Friday, September 30, 2005

A Son’s Tribute

Before I even met Mark Williams I read a story he wrote about his father. Not having grown up in Gloucester I didn’t know about the “other” Ted Williams but the story knocked my socks off and made me want to get to know the guy who wrote it. That was a year and a half ago.

If you Google “Ted Williams” you’ll get about a million results - none of them will be the football Ted Williams. Even if you Google “Ted Williams Gloucester” you’ll get a couple thousand results that will all begin “... once thru the Ted Williams Tunnel take 128N to Gloucester...” Ah, fame.

Once Mark and I met and he asked me to help him edit his book, F/V Black Sheep, I was continually charmed by his many references in his manuscripts to his father - most especially to the debt of gratitude for all the lessons his father taught him that served to save his life again and again while Mark was fishing the North Atlantic. I said to him one day, as we worked on a particularly poignant chapter, “What comes through most beautifully in this book, is how much you loved your father.”

Mark - big, tough, Gloucester fisherman Mark - turned his face from me and said, “He’s with me every minute when I write.”

I don’t pretend to understand the world of men but I do respect it. I’m not the sort of woman who is drawn to SNAGs (Sensitive New Age Guys) and, since I am not big in over-analyzing my own feelings, I don’t think that is a valuable commodity in men. I love men who are tough guys but who haven’t totally succeeded in outgrowing that inner boy. Reading Mark’s book for the first time I was a little shaken by the violence - violence in bars and among dock workers and at sea. But I am smart enough to know that much of maleness - at least a certain kind of maleness - needs that. It is integral to their nature and, having had a father and three brothers of that ilk, I am comfortable with it.

Mark and I talk a lot. We talk about writing more than most people talk about anything at all. We talk about ideas and history and politics. He doesn’t have a background, as I do, in psychology but he has an intuitive understanding of it. We have talked about Jungian archetypes - in writing and in life. When I told him about the archetype of the Warrior he identified immediately.

As we talk about is father, I am always moved by the depth of his appreciation of the man. I was the one who suggested it might be nice to make a tribute web page for him but Mark, appropriately, took the ball and ran with it.

This morning he gave me the text he wrote to be included on the page. As his writing often does, it moved me to tears. Over the coming weeks, we hope to add more images taken from old newspaper clippings but, for now, Mark’s tribute to his father seems enough. So if you have the time, please visit Ted Williams: This Guy Will never Play Football.

Thanks for reading.

Lost in the Cosmos

When I was a kid my father had a book called Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teal - it was one of my very favorite books. My father often read parts of it to me and then, later on, I read it by myself. I don’t know who Edwin Way Teal was but he sure loved the earth and all its beauties. I learned a lot from him.

Tomorrow begins October. How did that happen? This happens every year - from the 1st of August until the new year I cannot get enough hours in any given day. I love the way the air smells and the quality of the light on sunny days and the mysterious, timeless gloom of gray days. Autumn is thinking time - not that you don’t think all year round but at this time of the year the tendency to just start thinking about something and get “lost in the cosmos”, as I have always called it, becomes irresistible.

I have been thinking a lot lately about my country. Like Edwin Way Teal, I find it so beautiful and, at the same time, I am becoming fearful of the people who populate it. On the one hand I am absolutely dumbfounded and awed by the generosity of people who are helping those ravaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. On the other hand I am appalled and horrified by the misbehavior of many. But worse than all of that, to my mind, is that even these two great tragedies - literally of Biblical proportions - have been viewed by way too many as an opportunity to increase the polarization of political agendas and, worse, to further demonize those who do not agree with them.

Yesterday I had the radio on and was listening to Bill O’Reilley. O’Reilley is the kind of guy I love to hate. He’s smart, he’s mouthy, he’s an arrogant twit at times but... damn, I find myself agreeing with him a lot. Yesterday, O’Reilley was talking about the current trend of political extremists to utterly and completely savage “them” - the people they don’t agree with. He used the demonization of Hilary Clinton as an example. It was interesting. O’Reilley was talking to callers who were calling her “evil” and he was questioning the use of that word - he never got a straight answer. I was quite impressed with him for doing that.

I’m worried about this demonization. Nothing good can come of it and it seems to be growing year by year. If a guy like O’Reilley is willing to speak out about it, I am even more concerned.

For quite a few years I was an active participant in a few message boards that strayed into the area of politics and social commentary. Few of the participants were either savvy or ambitious enough to do more than hammer out complaints on an internet message board but the exchanges became heated. Several times I questioned my own sanity for even participating but there was something fairly addictive about the parry and thrust of the discussions. During that time I became aware of the increase in polarization and the intensification of demonizing those who took a different view (I got royally lambasted when I admitted I got a kick out of O’Reilley).

The straw that broke this camel’s back was when a poster whom I had thought of as a friend - someone I had had lunch with and shared personal information - got offended when I disagreed with her on an issue. It wasn’t enough to tell me I was wrong to think the way I did, she added to it by nasty attacks on my integrity, my intellect, my honesty, and followed it up with public revelations of personal things discussed at lunch. I concluded I was no longer dealing with a sane person and quietly bowed out.

Autumn is upon us. The days are glorious and the nights are keen and bright. We live in a land of astonishing beauty. What has happened to us that we are not content with disagreement and debate? Why do we need to turn those who see things differently into monsters - or into animals? That is a very bad path to walk. It has been walked in Germany, and in Yugoslavia, and in Haiti, and in many other places. We need to wise up and wise up fast. Winter is coming soon.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Why write? Why read?

Everyone who writes, writes for their own reasons. That’s the way it should be - creativity follows its own quirky paths. Yesterday I heard Robert B. Parker, author of the Spenser novels, being interviewed on the radio. He said straight out that he writes for profit (God bless him) and that, once he writes something, he never re-reads it.

Parker is a skilled craftsman and can get away with that. After you have written as many books as he has not looking back ought to be easy. I have read a few of his books (I am a fan of audio books and have listened to the Spenser novels read by Joe Montegna - what a treat) but his style of writing is not something I would ever do or even aspire to. A cat may look at a king, perhaps, but even the cat knows whether he likes the king’s style.

Last night I finished reading Peter Anastas’s No Fortunes. It is a lush book, rich in detail and vibrant with ideas. Set at Bowdoin College in 1959, No Fortunes deals with the fragile human struggles of a group of boys teetering on the edge of manhood, excited by ideas, uncertain about the future, frustrated by sexuality, and flirting with adventure. The main character, Jason Makrides, is an aspiring writer and, like many writers, every aspect of his new world is a treasure that becomes grist for his writer's mill. I was particularly enchanted by it because much of the atmosphere of burgeoning sexuality is so similar to that in my first novel.

Anastas has a beautiful mind. He thinks about art and ideas, literature and music, in ways that few enough people make room for in their lives. Because of my involvement in the local arts community, I was particularly enchanted by his discussions in the book on art. Edward Hopper painted here and sometimes when I turn a corner in Gloucester and see a certain house or a turn in the road I think, “Hopper was here - right here on this spot. He saw what I am seeing and he painted it.” That gives me a thrill.

Parker is also a visual writer but his books are not books about ideas, they are books about awful people doing horrid things and how they get caught. That has a lot more market appeal.

I’ve been thinking about all of this a lot since I wrote my blog on depressing books with no redeeming value. Why do people choose to read what they do? For my money sinking into a lush, rich world like the one Anastas creates is far more rewarding than bopping along in a Spenser book. But any one Spenser book will attract far more readers than a literary book like No Fortunes. Why is that? Are people more drawn to simple entertainment and a quick thrill than to the pleasure of a long, slow savoring of something rich and gorgeous?

I don’t have an answer. A long time ago I was talking to a friend about a book I was reading (I forget which) that was a deep, literary novel of ideas. My friend said, “That would drive me nuts - when I read I want to be entertained. I have to think enough at work, when I come home I want to relax.”

Maybe that’s my problem. I never thought thinking was hard work. I love to linger over a book that lets me stop and savor the beauty of the language or contemplate the situation and its ramifications. I find that more nurturing and enjoyable than frantically reading, turning pages, and rushing through to find-out-what-happens.

So, I guess we all come to reading with our own preferences. As a person who has spent her life in marketing departments, I’ve been trained to always think about the intended market. But as a writer I have to follow my heart and hope someone will find where it goes interesting. That market may be smaller but it is one I write for.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

An Exercise in Egotism

I gave a talk last night at Ditto Editions in Marblehead on Web Design for Artists and, as is always the case with these things, it went better than I had imagined. I’m one of those worriers who can get myself into a total state before such an event and then, as soon as I am “on stage”, have a really good time.

I was talking about the importance of marketing - for artists as well as for anyone trying to promote an enterprise of any sort - and trying to help people understand how important it is. Too many artists, writers, or whatever operate on the Field-of-Dreams Delusion - “If you build it (paint it, write it, etc.), they will come.”

Not without a lot of marketing, my friends.

In the course of my talk I brought up my recently acquired love of blogs and how they can double, triple, and more the traffic on your web site. In fact, this blog may be moving in the near future because we are two days from the end of the month and there has been so much traffic, we are approaching the maximum of our bandwidth! But I digress...

I was explaining how blogs work and someone said, “I understand what you are saying but, honestly, don’t blogs just become an exercise in egotism?” What an interesting question!

Americans are funny people - we suffer under the dichotomy of cherishing our independence but not wanting anyone to think they are particularly unique. Explain that, please. The thought process of those who believe that seems to be “Yes, you are unique and special - just like everyone else.”

It is my belief that each person is an amazing repository of unique observations, reactions, ideas, opinions, and feelings - all the things that make one an artist of whatever sort. Some are more accomplished at bringing these things forth than others but nearly everyone has the potential to do so. One of the amazing gifts of the internet is that anyone with the desire, the intelligence, and the ambition to have their say, show their work, and find an audience can do so.

A few years ago my friend Gail undertook a six month long journey trekking through Southeast Asia. She did this alone, carrying with her the bare essentials for survival. Throughout that entire time, regardless of what part of the world she was in, she would find a cyber-café, log into her Yahoo account, and write the most astonishing, detailed, and colorful accounts of her travels which she then emailed to a full list of friends. All of us looked forward to each new message. Later, when she returned, a selection of her emails was published in a travel magazine.

Throughout the trauma of the two hurricanes over the last few weeks, I have been hooked on a couple of blogs kept by people who stayed in the devastated areas. It has been an inside view into something that I otherwise would only have known through the biased lens of the commercial media.

If having a medium in which to birth and share your creativity is an exercise in ego, then we could all do with a bit more of that. Some blogs may well be utter nonsense or egotism but - here’s the good part - you don’t have to read them! Trust me, in blogging as in all of life, the cream will rise.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. I'd like to thank Susan and Nick Fader of Ditto Editions and My Art Marketing Coach for inviting me to speak at their monthly Salon. Please see their blog for upcoming events.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Sad, Depressing Books with No Redeeming Value

It’s a trend and it’s a trend a lot of us are starting to question. Why do people want to spend money and invest hours in reading books about horrible, awful things that happen to helpless children and, at the end of the book, be left with a sense of bleak hopelessness? I don’t get it.

My friend Jane was telling me about the Boy Called “It” phenomenon. In case you don’t know, this self-published book has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for awhile now. I have not read it. I am told that it is a story about a little child who is horribly abused by an alcoholic, insane mother. Now, I want to say that I am well aware of the fact that there are many children who live lives most sane adults cannot even imagine. This is a horrible shame to all of us and is something that needs to be addressed and needs to be stopped. I also want to say that I have nothing but admiration for the people who go through horrific experiences and have the courage to tell about them and to show how they have survived and gone on with their lives. That’s not my point. What I am questioning is why people can’t get enough of this stuff.

A Boy Called “It” has the distinction of being non-fiction, thus all the more horrific for it. But over the last decade or so there has been an excess of fiction about this subject. After reading half a dozen novels with the same theme I began to call it the Poor Abused and Abandoned Little Girl Genre. I hope no one thinks I am making light of child abuse. What I am totally puzzled by is why this has become such popular entertainment. Are we gaining enlightenment because of it? Are we finding strength and hope and courage from these works of fiction? Or is it some sort of bizarre wallowing in misery that attracts the thousands of readers who make these books a sensation.

One of my friends was telling me about a book she started and abandoned. She said, “It wasn’t an Oprah book, but it could have been.” I laughed but I knew what she meant. Somehow a good percentage of the novels that have gained acclaim thanks to being chosen as Oprah Books are about people who lead horrific lives.

I’m trying to look at this from a classical perspective. Charles Dickens wrote books about poor, abused children who were abandoned and harmed by both the people who should have loved them and their own societies. He wrote his books to call attention to a world that many people overlooked. And his books were inspiring and, at the end, left you feeling a better person for having read it. That’s a book worth writing.

But I was thinking about the Poor Abused and Abandoned Little Girl books that I read before I gave it up. One in particular stayed with me for a long time after I finished it - and not in a good way. It was about an entirely self-involved, H.U.A. woman who, in her obsession with revenge on a guy who dumped her, committed a crime that landed her sorry butt in jail and condemned her poor little daughter to an absolutely horrid life spent among abusive, crazy, and/or exploitative foster families. Through the whole book I kept looking for some little glimmer of light for this poor child. It never came. When I finished the book I felt smarmy - as though I had just participated in something nasty - and I genuinely wished I’d never read it.

I’m not asking writers to sugar-coat anything. I think writing the truth is the only reason to write. But, when a writer writes something so bleak and sad that one is left with nothing but a sense of helplessness and sorrow at the end, I wonder why readers can’t get enough of that. That’s the question. Why do we want to feel helpless and hopeless and as though these poor children are beyond our powers to help them? Or is that it... Is it that we know how screwed up the world is and we know these horrible abuses exist and these books reinforce our belief that there is nothing we can do for the abused and abandoned? All we can do is buy the books, cry as we read, and come away saying “how horrible - and there was nothing anyone could do either” - and then wait for the next one to hit the stands. How convenient.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Why I Should Be Queen...

Well, it’s about the wardrobe, of course. I’ve been writing this blog for a couple months now and have yet to talk about textiles and fabric and sewing. Mostly because I haven’t done much sewing in recent months - for a number of reasons, none of them good.

But I’ve started cleaning up my sewing room and, now that it looks like Autumn is upon us, I will be spending more time in my tiny little sewing room making fabulous things despite having no place to wear them. Which is why I think that if I were queen it would be a very good thing. I have a big head start on the wardrobe.

This is the thing that non-sewers don’t understand. Fabric talks. Yes, it does. You are innocently strolling through your favorite fabric store or cruising eBay and something jumps out at you, wraps itself around your head and screams “buy me, buy me, buy me!” And you have to because ... well ... it’s fabric and fabric must be obeyed.

Over the years a lot of the fabric that has pulled this stunt on me and which now sits in my sewing room (laundered, folded into 2.5 gal. Ziplock Bags - a FABULOUS invention if ever there was one - and labeled with width, length, fiber content and ideas) is of the queenly variety - silks, velvets, silks, laces, and more silks. It sits in there muttering and, as winter approaches and the windows are shut more, the muttering gets louder. It wants to be made up.

A case in point is the Fabulous Black and Silver Velvet Kimono. It all began with a piece of black velvet that attacked me as I strolled through Winmill Fabrics in Danvers a couple years ago. It was scrumptious! Only 3 yards long but 64" wide and a deep, inky black-black embroidered along one selvage with silver trees branches. It made me think of frost covered trees in winter sparkling in moonlight (see swatch at right). The velvet accosted me and forced me to take it home. Then the long “think” process began.

I love the hmmm-what-goes-with-this? Stage of these projects. As I pawed through the mountains of Ziplock bags in my stash two fer-sure candidates emerged - a 1 yard piece of silver silk velvet from a rummage table that I’d been hoarding for years, and 3 yard length of shimmery, tissue lamé in a gunmetal gray with a pattern of falling leaves in black (see image at left).

In a very, very, very old issue of Threads magazine there is a detailed article on kimono making. I have made several kimonos according to that article but never one of velvet. I decided to give it a go using the silver velvet for the collar and cuffs and the tissue lamé for the lining.

I’ll spare you the details but it turned out GORGEOUS (right). I did wear it once to a literary cocktail party over a pair of black silk noil trousers and a white silk camisole. It was fabulous.

So, it’s time to start sewing again and I have LOTS of ideas. And lots of fabric. I will make glorious things. So if you hear of any openings for a job as a queen, let me know. I’ll have the wardrobe.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 23, 2005

My Three Agents

Everyone who writes with an eye to publication has to, at some point, think about the people that populate the path between the page and the press. This includes agents, editors, publicists, etc. The thing all of us have to remember is that, believe it or not, they are human too.

A couple years ago, when I had put the finishing touches on The Old Mermaid’s Tale, I set about the process of finding a literary agent. In the cyber age this is somewhat less laborious than in times past. After dozens of “doesn’t sound like the sort of project I...blah-blah-blah”, and being totally ignored by even more than that, I got a call from a man in New York who LOVED what I sent him.

I checked him out and what I found was good - a former editor with a BNYP, now owned his own agency, had represented some names I actually recognized. Wow. I felt so blessed.

I mailed off the total manuscript and a week later he called me. He LOVED it - loved it, loved it, loved it. Tight writing, sympathetic characters, he found my heroine enchanting and my other main characters colorful and engaging. He said the ending was “touching and filled with hope”. He had great hopes for it. After another month of frequent phone calls expanding upon his plans, he disappeared. A year went by, out contract expired. and I never heard from him again.

On to agent Number Two. Same story, good credentials, sold a manuscript that was subsequently sold to Hollywood and made into a creditable film. Loved the book. Loved Clair, the main character - said he could see Charlize Theron in the part. Off to a whiz bang start and then - poof - he pulled the vanishing act.

By Agent Number Three I learned a lesson - don’t sign a contract that will lock you into a relationship with one of the “disappeared”. He also loved the book and had great ideas but I was less willing to just turn it over to him. Which proved to be a good thing because he turned out to have “more on his plate” than he could handle, as he put it, and, after extravagant apologies, he said he’d “see what he could do” as time allowed.

While all of this was going on I was keeping busy with Novel Number Two and the annoying business of making a living. Good thing. I guess the thing is if these three people, all of whom have solid backgrounds in the New York book biz, hadn’t been so generous in their praise of both my writing style and my story, I might be willing to just say “oh well” and move on to other things - at least to other stories - but I can’t help but think that this novel has potential.

From the many friends who have read it there has been no shortage of praise and very little criticism. I’m old enough and wise enough to know that the adulation of friends is beautiful - but not always deserved. But when these NY guys liked the book, too... What’s a poor novelist to think?

I suppose even New York agents are entitled to a life and to not be able to sell a manuscript just because they happened to like that manuscript. To them my book is just one among many - to me, well, it’s something I can’t quite give up on.

So right now I am working on the short story collection. Recently I read in The New Yorker that short stories have become popular again. But I still think about Clair and Baptiste and their world and think “maybe someday”. I have a feeling those characters aren’t like the agents I’ve known - they aren’t about to give up or to go away.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

How Gloucester Got Into My Knitting

I seem to be talking more about knitting than writing right now but that is all the fault of the needlework group on Saturday. Obsession is a beautiful thing.

Shortly after I moved to Gloucester I wanted to knit something that would express my love of my new home. I considered a fisherman sweater but that seemed too hopelessly predictable so I designed a “picture” sweater weaving into it all the things about maritime history that I found fascinating - most especially figureheads.

When I lived in Salem I spent a lot of time in the figurehead hall of the Peabody-Essex Museum making drawings of the many excellent examples there. I still have my book of figurehead drawings and it contains drawings made from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Nantucket. But the figurehead I designed for my sweater was my own invention.

It took a long time to draft the drawing and get it right. I added the two stone tower lighthouses on Thacher Island and lots of seagulls (perfect for Gloucester) and waves. After much deliberation I settled on Brunswick’s BallyBrae yarn and the sweater turned out beautifully though considerably larger than I needed it to be. I even kept the nautical theme going by knitting a whale’s tale onto the back of the sweater.

The truth is, it hasn’t worn well. Maybe I didn’t knit it well. It is still warm but I seem to do a lot of repair work on it. I still have the charts in my binder of ideas and maybe someday I’ll knit it again on smaller needles in a tighter gage.

There was quite a bit of yarn left over and I was watching an Elizabeth Zimmerman video in which EZ talked about a little man she once knit and how she did it. So, since I now lived in Gloucester, I decided to knit myself a fisherman using her technique. I started at his feet and worked my way up to the tassel on his cap. He sits on my desk overlooking my computer and keeps an eye on me while I blog.


That’s the thing about Gloucester - it pervades whatever you do. And what you do is better for it, too.

Thanks for reading.

Note: This post originally ran on September 21, 2005. It is one of the most frequently visited posts on this blog and is being repeated for those who have subscribed to our new feed service.

Waiting.....

I called my friend Sharon in Houston. “Please tell me you are leaving,” I said. She was. She has eight cats and was packing them all into their carriers and heading for her sister’s house up near Dallas. Her husband, who is on staff at Texas Children’s Hospital, could not go with her until everything at the hospital was taken care of. They were not sure how much they could evacuate. Sharon is justifiably worried.

Having lived in Houston for as long as I did, I understand this. I hadn’t been there for very long when Hurricane Allen bore down on us. That was pretty frightening for a Yankee girl from Pennsylvania. I did everything they told us to do - bought gallons of water, filled every available container, stocked up on food and propane, taped windows.

At the last minute Allen took a turn and ripped into Brownsville instead of Houston. I didn’t think it was much to get fussed about. Little did I know.

It was a couple years later when Hurricane Alicia came our way. That was a nasty experience. The building I lived in then was a brick bunker built to withstand anything and I stayed home and lay on the couch listening to what sounded like a freight train roaring over the roof. When light finally broke through, I opened my door to find all of the majestic old weeping willows in the courtyard lying on their sides and all the heavy metal porch furniture in the pool. We got off easy.

I was working downtown then at Enron and I went to work the next day - I was one of six people in Houston who did that. The unique thing about Alicia was that it hit the downtown area directly and the glass towers that lined the main business district got smashed into with a vengeance. Louisiana Street was cordoned off and glass was piled knee high down the length of the street. It was beautiful in the brilliant Texas sunshine, glittering pink and green and blue and gold. The bad part was when you looked up and saw where it came from. Beds were hanging out of the windows of the downtown Sheraton, desks and filing cabinets hung out of Entex and the Pennzoil buildings. It was mind-numbing.

The worst part about waiting for a hurricane is that bullshit thing you do to yourself where you say “well, maybe it won’t be too bad.” It’s almost as if you think you can work some kind of voodoo. If you run it will be like giving the hurricane permission to have its way. It makes no sense but that’s the way your mind works.

Through the whole time of Katrina I was a wreck - even here 2000 miles away in Gloucester. Now, waiting for Rita, I feel just as tense. I loved New Orleans and I have entertained notions of retiring to Galveston. But not now.

It’s just that helplessness thing. Is there any place that is safe from weather? I don’t think so. Having lived through the “perfect storm” here, I wonder why we stay except that Gloucester is beautiful. It is just beautiful. And maybe nothing will destroy that. This morning Mark and I sat at the end of the fish pier talking and looking at the sparkle of sunlight on the serene blue of the harbor. He lived in Lafayette and spent weekends in New Orleans years ago. I lived in Houston and spent weekends in Galveston. These are towns we love. You can’t let go of that just for the sake of bad weather.

So, I’m thinking of Sharon in her car with eight kitties headed for Dallas, and of David, her husband, on duty at Texas Children’s. And I am thinking of beautiful Galveston - as I did of beautiful New Orleans - and hoping my own brand of voodoo helps.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Making the World Cozier - One Shawl at a Time

I love shawls. I find them cozy and elegant and feminine and graceful. They are one of the handiest and most versatile garments in the world. They can keep you warm, make you feel special, and make you look elegant. They are great for wrapping up babies, comforting unhappy children, covering up snoozing gentlemen, and bundling up odds and ends that need to be moved somewhere. You can wear them, toss them on the back of the sofa, fold them over the foot of the bed, tuck them in the back seat of the car, spread them on the grass for an impromptu picnic, snuggle under them, cover the bird’s cage, fling them over the piano, make shade by hanging them from tree branches, and change into your swimsuit under them.

Shawls are wonderful treats and a girl just can’t have too many. I’m on a mission to make the world a cozier place, one shawl at a time.

This is one of my very first shawls. It is made from a soft blue-violet mohair and is just a large triangle. I started at the bottom tip and knitted up, knitting the Arrowhead Lace edging as I went. I tried out several patterns - Little Leaf, Lilac Leaves and Traveling Vine. It is a large, very warm shawl which now belongs to my friend Terry.


This triangle shawl is made of a lovely teal silk from Webs in Northampton, MA. I knit it on the bias from the top down, increasing at each end and on either side of the center seam. It is a lovely shawl for summer or over sweaters in the spring and fall. The pattern isn’t complicated - just stockinette stitch with occasional bands of K2,YO and a panel of K2,YO repeats. The edging is Old Shale. It belongs to my sister Lisa.





This was my first rectangular shawl. I made it from four strands of very fine laceweight yarn mostly bought from eBay - it is a combination of silk, alpaca, and mohair and I knit it in a simple basketweave pattern. It lives on the back of the daybed in my office and is my favorite shawl for wrapping up in while I work on chilly late summer mornings.

The next shawl I made I do not have a photo of. It is made of a breathtakingly soft real English mohair and is a Faroese shawl modeled on the ones shown in Knitter’s Magazine’s Shawls and Scarves. It now is in Houston and belongs to my friend Sharon.


This is one of the most beautiful shawls I ever made. It is made from double strands of a softly variegated 50% silk/50% cashmere yarn that I bought on eBay from a vendor in China. I couldn’t read the labels when it arrived but the feel is just luscious. It is a long rectangle, the center panel is Ostrich Plume and the border is Old Shale. The more I handled it, the softer and more lustrous it became. It now is in Pittsburgh with my sister Beth.

So that is an introduction to my mission to make the world a cozier place - one shawl at a time.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Messages in a Bottle

In a recent email Ingeborg referred to blogs as “messages in a bottle” and I thought that was a wonderful analogy. There are a lot of reasons to write - getting paid being the most understandable one. But if the only writing that got done and put out into the world was writing that was paid for this would be a very bleak world. If the only art made was made to appeal to a market we would have a lot more paintings of quaint romantic cottages with glowing windows and rainbows in the sky than many of us could bear to look at.

An old adage says that the power of the press belongs to those who own one. The internet has provided a very large segment of the population with a press of their own and the power to publish to the world. It is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, anyone who wants to write anything can put it out there. On the other hand, anyone who wants to write anything can put it out there.

Whenever I have taken writer’s workshops or attended writer’s conferences there is a lot of emphasis on “free writing”. Natalie Goldberg, teaching a class at Interface some years back, lead timed free writing exercises in which the only requirement was to “keep your hand moving”. Later when I was teaching writing I used the same technique. It is a very freeing practice and people are always astonished at what they write, what is inside of them and what they are capable of.

After attending a few Artist’s Way workshops with Julia Cameron at Interface, I wrote “morning pages” for years. I filled notebook after notebook with the most astonishing amount of “stuff” - some good, a lot of it perfectly awful. Finally, after several years of this, I gathered up the huge stack of notebooks, wrapped them in garbage bags and duct tape,and flung them into a dumpster (a common technique for disposing of unwanted bodies). I have no idea if anyone ever dug them out and unwrapped them but, if they did, I feel sorry for them. That stuff should have been classified as toxic waste.

But here’s the thing - writer’s write. It’s what writers do. They do their work, hopefully, but they also write emails and essays and heaven only knows what. I spent quite a few years doing a lot of writing on message boards. Some of that was a great opportunity to interact with others, some of it was an exercise in futility. A lot was an exercise in masochism. At this point I feel about that kind of writing like I did about the morning pages - wrap it up in plastic, seal it with duct tape, and get it out of my life!

So now I blog. It is less self-absorbed than the morning pages and less masochistic than the message boards. Each morning I get up, attend to my household necessities, make a pot of tea, and sit down to blog before beginning my day’s work. It is a centering discipline that requires a certain amount of craft, because it is going to be out there in the world where everyone can see. And, like any message in a bottle, it seeks a reader. Luckily, I get enough encouraging feedback to want to keep going.

It took a lot of years for me to find my voice, as they say. There is a responsibility that goes with that. Once you start speaking out and garner support from those who have yet to find voices of their own, you are obligated to stay at the task. When the slings and arrows of the soul killers (to use another of Ms Cameron’s phrases) start to fly, you just duck and keep going. That’s the price having a voice extracts. You write those messages, tuck them into their bottles, and cast them out onto the cyber-seas. Then you trust that you have done your job and get about the rest of your day.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Hooray, Hooray, Needleworker's Day

Okay, okay, for anyone who is not into needlework this is a Big Whoop. But for those of us knotty ladies who love to keep our hands busy, tomorrow is the beginning of our third needlework season.

Leslie Wind organized this group and we have been meeting once a month in Rockport’s Community House during the off-season ever since. We come bringing food, needlework and lots of gab, and spend the day eating, yakking, and working on our projects. It’s a lovely way to spend a cold - or mild - day. I’ve finished a couple projects since our last meeting in April which I will bring to show and have a few more on the needles now.


I posted a photo of this shawl but took some more pictures which show it off a little better. This is a variation on Meg Swansen’s Snowdrops and Snowflakes Shawl knitted in a 80% wool, 20% angora lace weight yarn. I still have not blocked it but once the weather cools down it will be my first priority:


I also have been putting the final touches on this shawl made of a mixture of cotton and rayon yarns purchased from eBay. It is absolutely lustrous - the photo doesn’t do it justice. It is long - 90" and about 24" wide. All I did was knit lengthwise in garter stitch, changing fiber whenever I felt like it:





This is my favorite project of the moment. It is intended to be a long, fairly flamboyant scarf made of KnitPick’s Shimmer which is deliciously soft and lustrous alpaca/silk blend. The yarn is lace weight and I am knitting it double on size 7 needles, alternating the yarns as I feel like it and knitting in a Little Leaf pattern. It is very soft and warm and I am eager to see how long it will be using the 7 hanks of yarn I have at the moment.


This is made of KnitPick’s 100% Pima Cotton called Crayon and is absolutely the softest fiber I have ever touched. It is actually a little difficult to work with because of the softness. I started it on steel needles but had to change to wood to have more control. I am working it in a lovely, old fashioned stitch I found in a Barbara Walker book. Right now it measures 30" wide and I will probably keep working on it until I run out of yarn. It is delicious to hold.


My last project has been languishing a bit. It is made from a double strand of lace-weight 50% silk/50% cashmere ins a soft, shimmery color called “pollen”. The more I handle it, the softer and more lustrous it becomes. I am working it in the Arabesque pattern in Marianne Kinzel’s Second Book of Lace Knitting and it is wonderful stitch definition.

So that’s what is in my knitting bag. Now I just have to figure out what goodies to take and I’m ready to go.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 16, 2005

An Evening with Back Shore Press

Last night there was a “thick’o’fog”, as the old Gloucestermen say. A fog so dense and impenetrable that you could scarcely see your way down the street, let alone across a harbor, rolled in. I was headed for the West End Theater for a SEArts Artist on Artist presentation with Back Shore Press.

I’ve mentioned before my affection for the West End Theater because of its location in the old Blackburn Tavern Building. It was a perfect night to be there and one would be hard pressed to find a more perfectly Gloucester-appreciative way to spend the evening. I always come away from these events thinking how fortunate I am to attend them.

The three men who form Back Shore Press, Peter Tuttle, Peter Anastas, and Schuyler Hoffman, are a poet, a novelist, and a poet respectively. Each man read from his work and each showed, in his own unique and eloquent way, his absolute love of Gloucester and why so many of us choose to be here.

Peter Tuttle writes lyric, narrative poetry that spin stories of great beauty through a form that is both accessible (something I don’t always find in poets) and musical. His first piece was a tribute to Vincent Ferrini, the Poet Laureate of Gloucester, who was seated in the first row and sat with his hand cupped behind his ear to scoop up every word. Each of Tuttle’s poems told a story and, lover of stories that I am, I loved each one. One in particular, about a family dispute over a watercolor by artist Stowe Wengenwroth, was particularly delicious.

Peter Anastas is a writer whose work I have long respected. His pieces in North Shore North and Cape Ann Island News were the main reason I picked up those newspapers when they were around. He read a deeply moving segment from his new novel, No Fortunes, but it was the chapter from his memoir, At the Cut, that charmed me last night - a recollection of growing up a Greek immigrant boy among Irish and Italian immigrant boys - was so meticulously illustrative that we traveled ever step and cringed at every insult as he read.

Schuyler Hoffman is an impressive man with considerable power of language. His poetry is experimental and edgy, more like verbal music - more like jazz. His first poem was particularly fluid with an obvious love of language that reminded me of Hopkins and, thus, made me smile. He spoke of his poems inspired by the paintings of Jackson Pollock as “collaborations” between him as a poet and Pollock’s work. I was reminded of the summer workshop I took in 1975 with Lee Krasner who was Pollock’s wife - another form of collaboration - and was quite sure that she would have loved Hoffman’s “collaboration”.

These three men have created Back Shore Press to publish their books and promote their work. After the readings they spoke about it and Anastas said, “It is time for artists to take control of how our work is distributed.”

I think this is particularly true for writers. Painters started their own cooperatives years ago. Film makers and playwrights have gained new audiences through independent film production companies and off-off-off Broadway venues. In recent years, sick of “corporate rock”, musicians have founded their own labels. Publishing alone seems to writhe under the thumb of the BNYPs (Big New York Publishers) but the small presses - like Back Shore Press, like Parlez-Moi Press - are coming into their own.

When I left the West End Theater the fog was so dense I could scarcely see my car parked off beyond Tally’s but as I walked down the street through that fog I was reminded of how fortunate I am to be in Gloucester - because of Gloucester but also because of men like those of Back Shore Press.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Thoughts while Watching “The Pianist”

I’m a big fan of Adrien Brody. I think he is one of the most intriguing and watchable actors to come along in a very long time. He has the sort of face that is constantly fascinating as it moves through emotions of subtlety and elegance. That’s why I rented The Pianist, the movie that garnered him the honor of being the youngest actor to receive the Best Actor Academy Award. He certainly deserved it.

I had a hard time watching the film and, didn’t finish it, though I probably will tonight. I don’t handle cruelty well. I’ve pretty much avoided all the movies that deal with the Holocaust just for that reason. For one thing, being of half German heritage, the actors playing the Nazis always look too much like family, and also, I just can’t handle institutionalized cruelty. I’m not opposed to violence and can watch Bruce Willis movies in total enjoyment - mostly because I know they aren’t real.

But while I was watching The Pianist the one thought that went through my head over and over was how do people get that way? When the Nazi soldiers were beating and shooting and abusing the Jews, all I could think was “what is going on in their heads, for God’s sake?” But the thing is, I know the answer. They did not regard their victims as human. That’s a cheap excuse but one that has worked for millennia.

I don’t want to get into political discussions in this blog. There are way too many political blogs out there now cluttering up the bandwidth with their opinions. But I do want to comment on polarization because that is not a political issue but rather a human issue.

We are living in an era of extreme polarization. I have a lot of ideas about how we got this way, not the least of which is the responsibility of the media. But the bottomline fact is we, as a nation, are institutionalizing and, worse, accepting polarization. When polarization is extreme it becomes way too easy to demonize “them”. In order to feed our enmity we have to regard “them” as bad, evil, anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-whatever it is we claim to revere. And as the demonization increases so does our inability to see “them” as human. They become the enemy, the bad guys, the ones who cause all the problems and without whom life would be good and we would get our way.

This scares me a lot. We only need to look at history to see what inevitably happens when one group becomes polarized against another group - families divide, wars are declared, persecutions increase, people die. When we polarize and then demonize we lose our humanity, we lose our ability to see “them” as part of “us”.

One of the reasons I am such a staunch supporter and advocate for the Arts in all their many forms is because the Arts can show us what we don’t want to see. Last night as I watched The Pianist I wondered if it would ever be possible for me to become like the Nazi guard who beat Adrian Brody for dropping a load of bricks. That guard (well, the actor who played him) looked a lot like a favorite cousin of mine. It hurt.

I’ve made the decision to leave non-productive, argumentative situations when I see no point in continuing. There is much work to be done in this world and it can’t be done by people who are wasting their time in petty bickering. But I learned a lot through all of this - none of us are that different. None of us. Victor Frankel wrote, “Evil happens when good people do nothing.” We all need to take those words to heart - now more than ever.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

“‘Chust for Nice”

I was talking to a friend who reads my blog and she commented on my remarks on having grown up Pennsylvania Dutch. “Is that like Amish?” she asked incredulous.

It’s a common mistake. For some reason outside of Pennsylvania, people tend to equate the Amish and Mennonites with the Pennsylvania Dutch. The PA Dutch, despite the name, are actually German. My mother’s ancestors on both sides came from Bavaria around the turn of the century and always referred to themselves as “Deutsch”, the German word for “German”. I’ve always assumed that is where the misnomer “Dutch” came from. The Amish and Mennonites are actually more of Swiss extraction though their language - the language they speak to this day - is very similar to the German of my great-grandparents’s time, a form of low German. (My father’s family is mostly Scottish and French which makes me a mutt - or a typical American.)

The Amish are an interesting people, I’ve encountered them a lot growing up, who have made the simple choice to follow the Bible dictate “go out from among them and keep ye separate”. They mostly keep to themselves, make good neighbors, and, like any people that choose to live an uncommon lifestyle, are regarded with suspicion and speculation by some. The ones I’ve known are capable, friendly, and the original DIYs. Since “Do It Yourself” is hot right now, the Amish could be regarded as fashion leaders. They wouldn’t appreciate that though.

But the PA Dutch have a lot of interesting customs and curiosities, not the least of which is the “Hex sign”. I grew up in the shadow of one. Many years ago my father built a cottage, or “shanty” as he called it, which was a 2 room, Alpine-style little house beside our house. One side was a combination tool shed and smoke house, the other side had a pot-bellied stove and bunk beds and was used by us kids as a playhouse when we were young and a party place as we grew into our teens. Up in the gable on the front of the shanty was a big, brightly painted hex sign.

I don’t really know what the meaning or the origin of the hex sign is but, over the years, I’ve been sort of intrigued by the similarity between hex signs and mandalas. A few years back I took a mandala making workshop in which we were given large round pieces of paper and colored pencils then guided into a meditative state to start drawing our mandalas. I’ve never been any good at that kind of stuff. I like the art part but the meditation part is too weird for me. Of course part of that could be because I’ve always been able to just let go of the world when I paint or draw so to me relaxing into that subconscious, creative place is just part of the creative process.



Carl Jung is said to have made a mandala every day. He said it helped him clarify his thinking and focus on where he needed to be. It seems to have worked for him, which is good. Thinking about hex signs in terms of mandalas, I can’t quite imagine any of my PA Dutch fore-bearers being that esoteric but you never know. The legend is that hex signs are to keep the evil spirits out and invite the good ones in. That may be but I tend to believe they are really more just a form of ethnic decoration, or, as my Gram Werner’s people would say in their Dutchie-accent, “‘chust for nice.”

It’s been interesting working on this story. In it, the barn is not decorated with hex signs but rather with another Pennsylvania icon - a Mail Pouch Tobacco Sign. But that’s a story for another day.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Story in the Story

I finished The Haven last week and, except for a few minor edits, it is ready for the collection I am working on. It is time to move on to the last story, Treat Yourself to the Best.

When I decided to create this collection I culled through a huge stack of short stories that had been languishing in my desk - some of them for years. With one novel being reviewed by yet another agent and the second novel “ripening” between rewrites, I decided it was time to do something with all these short stories. One of them has been previously published but will still be included.

The thing about short story writing is that even the writer isn’t always sure what the story is about. Most writers, from Stephen King to Rebecca Rule, agree that the best short stories happen when you take an interesting character or two, put them in a situation, and then wait to see what happens to them. Whether or not you have a story when you finish depends on whether there is any story in your story when you read it.

Not every story turns out to have a story in it. That probably surprises some people. Those are the ones that you set aside and, if something good at all happened in them, you might find another place for those characters and situations but mostly they are just good exercise.

But the stories that have something to them - they are the good ones. When I was sorting through the stack of stories in my drawer (and all the rejection slips stuck in their files with them), I picked out eight of them that seemed to have a common theme. I couldn’t quite explain the theme, that has only come over the past six months of working on them. They are all about awareness - awareness of what they have, or what they most want, or what they have lost.

As I went through each story, rewriting, editing, and rewriting again, I kept asking myself “what is the story in this story?” and, in each case, it came to me. It is about becoming aware of what you have. It is about becoming aware of what you have lost. It is about realizing that the mistake you made was not really a mistake. On and on. Of all of them, the one I saved for last, is proving the most difficult.

Treat Yourself to the Best is about a woman who left her earthy, plain-spoken rural family for a life of “romance” and some years later, married and successful, is bringing her very elegant husband home to them. She is nervous about doing this because her family, despite being good, decent people, has always embarrassed her. And she absolutely cannot understand her husband’s fascination with them.

I knew I wanted the setting of the story to be in a Pennsylvania Dutch community much like the one I grew up in. I have never written about being Pennsylvania Dutch and thought it might make a colorful setting. I was doing a little research on the internet when I clicked into a site on PA Dutch heritage and the speakers on my PC suddenly blasted Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians playing the Pennsylvania Polka. I found myself suddenly embarrassed and I immediately turned the sound down. I can’t stand that “music”. And then it came to me - I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed, after all these years of being away, by hearing the Pennsylvania Polka. The story in this story is my story. This could be a challenge to write.

In a sense every story is our story - an aspect of our selves. But in finding the stories in the story, we find the stories in our own lives and offer them as fodder for others to find their stories, too.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Lila’s Story

I have mentioned Lila’s book of poetry, Split-Image Focus, here a few times and I’ve received emails from people asking about how and why I published it. It’s an interesting story.

I had met Lila several times since moving to Gloucester. She is a lovely woman known locally as a photographer and as the “bird lady” - she has taken in, mended and nursed back to health many birds of all sorts. People in East Gloucester take injured birds to Lila’s house. I did not know she was a poet, too.

Last July I received a call from Beverly Quint, a friend and swimming partner, who told me about a portfolio of poetry Lila had given her some years before. Lila had written the poetry over a span of a few years while going through a difficult change in her life. When she was through the tough time she gave the poetry to Beverly and said, “Do whatever you want with it - I don’t want it anymore.”

As Beverly read through the poems she was stunned by the elegance of the language, the beauty of metaphor, and the spirit shining within it. She kept it for a few years but felt it needed a place in the world where others could appreciate it. She called me.

We met and talked about what it takes to print a book. Poetry is a hard sell and the only option seemed to be to do it ourselves. After exploring many options and doing a lot of research we decided we could do this - we could make this happen. We decided to keep the project a secret - to tell Lila about it when it was ready. Preparation of the book went faster than either of us suspected and when we began talking about the project to people who knew Lila they were so delighted at the idea that a series of little miracles began to happen.

Gloucester writer Joe Garland read the manuscript and loved it. He wrote a beautiful letter to me about a photograph of Lila’s that had illustrated one of his earlier works and we used his words on the back of the book. Dorothy Brown, a neighbor Lila’s offered much appreciated support and wrote the Foreword to the book. Writers JoeAnn Hart and Susan Oleksiw also wrote cover copy. For the cover we wanted a photograph of Lila’s but, since we couldn’t tell her about it, we had to do that in secret. Someone produced a card Lila had made featuring four photos she had taken of her beloved guinea fowl - the subject of several of her poems. By November the book was ready.

JoeAnn Hart and her husband Gordon Baird offered to host a party for the launch of the book but first we had to show it to Lila. It was decided that Beverly, who initiated the entire project, should do that alone. We were all a little nervous about her reaction but we need not have been - Lila was thrilled. She could not believe how lovely the book was and how many people had banded together to make it happen.

I am not a poet and, I must confess, have little appreciation for poetry but as I read Lila’s words I found myself enchanted. She writes with her heart and it is a very beautiful heart.

The party at the Baird’s was magnificent. I have no idea how many people were there but we sold over a hundred books and most of the local literary luminaries attended. Mark, who is also a poet, had never met Lila, and when we finally managed to work our way through the crowd jamming the house so he could meet her, we found her seated in the parlor behind a stack of books smiling radiantly and signing book after book for the people who stood in line waiting. I have never seen a happier human being.

The book has continued to sell and Lila has asked that all the profits go to the Massachusetts Audubon Society. Poetry for birds - how perfectly Lila.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Viva Maria!


Last night I heard the music coming from down the street and thought there was a party going on until I remembered - there WAS a party going on - a BVM party. Those of us who attended Catholic schools throughout our childhood have always had the Blessed Virgin Mary in our lives. Some of us love her, some of us rejected all that, and a lot just take her for granted. But after living a half a block away from Gloucester’s Mother of Grace Club for ten years, I have to tell you, the BVM is on the A-list in this neighborhood.


When I moved here I was sort of fascinated by the Mother of Grace Club. It is a small white storefront building on Washington Street - usually quiet and unassuming. I’d see ladies, mostly older, mostly of Italian and Portuguese heritage, coming and going from the building carrying shopping bags. I had no idea what went on in there. I walked by one night and peeked inside. There was an altar with a beautiful statue of the BVM surrounded by riots of flowers, candles, smaller statues of other saints, and illuminated with a soft light.

Later I noticed the ladies sitting inside on warm summer days praying the rosary, reciting litanies and novenas, and then setting up card tables for lunch and a few hands of cards. That September I had my first experience with the Mother of Grace Fiesta - a four day event featuring music, dancing, a Mass, a bake sale, Italian sopranos (no, not that kind of Soprano), and lines of flags fluttering over the street which is blocked off so the ladies can dance in it. Partying with Mary is serious business. Orange saw horses are set up and are guarded by Gloucester police many being the sons and grandsons of the dancing ladies, traffic is totally tied up, and people crowd the sidewalk to watch. The ladies have a great time and Mary seems to as well.

In 1997 photographer Dana Salvo had an exhibit at the Cape Ann Historical Museum of his photos chronicling the Mother of Grace Fiesta. It was a wonderful tribute and I finally understood what the Mother of Grace Club was about. It is about the invincible faith of these women in Mary, the Mother of God - the Mother of Grace.


In a lot of New Age circles there is much talk about goddess worship. I have always found it fascinating. When I was in art school I became aware of how the female form absolutely dominated aesthetics. I took five terms of Life Drawing and in all that time I could count the male models we had on my fingers. Everyone wanted to draw females. For awhile I thought it was blatant sexism but, over time I realized that it is much more than that. There seems to be in human sensibility the inherent awareness of the beauty and the mystique of the feminine.

A few years back Bust Magazine did an issue on Goddesses. I am a big fan of Bust and love the energy and enthusiasm its editors have for “girlness”. In this issue there were articles about everyone from Jackie O to country-singer Wanda Jackson. And there was one about the BVM written by a former Baptist-turned-Catholic girl who loved Mary and considered her an icon of self-determination. When the archangel Gabriel asked if she would bear God’s child, Mary said “yes” and look what happened!

Faith is a beautiful thing. Only in the last few years have I understood what a gift it really is. It is a gift - you either have it or you don’t. People without Faith have told me I am brainwashed, deluded, stupid - the list is endless. But those of us with Faith know it is real and it is a gift. My admiration for the ladies who keep the tradition of the Mother of Grace Fiesta alive grows with each year. I watch them sitting before the statue of Mary saying their rosaries and, after each Mystery, they cry “Viva Maria” - Hooray for Mary. She is our goddess, she is the divine feminine, she is eternal and beautiful and loves us through all our faults and failings.

Maybe I need to get out my rosary and join them. Viva Maria.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Publishing in Today’s World, Part 1

Mary Ellen and I were at the pool last night. Both of us are writers - she of academic texts, and both of us are publishers - she owns Atlantic Path Publishing. We both do water aerobics and swim as well. We met in the pool and, despite having done business together on land, get a lot of work done in the pool, too.

We were talking about publishing, micro-publishing, and credibility.

The publishing world today is incomprehensible to me. Most of the big New York houses, it is rumored, are really owned by one huge conglomeration out of Germany which has low regard for the reading tastes of the American public. If you look at the quality of many of the book being promoted by the BNYP (Big New York Publishers) it isn’t hard to believe that rumor. I can’t tell you how many books I have purchased in the last few years that were highly publicized and found them virtually unreadable.

It happened yesterday - I received a recent order from Amazon, a novel that had glowing, five star reviews including a cover blurb from one of my favorite authors calling it “riveting”. I’d had a busy day and was looking forward to an hour on the beach lost in this book. Twenty-five pages into it I realized I was forcing myself to read. The prose was insipid and trite, the characters were totally wooden as though plucked from The Writer’s Guide to Pre-Designed Characters (if there is such a thing which I suspect there is), and the plot - well, I kept waiting to see evidence that there was one. I gave up, went to the pool and complained to Melissa about it. A lot.

Melissa worked in a couple BNYPs before moving here and starting her own micro-press. She is a member of several professional organizations for small, independent presses and is very committed to advancing the credibility of small presses. I admire her research and comprehensive knowledge of the subject. Here in Gloucester alone we know of at least six micro-presses which publish everything from academic supplements (Melissa’s) to fiction, non-fiction, poetry and anthologies. She agrees that the BNYPs are hard to comprehend these days. They publish a tiny fraction of the work submitted to them, publicize a small fraction of that, and claim that they only make money on 40% of the work they do publish.

Thanks to the era of print-on-demand technology and affordable desktop publishing, many writers have started their own presses. Marketing and distribution is handled over the internet and, while they rarely sell as many books as the BNYPs do, their profit margin per unit is higher, and they can keep their books in print as long as they have the energy and the interest to do that. The issue is quality.

There have always been vanity presses, publishers whose only standard is that you can pay them to print your book. Today companies like ExLibris and iUniverse have taken the vanity press a step further by allowing potential authors to purchase higher end book design and some marketing and distribution tools the old vanity presses never had. The problem is quality. There is no more editorial control on these books than there was on the vanity presses. The books get cranked out with no regard for content. However, after my experience reading yesterday, I wonder if it is any different in the BNYPs anymore.

Ever since getting the idea for Parlez-Moi Press I have been toying with these ideas - to publish or not to publish? Lila’s book has done well. Am I brave enough to risk doing one of my own? In recent years independent film-making has gained respect and followers. Perhaps it is time for independent publishing to follow their lead. Getting a book into published form doesn’t mean much anymore - whether done through a BNYP or an online POD. It’s no guarantee of quality. But the time seems right for small presses, committed to high literary value and opposed to manufactured “literature”, to gain a following.

Us bibliophiles can only hope....

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Zen of Blogging

Having blogged now for a little over a month, I have been thinking a lot about what the purpose of this curious endeavor is. When I got interested in blogging I started reading other blogs and was amazed to see that there are people who have been blogging with great regularity for years now. Many blogs are topical - politics or sports or reports on a particular lifestyle (working at and AIDs clinic in Zimbabwe or running a knitwear design business in Paris - the spectrum is mind-boggling). Since Hurricane Katrina I have been fascinated and humbled by a couple of blogs from people still able to live in the area of devastation and keep the world informed of what is going on.

A few years back everyone I knew seemed to be involved in “live journalling”. I tried it for awhile but it was too much like a public 12=Step meeting for me. I’ve been in a few chat rooms and find them basically time consuming. Message boards have been a big part of my life but, if they lack competent monitoring, they can often descend to the level of the basest participants. The internet is a powerful tool and it depresses me to see people using it to air petty grievances about imagined slights.

When I first thought about blogging I got a lot of advice from people in online groups about how to proceed. Blog with regularity, be persistent, blog about what interests you. It is easy to get caught up in the “numbers”. My web host provides good, thorough, and ingenious statistics on who visits my web pages, how long they spend reading them, where they come from, etc. etc. I have been impressed by the increase in visitors to my site the blog has attracted - my page views have more than doubled and sometimes tripled. I am always astonished to read how many visitors I get from other countries. What do I have to say that someone in Argentina wants to read? But they keep coming back...

But the real gift of blogging, I am discovering, is what it does for me. I find now, as I go through my days, that I spend time thinking about what to blog about next and that is very good. Buddhists talk about “mindfulness” - being fully present in the moment and constantly mindful of what you are doing. This is a notion many Americans would prefer to avoid to think about as much as possible. But as I continue to blog I find myself thinking about what I am doing in the course of my day and what, if any, relevance it has to me and, therefore, to the world. It is a good discipline.

It’s too easy to live your life on auto-pilot. We all know what our routine consists of and much of it does not require much thought. But even activities that do not require thought can benefit from attention - mindfulness. Someone once described “love” as “quality of attention” and that has always impressed me. Because when we truly love someone or something it becomes endlessly fascinating. We give it or them a quality of attention that is special and mindful and respectful.

Knowing that I need to blog every day has caused me to look more closely at the activities and thoughts and relationships that fill my days. It is beautiful and satisfying.

This blog has given me gifts - including new friendships, increased business opportunities, and a creative outlet. But more than anything it has helped increase my mindfulness as I go about my life. It has helped me think about how I spend my time, is it productive, and would anyone else want to hear about it.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Like a Warm Hug

Warning: Today’s post is about knitting. For me knitting is my form of meditation - we all have to have some quiet, centering activity - prayer, meditation, zoning out in front of the tube. I knit.

For years I knit useful things like mittens, sweaters, and socks but in recent years I’ve fallen in love with shawls and most of my knitting projects now are shawls or scarves. They have the blessed advantage of not having to be made a particular size so I can just work on them and not concern myself with who the eventual recipient will be and what size they are as I work.

A couple years ago I made a beautiful soft blue shawl out of a 50% cashmere / 50% silk yarn that was so beautiful I thought I would never be able to part with it but when it was finished it just looked like my sister Beth. I knew immediately it was Beth’s shawl. I sent it to her and, when she wrote back to thank me, she said “wearing it is like a warm hug”. I thought that was very beautiful.

I finally finished my Ostrich Plume Shawl over the weekend. It is one of the most ambitious shawls I’ve ever made based on the Snowdrops Lace Shawl in a very old issue of Knitter’s Magazine I still have. It is knit in a deliciously soft 80% wool / 20% angora eggshell-colored yarn I bought on eBay a few years ago. The center panel is a long rectangle in the ostrich plume stitch. I then picked up the stitches around the perimeter and knit outward in a combination of Little Leaf and Snowdrop stitches, mitering the corners as I worked. I finished it by knitting off the edge in Tunisian stitch - a wonderful garter stitch lace I copied off of an internet knitting site.

Ostrich Plume Shawl with closeups of mitered corner and edge stitch.


I have not yet blocked it so am unsure of the finished size but it will be big - approximately 30" x 75" - a warm, generous shawl but very, very light. I do not know who will eventually own it yet.

Shawl-making is a scrumptiously wonderful combination of finding a luscious yarn in a wonderful color and then deciding on the shape and pattern that would best compliment that yarn. I have several shawls in process right now and am always thrilled when one gets finished.

When I discovered lace knitting - and then shawl-making - I went on a fiber-buying binge which has slowed down but not stopped over time. I recently did a stash inventory of my lace yarns and I have enough knitting ahead of me for a long time. There is a 50/50 cashmere/silk in a lovely color called “pollen” which is started in the popular Arabesque pattern. A meltingly soft 100% Pima cotton in Bubblegum pink is halfway to being a long rectangular shawl in a falling leaf pattern. When I discovered Knit Picks I went wild and now have enough yarn for four shawls from their fibers.

Their yarn Shimmer, a luscious silk/alpaca blend, is on the needles now and I have bags of their Sky blue Pima cotton blend and Ocean blue-green Suri alpaca awaiting inspiration. I bought 6 skeins of their luscious Morning Mist alpaca not knowing what I would do with it but now know it is destined for a Forest Path Stole which I recently got the instructions for.

I’m discovering that knitting is a lot like writing. Characters show up and tell you who they are despite what you think. Fibers show up and tell you what you are going to make from them - and then who they will go to. Some years back I bought four half-pound skeins of beautiful 100% silk noil from a company called Blue Heron. Recently I saw a shawl called Lady Eleanor and that silk popped immediately into my mind. Funny how that works.

I expect eventually they will let me know who they belong to but I can wait.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Tall Ships

One of the joys of life in Gloucester is the Annual Schooner Festival that has been taking place on Labor Day weekend for 21 years now. This year the festival was blessed by three of the most glorious days you could ask for - brilliant skies, glittering water, lovely breezes and air that was delightfully warm in the sun but had a slight nip to it.


Ships during the schooner race with The Bishop's Palace in the background.
Photo by Dun Fudgin, see more at Photography Forum.


What is it about tall ships? I have lived within walking distance of the ocean for close to twenty years now and my heart still skips a beat when I look up and see sails on the horizon. Some years back when I still lived in Marblehead we were on a boat out just past Nahant watching tall ships arrive for a festival in Boston when we spotted the Alexander von Humboldt with its misty green sails arrive over the horizon. It looked like a ghost ship and I think that is part of the mystique.

In this time of speed, efficiency, faster-faster-faster those magnificent ships are a reminder of a time when grandeur was more important than efficiency and life moved at a pace to be savored, not to be rushed.

I have gradually grown accustomed to the schooners that come and go from the harbor. The Thomas E. Lannon, the Ernestina, the Fame, and the Lettie G. Howard are beautiful sights to see as they drift around the breakwater. But the big, square-rigged ships - I don’t think you ever get used to seeing them. This year the Gazela was here and every time I turned my car down Duncan Street and saw the tall masts towering over the buildings lining the harbor I thought of Fitz Hugh Lane and imagined him hurrying down there with his paints.

A lot of ships have come and gone from this harbor - the Rose makes periodic visits and when I see her winging her way through the outer harbor like a great, gentle angel it is easy to just drop everything that seems so important and just watch what water and air can be used for. Some years back the Mayflower II was refurbished out at the Railways and attracted a lot of attention and Salem’s Friendship is a periodic visitor.

Last summer when the Picton Castle was here, selling exotic goods from far away places, Mark and I met two of the senior crew members in Halibut Point one night and got the chance to talk to them about life aboard a tall ship. Mark, having a captained lobster boats for nearly twenty years, tends to be less awed by the great beauties but the guys from the Picton Castle still had tales to tell that left us both slightly envious.

What would it be like to run away and go to sea? In my book and some stories my characters have been known to do that - Baptiste in The Old Mermaid’s Tale, Johnny in My Last Romance and Stash in The Haven all spent years as rootless mariners living their lives at sea. Did I once dream of that when I was a girl? I don’t remember.

Summer is almost over. It was a summer that got off to a slow start but more than made up for it in the beauty of the months that followed. I am blessed - by Gloucester, by writing, by glorious days and sweetly dreamy nights. Basically it is all about savoring. That is a gift we give ourselves if we are smart. Life keeps happening but giving yourself the luxury of stepping back, breathing deep, and just savoring - the air, the light, the moment a tall mast glides up over the horizon. Tall ships remind us of that. They are not practical or efficient or even particularly useful but, oh, they are a delicious treat to be savored.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 02, 2005

“Hate-Fans”

I belong to a number of on-line forums for writers and artists. People committed to an endeavor, whatever it might be, can often benefit from the companionship of like-minded souls. Only those in pursuit of the same dreams can really understand the challenges and frustrations of the pursuit.

Over time there has been a lot of discussion of “hate-fans” - people who, for whatever reason, have decided to hate you and are as devoted in the pursuit of that hatred as the fans who love you. The sad thing is a really committed hate fan can often do a lot of damage - most especially to your self-confidence.

A writer in one of the groups published a simply lovely book last year. Despite the thousands who purchased the book and loved it, there was one guy who decided to hate her and was so committed in proving his hatred that now, every time something goes awry in the promotion of her latest books, her suspicions turn immediately to him. It is sad, but it is not uncommon. One committed hate-fan can undermine a lot of good work.

I don’t know why some of us are more inclined toward certain accomplishments than others are. But those of us who devote our energies to our dreams know the what-are-you-trying-to-prove contempt of the bitter ones who view a way of life other than their own as a criticism of their choices. Maybe it is the old Crabs-in-the-Barrel Syndrome. Don’t you dare try to climb out or we’ll pull you right back down here with us.

Mark only started writing a couple years ago but things are going well. He has published poetry, sold a short story to an anthology, is getting excellent feedback on his first book F/V Black Sheep, and is hard at work on his second, Code Flag Alpha. He told me that there is a recent rumor that he is gay. Apparently he has garnered a hate-fan or two who have decided any Gloucester fisherman who writes - let alone writes poetry - must be gay. Fortunately he has a sense of humor about it.

I had a former boyfriend who always asked “why are you always trying to prove yourself with all this stuff?” What do you say to that?

A little over a year ago I garnered a couple hate-fans who have been very busy little bees. The stories come back to me mostly through on-line sources. They have been spreading the rumor that I am “telling lies” about them. She is apparently married and he is single and they claim I am telling people that they are having an affair. Now, bear in mind, I don’t know these people. I met him once, briefly, years ago. I wasn’t impressed. I wouldn’t know her if I tripped over her. But they insist that I am maliciously telling lies about their alleged affair.

What makes this funny to me is that my gossiping about them is supposed to have begun at a cocktail party last Fall*. The truth is, I went to quite a few cocktail parties last Fall - it was an exciting time in my life. I had just published Lila’s book of poetry Split-Image Focus, had my short story Asa published in an anthology, and had received a rather wonderful commission for some design work by a prestigious organization in Boston. It was a heady time and there were plenty of social events that went with it. Why, in the midst of all that attention, would I decide to gossip about two people I don’t know? Is it just a sad plea for attention from those who are not getting it by attaching themselves, however negatively, to some one who is?

I guess, in a way, all these hate-fans are mini-versions of loonies like Valerie Solanis and John Hinkley who garnered notoriety that way. Pitiful but very, very real. I tell Mark, “when they stop taking shots at you, you know you are slipping.” People are fragile and needful of attention. It will always be that way. You can’t let it hamper your dreams. Just keep lighting those candles and pray that the light will be contagious.

Thanks for reading.

* The actual story that they are spreading is that I started this rumor when I was "drunk" at a party. Bearing in mind that I am well over 50 and haven't had more than two drinks at a time without being in immediate danger of falling asleep so far this millennium, this is just more of the endless slander -- in addition to the endless bid for attention.

Subsequent Posts for Reference:
• Evil Happens
• Malicious Intent: Evil Happens II

I am closing this post to Comments as I have no desire to add fuel to anyone's fire. My comments are offered as public information only. If anyone wants to give me their opinions/observations on this they are cordially invited to email their comments to: inquiry@parlezmoipress.com. Thanks for understanding.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

Mysticism/Eroticism


The other day, watching the videos of water rising in New Orleans, I took my copy of A Recent Martyr by Valerie Martin off the bookshelf and re-read it. It is set in a New Orleans of an unspecified time, beset with oil and gas shortages and a mysterious plague. Chilling to read at this time. But the book is extraordinary for its brilliant portrayal of obsession - mystical and erotic.

At the center of the book are two women. Emma is erotically obsessed with Pascal. Claire who is mystically obsessed with God - specifically the hand of Christ crucified. Martin is a brilliant writer. She has an unnerving habit of making observations about her characters that hit terrifyingly close to home. As I was reading I thought, strange as it seems, I understood Claire’s obsession more clearly than I did Emma’s and that surprised me. Sexual obsession requires a commitment to another human being and a willingness to overlook their flaws and failings. Or to embrace them as part of the obsession. But obsession with the Divine, that tantalizes me.

Claire in many ways reminds me of Marietta of Marietta in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen. Both are young, beautiful girls of French extraction who are besotted by their desire for union with Christ. The first time I read Marietta in Ecstasy I found the ending of the book so shocking it haunted me for weeks.

Eventually I was fortunate to have an email correspondence with Mr. Hansen and I asked him about the ending of the book. He told me the story of how he came to that ending and it came directly from a comment made by a priest of his acquaintance. I must say it thrilled me.

So I have been thinking about this strange parallel of mysticism and eroticism. There is plenty of precedent for it. Throughout history mystics have written of their experiences with such passion and such sensuous language that the eroticism inherent in the experience is hard to ignore. The most stunning example is Bernini’s statue of St. Theresa in Ecstasy - if that’s not a woman having an orgasm I don’t know what is (not surprisingly a closeup of the statue's face is used for the cover of the paperback edition of Mariette in Ecstasy).

One time a boyfriend of mine told me that Catholic school girls made the best lovers because they knew how to surrender. That shocked me too. But at the same time I knew it was true. When you have been trained to sublimate your will to God and surrender your personal desires to the desires of the Divine there is a freedom in that. A freedom not understood by those who have no experience with it. It is a freedom from your own ego and willfulness and sometimes there is great relief in that.

I am a persistent person. It is part of my nature. I have been known to stay in relationships, jobs, friendships, living situations, and personal projects much longer than I should have. So I am frequently faced with the problem of when does persistence become obsession and when does obsession become stupidity. Learning to let go is good - whether it is letting go of the ego or letting go of self-will. Discernment is necessary - but sometimes elusive.

But I am fascinated by the eroticism that seems inherent in mysticism. And vice versa. Perhaps it is born of the intensity, the passion, and the ability to release the self that both require. I often find writing to be both mystical and erotic - when I can really let go of my plans for the writing and let the writing shape itself and, ultimately, me with it. Surrendering the ego is hard but it is beautiful. I have a lot to learn about this path but at least I know that the path is there.

Thanks for reading.

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