Saturday, November 17, 2012

She's downstairs looking for your gun

He decided she was crazy.  He was brushing his teeth, and it dawned on him the stress she was going through finally had taken her over the edge.  Last week he pushed the idea that she should see a psychiatrist, ostensibly as a way to get her mind off of flying, which they both knew she would have to do if she wanted to go to Seattle to be with her daughter, her husband, and their new baby.  It wasn't so much as flying as being on a small plane that she minded.  She would have to travel from their regional airport to Philadelphia or New York to catch one of the larger planes, and those little 20-seaters that operated out of their city would take her over the top.  The claustrophobia would have her peeling the walls by the time the plane landed if she already hadn't caused an accident at 30,000 feet trying to break through the tiny windows for air or freedom. 

She was always on edge.  This was her personality and he had accepted it many years ago, that and the crazy stories of her earlier marriages, the secrets concerning her family, and that god-awful farm.  What occurred there that she couldn't talk about it? 

Jeez, he spit bloody toothpaste into the sink, his gums were bleeding. 

It was clear she had had a rough life; he felt that if he remained calm and didn't ask too many questions, she would work it out internally – that's what she said she wanted to do, wasn't it?  But, after all these years, he was starting to think this required something like a miracle, say, like self-healing from cancer.  She said she could do this and he had been willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but without knowing what it was and now seeing what it was doing to her, he had to wonder.  Maybe the psychiatrist could tell him if he could get her to go. 

He once tried to bring up those years when she was a kid, but she wouldn’t have it, and visiting the farm to see her dad still alive out there was out of the question.  The only thing she told him: when she was sixteen she went to the barn to milk the cows, met up with a boy – a local kid she barely knew who had joined the army six months earlier – and never returned.  Three marriages later, forty years later, she was here with him.  He heard more about the rotten things the other men did to her than what it was like growing up with her older siblings.  She told him once, when they signed their marriage certificate, Ethel came from her mother who died when she was a baby.  They called her Sissy and she never mentioned it again.     

He put his tooth brush in the holder and gargled, spitting a stream of watery-red toothpaste into the sink.  It was all too much he decided.  He looked at himself in the mirror and wondered if his eyes had always been this sore and when was the last time he had gone out and gotten a haircut?  He was a mess; she was taking him down with her. 

He looked beyond his image; he could see her typing away on his computer on their bed.  Now who was she writing to? – He hoped it wasn't the sheriff, once again.  She had destroyed her own computer in a moment of anger, and before that, her Kindle, and, most recently, she swore her camera was on the fritz, but was she at fault for that too?  He just didn't trust her alone and found reasons to stay around the house, at least until she calmed down.  And at night he slept lightly, if he slept at all, waiting for her to fall sleep, then worried half the time if she would wake up without his knowing. 

But lately, her storming off in a rage for no reason – at nonsense as far as he was concerned – suddenly showing up with groceries at 3 AM and not putting anything away – hadn't he come downstairs in the morning to melted ice cream that had seeped all over the counter and onto the floor – the drugs, the doctors, the stories, the walks, the conversations he could hear her having with herself, the endless calls – who was she talking to anyway?  The calls, in particular, had him mystified.  He asked her a couple of weeks ago and she said her daughter, but when he saw the bill the calls were to the farm.  Something was happening and his sitting back and letting her work through it wasn't working.  He needed to talk to her daughter before she arrived in Seattle.  Maybe she could get through to her. 

He sighed and turned from the sink, "Honey, I am going to make some breakfast.  You want something?" 

She looked up at him. "Toast," she said, pausing, "and Sissy can join us." 

His eyes squinted; he wanted to say, "What?"  Instead, he asked instinctively, "Who am I talking to?"

"Jane," she replied matter-of-factly, returning to her typing. 

"Oh," he responded, now that's a first.  "And where's Sissy?" he asked. 

She giggled in spite of herself, afraid to look at him, like she had burning secret she was dying to share… 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Reading like a Writer

Over the past week I read a book entitled "Reading like a Writer" by Francine Prose.  I bought this paperback at our local bookstore because it offered to help me do exactly what I needed to do from now on.  Not only that, but, as a bonus feature, it promised me a list of all of the “Books that Must be Read Immediately.”  Exactly!  That’s exactly what I needed! 

What led up to this epiphany is very clear in my mind.  I was sitting at my desk, reading my blog, when I experienced a brief but profound moment of enlightenment.  I suddenly realized if I wanted to maintain this blog for the rest of my life, while posting pieces on a frequent basis, I needed help.  Other blogs focus on specific topics, like politics, or crochet, or making Julia Child’s recipes, or roaming around on a motorcycle, or even discussing the local sports scene, all of which seem well-intentioned, well-written, and, well, let’s be frank, quite do-able on a continuous basis.  However, my blog, I realized, went everywhere and nowhere at once.  In my illumination, I realized I lacked two essential ingredients that the other blogs seemed to have: quality writing and continuous inspiration. 

Deciding to tackle that “continuous inspiration” thing next month, I resolved instead to work on the quality of my writing. This was something I could manage, couldn’t I?  After all, it’s about mechanics, and, anyhow, didn’t that one blog say I could crochet better by actually crocheting, and didn’t the other blog say with proper training and a rod and tackle, I could learn to fish, and how hard is it anyway to cook from a recipe, even if it is Julia Child’s?  I decided right then and there, if others can improve on their passion, I can too.  In fact, that very day, I decided I would enhance my writing skills by becoming a better writer (eureka, what an idea!).  Rather than read a grammar book, I would learn by osmosis – that is, by reading more to see how others have achieved their “quality-writing” success.  

This, of course, brought me to the bookstore late that afternoon.  I needed a good book by a good writer that was not too difficult to read and didn’t have too many pages.  Clearly, with monthly installments on my blog, I didn’t have time to get bogged down.  Oh, and I needed a book with a font size that was not too tiny either.  (I hate it when it takes forever to turn the page, and if there are too many pages to turn, the truth is, I’m doomed!)   Most importantly, as a blogger with more than a year under my belt, I needed this to work.  I was alone and desperate, but, in my favor, I had total access to all the books in the store.  Two hours later, my new dedication began with four good-but-different books tucked under my arm: “Reading like a Writer” (not exactly what I came for, but, clearly, this could save me a lot of time), “Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places” (A theme of mine, you have to admit, given my “Notes from the Field” over the past year), “Blogging for Dummies” (Yes, I agree, what the hell am I doing?), and the curve ball of the day, “Chi Marathon” by Danny Dreyer (Did I mention I like to run?  After a year of semi-serious training, I am desperate for some improvements in this area too.  In fact, everything I do seems symptomatic of this problem – oh, never mind, let’s save that thought for a later essay…).    

At my desk back home with my four new books by my side, I picked up “Reading like a Writer.”  Skimming the back cover, I noted that the author, a Ms. Prose, was an avid, life-long reader and just as critically, especially for the authority she was projecting in taking on this idea, an author of several works of fiction.  Wasn’t this proof positive she was exactly who I needed to improve my blog?  Most importantly, I read, she was also a creative writing teacher of many years. This, then, was a book letting me in on what she had gleaned from her readings, writings, and teachings.  I had hit the Holy Trinity!  Already I could feel my blog improving!  

That night, I began my quest.  After all, aren’t I a writer of a year-long blog?  Aren’t I more than a klutzy, knock-kneed runner, or a traveler to distant shores (but usually just our own shore), or a dup that buys books for Dummies (especially when it comes to blogs, Spanish, Excel spreadsheets, auto mechanics…)?  I simply needed a path, and with my new book, my strategy came together:  I would to learn how to “read like writer,” skip the actual reading of any other books, and go directly to improving my blog.  (What a plan!)

In point of fact, I soon discovered Francine (I call her Francine now because of our one-on-one relationship) employed snippets from literary classics to convey the importance of “writer reading.”  This was perfect, I realized, with Francine’s guidance I could cover quickly the world’s great literature, killing two birds with one stone!  Forget the easy books or the picture books with lots of white spaces.  “Writer-reading” was exactly what I needed to be well-read!  Oh, and don’t forget that list in the appendix that Francine lovelingly hands out to her oblivious students, that list she’s willing to share privately with me now that we are so intimately acquainted, that list of classics to be a great writer.  The secret was finally MINE, and I figured, given the limited time I was operating under (what with my monthly deadline) and given I only wanted to be a great blogger anyway, simply skimming the list would be sufficient.  Smelling it, even, and I could be well on my way! 

This past week, night after night, chapter by chapter, I read the book slowly but surely (and ignored the lack of pictures) and learned to focus my writing on the importance of “words” (good idea!), “sentences” (that’s cool!), “paragraphs” (yes, I know, I need them!), “narration” (hmmmm, really?), “characters” (these too?), “dialogue” (“What?” he asked.), “details” (ugh, not details!), and “gesture” (like a “high-five?”– okay, got it!)  All of these important mechanics employed in good writing, I realized, could go directly into my blog, and, someday even, somebody might annotate my writings and discover all the centuries’ old works that led to my pithy dialogue, spine-chilling characters, descriptive – yet tight – narration, and colorful, scintillating details.  Could I be someone’s dissertation?

Finally, I finished the book and, as my last act that final night, I turned to the appendix.  There it was: the list – all of the books to be read immediately if I wanted to be a great writer – a list, perhaps, of one hundred to two hundred incredible books.  It included titles of every major writer from most of the continents of the world going back centuries: the Russians, the British, the French, the Americans, the South Americans, the Africans, and the Asians.  (Fortunately, not one of them had a blog!) 

It turns out, I actually had read three of the books!  (Yeaaaa!  No wonder I started my blog!) 

In studying the list, however, soon I felt a knot of anxiety in the pit of my stomach.  The truth was, not only had I not read most of the books, but I hadn’t even heard of many of the authors!  I realized Francine was, in reality, my old, white-haired, heavy-set, literature professor in disguise calling me out just like a dog, just like back in college – I was totally inadequate as a writer, as a person, as a human being.  I was a charlatan slinking around in blogger’s clothing!  “You will never be a great writer if you don’t know the literature,” he would grumble at me in his stuffy old office of dead and dying books and wilted stacks of papers, handing me back my paper, bleeding red from his pen with another “C” emblazed across the top corner. Ugh!  But, wasn’t it too late to know the literature?  I would have to start reading -- like now (!) – and then, even then, wouldn’t they be dumping unread books into my grave to take with me to the hereafter?

Worse yet, to my dismay, I discovered a typed sheet of paper that was lodged in the back of the book.  (Where did this come from?)   Francine or someone like her had included a second appendix for me to ponder.  It was another list, but this one was titled, "Horrible Books Never to be Read by Anyone with Half-a-Brain."  Wait a minute.  I recognized these titles.  Most consisted of books on my bookshelf!  I had read them from cover to cover at one time or another and some several times over.  Oh no!  At the bottom of the list it even warned syphilis, early dementia, and death was inevitable if you read them all.  (Whew!  There was still one or two I was missing.) 

Looking up, I realized in another epiphany (or was it the same epiphany from a week earlier? – No wonder I have a headache), not only did I need to lift my reading to new level, but I had to stop reading junk!  All of these horrible books, magazines, articles that filled my time and were on the list of “no brainers” had to go.  I decided, right then and there, enhancing the quality of my reading would be my primary goal from now on, or, at least, starting next year, along with losing twenty pounds, as a key part of my New Year's resolutions.  In the meanwhile, this whole inquiry I had embarked upon this past month, this journey, in fact, ending with “Reading like a Writer” epitomizing how far I had gone, was depressing me thoroughly!  Forget improving my writing – blog or no blog!  Forget Francine and my old prof, merging together and separating apart, forget being a great writer.  I decided, rather, this year with the limited time remaining, I would focus, instead, on being a world-class runner!  Yeaaaa!