next time you hear from me, I'll be freaking married.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Searching: A Writing update

In some ways I feel the blog has lost some of its focus in the past few months, if there ever was a focus.  I have struggled, wondered what the blog is supposed to be, if it's supposed to be anything at all.  So I just kind of wandered around, wrote about things I saw or felt, about books I read, or whatever strange thought came to mind.

One topic I have avoided like the plague?  Writing.

So.  I owe ya. 

Searching For An Agent 
At the end of January I had finished my novel, Rabbit Island.  It took me a lot to get there.  I wrote the book.  I re-wrote the book.  Then I re-wrote huge portions of the book.  And then I worked through edits based on critique. Since then, I have searched for an agent slowly.  This is my career.  I want an agent who represents the kind of work I like.  And I want the *best* (for me.  Which may not be the best for you.)

Some of the best rejected me based on my query alone. Some of the best requested my work, read it, and then rejected me. Some of the best are still reading.

So, it's a slow process.

Most of the time it hurts my heart to be a part of this process.  Sometimes, it doesn't hurt.  And, really, that's the only way I can think to describe the past few months searching for an agent.

Searching For A Working/Writing Life
I think some of you know I work full time in the wacky world of children's media.  Beyond that full time employment, I have taken on additional writing projects in order to learn as much as I can and expand my network and my writing abilities.

I'm still searching for the right balance between writing fiction, working in the corporate world of children's media, and working on other writing projects that challenge and inspire me beyond 9-5.  It's been an interesting, if exhausting, exploration. 

Searching For A Story       
Throughout all this, I began writing a new novel.  I fell in love with the idea but I struggled with the voice, the tense, the pace, the, well, everything. I wrote 10,000 words and rejected every last one.  I wrote 10,000 new words and, then, I just...stopped.

I started another new novel.  I fell in love with the idea and then I read a book that did it better. I wrote 5,000 words and, then, I just...stopped.

Searching For A Book
I never wanted to admit this here.


At the beginning of May I just...stopped writing.  (Not counting all the writing I do 9-5.  The writing projects I took on in the evenings and weekends.  And the writing I do on this blog.)

The truth is, and I'm ashamed to say it, I lost a lot of confidence while querying and I was burnt out as I tried to search for a way to organize my working/writing life.

So. I stopped.

And I did something else.  I began to read.

And I'm still reading.

And every time I think, Melissa, you should be writing. I tell myself, Melissa, you should be reading. 

I'm reading books I once loved. I'm reading books I want to know if I love. I'm understanding the stories I want to tell. And when I'm ready, I'll write.

So, that's my writing update.  I'm not writing. 

It's your turn. Where are you with your writing?  Are you on any kind of search?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

"He Saw It, He Loved It, He Ate It..."

A new way to consume art and words.
From the Washington Post Blog, ComPost:
“Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
— Maurice Sendak
"Everyone is allowed to have secrets," he said.
"Yeah," I agreed, though I never knew anyone like him, who scribbled those secrets on napkins and ate them...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Thoughts On 'The Marriage Plot' by Jeffrey Eugenides

I breezed through this book which depicts a love triangle of sorts, a 'marriage plot' in the tradition of Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Bronte sisters.  I thought I'd have to understand what a marriage plot is but it turns out I've seen enough romantic comedies to get it. Even if I am not well read enough to make great literary comparisons, Eugenides is forthright about his plot's intentions.

It's right there in the title and in the romantic foibles of his English major heroine, Madeleine, who, upon her graduation from Brown University, navigates a tumultuous relationship with Leonard, a manic depressive, while she studies the marriage plots of Victorian literature and tries to understand love through the gaze of semiotics (a literary movement I am (quite happy to remain) unaware of.)  There's a strained platonic relationship with Mitchell, a religious studies major travelling through India in search of the right kind of enlightenment.  And, with that, you have a not-quite-contemporary (it takes place in 1982) but contemporary enough take on courtship.

The novel weaves these three character's narratives through graduation day at Brown and the year of physical and emotional meandering that follows. I thought that it depicted the hyper-awareness and the confusion of post-graduation really well.  The what-do-I-do-now syndrome, now that I'm forced out of the insulated world of academia, now that I actually have to live my life instead of learn how I might want to maybe live it someday.

I like that it took on this time in a person's life and I'm not ashamed to admit that I understood the whine of the privileged, understood characters whose parents provide a financial and emotional safety net when massive and minor mistakes are made, and whose biggest first world problem is where to sleep on a backpacking trip in Paris when their travel companion decides to hook up in the same room.

What struck me most is the detachment the characters feel while making romantic attachments, almost as if it is mandatory to be in love or lust, that we are obligated to fall in love with the idea of a person rather than the person him or herself.  I don't know how much that's changed throughout the years, the notion that finding love is less a search than it is a series of must-haves versus have-nots.  And that the love we do find, if it's deemed 'true' enough, is something we must endure in spite of itself simply because we believe we've found it.

In the end (and this is not a spoiler) Madeleine has her choices made for her. While I was left to believe that she had been given what she desired all along, it was eye-opening to think that, while we're in the middle of romantic entanglement, we may completely misunderstand what we have because we've convinced ourselves we've serendipitously been given what we should want.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

At The Piano

I sit with the memory of her gold and green living room with its mangled smell of cat litter and sweet honey lozenges. She sat against the wall, tucked beside the piano bench, in a wooden chair with its own worn cushion. She always leaned over the keys, wrote the date, with her long, shaking but careful fingers, in the corner of the page.  The date became a beginning, a pull-switch, and it would send my own hands, too small, too slender, the reach between pinky and thumb too short, to the smooth ivory in anticipation of learning a new song.

She wore glasses that magnified the ocean of her eyes.  Her hair was a soft, rolling hill of red.  I'm a little witchy, she'd tease, titter at the edge of a giggle, the quiet, mischievous glow of a small child about to do wrong.  She said this, each and every year, of her Halloween birthday, and I would follow with the same story I always did, that I was supposed to have been born that day but came early.  So, there was no connection, not really, only that we could have shared that but didn't.

Her husband came and went in shadow through their small home, shuffled past the open door, tinkered in the pantry. I'd hear the clank of porcelain against the metal sink basin, the quick, flinch of television static, then the kind of purposeful, certain quiet that comes with having to be quiet. Because the living room was hers.  And my fingers perched over the sturdy upright piano for those forty-five minutes each week meant that it was ours. The crumpled green grass of rug beneath the pedal.  The tink of silver chain that lit up the sheet music.  Heavy, thick, drapes hurdling to the floor.

Once a year, there would be a recital in summer. We'd fill that one room entirely, folding chairs tangled up in one another. Children in crumpled pants and dresses with lopsided hems. Our parents pressed up against the front door or the coat rack or the wall-papered seams of the space.  And we'd play in order. From youngest to oldest.  My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean to Debussy and Chopin. The same songs, each year that we progressed, until I was seventeen and college bound, playing a song I'd heard played ten years earlier by a teenager I never knew when I still wore patent leather shoes and my green-stained knees were covered in itchy tights.

It was only at the recital that we saw the rest of her home.  That we'd spill from that familiar room into the sun-soaked kitchen with its checkered curtains and round Formica table.  The screen door to the backyard would swing open and we'd scatter.  The oldest students with arms crossed, leaning against the shingles of the house.  The youngest hiding behind their parents chatter or running in the open grass.

She'd serve us lemonade and store-bought cookies, then present us with plastic statues, miniature busts of the great composers.  Some years I'd receive a statue I already owned and I'd line it up anyway, twin Bachs, on top of my piano at home, until that last year, when I did not receive a bust at all but, instead, a gold pin I've since lost. One gold note meant to hold all the notes I had ever learned.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Progress: The Tallest

It is the building to the left of the flowering purple. (I had to find a way to mark it.)

I live near the waterfront, along the East River, just before Brooklyn hooks and bends. I run this route very often, over and over again, to the Brooklyn Bridge and back.  It is hard to tire of the Manhattan skyline.  There is nothing like it.  When I come home from time away, when I sit in traffic on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway or dip down into Laguardia or Kennedy airport, this is what I see.  It never fails to take my breath away.

This morning, when I ran, I decided to bring my camera and stop for a photograph.  Because it is official.  On Tuesday the Freedom Tower became the tallest building in Manhattan.  It has crept past the Empire State Building and it will grow taller still.

This, I think, is progress.  Slow. Steady. Unseen. And then, one day, a day like any other, chin-yanking, heart-stopping tall.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Lives Intersecting

I walk each morning to the subway since circumstances (weather, after-work obligations) have not allowed me to commute by bike (oh so sad.)  Sometimes alone, sometimes with Tyler, I cross the footbridge, wait at the long light as cars zip by, pass the Quaker School, watch children spill from the yellow buses, take First Place, see the dog who engages in a strange ritual of rubbing his body along the stone wall while his owner patiently waits, reach the next intersection with its steady traffic of moving taxi cabs, creep under the low branched canopy of leaves, zig zig from one Place to the next Place and descend underground.

It is the same each day and the characters in the space do not change.  There is the redhaired woman caught in a puff of cigarette smoke. The raspy-voiced man who shines shoes.  The soft-spoken, never-pushy transgendered panhandler at the corner. The bespectacled twins with their robot backpacks, flanking their sibling's stroller, as their petite mother pushes, traipses, along.

And at each intersection, there is a crossing guard. There is the frizzy-haired no-nonsense woman at the most dangerous corner, who we have determined has the hardest post, who is not happy when Tyler darts across the street, who says Hello only sometimes and even then is straight-faced, tight-lipped.

There is the quiet hat-wearing woman at the next corner who we have determined has the easiest post and so it matches her tame personality, the sweet rolling r's of her Spanish language, her small stature.

There is the wild woman at the next T, who wears a giant puffy down coat that reaches her ankles, even in warm weather, who talks incessantly, sings Hello to every child, tells me she's a 'summer baby' (thus the coat), who has yelled at me for the way I brazenly walk into traffic (though it is not quite that way, it is the cars who are not following the rules), and who is often so engaged in gossip and conversation that she fails to notice the traffic light has changed.

This morning, Tyler and I walked through all this.  I mentioned that, once, my schedule had been so that I had taken the route in the afternoon, as school let out.  I was surprised that the same crossing guards were there.

"What do you think they do in between?  For those four hours or so?"

"They go to the coffee shop. They blog," Tyler teased. (In Tyler's world, everybody blogs.)

"Right," I agreed. "About us.  About how bad we are at crossing the street."

We envisioned them at the wobbly stools, laptops at the counter, their blog header featuring each of them in their reflector vests, arms crossed in an X with the title: CROSS THIS.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


This, to me, is story.  Grey roots bulging on the cranky steep of the slope. Sun and leaves at a stretch.  There's a way of meandering, digging deep, before you get to any epiphany. 

As a reader and a writer, I think it feels this way. So much more of the experience is earthly.  Walking over the rust of wet leaves, winding past a snap of twig. 

Sky is brief.  But it's what we remember.     

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Stop To Be

The past few weeks have been a whirlwind.  I've been pushing exceptionally hard on every front and I hadn't stepped back to evaluate until a few good friends on separate occasions asked the question: "What on earth are you doing?"

I didn't have a good answer.  The truth is, I don't think I'm doing enough.  I don't think I'm getting anywhere.  And I have been this way my entire life, believing that nothing will happen to me if I don't work to a point of exhaustion, pushing so far forward that I don't know where I am. 

I've been thinking I just need to get through this day...this week...this month.  I soon realized, if I keep thinking this way, if I keep seeing time as something to overcome, it's like saying, I just need to get through this life.

A sobering thought.

When I listen to a song (and being caught inside a song is where I like best to be) I like to listen to as many versions of it as I can, hear it sung in different voices, let it be taken over by a Spanish guitar, or played as folk, jazz, classical. 

On a radio show I like to listen to, the host does this.  He'll play one song four times in a row, four different renditions of the same tune, to the outrage of other listeners.  To my delight.

In this month of May, I have decided to similarly step back, to see the same me in a different way, rather than get trapped inside time I've all but begged to vanish. 

It is difficult for me to stop in order to be, instead of working to become.  But I am going to try.

And I'm sorry for the many I's in this post.  It's actually really bothering me.  So what do you do?  How do you stop to be?