Monday, July 25, 2016

How I Waste Time

When I still worked for a paycheck, either in an office or as a freelancer, I learned to be efficient. I began the day with a short (or long) list of things that had to be done, people to contact, and reminders of tasks to come. I blocked out time, nibbled way at huge projects and lunged for the small job to be done in ten or twenty minutes. In short, I got things done. Now I’m retired and write at home. I have learned the art of wasting time.

First, as we all know, there is Facebook. Enough said.

Second, and the worst, is a book I picked up at my local library book sale. The original owner lived in San Francisco, and it looks like she never even opened the book. It was pristine when I bought it. I’m careful with my books, but this woman is really careful.

The title is a sure-fire time waster. Writers on Writing by Jon Winokur contains 347 pages of quotes organized in 52 topics, and two indexes. The subjects are the expected ones—advice to young writers, censorship, money, words, and more. Some quotes are pithier than others. Compare “All art is a revolt against man’s fate” (Andre Malraux) and “Poets are born, not paid” (Wilson Mizner). And then there’s this “Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure” (Oliver Herford).

You see what I mean? You’ve just read an entire paragraph of disconnected quotes and you’re wondering if I’ll add more.

Yes, I will.

My next best time waster is a book I save for certain special occasions. Rotten Rejections: A literary
Companion edited by Andre Bernard is only 101 pages (of which 88 contain quotes), the pages almost the same size as the book above. This could give the beginning writer the very misleading idea that more writers are accepted than rejected, but we all know this to be untrue. But the humiliation and, I like to think, poor judgment of unnamed editors is visible on every page for us all to savor.

An editor once wrote to Erle Stanley Gardner on The Shrieking Skeleton, “The characters talk like dictionaries, the so-called plot has whiskers on it like Spanish moss hanging from a live oak in a Louisiana bayou.” And poor Rudyard Kipling didn’t fare much better. An editor wrote, “I’m sorry, Mr. Kipling, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

Many editors are short and to the point. “Too pedestrian,” on In My Father’s Court by Isaac Bashevis Singer. But they get their licks in. Consider this on C.P. Snow’s The New Men. “It’s polite, literate, plodding, sententious narrative of considerable competence but not a trace of talent or individuality.”

But my all-time favorite tidbit isn't a quote but a report. In the Authors Guild Bulletin, Fall 2000, the editor recorded that John Creasey received 743 rejection slips before a publisher accepted one of his mystery novels. He went on to write 564 books under 13 pen names.

And now, I feel inspired, ready to take on the day and the blank page.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Liebster Award

The Liebster Award is given to anyone with a blog who wants to participate. C. Lee McKenzie tagged “anyone who wants to play,” and my friend and fellow writer Kathleen Valentine tagged me. To play you have to thank the person who tagged you with a link to their blog, answer the questions, then pass the tag on. I'm going to pass it on to Jacqueline Seewald as well as anyone else who wants to join us.

If you had only one good deed you could do in this world, what would that be?
Achieve world peace. We hear about certain wars in specific areas of the world, but throughout the year there may be as many as 60 small conflicts going on, taking lives and destroying homes and neighborhoods.

What is one fictional character you'd like to be? How come?
I'd like to be any female character who took off to explore Asia. One of my dreams was to follow the Silk Road and some of its many branches, but with the current political situation in that part of the world, I doubt I'll ever get the chance.

What's your fondest memory from childhood?
I have many fond memories but one involves two neighbors. In the late fall, after the summer residents had left (in the 1950s) we explored the grounds of the old estates, which were quite large. No one else was around and we had it all to ourselves. I was young enough to be fearless and old enough to know we were breaking some rules, and, I confess, it was thrilling to do so.

Is there any story you wish you'd written? Which one?
If a book is really good, I almost always wish I'd written it or something like it. I wish I'd written Annie Proulx's BAD DIRT, or Larry Watson's MONTANA 1948.

If you're a writer, what genre do you wish you could write, but just can't?
Alice Hoffman writes a form of fantasy (MERMAIDS) that is beautiful and intelligent, but other than that subgenre, I'm happy with what I write.

Are you going to participate in the A to Z 2017? Why or why not?
I haven't decided yet but it sounds interesting.

What makes you happier than anything else in this world?
A day full of variety--writing, gardening, taking a walk, seeing friends, a good meal, sitting quietly on the porch with a good book, and mild dry sunny weather.

What is the meaning of success to you?
For me success is being able to do what I want and getting some appreciation for it, not a lot necessarily, but some. And I'd add to that writing something that feels right to me, a story that works and leaves me feeling that something more came through than what I expected.

When you were in grade school, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to write and, briefly, be a cowgirl.

Is there anything you want to do, but are afraid to try?
I don't think of anything I want to do but have veered away from. Fear doesn't keep me from trying new things.

Please share a paragraph or two from your current WIP or your favorite quote.
My current WIP is a mystery short story, "Tamsyn's Pony."

The pony was meant to make up for all their daughter had lost. The driver pulled into the yard and positioned the horse trailer so that all he had to do was lower the gate and walk the horse out into the yard. Tamsyn let herself be led out to the porch where her mother barely suppressed her excitement. But Tamsyn was used to this. Her father barely noticed his daughter's subdued expression, and she was used to this too.

"Isn't he lovely?" Her mother leaned over as though Tamsyn were still a toddler and needed to be coaxed to know her feelings. But Tamsyn was almost as tall as her mother, and the gesture was awkward.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Maryhill Museum: The Whole Package

During the summer I often have the opportunity to visit an old friend who lives on the other side of the country. She and her husband usher me around the countryside as we discover some of the lesser-known spots of the Northwest. I love this part of the country, especially the high desert country and its tiny towns along old highways. The landscape is very different from New England, where I live, and I always come away inspired and renewed. But a recent visit to the Maryhill Museum of Art was remarkable in another way. The minute I walked through the entry I knew this place was different.

Unlike many other museums, all wonderful in their way, the Maryhill Museum could be called “the whole package.” By that I mean that it had a fascinating personal story about its founder; his public and professional life was incredibly full and varied; the contents of the museum are eclectic, first rate, and in many cases unique; and the setting, overlooking the Columbia River Gorge, offers more visual drama than Broadway.

Sam Hill was born in North Carolina in 1857, into a Quaker family, and worked for a railroad conglomerate. He moved to Seattle in 1899 with his family and eventually turned his interest to roads. He believed that good roads would be essential to the future of American and persuaded the legislature to build a road along the Columbia River Gorge. The result is a spectacular road, still in use, with vistas galore. He built what is now the museum as a private home but his wife hated the West and kept returning east. Hill also tried to build a Utopian town along the river, but it failed. 

The private home became a museum when one of Hill’s many friends persuaded him to turn it into a public museum. It was dedicated as such by one of Hill’s many interesting friends, the Queen of Romania, who donated a lot of furniture that she designed (and I've never seen anything like it anywhere else). Much of the art was donated through the auspices of a modern dancer, Loie Fuller, who was a great friend of Rodin.

Hill had a vision that was always larger than his life. He built a replica of Stonehenge as a
monument to the soldiers from the area who died during World War I. There it sits, Stonehenge West, overlooking the great river. He’s buried nearby.

The personal story is sad also. His wife hated the West, his son did also, and his daughter had health issues. His family basically abandoned him for the East. But Sam was determined to have a family around him, and eventually created another family with three more children. One of them is an artist and her work is on display at the Museum.

As a writer, I see Maryhill Museum as more than the typical museum for the details of its existence—the story of the founder, his life, the unusual but also remarkable art, the setting, and the way the story lives on. When I write, I’m also thinking of “the whole package,” the depth of characters, their backstories, the setting, the twists of a life and how challenges are resolved, and how the story lives on. When every detail counts, the story becomes more than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

A Flag and a Mystery for the Fourth of July

One of my personal rituals is flying my mother’s family flag on certain holidays. It’s moth-eaten, torn in some places, and frayed at the ends. It also has 39 badly arranged stars. There are no neat rows, and the stars in the blue field look like they were added haphazardly. Or perhaps the designer had poor spatial skills. No matter. I found the flag in a trunk when I cleaned out my mother’s house, and didn’t think any more about it.
My mother and grandmother had a habit of labeling things. My grandmother did this because she knew she was losing her memory and wanted to pass on items of family history, such as my great grandfather’s change purse or her mother’s winter muff. My mother labeled things because she was orderly and liked to save things.
The flag came with a note on my mother’s stationery used in the 1940s, and identified the maker of the flag as her maternal grandmother, Grandmother Osborne. My mother added, “I seem to remember her sewing in the last one [star].” Hmm, no. But the flag is clearly homemade, with the stars hand stitched first and then on a sewing machine.
History buffs will already have identified the problem. The United States never had an official flag with 39 stars. In 1877, a star was added for Colorado (admitted in 1876), and the official US flag thereafter had 38 stars until 1889. But flag makers had expected Congress to accept two new states and had produced flags with 39 stars in anticipation. Unfortunately, they were stuck with an inventory they couldn’t sell. Until 1889?
In 1889, Congress was poised to accept the Dakota Territory as a state, and the assumption was that it would be one state. But, surprise, it came in as two. Those who anticipated one state (commercial flag makers) once again ended up with an inventory of flags with 39 stars they couldn’t use at all. And even if they had guessed there would be two Dakotas, Congress in its perversity accepted four more states right away (Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming), pushing the star count to 43 in 1890 and 44 in 1891. Anticipating the actions of Congress was a losing proposition (and not much has changed).
Hence, there has never been a year in which the US flag officially had 39 stars. If you find a flag with 39 stars, you know it was made before 1889.
My family’s flag, with its haphazard arrangement of stars and its inconsistent width of red and white stripes (from three to four inches) could date from 1876 or 1889, the only two years when people expected there to be 39 states and flag makers produced flags in anticipation. But in both years they were wrong.
Whatever the truth is, I may never know. Grandmother Osborne was born in 1864 and died in 1931. She might have made the flag at the age of 25, as a young married woman, but she could just as likely have inherited it from her mother, and added a star in 1889 in anticipation of the state of Dakota. I’ll never know if she created the flag or not unless I find more evidence. I’ve examined the stars, and two or three seem to have been sewn on by a different hand, but that could mean no more than two women in the family worked on the flag together, each one showing a distinctive style in her stitching.
The more I think about it, the more likely it seems to me that Great grandmother Osborne inherited the flag from her mother, Great great grandmother Beckwith, and my mother remembers her repairing it, not adding a star sometime in the 1910s.  I’m tempted (only tempted) to repair it myself sometimes.

Not all mysteries have answers, but at least I can work on this one a little every year. Right now, I’m grateful for beautiful weather and a place to hang it, on the porch. But after learning more about the history of the flag, and its rarity, I no longer leave it out unless I’m at home. As someone who grew up sewing as much as reading, I treasure something made and handled by a long line of women ancestors.