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)
It takes me a while to get past the holidays. I don’t make New Year resolutions on the first of the year because I’ve found the results to be short-lived and discouraging.
Right about now, at the tail end of January, I’m ready to reflect on the past year, to give some thought to how I might make this coming year more fruitful.
My resolutions, as usual, fall into broad categories: family, creativity, health, finances.
Most of us want to outlive our few years on this earth. That’s one of the reasons we love, protect, and treasure our families. They are our legacy. They will outlive all the books on all the shelves in the world. It’s one of the reasons that family is so important in all of my writing. “Family,” of course, has become a malleable word. It includes blood relatives, extended or adopted family, friends and, often, work associates. This year, I want to do better for, to give more time and attention to, my family.
I thank God, and the powers that be, for allowing me to pursue my lifetime objective of writing fiction. Two of my novels have been published. A third is scheduled to be published later this year. A fourth is waiting in the wings. Over the years, I often considered, and accepted, the possibility that I might continue writing all of my life with only nominal publication. Although I never considered giving up, I was often discouraged. For a writer there is, in the end, nothing as affirming as a book. It is heavy and solid. It takes up space. It lingers in the universe, if only on a few shelves. In all likelihood, it will outlive its author. I want to continue writing—and publishing—fiction for as long as I am able.
Once we are past the fleeting years of youth, we are obliged to pay attention to our health, or pay the consequences. I pay attention to my health—except when I don’t. I am always aware of falling short of my goals, falling back on bad habits, neglecting the steps for going forward. And yet—what can I accomplish without my health? As with most of us who make New Year resolutions, most of my focus is on improving or maintaining my health, while getting past my lack of success during the course of the previous year.
What can I say about finances? The bills keep coming in. The money keeps going out. Money has become more ephemeral than real. We don’t see much of it these days. Money has become a more-or-less reliable promise, payable with a piece of paper or plastic, a wireless transaction, or a swipe of our smart phone. It’s the promise that’s important, and that’s what I think about. How much can I, in good faith, promise to pay out, when I compare it with what is coming in? For me, it is a subject of serious and ongoing reflection. I want to bring those in-at-the-door-out-through-the-window financial transactions into sync with each other.
We are not just creatures of habit, or creatures of impulse. As members of the human race, we can change and become. Our impulses, our habits, are strong, but our ability to change can override those habits and impulses. I think that’s why, every year, we resolve to make ourselves better, to—in effect—make ourselves over. We, as humans, can do that. Just as our cells regenerate, we are capable of change and transformation. I continue to be hopeful.
In my first novel, One Who Loves, one of the principal characters, Tess, recalls being raped at a very young age. In writing about this event, it never occurred to me that there was anything unusual in the fact that she repressed this memory for many years. I believe that this is often the case — which makes me wonder at the doubt cast on women in the news who, in turn, have repressed or kept silent about similar traumatic experiences.
What is there in our culture that prevents women from speaking out? Why, when they do speak out, are these women so often dismissed as unreliable, or blamed for their own behavior? Why does it become, so often, a “he said, she said” discussion, in which we side with our sex rather than with our hearts and our minds? Why are so many of us visually impaired when it comes to seeing both sides of a situation? We are, in some ways, regressing to a less open, less liberal society, in which a harsh reaction has replaced a more thoughtful response.
I am not a political person. I am a writer, a novelist, who works best in a quiet environment, away from the noise and thrum of our agitated society. But, like all women, I want to be heard and considered when I choose to speak out — whether it’s with written words or testimony or protest or some other form of active engagement.
*My subject line, “The Way We Live Now,” is the title of the 1875 novel written by Anthony Trollope. The novel is about what Trollope considered the corrupt state of England at the time.
My recent post, “Why novelists should read (and write) poetry,” has been published as a guest blog on the official Dylan Thomas website, hosted by Hannah Ellis, granddaughter of Dylan Thomas and Creative Director of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate. The post explores the poem, “Fern Hill,” and its relevance to a key scene in my novel, THE SECOND MRS. PRICE.
For a long period of my adult life, I paid little attention to poetry. Yes, it was a part of my growing up. My father loved to read and recite poetry. Yes, I studied it in college and grad school, as my degrees were in English literature. Yes, I taught English composition; therefore, I read and reflected on poetry during those chapters in my life. Other than those periods, however, poetry remained in the background of my reading and my consciousness for many years.
When I moved to Los Angeles, some years ago, I was accepted into a local writing workshop. The moderator and some of the participants were poets. We met once a week. Every fourth week, we had a poetry hour, during which we read and discussed poems we had chosen from among the world’s poetry, old and new—poems that were as near as my bookshelf, my computer devices, my library and bookstore.
It was while preparing for and participating in the monthly poetry hour, as well as listening to workshop members discuss their own poetry, that I rediscovered poetry.
Inevitably, I gave in to the urge to write a few poems of my own. Most of my attempts were crudely crafted, but I got help and encouragement from the workshop. I was urged to rethink, revise, go farther, go deeper. The outcome I hadn’t foreseen was that, because of my exposure to and attempts at writing poetry, I became a more disciplined, a more thoughtful, a more insightful novelist.
In my novel, The Second Mrs. Price, there is a scene in which the Price family gather together one evening and read aloud, in round-robin style, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.** The poem itself is a favorite of mine. It is a celebration of youth, and a nod to the inevitability of losing that youth. It is about the timelessness of that brief, often idyllic, season when we were “happy as the grass was green.”
Dylan Thomas has been described as “a modern exponent of the Romantic tradition.” *** In a style reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas takes daring leaps as he bends and shapes language to fit his vision, his voice, his unique consciousness.
When I linger over the fluid, tantalizing lines in “Fern Hill,” I am beguiled by the potential of language freed from the restraints of formality, convention, grammar, even logic. I ask myself: How many ways can a story be told? How close can I get to my character’s thought processes? How honest can I be, especially in portraying flawed, sometimes unsympathetic, characters? How can I put into words the ephemeral moments that make up our lives?
In The Second Mrs. Price, I attempt to answer those questions and test those boundaries, just as, in “Fern Hill,” Thomas is testing the boundaries of language.
Bernard, the patriarch of the Price family, is in his late 80s. It seems natural and appropriate that “Fern Hill” is one of Bernard’s favorite poems. I see him as the embodiment of time and timelessness, perennial youth and death, as he remembers “the sun that is young once only.”
Even as he approaches the end of his life, Bernard is in love—with youth, with beauty, with nature, with the small comforts of each day, with the memory of his late wife, Anna. Just as Dylan Thomas is aware of the intertwining of life and death in all of creation, Bernard understands that, from his earliest youth, “Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
Selene, the flawed heroine of The Second Mrs. Price, takes a daring leap into the unknown in her quest for a fulfillment that is, perhaps, beyond her reach. She is attuned to Bernard, but she is living her “green and golden” moment, rather than reflecting back on it. Her obsession for Griff is disturbing but, hopefully, the reader comes to relate to her—to the pulse of her attraction, to the often self-imposed stranglehold of security, to her longing for freedom.
“Poetry,” Dylan Thomas is quoted as saying, “is what in a poem … makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” ****
In much the same way, the novel allows us to enter the mind, the consciousness–the very soul–of the characters. The emotional divide that separates us as individuals can be bridged through storytelling and the imaginative use of language.
For more about Dylan Thomas, his life and his work, visit discoverdylanthomas.com, the official website hosted by Hannah Ellis, granddaughter of Dylan Thomas and Creative Director of the Dylan Thomas Literary Estate.