Category Archives: writing

The Tuesday Travelogue

Y’all, Jack and I apologize for the sporadic nature of this blog lately but we’re getting slowly back into the saddle. Or out of it. He’s in Scotland, leading his annual tour exploring the delights of Orkney and Skye, and I’ve been everywhere but at the bookstore this month.

Today I’m in a Starbucks in Manchester, New Hampshire airport, waiting on a rescheduled flight. Could be worse; the Internet is free, and when I said to the lady behind the counter, “I just want a cup of coffee,” she smiled and helped me sort through the bewildering display of options. I had been wishing for my friend Cami, who speaks Seattle AND Coffee. Last week it was her place and the SeaTac airport. Much bigger than this sweet little place.

However, this airport does have a haunted bathroom. I availed myself of a stall and found to my chagrin that the door which swung so willingly open with a slight creak to invite me in as I entered, was now stuck. Just as I contemplated the plague risks associated with crawling out under the door (the place was clean, but hey, it’s a toilet) it swung open again with that air of mystery. As I stepped to the sink, all the hot air blowers started. At the sink, the soap squirted without invitation. I began to feel nervous and beat it outta there, relieved that a secret barrier didn’t slam down. In the regional airport bathroom at 6:30 am, no one can hear you scream.

I wonder how many people they lose that way?

Anyway, from here I go to Richmond for a two-day series of meetings, and then back home to the beloved bookstore, ably staffed by Erin Kay and her son Bryant. Bryant is Keeper of the Kittens while Erin minds the shop. They’re stuffing some tourism fun between serious bookselling and cat cuddling.

Me, I’m delighted my flight was delayed in this quiet little airport with ample tables and power sources, because I’ve got some writing on my mind.  As soon as this nice grande whacha call it kicks in.

Have a good day, everybody.

Old vintage typewriter

 

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Sunset, Sunrise

sea-sky-sunset-8101My friend Jenny got told she should go home and make peace with herself and God. Since she already was, she came home, opened her door, and said, “Come say goodbye.”

Jenny had the kind of cancer that made it dangerous for her to have visitors, but being a gregarious person, this rankled during her time. We sent a lot of FB messages while she was fighting off the body invaders. When she knew it wasn’t going to work, the invites went out, and we all went.

Jenny died while I was on a plane flying from East Coast to West. When I touched down in Seattle for a writing retreat, the first thing I got was a text from Jack saying she had left us.

And a reminder that he was going to our friend Destiny’s wedding reception that night. After living through a great deal of trauma, Destiny had found a guy who wanted to look after her and her two children; her life was about to turn, on the same day Jenny’s turned the other way.

Jenny was saying goodbye, ready to go, excited almost to think about what would happen when she met God and what her physical body and spiritual soul would turn into. On one of two visits I got in before the end came, Jenny took a sip of coffee and said, “I wonder what happens to us when we die? Do we disappear or turn into something?”

Her sisters froze. We looked at each other. All I could think was You’re about to find out, but you can’t tell us after you know. That’s part of the plan.

Destiny’s first husband’s death was a community gossip tragedy, but she’s the one who knows what it feels like to lose a guy who’d been fighting for years to reclaim his own life. And who knows what it feels like to love again. The community judgement she faces for either husband is irrelevant, and she knows it. She doesn’t say much.

Sunset, sunrise: two women with stories locked inside them, a story they can’t tell for different reasons. Unlocking the stories, giving voices to those whose stories are inconvenient, or indicting, or scary for the rest of us: that’s what I came to Seattle to be part of. It’s a writing retreat for women telling their stories, some in first person, some couched in fiction. The stories are inconvenient, indicting, and scary. And wonderful.

The world feels dimmer without Jenny in it, the world feels happier because Destiny and Ira got married. The world tilts at an incredible pace, and sometimes we can’t write fast enough to keep up with it.

Sometimes we can, though. And we should. Chronicle the sunsets, chronicle the sunrises. Find your voice and use it.

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Jack’s Monday Book on Wednesday

My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff

Just to confuse everyone, Jack’s Wednesday blog post is the Monday book – –

The first thing to say before I get going is that we already knew that this book is set in the offices of the agency that handled the launching of Wendy’s best seller, ‘The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap’. Although the agency isn’t actually named in the book it’s a very open secret which New York literary agency it is. We are both, therefore, familiar with the rather old fashioned but cozy interior and the amazing collection of books lining the walls.

This is really at least two intertwining stories and I’m not sure that’s done terribly well. One is very much about the culture and characters of the agency itself, while the other is focused more on what’s going on in Rakoff’s life.

The first half of the book is mainly about her success in finding a job at what she refers to simply as ‘The Agency’, discovering how hard it is to live frugally in New York, getting to know her co-workers and being groomed by ‘The Boss’. I have to admit that I found that strand of the book unnecessarily gloomy and dark, as that’s certainly not what we experienced on or visits to the place. Something else that emerges in this early part of her book is the impression that the only famous author represented by the agency is JD Salinger, which is simply not true.

Her main job is to send form letters to fans of Salinger, who refuses to engage with them and is somewhat reclusive. She eventually strikes up something of a relationship with him on the phone and is finally on first name terms with him (Jerry and Joanna).

For me, the book really only takes off about halfway through when we begin to discover what’s going in Rakoff’s personal life. This strand is all about the self-discovery that anyone over the age of thirty will find excruciatingly familiar. It’s all about growing, maturing and making difficult decisions about what you want to do with your life.

The book ends with a jump forward to a married Rakoff with a husband and kids and a successful career as a novelist, poet and journalist.

I didn’t find this book disappointing overall, but I did find the beginning a bit heavy going.

6 out of 10 from me!

PS – it’s The Harold Ober Agency and Wendy’s agent doesn’t work there any more – – –

 

 

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Jeanne Powers’ Monday Book

 

041389b2caf661540eb4ebe445ddcf5dd96a288dThe Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent by his firm to a rather secluded English village in order to tie up the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow, a recently deceased elderly client. The villagers don’t seem inclined to discuss Mrs. Drablow, or anything else for that matter, though they do make Arthur welcome. At the funeral service, Arthur catches a glimpse of a woman in black lurking around the churchyard, but his inquiries are brushed aside. Resolutely, he prepares to go to Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow’s residence, which is in a marshy area accessible only at certain times due to the tides. Once there, he will be cut off from the outside world until such a time as the pony cart can cross the causeway to fetch him.

He’s going to wish he had taken a tide chart with him.

The subtitle of the book is “A Ghost Story” and that’s exactly what this is, in the best sense of the phrase. The old fashioned setting, the formal narration, even the nature of the story itself harkens back to those wonderful early ghost tales where the chills and thrills came from the mind and not blood spatter. Hill has perfectly captured the flavor of these Victorian tales . It’s beautifully written; Arthur, the narrator, is looking back at an event which shaped his life and he tells his tale without hyperbole or exaggeration. It has the ring of authenticity.

The book is just so wonderfully atmospheric. I could practically smell the sea air and shivered a bit in the dampness. While there were definitely warning signs, the book wasn’t over laden with signs and portents. The villagers may not have been over communicative, but there was nary a pitchfork nor cackling crone in sight. Arthur enjoys a hearty meal at the inn, a warm fire and a comfortable bed. The skies are blue and largely clear but cold. No air of menace hangs overhead.

The haunted aspects come later.

The ending is abrupt and I was taken aback at first, but it is the perfect ending. He has told his tale; there’s no analyzing or rationalization that this might have been just his imagination. This is what happened and, like the villagers, he has no wish to discuss it further.

There is a theatrical production of the book and there has been at least two movie versions but I don’t think either could ever capture the book, especially not the ending.

 

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Kate Belt’s Monday Book

51YTWanqMVL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Monday Book – My Abandonment

My Abandonment, a novel by Peter Rock, was inspired by a local news story about a Vietnam war veteran and his 13 year-old daughter living off the grid in Forest Park, a huge municipal nature reserve in Portland, Oregon.  Anyone who has hiked this 5,100 acre, 7 mile long park will find the story credible.

When discovered by authorities after off-trail hikers report suspicious traces of the makeshift home, the daughter was found to be highly intelligent, adequately nourished, well-educated having been home schooled, and in good health. She had not been neglected nor abused in any way. After the two are discovered and captured by police, the story turns into an emotional page -turner wondering how it will end. Will child protective services leave the family together? Can they? What will happen to the dad? Will the girl end up in foster care?

This novel is fast paced and heart tugging. All of the characters are engaging and evoke empathy, with everyone doing the best they can and rooting for the best possible outcome for this family.

Last year a movie based on the novel was filmed in Portland, under the title Leave No Trace. After premiering at Sundance a few weeks ago, it has been purchased by both national and international movie studios, so hopefully will be in theaters soon.

Reviewed by Kate Belt

 

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Things I Learned during Writing Residency

19226005_10154761056583505_1735351353313373426_nThings I have learned (some about myself, others about writing) during this residency:

Crocheting is as important as writing. Find your BECAUSE YOU LIKE IT thing and do it. You don’t need any more reason than that, so long as it’s not killing the household budget. If what you like is expensive or takes time your family can’t give you, see if you can pull a little dangling thread somewhere to get a small marked bit of time and space. You need it in life even more than writing.

The value of silence: it is tempting to tune into online TV during crochet time, the radio while we drive. Do without every so often. Sit and listen to what you’re thinking about, and be surprised at the connections that form because of the silence.

Don’t lose sight of places you like to be. Until I got to Fayetteville, I had forgotten how soothing, how inspiring, being in the woods is. Church, ball game, bathtub: wherever you go to get your writer on, don’t let anyone keep you from it.

Do new stuff because it’s new. This could be writing, finding a new place to hike, visiting a different town, cooking something weird, trying an intense craft pattern. Bust out of your comfort zone.

Know what you believe. I believe in Jesus. After that I’m listening. Right now polarities are oppositional in politics, religion, even how to cook lasagna. Every idea space is full of debates and hurricanes. Listening is good. Keeping one’s mouth shut is good. Usually people don’t want to know what you think; they want to tell you what they think. Let them; it’s grist for the writing mill, and not difficult to shake off what they will enjoy as a power move. It makes GREAT character study. Don’t get excited; get a notebook.

Draft fast; edit slow. My latest manuscript of 65K words drafted in three weeks. It was crap but had great bones. I set it aside for three weeks, then edited, sent to readers, edited again. The polished draft is with NYC’s publishing deities. Time plus chair plus keyboard makes drafts; fallow time plus finessing makes books.

Work with other writers in a bordered capacity. I’m fortunate to teach for Memory2Memoir and mentor writing educators with American NewMedia Foundation. What other people struggle with, how other people choose to tell stories, invigorates your writing. That said, offer too many consults and your time will disappear. When I sat down to do “other writer stuff” besides drafting or editing my manuscript, how much “other writer stuff” there was startled me.

Enter contests carefully. Writers can spend their lives looking for and finding them at $25 entry fee per. Like a plot itself, getting sidetracked to tell a wonderful story about some minor character may be fun, the writing great, but it doesn’t advance the overarching narrative. Entering contests because you don’t know what to write about yet? Awesome, keep going. Entering contests as avoidance to writing your book? Nope.

Have simple foods on hand. Peanut butter and apples were my staples, plus Trader Joe’s frozen polenta for hot meals. When you’re knee-deep in plot yet hungry, you can keep going.

Hope these are useful to you. I’ve loved my time at Lafayette Flats.

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Bookstores – What are they Like?

A guest post from Jack on Friday because Wendy has more urgent requirements –

It’s time for me to talk about bookstores for a change!

This is traditionally our quietest time of the year, but not this time for some unfathomable reason. We’ve had the usual mixture of old stalwarts and out-of-towners despite the cold, rainy or snowy weather. Maybe Spring is close because we’ve also had lots of donations and traded books as well, which means a lot of pricing and shelving of course.

A couple of months ago our good friend David helped me to do a very deep clean of most of the front shop and that resulted in a significant culling of duplicates, battered and ‘never sell in a million years’ books. That freed up some space so now we have some shelf space (as well as half a garage full of boxes of duplicates and ‘never sells – -‘).

In between all this I’ve been checking emails and FaceBook where I’ve been seeing lots of reports of bookstores closing and others opening up – so the scene continues to be pretty dynamic. I haven’t had any time to try to analyze what’s going on but it would certainly be interesting. I’ve heard many reports of retirees buying existing bookstores as a kind of fun thing to do as a source of extra income (although there are only really certain ways of doing that – mainly – sell used books and live on the premises!).

Just to put the top hat on things, Wendy sent me the manuscript of one of the books she’s been working on while she’s been on her writing residency in WV and, lo and behold, there’s a mythical bookstore in it that seems strangely familiar! It’s quite disturbing to read a novel (yes, a novel) with so many recognizable places and characters in it. Being a novel, she allowed herself to mess with the characters as well as the bookstore which makes it even more odd. Our bookstore has had many adventures and strange happenings associated with it but none quite like this!

To finish – as I was writing this a tall and exceptionally beautiful woman came into the store and asked if we had any Dostoevskys – I directed her to the classics room and she volunteered that she was just waiting for her car to be serviced round the corner. “Where are you from” I ventured – “Michigan” she replied.

Wendy was born in Michigan – – –

 

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