Monday, June 29, 2009

Little Women

I went to a memorial service for my Uncle Joe on Saturday—and I took the copy of Little Women that he gave me for Christmas in 1956 so that when it was my turn to say something about him I would have it with me. I was nine years old, in the fourth grade when I received this gift. I didn’t own many books during my childhood, and just holding the beautiful book in my hand thrilled me. It was mine.

I have no idea how many times I read it. Many. Of course, my favorite character was the writer, Jo. She was a tomboy, she strode. She was always writing plays and putting on fabulous theatrical productions. She was loyal and passionate. She was impetuous, outspoken. She had a lot of trouble being good.

It was a hard time in my life. We had moved that summer from our neighborhood in the city to one of those awful subdivisions that sprang up in the Fifties. The houses all looked the same, the people were all the same, and it was so far out in the boondocks that I couldn’t ride my bike to the library any more. Worse, I had to change schools. At my old school, I was a star. But at my new school I was just one more kid from the subdivision that had generated such an influx of new students they had to divide the cafeteria and gym into makeshift classrooms. The stars of class had been established long ago—including a girl who was not only the smartest person in the class, but played the piano, had perfect banana curls, and lived in a nice white-frame house with green shutters right next door to the school.

Things weren’t so great at home, either. I wouldn’t understand until later that my dad had a chronic drinking problem and, with the move from the old neighborhood, it had begun to worsen.

Wherever I was felt like the wrong place. So I lived in books when I could—and now I had this wonderful book of my very own that I would never, ever have to take back to the library.

I loved the March family. The four sisters—Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy—who loved each other fiercely and whose squabbles and disagreements were always mended with tears and laughter. Their mother, Marmee, who knew them all so well and guided them gently, but firmly toward the right path. Their father, off fighting in the Civil War, but ever-present in their thoughts and deeds.

If only I could be in that family, I thought. And I was, when I was reading. The book was my prized possession; now I keep it on the bookshelf behind my desk, along with my published books.

The book shaped me in so many ways—some, I realize now, turned out to be a little problematical. There’s an echo of it in my annual Christmas malaise: shouldn’t I be wrapping up my special breakfast and carrying it to the closest poor person I can find? Shouldn’t I be telling people not to buy me presents, to use the money to buy presents for poor people instead? (Actually, I wish I could do that.) And if, by chance, I receive a present I don’t like, shouldn’t I be happy with it, anyway—like the March sisters were with their copies of Pilgrim’s Progress?

It’s in the little voice in my head that tells me that I should always, always think of others before myself. Morbid little child that I was, my favorite part of the book was Beth’s death; in fact, the book opens naturally right to it. I read it again and again, thinking about how people would appreciate me (finally) if I died—though the realization that I would be there to revel in it did take a bit of the pleasure away. I read the chapter when my own sister, Jackie, died in 2003, thinking it might give me some comfort, but I was shocked to read what Beth says to Jo just before she dies. “You must take my place, Jo, and be everything to father and mother when I’m gone. They will turn to you, don’t fail them; and if it’s hard to work alone, remember that I don’t forget you, and that you’ll be happier in doing that than writing splendid books or seeing the world…”

Holy cow, I thought. There’s the source of that damn voice saying, “You shouldn’t be so selfish” every time I do something completely for myself.

My love affair with Italy, for example.

It took me a while, but I know better than to listen to it.

And any of the difficulties my obsession with Little Women may have caused me were well worth it, because the great gift the book gave me was my first real glimpse of a writer’s life--and the absolute conviction that it was what I wanted my life to be.

I don’t know if the books I’ve written are splendid, but I’ve sure had a splendid time writing them. (Well, when they weren’t making me crazy.) I’ve seen a whole lot of the world that I dreamed of seeing, just as Jo did.

Little Women, the book my Uncle Joe gave me for my ninth Christmas, set me on that path, and I am forever grateful for that. I'm glad I told him so, more than once, over the years.

May he rest in peace.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Hey, It's Global Beatles Day

Yeah, yeah, yeah!






MY TOP TEN (in no particular order):
I Should Have Known Better
The Long and Winding Road
Paperback Writer
In My Life
Day Tripper
We Can Work It Out
Norwegian Wood
Come Together
All you need Is Love
Hey, Jude

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Just Write!

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Lebanon Public Library with three aspiring writers and their YA librarian. It is just the kind of library I love—your basic, beautiful Carnegie library outside and totally modern inside. The YA section is especially nice. For one thing, the YA books are upstairs with the adult books, instead of down with the books for the little kids. So kids move naturally from one to the other. Plus, they have this really cool meeting room that has the feel of the Fifties soda fountain—a black-and-white checked floor, booths for reading and writing, tables with red chairs covered in plastic that looks like the paint job on a fast car. There are counters along the sides, with stools covered in the same stuff. No actual soda fountain, alas. But there are vending machines to keep hungry/thirsty kids happy. I love it that a community would make such a great place for its young people. Who wouldn’t want to hang out there?
I also love it that Marie, the YA librarian, did the writing exercises right along with the kids and read her work aloud.

The teen writers were Tony, Aubrey and Brandi—along with Brandi’s brother, Canaan (sorry if I'm spelling that wrong!), who came in about halfway through and gave us an interesting opportunity for a little point-of-view exercise. Did they both remember exactly the same things about the time Canaan broke his leg, the memory Brandi was writing about?

She was the one who got us going by asking why I thought writing was so hard, even if you had a really good idea and thought you knew exactly what you wanted to say. This is a question I love to answer!

It’s partly because writing is really a kind of translation, I said. You don’t imagine in words. So you have to translate what you know about the story, what you see in your mind’s eye into words—and a lot of the time the words the language provides us just aren’t the ones we need. So we have to find ways to put words together to come as close as we can to getting it right.

It’s also hard because most beginning writers (of any age) listened to teachers who told them that you have to plan and organize what you’re going to write (the dreaded outline) before you start writing. But you don’t! Very, very few writers I know work that way—and the ones who do make a plan before they start find that, once they get going, the plan often changes.

Knowing a little bit about right/left brain theory helps you know why this method gets people so freaked out about writing that they want to curl up in the fetal position at the prospect of even trying.

Your right brain is like a computer. It holds information about the world—stuff like the definitions of words, the way to McDonalds, how to tie your shoes, those pesky dates you memorized for a history test. It thinks logically, step-by-step. It’s literal. If someone said, “Two heads are better than one,” your left brain would assume it meant just that: having two heads is better than having one head—which, you have to admit, would look pretty weird.

Your right brain is, well, a mess—but a glorious mess. It’s where your memories reside—every single thing, large or small, that you’ve ever experienced, seen, read in the newspaper, caught a glimpse of in passing, overheard. And it’s all in there, churning around, kind of like a slush machine—just waiting to come out just when you need it during the writing process. The right brain makes patterns; its instinct is to focus. It recognizes connections between one thing and another, and creates metaphors and similes.

It instinctively knows that “Two heads are better than one” really means that a problem is more likely to be solved if two people put their mind’s to it. It thinks holistically. (If the left brain gets to step four, but doesn’t know what step five is, there’s no way it can get to seven. But your right brain can accommodate everything at once. 1, 3, 7, 12, 82—BINGO! You know that feeling you get when you’ve been thinking and thinking about a problem and can’t solve it, then, suddenly it’s as if a light bulb goes on inside your head and you know the answer? That’s your right brain doing what it does naturally. It works tirelessly, even when you’re taking a shower or hanging out with your friends.

The right brain is not only where ideas come from, it knows how to connect all the various aspects of an idea for you as you write. It’s the best place to start a piece of writing. The thing is, you have to learn to trust it—and, sadly, all too many writing teachers don’t trust it. They don’t even know it exists. So they say, “Plan! Organize! Outline!” Which totally contradicts the way the brain actually works.

Thus, virtually everybody hates to write—and that is a sad, sad thing.

I answered Brandi’s question with my favorite, no-fail “I Remember” exercise. I’ve written about this before, but to recap:
1) Make a list of memories, writing “I remember” before each one. Write as fast as you can, don’t think, let it happen randomly. Most will be one sentence; don’t write any more than three sentences for any one memory. Go for at least ten minutes, or until you get 15-20 memories. Each one is a little first draft.
2) Look at your list. Notice that most are small, very visual moments—you see the scene in your mind’s eye. Pick one. Do the “I Remember” thing again, focusing on that one memory. Remember everything you can about it.
3) Now freewrite the memory—that is, write without worrying about spelling, punctuation, organization, quality…just write. Let it flow the way it wants to flow. If you get stuck, look at your list of “I remembers” for a detail you’ve missed and write about that. Seriously. Don’t think, just write.
WARNING: Your left brain will try to interfere in each phase, telling you you’re doing it wrong, it’s not good enough, blah, blah, blah. Tell it to shut up! Swear at it if you have to! Keep writing.

This works! Look at my Lebanon writers! They all wrote, nonstop, for more than ten minutes and could have kept going if we'd had more time. They surprised themselves by how much they wrote—and by the fact that there was some pretty darn good stuff there. Sure, what they'd written still needed work. But so what? It’s a lot easier to work with words on the page than it is to stare at the blank page and try to squeeze words onto it one-by-one.

I told them about the chapter in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: “Shitty First Drafts. “ I actually said “shitty” in the library; I felt it was necessary. I said it pretty quietly, though.

This method works with a story idea, too. Instead of writing, “I remember,” try writing, “I know.” Make a list of what you know about the story you want to write. Then pick one item on the list, preferably something that wants to be a scene, and expand it. Make a list of what you know about the scene, even the smallest detail, anything that comes to mind.

Then…write. See where the story takes you.

I hope Tony, Aubrey and Brandi (maybe even Canaan) are writing today. Maybe they finished those memories, asked “What if?” and spun them into stories. How cool would that be?

Friday, June 19, 2009

Learning Italian Slowly

It’s barely six weeks before I leave for Art Workshop International in Assisi, and I have been procrastinating about getting to work on my Rosetta Stone Italian course. It’s a brilliant program, and I can tell that I really could learn Italian if weren’t such a slacker.

The other problem is that I am such a word person I'm horrified at the prospect of butchering Italian in the way I know I will if I actually do get up the nerve to speak. Still, travel is always better when you at the very least have the means to give the language a try. It’s not writing like writing a novel, for Pete’s Sake! The words don’t have to be perfect. I just need to learn enough so I can communicate in the most basic way when wonderful opportunities arise.

Like this one, which happened in 2000 when when I spent a month in Montone, a little Umbrian hilltown.

It was a beautiful day (of course) and I was taking a long walk, listening to the Talking Heads’ “Stop Making Sense,” which always makes me happy and was particularly making me happy that day because I already was so happy in that place. I walked down a long hill, past a farm where there was a kennel with thirty or so dogs, most of them hunting dogs. Spotted, sleek. They barked and howled in their cages as I walked past. I waved at an old lady out on the balcony of the farmhouse. She waved back. I walked on, past grape arbors, the bushes flattened against wires so that the sun would touch the greatest possible number of leaves. Then I walked past a line of olive trees.

I saw an old man coming up the road toward me. It was blistering hot outside, but he was wearing long pants, a cardigan sweater, and a fedora. He walked with a cane, but steadily.

I said, "buon giorno" when we met.
"Ah, buongiorno!" he said, and stopped. He asked me a question.
"Non capisco," I said. I don’t understand.
But he was determined to have a conversation--and we did!
He asked, pointing at the town at the top of the hill, if I was staying in Montone.
"Si," I said. "Bellisima." Beautiful.
He beamed. "Umbria e bellisima," he said. He asked me where I was from.
America, I told him.
"Bambini?" he asked, indicating the size of a small child with his hand.
"Non, ragazzi." I said, indicating bigger children.
"Yo sono escrivo," I added, getting a little braver. I am a writer.
"Romanza?"
"Si." Novels. I tried to say I meant to put Montone in a novel, but I don't know if he understood.
"Buon caminare," he said when we parted. Good walk.
"Buon caminare," I responded.
He hesitated before moving on. “Tres gambi,” he said, smiling, pointing to his cane. Three legs.
I was thrilled to get his joke. I tried to say he was a teacher, teaching me Italian, but couldn’t remember the word for "teach." I said (something like) you are good for my Italian.
"Si," he said, smiling.
"Grazie," I said. "Arrivederchi."
"Ciao."

I was so pleased with myself for listening to those dumb tapes I’d listened to for weeks in the car. I’d surprised myself knowing more than I thought I knew. It gave me the courage to go to the bakery that afternoon, say, "Buongiorno. Posso avere due panini, per favore." I understood when the baker said, "Mille lire." I paid, took my bread. "Grazie. Ciao."

Then I went to the post office, stepped up to the window, and held up my two postcards addressed to the USA. "Due francobolli, per favore," I said. Then stamped my cards and put them in the postbox.

Seriously, is "francobolli" not the best word ever? Try saying it! You'll love the way it rolls off your tongue.

So, okay. I need to do this! And when I feel overwhelmed, I'm going to read and reread this prose poem by David Shumate.

LEARNING ITALIAN SLOWLY

I learn three words each day. It’s been seven months now and perhaps I could carry on a conversation with a Sicilian child. If she spoke slowly. In present tense. And only about pencils and dogs and cheese. Sometimes I feel my new Italian self growing inside me. He’s a little man who gesticulates as he speaks. He rides his bicycle to the market to buy eggplant, anise, and porcini. Then delivers them to his elderly mother. In the afternoon he plays bocce with the older men. The children mimic the way he whispers to himself. The grimaces he makes with his face. When the moon comes out he slicks back his hair and sings beneath the window of the woman he loves. What a sight he is. Down on one knee. His arms outstretched. So willing to make a fool of himself. Over and over again.

So, okay. It's time.

I'm going to boot up my Rosetta Stone software, put on my nifty little microphone device and ask my new, growing Italian self to speak into it. Wearing spike heels and a short, low-cut red dress. Riding my Vespa through Rome, helmetless, my long black hair flying out behind me. Talking on my cell phone.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Car Gene

One of the very cool things about having grandchildren is seeing genetics in action. Today: the car gene, which my grandson Jake clearly inherited from his grandfather. We spent the morning at a vintage car show out at Indianapolis Raceway Park, which according to Jake was "a dream come true."

"Holy crap" he said when he got his first look at the rows and rows and rows of fabulous cars. He's a pony car guy, it turns out--meaning he really likes Camaros and Mustangs. He could spot them a mile away!

We drove Steve's '55 Chevy, and when Jake saw cars he liked he asked, "Does it go faster than your car?" When Steve answered, he'd ask, "On a straight track or an oval?"

He's always loved anything with an engine. I remember being fascinated at how different his language acquisition was from his cousin, Heidi's. She was all about feelings and ideas. When she was about eighteen months old, she had a love affair with the number two. "Two!" she'd cry, in ecstasy, every time she saw it. Jake was all about...nouns, primarily automotive. Race car, pick-up truck, semi, motorcycle,front-loader. When he was three, "horsepower" entered his vocabulary. Around the same time, we realized that he recognized the particular sound of a Harley.

There are moments when it's so clear that we are made of those who came before us. Something we love and gravitate to, a certain stubborn expression, the texture of our hair or color of our eyes, a crooked tooth, a hand gesture, a smile.

Just like the fictional characters we create are made of everyone we've ever known--and through some kind of alchemy become absolutely themselves. Each one like no other person who has ever lived anywhere, any time in real life or in a story.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why I...

My daughter, Jenny, wrote this in response to an essay by Paloma McGregor. I love it that Jenny has consistently found a place for dancing in her adult life, and really admire her for doing it. She's a wonderful dancer--and a wonderful writer, too.

I’m moved to write this after reading the “Why I Dance” essay by Paloma McGregor. To me it has always seemed that there is only one answer to this question. It is this: I dance because I have to. But Ms. McGregor has said what I think is the same thing in a way that maybe is better because it seems less desperate and, frankly, more joyful. She says that what she knows now is that “Your greatest love will never let you go”. This I know to be absolutely true.

By profession I am no longer a dancer. I am an attorney-I went back to school after a couple of years of trying to earn a living as a dancer. I am also a mother and a wife. But I still dance, and I remain, first, foremost, and always, a dancer. I don’t dance as much as I would like–nowhere near it. There is very little here (in Indianapolis) for an adult dancer, especially an adult jazz dancer. Advanced level classes for adults not part of a professional company don’t really exist, again, especially not for jazz dancers. And while higher level jazz classes for teenagers sometimes are open to adults, they aren’t particularly satisfying for me. I perform locally in community and, occasionally, professional theaters (most recently as a tapping Santa in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s run of Yuletide), but am at the mercy of those who determine the schedules: often there just isn’t much for a dancer. So, I return to NYC a couple of times a year and take class at Steps where, years (and years) ago I was on scholarship.

Obviously, class at Steps a couple of times each year isn’t enough to maintain the level of technique I once enjoyed–what little turn out I had managed to wring out of my legs when I danced on a daily basis is largely gone, and I doubt I could battement into a full layout, my head reaching towards my supporting heel, something I used to do with astonishing regularity when I took multiple classes in a day. In so many ways, large and small, I am nowhere near as strong a dancer as I used to be.

Yet, oddly, sometimes I find I am a better dancer, because, nearly 20 years after I was a scholarship dancer at Steps, I know so much more. I know that the most perfect happiness I have ever known, and probably ever will know, has been found in a jazz class. Once in L.A., in Doug Caldwell’s class at a studio whose name I’ve since forgotten, with the music so loud that I couldn’t have heard myself speak, and the sun streaming in through the open doors and windows. And several times in class at Steps, where I could look out the window and see Broadway snaking downtown towards the lights of the theater district. At these times, seemingly miraculously, what I want my body to do has merged with what it actually does, and I’ve felt free and strong and completely content. I know now to recognize that for what it is, and to take a moment to acknowledge it, because it is rare, and fleeting, and I can’t know when it will come again. I know that there are so many awful things that can and do happen in life, and that the only way I can process them and keep moving forward is by moving my body. And I know that, while I wasn’t cut out for the gypsy lifestyle of a dancer, I will never be anything more or less than a dancer, and that I will dance until I absolutely can’t dance anymore. And I believe that these, and so many other truths show in my dancing in a way that they never could have when I was younger.

So, to Ms. McGregor, thank you for giving me another answer to why I dance–because my greatest love will never let me go.

I also love this because...writing feels the same way. Maybe all art does, when you love it purely. When the greatest pleasure that comes from it is just...doing it.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Commencement

I went to my nephew’s high school graduation open house this afternoon. In the entry of the house, there was a display of photographs that took him from childhood to this moment—happy, goofy pictures. I especially liked the one of the two of us, taken at “Special People Day” at school when was maybe eight. For some reason, it made me remember going to what think must have been his kindergarten graduation, all the little ones on risers singing, “What a Wonderful World.” That song always gets me, anyway—the Louis Armstrong version, the tension between the lyrics of the song and the sadness running under the way he sings them, as if he’s singing about a world already lost to him. But to hear those high, fluty kindergarten voice singing it really got me: the simple lyrics sung purely, without any knowledge of what it costs to be alive.

Last week, just after commencement, my nephew and a group of friends were hanging out in somebody’s back yard when a violent thunderstorm came up suddenly. It began to hail. My nephew and one of the boys headed for the house; four others took shelter in a small storage shed. It was close; the door was open. Within seconds, a huge tree was hit by lightening and crashed down on it. Two escaped with scratches, one with a relatively minor knee injury. The fourth kid’s back was broken, and he will almost certainly never walk again.

How quickly life can change—and how quickly those changes can make much of what you thought you knew, what you thought you could count on seem…not to apply. You hope it takes kids a while to learn this terrible lesson, but when it happens, as it happened for these kids, you know how important it is that they come smack up against the reality of it, as painful as that might be, and make it a part of who they are now and who they will become.

I think of the kid in the hospital, how he will wake again and again to the knowledge that he can no longer walk. I wonder what it will make of him, what he will make of himself.

“Be good to your friend,” I said to my nephew. “He will need you all of his life.”

I should have added, “You need him, too. You need what he will have to teach you about what friendship is."

It is a wonderful world and, as Louis Armstrong knew, even more wonderful, somehow, seen through the scrim of sadness. Still, learning to accept and embrace sadness as part of what it means to be human may be the most difficult life lesson of all.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Bad Blogger

I’ve been a bad blogger the past month or so, and was finally shocked into action when the brutally honest “Site Meter” showed a drastic drop in people checking in over the last week.

Mea culpa. I got hideously busy. I know. A lame excuse

But I don't do hideously busy well. Pretty much on a nightly basis, I was having those packing dreams I always have when I get overwhelmed by my List of Things To Do in The Real World. I’m packing to go somewhere, but I’m not ready. Maybe I realize the plane leaves earlier than I thought and I’m packing frantically, throwing anything and everything into the suitcase just hoping to make it in time; maybe my traveling companions are waiting, irritated, watching me run around grabbing everything I need. Maybe I don’t know what I need; maybe I can’t find what I need.

Sometimes, strangely, these dreams end up in my college dorm room, with the realization that I’ve forgotten to go to my classes all semester. What this has to do with packing, I probably don’t even want to know.

If nothing else, I could have blogged about my weird dreams. But I didn’t. Instead, I thought about how what a bad, bad blogger I was. I thought about many cool opportunities for blogging that I’d missed and how I really, really needed to start blogging again. But...not blogging.

All the while ignoring my own stern advice to students who claim to have writers’ block: thinking is the kiss of death for any kind of writing. The more you don’t write, the more you don’t write...

Until you haven’t written for so long that writing seems impossible.

I always know I’m in trouble when I’m reduced to taking my own advice.

In any case, here I am. Blogging. Who-hoo! And not just because I felt bad about not blogging. I like blogging. It makes me happy. Sometimes it even makes me feel like I used to feel when I wrote poems. Like I’ve captured something, small but real.

And I love the idea that there’s someone out there who might like to read what I’m thinking.

Taking Louise for a walk today, it occurred to me that the idea of the begging bowl works just fine for blogging, too—and I started to pay attention. Here’s a little of what the quirky cosmos of Northern Michigan dropped into mine:

Caterpillars. They’re beautiful: black, with turquoise racing stripes on both and electric yellow dots all along their backs. They’re everywhere. They road is full of them, thousands of them, all crawling in different directions. Where are they going? Do they know?

Dead sumac bushes, their twisted white branches like skeletons’ arms reaching for the sky.

A gargantuan lilac bush, the scent of the purple blooms heady, indescribable.

The memory the lilacs brought: Wishbone, a funny little beagle, leaping through a field of purple thistle like a dolphin.

A three-storey house under construction and, in the middle of the neatly mown but empty lot across from it, a little brown birdhouse perched on a pole.

Two fat robins doing the dance of loooooove.

Louise let loose from the leash, zooming down the dirt road toward home, her ears flapping.

My red Jeep, gleaming in the sun.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Begging Bowl

In April, David Shumate, a prose poet, gave the first in a series of lectures about craft at the Writers’ Center of Indiana. Not craft, as in “how-to,” but craft in the deepest sense: where writing comes from and how it is made. In his lecture, “No Maps, No Rules,” Shumate talked about the process by which his poems are dreamed into being out of silence. The poet is an architect of silences,” he said. Poets are hostages to silence; poems are the frames they make around the sacred space that only silence brings.

He writes in the early morning silence. “I wait and I write what comes to me,” he said.

I haven’t written many poems, but what he said made sense to me when I thought about how the poems I had written came to me, as if out of nowhere. It felt like magic, but it wasn’t. I was listening for them. I just hadn’t realized it.

Poet Marianne Boruch says poems come from the begging bowl, which is another way of saying the same thing. The poet humbly begs the silence to give her a poem; it is her sacred task to find meaning in what she is given.

Fiction, however, does not feel that way at all. Especially novels.

Last week, the novelist Patricia Henley gave the second lecture in the craft series, and during the Q&A session afterwards, someone who’d heard Shumate speak described what he had said about silence and asked, “Is it like that for you, too?”

“God, no!” she said—and described waking every morning to scenes unfolding in her head, voice speaking, compelling her to get out of bed.

Yes, I thought. It feels exactly like that.

Poets step into the silence and dream a poem into being; novelists step into an ongoing dream, alive, clamoring for their attention.

Where’s the begging bowl then, where’s the silence?

Once, working on a novel up in Michigan, I drove over to Empire, the little town near Sleeping Bear Dunes where the book was set. Walking the beach, listening to the mix of Sixties music I’d made that evoked my character’s past, I passed a young guy hauling rocks—some the size of watermelons—from the shallow water to the shore and setting them in little piles. On my way back, I saw that he had begun to form them into words. I stopped and looked, couldn't figure out what they were.

“What are you spelling?” I asked.

He grinned. “Will you marry me?”

I hadn’t been able to read the words because I had been looking at them as if he'd spelled them toward the lake. But I saw them immediately when he explained that he’d placed them to be seen from a lookout perch on the high dune that rose up from where we stood. He meant to take his girlfriend there that evening, he said.

By noon the following day, this small gift from the cosmos had made its way into my novel. This happens fairly frequently to me, especially when I’m in the middle of something, totally engaged.

Sometimes the nature of the gift is like the words on the beach: obvious, immediate, a puzzle piece I didn’t know I was looking for that makes everything fall into place. Sometimes I notice something in passing (or maybe I didn’t notice at all) and I’m surprised when, years later, it emerges—exactly what I need.

This is the magic of creative process, which, it took me a long time to learn, can’t be separated from the idea of craft. It’s all true.

You listen. You teach yourself to be fully alive to your surroundings. Poet or novelist, you keep your begging bowl at the ready. You take what the cosmos gives you and dream your own world into being.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Weather in Assisi

According to the weather forecast on my i-Phone, it is currently sixty-four degrees and raining in Assisi, where (my i-Phone also tells me) it is 12:30 p.m. I added the Assisi forecast to my i-Phone because I thought it was amusing, because I could. But I find that I check it pretty much every time I check the weather in Indianapolis, and I have to say that each time I am surprised to find that it is not 90 degrees and sunny, which is how I always imagine it.

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I walk myself from the Hotel Giotto up the narrow cobblestone street toward Santa Chiara. The cool thing is that I can include anything I ever saw taking that walk (or any walk, for that matter): flowers cascading from a high window; an ancient stone fountain, a particular pattern of chimneys, a beautiful little shrine. Once I saw a dozen or so scrawny cats on a low stone wall feasting on open tins of cat food, brought by an old lady who watched over them, keeping the tourists with their cameras at bay.

I can veer off and walk up the steep stone stairs to the main piazza and get a pink grapefruit gelato, if I feel like it. Or project myself into evening at the Basilica, listening to music among the Giottos.

But, usually, I keep going toward S. Chiara—for the promise of monks in Birkenstocks, nuns in baseball caps, and the line of tacky souvenir shops lining the piazza outside the church.

When I take this walk, it is always sunny.

But if I were sleepless right now, I think I would imagine the rain—a particular rain that I remember from my first time in Assisi, when the air cooled and the sky turned the most remarkable deep, drenched blue, the cypresses darkening as if ready to whirl up into it. The stone walls of the city were white, white, white and shining. The rain came suddenly: buckets of silver water pouring from the sky, battering the windows of the painting studio, splashing off the stones of the terrace.

Yes! I would definitely imagine that rain—and how, when I turned away from the window, the artificial light in the studio seemed strangely beautiful to me, the paintings on the easels lined up there alive with color. How happy I was, how I could not stop looking at them.