Friday, December 30, 2011

A Found Journal & A Note to Writer-Parents of Young Children

What we really did this winter break? We cleaned out our house. Some of you who know me are laughing -- hard -- right now. I've always said that cleaning is a form of oppression. In fact, there's a poem in Compulsions of Silkworms and Bees called "Poetry Despises Your Attempts at Domesticity" that gets to the heart of the matter. I can't as of yet explain WHY I've broken down and set the household into a frenzy ... but ... in that frenzy Dave unearthed (in addition to aforementioned Baby Jesus in a Triscuit box) my old journal from grad school and a Creative Process journal that was assigned in my screenwriting course.

The 9/5/92 entry reads: How does the process work? You collect things... I had no idea that it started for me that early. It's exactly the way I'd start my answer to the question today.

The journal starts with letters to Dave, weirdly. I was on a trip with a childhood friend. It starts on 12/30/92 and the first line is It's such a luxury to be only me, known not presented. (We'd spent the holidays introducing each other to family and friends.)

The journal collapses over time. Eventually there are no more dates only quick jottings, lists of characters' names (Ogden, Cappage ...), bits of those things I'd collected to make stories from, notes in the margins where I say what I'm doing wrong ("Nothing works because setting is only a casement...").

There's a gap of over a year, it seems. It's '95. I'm married and have a baby.

The last written paragraph in the journal appears only half-way through the book. It sits alone at the top of a page. It reads, "I'm writing 2 stories at the same time. They're both ended but incomplete -- the baby just woke up + I'm thinking no not possible -- no. C'MON!"

The baby woke up and there were more babies and more wakings. But I kept writing, two stories at a time, leaving pages empty to take care of kids -- abandoning journals, abandoning this small extra step of clarity, learning to do it in my head and on scraps of paper, finding some small measure of time to write and write and write ...

(Note: New Parents -- there are times when you're doing this labor, this work -- the baby's head sweaty as he falls asleep on your chest, the cutting of fruit into small pieces -- where your mind can untether and drift and words are there and images and characters, story. Find scraps. Take notes. Still -- somehow -- try to hunt and capture time to write. Remember, too, that on the other side of young children, you'll still have to work to find time. The world doesn't just hand it over to you. Time. I won't say what everyone says to you -- cashiers and deli clerks and bankers -- those parents of older children you run into, day in and day out -- It goes so fast. I won't because you already know and the truth is it goes fast at an incrementally slow pace. If nothing else, practice living doubly -- being in your life, the thick of it, and observing it in fine detail. Note it. Jot. Untether sometimes and let stories come to you. The thing is, the more you engage in this raising of children -- really live it with all of your senses and love and fears -- the more prime you are to dig deep, as a writer. So let yourself go deep as a parent. It goes so fast. Let these babies mine your souls. It goes so fast. Your work will be the richer for it.)

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Happy Holidays -- and a writerly gift.

First off, HERE is a gift to my fellow writers out there -- really a gift from THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY -- but one that'll hopefully brighten and rev 2012.

Oh, and gift to give yourself? Go see the new SHERLOCK HOLMES GAME OF SHADOWS while it's still in theaters. There's this scene where someone loads a bomb called Little Hansel and then there's this incredible scene of the people running from the wreckage in a forest. I didn't know whether I was watching a film, really, or lush children's book illustrations or CGI or oil paintings in motion -- just gorgeous sumptuous heart-thudding beauty in motion. AND ... years from now when these films are classics and people watch them, they'll ask, "Did audiences back then know that there was such lurid attraction between Holmes and Watson?" I can only answer for myself. "Um, yeah. I think we got it."

Brilliant stuff.

Some Holiday Quotatiousness:

The 4-year-old is playing Santa and Mrs. Clause. The 15 year old says, "Santa, you ARE real!" And then quickly amends, "Not that there's been any speculation about your existence!"

The 4-year-old keeps worrying about getting chalk for Christmas. "Would it be THAT bad to get sidewalk chalk as a stocking stuffer?" Finally, I realize that by chalk she means coal and reassure that there will be no coal (or sidewalk chalk, which might be just as bad). (In retrospect, there's a lot of naughty list talk in Elf.)

The 4-year-old refers to our manger scenes as "the Jesus sets." And as we set them up this year, we realized that we're low on baby Jesuses. Historically, the kids play with the sets and the babies tend to disappear and end up being taken care of by a Barbie in the wooden dollhouse.
Later, one of the Baby Jesuses is found -- manger and all -- in an empty Triscuit box on my 11 year old's dresser, accompanied by Mardi-Gras beads and monopoly money.

(Here's a link provided by my college roommate -- the 27 worst Manger Scenes of all time. I'm most disturbed by those that are edible.)

(4 year olds DOMINATE the season, if you haven't noticed.)

I get one of the kids a handshake buzzer, the kind you wear like a ring that sits in your palm and buzzes people when shaking hands. Why? I don't know. "It's like an old-fashioned wind-up taser," one of the kids says. Not exactly what I had in mind. (Did I HAVE something -- anything -- in mind when I bought it? Blind panic stocking stuffer shopping...)

4 year old threw up the morning after Christmas -- the start of a little stomach bug. One of the older kids asks how she's doing. She says, "I didn't get many Christmas presents."
"Is that why you threw up? Just not enough gifts?"
"I got all this little pieces of stuff."
"And a Barbie Jumbo Jet?"
"Oh. I got that too."

Ho ho ho.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Trying to Explain Snow to a 4 year old Floridian

She's watching a Christmas show. An elf comes out and measures the snow -- it gets deeper and deeper, inching up the measuring stick.

She says, "Look, they're sinking!"

"No, the snow is coming down from the sky and getting deeper and deeper." I give some hand gestures to explain it, getting pretty elaborate.

She says, "I don't get it."

Snow. We need to get this kid some snow.

Newark, Delaware: An Unlikely Love Song

Sometimes, I want to go home. My homing device is set on one place: Newark, Delaware. Does it inspire many love songs? No. It's not windy; it's not a lot of people's idea of their "kind of town." It's a city that does sleep -- a lot.

Coming up, I was jealous of writers from New Jersey -- at least New Jersey held a placeholder in the American psyche.

Sometimes, growing up, the Chrysler plant would start to stink and my parents would call it in. Now the Chrysler plant is gone.

The creek that I loved as a kid, running behind the neighbors' houses was really just street run-off, but I loved the oily rainbows.

Delaware brought us George Thorogood and Valerie Bertinelli and the dead-pan girl from Parks and Rec.

It IS quaint. It has a little Main Street, now likely lit up with wreaths strung to the telephone poles.

Poe slept at the Deer Park. They keep a stuffed raven on display.

Sometimes I think of the sign out in front of the Travel Lodge that read: Lordy, Lordy, Gordy's 40 -- and I think, damn, Gordy must be closing in on 60 now.

It's where I was a kid, growing up in a yellow house with ivy, snugged up against the heating ducts.

It's where I was dirt poor with the man I love.

It's where 75% of my babies were born.

When my first book came out, it was, at a glance, like the local bookstore (Rainbow Books) was only selling one book. Hundreds of copies were displayed in the front window. And about 400 people came to the signing -- including the two postmen who worked the desk at the Main Street branch, Tom and Jerry -- who took a ribbing while standing in line, after years of all of us standing in their line. They were mentioned in the acknowledgments pages because sometimes I'd ask them to put a little extra love into those packages I sent off. The town was good to me.

Still, I can walk downtown and meet people I haven't seen since I was little -- from a Brownie troop, a bad date, a part-time job in a deli, one of my kids' preschools ...

It's a place where, when I'm there, I live in layers.

I'm not saying Newark, Delaware will burrow into every person's heart, but it's in mine.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

1/2 Dozen for Jerri Chaplin

A debut collection by Jerri Chaplin -- Vertically Coastal -- made its way to me, circuitously. And here's a Q and A with the wonderfully warm Jerri herself.


Current obsessions—literary or otherwise.

My current slightly-less-than-obsession is the movie “The Descendants.” It is about and was filmed in Hawaii where I grew up. Director Alexander Payne portrays the real thing, not a plastic paradise or stupid tourist/umbrella drinks scene. This movie inspired me to seek out Hawaii friends I had not spoken to in years. I bought the CD/score of the great Hawaiian music and will play it often.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

You have to have a life of your own plus be a support system; it’s a delicate balance (for example, my husband has an electric train set and works, too). You need to have great patience and realize your beloved can be moody, crave solitude, and may see a red cabbage where you see a crumpled trash bag. Know not to chatter when they’re writing and don’t take anything personally unless told to! Don’t accept B.S., abuse or statements like “I can’t stop drinking, I’ll lose my talent.” Writers are good manipulators with imagination to boot.

What other jobs have you had—other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I had an 18 year career writing in advertising and P.R. This made me a relentless editor. I was driven to pack as much punch in as few words as possible. I also developed business skills and etiquette such as returning phone calls ASAP and my career was all about marketing which has been invaluable to me as a writer, I don’t live only on planet poetry; I function in the world of business and reality (ugh).

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

Absolutely. My adored Dr. Duane Yee at Punahou School in Honolulu. In eighth grade, he wrote on top of my paper “You really can write!” Seriously? I kept these words and took them out at times when I felt I had no talent. Dr. Yee and I keep in touch.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

Yes, because place shapes persona. Vertically Coastal is all about living 7 months in Charleston, SC, and 5 in the Berkshire Mtns. of MA. The places differ and I am different in each one. Hawaii, my growing-up place, definitely impacted my character and personality. I’ve lived in Israel and Ireland, both of which I love. As a Jew, Israel is my spiritual home.

What’s your worst writerly habit?

I am terrible with punctuation and line breaks. I’ve worked at this consciously since 1996, with no improvement. I always need a good editor!

Jerri Chaplin is a poet and certified poetry therapist in her birthplace, Charleston, S.C. She grew up in Honolulu and in 1970 received a B.A. in English from the University of the Pacific in California. Her love of Irish poetry, particularly that of W.B. Yeats, took her to Ireland many times for study and work. Her poetry has been published in anthologies and in a 2010 book, Pictures of Change. She has won a number of prizes for her work and has given numerous readings. Her new book, Vertically Coastal, will be launched October 2011 by Planet Media Books. Her loves are her family, including a Shetland Sheepdog, friends, poetry and dance.

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,
short story writers, and agents, click on the below.

Laurie Foos

Susan Henderson

Chantel Acevedo

Caroline Leavitt

Danica Novgorodoff

Rebecca Rasmussen

Laurel Snyder

Tatjana Soli

Julie Buxbaum

Randy Susan Meyers

John McNally

Justin Manask (agent)

Melissa Senate

Steve Kistulentz

Christopher Schelling (agent)

Dani Shapiro

Jeff VanderMeer

Catherine McKenzie

Emily Rapp

Stephanie Cowell

Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Paul Elwork

William Lychack

Leah Stewart

Michelle Herman

Lise Haines

Benjamin Percy

Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Karen Salyer McElmurray

Kim MacQueen

Crystal Wilkinson

Michael Griffith

Laura Dave

Saturday, December 17, 2011

For My Brother whom I love so damn much. Happy Birthday.

My brother's birthday looming, I've been wanting to write something, well, something worthy of him. I realized today that I already have written a brotherly Bill Baggott tribute -- never posted before. (It appears in my collection COMPULSIONS OF SILKWORMS AND BEES.) Is it wrong -- under the frenzy of the holidays and having been away for 10 days -- to use it again here? Cheating?

It's called "The Stolen Poem: My Brother Poem after Levine’s 'What Work Is'". As I recall, the form here is that I take one word from each of line of Levine's beautiful poem written for his brother and I use it to write a poem to my own brother.

And so here goes. A poem for Bill Baggott -- whom I admire and love so damn much. Happy Birthday.

The Stolen Poem: My Brother Poem
after Levine’s “What Work Is”

He won’t admit to rain,
only a break in the sun to wait out.
For now, a mist. His kids slip through the park gate,
Almost old, my brother’s blond whitens.
Work doesn’t exist, only a hearty laugh, damp grass.
He forgets everything but the children, the gate,
for a moment, a shift of sentimentality.
He has five kids—he should be toughened—but his eyes mist,
the risen blur of love.
I see him now, from a distance,
his ruddy cheeks, sloppy pants, chins, tinged mustache.
Unlike other men who turn sour, joyless,
who narrow to a staircase soul,
he grins, beams, a search-light,
and, too, the stubborn ulcer hidden,
his refusal of anger alive and livid,
the pooled sting of sleepless hours.
Saturday, it will lead somewhere.
My brother will wait for it to unwind
amid the no-no of children, jazz, scotch.
He won’t play the hired man today.
He reasons loneliness the opposite of love,
asks for company, stands joyful, sings in a crowd,
a flooding love. He swells with it.
Once he traveled beside bluesmen,
far from home, the sour stink of reeds, horns,
hotel sheets. It became a miserable moan of sax.
He hitched a ride in a Cadillac, east,
recalls now only the old German on trumpet,
his jowly face pursed to bawl. Hours turn,
Saturday, an opera he doesn’t try to understand.
He hates to read: It invents a different world,
and he always prefers his own. But music,
oh, how it moves beside you, within,
shoulders the day. He doesn’t close
his eyes to it, but allows its kiss.
A simple benediction. An obvious gift.
He is no longer young and dumb.
His meanness has atrophied to a splinter of bone.
Incapable of drifting beyond,
he adores all of us, this presence,
because we are and he is.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

My Favorite Two-Star Review.

[Note: Hi. A lot of you come to this post via Goodreads, and this might be your first introduction to me. I've thought about editing the post below -- because it's ruffled some feathers -- and I feel bad about that, frankly. But editing it would interfere with the discourse around the post so, after much thought, I've decided to leave it, as is. Actually, I've just started a new feature interviewing bloggers, who have revolutionized the way we hear about books, discuss them, and build communities around literature. I'm deeply dedicated to literacy, as well, and have a small nonprofit that gets free books to kids in Florida.
If you want to know more about me, some of the posts here are deeply personal ones. Like 16 Years Ago Today, I Gave Birth to a Badass or one on the link between writers and suicide or this one that I posted recently: Open Letter to the Writing Student who Asked my Husband if He was Jealous of my Success. I've published 18 books, under my own name as well as two pen names and have written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Washington Post, Real Simple, NPR's Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered and Here and Now. I'm also a poet with three collections of poetry. Hi. This is who I am, more or less. It's nice to meet you here.]

Listen, I know it's my job to post all the positive reviews and glowing accolades and blurbs-of-admiration, but why not the flip side? Seriously, PURE has gotten more pre-publication buzz than maybe all 17 of my other books combined. You can check all of that out here. But no novel is beloved by all. A good book has to be distinctive enough that it doesn't appeal to everyone.

Lately, I've been thinking about the distinctions between the traditional review -- written by a fellow novelist, critic, scholar -- and the online review written by a reader. The first has to answer, perhaps: Is this book worthy? They have to take the book on its own terms and try to gauge its effectiveness. The reader-reviewer is answering a more personal question: Did I like it?

To answer the first question -- is this book worthy? -- the critic has to put some of their own personal feelings aside and judge the book's merit. Sometimes they also love the book, but that's not the point.

To answer the second question -- did I like it? -- the reader-reviewer isn't asked to judge its merit but talk about their own reaction to the book.

Or so it seems to me.

Some reader-reviewers are truly adept at writing critical reviews about the merits and failings of a book with great insight. I appreciate those takes.

What frustrates me sometimes is when a reader-reviewer slams a book because it's simply not the book they wanted. For example, a reader-reviewer ofter veers into the Is this book worthy territory when they say: This book sucked! Don't waste your time! But when they add: It didn't have ANY vampires in it! Well, that's frustrating, especially if the book jacket makes no mention of vampires whatsoever...

Or the reviewer who writes, I hated the jacket. I hated the first chapter. I hated the whole book. Why didn't you stop at the jacket or first chapter? To fuel your discontent? For the love of all things holy, stop reading books you immediately detest.

Or like the reviewer who slammed my book for 9-12 year olds saying something like -- I guess I should start out by saying that my 8 year old daughter loved this book, but I really didn't like it at all... She just found it too juvenile. Um, she's probably around thirty. The book was actually written for her 8 year old daughter... for juveniles.

I've seen a review that said something like, This book was okay, but not half as good as the publishers think it is. Well, actually, it's kind of the publisher's job to believe in the book that they're trying to sell. I mean, as an author, I'd be pretty upset if a publishing house took on a book of mine and then wrote ad copy like: This book is okay. I mean, it's not going to be a serious contender for the National Book Award, but we decided it could get some good advance praise and might hit its target market.

Basically, there's this disconnect. There are so many examples of these disconnected reviews -- ones that blur Is it worthy? and Did I like it? If you want some fun, go look up the literary classics you've loved and read some of the Amazon reviews...

I should add that I've worked as a reviewer a bit, and I'm not good at it. I don't like being critical in the ways that the seriously well-written review demands. I get nervous trying to place a book into a larger literary landscape. I've read too many reviews of my own books claiming that I was seriously influenced by writers I've never read.

And there was one review that I'll never forget, that really stopped me from writing literary fiction for some time -- years, in fact. I became, perhaps, the most prolific novelist to have writer's block. My writer's block was very specific and I wrote around it -- in other genres.

I've been waiting -- without knowing I was waiting -- for the negative review that said the words I wanted to hear: This book just wasn't for me. This is what I say of books that I don't like. I admire books I don't like -- ones that I can find to be full of literary merit. I teach certain novels because they're so important, iconic, essential to the discussion of fiction -- whether I like them or not. And I help young writers achieve works of great promise -- deepening their own unique voices -- even if I don't like the characters myself or if I'm not drawn to the plot on a very personal level. Those things are moot. My own personal feelings about the book don't matter. I'm trying to draw out the best possible work from my student.

So, I was DELIGHTED when someone brought my attention to THIS two-star review. The last paragraph includes those words I've longed to hear:

"Even though I couldn't connect . . . doesn't mean you won't. Don't get me wrong, there's still a lot to like about this book but like I stated above, it just wasn't the right book for me. PURE is a dark, gritty and sometimes a disturbing novel, and I'm sure a lot of readers with a profound love of the Hunger Games, Matched and the likes of Divergent will eat this baby up, and become a classic young adult hit. "

Let me repeat: It just wasn't the right book for me. She wasn't being a critic and answering: Is it worthy? She was answering: Did I like it? And, too, she positioned the book in the larger literary landscape for other readers. She gave it two-stars -- for personal reasons and she makes those reasons clear. This seems like the difference between those two kinds of reviews, that divide, and I'm fine with it because she's upfront about her take. I felt like hugging the reviewer -- virtually, of course.

I have a lot to say about the evolution (revolution) of reviewing that's happened over the course of my career. But, for now, this is a little moment of odd two-star gratitude.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Baggott is Goading You This Holiday Season, Bookishly.

Listen, we spend the year bemoaning the death of literature, the short attention span of America's youth, the end of reading as we know it ... whine, whine, whine.

But what are we doing to build the next generation of readers? And I'm not talking about the kids with bookshelves already standing -- full and overloading -- in their bedrooms. I'm talking about the kids who don't have books, the kids who aren't cracking open books and disappearing into worlds....

If the book is there, they will eventually crack that book open. If the books aren't there? Well, chances are that they won't be reading them.

Books in the home is a primary indicator for literacy. Let's work this.

"But, Baggott," you say, "how do we get books to those kids? Huh? How?"

Actually, it's really simple.


1. Get a box.

2. Put that box in front of your office door.

3. Send an email telling people it's there and encouraging them to put children's books (new and lightly used) into the box.

4. Go to Look for the schools in your area that are scoring low, that have a high number of kids who qualify for Free & Reduced Lunches. Call one of the schools and ask if they're Title I.

5. If yes, ask to talk to the media specialist or reading coach. Tell them you have free books for their kids -- just to give away, or to help stock the library shelves.

6. They will say: Bring it on!

7. Bring the books on.

There's also another way -- a simpler version.


Write a check and send it to Kids in Need - Books in Deed:

The FSU Foundation
C/O Kids in Need - Books in Deed, Fund #0430
2010 Levy Avenue
PO Box 3062739
Tallahassee, FL 32306-2739

We'll buy books for kids in the state of Florida and help set up author-donated school visits (complete with free books).

And I'm thinking up a New Year's Resolution in which I relentlessly goad other Creative Writing Programs into a competitive book drive . Other programs: beware.