therestlessnest

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

Archive for the month “May, 2014”

Bookstore Love

logoRestless Brain Syndrome strikes again. Early this morning, my mind was like a pinball machine that had me reaching for a Post-it and scribbling inscrutable phrases in half-asleep handwriting: follow up on A, send an email about B, and for God’s sake, don’t forget about Z.

But the thought that made me sit straight up was this: Ann! Why haven’t you Her_Beautiful_Braintold everyone you know to save The Date? That date would be September 7, 2014 at 3pm: the book launch for my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, at the Elliott Bay Book Company.

To you, Seattle may be the fastest-growing city in the United States, an epicenter of technology, global health, outdoor sports and online shopping. To me, Seattle is the big small town I grew up in. The town that taught me to love books. And bookstores.

As a very young child, the library was my first temple of book love. Then, just about the time I was allowed to go without a grownup to the University Village Shopping Center, a bookstore about as big as my bedroom opened across the breezeway from Lamont’s Department Store. It was called Kay’s Bookmark. Rarely could I afford to buy an actual book, but Kay didn’t seem to mind. Maybe she understood that kid-browsers like me—the ones who were more comfortable in her store than they were in Lamont’s—might be her future customers.

A handful of years later, about the time I was in the teen-angst-reducing habit of taking long bike or bus rides to more interesting parts of the city, another bookstore opened called the Elliott Bay Book Company. It was in the picturesque, new-old Pioneer Square district. Like Kay’s, Elliott Bay welcomed browsers of all ages. Unlike Kay’s, you could get a little bit lost in it, in the very best way.

I went off to college. I was away from Seattle for eight years. I visited many legendary bookstores: the Coop, the Strand, Foyles, Shakespeare & Company. But when I had my homesick wallows, it was Elliott Bay for which my Northwestern heart pined. How I missed the creaking wooden floors, the log cabin stairs, the café in the basement. Novels in one room; hiking books in another.

Kay’s was finally laid to rest by Barnes & Noble, which of course is now also gone from the U Village. But Elliott Bay hung on through some very tough years. Seattle’s book-lovers were shocked when it moved to Capitol Hill in 2010, but wasn’t that better, we all told ourselves, than if it had closed altogether? And didn’t we all start going more often than we had in the dark days of the recession, when Pioneer Square was kind of lonely and scary?

Now, we live in a city where the online juggernaut, Amazon, is headquartered a stone’s throw downhill from our standard-bearer of surviving bookstores. Where Pioneer Square is slowly coming back, despite the endless Viaduct teardown. Where our “fastest-growing” status is fueled by the unbeatable combo of good jobs AND a city people really want to live in. And what makes rainy Seattle so livable? Places like the Elliott Bay Book Company.

I’ve always referred to it as the Elliott Bay bookstore, but Company is its real name, so I’m trying it on here. Now that I’ll be both a longtime loyal customer AND an Elliott Bay Book Company author. Really? Me? Did I ever dream—Yes. Yes, I did. And that’s what makes this so exciting that I am compelled to announce it three months in advance.

You can already pre-order a copy of Her Beautiful Brain from Elliott Bay. Right on their website. Tell them you’ll pick it up on September 7th. That’s the weekend after Labor Day weekend. I’d love to see you there. 3pm.

You can also like my new author page on Facebook.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

 

 

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Polska, 1994

Polska 1994Restless Nest readers, today we are toasting my friend and Goddard MFA classmate Isla McKetta, whose novel, Polska, 1994, has just been published by Editions Checkpointed, the French publisher known for the literature of conflict. Wow. I asked Isla a few questions about how it happened and here’s what she had to say:

1. You balanced writing a novel/earning an MFA with a full-time job. How? And why? What drove you?

When I first decided to apply for MFA programs—when I committed to the idea of myself as a writer—I hadn’t worked in almost two years. I’d left my job to take care of my mom through a couple of surgeries, and that journey home forced me to face some childhood trauma from her initial battle with cancer. The whole thing left me in a state of depression that eventually became a spur to examine what I wanted in life. I realized that what made me feel happiest and most fulfilled is when I am creating art, and words are my go-to medium.

I started applying to graduate programs and jobs at the same time. I’m one Isla_McKettaof those people who’s doing everything all at once or nothing at all, and I think I’d built up a lot of energy during that down time so working while going to school felt like a good way to throw myself back into living. Plus, the more I wrote, the more the act of writing energized me.

You know how intense the MFA program can be, and by the time I reached the third semester requirement of teaching a class while doing all the regular coursework and trying to complete a draft of my thesis (all while working), I started fitting writing into time I didn’t even know I had. I could be found at lunch in the break room typing out a few pages or I’d be scribbling on the bus. I was so engaged in the book and wanted so badly to complete the program on time that the work just happened.

At the end of that semester I remembered a lot about teaching and a lot about work, and even though I barely remembered having written, I had a full draft of my manuscript. That act of fitting writing in wherever possible has served me well in the years since grad school. During the best weeks I write or edit for an hour before work, another after, and then three to four hours each on Saturday and Sunday.

I want to say that you make time for what’s important, but I have sacrificed a lot of time with friends and loved ones to work on my writing. What keeps calling me back is that the writing is the one thing in my life which cannot exist without me. Sometimes I do step away or take a break, but I come back because that act of creation is so essential to my sense of fulfillment.

2. What was it about THIS story (Polska, 1994) that compelled you tell it? It seems highly relevant now, what with Russia’s aggression in the Ukraine. 

As a high school exchange student in Poland in 1994-5, I fell in love with the country and the people. I also became deeply fascinated with the culture and the way the country was and was not changing in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise. Writing Polska, 1994 was an excuse to explore all kinds of questions about the country and the people. I also had a fascination with oppression that came from spending a year in Chile as a young child under Pinochet’s rule. Writing Polska, 1994 was also a chance to explore the personal aftermath of an authoritarian regime.

I’m watching carefully what happens in the Ukraine now both because of my deep affection for Poland but also because my grandfather’s family came from the Ukraine, specifically Galicia which has at times been Polish, Austro-Hungarian, and Ukrainian. Although my family emigrated before World War I, writing this book became a way to think about what my family’s life would have been like if they had stayed in Eastern Europe.

3. Your novel is elegantly crafted. Every word feels lovingly chosen. Talk about your process, about first draft vs second (or 3rd, 4th, 5th). What phase(s) do you most love?

That’s awfully nice of you to say. Thank you. The first drafts of Polska, 1994 were very much about getting words on the page and exploring where the story was going. I did spend some time perfecting sentences, but I’d be surprised if any of the early ones survived. I learned through writing this book how messy I had to get with the writing—sometimes just blarping information onto the page—before I could engage my perfectionist self.

Once I changed the point of view back and forth a few times and had the basic shape of the story, then it was time to really start editing. I printed out the manuscript and cut it into paragraph-sized chunks so I could physically pair like with like and eliminate the unnecessary. The book was around 20,000 words shorter when I was done with that exercise. The next step was to read the entire book out loud to get a sense of the rhythm and clean up the sentences.

Of course revising a novella is much easier than if I was working on something the size of War and Peace, but it was necessary for what I wanted the book to be and I’d like to think I would have done it even if the book was three times as long. I edited and rewrote this book until I was certain I had taken it as far as I could—I think it was seventeen full drafts in all—and then my editor helped me get through another three drafts before the book was done.

I have two favorite parts of the writing process. The first is in that cutting up part. I love physically breaking the tyranny of the page and finding the form that best communicates the story. It’s funny because I always think that I write much more abstract prose than I do, and this reordering and clarifying part is probably exactly the stage that tips my work toward concrete communication. I’m learning now, as I’m teaching myself to write poetry, that the comprehensibility of Polska, 1994 is a choice I made, and it’s the right choice for that book.

My second favorite stage is any day you come back to the work after not reading it for a while (sometimes you have to let your work breathe before you can edit it well). I will do anything to avoid reopening the work, because in that cooling off period I’ve developed an idea of how terrible it all is. But then I open the manuscript and find phrases that are so good and so unfamiliar I don’t feel like I wrote them. That moment is perhaps the most rewarding part of the whole process.

4. Meanwhile… you wrote and published a book of writing prompts. Tell us how/why that came about. 

After all that writing and rewriting, I was ready to try something lighter. My day job involves writing blogs and other copy for the internet in this easygoing voice that tells you how simple it is to change your life for the better. My coworker, Rebecca Bridge, noticed that Write Bloody Publishing had a contest for a book of writing prompts. She has an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and taught creative writing for years, and we thought it would be fun to take all the advice we’d received over the years and all the lessons we learned through our projects and write a book that could help and inspire other writers.

We wrote the book comparatively quickly and bouncing the text back and Clear Out the Static in Your Attic_coverforth was fun. The result is Clear Out the Static in Your Attic: A Writer’s Guide for Turning Artifacts into Art. Writing is really hard work, but it can be immensely enjoyable at the same time. This book, I hope, can help writers of all skill levels balance the two. It might just change your life.

 

 

Dementia-friendly World

Momandme1998 For a few years after she was diagnosed, my mother said the words, “I have Alzheimer’s disease” out loud, in public and often. She was in her mid-sixties, looked young and fit, spoke like the retired English teacher she was. She understood that the clerk in the grocery store or the waiter in the restaurant would be more patient with her if they knew why it was taking her so long to find her credit card or sign her name. So she told them. She spread those little learning moments wherever she went.

I was the one who couldn’t get used to it. (I wrote a whole book about not Her_Beautiful_Braingetting used to it.) The looks we got in return—surprise, pity, shock—made me squirm. But later, when I had to say it for her because she no longer could, I remembered those early-stage days with a sort of wistful nostalgia. My indomitable mother looked the world in the eye and asked not for pity but for patience. And you know what? When you ask for patience, you often get it.

My mother went public because it made sense. She was being her practical, problem-solving self. She probably would have scoffed at the notion that she was a pioneer; helping to build what the Alzheimer’s Association calls a “dementia-friendly community.” And because I am now as old as she was—57—when she began to wonder if something might be wrong with her brain, I have to wonder if I would be so brave. No, I don’t wonder. I know. I am NOT that kind of brave.

When I forget a name or a word, or hit “save” instead of “save as,” or go to the store to buy the ingredients for Chicken Marbella and get everything but the chicken, or leave my driver’s license in my running shirt pocket for two days—I think that almost covers last week’s list—when I have those moments, all I feel is fear. Fear that someone will think that I’m… slipping towards Alzheimer’s. As if the shame of dementia would be worse than dementia itself.

In a recent essay in The New Yorker, Michael Kinsley wrote about how we are “comfortable with the idea that physical health is not just a single number but a multiplicity of factors. That’s where we need to arrive about mental problems. As we get older we’re all going to lose a few of our marbles.”

Kinsley was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease twenty years ago at age 43. He writes about what it feels like to learn that he’s apparently already lost a marble or two: that his most recent tests show his brain’s executive functioning abilities have slipped. And yet he can still write eloquently, and at length. And he gave me a whole new way to view the concept of a dementia-friendly community.

If we were tolerant of a few “lost marbles” in the same way we tolerate a limp or a deaf ear—if we naturally, easily, rose to help people with dementia the way we help someone with a broken leg get up the stairs—the way I saw most clerks and waiters help my mom—we could create a dementia-friendly world. Not could, must: more than five million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, and we know those numbers are going to soar as the Boomer generation ages. So let’s do it. And let’s start small: by just helping each other over those awkward moments. Your lost marble or two might be different than mine. Together? We’ll be fine.

This Friday, May 16, quite a few experts will be in Seattle for the regional Alzheimer’s Association conference, including Dr. Cameron Camp, who is a leader in helping communities become “dementia-friendly.” Camp will also be speaking on Thursday, May 15 at 6pm at Town Hall Seattle.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Mother’s Day

IMG_1085 Once upon a time in Seattle, a little girl went downtown with her mother and baby sister and had a grand adventure. They may have shopped at Frederick & Nelson. They could have sipped milkshakes in the Paul Bunyan Room. But the excitement meter started spinning like crazy when the car broke down.

I was that little girl. What I remember is this: the pale green Pontiac thudded to a halt. Mom twisted the keys and the steering wheel. The car wheezed weakly—and then went silent. Mom sighed, got out, opened the back door, scooped up baby Lisa from her car bed and motioned for me to slide across the vast back seat.

“What are we doing?” I asked, as I scrambled down to the sidewalk. “Are we going to visit this castle?” We were standing in front of a brick building with a grassy courtyard and white columns flanking the oversized front door.

Mom laughed. “That’s not a castle, honey. That’s an apartment building. And look—here’s a bus stop right in front of it! Are you ready for your very first bus ride?”

Was I ever. This was a trip downtown I would never forget!

And I didn’t. As I wrote in my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain, “In my three-year-old mind, it was the ideal moment: the complete safety of Mom; the thrilling adventure of the bus. Our mother was the opposite of fear, the opposite of worry, the handler of everything.”

It’s that castle-like apartment building that kept this scrap of memory alive for me. I see it often. Many Seattleites do. The Williamsburg Court stands at 1007 Stewart Street, just west of Boren. When it was under construction a century ago, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer called it “one of the largest and most modern in that part of the city.” Not anymore. Earlier this year, the owners of the Williamsburg Court sold it to Texas real estate developer Trammell Crow, which plans to replace it with a 21-story office tower.

It’s progress, 21st-century Seattle-style. But 49 tenants will have to move. Most of them won’t be able to afford to stay downtown. And I’ll have to let go of one easy way to remember my cheerful mom, with her natural talent for making lemonade—exciting bus ride!—out of lemons: a dead car.

Before Alzheimer’s began chipping away at her brain, one of my mom’s greatest gifts was her plucky, practical approach to whatever life threw at her. Car stops running, two tiny kids in tow? Park it. Catch the bus. Divorce unavoidable? Head back to college and become a teacher.

What she never did was panic. Or complain. Or assume the worst. At least not in front of her children.

When I look back on my own early motherhood years, I see, at best, a mix: part plucky Mom, part insecure second-guesser. Part of me wonders how my grown-up children remember me then, but part of me is afraid to ask. And with all the writing I’ve done in recent years, I suspect they now know the cracks in my confidence much better than I knew my mother’s.

Raising kids is not as easy as my mom made it look. I think even she knew that. But she also knew children need to feel two things, as close to all of the time as is humanly possible: safe and loved.

And that’s how I have always felt as I passed by the Williamsburg Court apartments and remembered that long-ago day. I was safe. I was loved. Thank you, Mom, for that. Happy Mother’s Day. I miss you.

 

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.

 

 

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