Every week or so I comment on my writing, how it's going, the frequent frustrations, the occasional successes. This is your invitation to watch a writer at work - and sometimes find out what I'm cooking for dinner.
My Writer's Journal
December 7, 2014
I was a picky eater when I was a child. Most kids are. My mother didn’t like to cook and had no interest in trying anything new, so we ate well-done meat and I pushed aside the overcooked vegetables, except corn and tomatoes. Iceberg lettuce made an occasional appearance. Applesauce was acceptable, and I loved strawberries from the garden in summer.
Just don’t serve me anything strange—like spaghetti and meatballs. Too spicy.
Forget sauerkraut (too sour), a family favorite. On New Year’s Day my grandmother served it with roast pork. “A pig roots forward, and a chicken scratches backward,” and therefore on January 1st we ate pork (no chicken--not even an egg) for luck and prosperity. Sauerkraut was also on her table on September 29th, Goose Day, a feast peculiar to a very small area of Central Pennsylvania. Nobody could explain why, but I learned years later that September 29th is Michaelmas—St. Michael’s Day—when farmers paid their quarterly rents to the landowners. “Quarter days,” as they were called, originated in England, and apparently the custom carried over to Pennsylvania. How the goose got involved, I’m not sure—maybe the poor bird was part of the rent. But my Pennsylvania Dutch (actually Deutsch: German) family faithfully observed it, ate goose and wished for good fortune in the year that followed.
My food pickiness continued unchallenged until my parents took me to New York City when I was in junior high. My father had come home from World War II with a taste for French and Italian food, and he proposed eating in a French restaurant. Somehow I was coaxed to order coq au vin—chicken in red wine with mushrooms and little onions. I ignored the mushrooms and onions, of course, and approached the chicken with trepidation. What a revelation! I was a convert. My dad bought me a little French cookbook, and although I didn’t attempt any of the recipes then, I started to see food in a new way. A revolution had begun.
December 2, 2014
My mother was a pianist, the graduate of a conservatory of music, and had several pupils. My father met her when she was the church organist and he moved to town and joined the choir. It was assumed that I would inherit their musical genes.
My mother was my first piano teacher. She showed me the black and white keys, told me their names, taught me how to put my thumb on middle C and play the scale. When her friend came to visit, I was invited to show off: “Play C scale for Aunt May,” she said. After a couple of failed attempts, it was obvious that I couldn’t find middle C for my starting point. Mother asked for an explanation, since I had known it only a day earlier.
It turned out that I had marked the key with a booger, and she had washed the piano keys and removed my marker.
Maybe, she decided, I’d do better with a regular teacher. Every Thursday I went to Mr. Prettyleaf’s house for a lesson. I practiced, and I improved. Then the time came for the student recital at the end of the year. I can still picture the hall with folding wooden chairs and a baby grand piano. I remember my yellow eyelet dress and my black patent maryjanes. I remember the song I’d worked hard to memorize, “Irish Pipers,” and my hands sweating as I sat in a little room behind the stage, waiting my turn.
I also remember that there was a point in the music when I was to repeat part of the first section and then take the second ending. But something happened; my mind went blank—I could not remember the second ending, and so I played that first section again, missed the second ending again, repeated the first section another time, my hands perspiring, the keys slippery with sweat, until finally I simply stopped, stood up and bowed, and promised myself I’d never again play in a recital.
I’ve kept the promise.
October 21, 2014
My mother really knew how to dress. She wore elegantly tailored suits with hats and gloves and made sure the seams of her stockings were straight, and of course she wore a girdle. Several times a year my parents attended dinner dances, and I loved to watch them get ready for these events, my father in a tuxedo and my mother in a formal gown. My favorite was pale blue lace with an off-the-shoulder neckline. For such special occasions she stuffed "falsies" in her bra.
But my mother's excellent taste did not seem to extend to me. My clothes were ugly. I thought so then, and I think so now. My mother chose my clothes, and I always seemed to end up with something green or yellow and unflattering. Left on my own, I tended to go overboard. My mother had bought me a "Gibson Girl" outfit, a high-waisted velvet skirt and a plaid blouse with puffy sleeves. I decided that a lace handkerchief pinned to the sleeve would be a nice touch. The idea was promptly vetoed. (Okay, she was right about that.)
Here I was, at the start of seventh grade and begging for a brassiere. Mother argued that I had no need for one, but finally she relented and passed on some of her old ones, which I stuffed with hankies. I wore nylon stockings to church; on the Sunday I was confirmed I worried all through the service that my uncomfortable garter belt would fail, and my nylons would wind up puddling around my ankles.
And the hair? My mother had beautiful naturally curly hair, but mine was dead straight. Every night I wound my hair in pincurls held in place with bobby pins or settled for a home permanent. ("Which twin has the Toni?" was a popular ad campaign of that era, showing two girls—one supposedly with natural curls, and her identical sister with a Toni home permanent.)
Then I had a home ec course at school and learned to operate a sewing machine, producing an apron after one semester of stitching and ripping out the stitches. But I was not deterred. I bought myself a Singer with birthday money and set out to sew my own clothes. I don’t even want to think about some of the weird items I made and actually wore--until my mother intervened again.
September 20, 2014
I still couldn't hit or catch a ball, or win a race, or hold on when the kids played "Red Rover." But, boy oh boy, could I read (the fifth grade teacher had me tutor kids who couldn't), do multiplication and long division, answer every question about the Boston Tea Party, and win spelling bees. Naturally, this earned me the derision of the other kids, who dubbed me "Professor Pisspot."
I discovered boys, another lost cause, since in addition to my social liabilities I was the only child in my school with glasses, and I was going to have to wear braces to correct my buck teeth. Dreams of being a Cosmopolitan cover girl were doomed. My mother's ladies' magazines triggered romantic daydreams that involved white satin wedding gowns, and I wondered if I'd ever get a chance to wear one.
I'd gotten very curious about sex and asked a lot of questions that my mother wouldn't answer, and so I made stuff up and solemnly passed around my misinformation as scientific fact. Nobody else knew much, either.
I was glad to be leaving my country grade school but worried about what was coming next. My parents decided not to send me to the rural high school but to enroll me in the junior high school in town. At least I wouldn't have to ride a school bus--my dad would drop me off every day on his way to work.
Professor Pisspot was scared to death.
September 14, 2014
Every afternoon at 5 o’clock I tuned in to “Hop Harrigan, Ace of the Airwaves” and then acted out that day’s developments, embellishing them with my own ideas. In the early part of the war, a friend of my mother’s came to stay with us for a few months with her two daughters, both younger than I, and I enlisted them in my scenarios. I played the part of Hop Harrigan, of course, but Nancy, age 6, could be Gail Nolan, a nurse and possibly Hop’s love interest, or Tank Tinker, his sidekick. Linda, age 4, was always cast as the enemy, Japanese or German, depending, until we captured her and made her stay under the card table, a POW.
Later, there was “Baby Snooks,” played by Fanny Brice. My only cousin, Harold, in his teens, began to call me Snooks, a nickname that stuck for much too long. And Red Skelton, and Fibber McGee, and all those soap operas: Mary Noble, Lorenzo Jones, Ma Perkins. When I began to think about being a writer someday, it was writing radio scripts that I saw in my future—not books.
But meanwhile, we had a war to fight! I got a Junior Commando armband to wear on my snowsuit and tried, without success, to enlist classmates to march with me. I had a plane identification chart, so I’d know if our little Pennsylvania town was under attack from Zeros or Messerschmitts. I saved tin cans and used my allowance to buy 25-cent War Stamps to paste into War Bond booklets.
And then, at last, the war was over, and my daddy came home.
September 6, 2014
I didn’t much like kindergarten. I was an only child, wore glasses, and had no idea how to get along with other kids. At Halloween my mother dressed me in a clown suit, and I was put at the tail end of the parade through Miss Keller’s dining room and parlor and into the sunporch that served as our classroom. Leading the parade was pretty, curly-haired Janie, in a pink fairy costume with a little crown and a wand with star at the end of it. I dropped out soon after that.
First grade was also miserable. I hated recess and refused to go outside and play with kids who ran and yelled and threw balls. That was when I learned to read. I don’t remember, but it must not have been a struggle, like learning to ride a two-wheeler or to roller skate. I do remember the books I loved: "Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue," a series about insufferably good children; "The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew," a family that was poor but always happy, no matter what; and the "Uncle Wiggily" series, about an elderly rabbit with rheumatiz and his muskrat housekeeper, Nurse Jane Fuzzy Wuzzy. All of these books had been published long before I was born. Somebody must have given them to me—probably my grandparents, who also gave me a lot of Bibles (Pop-pop Meyer was a Bible salesman.)
I also remember learning to write—that is, to form big, squarish capital letters and then to string them together to form what I believed were words. My mother preserved some of those early attempts. A favorite word was “interrupted,” which I translated as INARAPDAD.
Then, in the middle of first grade, everything changed. We came home from church one Sunday and turned on the Philco radio to listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was “inarapdad” by news that upset my parents tremendously: the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. I had no idea what that meant, but six months later my father enlisted in the Air Force and was gone for the next three years.
July 15, 2014
There are many stages involved in writing a book, from the early minutes/hours/days when an idea starts to emerge until the day the first copy is in my hands: the research, the writing of several drafts, the comments of the editor, followed by more rewriting and more comments and more tweaking, and finally the sense that I've told my story as well as I can. A time to relax a little, clean out my files, sew on buttons, answer letters.
But not so fast! You're not done yet! The copy editor has yet to speak. This person not only looks for sloppy punctuation and points out that you have used "get" or "got" a few dozen times too many and notices that the guy you call Sam on page 37 suddenly becomes Bill on page 119. The CE, as she's known, also acts as a fact-checker (sometimes another person takes over this job). If one of your characters plays a song on the piano, was that song actually written by that time? If you write that 1920s movie star Rudolph Valentino died on Monday August 23rd, why does your character, a devoted Valentino fan, not hear about it on the radio until Wednesday the 25th?
It has to be said: Copy editors are a pain in the neck, but they also save your neck, too. Because if those little errors and inconsistencies and quirks aren't caught now, you can be sure they will be later. Years ago I mentioned a "horny toad" in Texas and how it hopped, and I was promptly nailed by a gleeful expert who pointed out that they are not toads but lizards, they don't hop, and since I was so wrong about that fact he would never again trust anything I wrote.
And that's why I say thank you to Lisa and all the other unsung copy editors who have kept me from embarrassing errors in so many books over so many years.
June 4, 2014
I just looked up the word, Doldrums, to be sure I'm using it correctly. It came into use in the 18th century when sailors sometimes encountered periods of calm in the ocean when there was no wind for days, the sails flapped uselessly, and the ship went nowhere. This is what Coleridge wrote about the doldrums in his poem, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner":
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, no breath no motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
That's where I am today, with no wind in my sails. This is not the same as "writer's block." Young writers often email me and ask what I do about it. I don't believe writer's block really exists. My advice is to put that idea out of your mind and simply write something--anything--even if you throw it out the next day. The cure for writer's block is to write.
The Doldrums is not the same thing. A few weeks ago I finished rewriting WAITRESS: THE JOURNAL OF A HARVEY GIRL, and now I'm waiting to hear from the editor if the manuscript has been approved or if another round of rewrites is needed. The galley proofs of ANASTASIA AND HER SISTERS came back from another publisher, and I read through the 300 pages and made minor corrections, so that's done.
I did additional research for an upcoming project that has not yet gotten a final go-ahead, and I'm about 25 pages into a draft, but I'm reluctant to proceed without approval. I've done a lot of background reading for another proposal that has so far had a first-round approval, and now I'm waiting for final word: YES - full speed ahead! or NO - this book is not for us.
The waiting drives me crazy. Being "between books" drives me crazy. I'm as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean, and although it's nice to have a break from the pressure of deadlines, I'm happiest when I'm deeply into a new novel. Let's hope the winds come back soon.
March 25, 2014
In 1986 after VOICES OF SOUTH AFRICA had been published, I took off again, this time for Northern Ireland, to learn what I could about "The Troubles," tension between Catholics and Protestants that too often erupted in violence and death. I wanted to hear from the young people in both camps, about their feelings about "the other."
For six sodden weeks that summer I traveled the counties that make up Northern Ireland, armed with very few contacts and a pair of not-quite-waterproof shoes. I prepared for the trip by reading history, fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and set out to discover how the people managed from day to day in a country long torn by religious, political, and economic strife. I found the people charming, friendly--and exasperating.
I spoke to Catholics and "Prods," to police and soldiers, to kids whose fathers and grandfathers had been unemployed for as long as anyone could remember. I visited with peace groups and groups claiming connection to the IRA. I attended family celebrations and wakes. And I found that life goes on, pretty much as usual.
But they couldn't quite figure out how to label ME--my name didn't fit into either camp. Interestingly, they always decided that my sympathies surely lay with THEIR side.
And then I came home and wrote the story--which turned out to be my story as much as theirs.
December 7, 2013
From the book jacket: "I cried when I left South Africa. I cried because it is a rich and beautiful country torn by strife, fearful Whites on one side, angry Blacks on the other. And I don't know if there is enough compassion and goodwill to triumph over misunderstanding, stubbornness,, and greed and to to prevent the disaster that seems inevitable. I had met dozens of South Africans, become close to a few of them, liked them even when I disagreed with them. When their lives touched mine, my life was changed; maybe theirs were too. When I left, I knew that I would never see most of t hose people again. But I will not forget them."
I wrote those words in January 1986, shortly before publication of the book. Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, worked to end apartheid, was elected the first black President of his country in 1994, and served for five years. He died two days ago at the age of 95.