Having just read yet another Bio page on someone’s website,
it got me thinking.
Confession #1— that page is, invariably, my favorite page
when I look someone up. I’m not referring to the people so famous there’s a
Wiki page on them and books written about them. I’m thinking about the
self-composed, let-me-tell-you-about-myself part of most folks’ websites. I get
a lot from the personality of the narration (=voice) and the details chosen.
Much more than a list of facts.
Confession #2— I’m disappointed if the page doesn’t contain
a photo. Let me see your face, and you get to choose which picture you share.
This is not a beauty contest. It is about revealing and sharing. Even what a
website owner chooses for a bio photo tells me something.
Confession #3— I’m disappointed if instead of sharing pertinent
and relevant information, you choose a list of “fun-facts.” The likes of “my
favorite jelly bean flavor is cherry,” and “I once almost met the Queen of
Sweden,” and nothing else, is not really a bio-fact, nor much fun. I conclude
that you do not intend to give a real glimpse into what matters to you, and
what makes you tick.
Confession #4— I’m never disappointed if while you told the
truth and nothing but the truth, you didn’t tell the whole truth. The whole
truth includes boring details and really, some things are not my business.
I tried to write a bio on my site that fits
what I care to see on others. This, also, doesn’t make it right and the only
way to do things. But it helped navigate this awkward task. I wrote it as if I were
not the writer, nor the subject. I wrote it as if I were an interested reader.
Come to think of it, it’s how I write my stories and my blog
A friend who is also a writer, maybe the most gifted one I
know personally, was lamenting about all the things a writer must have. As she
has taken care to have most of these things, her lament was born of experience.
She is, yet, unpublished, although if there is any smidgen
of justice in this life, she will be. She has a website, a blog, a backyard
cottage with a dedicated writing room, a critique group, and an agent. She has
gone on writing retreats, some rather costly. She has attended workshops. She
has travelled to conferences in New York (also costly) and has a taken a two-years-long
MFA course resulting in a master’s degree.
And she’s got the most germane thing of them all of all— the
time and means to dedicate to writing.
And now, she told me, she has realized that while all of the
above have given her this thing called the
writing life, none of them is necessary. Great novels were written and
published without their creators having these.
We broke it down thus:
WEBSITE— Good to
have, but not absolutely necessary.
a dedicated space is really nice and helpful, but not a must
CRITIQUE GROUP— this
isn’t for every writer, and many never belong to a group
but, again, not an absolute must
Lovely and romantic, but the act of writing requires only a periodic inner
retreat, not an actual cottage in the woods
CONFERENCES— Helpful for some, not a must
these never make a writer, but they could make a teacher
TIME and MEANS— many
have managed their first books without having either
All these are helpful, and some are immensely so. But not
one makes a great or even fine writer. The “business around The Business” will
make you think otherwise. But they are selling the above.
As we talked about it, and wound up dismissing one item
after another, we found ourselves laughing giddily at the energy expended on the periphery
of the creative vortex. It’s lovely and interesting to “be a writer,” but no
substitute to, ahmm, writing.
It’s a funny thing about writing. Whether it’s cute ditties
or the great American novel, we don’t
need much, nor should we use not having much as a reason not to. We only need
to buckle up and do it.
was walking with a friend, for a “walk & talk,” i.e. exercising
the body and the mind. We just had our mid-session coffee and were
headed back. On a winding street, right next to their trash, neighbors had put
some of their discards for the garbage folks to pick up.
of those discards was a cat-perch & scratch contraption. I marveled that anyone
would throw out a clean, unused looking and solidly built cat dream. I couldn’t
afford such a delightful gift for my three humble felines, and they make due
with cardboard circular scratch-a-ma-things. They’re happy anyhow, being of
humble stock and having spent too much time in a shelter before we became their
parents. But this could be a Cinderella story. A mini-palace just for them.
friend and I carried it for two miles back home. There, I placed it on the
porch, shampooed it just in case it contained some hidden vermin, and let it
air for a day before bringing it in. As I worked to make sure it was indoor house-proper,
I imagined the sad circumstances that might have caused someone to put it with
shortest story, one consisting of only six words, came to mind. Some say Hemingway
wrote it when he wagered he could write a complete story in six or less:
For sale: baby shoes.
can imagine the sad circumstances I was conjuring as possible back-story for
this one has a happy ending. You never know with cats, especially ones not used
to fancy-froufrou, if our hauling this heavy tower, made of a plywood core, would
then, it’s been a revolving Who’s-on-top—
called it “our very ownGAME
honor discards. One kitty’s garbage is another’s throne.*
Time was, in kid-lit, when the answer was that you may
want an agent to provide the editorial support, submitting work, negotiating
contracts, and general hand-holding, but you didn’t need one.
Do you need an agent nowadays?
Today you can self-publish and even launch a small
press at a fraction of the cost of what it would have been in “olden days,”
only a generation back. E-books and online book retailers have made marketing a
possibility. The stigma of self-publishing is also receding some, and many
traditionally published authors have done well moving that-a-way. You don’t
need or want an agent to self-publish.
Do you need an agent if you want to be published by a
publishing house that pays you?
You don’t need
an agent for many of the smaller and self-started publishers who still accept
unsolicited submissions directly from writers. Medium and larger houses may
still accept submissions intermittently, or through personal contact with an
editor after attending a seminar or conference with them. You need a great
story and persistence, and an agent would be helpful. But you don’t absolutely
But do you need an agent to get a traditional contract
with any imprint of a large and established publisher if you have no contacts or the budget for conferences?
You pretty much do. You need an agent to even have a smidgen of a shot at that.
Grateful for my agent. She’s the definition of persistence.
Almost ten years ago, when my daughter (though only ten
years old then) already set her path as a pianist, I told her what I wanted her
to play at my funeral. It was not a morbid conversation, but rather my way of
pointing an exquisite piece of music to her attention.
You can hear it on this link, played with beautiful restraint
by Dinu Lipatti—
Fast forward ten years, and DD, back home between semesters,
had a recital scheduled in Berkeley for the last day of her break. She had programmed
this chorale, J S Bach chorale prelude bwv 639, to be
included in the concert.
She polished it on our piano, and for ten days, it
seemed that every time I walked into the room, my funeral music was playing.
Saturday January 7th 2017— she played it for the audience, and it
I figured that now I don’t have to go to, or even be at, my
funeral. I can skip it, because I got to hear it already.
and sixteen has been a challenging year for me. Personally, professionally, and politically.
through it with persistence,
perseverance, and prayer.
two are second nature to me. I’m a stick-to-it person.
The last is hard. I’ve
never had a home with ritual prayer, though the creator knows I’ve tried. Attempting proscribed prayers left me emptier and feeling like a phony. Personal prayer leaves me feeling like
a false friend—one who talks to you only when they have a need. prayer, like
this whole last year, has been hard for me.
two thousand and seventeen be the year of personal courage, professional
clarity, and may our leaders be not clever and smart, (a given, if they got to
where they are) but wise.
they say on Sesame Street, this post was brought to you by the letter P *
Photo of candle lighting
secondnight taken by DD, so she’s not in
it. The guys (DH, DS, and DD’s boyfriend) properly covered their heads and donned
hats for the blessing of the candles—
A mad hatter’s party^
The night before that one was
the first night of Hanukah. DD is vegan now, so I worried about how eggless
latkes would pass for the real thing. I needn’t have. The vegan latkes were
successful, maybe better than ever.
DS and DD had just returned
from a wonderful all-day hike in Point Reyes. DS then proceeded to put on a
Santa outfit and head with a sack of gifts for the little kids in the house
next door. He does it at the neighbors’ request, and from the fact they ask him
to please do it every year, he must be a good one. Nothing like a Jewish Santa!
Only after DS’s Santa duty could we all light the Hanukkah menorah, sing songs,
The only thing that went
wrong was that DD came back without her wallet. She thought she might have lost
it on the second of three buses they took, but couldn’t be sure. It had her bankcard,
her ID, her Juilliardstudent ID card, her dorm
room key, and some more things... Oh, and there was money also. All the cash
The office for Marin Transit Bus
Company was already closed, (Christmas eve) and would be for the next day.
(Christmas day) We thought it might be closed Monday. (Christmas Day observed
in offices) We had no way to call their lost
We figured that if it isn’t
located by the time we call on Tuesday, we‘d have a lot of work to do to
replace everything. What a shame.
As my grandma would have
said, “it’s always something.”
Now for the rest of the
DD called the bus company Monday
just in case someone would be there, and a woman answered. DD didn’t have to
say much, only that she may have left a purple wallet on bus line #68, when the
lady asked, “do you go to Juilliard?”
Yup, they had her wallet.
That afternoon we drove to san Raphael to the central terminal to collect it,
and everything was in it.
But there’s more---
DD said there’s twice as much
cash inside than she had before. All her IDs are there, and someone added some
Well, that’s our Hanukkah
story, and we’re sticking to it.
Although they fall roughly on the same month, only a few
times in every century do Christmas and Hanukkah actually occur at the same
time. That is-- the first day of Hanukkah (beginning the evening before
according to Jewish tradition) is also Christmas Day. Christmas Eve is also the
evening of first candle lighting.
This is one of those years.
If you celebrate both, or either, this one’s for you—
I’m one of the few who has yet to read a Stephen King novel, though I know I
have read one of his short stories a long time ago. This very good and uber-successful
author writes horror stories. I don’t read horror. Ah, the horror!
I got a strong recommendation to read his book on writing, and it turned out to
be a delight. The writing advice is solid if standard fare, but the memoire
parts are a testament to why he is the Stephen
King— a vivid story teller of the first order.
King puts members of his profession into four categories. He sees this classification much like the government’s
food pyramid, with the bottom having a larger mass than the pinnacle top.
the bottom are the Bad Writers. Mr.
King hints that a few are commercially so successful they live a life of luxury in the Caribbean. (Who could he be talking about? I have my list)
them, in smaller numbers, are Competent writers,
who comprise much of the work-for-hire, journalistic, and other pretty decent
writing we encounter.Competent
writers have the ear for cogent expression, but their stories lack wings.
the competent are the Good writers,
and Mr. king suggests he is in that layer. Good writers have solid technique
and tell good stories.
the very top are The GREATS. Think Shakespeare, Yeats, Faulkner, or Eudora Welty.
King believes that no amount of teaching will turn a bad writer into a
competent one. They lack the ear, or they wouldn’t have been bad to begin with.
He insists that no how-to course or mentoring will make a good writer into a
GREAT. The Greats are divine accidents.
teaching and coaching have a place in the middle of the pyramid. There, the
competent, who, if they listen well, try hard, and work at it, could become
tend to agree. I see this in all fields, though it’s most pronounced in
artistic pursuits. It fits with a certain perception, one divergent from Malcolm
Gladwell’s and his ten-thousand hours of work to any expertise.
then I wonder: how wise or true is it to have rigid classifications? It
organizes the mind, and is fun in its way, but how deeply true?
is my other confession for today: I really don’t know, and I know that I don’t. Organization and classification (like these pyramids) make for easy, comprehendible and jauntier
I don’t know about the substance of King’s notions, but trusting some
of the best readers I’ve known, Stephen King is nothing if not a Great
storyteller. Maybe his system is just
another one of his stories, cooked for easy digestibility.
the Jewish Home, where my mother passed her last eighteen months, I met one of
most magical people ever. Ben was a marvel. He was a resident who, by the time
my mother moved in, had been there a few years.
On set days and times, Ben played
the pianos on every floor for other residents. It wasn’t official, but he had a
job—making music for those who were not mobile and couldn’t leave their floor. Sometimes
he played the grand piano at the common area on the first floor, right next to
his room. He’d shuffle over carrying his sheet music, sit down at the keyboard,
and make marvelous music just for himself, with the whole house watching.
my mother’s birthday month, and at the luncheon for all the residents who had a
birthday then, he sat next to my mother. She glowed. I did, too. Ben was not
only handsome; he was radiant. Ben was beautiful.
to make conversation, but already suffering from dementia, my mother made a
valiant effort to connect with him and make a friend. It must be a Jewish
trait, for he answered every question with first repeating it. The conversation
went something like this--
mother: “Are you very old today?”
“Am I very old? Just old enough.”
mother: “What is that?”
“What is that? Ninety-two.”
mother: “That is too old.”
“Too old? Yes, it is.”
mother: “How long will you live?”
“How long? They give me a day, I take it.”
last line stayed with me. My mother lived for another year and four months, and
passed away eight years ago. Ben still lives. He is one hundred-years-old.
I try to begin each day by saying what he
said. I’ll take it.
friend was rejoicing at the sale of her first manuscript to a publisher. The
joy of being able to say my editor
for the first time brought back memories.
there’s nothing like the first.
first my publisher. The first my editor. The first my book. The first my agent. These can come in a different order, but that^ was mine.
really, none of these is really mine.
I don’t own them.
writers have are stories. Stories we make with chapters we construct with
paragraphs that we make by joining sentences. Sentences we make with words. It
boils down to this: the only thing that we own are the words.
the words are a gift.
opening verse from the gospel of John rushes in:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word
The meaning of this enigmatic phrase, for me, is that all comes from thought. Thought
extended outward begins with words, and words begin with one word.
I sit and contemplate this, I realize nothing is mine. I rejoice at having nothing.
a literary plot device known in Latin as deus
ex machina. Originally from the Greek apò mēkhanês theós, and used in Greek plays, we have many examples from
Judeo-Christian stories.I’m thinking of the biblical story of Job, where the philosophical
discussion and events are resolved by the appearance of G_d from the whirlwind,
and all is resolved and restored. It is not resolved by the main character, nor
by any of the other characters’ actions. In fact, that is the very point the
book of Job is making.
literary analysis this has come to stand not so much for divine intervention as
for the addition of an unexpected event or character not organically coming out
of the story. Such things do, in fact, happen in real life. But in modern storytelling,
where the heroism depends on humans conquering life’s obstacles, it often feels
contrived and unsatisfying.
the how-to circles it's
a no-no. If I read or heard it once, I have heard it many times. We don’t do it anymore.
suggest we do use it, and use it everywhere. This is where fantasy comes in. A
whole genre devoted to coming up with world building rules that zig-zag between
life as we know it and fantastic elements popping in conveniently to work their
You need the main character to get in somewhere where they can’t possibly?
— Introduce, and then give ‘em, an invisibility cloak. Voila! Harry Potter,
anyone? Why didn't we know about this magical invisibility thingy all along? Because
we just needed it now, silly.
same for magical realism, a genre I am partial to as a reader and a writer.
Think of the uses of time-travel, not in the form of scholarly research, but a device
where the main character actually gets to hop in a few centuries back and even retrieve
a long-lost object.
Deus ex machina hasn’t gone away. If
anything, it is used more than ever. We just have other names for it.
Nora Ephron is a treat, no matter how many times I’ve read her before. She didn’t
blog, per se, but she is called “the original Blogger” by some.
out that a friend who opened a restaurant named a meatloaf dish after her. It bore
no resemblance to any meatloaf she had made or eaten before, but it was
fantalicious, and people complemented her on this gourmet version of a
down-home lowly staple.
the chef changed, the dish changed, was moved to Tuesday nights only, and
eventually disappeared from the menu. Ephron saw an analogy to her life, and
life in general. You have your day, your heyday, your recognition, the fade out,
and then you’re gone.
years after her death, Ephron still lives, and some meatloaf recipes carry
her name and are still googled daily. But what didn’t quite apply to her life,
turns out, does apply to mine.
too, had a dish named after me.
ago I managed the storefront of a gourmet pastry shop. The owner-chef was a genius,
and while she insisted on never making a down-home cookie (no chocolate-chip)
and never calling a cake a cake (she only made tortes, please!) the cakes, ahmm,
tortes, were as incredible tasting as they were gorgeous. Tasteful in and out.
made some classics, but also came up with original concoctions. One of those
she named the Mirka Torte.
was not my favorite, but it was up there. Layers of Cake (torte!) speckled with
shavings of dark chocolate and orange rind hugged an orange sabayon cream, a
sort of fluffy custard, and a thin strip of cark chocolate ran in between. It
was light, beautiful, and as it turned out, quite popular.
I married she made our wedding cake, and of course it was The Mirka Torte. When
my step-mother asked her why she named this composition after me, the answer
was that it is both a simple and straight-forward, as well as a subtle and
complicated composition. Just like its namesake.
really know Mirka well,” my step-mother said.
years after its debut, and long after we had worked together, I ran into this
cake on a dessert menu at a fancy restaurant. It was still named Mirka Torte.
No one knew why, but that was just fine.
then it was gone. Like all ephemeral things, it had its day, and then it
slipped into the night.
is as it should be, to make room for others.
for a moment there I had a whiff of the Nora Ephron thing. It was nice.
I live, the seasons are barely delineated. Call it year-round spring, and you
wouldn’t be far off. But we do our best to pretend to have, at least, two
is ushered with a change of bed quilts, from the light colored and thinly
stuffed to the heavier, darkly rich hued kind.
When my kids were little, the
content of their dresser drawers would change— with lighter clothes placed at
the bottom and sweaters floating to the top. New pairs of socks would replace
the odd unmatched singles of last year, and sandals got pushed to the back of
the shoe drawer.
truth, we can just about wear any of the clothes any time, and the bedding
would not make a real difference either way. But we pretend we can’t, really,
in order to have the illusion of change. Unlike folks who have what we here
call “real weather,” we don’t change our tires to snow tires, and we don’t use
antifreeze. We don’t need to get the snow shovels from the back of the garage,
and we have no use for thermal underwear. For those who go on ski weekends—
their gear is specialized, but this was never part of my life in California.
one seasonal thing is not a pretense for me. One word sums it up: SPICES.
Specifically— Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and that thing we call allspice,
which isn’t all the spices mixed together but a kind of pepper from a West Indian
you can use these in summer, and people of “real weather” think of these
seasoning as ushering Fall. But in some mysterious way I find a strong urge
overtakes me to start spicing and baking and stewing and sprinkling with the
above as soon as November comes.
today. Can you smell it all the way from my kitchen?
the gingerbread is baking and the pumpkin soup is simmering, I reflect on how
this relates to writing stories. I don’t want to write the same story over and
over. I mark a new story with new and distinct words and expressions. In this way
I know I am entering a different territory. Words, used like seasoning, tell me
I am here and not there, and should address perception differently.
Just as I will
now dress differently.
this sounds like a stretch, just come over and get a whiff. I’m not kidding.
still clueless about many things. But I’ve learned a few things about the world
of publishing, and specifically-- kidlit publishing.
and clearing some old Emails from way back in ancient times of ten years ago, I
found some amusing testaments to clueless thinking.
my first beta reader asks why proofreading is necessary as, surely, editors at
publishing houses do that after a book is acquired. He’s seen it in many
movies. (By then I knew a manuscript needs to be pretty much typo-free, and my
response was educational.)
same beta, bless him for he was fantastic with spot-on feedback, congratulating
me on my first acceptance and advising I copyright all the characters as they
can become major commodities. (He’s seen that in movies, also.)
my response to another beta who suggested some how-to books, was to say I didn’t
want to read anything that would make my writing formulaic. Of course, not long
after, I did read a few of the suggested books and more. Re-inventing the wheel
is for geniuses, and I’m not one.
writing friends who suggested we writers wait too long for cursory responses,
no responses, and otherwise unacceptable behavior from business professionals.
We don’t put up with such in the rest of our lives, do we? I already understood
this is apples and lemons. There are more of us knocking on doors and fewer of
them to answer the doors. It’s called reality, and yes, we do put up with it.
so much more, but you get the point. There are a lot of misconceptions, and the
school of hard knocks hammers us into shapes that fit the indentations.
here’s the kicker: it hurts sometimes, but we don’t have to do it alone. These
old Emails are the evidence I had beautiful walking partners, and occasionally
even been one.
still clueless about so many things I glibly talk about. What do I confidently really know about global warming?
Preventing lung cancer? Personality disorders? It if am honest, I would have to
say that I know close to nothing, and mostly echo what I’ve heard, or think I may
have heard, or maybe I, too, saw it in a movie. But I still jabber about it.
I get a peek into my cluelessness. Even more mercifully, I am not alone. Everyone
of you who’s reading this is walking along, and I hope you can hear my footsteps
as I’m trying to catch up with you.