THE GOOD OLD BOYS deep in these panhandle Florida pine woods couldn’t wait until 11:59 to kick up a fuss. It’s only 9:15 when I hear the first muffled whumps and booms of roman candles, aerial repeaters and shells, and firecrackers. When I step outside I feel a frisson of electricity in the air and hear the crackle of sparklers. The cloudy night sky erupts into a poor-man’s kaleidoscope.
Buck is writing at his desk in a bright circle. I’m already in bed, leaning against a stack of pillows, listening to a Spotify playlist for a random search of the word “Talisman,” and typing on the extension of my fingers also known as a Surface Pro 2, my all-time favorite gadget tool.
Ah, here he comes now with our treat for the evening, a bag of Dove dark chocolates.
Earlier this evening we lightly steamed a pound of blue crab claws (the little, cocktail size) and nearly two pounds of sweet and tender Pensacola Bay shrimp. Buck stirred up his special dipping sauce, a mix of horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, ketchup and a smidgen of mayonnaise. I doused a small plate of sliced Feta cheese, Kalamata olives, and house-roasted meaty red peppers with olive oil, ground pepper and oregano. We took our feast to the room we call the Snow Porch (the naming of that room is a story for another time), along with a bowl of Naked Pita chips and our drinks, and fell to.
Tonight is merely an arbitrary convention to delineate one measure of time from the next, but I welcome it as a conscious pause button, a mindful thumb on the scale.
I washed our bed linens today, the Oxford stripe blue sheets and the warm gold duvet cover. The serene blue and burnished gold please me.
I’ve moved past the Talisman music and have gone to a favorite created playlist for my characters, Grace and Jess. They still have a lot of mountains to climb, a lot of growing to do.
Eons ago when I worked as Director of Communications for the Pensacola Chamber of Commerce, we began each year with what we called a “Program of Work.” I have a loose program of work of my own to start the year off with a bang that includes a challenging ten-week online course hosted by Creative Nonfiction, called Boot Camp for Writers. It begins next week. Mid-month brings a six-week online course, Advanced Fiction. I’m fired up and ready to go.
So am I blogging again? The title is The Do-It-Yourself Writer, subhead Elizabeth Westmark’s Scribble Space. Maybe the sub-subhead should be Making It Up As I Go Along.
Hope you chase down or get covered up by clouds of bliss this year.
How do you select the next book you’re going to read?
I’m at a stage of life where, in theory, I can spend all day and all night, too, if I want, tossing back bon-bons and reading books for pleasure. I’m retired from working for other people, don’t have any kids, have a healthy self and a healthy spouse — all the time in the world, right? Except for this pesky fairy godmother writing monster that pushes me 24/7 to learn and write as though I were on some externally-imposed deadline.
I race through writing craft books, highlighting and making furious notes. I read books outside of my favorite fiction genres because an author of a writing craft book has suggested a particular writer for “voice” or “dialogue” or “plotting.” Well, that’s cool, because as a result I’ve discovered Donald Bartheleme, Graham Green, Elmore Leonard, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Neal Stephenson, and a long list of others. It’s a thrilling treasure hunt, with plenty of pleasure in the learning.
So, I’m reading more widely than ever before, but it’s not sitting in a lawn chair in the shade of an old oak tree kind of reading. It’s reading while brushing my teeth, getting in a few more chapters stolen from sleep, you know the kind of reading I mean. You probably all do it, too. There’s a sense of urgency, a sense of “I should be finishing my own novel instead of reading someone else’s!”
When Sheri Wren Haymore’s novel, A Higher Voice, surfaced on my radar screen, it was a moment of serendipity. You see, Sheri’s sister, Patsy Conrad, is a good friend of mine, and when she told me about Sheri’s book, I ordered it as much out of solidarity with my friend than because I thought it would be a good book. When it came in the mail, my first thought was, “Wow, nice cover.”
Sometime later that day, or the next, I started the first chapter while sitting at my desk. Then, without thinking about what I was doing, I took the book and slipped quietly upstairs to the guest bedroom, where I sat for several hours in my late mother-in-law’s blue upholstered rocking chair, and read for pure pleasure. This is a novel that strives to explore themes of hope, gratitude, and forgiveness within a Christian context. Not, however, as Sheri explains, in a “shove-it-down-your-neck, you have to believe what I believe” kind of way. Instead, she weaves a tale about Britt, a tormented rock musician who is losing his voice and struggling with inner demons and a brother out for vengeance, and Dena, his new-found true love, whose faith and devotion represent a kind of woman new to his experience. Are they too different to sustain a lasting relationship? Will they triumph over previous lives and dark forces that threaten to tear them apart? A Higher Voice explores their struggle within the framework of romantic suspense.
Sheri Wren Haymore grew up in Mt. Airy, NC and still lives there, where she owns and operates Scenic Gifts, which features custom wood furniture made by her artisan craftsman husband, Clyde.
A Higher Voice is a good story, well-written, with an ending that satisfies. It is Haymore’s debut novel. Her second, ADeeper Cut, will be out this November. It will also be published by Wisdom House Books.
When you’re ready for a good old-fashioned read that will have you pulling for the main characters, I recommend A Higher Voice. Details about upcoming book signings and other projects can be found at Sheri’s website.
My penchant for kosher salt is sprinkled all over the plate. This is the essence of a plebeian Monday supper: farm-raised catfish (gasp) from our local Publix grocery store, a sliced tomato, and turnip greens dipped from the quart container we take out once a week from a phoned-in order to the local Cracker Barrel. Hershey Bar with Almonds to follow to bed with a book.
I’m reading a raft of things, some of which have dribbles of toothpaste on them because I’m trying to eke out a few more paragraphs here, a few more paragraphs there. Some wind drew me to Chuck Palahniuk’s book , Damned, which is one hundred percent out of character for what I might normally choose to read, and I’m loving it. Actually, Palahniuk only sprang onto my radar screen because I (somehow) wound up reading a writing lesson from Chuck wherein he forbade writers to use “thought” verbs for at least the next half-year. The big takeaway for me was his exhortation to not be lazy, and to “unpack” characters. Whoa. I see when I do that it works, when I don’t, the writing may as well be in hell, it’s so dead. So, thanks, Chuck. I bought your book (one of many) and now I’m hooked.
Gotta run. I have a chocolate bar to eat and a good book to finish.
There are days when I ‘m that leaf, swept along in the swirls and eddies of a spring-fed stream. Some weeks, the leaf is my boat. I peer over the edge, use binoculars to focus on each new shore; discover new worlds; rediscover familiar ones. All sense of time is lost. It’s time to anchor awhile and reflect.
I have learned why many writers grow beards if they can, leave their hair long and wild or short and haphazardly chopped; why they’re often thin and pale, and talk out loud to themselves while brushing their teeth or mutter beyond the bathroom door. And something else is at play. Did you ever see one of those millennium countdown clocks that were popular the year before the 20th changed to the 21st? We were living part-time in Rice Cove in Canton, North Carolina then. One of those damnably mesmerizing clocks was in our tiny local post office there. Buck acts like a man with an atomic clock imprinted on the insides of his eyelids. And not just with his manuscript. There are friends to see, karma to serve.
And so, we set sail in the old black town car, a cruising bath tub, from one end of Florida to nearly the other. I have brothers and a sister in the middle of the state I would like to see — need to see — but this was not that trip.
First stop was Gainesville, one night flying low. We brought a hotel picnic for our friends: big ole’ shrimp from Joe Patti’s Seafood. We poached and peeled them Saturday night before leaving Sunday morning, the 10th. Buck made a fiery dipping sauce, me a fresh Cole slaw with pineapple slivers for a surprise of sweet, and they went into the cooler with store-bought potato salad and goat cheese. A canvas bag was stuffed with crackers, Brazil nuts, almonds, oregano to sprinkle on the goat cheese, and our staples of peanut butter, dried fruit and trail mix bars. The venue was strangely perfect for distraction-free talk, which was just the medicine. It was a standard Residence Inn style room, so there was a sofa, coffee table and pull-up chairs.
Next stop was a mini-retreat for two in a motel at the base of the Charlotte Harbor bridge in Punta Gorda. The weather was coolish, windy and gray. Perfect. Buck picked up a book I brought in my other canvas bag, the one stuffed with food for the mind, and I haven’t gotten it back since. It was Sol Stein’s classic, Stein on Writing.
Wednesday, we drove another seventy miles south, to Naples, to see one of two remaining high school chums of Buck’s, and his wife (surely one of nature’s life force spark plugs). Each morning, I left their villa early to walk Old Naples, remarkable manicured real estate, down Park Shore Boulevard across the bridge separating Venetian Bay from Inner Doctor’s Bay, then right on Gulf Shore Boulevard, past Park Shore Marina, all the way to the end, where a walking path links to the Gulf or back across the bayou and to Crayton Road, which is the one I chose. Breakfast and a hot ping-pong match with friends awaited. Yes. Ping-pong. First time in more than forty years. Astonishing fun. Lots of laughing, jumping, stooping, and heavy breathing. Puts you in the moment and keeps you there.
Laconic joggers crossed the bridge, and couples walked their (mostly tiny, mostly white) leashed dogs along the wide sidewalks, poo bags discretely at the ready. Almost every person I encountered looked me in the eye, smiled and said “Good Morning.” I met a couple with their sweet-faced rescue dog, Bliss. They are best-selling authors and psychologists, Dr. Basha and Dr. Jeffrey Kaplan. We walked and talked together and parted with exchanges of email addresses and hugs. Delightful people. I hope to see them again.
Someone said of this core of downtown Naples: “Nobody works.” Not true, of course, since it takes a subtle army of gardeners, mechanics, restaurateurs and other service workers to keep up this Garden of Eden, like some exotic aquarium, for all the folks here who are Somebody or were Somebody in real life. The grass here is always green. And if it isn’t, it is swiftly removed and replaced with fresh sod, new palms and flowers — whatever it takes to sustain the aura of wealth and serenity.
I know. I talk like a peasant. And why not? I am one, and proud to be. It’s beautiful, and I thoroughly enjoyed these walks and the interesting, nice people I met along the way. It is pretty, but insular, with its own form of genteel regimentation. I might chafe at the hidden fence. Might.
There was no fence, hidden or otherwise, separating these birds from their morning fishing. Buck made the same walking circuit with me later that day and the next. We saw these beauties on the Seagate side of Venetian Bayou.
The walks and scenery were stimulating. I had a case of cabin fever in the pine woods and didn’t even know it. It was a gift to be blasted out of my comfortable study. Best of all was the company of our good friends and their mellow Weimaraner, Maggie Moo. I needed a good dog fix in the worst way, and I got a joyful one. Nothing like an under-the-chin puppy kiss.
Roy and Bette spoiled us with delicious food, (including lobster tails they caught while diving in Key West, tossed with garlic, tomatoes, basil, Brie, and pasta — whoa), and most of all inspired us with their good natures, love for each other, and zest for life.
We planned to return straight home from Naples Saturday morning, a long but do-able drive. An email changed our trajectory, and we ricocheted from Naples, hugged Lake Okeechobee’s shoreline for a ways, then shot up the east coast on I-95 to rendezvous with friends aboard their Nordic Tug, True North, at Cocoa Village Marina.
That’s Tom Conrad, captain of True North. He and Patsy are friends from Pensacola who have not permitted a challenging illness to keep them from their dream of living on their trawler. They are veteran cruisers of The Great Loop. Even now, Tom makes a 5:00 a.m. weather report much relied upon by other boaters.
We joined Tom and Patsy for a visit on board, and then walked a few blocks to Cafe Margaux for dinner. Our server, Andy, was a wise-eyed raconteur, from Kentucky via many years in New Orleans until he was up-ended by Hurricane Katrina. After dinner, we returned to the boat for pie and more talk.
We returned to True North Sunday morning to find the galley smelling like a high-end bistro at brunch time. Patsy had “whipped up” a homemade mushroom and Gruyere quiche and a fresh fruit salad for us. My first coffee of the day was there, on the water with sunlight streaming through the windows, in the presence of my lovin’ man and our good friends.
It was nearly one o’clock when we left Tom and Patsy for home Sunday afternoon. We made it as far as Tallahassee, when fatigue, blowing rain, and darkness caused us to stop overnight. The bridge over Escambia Bay leading us home Monday morning was a bright ribbon over lovely, familiar waters. Neither of us would trade anything for the touchstone of being with Roy and Bette, Tom and Patsy, and Neal and Elaine, but home is home and we’re happy to be back in our own bed. Buck is in his cave, furiously editing. He says Sol Stein has caused him a lot of trouble. High praise. As for me, I needed some fresh Florida scenery and culture to confirm words written for my character Grace’s own road trip to south Florida.
I wasn’t online while we were gone, except to check weather, driving directions and occasionally, e-mail. It will be a pleasure to catch up with you all and see what you’ve been up to.
Rainbows are a meteorological and optical phenomenon that can cause the most jaded person to leap from their chair and dash outside, camera in hand. The definition I like most is this simple one: a rainbow occurs when raindrops and sunshine meet in a particular way. This one, over Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Maine, looks more like a painting. The day had been blustery, with a few squalls and hardly any sun. That bit of magic was a fine surprise; emblematic of our time away.
This trip to the Maine coast was not idyllic in the way we have come to expect. My one-bag packing job that seemed so sensible bit me when Delta sent it to Detroit instead of Bangor. It eventually arrived two days later, but in the meantime I continued to wear the Florida-style white cropped slacks I wore on the plane, plus a black undershirt and soft old flannel shirt courtesy of Buck. Luckily, I had put a pair of socks and jogging shoes into his duffel bag, and so was able to put my sandals aside and keep my feet warm.
There is a point in the life of an old house where it goes from charming to . . . something else. This was the year when the old cottage we’ve stayed in several times before turned a bit, like milk left too long in the fridge. You know that point where it’s not quite sour, and the non-squeamish will go ahead and pour it on their cereal. (I am not that person). And yet. Had we not gone, would the breakthroughs we experienced have come for either of us?
Something about an old wing chair gives a person cover for their thoughts. I took 100 pages of my manuscript to work on, a copy of Brian Kiteley’s remarkably helpful book, The 3 a.m. Epiphany: Uncommon Writing Exercises that Transform Your Fiction, along with several outstanding books downloaded to my Kindle to work through, including Jerome Stern’s utterly wonderful Making Shapely Fiction and the vintage The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers by John Gardner. Many people have sat in that dilapidated chair. The place on the arms where people clutch and tense their hands is threadbare, and the seat has been reinforced with a folded bed sheet. I bolstered both height and comfort with a pillow from one of the beds upstairs, and there I sat every morning to watch the big tides rise to cover nearly all the rocks, and ebb away again, exposing everything. I watched the sun rise or the rains come. And I read, studied, wrote, and thought. Buck worked mostly at the table. We broke only for rainbows, to marvel at a young eagle flying right in front of the picture window, or for a half-sandwich or cup of soup at midday, and smoked salmon tidbits with red onion and capers or some such treat in the evening.
I thought I was writing a quick-read, supermarket paperback kind of mind candy book. And maybe that’s what it will grow down to be. But of the two main characters, one has a near pathological fear of commitment and the other a near pathological need to connect and dread of loss. Emerging themes cover the waterfront: Who am I? Who can I trust? Why can’t things be simple? Why can’t good things stay the same? Some things can’t be fixed.
I guess if someone pressed me to give them my “word” for 2011, it would be the word “focus.”
Of all the fabulous books in the world, it’s silly to obsess over the ones I’ll never read. Same goes for writing. Most books, stories and essays are in the category of “I can’t write those.” But, my God, there are so many genres and niches where a person who writes, submits and just keeps on keeping on can find a satisfying branch and perch for awhile, and then maybe fly a little higher on to the next branch.
Time is the friend and time is the enemy. “Distraction removal” has an unpleasant ring to it; sounds like a service that should be performed in the middle of a foggy night by a team of anonymous, gray-faced men wearing thin Latex gloves. But, alas, it’s a necessary job we each must do for ourselves.
I’ve been tearing out stories from The New Yorker for a year or two and struggling to keep up with reading them. For a while, I kept a steno pad nearby and wrote comments about each story. As a certain Southern gentleman I know might say to me, “That’s something that takes up a lot of time and don’t make no money.” It was kind of cool and interesting in an esoteric way, but one night last week, after reading yet another grim story full of anhedonia. I finally had enough. I dropped it on the bed, swore a mild oath, swung my legs over the side, and tramped barefoot into my study, where I collected several large piles of New Yorkers, either intact or just the ripped out stories, and lugged them all to the recycle container.
And all the books about writing that I’ve begun and failed to finish, they look very nice now decorating a shelf.
What am I doing with all the time I found, now that I’m not reading about writing anymore? Flapping my wings, baby, flapping my wings.
I love it when I pick up a package from Amazon.com at the post office and have no idea what's in it. What did I order, and when? Was it the middle of the night, just before sleep, or first thing in the morning before brushing my teeth or grinding coffee beans?
When I opened the package (with the eagerness of 12 year old Julia Claire on Christmas morning), I remembered the circumstances of this particular order: I cleaned my desk and found two small scraps of paper ripped from an edge of a legal pad with my scribbles on them. On one was written, "Raymond Queneau's Exercises In Style." On the other, "Flo says Lynne Perrella's Artists Journals & Sketchbooks – Exploring and Creating Personal Pages is good." (I remember our conversation. My sister,Flo, is an artist who has worked in many different media. She suggested Perrella's book after I told her I was fooling around with blank books and pasting, scribbling, etc. in them and that it seemed to be freeing up my writing.)
I can hardly wait to dive into both and will let you know what I find!
". . .I'd love to know why other people pick up and start a magazine article, an anthology chapter, or a book. If you're not always thinking about writing them what context usually brings on your need to read, out in the real world?"
Deanna's question made me laugh a little. You would laugh, too, if you could see my house. Instead of the proverbial trail of breadcrumbs, I leave a trail of books and magazines dribbled through the rooms, tables and countertops.
The living room sofa is reserved for Harpers, The New Yorker and Poet & Writer. Harper's is gutted for its fiction stories. Same for The New Yorker, once I have perused the often funny, sometimes inscrutable, and occasionally cruel cartoons. Poets & Writers remains intact, with annotated sticky notes serving as tabs for pages I want to easily find again.
The dining table has a stack of books ready to retun to the nearby University of West Florida library. I can check out ten books at a time there, which I seem to have taken as a mandate. The library's third floor is quiet, cool and lined with books by and about wonderful authors. Too often, I am in a rush when I go there, sometimes trailing a gaggle of grandchildren. One day, I would like to arrive when the doors open, take the compact elevator to the third floor, and spend the whole day in solitary pleasure, fondling books.
Each morning, I slip out from our bedroom early, trying not to awaken my sleeping husband. The guest bathroom where I brush my teeth always has an open book by the sink. This morning, it is a copy of a sweet book written by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. It is written as a series of letters between the various characters — a perfect format for reading a few every morning while tooth-brushing.
Most of the books I read these days are recommended by other writers or discovered in some other serendipitous way. In a tumble at my desk or beside the bed are Elizabeth George's Write Away: One Novelist's Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life (thank you, Richard Gilbert); Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paoli's Tell It Slant; the various "best of" anthologies for essays, short stories and spiritual writing (thank you, Lisa Ohlen Harris); and The Portable MFA in Creative Writingby The New York Writers Group.
A good friend recently sent me a small gem of a book. It's called The War of Art: Break through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield (thank you, Denny Coates).
Ear buds are usually stuck in my ear before tuning out the lights. Selections for listening might include Stephen King's very fine craft book, On Writing, Hemingway's, A Moveable Feast, James Joyce's Ulysses (which I just started and am surprised by how much I am enjoying), or an interesting podcast or two, either from NPR or Ted Talks.
Some books teach me, some inspire, some are pure mind candy and others stiffen my spine.
I have been like a woman surveying her closet, seeing that she has come to an age, stage, style, or attitude toward life when it feels like she has nothing to wear. She begins to edit, pulling out that old pair of capri pants (what on earth was she thinking?) or this tailored striped cotton shirt that requires ironing (good grief, who does that anymore?), and she pulls and pulls until she has flung everything out onto the bed.
Then she examines the empty space, dusts, vacuums, polishes and considers: what covers my body adequately and fits my lifestyle? What pleases me?
I am doing that with books and authors right now. It has (at last) dawned on me that I may be able to read every cereal box that comes along, but I can't read every author or book that floats in front of my place along life's virtual river.
Now that the writing has become more important to me than the reading, I realize suddenly that time is short and there is too much to learn not to edit the brainfood I am consuming. I thought of this today, when reading a friend's question to me about Annie Dillard. "Have you read Annie Dillard?"
"Yes," I thought. "Of course I have. " After all, Annie Dillard is the "It" woman for literary nonfiction.
But when I pulled The Annie Dillard Reader from the shelf, I realized that is the only Annie Dillard book I have, besides her craft book, The Writing Life. When I started thumbing through it, I could see certain passages that I had underlined, but realized soon enough that when I read it before, I was not ready to apply any of the lessons to my own writing.
And so, I find that I have read excerpts, but I have not really read Annie Dillard. Only Annie Dillard will be Annie Dillard. But I want to live in her neighborhood, where I can walk by and see the light in her window. She is Central Park and I am a jogger!
Same goes for other writers whose light can inform, inspire and teach me along my rather recently chosen path.
Look Homeward, Angel may go back to the stacks, unread for now. I'll still read novels, and even a little fluffy mind candy along, but my primary focus will be short stories and literary nonfiction.
These are my coffee and peanut butter sandwich thoughts on a Sunday morning. . . how about you? Where are you in your reading and/or writing life?
Most of the books on this table came from recommendations from friends: Kathleen Scott, Denny Coates, and Richard Gilbert. Chautaqua journal, seen in the photo, has Richard's story, A Dry Season, in it.
Two of the books, T. C. Boye's Stories, and Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel are recent acquisitions borrowed for a few weeks from the University of West Florida library.
I've been talking about getting a library card at UWF for a year or more and finally did it last week. Why did I wait so long? Man, talk about Heaven! I got off the elevator on the third floor and lost myself in the stacks of literature — the only person in this huge room. It's summer, of course, but now that I have my card and a parking decal, I plan to become a regular and drink from the fountain of this incredible local resource.