Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Writing Advice: the Printout

1. Print out your novel. You must. There are so many things that glide by on a screen that become glaringly apparent once you look at a hard copy. Then, read through the printout briskly two times, following the instructions in the next two bullets.

2. Read through the printout in a "doesn't feel right" run. Hold a highlighter in your hand and whenever writing quality flags, simply swipe the highlighter through that paragraph. Keep reading. The important thing is simply to note the places where the manuscript doesn't feel right, not to stop and fix those places. That comes later. You want to keep your eyes fresh, so keep going.

3. Then pick a different color highlighter and do a "bon mots" read-through. My goal is to have one well-turned phrase per page (or solid metaphor or incisive snatch of dialogue). If I swipe, I can visually see pages that don't have that, and go back in and add later.

3. Giving new meaning to "hot off the press": as you print out your novel, sit on it. This was the suggestion of the youth in my household, who waxed enthusiastic about the warm paper. Freshly-printed novels make great seatwarmers. She also noted that the heat transfers: "Feel my butt! Feel my butt!"  This is how fine literature is made.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

Preston Castle

Officially termed the Preston School of Industry, Preston Castle is a boys' reform school established in 1894 in Ione, California. I had the good fortune to go tour it this weekend.

The first thing you notice upon entering is that this place is falling apart. At one point, the plan was to demolish the behemoth and its roof was taken off. Years of rain damaged the interior until a new roof was put on. It's on the National Register of Historic Places.

What many of the floors look like

The wards of Preston were boys as young as 8 and as old as 16, we were told. They were there as juvenile delinquents, including for the "crime" of being homeless. The entire building radiates sadness. The site is really very remote and was likely more so at the turn of (that) century.

Hallway upon entering

Upstairs boys dormitory

We were taken upstairs to the boys dormitory, where 50 beds once nestled close together. The ceiling is really quite extraordinary, with criss-crossed wooden beams. Boys had carved their names up there in the rafters. I wondered if the gorgeous ceiling must have been covered with a dropped ceiling back in the day, to make the room easier to heat or cool. As we left the room, a vintage photograph did indeed make it look like the ceiling was dropped and mundane.

Pigeon-stained rafters with carved names

The dormitory with beds & dropped ceiling

The adult guardian's bathroom in the dormitory

I'm not sure if that plunging method works
We visited the staff dining room. I'm kind of in love with the asylum-green paint color there.

Maybe the one pretty thing there?

Next, we went to the infirmary. Very uncomfortable-looking metal bed frames and the hint of illness still circulating...

Original wicker wheelchair
Next to it was the operating room. The docents have a clear sense of humor, as evidenced by the skeleton in the chair. I'm always sensitive about this stuff...but I don't think it was respectful. Scared boys shaped by tough circumstances came here for a chance to be clothed, sheltered, fed and instructed.

What is that machine? Many guessed it delivered electroshock therapy

Can you guess?

Another skeleton, in construction hat. Not sure why?

In the room where the skeleton pensively looks out the window, surgeries were performed on the floor. You've had enough time to think about the machine--post your guess in the comments?

I guess in some way I can't fault the impulse to position skeletons around; the place really does seem like a stereotypical Hollywood haunted reform school. And then we learned about the ghost.

The kitchen
We entered the kitchen, in which I immediately noticed the beautiful Hoosier cupboard. Apparently I am not a "sensitive" soul, because I was standing only feet away from where a violent murder occurred, and yet I didn't feel any echoes from that sad event.

We were told that the young cook came upon two boys in the kitchen, scolded them and told them to leave. As she went to climb the stairs up to her apartments, they pulled her back down and bludgeoned her to death. Or, well, the story goes that one of them did. He stood trial and benefited from a hung jury, in part because the other boy informant was known to be a big liar. The acquitted boy went on to later stand trial for two other murders.

The cook's body was stowed in a room off the kitchen, under the stairs.

So here's what's wierd. I tried to photograph the staircase she was pulled from. I couldn't. My cell phone's screen was black. I thought for a second the phone had turned off. I kept trying to get a picture of it, but blackness seemed to be seeping, exuding from the stairs. The best I could do was to capture the door frame of its entry. After the tour moved on, I remained, thinking that I could get a picture now that no one was standing in front of the room's window blocking the light. No. Still no light to illuminate that photograph. Here are my three tries:

A pool of blackness
Still can't get it

Much better now the room is empty, but still can't see the steps

I'll be the first to admit my cell cam is pretty crappy, but it was odd it just couldn't show me the steps. Now, the only reason I knew about Preston Castle was that I attended the book launch of Angelica Jackson, whose book Crow's Rest is in part set there. (I'm halfway through the book and totally, enthusiastically recommend it!) The night of our visit, I continued reading and came across mention of the main character's camera's failure to work properly at the castle. I got a little frisson of shock reading that.

The plunge

Across from the kitchen is the plunge, adorned with coffins (sigh). A plunge is an old-time word for swimming pool, and my opinion is that that's what it is. However, we were told it was once filled with lye and was used to decontaminate new boys, even down to the chilling detail that a long stick would hold you under until you swam the entire length. I'm a little dubious about a huge vat of lye devoted merely to registering new boys.

This place lends itself to disquieting photography.

Downstairs dormitory and door to freedom
In the basement was another dormitory, also said to hold 50 beds. When we heard the boys were housed in the basement, I felt a sharp disappointment that they would held in dank quarters when the whole structure was there for them! Yet the word basement was a bit misleading--it is really ground level, and there was actually a lot of windows and natural light flooding in. The door to freedom was the way boys exited when they aged out; a bus sat outside waiting to take them away. The superstition is that you can't ever look back, or you'll return for good. We learned the names of many notable wards of Preston, but the only one I remember or knew of beforehand was Merle Haggard. Apparently he doesn't talk about Preston. I'd like to read his autobiography.

"I will not bludgeon other students"

Also in the cellar was the schoolroom. The chalkboard displayed more macabre humor.

Ceiling showing light from floor above: not sure what room

In the schoolroom, I noticed slung netting covering portions of the ceiling. In that netting were some pretty big chunks of ceiling plaster. I'm glad the net was there to protect our heads. It wasn't until we exited the structure via the boys' dining hall that I looked back and saw this above the door:

Well, so that gave me pause.

Aesthetically pleasant exterior with curving ramp

Out in the courtyard, we were shown a metal ring and told bad boys would be chained there and beaten. I didn't photograph it because if it was true, I'd be a ghoul. But I don't think it's true. We saw three more of those rings out in front of the castle.

You'd like to think maybe this was a place of true rehabilitation, and that the boys were treated well and fed well. I'm fascinated and want to learn more. Preston closed in 1960, and so there are surely many boys still out there now men, with their stories.

. . . . .
P.S. Logging in the next day to say I hope I wasn't too hard on the docent and the volunteers that run Preston Castle. It's certainly worth discussion, the idea of how we talk about places where traumatic things happened. For instance, I was personally appalled to learn that the site of the Lizzie Borden murders is now a B&B... yet without its being preserved in such a way, the public wouldn't get a chance to go and look. What do you think? And I want to go on record as saying THANK YOU for the volunteers of the foundation who donate time and energy to keep Preston Castle open. It is a great gift.

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Monday, August 03, 2015

More on Wendover

They had a great display of pin-up plane art

Wendover airfield, a major WWII base in Utah, is now a historic site. The museum is well worth visiting, and the spirit of the place is hard to describe. You can almost hear the buzz and machinery of the past, whereas I literally didn't see another person there other than my own family.

Model of the base in its heyday
Apparently Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, was given three bases to choose from, and he selected Wendover because of its remote location. It truly is far from anything, with horizon for miles, and much of it the Great Salt Desert (more on that in another post. It's very close to the Bonneville Salt Flats, now in the news because they can't hold their races there for the second year in a row, possibly because salt mining is depleting the resource and making the flats too slushy).

The 1942 control tower
If these structures and empty hangars could talk, what tales they would tell....

More on Wendover in another post (and also see below). Stay tuned.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Historic Wendover Airfield

"Little Boy" replica: the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima

Five states in four days...that was our drive from California, through Nevada, Utah and Wyoming, to arrive in Colorado. We had an amazing road trip and I have lots of historical stuff to share. I'll start first with the Wendover Airfield in Utah and its role in the launch of the atomic bomb (and I'll post again about the base in general, so stay tuned).

This airfield was an important WWII base nestled in the Great Salt Desert. Today, where men once teemed to ready their planes, the base is desolate, the hangars empty. There is a veritable atmosphere to the place.

Inside the very nicely-put-together museum, you can see a replica of "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. It is astonishing to see how very small a device it is, to have wrought so much destruction. The replica shows signatures from the flight crew, including Col. Paul Tibbets, who was the pilot.

The museum features an audio of the Enola Gay being loaded on that fatal day, Aug. 6, 1945. You press a button and hear the busy airfield readying itself for the flight, the bomb being loaded, men talking, calling out to each other. I got a distinct chill listening to it, and listened to the brief clip several times. At the end, there's a little burst of jazz music and a woman singing--did someone turn on a radio? I was trying to imagine that day and how the men felt. Apparently, the true mission of the Enola Gay  was kept quiet to all but Col. Tibbets until the plane was actually underway, but you have to wonder...

"Press here for audio playback of the loading of the Enola Gay"

Here's a scale model of the plane itself.

The day before the bomb dropped, Tibbets named the plane for his mother.

And a photograph of Col. Tibbets:

At Tinian Island, near Japan, where the crew went after the bomb drop

Tibbets died in 2007, and his cremated remains were scattered over the English Channel. He had feared a funeral or tombstone would provide a gathering place for those who objected to the use of the atomic bomb.

On Sept. 26, 2015, you can attend Wendover's 2015 Warbirds & Wheels WWII Commemoration celebrating the 70th year since the end of WWII. 

Wendover's website is www.wendoverairbase.com.

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Saturday, July 04, 2015

Interviewing Pixar's Inside Out creators

Last month, I had the intense pleasure of a phone interview for Oakland Magazine with Pete Docter and Jonas Rivera, the director and producer of Pixar's Inside Out (they both have Oakland/Piedmont ties). I found the movie to be an extraordinary, moving film far deeper than what children might be able to garner from it. Its target audience basically is parents, a thesis which Docter and Rivera agreed to. Yet don't let that stop you from bringing your kids; there's enough there to entertain and amuse as young as five years old.

Due to the article wordcount I wasn't able to include all the great things they told me. I'll add one here. Jonas Rivera said that his favorite part of the movie is a short scene where Joy doesn't want Riley to go to sleep and they put on their favorite song and "she skates along with her. It's an impossible relationship; it's the only time they're on screen together." Riley doesn't even know Joy exists...it's a poignant thought that the single most important aspect of her young personality is unknown to her.

I watched a special media showing before the official release date with friend and fellow historical novelist Erin McCabe, and boy, were we both sniffling, as was the entire audience. Friends who cry together stay together, right? I watched again later with my family, and noticed more the second time. For instance, I had noted that Joy has blue hair, but it didn't really register until the second viewing. Joy must always be tinged with sadness, because the remembrance of joy is the remembrance of something we once experienced and can't ever again in the same way. Which reminds me, I really need to read Proust sometime.

My article begins, "Pixar’s magic: making the events on the big screen somehow related to our small, foible-filled lives. And this year’s offering Inside Out proves that enchanted formula works again, but this time to a degree that leaves audience members in tears of reflection." Read the full text at Oakland Magazine's website.

. . . .
P.S. I previously interviewed Brave's filmmakers and got to visit the much-vaunted Pixar campus in Emeryville, California. Read that post here.

P.P.S. One more tidbit. I felt the film may revolutionize how people think about thinking. For instance, if we have concrete ways of thinking about emotions, it might be easier to say, "I'll let Joy take the helm and push Anger aside." I asked Docter and Rivera if they intended that, as a bit of self-help for viewers, and they pshawed me. "No, we're just trying to entertain." Sure.:)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Big Day of Giving

Today is the Big Day of Giving, where we focus on charities and make donations. I'm going to donate to 916 Ink, a group that helps Sacramento-area teens become published writers. But there's another nonprofit I donate to each month on the 12th, in memory of Jennifer L. Kranz, a six-year-old who died on the 12th (of February 2014). Would you be willing to donate $12 each month on the 12th to fund pediatric cancer research? Visit the GiveUs12 link.

I have two things to share in this post. One is an op-ed I wrote after having an epiphany about cancer: that it's not forever, not incurable, not the monster that will forever rule our fears. A cure is coming, so long as we can fund innovation.

Speaking of innovation, I'm delighted to share a video by the Kranz family, explaining about their nonprofit Unravel, founded in memory of their daughter to keep other families from going through that incredible tragedy. Let's watch that first.

There is progress coming; there is. Here is my piece that originally ran at the wonderful, big-hearted blog Sweatpants & Coffee.

Handing Cancer its Termination Notice

by Erika Mailman

Cancer's never going away, is it? It's the Grim Reaper large as Godzilla, with not one but two scythes, and really sharp incisors inside that skeletal jaw.

For many years—since I watched a friend in her early forties twist and moan in the pain of cervical cancer until it won—I’d considered cancer the beast that was omnipotent, and all we could do was bow our heads and hope it passed by those we cared about.

But recently I’ve been buoyed up by optimism. I foresee an end to cancer. I’m taking a lesson from history and am officially and ironically handing cancer its termination notice.

What spurs this confidence? Let me backtrack.

I teach English at a community college in Sacramento. In a chapter of our textbook titled "Homonyms and Commonly Confused Words," I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. Basically, as my students and I understood it, sympathy involves a mild feeling of distress, while empathy entails actually crying.

I spent a lot of time being empathetic in 2014. I capped off each night by looking at the blog written by Libby Kranz about her daughter's breathtakingly-quick—less than four months—decline and death from a tumor in her brainstem. Jennifer Kranz was six; the one-year anniversary of her death is next week, Feb. 12.

She and my daughter were in the same playgroup of a mom's group in Gilroy, California, and thus the news hit home in a way nothing else ever has. I sank to my knees night after night, not just crying, but sobbing, hyperventilating, in rockgut despair for my friend's loss.

Each morning I showered away the ravages of the previous evening’s grief, and met my students with a smile. Along with the grammar text, I assigned them a novel, Year of Wonders by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. This book is about the Bubonic Plague and is set in medieval Eyam, England, a village remarkable for the fact its residents quarantined themselves to avoid spreading the plague. They were sympathetic (if not empathetic) to the imagined plight of neighboring villages should they bring the "plague seeds" with them as they fled.

The Black Death, as the Bubonic Plague was called, swept over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, a pandemic that lasted for hundreds of years (mainly 1300s-1600s). Statistics vary, but it is said that a full third of the Middle East and Europe's population died from the plague.

Brooks's novel describes the buboes (dark, swollen lymph nodes from which "bubonic" derives) that would appear in people's groins, armpits, necks: the first sign of a fast ride to death that would involve high fever, vomiting of blood, and coagulating blood in fingers and toes, leaving them gothically, repugnantly blackened as if by fire. Deaths were so rampant that soon mass burials took place so corpses could be speedily dispatched; periodically, modern-day construction crews come across these pits.

Since the medieval world was awash in fleas (puce--French for "flea"--was a favorite clothing color at Versailles, to provide camouflage for the ubiquitous pest) and fleas carried the plague from rodent to human with their bites, the disease spread with alarming rapidity. Fleas famously can leap over a foot away and can continue living in bedding and clothing (in Brooks's novel, a tailor's shipment of cloth from London is to blame for the plague reaching Eyam), so short of completely contaminating a home, there would be no way to stop the miniature agents of disease--even if it had been known they were responsible.

The Black Death inspired terror for hundreds of years--now imagine telling someone in the 1300s that a simple vaccine would make mention of the plague shrug-worthy. And that even once contracted, the disease could be stopped by antibiotics if caught early on. They might not have been able to believe it. Plague had been too terrible, too sweeping, too much part of their lives.

And that's how we think about cancer.

We've spent decades feeling helpless about cancer's wretched march through the cells of those we love. Words like "metastasized" and "stage four" bring dread to our stomachs; these are words we have no armor for. When we hear about "the cure," there's a certain incredulity that there ever will be one. Cancer is so powerful. But I'm heartened by the analogy that we can eradicate cancer like we did the plague.

There will be a breakthrough. Today, for the most part, only third world countries suffer plague outbreaks, like Madagascar very recently. I'm honestly not concerned about buboes; they don't come up on my maternal radar too much, although 600 years ago my English ancestors probably worried about them constantly, with good reason.

I’m picturing the near future, a day when people marvel that cancer ran so long unchecked…when they pity us for our “Dark Ages” disease. That day is coming. Cancer researchers make strides daily, like Dr. Olson, who has developed “tumor paint” to make it easier for surgeons to excise diseased tissue while leaving good tissue intact, as well as working on anti-cancer compounds, optides. These optides improve the wretched process of chemotherapy which targets healthy and cancerous cells alike—the optides only attack the bad cells.

Jennifer Kranz’s parents have squeezed metaphoric lemons in desperation and grief to pummel them into pulp and lemonade. Their nonprofit organization Unravel promises to “unravel” pediatric cancer through fundraising to support researchers who are eager and innovative and only lack funding. Unravel monies recently permitted Dr. Olsen to hire not one but two interns. Being part of such a tangible step forward towards a cure makes me sleep better at night, although my eyes still burn with empathetic tears when I think about Jennifer, forever lost.

To read Libby's blog or to contribute to Unravel, her pediatric cancer awareness and fundraising nonprofit, visit http://unravelpediatriccancer.org.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

4th annual Chin Up for Writers Day

See that chin? It's elevated

I'm appalled to realize the fourth observance of National Chin Up for Writers Day somehow passed by me with proper parading, bannering, badging, and T-shirting. Yes, March 19 eluded notice, but I will still make my annual post.

I know why I was distracted; a month ago I had another novel come out under a pen name. I was caught up in events and social media for the launch.

And I have two things to say about that:

1. The Chin Up posts were as much for me as they were for anyone reading this blog. Although I had had two novels published, a desert of years had opened up in which I focused on offspring of the literal, rather than literary, kind. My Chin Up posts were me kicking the sand in that desert, reassuring myself and my chin that another publication day would arise. I don't regret those years; I think my husband and I have "authored" some pretty amazing people, but I needed a little bit of self-affirmation that my writer self still existed.

2. The book that just came out is a total poster child for keeping your chin up. The file is in storage that reveals the horrible truth of how very, very long ago I wrote this book (the file has the original handwritten pages I scribbled after the nightmare that engendered the book)--I don't remember the year offhand but let me say that it predated kids, predated my published novels and predated Richard the Third's original burial.

This rock is totally keeping its chin up

Books can thrive with undaunting cheerleaders (the writer!), fearless revisors (also, the writer!), and stalwart queriers (still the writer!). I didn't let my chin sink with this novel, nor did I stop trying to improve it, and the outcome has been wonderful: a book out in the marketplace that I'm proud of.

Chin up, writers: what you wish for can be accomplished.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:
First year
Second year
Third year

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