The Death of Romance

In 1986 I attended my first writers’ conference: two weeks at Johns Hopkins University. All in all, it seemed the stars converged to create an experience that was memorable, unique, cherished. I had the great good fortune to study under Richard Bausch, whose talent inspired me as much as did his approach to life.  I enjoyed wonderful conversations about writing with Mary Robison, whose terrific short stories have appeared in the New Yorker as well as other prestigious publications. I  became friends with the poet Pamela Stewart (a friendship that survives to this day, as does my deep admiration for her work). Our workshop also included some fine writers whose talent seemed to create an aura around them. One of my workshop mates included Erik Larson, who has gone on to write best-selling and critically acclaimed non-fiction. Another very talented member of our workshop, Shawn Sapp-Nocher, entered the Hopkins MFA program in creative writing this fall and will, I’m sure, make significant contributions to the world of letters. My own first novel, Dancing With Gravity, was published in 2011.

The wonderful experiences of those weeks shaped so much of what has followed in my  writing life. But one experience that stays with me was of a very different sort. As part of the program, each student had a conference with a second writer in addition to their workshop teacher. After reading my submission, this other writer, a woman, was generally positive. I nearly collapsed in gratitude. Inexperienced, hopeful and naive, I asked if she thought I could, indeed, become a writer. I realize now how foolish I was to put that answer in the hands of a stranger. But I was nearly desperate for validation.  After a theatrical pause, she answered, “The question is not, ‘can you write’ but ‘must you write’.”  It was a stupidly self-serving comment by an academic, but I didn’t grasp it at the time. Instead, I suffered deep self-doubt and recrimination as I questioned whether I was driven enough, willing to sacrifice enough— and therefore worthy enough— to continue writing.

Here are the facts: writing—good writing—is difficult. It takes us away from the people we love and calls us to the isolation (and excitement) of the page. A novel may take years to complete, even as the reader “polishes it off” in a weekend. In our greed-driven economy, literature is a far second to the product—however badly written—that makes a profit. The more collateral opportunities, the better.   Publishers now seem to view books as little more than commodities like pet rocks or Harry Potter figurines. As for the reading public, the numbers tell the story: we’d rather be titillated by steamy sex scenes than do the work a serious novel requires— and rewards.

Still, some people pursue this line of work—work being the operative word. Writing is not essential, as are food, shelter and medical care. But art feeds the soul. Speaking for myself, I never feel more “myself” than when I’m writing. When I’m working, I am more awake, aware and alive than at almost any other time. But is it “necessary”?Must” I do it? The question itself is romantic. Ridiculous. Worse, it sidesteps the inherent dignity of choice. And commitment.

My interaction with that woman at Johns Hopkins came to mind again today when I read an essay by Alice McDermott. In  ‘If You Can Do Anything Else, Kids, Do It,’ a blog for the New York Times, she offers anecdotes that capture the heartbreak and grief so often associated with the writing life. She also manages to end on a very hopeful note.  While I deeply admire McDermott’s work, I don’t agree with the last lines in her essay.  They’re too sentimental. Bottom line: I have obligations. Debts. I run a freelance business. I do not confuse my own work with work for hire. But I approach both with seriousness and dedication. To write is a privilege, a gift. I am a writer. Not because I lack free will. Not because I am constitutionally incapable of any other work. I choose to write because I love it. Because I respect it. To write is to pay homage…even to pray.

Read Ms. McDermott’s wonderful essay at: ‘If You Can Do Anything Else, Kids, Do It’ –

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Keep Mum and Write On

When I was working on my novel (which, I’ll admit, took an incredibly long time), I made the mistake of sharing that information with people around me. As the weeks, months, and (yes) years passed I alternately worked on/shelved/suffered over my work in progress. I also discovered that, nearly as painful as the stalled work itself, were the well-meaning comments by others asking about the plot, characters and (worst of all) my progress. My answers alternated between spontaneous tears, evasive tactics and genuinely mean defensiveness-turned-aggression.

Blank Slate Press published my novel, Dancing With Gravity, in 2011. My book won some prizes; it also broke my heart. My novel taught me how to write a novel. The publishing process itself taught me other valuable lessons too. I also learned (or hope I have) that nothing substitutes for the writing itself. And that’s between the writer and the page…not anyone else. The last thing a struggling writer needs is an outside source wondering about the work. I assure you, most writers do plenty of that without any help.

And for another take on the writer’s dilemma, I’m enclosing the link to a New York Times piece, “Don’t Ask What I’m Writing” by Mark Slouka I think you’ll enjoy. Here’s the link

Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

And here’s a copy of the text:

AUGUST 24, 2013, 3:06 PM
Don’t Ask What I’m Writing

No stage of the writing process — not the editor’s first response to the manuscript, not
the review gauntlet — is as fraught for writers as those first few months of uncertainty:
that miserable time when we think, believe, know with absolute assurance that we’ve
found the key to the novel in our heads, though maybe, probably, definitely not.
Want to lose a friend who’s a writer? Ask her, a month in, how it’s going. Better still, ask
her to describe what she’s working on. She’ll try, because she has to (“Well, it’s about this
friendship between these two, um, friends . . . ”) all the while listening to the magic
leaking out of the balloon, and she’ll hate you for it.

If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in
embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately,
because we’re writers, a k a bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to
share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.

Why? Because we’re unsure — about very nearly everything. Because in our hearts we’re
only as good as our last paragraph, and if the new book isn’t going anywhere, maybe
we’re no good at all. Because we’re running on faith and fumes. In the early stages, before
that magic moment when the voice of the story begins to speak, we want — no, crave —
validation, someone on the outside who will say, preferably with godlike authority and
timbre: “It’s brilliant. You’re on the right track. Just keep going.”

The problem, of course, is that our inner critic, the I. C., is whispering in our ear that
we’re not even remotely on the right track — that we’re blundering around in the
wilderness, in fact. Yet we still try to bully him into submission by recruiting allies from
among our friends. If they confirm that yes, indeed, that first page of “The Something or
Other” is immortal and they’d rather open a vein than be denied the knowledge of what
happens next, maybe I. C. will shut up. It rarely works. Nine times out of 10 (the
exception guarantees a bad book) the I. C. will be rubbing our nose in the truth before the
week is out: the work is as bad as we suspected it was. And the loyal recruit, having
foolishly interfered in this lost cause, will be collateral damage.

Think of the situation as a mouse trap baited with appeals to a friend’s decency, or one of
those Chinese finger-trapping sleeves. There’s your writer, emerging from his study,
sending out sticky little signals: “A good day today,” he’ll say, pouring himself a cup of
coffee; or, “I think I might be on to something”; or, “I’m quite excited.” What’s the
spouse, parent, colleague or long-suffering agent supposed to do?

Let’s just say this is not one of those win-win situations. If the well-meaning colleague
doesn’t ask, she risks seeming unsupportive; ask, and she suffers the consequences: every
syllable of her response will be studied and sifted with forensic care, every attempt at
encouragement grimly accepted or politely dismissed, every stab at honesty received like
a lance through the heart. Within minutes the writer will be conjuring subtexts out of thin
air, divining intention, whipping up context; he’ll misread, unerringly. This will be
entertaining in its own way, but it won’t be pretty.

Which leaves the unsuspecting participant only two possible pre-emptive moves, neither
particularly strong. The first is to play for time, to say something along the lines of “I’d
love to hear about the book, but I don’t want you to talk about it until you’re ready.”
Chances are it won’t work, but at least this way the blame is on the writer: the colleague
counseled caution; the author hanged himself of his own volition. Another is to
adamantly refuse to hear a word until the writer stops asking, at which point the coast is
clear. A third might be to cultivate the company of cowboys — illiterate ones — and be

One might wonder why — besides their own pathetic need for reassurance — writers
would ask others’ opinions at all. It’s an interesting question; the answer comes down to
which writer you ask. Though it may be a failing on my part — the sign of an overweening
ego, or a fragile one — I’ve never understood writers who workshop their stuff with their
50 best friends, then rewrite in view of their criticisms.

Writing, I figure, at least any writing worth reading, isn’t done by committee, and though
I haven’t always been strong enough to live by this precept, I’ll stand by it nonetheless:
Your vision is your own, for better or worse.

These reminders should be on the wall above my desk: 1. Trust a few, necessary voices. 2.
Try, as much as possible, to avoid torturing these brave souls with your own insecurities.
3. Shut up and write.

Mark Slouka is an essayist and the author, most recently, of the novel “Brewster.”
Don’t Ask What I’m Writing –…
2 of 2 8/25/13 10:44 AM

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Closing of the Year

I spent this last Sunday of the year as I spend many of my Sundays: reading the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York Times over a quiet breakfast and strong, fragrant coffee. Each of these newspapers featured lists and photographs from the events of 2012. As I read these summaries, I marveled at all that had occurred this year—throughout the world, and in my own city.  In our own household, the year brought great joy to our family with the birth of my great-nephew, Nathan. We also shared the grief of our nation when we learned of the tragedy at Newtown.

What to make of such disparate events?

I assume so much—because I cannot bear to think otherwise: that my family will be intact next Christmas. That I will again shop for those I love. That we’ll decorate our home and see friends and love one another. That we’ll be safe. That all will be well.

In the wake of this year’s events, such an expectation seems—at best—naive.

I wondered how I might let go of the closing year–and  embrace 2013. How I might respect what has gone before, and open myself—with hope—to what comes next.

The answer came to me as I read this gorgeous essay (see link below) by Andrew D. Scrimgeour in today’s New York Times Book Review. Mr. Scrimgeour is dean of libraries at Drew University. In “Handled With Care” he writes about removing books from a personal library once the owner of those books has died.  His approach is reverent, quiet, deliberate. It honors both the books and their late collector….without succumbing to a past that is no more. Handled with care. It seems a fitting way to let go of the past and approach another year.

Read the essay in full at:

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A Toast to Maria Popova

It’s not often I scoop the New York Times. And even though I wrote about Brain Pickings before they did, their article about this engaging site offers a rich background and (in true Times fashion) wonderful insights. Maria Popova deserves a toast!

Read more at:

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Inspiration Delivered to Your Inbox

In a “J’accuse” moment, the poet David Clewell once observed that many people write poetry…yet few seem to actually buy it. The same could be said of the nosey, noisy Internet. So many of us are blogging, posting, “liking” and commenting that I wonder who is actually reading any of it.

In the last few months, I’ve taken a stand. I’ve unsubscribed from the dozens of vendors and social media sites whose ubiquitous emails both distracted and overwhelmed.  As a result, I actually read the email messages I’ve chosen to keep.

Although I rarely add to these subscriptions, I’ve discovered a site that’s—dare I say it?—inspirational. It’s called Brain Pickings. It you subscribe they’ll send a weekly e-newsletter that contains fascinating information about artists, writers, and thinkers—whether from a previous century, or recent headlines. They also recommend books on topics ranging from creativity to science, history to psychology. The emails are free, but the site welcomes donations. I’ve included a link to a recent newsletter here:

Also, check out the site for yourself:

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Worth Reading

This past weekend, my friend John sent me a link to the essay I want to share with you now. It’s by Joe Queenan and it’s about reading…about physical books…about that secret and mysterious relationship between reader and text. It’s from the Wall Street Journal….and I promise: it’s worth your time.

Joe Queenan: My 6,128 Favorite Books –

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Marching Back Into The Sea

I’m dreading election season. It’s only August, but I’ve already had more than enough of the negative political ads, even as I know that there are more—many, many more—to come. The lack of decency and respect…the easy disregard for facts, both overwhelm and dishearten me. But then there are days, like today, when I find I can still be shocked—even frightened by a candidate.  I’m talking about Republican U.S. Senate nominee Todd Akin. During an interview on KTVI, the St. Louis Fox affiliate yesterday; Mr. Aiken was asked about his opposition to abortion rights, even in the case of rape.  His response, as reported in today’s St. Louis Post Dispatch:

“”First of all, from what I understand from doctors, (pregnancy) is really rare” in rape cases, Akin said. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” He added: “But let’s assume that maybe that didn’t work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.”

Where to begin? With his poor grasp of anatomy and physiology? His disregard for the brutality and psychological trauma a woman endures during a rape…and the effects that continue—sometimes for years—afterward? Or his covert suggestion that women participate in these violations through his designation of “legitimate rape” as opposed to…. what? Added to the horror of the rape itself, Mr. Aiken would have a victim—assuming her body doesn’t “shut the whole thing down”— forced to carry the product of a rape to term. Chilling stuff. Even more so when I learned that Mr. Ryan (Mitt Romney’s running mate) was among some 200 Conservatives who also supported “legitimate rape” language in their anti-abortion efforts. Sounds a lot like 1950—or 1850 for that matter. Or is it more ominous still, with our species slowly marching back into the sea?

You can read an online version of the Post-Dispatch article below.

“Akin says ‘legitimate’ rape won’t cause pregnancy – Stltoday”

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