April 28, 2020 I read an article today about how we will remember—or not remember—this pandemic. The gist of the article is that we will not remember much of what we’re experiencing during this time. The days, and what we do in the course of those days, will merge together. We’ll remember key emotional moments, but not the experience in its daily details. I believe this, intrinsically, which is why I’m keeping this journal, and becoming obsessive about recording what I do each day, from the most trivial details—perhaps a note about what I had for dinner—to my inmost feelings.
Imperfect Heart: A Journal, a Book Club, and a Global Pandemicis my personal chronicle of the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic and the political chaos that our nation experienced in lockstep with the health crisis.
It also takes you on a month-to-month journey with a fictional book club. The book club consists of four friends who meet on Zoom to talk about books, the pandemic, their personal lives, and whatever political crisis is in the news.
Intimate journal, contemporary chronicle, sequential fiction, Imperfect Heart is familiar in its elements, yet unconventional in its juxtaposing of those elements. It follows an unprecedented time in our nation’s history –- a time that has touched everyone –-and a time that we cannot afford to forget.
I’m looking forward to telling you more about my new book!
Recently, my dog, Indi, tore open the corner of a plastic garbage bag that I had sealed and temporarily left on the kitchen floor. She smelled some loose flour and was chugging it down when I got to her. Unfortunately, she spent some time choking and gagging on the flour stuck in her throat.
Since then, she has become a hardened criminal. She got into a grocery bag (just delivered by Instacart) and pulled out a plastic bag of tomatoes. She tore open the bag and was feasting on a tomato when I caught her in the act. She is now on the lookout for scavenging opportunities.
In case you’re wondering, Indi is an older dog, a gentle, lovable terrier who has never before engaged in criminal behavior. She’s wild about tomatoes, the crispy ends of iceberg lettuce, apples, hard-boiled eggs and, of course, anything made with flour. In my establishment, she has little access to meat, other than her dog food.
The point is, Indi picked up a late-in-life habit after one rewarding lurch into criminality. She was almost instantly habituated. And my question is, can we as readily pick up (or resume) the habit of writing?
I kinda think so.
My writing habit has always been to write in the morning. At one period in my life, for a long period of time, I got up at 5:30 in the morning to write, before I showered and dressed for work. For a couple of hours each morning, I wrote by hand, sitting cross-legged on the floor, at a coffee table now in the living room of my California family. I wrote my early novel manuscripts that way.
Mornings work for me. Sometimes I continue into the afternoon and evening but I like to start my engine in the morning–the earlier the better. I got up at 3:30 a.m. recently and wrote all morning and into the afternoon. I was, surprisingly, not at all sleepy that day, probably because I was on a creative high.
I have, of course, gotten off track many times. That’s when the writing is hard—-hard to come back to, hard to write when I do come back to it.
Writing on a regular basis is a homely habit. It’s simple, modest (a few pages a day, maybe?), and only rewarding in itself. It’s like housekeeping. You do it; it lasts for a day or so; you do it again. It’s both satisfying and frustrating, since you know it’s only good if you repeat it on a regular basis.
Still, I highly recommend writing as a habit. The more you do it, the better the results. Indi picked up a (bad) habit almost instantly, because it was rewarding. My reward, as a writer, is words on a page, and more words on a page, and so on, until–voila!–it’s a finished draft, on its way to becoming a story or a novel.
Speaking of which, my latest novel, Only Yesterday, is now available both in print and as an ebook. Look for the print and ebook editions at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Other ebook destinations are Scribd, Smashwords, Kobo, and Apple Books.
“You never have to change anything you get up in the middle of the night to write.” ― Saul Bellow
“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” ― Ray Bradbury
“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ~ W. Somerset Maugham
Warm holiday greetings to you and your loved ones, and best wishes for a healthy and happy new year.
That said, at the close of our second year of living in proximity with a deadly virus and its various offshoots, I sometimes feel, as you may, that “normal” life is somewhere over the rainbow, and that even the Wizard of Oz can’t make it come back.
I tell myself it’s okay to be both hopeful and skeptical. In the work I’m just finishing–a personal chronicle of the past two years–I’ve tried to frame and to make meaningful the events that began in early 2020 and are still seriously impacting our lives. I’ve called on story in several forms–current events, fiction, memoir–to give some shape and rationale to the ways in which we’ve changed course–and why.
Meantime, it’s good to have you on my mind and in my heart as we close out this year and move onto the next. As E. M. Forster so famously reminded us: “Only connect.”
I’m pleased to announce that my new novel, Only Yesterday, is now available in print at Amazon.
Only Yesterday, published by Adelaide Books, is a novel about passion, remembrance, and acceptance. In the last few days of his life, Pete Cameron (Cam) engages in a final struggle with self-doubt as he deals with memories of his past. The story takes place in the Midwest between 1961 and 2003, moving back and forth in time as Cam looks back on his life, his love for Maggie, and the choices he made.
Both print and ebook editions will be available soon through your local bookstores and at online sites.
Here’s to good health, good spirits, and lots of creative energy after our 16-month (and still counting) pandemic experience.
Some years ago, during a time of crisis, Toni Morrison confided to a friend her discouragement and inability to write. The friend had this to say about hard times:
This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!
Toni Morrison, who won the Nobel Prize in 1993, and wrote such memorable novels as Beloved and The Bluest Eye, echoes this advice when she says about “times of dread”:
There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.
She was speaking in another time in our history, at another critical point, but the message resonates today.
In this time of global crisis, I believe we should pay attention to Toni Morrison’s advice — take up the art form, the creative activity, that makes us happy, that gives us comfort, and for which we have a passionate commitment. For me, it’s writing, but for you it might be visual arts, film or photography, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, cooking or baking, gardening, sewing, crafts, volunteering, teaching, scholarship, a business or scientific venture.
Whatever it is, if it’s creative and is infused with your energy, your individual stamp, it will help center you in a time of chaos and confusion.
Let me be clear. I look on this global crisis as impacting our lives for the foreseeable future. If the 1918-1920 pandemic is any indication, we are looking at a two-year disruption of whatever normality we had before the beginning of this year.
With patience and perseverance, the support of family and friends, and a daily infusion of creative activities, we’ll get through the difficult months ahead.
Can we talk reading and writing—go off-topic for a refreshing few moments by thinking about something other than what we’re all thinking about?
Our enforced isolation has inspired me to think “big thoughts,” to work on something big. For me, “big” is a novel. Judging from past experience, this is a forever project that will keep me occupied for the foreseeable future.
So far, I have a title and a few opening pages. In writing a novel, I usually start out with a title and a page or two. I know the overall arc of the story, and I know how it will end. After I work that out, things move along at their usual turtle pace. I push on, procrastinate, then push on again.
If you write, you know that procrastination is one of the mandatory limbering up exercises for beginning any writing project or, for that matter, any writing day. As I agonize over those first critical pages, I’ve been listing, for inspiration, some first lines that I particularly like. Many of my favorites go back in time. I confess: I love 19th-century novels!
The favorite first lines that follow are in no particular order, except for the first two selections, which are my special favorites. Each is a full sentence–no more, no less.
Take a look and–if you’re so inclined–send me a few of your own favorites.
Pride and Prejudice “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
Anna Karenina “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
1984 “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Rebecca “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.”
Moby Dick “Call me Ishmael.”
Jane Eyre “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.”
The Go-Between “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”
Peter Pan “All children, except one, grow up.”
The Man of Property “Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight—an upper middle-class family in full plumage.”
A Passage to India “Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”
The Razor’s Edge “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.”
Far from the Madding Crowd “When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”
The English Patient ‘She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance.”
Wuthering Heights “I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”
The Bluest Eye “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.”
Mrs. Dalloway “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
Crossing to Safety “Floating upward through a confusion of dreams and memory, curving like a trout through the rings of previous risings, I surface.”
Brooklyn “Eilis Lacey, sitting at the window of the upstairs living room in the house on Friary Street, noticed her sister walking briskly from work.”
them “One warm evening in August 1937 a girl in love stood before a mirror.”
The Great Gatsby “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
Atonement “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper – was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and a lunch.”
Gilead “I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.”
Alice in Wonderland “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversation?”
My best and fondest holiday greetings to you. I hope this holiday season brings you peace, the loving company of family and friends, and a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment for the year just drawing to a close.
I’m grateful for your support, and for the privilege of having my book, A Windless Place, published this year. Thanks for being there for me, and for cheering me on.
Let’s transition to a new year and a new decade with enthusiasm and hope. The world is full of good and well intentioned people. Our planet is on life support but we can still bring it back to health. All life is precious, especially yours. Take care of yourself, and take care of each other.
I am so very pleased to announce that my third novel, A Windless Place, has been published and is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
A Windless Place is about the often difficult transition between childhood and adulthood. Maggie Lowin is just fourteen years old when she meets Gina, her new next-door neighbor. Vividly attractive and wildly unpredictable, Gina seems to embody everything that Maggie most admires and wants to become.
But it’s also a story about disillusionment and loss of faith. During the next two years, Maggie discovers that her new neighbor’s erratic behavior is a threat to Maggie’s values, and to her own family.
Eventually, as happens so often when we face life head-on, Maggie must make some very difficult choices.
“We read to know we’re not alone.”
That’s a line from the movie Shadowlands, based on the life of C. S. Lewis. I think about this line often because one of my goals as a writer is to invite the reader inside the mind and heart of my characters–to create that wonderful feeling of empathy.
It’s empathy that allows you, as a reader, to enter the world of A Windless Place, to recognize that–oh, yes–I’ve felt that way, I’ve done that awkward, stupid, misguided thing. I’ve known that type of person. I’ve been sucked in by that surface layer of charm and personality. I’ve risked losing my own values in order to please that person.
Empathy is what attracts us to one another. It’s what we have in common, what we share. As readers of fiction, we penetrate beneath the surface that most of us present to the world. We are able to see clearly into the souls of people like us–people who make mistakes but usually manage to get back on track–even if it’s another track altogether.
In A Windless Place, I invite you, as a reader, into the mind and heart of Maggie Lowin as she grows up and, as they say, “wises up.” I hope you enjoy Maggie’s journey toward adulthood. I know I enjoyed putting it into words.
I’ve seen it and it does exist—almost. A Windless Place is almost ready to make its publication debut!
I’m proofing the inside pages, and gearing up to launch my third novel. A Windless Place is scheduled to be published by Adelaide Books in August.
It’s exciting to have a book “out there” in the world, and the excitement never dulls.
One Who Loves was my last-to-be-finished and first-to-be-published novel. It’s set in Ann Arbor and follows two young couples as they grapple with the often conflicting pull of love and loyalty, and make their way through the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
The Second Mrs. Price begins in a small midwestern town on a glorious spring day in 1999. It’s about obsession, and the desire to be both securely rooted and absolutely free to follow one’s passions.
A Windless Place is set in the heart of the 1950s. It was a transitional decade during which we laid to rest many of our so-called “traditional” post-World War II values and stepped eagerly into the rock ’n’ roll era that would culminate in the culture-changing 60s.
Maggie Lowin is growing up in this era, ready to leap into adulthood but not sure how to do it within the confines of her conventional family. Along comes Gina, her new next-door neighbor and an electrifying presence in that staid small-town environment.
Only a decade or so older than Maggie’s fourteen years, Gina is everything Maggie would like to be: attractive, confident, lively, outspoken, unconventional.
Gina has a husband who isn’t around much and a three-year-old daughter, Ellie, but she has maintained her independent spirit. Maggie is enthralled. She becomes Ellie’s babysitter and Gina’s confidante, while Gina guides her through the perils and pitfalls of high school. All goes well until . . . .
Well, I hope you’ll get yourself a copy and follow Maggie’s journey as she encounters both disillusionment and tragedy. It’s all in A Windless Place—coming soon to an online or independent bookstore near you!
“How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.” ― Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky
If we’re among the lucky ones, we’re born into, and shielded by, a large family. We’re surrounded by grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends. We take this for granted, because we’re children, or because we don’t think about it, or because it’s just in the nature of things.
As we get older, our grandparents, who seem to be ageless, weaken and die. At some point, perhaps as young adults, we look around and we have no grandparents, no great aunts and uncles. They were living among us, we gathered together under their roofs, and now they’re gone. But we have our parents. They are middle-aged. They are robust and healthy. They will take care of us, and shield us.
Our lives go on. Our parents continue to be middle-aged, even though we refer to them, with adolescent wisdom, as being “old.” They are healthy, energetic, hard-working, sometimes useful to knock against, as the world knocks against us. Then we are “grown up,” moving toward middle age ourselves, perhaps observing the gradual decline of our parents, our aunts and uncles. We accept that this is so, and go our own way.
For many of us, when our parents die, first one, then the other, we experience our first real encounter with death. Grandparents are expected to die, but not parents. The death of our parents puts us in a position of vulnerability. Even though we might ourselves be adults, they shielded us from whatever is out there, beyond our ken, behind the sheltering sky. But now we are middle-aged. We have our own children to shield. We are the responsible ones, the warriors.
The middle of our lives is our longest and most satisfying period. This is the period in which we fall in love, find—and hopefully keep close—the partner we choose for life, have our children, raise them with apprehension and fear, try to shield them from harm. Any form of harm. They are so tender, so trusting, so awkward, so confident.
Meanwhile, we grow older. Our aunts and uncles grow old, sicken, die. Perhaps some of our cousins die suddenly, or perhaps not so suddenly, but we haven’t been in touch. The circle of shields that surrounded us is less dense. There are spaces between them. What is out there, behind those strong defenses—beyond our family and loved ones? We don’t know. None of those who are gone have given us a hint. Is it good? Is it bad? Is it—nothing?
Then—and this is the most brutal loss—we begin to lose our friends. A few of them might be from an older generation. Perhaps they mentored us, gave us the courage and guidance we needed to become—whatever we have become. Most of our friends, however, are part of our generation. They have accompanied us on our journey; they have laughed and cried and argued and eaten with us, and clinked glasses with us. They have been given the same years we have been allotted, more or less—and yet they can, and do, die. Which means we can die. Which means we are holding the shields now and we are on the outside, our shields raised, our poor forked bodies exposed.
We have lost Holly Prado, one of our most valued friends, and I am feeling my fragility, my smallness in our “vast, dark universe.” Holly relied for her strength on the creative spirit, and she taught us, by example, to rely on our own creative strength. I knew her for almost a decade, and I ache from the loss of her. Many in her vast community of friends and fellow poets knew her for many decades, and are feeling her loss intensely. She was a teacher for many years, but she dedicated herself wholeheartedly to the creative spirit, and this is mostly how we will remember her. Her poetry was open (as she was), attuned to everything around her (as she was), simultaneously straightforward and profound (as she was). She was generous and giving in her creative spirit. She wielded a strong shield.
The shield that I must now hold up against the darkness feels very heavy. I suppose that Holly felt that it was time to put her shield gently aside, to let come whatever comes when we no longer live beneath the sheltering sky. I hope I am strong enough to carry my shield. I have friends and loved ones who will support and protect me, whom I will support and protect in turn. It takes more strength to let go than to hold on, and I am not ready, as was my friend Holly, to let go. I am not yet strong enough.
Holly’s husband, poet/actor Harry Northup, wrote about his love of and partnership with his wife in many of his poems. In this poem, he describes (so delicately and so deftly) the gratitude we all feel for having been a chosen friend of Holly Prado, our lost shield:
twenty-three years ago, we got
our home is in east Hollywood
with plenty of fans, two cats,
two tvs, one typewriter,
one imac & 1 hp printer
holly made pasta with pesto
& a salad
we eat together every night
she listens to me, loves & supports
we participate in the poetry world
we view films at the academy
a distant car horn honks incessantly
a small theatre, many churches
& numerous multi-ethnic restaurants
are within walking distance
the horn quit
the fan continues
the car horn resumes honking
it’s sunday evening, mother’s day
it’s our anniversary
“i’m glad you chose me,” i say
from East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason by Harry E. Northup (Cahuenga Press, 2015)