Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

I know, I know, it’s been a while, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been busy having fun.

With my cherubs in New York City:

Montauk Lighthouse:

Evening Croquet:Baltimore Cousins visit California Cousins:

Deals are made at the Risk Board

Picasso exhibit at the DeYoung Museum:

Flying a kite in Foothill Park:Running with four-legged friend on the beach:

I’ve also managed to squeeze in a few books. Of note:

“The Hare With Amber Eyes” – Edmund de Waal

“Haywire” – Brooke Hayward

“When a Crocodile Eats the Sun” &  “Fear” – Peter Godwin

“The Boys of My Youth” – Jo Ann Beard

More in a later post on Beard’s book, an inspiration for my own work.

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In Speak, Memory Nabokov links the memory of watching his son bring him shells and pebbles at the seashore to his own childhood experience collecting shards of pottery at the seashore.

I do not doubt that among those slightly convex chips of majolica ware found by our child there was one whose border of scrollwork fitted exactly, and continued, the pattern of a fragment I had found in 1903 on the same shore, and that the two tallied with a third my mother had found on that Mentone beach in 1882, and with a fourth piece of the same pottery that had been found by her mother a hundred years ago — and so on, until this assortment of parts, if all had been preserved, might have been put together to make the complete, the absolutely complete, bowl, broken by some Italian child, God knows where and when, and now mended by these rivets of bronze.

I love the notion of reassembling this broken piece of pottery by reassembling shards gathered over generations. Continuing with the seaside theme, I experimented with this concept in my own writing by comparing the thrill of finding sea glass during my childhood on the beaches of Cape Cod with the treasures my daughter found across the world on a beach in Australia.

‘Look,’ Corinne says pointing at thousands of tiny shells that have been washed ashore, ‘We’re rich!’

Indeed the beach is filled with an assortment of miniature conch shells, about the size of Corinne’s baby toe. Mother Nature has given them patterns detailed enough for a man’s suit — herringbone, tweed and plaid.

I look down at my daughter’s white-blond curls and the newly sprouted freckles sprinkled across her nose and it feels as if I’m looking back at myself on Nauset Beach, oceans and years away. We bend down to start collecting her little treasures. We share the most beautiful ones with each other before tossing them into my overturned baseball cap. I wonder how Corinne will choose to display them when we get home? On a shelf, like I used to do? In a tiny box. Probably more likely.

Thanks to Sven Birkert’s for pointing out Nabokov’s obsession with joining what appear to be scattered elements of time in, The Art of Time in Memoir

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Thought Bubble

Cathy Day’s post The Millions : The Story Problem: 10 Thoughts on Academia’s Novel Crisis got me thinking today. In it she argues we are not having a renaissance of the short story. It is simply that MFA programs focus on short stories rather than novels mainly because it is a more manageable form for both teacher and student. Thus, writing programs produce students who are wary of writing novels.

Since graduating from an MFA program, I’ve often wished I had learned more about structuring a longer body of work. Although I did learn a lot about writing in general at my university (which was in Australia, so I’m not sure how well it correlates to the American MFA experience) including theory classes and broad-brush exposure to multiple genres ( scriptwriting, short story, poetry, YA) it would have helped to have a class that addressed the novel or memoir.

So, the hard work of learning how to structure a long piece fell to me. My self-directed course in writing memoir has included reading the greats: Mary Karr, both Wolff brothers, Dave Eggers, Jeannette Walls and some other up-and-comers including Laura Munson and Kelly Corrigan. I also troll countless blogs looking for advice (or is this simply procrastination). Ironically, one of the most helpful posts was a speech given by a YA literary agent, Cheryl Klein. Her thoughts on Harry Potter helped enormously. Finally, I read books on the craft of writing memoir. Currently, ‘The Art of Time in Memoir’ by Sven Birkerts sits on my bedside table. Two years ago this book wouldn’t have made much sense to me. Now it has me running to my manuscript to add elements of Birkert’s strategies.

Recently, I signed up for the Monster Memoir Workshop with Rachel Howard at The Grotto in San Francisco so that I can have my 100 or so pages critiqued by a small group of writers. I’m hoping to get advice regarding the overall message of my book, the characters I’ve developed and the balance between showing readers Australia and letting them into my life. I’ll let you know how I go…

So, I agree with Cathy Day that a place needs to be made in MFA programs for students who would like to write longer pieces. However, I’m not sure anyone has the time. Teachers are too busy teaching and writing short stories because they don’t have enough time for their own novels! Or, could this just be another stage in the looooooong process of learning to write? Perhaps I would have been overwhelmed with lectures about BIG novels. Maybe the overview I received was just right. What do you think?

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First, sorry for my prolonged absence. I had teacher’s luncheons to cook, book fairs to manage, cookies to bake and presents to prepare. We spent a rainy, Snuggi-wrapped first Christmas here in Northern California enjoying our new books and xBox. We all enjoyed getting to know our area better visiting Muir Woods, Mount Diablo, Sausalito and the Academy of Sciences. Tim and I celebrated our 16th anniversary on New Year’s Eve watching ‘The King’s Speech’ (excellent) and dining at a french bistro. Tomorrow it is back to reality. Today is my warm-up.

Did any of you make New Year’s resolutions? I’m not a big fan. Too much pressure for this list-completing personality. So, instead I’m going to think about how to live more mindfully this year. Thanks to Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent for her inspiration.

Believe in myself

Believe in my family

Take time for the important things

Go to yoga class, it works

This is a work-in-progress. I’ll add to it as I go. I’ve signed up for the “Monster Memoir Manuscript Workshop” with Rachel Howard at The Grotto in San Francisco. Please oh please let it help me finish my book! I’m checking out a new writing group next week. More on that later. I will continue my volunteer work at a literary project in the Mission and at Raising a Reader just down the street here in Palo Alto. Oh, and I’d like to spend time with my children. At ages 10, 12 and 14 (how I love the even years) they are actually a lot of fun!

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This story was an ‘Editor’s Pick’ today on Open Salon. Open Salon: You make the headlines Or, here it is:

No One Told Me About the Rats

Sunny California. Palo Alto. Heart of the Silicon Valley. Short drive to San Francisco. Fabulous public schools. These are the sound bites I reel off to my new friends in East Hampton about our upcoming move. It has been a long winter for our family and I’m giddy with so many beautiful colors surrounding me – the bright yellow daffodils, the soft pink peonies and the pastel lilacs – and with the fact we’ve finally made a decision.

We hadn’t planned to spend so much time in East Hampton, just a couple of months to re-enter the United States after living in Australia for close to six years.  Our friends offered their summer home for this purpose, a Disneyland with a heated pool, cupboards filled with supplies from BJ’s warehouse, seven TVs and a garage loaded with sporting equipment. ‘Don’t get used to this,’ we told our three children.

My husband, Tim spent that winter trying to figure out what to do with a newly minted PhD in machine learning from The Australian National University. ‘Machine what?’ his former colleagues he’d worked with for almost twenty years on Wall Street asked. ‘Why would you want to come back here?’ a friend at Goldman Sachs asked him. ‘You’ve re-tooled. You have the golden ticket!’ Yes, but to what Tim wondered as we watched the snow pile up on the driveway, which as punishment for our lack of direction we shoveled ourselves after each storm.

There were good times that winter. During school break I taught the kids how to ice skate. We also hiked in the mud on Shelter Island. Afterwards we warmed up inside the nature center and watched birds darting around feeders set up outside, teaching the kids the names of the North American species. On Saturday nights we became obsessed with Settlers of Catan, a board game similar to Risk but possible to complete in an evening. The kids’ personalities would emerge: Ian, our teenager is a quiet strategist, TJ our middle child likes to win and is not ashamed to admit it and Corinne, our youngest at age nine was delighted to be included. She teamed up with Tim and rolled the dice with expertise. I sipped on my goblet of red wine and thanked God the kids were ok, despite their parent’s temporary insanity. I even dared tell myself that perhaps we would remember this as a good time for the family, a bonding time. Still, the kids need more than family. They need to make friends who will be around for a while.

Throughout the winter, Tim spoke to contacts on Wall Street, but his heart wasn’t in it. What he really wanted to do was start his own company in the technology industry. He began to speak to entrepreneurs in Boston and the Silicon Valley. Along the way he met his future partner, Phil who was based in San Mateo, California. Together they hatched a plan to provide one-to-one marketing over smartphones. It was a good idea and the first spark I’d seen in Tim’s eyes in a while. However, it was unsettling for me. I knew Tim wouldn’t force a move, but I could tell he had found his direction. Hadn’t we already taken enough risk moving to Australia? Wasn’t it time to settle down with a proper job? Reconnecting with family and friends on familiar turf was comforting. I wasn’t sure I was ready for another leap of faith.

With the arrival of spring my risk-taking profile somehow changes. I start to wonder how all my fear made me forget the fact that it is Tim offering to go to work everyday. How could I dream of sending him to the caverns on Wall Street (remember, you worked there too Beth) if his heart isn’t in it? Maybe it’s the optimism of the birds laying fresh eggs or the crocuses giving it their all to push through the snowdrifts to add color to our bleak existence. Maybe it’s as simple as a phone call from Leo, an artist and member of my writing group urging me to come over and pick some lilacs from his tree before it’s too late. Not everyone is so lucky to have such caring friends. Come to think of it, Ashawagh Hall Writer’s Group turned out to be my saving grace this winter.

Each Thursday evening I climbed the stairs to an attic-like room with sporadic heat and difficult windows to listen and read to a dozen or so talented and nurturing writers seated around a long table. Led by the passsionate young adult author M.E. Kerr (aka Marijane Meeker) I had stumbled onto something special. When my first reading flopped I received several encouraging emails telling me to hang in there. After my third reading, when Marijane told me I was a ‘quick learner’ and that she had ‘no comment’ because my chapter was ‘just great’, I glowed.

When I’m engaged the future is less worrying. I’m more interested in having enough hours in the day to pursue my interests. What’s more, I married a man fully capable of taking care of himself, provided I let him. Instead, I interrogated, pressured and doubted. Here was a man who skipped high school to go straight to college. Perhaps he was onto something if I would simply give him the space to explore. He’s never let you down, Beth. Let him go.

‘I think we should move to California,’ I say to Tim over our oatmeal one morning. ‘We need to move forward.’

Even though this sounds like a snap decision, Tim knows I’ve thought it over carefully. He’d felt my wet pillow at times in the middle of the night. He’d watched me shrink away from a social life. He wasted no time sealing a deal with Phil.

After spending the winter moping, I make a conscious decision to become positive about this venture. Tim shouldn’t have to shoulder the worry by himself. Time to rejoin the team. The kids need to feel secure if we’re going to have a shot at a smooth transition.  Once I frame our move in a positive light, it actually sounds like be a good idea. I try out my affirmative spin for a few days and it becomes contagious. Tim’s confidence grows. The kids decide it might be fun to move out West, despite the fact they’ll be leaving their beloved cousins behind.

By late May 2010 I fly to Palo Alto to find a house to rent. The market for a family home is tight and expensive. I settle on a renovated 70s ranch set in the hills just north of downtown Palo Alto on Robb Road. I like the alliterative sound of our street. I also like the garden filled with lemon, apricot and apple trees. It all feels California organic, but with plenty of convenient shops nearby.

‘California ranch with a hot tub!’ I tell my friends back in East Hampton, even though the place is a tad rundown and I doubt we’ll use the hot tub.

One afternoon during my visit out West, I drive over to Stanford Hospital to drop off a card for Phil. The previous week, Phil had fainted a couple of times while on a camping trip with his son. He had mentioned a nagging sinus infection to Tim more than once. After the fainting spells, Tim urged him to return to his doctor who in turn sent him to a neurologist who diagnosed a brain tumor. The hospital staff won’t give me details on Phil’s condition and I don’t want to bother his family, so I simply drop off the card and leave.

A week later, we receive a phone call telling us Phil has died. Apparently, his brain swelled after surgery and a second emergency operation didn’t save him. We’re stunned. We underestimated the seriousness of his condition. Phil was only 45 and left behind a wife and two small boys. How could he be here one month, skiing at Tahoe and then be gone so suddenly? His death was hard to comprehend. I couldn’t imagine how his wife felt.

Days later, Tim and I guiltily broach the question hovering in the air, ‘Now what?’ We decide to go ahead with our plan. It’s still a good business idea, we’ve already told the kids and we can’t stay in our friends’ summerhouse much longer, they’re returning from London in a matter of weeks. Tim will go it alone until he finds a new business partner. He can only hope to find a man as upstanding as Phil.

By early July Tim flies out West to begin work and to receive our two shipments of furniture: one from Australia, the other from a storage container in New Jersey. He will ‘camp out’ while he waits, sleeping on an air mattress and eating off paper plates. The kids and I will travel for a few weeks until the house can be settled.

Ian, TJ, Corinne and I spend a week with dear friends on Martha’s Vineyard, tour Boston with cousin Sheila, ride the Maid of the Mist at Niagra Falls and eventually land at my brother’s house in Chicago. Along the way we eat numerous ice cream cones and burgers and loll around reading books purchased at the beginning of our journey at one of our favorite bookstores in Madison, Connecticut. Although our travels have been fun, I’m ready to land at our permanent address, however humbly furnished. The kids are ready too. So supportive during our winter of discontent, they’ve found their voices again and they’re shouting, ‘We want to go home!’

Tim has other ideas. He tells me the house is a mess with unpacked boxes and that the kids will hate sleeping on air mattresses. I’m surprised (and a little hurt) that he isn’t more anxious to see us. This isn’t like him. We did have a tough winter I rationalize. Maybe he needs a little more time on his own. How was I to know that he had plenty company?

On Saturday, July 17th we begin the final leg of our journey to California and board a United flight from O’Hare to San Francisco. We just fit into Tim’s new Prius for the drive to our new house. As we drive up Robb Road TJ says, ‘Nice!’ pointing at the Georgian manor house behind a stately gate up the hill from our rental.

‘Oh, no TJ, we’re in that cute tan house nestled into the hill below.’ The one with the non-mechanized gate, I mutter, momentarily forgetting my positivity pact. We unpack the car and roll our duffel bags to the front entrance.

‘The front door looks kind of beat up,’ TJ says.

‘It’s a distressed, ranchy kind of look,’ I say. He looks doubtful. Ian glares at him as if to say, c’mon buddy, be a good sport. Once inside, I show TJ the downstairs, which we’ve designated a kids’ zone. TJ brightens up, especially when I remind him we have foosball and ping pong tables arriving soon. If only it were that easy to turn my own dark clouds into sunny skies. Soon I learn the front door is the least of my worries.

That evening we drive into Los Altos for Mexican. Seated outdoors, I sip on a large margarita while the kids devour chips and salsa. A mariachi band plays in the corner. ‘Happy?’ Tim asks.

‘Yup, it actually feels right to be here,’ I say. I’m surprised to find I actually mean it.

Back home, we all climb into the hot tub on the deck outside the master bedroom and watch the planes line up to land at the San Francisco airport against the backdrop of the San Andreas Fault.

A few nights later, after I’ve cooked eggs in our only frying pan, we sprawl out on the air mattresses in the living room. The kids are tired from playing tennis and swimming all day. I enrolled them at the local club to ensure they don’t have time to miss their friends.

‘Did you hear that?’ Tim asks.


‘That scratching noise,’ he says.

I pause to listen and do in fact hear a scratching noise. ‘That’s just the house settling. Remember, earthquakes are happening all the time out here.’

He nods, but doesn’t look convinced. By the time we go to bed he blurts, ‘We have rats.’ He feels me stiffen and runs on, ‘but the rat guy has been here and it should be taken care of.’ I guess he wasn’t alone after all.

Thoughts of scratchy feet pitter-pattering across my pillow and indeed, even the Plague flit through my mind.

‘It’s ok,’ I tell him. ‘We can deal with it.’

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In her review of Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia, Melissa H. Pierson describes in two paragraphs much of what we writer’s of narrative nonfiction should cover:

The reasons the reader loves Frazier’s work are easier to name. For one, there’s his irrepressible humor, which arises unexpectedly to provoke outright laughter (on encountering no fewer than five weddings in an afternoon of driving, Frazier notes, “I couldn’t tell whether the bridal couples had actually been married on the highway or were just having their receptions there”) and displays his credentials as one of our finest comic writers, which he also shows in the New Yorker. For another, there’s the way he paints himself winsomely into the corner of the picture; no matter how majestic the scene, there he is down there, winking. For a third, there’s his absolute mastery of narrative prose, its rhythmic propulsion and digressive powers. There is little he is not interested in, and little he does not cover (Russian literary history, lunch, purges, landscape, the Revolution, economics, fishing, ballet, the tsars). He is the tour guide who talks your ear off, but who fascinates anyway.

Indeed, when was the last time you heard someone get at the essence of a place just by examining its smell? Frazier made the country more real for me than a whole stack of Kodachrome postcards (or even the author’s own pencil drawings, sweet though these are) in describing the Russian national smell as made up of sour milk, diesel, cucumber peel and several other disparate items. Then there are colors (lots of cement-gray, apparently, and man-made chemical tones), flavors — berries and mushrooms — and, overwhelmingly, people’s faces, bodies, clothes. This is a book made of textures.

Time to take another pass through my work. Am I looking at the funny side of things? How am I ‘painting’ myself into the scenes? Are we all remembering to use our senses? What does your location smell like? What colors do you see? What are the ‘textures’ in your work? Whew, back to it!

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