Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Looking Back on Thirty Years: 1988-2018

This year I will have been writing and publishing books in the mystery field for thirty years, since A Reader’s Guide to the Classic British Mystery came out in 1988, published by G. K. Hall. Does anyone remember them? Founded by a Mr. G. K. Hall in the 1950s, the publishing house changed hands a few times, and in 1985 was sold to Macmillan. I remember the event because I went in to sign my contract and as I handed it back to the editor, she said, “This is the last contract we’re allowed to sign. Macmillan bought us and showed up last night.” The whole thing began to sound like a hostile takeover, the foreign army massing on the border. The senior editor was told not to come in the next day, and that was only the beginning. My book was published, and I went on to edit a series of reference books on popular fiction, but G. K. Hall has become an imprint of others, and few remember this house.

I was fortunate to sell Murder in Mellingham, my first mystery, to Scribner, and merrily went about taking things for granted. In the middle of my three-book contract, Scribner was purchased by Simon and Schuster, and the mystery editor, Susanne Kirk, was told to switch from mystery series to stand-alones, and to reduce the number of titles annually from 24 to 12. My third Mellingham mystery, Family Album, appeared in 1995, and that was that.

In the 1990s publishing was going through one of its usual upheavals, with editors leaving to become agents and writers picking themselves up stunned from the sidewalk. The late Ed Gorman, one of the saints of this business, stepped in with an idea to start an imprint for established mystery writers. Thorndike Press liked the idea, and I signed up with my Mellingham series. Five Star published Friends and Enemies in 2001 and A Murderous Innocence in 2006. Why the first gap of six years? I can claim I was occupied with The Larcom Review, which a friend and I co-founded in 1998 and with the co-editor responsibilities I took on for the Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing(1999), but in reality I was still trying to sell the Mellingham series.

Eventually I set Mellingham and the beloved Joe Silva aside and turned to one of my lifelong loves, India. I offered Five Star, by now purchased a few times and owned by Gale, Cengage, the first in a new series set in India. Under the Eye of Kali: An Anita Ray Mystery appeared in 2010, and has been followed by three more Anita Ray novels at modest intervals of two years. And then Five Star/Gale, Cengage dropped its mystery line, and my colleagues and I were once again outside staring at the pavement.

Apparently I’m a slow learner (probably goes with being a slow reader) but by now I had learned my lesson (helped along by my agent, Paula Munier). Time to try something new. From this great insight came a series about Felicity O’Brien, who has recently inherited her family farm where she gets involved in not one but two murders. Below the Tree Line: A Pioneer Valley Mystery appeared in September 2018. That’s just a couple of months ago. Midnight Ink announced it was dropping its mystery line in October. The second book in the series was ready to go, due in November. But there it sits, on my desk, homeless.

Now, really, I ask you, is this any way to manage a career?

When I’m not being flippant, which I admit is one of my less endearing coping mechanisms, I look back on my path to publication and marvel that despite the best efforts of publishers to thwart my progress I have managed to write what I wanted to write, publish a number of books that received good reviews (and brought me modest royalties), and enjoy the friendships of numerous other writers and reviewers. I’ve enjoyed going to conferences, workshops, and annual-get-togethers, meeting new people and telling stories about the writer’s life.

I can berate myself for my own missteps, of which there are many—not knowing my limitations as a writer, taking too long to start a new series, getting sidetracked with that pesky income problem—but in reality many other writers who made none of my mistakes found themselves right there next to me on that piece of concrete, listening to that door slam behind us.

The godsend for me and perhaps many others has been the rise of print-on-demand services and publishers, and the many writers who have shared suggestions and ideas, contact information and feedback on various new houses. I self-published two Mellingham books, and am looking at new small presses to continue the Anita Ray series. 

And then I did what I hadn’t expected: I began a stand-alone, in a voice that matches none of what I’ve done before. It was loads of fun, and I’m hoping my agent and an editor will like it.

I expected this thirty-year review to go in a different direction, but here I am, looking back at a ride that in hindsight seems to have worked out better than I could have predicted, and has brought me safely to this point where I have a track record I'm proud of, more options for more books, more short story ideas, and lots of friends in the world I have chosen. There’s nothing better than this.



Monday, November 5, 2018

Midnight Ink--The Second Time Around

By now the news that Midnight Ink has decided to end its mystery line has spread through the mystery reading and writing community, and we have moved on to other topics. This is the second time this has happened to me (and probably a few others on the MI list). In 2016 Five Star announced it was dropping its mystery line just as my fourth Anita Ray novel, When Krishna Calls, was coming out. This time Midnight Ink made its announcement a month after my first Pioneer Valley mystery was released, Below the Tree Line. I was just about ready to send in the second book in the series, due the first week in November, when I read the news on Facebook.

The first time this happened the news hit me hard because I was excited about the fourth Anita Ray book. Krishna seemed to achieve something I'd been working toward for a few years, and to have it dropped was especially disappointing. But I got over it and moved on. Now I face a different question. Will Felicity O'Brien and Tall Tree Farm continue? I hope so, but I'm not holding my breath. I still have a fifth Anita Ray sitting on my bench of projects, right in front of my desk, and the second Felicity O'Brien will now sit right next to it.

In May, while waiting to hear back from a Beta reader, I wrote the opening scene of a stand-alone mystery that has been floating around in my brain for several months, perhaps over a year. I had several other things I was doing, so I gave myself the task of writing a scene a day until the other manuscript came back from my reader, and after it did, I kept on writing a single scene a day until I reached the end, at sixty-five thousand words. I put it aside to work on the second book in the Pioneer Valley series, to meet the approaching deadline.

Over the following weeks I occasionally thought about the "other" novel I'd started, about possible story lines that could be added or a character who could be more fully developed, and I began fine-tuning the draft, because it really was only a draft. The wordage grew, the ending surprised me, and I saw a story and shape I hadn't intended. Meanwhile I finished book two in the Pioneer Valley series.

I don't know if my agent will like this new story, or if she'll be able to sell it. This is not the kind of thing I usually write. It's first person, and more of a suspense story than a traditional mystery novel with an amateur sleuth. Still, the plot flowed once I started writing, and I didn't censor myself. I wrote out of curiosity, so the story has perhaps less of a tight shape than I'm used to, but so what? I made it from beginning to end.

Years ago when I was just starting out I came across a short piece with advice to writers. The main point was this: Editors play musical chairs every five years. The meaning was this: there is no security in this business; be ready for change. It's good advice. 

A small press has asked to see the fifth Anita Ray or the second Felicity O'Brien, or anything else I'd like to show them. I'm thinking about it. But I'm thinking more about the new direction I've been on for the last several months. This is a good time to try something new, and if changing direction can help me grow and improve as a writer, then I'm glad to give it a try. I don't know where I'll end up in another year, but I hope this time my novel will find a publisher that will stay in business for a while. I like having a home.

To see more of my books, go here and here.

And to learn more about Susan and her work, go to www.susanoleksiw.com

Friday, October 26, 2018

Where do my characters live?

Writers have to get the details right in order to create what John Gardner called “the continuous dream.” This means if I choose a location that is near a highway, I have to get the exit numbers right, the scenery as the driver pulls onto the roadway from the ramp. When a character begins speaking, his language—grammar, vocabulary, inflection—should match what we know about him or her. Details matter.

One of the features of story invention I spend time thinking about is where my characters live. Unless I have a specific home in mind for an important character, I can’t feel the story growing because the character has no context. I have to know where each character lives. This means research.

I'm not the only one who seeks the perfect setting. Agatha Christie's And Then There Were Nonecan't be set in any house. "Crimson Shadow," the opening story in Walter Mosley's Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, introduces Socrates Fortlow and his two-room apartment, in a location that defines the story. Where a character lives matters.

I haunt open houses, review real estate sites on line, and study my friend’s homes. Not everyone I know lives in a place that would be suitable for one of my characters or a story, but I occasionally find one. When Chief of Police Joe Silva moved to Mellingham, he was a single man committed to a new job in a small town. Instead of buying or renting a house, he at first rented a condo, until he got a sense of the new community. This put him in touch with a landlady, an elderly woman who lived upstairs and knew everyone in town. For Joe’s new home, I chose the two-family home owned by a friend of mine. Before I began using it, however, I asked her permission.

In Family Album, the home of a particular character is important to the plot, so I chose for that person a home that I recalled from my youth. It has been renovated and expanded beyond recognition for some, but the original structure gave me what I wanted, and I could use it without worrying about infringing on someone else’s right to privacy.

In the Anita Ray series, I faced a similar problem. I stayed at a family-owned and operated guesthouse in Kovalam, South India, and returned over fifteen years later to find it greatly altered and expanded. But the core was still recognizable to me, and I remembered well how it had been. Nevertheless, I drew a diagram of the two main floors, numbered the rooms, and made minor adjustments to the original building. This was the home Anita lived in throughout the series, beginning with Under the Eye of Kali. For traditional family homes, such as the one in The Wrath of Shiva, I used traditional Nair homes I’d visited throughout Kerala. Since these followed a standard design, I didn’t worry about using them. An important location surrounded by heritage trees appears in When Krishna Calls

For Felicity O’Brien’s home in Below the Tree Line, I adapted a late seventeenth century farmhouse. These homes also follow a standard design, so I wasn’t using anything unique or unusual. Tall Tree Farm has a farmhouse, a barn, and various small outbuildings that are really just sheds.

In my current work-in-progress, a suspicious death occurs in a Victorian house in a seaside setting. The death and its aftermath require a house with certain features—two staircases, an old cellar with a dirt floor, and rooms that flow. I found the perfect location nearby, and toured it during an open house. So far, as the story progresses, I haven’t had to make any adjustments to the structure, and I can move on to the homes of some of the other characters in the story. Once I have a solid location, one I can also move around in, the possibilities of the site become clear, and the story develops additional, often unexpected dimensions.

To visit Felicity O’Brien’s home, go here.
To visit the other series, go here.
And to learn more about Susan and her books, go here.

Friday, October 12, 2018

More about Writers and Their Animals--Sheep

Below the Tree Line

In my new mystery, Below the Tree Line, Felicity O'Brien has three sheep on her property. She has taken on the job of caring for them to earn some extra cash from the fiber artists who own them. I wondered how worthwhile this could be for the artists, so I began my research there. One pound of wool can produce up to ten miles of yarn, and one sheep, depending on the breed, can produce from two to thirty pounds of wool a year. That's a lot of mileage out of one smallish animal. The main artist in the group, Nola Townsend, uses the idea of owning her own sheep and raising her own wool as part of her sales pitch. Felicity is impressed. 

For additional research I made my annual visit to the Topsfield Fair, which includes a sheep and goat barn, which is mostly sheep. I went with a good friend, Carol, who likes sheep as much as I do. We spent well over an hour there getting a good look at the residents. This was judging day, and some of the contestants were not happy, bleating and bumping, and others were blase. Most being examined for the meat market had been sheared and tidied up. Unless sheared, the fleece on a sheep will keep growing forever, sometimes getting so heavy that the animal has trouble moving. Domesticated sheep don’t shed.

This brings me to the strange fact that sheep have been domesticated so long that if released into the wild, they don’t become feral. Sheep were the first animal to be domesticated. The oldest wool cloth dates to 10,000 BCE. 

The oldest breed is the Jacob sheep, so named because it is mentioned in the Bible. Which brings me to a detail I hadn’t known about, though like many other details the evidence was in front of me for most of my life. In Psalm 23, the line “He leadeth me beside the still waters” is not merely a sweet, pastoral description; it is meant as a literal reference to appropriate care. Sheep can’t drink from moving or running water because of the structure of their snout. If they tried to drink from a flowing stream, they’d drown or choke to death. They also have no upper teeth.

When you look into their sweet faces and strange eyes, you are also seeing an animal that can look behind it without moving its head. Their peripheral vision is 270 to 320 degrees, compared to that of humans at 155 degrees. I still find the black slits in a pool of yellow disconcerting; it completely undermines the animal's cuteness in my view, but the shape of the eyes helps the animal see predators approaching. Sheep flock for the same reason fish school--to make it harder for predators to succeed. Both fish and sheep cluster less when the threat declines.

But sheep aren’t stupid. They recognize faces—sheep and humans—which Felicity learns, to her good fortune. And they are like humans in one other respect. They are the only other species whose gay members remain so for their entire lives, meaning they remain sexually interested only in their own gender for life. 

To learn more about Felicity and her visiting sheep, go here:

To learn more about sheep, go here or here:

To learn more about my books, go to www.susanoleksiw.com 

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Writers and Their Animals

I've been thinking about writers and animals lately. Many of us like to be around animals, to sense that connection to the natural world we sometimes seem to have lost in other areas of our lives. We may be drawn to a particular animal, as though a certain one expressed how we see the world. Instead of the world arranging for us to encounter our totem animal, we choose it. 

Some of the totems for writers are easy to spot. Clea Simon loves cats and writes movingly about them. The same goes for Susan Conant and Paula Munier with dogs. Sue Star admits to a fascination with moose

By Photo Dharma, Sadao, Thailand
My favorite creature has been the elephant. A Bengali friend named after this creature at first disliked her name until she saw the drawings at Ajanta, the famous Buddhist caves in central India. The elephant figures on the cave walls are graceful and beautiful, and lift the spirit.

My first encounter with an elephant occurred in 1976, in India, when I was walking down a roadway without sidewalks in the early part of the afternoon when the stalls were closed and people were at home. On the opposite side, coming toward me, was a mahout and his elephant, a large one. The animal had no chain on his leg, no rope. As we drew closer, the elephant looked at me, turned and crossed the street, coming straight at me. The mahout gave one command, and the animal turned back. I must have looked interesting.

I got used to seeing elephants on the street and lined up at festivals. They seemed to be everywhere, especially in the countryside. They are less evident in cities today except during festivals, but out in the villages they are still a presence.

In recent years I visited the royal family's elephant, Dakshini, who stayed in a small field near a palace. Her job is to appear in festivals and temple rituals throughout the year. She's relatively small, and now elderly, but sweet and careful around people. The mahout let me and two friends feed her carrots and apples, and get to know her, and we visited regularly, feeding and petting her, and talking as though she might understand us.

We think we know these animals from stories on television and information provided by zoos, but standing close to Dakshini taught me more about her than any scientist could. She gave the sense she was adjusting to us, a demonstration of the elephant's quality of compassion and intuition. I was surprised to learn elephants can purr, just like cats, and they communicate not only by trumpeting and touch but also by subsonic sound that travels faster than sound through air. They can run/walk up to twenty-five miles per hour, but can't jump. All true.

In recent years my attention has turned to sheep, for a specific reason. We had sheep when I was a child and they've reappeared in my newest mystery. In Below the Tree Line: A Pioneer Valley Mystery, Felicity O'Brien has three sheep to tend on her farm, along with a dog and cat. In an ordinary day Felicity has to be mindful of the coyotes and later she discovers a bobcat living in her woods. But these aren't the real threat to her farm. 

Animals are only a sideline for Felicity, but in growing fond of the sheep she sets in motion a small incident that will turn out to be life-saving.

To learn more about Felicity O'Brien and Tall Tree Farm, go here:

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Brief Update

I've let my blog lapse over the last several months, but I won't offer up any excuses. I grew lazy. But as I looked at the last post I realized I owed readers an update on our dog. Our new dog, featured in several photos, and named Rob (3) because my husband likes that name, lasted only three weeks.

Rob (3) was a handful. He bonded almost at once with my husband, who took him out two or three times a day for long walks on tree-lined streets, into wooded areas, and along the beach. That had to be heaven for a dog we only learned on arrival had spent the last two years in a cage, not allowed to play with other dogs because he was considered too aggressive. He was that, but he was happy and wildly playful. Fortunately, he also knew to get into his crate when it was necessary. At over seventy pounds of solid muscle, he did obey a few commands.

We brought in a dog trainer, Ed Baez from Salem, who has enormously helpful, and Rob learned a few more commands and began to understand limitations. But it wasn't enough. On a Sunday morning in June, in his excitement at encountering three women walkers at five in the morning, he jumped, nipped one, and knocked my husband down, leaving him with a broken arm.

There is no malice in the dog, just far too much energy for one who has never had a chance to burn it off. Our vet pointed out that the dog acts like a ten-pound pup, mouthing and rolling and jumping as though he were just a bundle of baby fur. But he's not a ten-pound pup.

My husband called me from the sidewalk where he was stranded with a dog still jumping and a broken arm. I went down with the rabies certificate (fortunately they weren't far from me) at 5:30 in the morning, a lovely summer day dawning with bright sunshine and a light breeze (it could have been worse). One woman photographed the certificate, and the three of us talked. The one who was nipped showed me her hand and indicated she was on her way to urgent care.

The dog officer came by the next day, giving us a fine and going over what could happen next if the dog continues to do anything like this. The dog was too much for me to walk alone, my husband was in no condition to help, and I wasn't sure what to do. Fortunately, Ed offered to come by twice a day to help me, and in the end I was able to walk Rob in the back yard. But the die was cast.

As difficult as it is to accept, I cannot handle a dog of this size and strength and attitude. Nor did I want to face the prospect of his biting or nipping someone else. The next incident meant more than a fine--it meant a court date. After a lot of backing-and-forthing, we arranged to surrender Rob (3) to a local dog trainer who knew the nonprofit that had brought us Rob. I delivered him on the Wednesday after the incident. The hope was that with strict training he could be re-homed.

The upshot is that my husband has to take his long walks early in the morning or late at night alone for the most part (I'm not conscious at three a.m.), but the surprise is that day and night people stop and ask him about the dog, his arm, and what's in the future. One woman told him he was an "institution." Eventually there will be a Rob (4), and we're already looking at photos of Labs. The arm is healing, and my husband continues to field questions and good wishes from people he didn't know he knew. We miss having a dog, but my husband has promised me that the next one will be docile, not aggressive, used to people and other animals. In other words, a true Labrador.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The New Guy in Our Family

Our animals have come to us in various ways. When my parents moved into our new home, in 1949, they opened the door one wintry day and in walked a black cat. The same thing happened almost thirty years later, when they again moved. One fall day they opened the door and in walked a black cat. Well, maybe she was sitting on the porch, but close enough. 

A dog officer in another county knew my mother was looking for a rescue lab and held onto a dog for a few months until she could take him. The dog was sweet and ended up living with us after she died. We adopted another lab that was being fostered in Cambridge. The foster mother brought him out to meet us, and it was love at first sight. But this time, getting our third lab, was different.

With directions in hand, or actually in my old-fashion memory, we drove to Vermont, finding our way to a store outlet parking lot. We drove in and parked. I couldn’t help noticing a number of other cars with drivers spaced throughout the ill-cared for lot. During the hour we sat there, I felt a little like I was waiting for a drug buy. The outlet stores were drab and not busy in a neglected one-story warehouse, right off a busy highway for a quick getaway for prospective thieves. The parking lot was pitted, with weeds and potholes. Would our dealer arrive? Would the police pull in and ask what we were doing? Why were there so many out of state license plates here? (So, yes, in my life everything is about writing.)

A white van pulled in and drove to the end of the lot. We got out of our cars and converged on the van, standing around in silent anticipation while the two women opened the back doors and began unloading dogs one by one (or by twos, a pair of puppies). One dog was terrified and fell onto her back, legs up in the air, begging for kindness. The puppies flopped and sprawled and jumped together. Another dog sniffed over to his new owners. 

Each prospective owner had to produce a photo ID. We were checked off as each dog was delivered. Many of the new owners brought donations, as requested—newspapers, towels, and the like. We brought newspapers. Later we were asked to pose for photographs.

The driver warned us that our dog was a bit “wild,” so full of energy that we should be careful. She and her assistant seemed to have trouble getting him out, and now that I know him better, I’m guessing he wouldn’t stay still long enough to get the leash on him. Out he bounded, and he was ours. 

I understand now why he went straight to sniffing the ground, heading for the grass shoulder. He’d been in a shelter for two years, and spent the last six months in a kennel (a metal enclosure with a shed at one end and a short run), where he wasn’t allowed to play with the other dogs because he was too energetic, too wild. After being in a van for eight hours, we were about to take him on another drive, for three more hours.  He is indeed wild, but we have a great dog trainer to work with, and I’m confident our guy will turn into a regular dog fairly soon. But he is a lesson in the dangers of long stays in a shelter without enough attention. But we’re making up for that. 

And his name? As far as my husband is concerned, there’s only one name for a shelter lab. This is Rob. So now we have Rob 3 (formerly Farley), sixty pounds of love and craziness. 

And to bring this post back to writing, I’ve included in my next mystery novel, Below the Tree Line, a shelter dog named Shadow. Watch for the debut of my new series in September, coming from Midnight Ink.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

My One (and Only) Ride in a Police Car

I began this post intending to write about my first (and only) ride in a police car, but that's not where I ended up. Long before I began writing mysteries, I found myself one dark evening in the back of a police car in Pennsylvania.

When I first began graduate school, my husband and I lived near the Pennsylvania border in a small town served by a single bus once a day and a train station almost an hour away by car. I took the bus into Philadelphia in the morning, returning in the evening usually by train, where my husband met me. This was a long commute, and one night it got even longer.

On a warm evening in the fall, I left 30th Street Station at the usual time, just after five o'clock, and settled in for the ride to West Chester. We reached the last stop, and the remaining commuters jumped off and found the cars that had come to pick them up, or their own parked in the tiny lot. The red-brick station was small, grimy, and surrounded by old buildings abandoned or sparsely used. I stood on the edge of the platform waiting for my husband. And waited. The parking lot emptied out and I waited. The lights flickered and died, leaving only one barely illuminating the platform. And I waited.

Yes, this was long before cell phones, and no, the station platform didn't have a pay phone. I waited. It grew darker, so dark that I began to get worried. Eventually a police car with two officers drove into the lot and pulled up in front of me. I prepared my explanation--I was waiting for my husband, etc.

The officer on the passenger side lowered his window and asked me if I was Susan Oleksiw. He then explained that my husband had four flat tires, had called AAA, and would arrange a ride for me from the local bus station. They would take me there, since it wasn't nearby and probably not the best route to walk at this hour. 

The officer opened the back door for me, and I started to climb in but kicked the screen sitting in the well that was used to separate those in the back from those in the front.

"I'm afraid I'll kick a hole in the screen," I told him.
"Don't worry. You can't do it any harm."

I took his word for it and climbed in.

So began my ride. We took the tourist route--side street, back roads, little alleys--the officers were working after all. 

When we came to a parked car at the end of an alley, the driving officer slowed, the other shined a flashlight into the car, startling the two sitting together in the front. The officers discussed what they saw, decided the two were benign, and we drove on. For the next half hour, forty minutes or so, we circled through the small city, keeping an eye out for anything. I tried to see what they saw, but all I saw were dark corners and shadows. I don't recall much at all from that evening except that we seemed to be mostly on streets and lanes without streetlights. When we finally arrived at the bus station, I thanked them and climbed out. 

I was standing in front of the bus station but I had no idea where it was located in the city. I probably said as much when I climbed out of the car. Throughout the evening ride, the police said almost nothing to me, going about their work as though I weren't there. Or perhaps, they just didn't want to talk in front of a civilian. Either way, it was a dull ride, and not the way I'd like to spend an entire eight hours.

The bus station garage was another story. I stood in the open front of the garage, once again waiting, until a man approached me and asked if I was Susan. Apparently my husband was on the phone (and I have no idea how he found the phone number for the bus company's garage). A man directed me to an office--a closet, really--with a telephone, and my husband told me to look out for a friend of his from work. Half an hour later, an older woman he knew from the University arrived to loan me enough money for a bus ticket. I hung around in the garage, listening to the mechanics tell each other jokes and make suggestions and talk about the upcoming game. More than an hour later a bus left for my town, and I was home before midnight.

This was supposed to be about my first and only ride in a police car, what I learned and how useful it's been to me since then as a mystery writer. Over the years I've chatted with state police when I was gathering information, exchanged a few friendly words with an officer taking notes about a car accident (with no injuries), and met policemen at some of my readings, every one of whom offered to help with details should I need it. Every encounter only underscored how normal police men and women are. I wish I could report some excitement, but I can't. The first and only ride in a police car was dull. What can I say? My real life is dull. Maybe that's why I write fiction.

What this piece is really about is what many of us have forgotten: what life was like before cell phones, Uber, and ATMs. 

Today, if I landed at the local train station with no cell phone and no way to get anywhere, the police would still transport me if I asked. According to the information officer of my town, the decision to transport would be up to the discretion of the officer on duty, but the police still helped people get where they needed to go when things went awry. It happens less and less now, but it still happens. I'm glad I asked because I'm still not used to carrying a cell with me everywhere, I have no taxi app on my phone, and there's no pay phone at the train station. For some of us, life hasn't changed that much at all.

Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw


Thursday, April 19, 2018

My Fountain Pen

When I set off for college, in the Dark Ages, I went armed with a green Hermes 3000 manual typewriter and a fountain pen. I still have both though all the other remnants of my college life were tossed out long ago. Why would I keep the pen when I haven't used it in years? I have a reason.

Many of us, writers and other crafts persons, become attached to our tools if they have served us well. An expensive fountain pen doesn't impress me because it has no meaning if it hasn't proved its worth. My Parker 45, made in the USA according to the silver cap, saw me through numerous exams, countless short stories both good and bad, and my first novel, mostly bad. 

Most schools have dropped penmanship classes, where we learned the Palmer Method of penmanship for learning cursive. I can't remember how often we had these classes, but I do remember that ballpoint pens were forbidden. Each student was given a small bottle of black ink and a black wooden pen with nib. We dipped our pen in the ink and wrote on lined paper. The pens were not attractive and rarely wrote smoothly. I was glad to leave them behind. Later on in high school, I received my Parker Pen, and never thought about using anything else.

Parker Pen was founded by George Safford Parker in 1888. He began by selling pens to his students, noted how much they leaked, and wanted to create one that didn't. He patented his first fountain pen in 1889, which leaked but less than others. In 1898 he added the slip-on outer pen cap. Until then, and even today in some brands, the cap was screwed on. My pen, the Parker 45, was offered in 1960, and was the first cartridge pen. It was named after the Colt 45 pistol.

I took my pen to India with me, along with the insert for ink just in case I ran out of cartridges. I didn't, but I felt very technologically advanced when I noticed that Indians didn't use inserts or cartridges. They just poured the ink into the body of the pen and tightly screwed the two parts together. The whole thing was messy.

After college I might have purchased a new pen when it became evident how much I'd worn down the body. The heat of my fingers had softened the plastic, my fingertips pressing and reshaping the body day after day. Yes, my relaxed grip changed the tool. But I have faith in this simple device. I used it throughout graduate school.

During the final exams of my senior year in college, I fretted over one course in particular (as I had all year long) and marched in believing I was fully prepared. I'd studied, crammed, practiced questions and answers, and worked myself up into a state. I had to pass. (Actually, I did have to pass or my credits would have been messed up, perhaps affecting my graduation.) I took my place in the exam room and wrote methodically, carefully, determinedly for the entire hour. And then I was done. I could have kissed the ground in relief.

Once again in my dorm room I gave in to a feeling of elation, pushing away the usual post-exam anxiety about all of life as well as exams. I tossed my notebooks and pocketbook, and pulled out my pen. During the exam an idea had occurred to me and I wanted to record it. I pressed the pen nib onto a note pad on my desk. Nothing. I scratched out the word and got nothing but a tear in the paper.

What does anyone do when a pen doesn't work? I shook it and exhaled hot breath on it and shook it again. I put pen to paper and--nothing. There was nothing left to do but open it and pop out the cartridge and look for a blockage. I held the cartridge and squeezed--not a single drop, not even a smear stained my skin. I shook it, breathed on it, held it under a lamp. No matter what I tried, I got nothing. The problem was simple--no ink. Not one single drop of ink anywhere. This couldn't be. There had to be some residue. I just wrote for an hour with the thing. I shook the cartridge again. I blew into the front half of the body. Nothing.

I'm not superstitious. I was lucky at my exam, and even though I went so far as to thank my black Parker Pen for saving my college career (sort of), I know it was luck. And yet, I have a favorite screwdriver that I reach for whenever I have need of one. I prefer a certain pot for boiling water for tea. I will use the same ice scraper storm after storm even though my husband bought a better one. I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this.

We surround ourselves with things, objects, to create our known universe, one that is predictable and reliable and demands little of our mental energy, leaving us to focus on whatever we consider more important. What is important differs for everyone. But for me, within this universe I create strange worlds where everything is new and unknown to me, where I seek out the eerie and creepy and unpredictable, and usually a place where I wouldn't go in real life. That is where I expend my mental energy. And I'm able to do this all because of little tools like an old pen, a rusty screwdriver, a pot boiled dry more times than I can count, and numerous other items of clutter.

Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw


Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Meditation and Writing

Several times a month I come across the question, "What do I do when I'm stuck?" Every writer faces this problem, the feeling of being unable to move forward, of having a cast of characters who are no longer talking to their creator, of reading the last few pages written that morning or afternoon and thinking they're all junk. The heart sinks.

Every one of us has faced this problem, and all of us have ideas about how to get unstuck. The advice may range from plotting exercises to techniques for discovering your character's inner life and the like. All of them will involve some form of writing activity. Some are simple--just write whatever comes to mind until the story flows again.  I like the idea of keeping to the task at hand even if it takes another form--writing about something as long as I'm writing.  But that's not my favorite solution.

To overcome almost every obstacle I encounter I turn to meditation first. There's something magical about sitting quietly, following my breath and disregarding my random thoughts, letting them glide through and, I hope, evaporate like mist, while I let my mind become blank, the chatter fading. I first learned to meditate when I was twelve years old, by the minister of our local congregation. He may not have known that was what he was teaching me, but when later, many years later, I turned to meditation in graduate school, learning from another student in Asian Studies, I recognized the technique right away. I've been meditating off and on (I wish I'd been more consistent over the years but alas . . . ) for the last fifty years. I began with ten minutes, progressed to twenty, and then to thirty to thirty-five minutes every day. My new goal is one hour a day.

What I've learned from meditating every day is that the problem I'm confronting really isn't there. Yes, I can hear the sound of gnashing teeth from thousands of writers across the land, but I do discover that the problem that seems to have stalled me, thwarted my work, made me feel helpless and hopeless, is an illusion and with enough attention it evaporates. By "attention," I don't mean sitting at my desk and struggling to work on it. I mean, "letting it be" as I sit and meditate away from my desk. The knot of despair unties itself, and the ropes themselves shred into nothing, wisps of a cloud that floats away. I don't then see a specific solution as feel I can move forward. Sometimes I see a scene of characters behaving in a certain way, and with that I can move forward. At other times I return to the manuscript and continue where I left off, the path now clear.

There is probably a scientific reason for this. Neuroscientists have become fascinated with Buddhism, and the Buddha's (and his followers') prescience about the world and the human mind. The tests of humans who have meditated for years (often Buddhist monks) have brought neuroscientists closer to understanding how the brain works and to validation for new insights. All of that is fascinating, but, more important, it underscores the value of this simple practice. The answer to almost everything that is blocking us is accessible in stillness of the mind.

I grew up not far from where I live now, in a town typical of the United States, which means in a culture of striving to always be better, do better. I found the same living in other states and in India. Humans are the same the world over. Perhaps that is why this core practice of Buddhism (and other religions) has been adopted country after country in recent centuries. The idea of discovering what is of lasting value and how to live in doing nothing but emptying the mind in stillness contradicts most of our culture. And yet, there it is. And anyone can confirm it with his or her own experience and practice.

Susan Oleksiw @susanoleksiw