Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The business of writing, or why Amelia Earhart picked the two hardest professions.

Now to the business of writing. I was five when the brainstorm struck me, I'd write a book. My first opus concerned a flying horse named Pegasus. It was short, sweet and to the point. My parents kept it forever and now I am in possession. Perhaps I should have learned something from it other than the love of putting words to paper. I didn't. I kept on writing, first poetry, then prose. I've been doing that for years and years and years. There's nothing as fine as when a sentence comes together. And nothing as remarkable as the moment when a character takes shape. At least not for me.

On to the novel, next week I will get yet another chance to hear how to refine it. I have worked on this novel for almost four years. Short by some standards, long by others. For me, a lifetime has passed while I've gone back and back and back to find Amelia. I've lost my mother. I've grieved for my father. I've watched my older child grow up and leave home. I've gotten older and perhaps a bit wiser. I've traveled a little, and published a little, and worked a whole lot. I've watched our country sink into recession, and crawl out. I've seen a black man elected president. Okay, I'll stop right there ...

Next week I get to hear another response, this time in conference. I get to sit down in a room and have notes given and take them and do my best. And once that's done, which will take a little while, the book will go out. I hope it will get published then, but who knows? I'm curious to find out what I need to do to make it better, and I'm relieved that I don't have to go through the gut wrenching end of the process when it's do or die with the shorter and shorter list of editors who buy fiction quite yet.
Still, back to reinventing the wheel one last time. This time I hope it's small changes not big. I think I've done a lot and I hope it's close to having done enough.
But who can really say?

Writing is something you can't do without, it's what shapes my day and shapes my life. As does Amelia. I think of how she likely died, waiting for rescue, trying to stay alive for as long as she could. And I think of how she lived, trying to do what was hardest. I admire her immensely. It was, by any one's standards, a life worth living.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Waiting and a hoping

and a wishing and a praying . . .or whatever passes for that in my house. I'll surely have something to say tomorrow.

Friday, June 25, 2010

He gets things done

I'm kind of drained. It's been a long week, a long month, a long year. And it's summer, finally. My lilies are up, the deer haven't devoured my entire garden, it's no longer Siberia here. So I'm going to pause for a moment of optimism. I'm sure it will be short lived but still; yes this President is flawed, as in he doesn't do what I'd like him to do all the time. Yes, we're still stuck in a war, well two but who's counting. Yes, there are plenty of things I'd have him do differently but then again, he's really not a socialist despite what many would say. He's not even a left-winger. He's a middle of the road kind of guy who actually gets things done. Can you imagine that? A president who gets something done? And by getting something done I mean a health bill, a recovery package and a financial reform plan. Don't give me that crap about how we have the democratic majority because you've seen what that means and a whole lot of those guys and gals aren't Democrats, or at least not the sort of democrats I'm familiar with. So today, here's to Barack Obama. Thank you for being there, and for being in the right place at the truly right time. It has been so much worse. I do remember.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A difference of opinion or how sisters see things from such different vantage points; brothers too.

I have had some serious time to reflect on the art of perception. In this case, it's personal. I am now an official orphan. Amelia never got that far; she died before her mother. But Muriel did. She lost her sister, then her mother. And lived on and on and on. I know that she and Amelia had starkly different ideas of who their parents were. The letters show it. Amelia idolized her father, then was disappointed in him and came back to him at the end, she was the one who was there when he died. And Amelia seemed to resent Muriel's relationship with their mother; the tensions apparently exacerbated by Amelia's choices. Her husband. Her career path. These were both hard for her mother to adapt to, a woman who divorced her own husband was still quite conventional. As was Muriel, although over time she became much less so. At least in my view.

But today I'm writing of my own experience. You grow up together and yet you grow up separately. Your parents are so different with each of you. My father and I never really managed a rapprochement. His final words to me were, "You've gained weight." Let it be said, I'm rail thin. When my second novel came out, he arrived with the only bad review I received in hand. I'd never even known about it till then. I had to sit there and read it while he watched me. He wanted to know whether I knew the person who'd written it? No. Besides, it was published in the New York Law Journal. I had been reviewed in a host of national newspapers including the LA Times, the St. Louis Post Dispatch etc. This was what he brought to my attention. I still don't understand it, or him. He's been dead for years and he eludes me. Yet my siblings were enamored of him. So was my mother. He was the ideal man, the ideal father, and I think their best friend. How can people living the same life have such divergent opinions. Where was that father when I was growing up? I still don't know.

As for my mother, she was mine to deal with. My siblings wouldn't agree, but that was how it felt to me. And I grew to love her after years of strife. I always admired her. But I also found her enraging. She was purposely so; she fought with you over everything and nothing and I suppose you could say, she had no shame. She could have used a little. But in the end, all that falls away. She managed to convey her pride in me and that was enough. She was hardly an easy person, or a fun person, but she was what I had. And I learned how to accept her limitations and how to push her to be a better parent, and finally a friend.

Yet she was never my best friend. That was impossible. She was my parent and it's different. I see it with my own children, they need me to parent them. They want that. They don't want a friend, though sometimes they confide in me or share things with me and I feel honored. Mostly, they need me to be the adult. I needed the same from my parents and when I became an adult too, I needed them to honor that. My mother learned how. My father? I don't think he ever really did. Not with me anyhow.

So I return to Amelia and Muriel and wonder, how did they feel about their parents? What regrets did they have about those relationships? It seems to me that Amelia and Muriel were always the adults; that their mother and father acted like children. Amelia in particular took on the job of caring for everyone, or providing for them, and then she was gone and it was Muriel's turn.

Parents are imperfect, their imperfections mark us; for better or for worse. Make that for better and for worse.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

And this is how it ends for Amelia Earhart; and this is how it begins for me.

August, 2010

Sam sat in the deck chair facing the bay. The wind blew sweet and pure at her. It was still, so early only the birds and joggers were up. Morning at the very tip of the Cape. She held newsprint in her hands; a soon to be anachronism, but reading the daily paper was a sacred ritual for her. It proved she’d had a life before. Sam read every word of the story. An intrepid team of explorers had finally found Amelia. A piece of cloth they’d dug up had been analyzed, this strip of disintegrated fabric buried for over sixty years. The DNA recovered from it clearly matched that of a descendant; whoever it was, a niece, a nephew, a cousin, had chosen to remain anonymous. Sam thought of Jurassic Park with all those carefully crystallized specimens cloned and reanimated. Amelia as an exhibit alive and well and living in Orlando. If people chose to have their dead pets resurrected, why not a famous aviatrix?
Seeing it like this made her realized the moral implications; where did one actually draw the line? Dead husbands? Stillborn children?
Luckily science wasn’t nearly that advanced.
She read the story over, and couldn’t believe it was true. The team had found the remnant on an island three hundred and fifty miles away from Howland, flying all that way to end on an anonymous beach. Sam didn’t want this to be the final word. Sad to imagine that striking woman, left hungry and pale, awaiting rescue, fading away slowly. Better for her to have gone in a flash. She told herself the proof wouldn’t be enough. There were always doubters. They’d argue that it was a set up, that the science was faulty. Who believed in science in this day and age when even elected members of congress in this country were convinced that human beings had roamed the earth with those self same dinosaurs.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Departing from my main topic: Oil, and the government that we call our own.

What is wrong with us? Do we think we can just go on raping the environment forever? I guess the answer is "yes." I guess that no matter what happens we, as a species, never learn. I want to be optimistic, oh yes I do. I want to believe that we can change, that our children will have a chance to grow up and grow old, that their children will too. I want to imagine that nature will forgive us, but I'm thinking maybe not. I'm thinking maybe we don't deserve to be forgiven this time round, maybe we should go the way of the dinosaurs.

It's sickening to watch the oil pumping out all over the Gulf of Mexico. It literally turns one's stomach, and it's just as sickening, although also entertaining to listen to a professional moron who's been sworn to protect and serve apologizing to a multinational corporation. Every time I think, what next, I find myself surprised. And yes, I have plenty of issues with Obama but he has made quite a deal with the eminently creepy BP. He is trying and that is so much more than we have gotten used to. He is far far better than the spineless, witless, immoral alternatives.

I think back to Amelia's day, it was my parent's day too. FDR was my father's boss, my father toiled in the Justice department. Washington was a vibrant place to be, justice was something he believed was achievable. I think Amelia was so much of that time, she was also a person with strong liberal convictions. I know she would have been sickened by all of this, as I am, as many are, and I believe she would have spoken out, she would have used what bully pulpit she had at her disposal to try to make this right.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Why Amelia Took to the skies; or who I wish I was and who I am right now

In the dreams where you fly, you know, the ones you must have had as a child, there's such freedom. Nothing like that sensation of lifting off and just soaring. I used to crave sleep to find the moment, and when I was dreaming that dream I so didn't want to wake. Because from up there I was so fully in charge. I looked down at my small dominion, in this case the apartment towers and well kept homes of Riverdale, New York and what I saw was a map of my life in bas relief. Over there, the railroad tracks where my friends and I used to wander, abandoned long ago they were the perfect place to get up to what little trouble we were able to invent. And past them, the Hudson sparkling. There was the bridge I'd walk across to make it to the candy store. It was the place where I first committed a criminal act, pocketing mars bars and jujubes only to be found out and taken back in shame. And there was the school I attended, really a ramshackle mansion that old lefty friends of my parents had turned into a free form private school. But I was off, wandering beyond all of that, I was free to go wherever I pleased.

That was the dream, that was flight. I think it's what Amelia must have felt the first time she went up in a plane, the possibility that she could leave everything behind, that she could just be, intensely be herself.

Of course I'm making some assumptions here, first that everyone has had that same dream, the one where they lift off and fly. I wonder if it's true? And that all of us, given the chance have had an epiphany, we've seen or felt or known who we are. It may be only fleeting, but it happens. Or am I wrong?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Pardon my absence, that is if you notice

I've been here, but not here. I guess the ironies of the last two weeks are sinking in. In the last scene of the novel, Muriel gives the eulogy she's been writing in her head for years; the one she never got to give for her sister. It's honest, loving, critical, pure. In other words, it's what you want to have happen at the end of your life, you want to be remembered as you were. A friend of mine was musing about the eulogies given at my mother's memorial; everyone noted her rather prickly personality. There wasn't a fight she wanted to avoid, my mom. She was a battler right to the end. My friend was pondering what one would end up hearing about one's self, if people were honest and whether we'd be surprised. I responded saying we all do know our own foibles, we just hate to admit them. I think that's true. I have a feeling Amelia knew her own strengths and weaknesses, but knowing who you are has very little to do with wanting to change. And if it's working for you there's less incentive to change. I think Amelia's personality served her well, yet she was so distanced. Enclosed and safely away from her family, did she have regrets at the end? Who doesn't? Yet her regrets were obviously tempered by the things she accomplished.

My mother had too many regrets I would say. But then she had ample time to think about them, Amelia even cast away as she likely was, probably spent less time regretting and more time hoping for rescue. Still, at night I want to think that she lay there looking up at the stars and thought about home, about family, about the people who were close to her once and how far she'd come from them, and yet the unique bond they shared. I want to think that she may not have had regrets per se, but she did have things that were left unsaid. Things she might have wanted to relay, given the opportunity.

For more, read the book . . . and more on that later . . .

Friday, June 11, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Being a survivor . . .

When you've lost someone you love, there's not much to say. People hug you. They listen. They tell you, "I'm sorry." And they mean it all. Much to appreciate there, much to recommend because there's a need I find, to talk about what's happened, what one feels, a desire to express your sadness. There's also a competing desire to just stop, stop talking, stop thinking, stop feeling. It's familiar, mourning. I've done it before. It's part of what one does when one survives.

I began this novel almost four years ago. At the time my mother was incredibly unhappy. She constantly complained about how hard it was to be a "survivor." Her friends were mostly gone, she was recently widowed, she was losing her memory and the world she knew had transformed itself too many times. She could no longer even pretend to keep up. It was hard to witness because she had been such a force, always current with political and cultural events.

I put a lot of who she was into Muriel. I suppose when I began to write the character was a mixture of my own mother and the Muriel I found in her self published book about her sister Amelia. But thankfully all of that changed and the character deepened, now Muriel is both invented and totally realistic, a woman all her own. She turned out to be feisty and opinionated; for her surviving meant she had license to do and say whatever she wanted. And that's what took hold. My mother always said what she thought, though I wonder if she actually said what she wanted to say. Odd, that. She was opinionated and expressed those opinions with no compunction, but in other ways she was certainly a product of the era she was born into. Although she was a pioneering woman her focus in life was actually quite traditional. It was my father, he was in many ways her raison d'etre.

Today as I ponder my future as a new orphan well into the cusp of middle age, I think of where this novel began. It began with many things, but crucially it began with Muriel, with the idea of how one lives with so much loss. In that sense it began with my mother, I wanted to understand her and honor her.

So mom, this one's for you.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My City is Gone: Or What Amelia Earhart sees when she visits NYC for the very last time.

I saw the Pretenders at Madison Square Garden. Chrissie Hynde sang "My City is Gone." She was referring to her hometown in Ohio and I was living in New York. I, the inveterate New Yorker. What that meant for me was a certain attitude. I stared straight ahead, unblinking and dared strangers to confront me. They usually didn't. I wandered through neighborhoods where no woman should go, but always looked behind me, always was aware of who was on the street, front, rear, to the side. I taught in the South Bronx and made it home and back safely. I spent my middle school years going on an untypical reverse commute, from eighty sixth on the west side up to Harlem, mine the only white face in that subway car. I listened at night, lying bed in my parent's apartment, while arguments flared from the block behind us. Eighty fifth street was home to tenements filled with prostitutes. Shots rang out almost every night. I learned to ignore all of it. The only safe course was to keep a hard outer shell.

My city is gone, but it was still there when Amelia returns. In 1980 New York was raw, original, dangerous and gritty. New York was a place where you were always aware "shit can happen." Good. And bad. It was the place where I felt that anything was possible. It was the place I lived when I was that young. So I brought Amelia there, back there. I wanted her to feel that once again, to feel what she must have felt when she was young herself. Because she too knew that she could do anything.

I miss the Thalia and the New Yorker bookstore. I miss that notions shop and all the culturally affiliated businesses that would burst onto the scene at once. Indian clothing stores. Greek fruit stands. Hunan restaurants. It was a place where you could happen upon something that fascinated you. I always wondered what those chocolate covered ants and grasshoppers tasted like, but my stomach rebelled when I thought of trying them. Still, they made quite an impressive window display. Mine was a city of extremes; hope, fear, anxiety, passion, intensity, possibility, beauty, squalor.

That city is gone, but thankfully not forgotten. And in this book I get to remember it and honor it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

No Eulogies Please; or What Amelia Earhart Might Think on the Occasion of her own memorial service

So I will now return to my regularly scheduled broadcast. My novel begins with Muriel Morrissey in mourning. My novel ends . . . well let's just say with liberation. For her. And for Amelia. Since the loss of my mother I've been writing her eulogy. And of course because I'm a novelist, I got to write Amelia's, at least the one I thought her sister might give under the circumstances. I also got to put in Amelia's reaction to it. So what would it be like to hear your own eulogy? I don't think we often get to, unless we're characters in movies where for some reason there's been a terrible mix up and we show up at our own wake, or memorial service. And that just doesn't seem to happen all that much in real life, of course, tell me if I'm wrong on this one.

Amelia is pleasantly surprised, after all she's spent the novel wondering what on earth her sister will say. She's been more than a little surprised at what the rest of the world has been saying. For Amelia finds that in her absence there's been plenty of supposition without substantiation. Was she a spy? Was she captured and shot? Did she survive or die, plunging into the ocean? Was she a good enough pilot? Was her death her own fault? She finds all of this irritating to the extreme. But also comical. How could everyone get it so wrong? Because we all love a narrative, that's who we are. We're only human.

And eulogies are all about point of view. The one I'm writing will be different from the ones my siblings give. Writing mine for my own mother I focus on the personal, because that's what I most enjoy hearing. I want to know who that person was and what they did, what made them tick. I want to take scenes from their life away with me. That's what Muriel does for Amelia. And I suppose that because she was such a public figure the rest of the world got to do the same.