therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the month “April, 2014”

My Writing Process Blog Tour

DSC00865I’ve been tagged in the My Writing Process Blog Tour by Kim Brown, editor of the wonderful Minerva Rising literary journal. Check out what Kim’s been up to at http://www.the-confident-writer.net.

This blog is a relay that involves answering four specific questions and then naming the authors who will follow. So here we go:

What am I working on??

I am working on the first draft of my second memoir. (My first, Her Beautiful Brain, will be published this September by She Writes Press.) The working title for this book is The Observant Doubter. It’s about my own checkered history of faith and doubt.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Memoir is a slippery, shape-shifting sort of a genre, so this is a difficult question to answer. For me, memoir is not autobiography but more like extended essay writing, a way to explore what have become (like it or not) the enduring themes of my life. And I do mean “explore.” What I love about writing memoir are the new insights that come as you write about events in your life that you might have thought you already understood in every possible way. The memoir writers I admire include Anne Lamott, Elizabeth McCracken and Michael Klein. What I love about their work is that it asks questions. It meanders. It doesn’t follow a straight chronological line.

Why do I write what I do?

My first book was driven by a need to honor my mother’s life and to articulate the uniquely cruel fate that is Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that is still widely misunderstood and feared even though it is poised to become the public health nightmare of the aging Boomers. My second book is driven by a desire to give voice to those of us who are neither devout, rock-solid believers or atheists. I believe there are a lot of us. I believe we are no less serious about our search for meaning than those at the outer ends of the religious spectrum. I also believe there are many of us who, like me, have had periods of more fervent faith and still feel a lot of confusion about it.

Both Her Beautiful Brain and The Observant Doubter weave personal and universal themes, which I love to do as a writer. I get a lot of practice every week writing The Restless Nest radio commentary and blog.

How does your writing process work?

I get up early not to write, but to read for an hour and to scribble a few pages in my journal. This sets me up for the day, which could mean sitting right down to write but more often means doing my day job (making short films for nonprofits) and slipping in an hour or two of writing when I can. I am lucky that I can do this. I work from home. I save tons of time by not having to commute. Every day is different, and I like the variety. If I have a long shooting day or a pressing deadline, that won’t be a writing day. I try to set aside longer chunks of time on the weekend. But I’m a restless person, so a long chunk for me would be three or four hours.

Sometimes, the words flow, but more often, writing feels like hard work, like I’m building sentences, one word at a time, with primitive, handmade tools. I have to pep-talk myself constantly, with inane phrases like, “a page a day can become a book in a year!” or: “finish this paragraph and you can go make coffee. And have one of those Trader Joe’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups.”

Here’s who’s up next on the My Writing Process Blog Tour:

Allison Green is the author of a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in publications such as ZYZZYVA, Calyx, Bellingham Review, Willow Springs, Raven Chronicles, and Yes! Magazine. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle.

Allison blogs at http://allisongreen.org

Isla McKetta is the author of Polska, 1994 due out from Editions Checkpointed May 22, 2014 and co-author of Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Transforming Artifacts into Art. She writes book reviews for writers at A Geography of Reading and serves on the board of Hugo House.

Isla blogs at http://islamcketta.com

In May, I’ll be posting an interview with Isla about her new novel on The Restless Nest.

Seattle readers: On Thursday, May 1 at 7pm at Ravenna/3rd Place Books, I will be reading with fellow authors from the new anthology,  Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s. 

 

Radio/podcast lovers: This week on KBCS I rebroadcast a piece called Trilliums from April 2012.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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Grapefruit. Kristofferson.

images If you met me on the street, you might never guess that I once popped a contact lens right into Kris Kristofferson’s breakfast. And you might not guess how graciously he responded.

Our conversation went something like this:

Me: “I’m sorry! That is my contact lens on your grapefruit! Would you like me to bring you another one?” My finger, a few steps ahead of my brain, had already darted downward as I spoke, plucking the lens from where it had landed, right in the center of the sunny pink half.

Kris: “Oh no, that’s fine. I don’t mind.” Smile. Eye-twinkle.Unknown

It was 1976, the year he starred with Barbra Streisand in the rock-glamorous remake of A Star is Born. I was working for the summer in the restaurant of a downtown Seattle hotel. Kris was in Seattle for a concert with his then-wife, Rita Coolidge. That summer I served breakfast to Linda Ronstadt, the Doobie Brothers and Kris and Rita. My uniform was a blue polyester pantsuit.

I did not see A Star is Born that year, probably because it came to Seattle after I left in the fall to spend my junior year in England. But I knew a gorgeous actor/songwriter/singer when I saw one, even one who chose to sit alone in the back of a casual hotel restaurant, rather than order his grapefruit and cereal from room service.

Scenes from our lives, whether we’ve told them a hundred times or never at all, have a way of burbling up when you least expect them. I have repeated the contact lens story many times. I now have to explain to younger people that back then, we wore hard plastic lenses, which frequently popped right out if your eyes were dry, which mine often were after getting up at 4 a.m. for the breakfast shift. And not only did the old hard lenses tend to pop out, they were expensive. I cried the first time I lost one and couldn’t find it, because it would cost 70 dollars to replace.

What’s interesting to me now, as a memoir writer, is that I have never written the tale of Kris and the contact lens. I used a version of it once, long ago, in a short story I never finished after my writing group gave it a big thumbs down. I remember one woman called it “popcorn: tasty, but not satisfying.” I knew what she meant, but not what to do about it.

I think what was missing, in that short story, was the character that was me. On the outside, I was a friendly, 19-year-old breakfast waitress who needed to earn money for college. On the inside, I felt fat, plain, shy and more convinced every day that I might never ever be attractive to any man.

But wait: something important had either just happened, or was about to happen. That very summer, I had my very first boyfriend, who also worked at that very hotel. It was such a big deal. Being told you’re beautiful, by a boy? A VERY big deal for a girl who’s never heard it.

So here’s the question: did the grapefruit encounter with Kris happen before or after I began this belated blossoming? Was I the awkward girl still packing the freshman 20 or was I the young woman who had just been told for the first time that she was beautiful?

Memory is like that. It gives us juicy morsels, but not always the recipe.

Last week, I finally watched A Star is Born for the first time. The film is very mid-70s—plunging necklines, coke spoons and all—but it holds up. Streisand’s voice knocked my socks off. Kristofferson plays a great gorgeous, alcoholic train wreck.

MI0000096020 And his smile took me right back to the grapefruit incident.

Here’s what I remember that might offer a clue to who I was at the time: I was able to smile back. To laugh a little. To do something other than flush bright red and want to die. It wasn’t the most mortifying moment of my life. It was delightful. Kris treated me like a normal person. And I responded like one.

And at the time? That was a whole new way of being.

 

I’ll be reading with other authors from Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s at Ravenna 3rd Place Books in Seattle on Thursday, May 1st at 7pm.

Libraries Change Lives

UnknownSnapshot: me, sitting cross-legged on a hardwood floor. Surrounded by shelves of books. One open in my hand. I’m so absorbed in it I forget who I am, where I am, what time it is. When the bell rings, I close the book and jump up, limp-hopping because my leg’s dead-wood asleep. I’ve got to get to the checkout desk, fast, so I can take this precious book with me as I racewalk to my next class.

It’s 1969. I am 12 years old. The corner of the Nathan Eckstein Junior High School library where I hang out is the corner where the biographies and autobiographies are shelved. And the memoirs, although I don’t remember knowing or using that word then.

The biography section runs on low shelves along the short, east wall to the corner of the long, curved north wall, with its sweeping bank of glass-block windows that work hard all day to capture, refract, diffuse whatever north Seattle light they can find. If you planned to spend some time there, as I usually did, sitting cross-legged on the floor with your skirt fanned from knee to knee was more modest and more comfortable than squatting. Sitting on the floor also dropped me right out of sight behind the interior forest of taller bookcases. For as long as I sat there, I was alone. I was free. No older girls, no cool girls. No cute boys, no scary boys. Just me and real stories of real people, most of whom lived long before junior high school existed. Before glasses, braces and a bad case of adolescent shyness could turn this place called Eckstein into a fortress full of hidden dangers that had to be navigated every single day.

My library corner was my refuge.

Many of the biographies I found and read in that corner have faded from memory. There were the nurses—Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale—and the writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte. There was Juliette Gordon Low, founder the Girl Scouts. Marie Curie. Helen Keller. Anne Frank. It wasn’t that I wasn’t curious about men. It’s just that during those junior high years, I needed stories of strong women the way lungs need oxygen.

One day, I pulled a memoir off the shelf called All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein. Her story begins on September 3, 1939, a date she remembers with far more clarity than I can recall my Eckstein library corner. It was the day the Nazis invaded her Polish town. She remembers her brother, stepping outside to let the cat in. When he closed the door, he had a bullet hole in his trousers.

When I got home after school, I sat down on the floor of my bedroom and kept reading Gerda’s story: page after page of forced marches, cattle cars, work camps, death camps, and, against all odds, survival. This was not Anne Frank’s diary of hiding from the horror. This was the horror. Gerda Weissmann Klein taught me real history, stripped of all euphemism. She taught me the power of one person’s story. And she put the traumas of my little life—the glasses, the braces, the mean girls, my parents’ divorce—in perspective. Real history, stripped of euphemism, will do that.

This week is the American Library Association’s annual national library week, and this year’s theme is “Lives change @ your library.” My life changed every time I sat down in that secret, sunny corner. What about yours?

 

 

 

Details

DSC00865I haven’t even started telling this story and I’ve already cheated. It’s supposed to be about recall, details, seeing what’s there and what’s not there. My intent was to write it all from memory and make that part of the story. But its focus is one work of art, which I knew I could find online, and when I sat down to write, temptation surged straight to my fingertips. In five minutes, I found myself staring at a reproduction of the painting on my screen.

Good? Yes: because now I’m going to read more about the artist and the picture and learn things I didn’t know. Bad? Yes, bad, too, because I just blew a great opportunity to give my brain a workout by recalling all the details I could before I went to the Internet for help.

This all started a month or so ago, on a stormy day in Chicago. It was an all-weather kind of a day, a late-winter specialty of the Midwest: snow, sleet, rain, a few minutes of sun, temperatures careening down then up then down again. The perfect day to spend wandering the great maze that is the Art Institute of Chicago.

I lived in Chicago for two years after college, so the Art Institute is like an old friend. But there are many rooms I haven’t been back to in a long, long time. English painting of the 19th century, for example.

“Oh hello, Turner,” I said to myself as I walked into the gallery. There in front of me was a roiling seascape by the English master of landscape, J.M.W. Turner: billowing clouds over three quarters of the canvas, waves like foaming mountains, ships tossing about like bundles of matchsticks. Turner’s paintings were never what you’d call placid, which is why I liked them when I was young: they resembled the landscapes of my mind.

A guard appeared next to me. “Let me be your audio guide,” she said.

I thought I didn’t hear her right. “Oh no, I don’t have one, I already turned it in,” I said.

“No, no. I’m your audio guide.” She pointed to herself, her gray dreadlocks bobbing. “Just look at the painting and you’ll understand.”

I nodded, still confused, and turned my eyes back to Turner as she cupped her hands around her mouth and proceeded to blow, loudly, like the wind at sea.

I laughed. “That’s great! Thank you!”

She smiled. “Now. Close your eyes.” I obeyed.

“Tell me: how many boats are there in the painting?”

“Um… four?”

“Nope. 21. Open your eyes and I’ll show you.”

I watched, amazed, as she pointed and counted. In the foreground, there was one big sailing ship and a handful of smaller ones. But tucked into the background and around the edges were tiny boats flailing in the swells, looking barely able to hold on. Turner’s subject was not the beauty of a stormy sky and sea, but a whole world of dramatic danger: the crowded waters of the commercial fishing industry of his day.

The painting, dated 1837-8, is titled “Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish.”

THAT gave me a start. I thought the title might be something more like, “Fishing Boats Going Down in Deadly Storm.” But if you look closely, you can see two boats in the foreground, doing some kind of business in the midst of the maelstrom.

If you look closely: Hard to do, if your goal is to see as many works of art as you can in one afternoon. I was lucky. I got stopped by a guard who knew how to make me see a painting: by listening to the wind and then closing my eyes. What a gift. I think Turner would have been pleased.

The Restless Nest is on the radio every Tuesday morning at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS.fm; 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

 

 

Blue Dress, Red Dress

71453_476296855826703_1576117917_nI’m thinking again about Anita Hill’s blue dress. I wrote about it, and her, and Freida Mock’s engrossing documentary film, titled simply Anita, last year when the film played at the Seattle International Film Festival. Now, Anita is in theaters, including Seattle’s Sundance Cinema. Go see it. Time-travel back to October 1991, when we weren’t yet accustomed to having a man accused of sexual harassment on the Supreme Court.

But back to the dress. No matter how hard we all try to be less attached to the things of our lives, objects do have power. Anita Hill knew what her pale blue dress said, and so did we: Professional. Tasteful. Modest.

When I remember my mother, I often picture her in a dress that couldn’t be more different than the one Hill wore to that infamous Senate hearing. My mom’s dress was Tabasco-red. It was fitted with a flared skirt. Spaghetti-strapped. A print of tiny white racehorses galloped across it. That dress was shorthand for who she was then: a youthful, single, 49-year-old woman with a great eye for the right outfit, one that pushed the edge of daring without going over it.

A red dress says: Here I am.

The star of Peter Brook’s stage adaptation of a South African story called The Suit, Nonhlanhla Kheswa, was resplendent in a red dress that was a ringer for my mother’s, only without the racehorses. When she stepped to the front of the stage and sang Miriam Makeba’s haunting Malaika,” it was as if the red dress was powering her voice. Writer Can Themba’s premise in The Suit is all about the symbolic power of clothing: A husband punishes his adulterous wife by propping her lover’s left-behind suit in a chair at the table at every meal, whether guests are present or not. But Kheswa wears her red dress not in the manner of a sultry sinner, not in the manner of a scarlet A, but as a red badge of courage. As her way of saying: my husband wants to shame me, but I won’t sit quietly in the corner. He will never forgive me, but I will forgive myself. Not only will I sing, I will sing in a red dress. I am Malaika. I am an angel in red.

Testifying before a Senate committee, Anita Hill drew from a similar core of courage, but in a different, though no less powerful, dress.

I wonder if my mom’s red dress was her badge of courage. Her way of saying: I may have lost three husbands—two to divorce and one to death—but this is who I still am: a woman radiant and confident enough to wear a red dress.

Read the Restless Critic’s review of Anita. Read Seattle Times critic Misha Berson’s review of The Suit. Go see them both, if you can. The Suit ends Sunday but is opening soon in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Nashville. 

 

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