Wednesday, March 19, 2014

3rd annual Nat'l Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers

The geese believe in you!

I may be the only one observing the National Keep Your Chin Up Day for Writers, but I'm delighted it is now Year Three.

This day is meant to bolster and fortify anyone who is feeling in the doldrums about the process of writing and publishing. There is joy in writing, but not much joy in writing query letters, trying to attract an agent's attention and stacking up the list of rejections. All writers go through this. We all despair...we all wonder if we are talented or just fooling ourselves. We can receive that one rejection that feels like a blow to the gut because we were sure that editor or agent was the one: they were artistically and aesthetically aligned and we knew they were going to love our work. Except they didn't.

I reiterate: we all go through it. We all self-question and face the glowing computer screen at 3 a.m. thinking, "What am I doing?"

But if we are steadfast and believe in ourselves, we will listen to that little voice that says, "I can do this. I'm a voracious reader. I know how to craft a story because I've read a million stories. I am an astute observer of human nature, and I know dialogue, and I can put together a lovely, visual scene and say something interesting about the world I inhabit."

That's all it is.

Writing is a celebration of being human, so we have to find the celebration in it. We love people. We love their stories, their quirks, their secret shames. We love their dazzling, unlikely triumphs. We like their new haircut and hearing them sing in the shower and we like seeing them at the end of the day, tired and ready to shut off the stimulus, to start the whole thing all over again tomorrow. So we write. We tell everyone else about those people, because they're important. Our characters are significant; they help us understand the world.

I've been teaching a literature survey at our local community college, and as a class we've come to realize most of literature is...well, sad. It's rare to find the poem that exults (which is why I love Walt Whitman so dearly). Most poems acknowledge the brevity of our lives and the rarity of finding someone to share them meaningfully. Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss! I think that's true, but it's only one side of the story.

I challenge anyone who comes to this post today in the doldrums, to write a scene or a poem that uplifts. Craft an interaction that leaves the participants exhilarated. You may discard it; it may never see screentime in your novel or your collection of poems--but give it a try. You may find that your own mood also lifts.

And keep in mind that it only takes one to say yes: one agent will represent your work someday, and one editor will acquire it. Keep the faith.

Keep your chin up.

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

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Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Posting guard

A number of years ago, I found my husband lying on the floor next to our child's bed in his blue scrubs. He hadn't bothered to get a pillow or a blanket. He was in a fetal position, a sky-colored shrimp. When he awoke, I asked him if she had had a nightmare, since I hadn't heard her calling out, and he said no. There had been a child at the hospital where he worked who hadn't made it. Coming home from a late shift, he had gone in to make sure his child was all right. He stayed all night, watching her, grateful for her careless, graceful, magnificent ability to breathe.

When I started reading the Love4JLK blog, written by Libby about her daughter Jennifer's cancer diagnosis, I felt that same compulsion. What was once a nightly ritual--the checking of the children, that most exalted and beautiful of parental rights, our reward for whatever struggles we endured during the day, or whatever struggles we endured to bring the children to the earth--became more. I slept on the floor. I brought them into our bed. I clung to them. And I wished in a sense that I could do the same for Libby, post a guard for her and keep breath in the lungs. Now that her daughter has died, I continue the metaphorical desire to be the watch dog, to snarl at the dark. But metaphors don't mean much when children have died.

So I am turning my back on that and looking for pragmatic answers. Real things, that can be done in real life. Nothing will bring Jennifer back, but in a very real sense, some of these may keep another child, a child of the future whose diagnosis is written in her cells, with us, safe in her bed.

1. Read Libby's blog and share it widely in social media. You never know what may arise, when some powerful person reads her blog. It may be a Congressman or Congresswoman who rises up out of ire and grief to help fund pediatric cancer research. It may be a wealthy person who can, with one click of the mouse, completely fulfill the goal of the Jennifer Kranz Research Fund. Speaking of which....

2. Consider a donation to the Jennifer Kranz Research Fund. $30,000 of the $100,000 goal has been met thus far. What is the fund? It's research at Lucile Packard (Stanford University) where researchers are studying the literal tumors from Jennifer's body. She had a particularly aggressive form of DIPG, and her tumors may yield valuable information about this cancer.

3. Share widely this short youtube video in which Libby requests that the already-allotted cancer funding in the U.S. be more fairly distributed. It is shocking to learn that only 4 percent of cancer funding goes to pediatric cancer--and kids are more than 4% of the population.

4. Tweet the video to your representative. Almost all of them have Twitter accounts.

5. Write your representative. I hope to soon post a sample letter you can cut and paste, print out, put in an envelope and mail out. Five minutes and 40 cents.

6. Be gentle. Our time here is too short, even when not cut short.

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Monday, February 17, 2014

A place of escape: My winter book recommendations

My friend’s daughter died last Wednesday, Feb. 12. She was only six years old. She died of an incredibly-aggressive brain tumor called DIPG. I have been awash in feelings –actually, I’ve been awash since October of 2013 when Jennifer Lynn Kranz was first diagnosed and given the life expectancy of six to nine months, and her mom first began blogging.

Jennifer only got three and a half months after diagnosis.

At one point, her mom Libby linked to the blog of a mom who had already lost her child. That woman wrote about how she couldn’t read novels anymore, that they required her to mentally leave her world, and she couldn’t bear to leave the world in which her child had once lived.

That made me worry that that was true of all parents who lost children—because Libby loves to read. She is a member of the Book Club I loved dearly until I had to move out of town. I loved hearing Libby’s take on the books we read and always learned something from her perspective. And it turns out she is an incredible author, from her stripped-raw words on the blog about her deep love for Jennifer and her bewilderment at the situation they had been placed in.

In the last three and a half months, I have taken solace in reading. I have traveled, as I always do when I read, to stalk other landscapes, eat in other people’s homes, sleep on their pillows, fight their fights, kiss their lips. I’m fervently grateful for books. They have been my escape route.

I typically do a seasonal book recommendation, but this time I’d like to recommend books that truly transported me. These weren’t all the books I read recently; they’re all the books I loved recently.

In no particular order:

1. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler.
In this book that probes how we interact with animals and feel about our own animal selves, the main character reflects back on a life in which she was raised alongside a chimpanzee. Ostensibly a scientific experiment to see if/how the chimp could learn language and communicate with humans, the concept also involves how the human learned from the chimp and what unexpected effects arose. I’m not doing the plot justice, but I also want to avoid plot spoilers. I found this absolutely graceful, kind and thought-provoking.

2. Don’t Turn Around by Michelle Gagnon.
Disclosure: Michelle and I were in the same writers group eons ago, but that connection is not why she shows up on this list. I absolutely loved her young adult novel about a girl who wakes up in the middle of some sort of malevolent experiment being done on her, and she must escape, figure out what she has become entangled in, and assist others. It’s fast-paced and plotted so well. The character is really likeable and you ache for her disrupted childhood.

3. The Archived by Victoria Schwab.
I picked this out for its incredible cover, but fell in love with what was inside. In this young adult novel, a girl helps usher confused, newly-dead to their next destination, the Archives. I will say that although the Archives are essentially libraries (some of my favorite places in the world), they are bleak –and this may not be a comforting book for anyone thinking concretely about life after death. But the story is touching and incredibly well-told nonetheless.

4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips.
I loved this novel so much I assigned it to my community college English students. Its conceit is that Arthur (Phillips) has come into possession of a lost Shakespearean quarto and the novel is really his introduction to Random House’s publication of this play. He tries to--at length-- convince the reader that the work is a forgery, and the book culminates in the play itself. I’m surprised this book didn’t get more buzz/acclaim (it’s already in paperback): I really consider it Pulitzer material.

I feel like there’s a fifth book I’m forgetting.

Forgetting is a good thing. We read to forget.

Jennifer’s mom asked us—the community of the web, as well as those she knows personally—to share, tweet and link to the following video. It’s only one minute long and although she addresses President Obama directly, it isn’t a political video. It’s a video in which she asks that the funding for cancer be more fairly distributed—not that more funding be allocated, but that children get more than four percent of the already-allocated funding.

Were you aware that pediatric cancer only gets four percent of cancer funding in this country? I’m not sure what precise percentage of the population children actually represent, but it’s around 24 percent. And pediatric cancer is so dramatically unfair: these kids haven’t had a chance to live their lives.

We know as much about DIPG as we did 30 years ago. If research had been tunneling along for the last three decades, Jennifer might be alive today.

Libby filmed this video Feb. 1—less than two weeks later, her daughter had died. Please share, tweet and link to it. Let’s get the money and the advocacy rolling, so the next child with DIPG may survive.

Twitter: #love4jlk
Facebook: Love4JLK

And if you would like to donate directly to the Jennifer Kranz Research Fund, click here.

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Next day:
I remembered the fifth--and I feel awful for forgetting it because it honestly was my favorite of the bunch. In fact, I had just finished the book at night and had been intending to email the author a long, glorious, happy, praise-filled message in the morning, but the next day was  the day Jennifer died.

The book was Illuminations by Mary Sharratt. I previously ran a Q&A with Mary in November, but I hadn't had a chance to read the book. When I did read it, I found that every page brought beauty. The novel tells the story of Hildegard von Bingen, a young medieval woman who was walled up into a cell of the church as an Anchoress--actually, she was a girl at the time, and it was not her choice. She went into the Anchorage with Jutta, an older girl who felt called by God to remove herself (and Hildegard) from the secular world. As Illuminations progresses, we learn the reason for Jutta's life-changing choice, and we see how Hildegard makes the most of her life in seclusion. She fights and advocates, both for herself and for other girls destined for the Anchorage, such that she becomes a world-renowned visionary and author/composer whose work endures to this day.

Sharratt's writing is so drenched with beauty, and she makes something .... well, illumined out of the stark life Hildegard lived. I felt that I lived Hildegard's life with her, and can so very visually see the confines of the cell, the small courtyard they were allowed, the slitted window through which they could see the monks at prayer in the monastery. I felt the book was actually quite cinematic, which is quite the feat for a book whose "footprint" is so small. I'd love to see this on the big screen in the hands of someone like Cary Fukunaga.

I sincerely loved this book and felt something I rarely feel...pending sadness as I approached the end. I didn't want it to end, and that's an emotion I don't feel usually while reading. I like to read to the end, find out, and move on. With this book, I wanted to linger. I saw from the old Q&A linked to above, that Mary had to delete 40,000 words of the originally much-longer manuscript. How I wish we could have a "director's cut" and see those deleted but doubtlessly valuable scenes.

A gorgeous book, and my most recommended.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

After Great Pain

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

By Emily Dickinson
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

. . . .


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Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Kranz Family Plea

Pediatric cancer...such a horrible combination of words. It's easy enough to shudder and then turn your attention elsewhere, until you know the child involved. And then you can't stop thinking about it and being angry and in despair and knowing lives are being inextricably changed somewhere in the world. You may be lucky and be unscathed, but you can support those who are facing the hardest reality there is.

Jennifer Kranz is six years old, fighting a DIPG tumor, and things are progressing quickly. Wildly quickly. Her dad is going to stop working so he can spend the last time possible with her. Can you please help in two ways?

1. If it is possibly financially for you--even for a very small token amount--think about how tip jars slowly fill and make employees happy at the end of the shift--it doesn't have to be a huge donation--please give something to this family to help the dad stay home with his family for these last precious moments together.

2. Use social media and share the JONES out of this video. It of Jennifer's mom Libby asking President Obama to change the division of funds for cancer research. She's not asking for more funding--she's just asking for the pie to be more fairly divided. Because--can you believe this? Pediatric cancer only gets four percent of cancer research funds in this country. Four percent. Four percent goes to the most devastating kind of cancer there is. Share the video on Facebook, put it on your blog, tweet it and retweet it and make it go viral. The Kranz Family knows their fight is ending soon, but they want other families to have a better outcome.

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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

The last time I saw Napoleon, he was hanging out in a circular tomb with a viewing deck above. My French teacher told me it was his plan that for time immemorial, anyone who visited his grave would be obliged to bow their head to him. Imagine what it would be like to be married to such a guy?

That's the task Heather Webb takes on in her debut historical novel Becoming Josephine.

She's gotten great reviews already (it came out New Year's Eve--an auspicious date for starting a new writing life, and it has already paid off. Heather just got a second book deal for a novel about Camille Claudel, Rodin's lover!) and has been enjoying a great launch for her wonderful book.

Here's the tantalizing description of Becoming Josephine:

Rose Tascher sails from her Martinique plantation to Paris to 
trade her Creole black magic culture for love and adventure. 
She arrives exultant to follow her dreams of attending Court 
with Alexandre, her elegant aristocrat and soldier husband. 
But Alexandre dashes her hopes and abandons her amid the 
tumult of the French Revolution.

Through her savoir faire, Rose secures her footing in high 
society, reveling in handsome men and glitzy balls—until 
the heads of her friends begin to roll.

After narrowly escaping death in the blood-drenched cells 
of Les Carmes prison, she reinvents herself as Josephine, 
a socialite of status and power. Yet her youth is 
fading, and Josephine must choose between a precarious 
independence and the love of an awkward suitor. Little 
does she know, he would become the most powerful man of 
his century- Napoleon Bonaparte.

BECOMING JOSEPHINE is a novel of one woman’s journey to 
find eternal love and stability, and ultimately to 
find herself.

Heather Webb

I've been enjoying the book very much. I think one strength so far has been its unflinching look at the truly violent world of the French Revolution. It was not called the Terror for nothing--and Webb really shows us Paris upended and dangerous. A scene where Josephine watches a nun running for her life (the revolutionaries despised Catholicism and ordered a death-on-sight law for priests in 1793) was memorable and harrowing.

I also appreciated learning that Josephine was not a Parisienne by birth--she was a Creole born in Martinique. Scenes from her childhood on that tropical island fortify her character as a woman who endures much suffering to land on top...temporarily.

Josephine's life was rich, colorful, tragic--and although I haven't finished the book yet, I can see Webb has perfectly told her tale. Heartily recommended!

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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Underwater Mormon Island dwellings now visible

Remaining stone wall of a structure, with Folsom Lake in background
Here in Gold Country (heart of the Gold Rush), there was an 1848 settlement named Mormon Island for its Mormon immigrant settlers who had found gold there. At one point, the population was 2,500, but by 1856 it was all a dream, ruined by fire--and then by water. Fifty years ago, the community was sunk underwater by the creation of the Folsom Dam.

Right now, we're experiencing a drought in California. It's so severe that these dwellings have been again exposed to the air, for the first time in half a century. It's shocking, really: in the past we've gone several times to Browns Ravine to walk around and swim. Where we swam mere months ago, it is now completely dust-dry.

A tree stump that was previously underwater

A collection of elixir bottles and other artifacts left by others on a stump

Metal remains: including a square-tipped nail

The re-emergence of Mormon Island has made international news (thank you, Oakland History Room historian Kathleen DiGiovanni for bringing this backyard news to my attention!). So, as any history buff would do, I set out with my family to see the ruins.

We were surprised how very many people were out to see Mormon Island. My husband estimate there were a thousand people walking the trails from the parking lot to the walls and foundations of the town's saloon, dairy and other buildings. Of course, as was typical for the Gold Rush, many of the original "buildings" were tents which would not have survived. Here's a great, colorful anecdote I found from Theodore Henry Hittell's History of California, Vol. III (an 1898 volume digitized online):

In October 1849 at Mormon Island an altercation took in a tent used as a liquor saloon between an unruly customer and the bar keeper. The former insisted upon getting over the counter while the latter threatened to shoot unless he desisted. At this the former became very abusive and advanced with demonstrations of violence when the latter fired his pistol and shot his adversary down. A crowd soon collected which took the barkeeper into custody and in the evening a judge and twelve jurymen were appointed to investigate the facts and administer justice. On the trial it appeared that the man shot had been intoxicated and very abusive and at the moment of being shot was in the act of climbing over the counter to attack the barkeeper but it also appeared that the shot which was through the shoulder, though painful, was not likely to be fatal.

Interestingly, the courthouse was also lodged in a tent.

Browns Ravine: cars parked where previously there was a lake

On the path to see the ruins

Wall remnants show where a row of buildings once was

We very much enjoyed seeing the stone walls and cellar holes. As this is a state park and no one is allowed to take artifacts from it, people had thoughtfully placed collections of items on tree stumps and rocks to be perused by other visitors.

Looks like this was the remains of a bridge over the river

Crumbled walls in foreground and background

Sorry, building!

If you're local, go to Brown's Ravine in El Dorado Hills (purchase a state park pass and parking is free for a year at any of these wonderful parks: otherwise, $10) and drive all the way to the very end--basically until you can see the water in a semicircle around you. Many people park halfway down and then have a very long walk to the ruins. After you park, head left and you'll see the ruins after ten minutes or so. There are muddy areas, but you can also ford them by being strategic and using stepping stones to get across.

I was delighted to see so many people out, interested in history. For the first time ever, there was a long line of cars driving into the park and a feeling of celebratory interest in the area's past. My husband said it looked like people on pilgrimage. The local historical society should put a table out and sign people up! Well, I'll do it here online. That would be the Clarksville Historical Society: Clarksville was the original name for El Dorado Hills.

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