December 08, 2011

Are women writers getting a fair shake? Karol Nielsen, author, comments

Karol Nielsen is my guest writer today and it is my pleasure to introduce her to you.
Karol Nielsen is the author of Black Elephants (Bison Books, 2011), a Gulf War love story. Poets & Writers selected the memoir as a New and Noteworthy Book. The Jewish Book Council invited her to guest blog about her book. The blogs also appeared in the Forward. Excerpts from her memoir were honored as Notable Essays in The Best American Essays in 2010 and 2005. Her poetry collection, coming out as a chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2012), was a finalist for the Colorado Prize for Poetry in 2007. She has contributed nonfiction and poetry to Smith Magazine’s The Moment anthology (Harper Perennial, 2012) and many literary magazines, including Guernica, Lumina, North Dakota Quarterly, Permafrost, RiverSedge, and Epiphany before she became an editor of the magazine. A journalist for 15 years, she covered Latin America, the Middle East, New York City, and international finance, contributing to The New York Times, New York Newsday, Jane’s Intelligence Review, the Stamford Advocate, the Buenos Aires Herald, and others. She has an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. And she says,
"I'm hopeful."

Here is her guest essay. She and I welcome your comments:

“Call Me Person”
by Karol Nielsen

I came to my feminist sensibilities slowly, first awakening in college during a summer internship at a think tank where I only remember one woman on staff who was not a secretary. And this woman had been an ambassador to the United Nations. Halfway through the summer, I stopped going to the office and went to the Georgetown University library to finish my research paper on the 1973 oil embargo. It was a long and lonely summer, and for the first time, I realized that my father was an unusual man.

He was my running partner and a natural ally whenever either of us got into trouble with my mother. He was a combat veteran of Vietnam, but at home he so disliked the role of disciplinarian that he fully delegated this dirty job to my mother. She had just as much faith in me as my father, but she worried that I would be judged, and judged hard, so she’d reprimand me for my ripped jeans or my split-ends or a foot that wouldn’t point at a diving meet. That was girl stuff. I couldn’t be bothered.

During college, I used to have long philosophical discussions with a friend who was tall and beautiful and strong. We met in Shakespeare class the first week of school, and she became captain of the women’s crew team at the University of Pennsylvania by our senior year. (I quit as a freshman because I wasn’t a morning person.) Over a cup of coffee, she once said, I see myself as a woman, you see yourself as a person. It was true. I wanted to be a person, because a person isn’t bound by gender. I wanted to travel and write and live freely and bravely and adventurously, an equal to all others.

Maybe I was wrong to look at myself as a person, because the think tank wasn’t the first place I’d noticed this two-tiered system for men and women. I had rejected the idea of applying to Columbia University, since my year was going to be the first to admit women. This seemed absurdly backwards, and besides when we visited the school it smelled of urine. I looked at the urban campus and thought, There’s no place to go for a run around here, and it stinks!  When I finally fell in love with cosmopolitan New York, I moved to the city the summer of the garbage strike and learned to hold my nose.

A few years after college, I went to the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, where my favorite professors—a winner and a future finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction, both of them men—were among the most inspiring and encouraging professors I’d ever had. I cannot say this about the man I had for introductory reporting and writing, a white-haired preppy who used to be the dean of the school. (Nora Ephron had delivered his mail at Newsweek at a time when all the editorial positions were held by men.) During the first week of class, he spoke these unforgettable words: The newsroom is mostly white and male; women and minorities, it’s not too late for a tuition refund. I thought, Well, that’s going to have to change!

As a journalist, most of the support I’d had from women came before graduate school. Afterwards, I worked almost exclusively for men with the exception of my editor at New York Newsday. More women have promoted my literary work, including the editors who chose my memoir and upcoming chapbook, but when I counted heads, more than half of the literary magazine editors who chose my creative nonfiction and poetry were men. Did men like my work better, or were there simply more of them working as editors?

Some discovered my work in the slush pile, and others have solicited work directly, like an editor who asked me to contribute to his magazine after reading a thread on Facebook about my last story as a stringer for The New York Times.  A divorced woman had driven to Manhattan from Maine to shoot herself in Penn Station. I interviewed the police officer who talked her down, but at that time the newspaper did not credit stringers for contributing to stories. It happened before Easter weekend, and it hung over me as if it had had a tragic and irreversible ending. I knew I no longer had the stomach for stories like this.

It had been a plumb job for a recent journalism school graduate, and the policy for stringers wasn’t personal. My male classmate who had recommended me for the job didn’t get credit, either. Still, the editor liked the tone of my comments. There’s no bitterness, he said. I thought of bitterness as deadweight, something you had to toss off so you could get on with breaking barriers, and for me that meant pretending there were none.


Mostly, I lived in a bubble of hope as a writer, until I read the devastating statistics complied by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, showing the gaping gender gap in book reviews last year. The New Republic book review editor Ruth Franklin suspected that the problem began in publishing, so she tallied numbers from the 2010 catalogues for a range of large and independent presses. After eliminating categories of books such as cookbooks that were unlikely to receive reviews, she found that the VIDA numbers roughly reflected the proportions of books by women that came out last year.

Women made up the majority of “avid” readers, based on a 2010 book-buying survey, so why weren’t there more books by women? More discussion followed. Were men more prolific? Were they more aggressive at submitting work? Were they writing worthier books? Or were editors and critics and judges favoring men? Only a dozen women have won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Only one book written by a woman made Esquire’s list of 75 books every man should read. V. S. Naipaul claimed that no woman writer is his equal: too sentimental, too parochial.

It’s ironic that I earned an A-plus in development economics from a progressive professor at Penn who assigned Naipaul’s post-colonial novel, A Bend in The River. I had a habit of overlooking sexist scenes in books, not to mention the lives of authors, because I was drawn to stories of travel and adventure and ideas, and with Naipaul’s work I was taken by the sense of isolation in a remote jungle, the sort I’d imagined my father had experienced in Vietnam. It was the first time I’d read a book that captured a feeling that had been part of me for as long as I could remember.

VIDA released another study this spring, finding a historical gender gap in The Best American Series, including notable works as well as those anthologized in the books. Two excerpts from my memoir have been honored as notable essays in The Best American Essays, but suddenly I felt overcome by the odds as a woman with her first book released this fall.

My publisher, Bison Books, the paperback imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz were Bison authors, too. The Millions took note of the press’s winning streak in the Nobel Prize for Literature. It had published the winners for three years in a row, including Herta Mueller, one of the few women to win the prize.

I was profoundly honored when the press chose my memoir, Black Elephants, as a giveaway at BookExpo America 2011, passing out 150 advance review copies at the convention. Another 25 went directly to book reviewers at top newspapers and magazines. So far, I’ve had praise from men and women and quality press for the book, including thoughtful interviews in the Daily Brink and Women’s Voices for Change, a reader recommendation in the Christian Science Monitor, a strong review in Kirkus, and honors from Poets & Writers as a New and Noteworthy Book and the Jewish Book Council as a guest blogger. The Forward published the blogs, too.

I can go on these sorts of honors for long years, like a camel stumbling into an oasis. Black Elephants also topped my publisher’s bestseller list the month it began to ship. I had been promoting the memoir on social media since I got a book deal two years ago, but it was startling to me, because my Amazon Author Central sales graph looked like a volatile stock during the pre-order stage. I decided then that I would no longer look at the sales rank because it began to seem meaningless, to me. I didn’t write the book to become an instant bestseller. I didn’t write it with any expectation other than telling the story as well as I could. And because I kept having trouble getting it published I kept making it better. And better.

I’m aware, of course, that a Big Book Review might help my book sales, but I also know that books are sold word of mouth. So I hang in there. And I talk. On social media. In taxi cabs. At bars, like I did when I heard a man speak with an Israeli accent. I told him that I wrote a Gulf War memoir, a love story between an American writer looking for adventure and an Israeli traveler dreaming about peace. Turns out he was a teenager during the Gulf War. He remembered running to the roof of his building to watch incoming Scud missiles. We laughed. War is absurd. He said he was going to Israel, would buy the book for his mom.

Some of my friends are impatient for my success, hoping for an appearance on national television or The New York Times bestseller list. One friend suggested that I send the book to President Obama. It’s an idea. But, frankly, it’s been consuming enough to follow up on dozens of galleys already out there and send more as leads come along. Call me cheap, but I didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a publicist when the in-house team has championed my book. It’s not easy for independent and university presses to get the attention of big prestigious newspapers and magazines, but I’m still doing legwork because I believe in my book and its core message about war and peace.


While waiting for the response to my galleys, I comforted myself with the notion that if you’re ignored you can’t have a bad review! And no doubt the odds for women were worse in George Eliot’s time, when she chose to publish under a man’s name, and most likely worse when my professor felt compelled to tell us that the newsroom was still mostly white and male. I was never blind to this reality. It’s just that as a matter of survival I chose to ignore the odds, so that I could do whatever it was that I’d wanted to do. And that was write.

But I, too, had become part of the system as an editor of the literary magazine, Epiphany. It hadn’t been included in the VIDA survey, which focused on book reviews in the most influential publications, but I had to see how the magazine had performed. I spent an entire day from returning with my morning cup of coffee well into the evening tallying numbers for print editions, going back to the premiere book in 2004, which included an excerpt from my memoir solicited by the former nonfiction editor, a longtime mentor.

The excerpt was honored as a notable essay in The Best American Essays 2005, and after my mentor left the magazine, I was hired as the new nonfiction editor in 2007. I was promoted to senior editor of the magazine in 2009, managing the staff of readers and recommending nonfiction, fiction, and the occasional poem, though I was never the sole voice in deciding what went in and what stayed out. I lobbied intensely for the works I believed in, winning some, losing many during the editorial review process that involved three evaluations and final approval from the other editors. It was rare that all of us routed passionately for the same work, and while this was a source of intense frustration, it consistently yielded quality.

But I worried about the numbers. Had we favored men like the others? It was a relief to discover that Epiphany had almost perfect gender parity since its premiere issue. And how had I done? As nonfiction editor, three out of five essays published in the magazine were by women, and as senior editor more than half of all works appearing in Epiphany were by women. During that time, three of the four essays honored as notable works in The Best American Essays and the only distinguished story honored in The Best American Short Stories were by women. The results delighted me. Maybe the true victory is more than equality in publishing. It’s equality in our thinking. Maybe I was right, after all, that I am a person, like you.

Visit Karol's website for news. Buy her book and read my review of it on Amazon.    

December 04, 2011

Guest Essayist: Charles van Heck

I introduce to you today to Charles van Heck, a generous soul and elegant essayist. We “met” via Google+, of all places, and a meeting of the minds magically emerged. That merging of thought strikes me always as the gift of connection that I suspect has to with the reading that has infused each of our quite separate lives with narrative, that has placed meaning and form on the chaos of existence. 

William Gass describes this sense of oneness in The Test of Time: “And we, who read and write and bear witness and wail with grief, who make music and massacres, who paint in oils and swim in blood—we are one: everywhere as awful, as possibly noble, as our natures push us or permit us to be.”

Some Background on Charles:

Charles van Heck is a native of Oakland, New Jersey. He has a degree in history from Ramapo College of New Jersey as well as degrees from the University of Dayton and the University of Michigan. A theological librarian, he has taught both theology and American literature, and been the invited speaker at churches of various denominations. He’s worked with the terminally ill, underprivileged, and served as a volunteer during the hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma.

Charles has completed two novels. Mister Lincoln's Elephant Boy is historical fiction based on the documented record Second Volunteer Michigan Infantry and tells the story of Sarah Emma Evelyn Edmonds Seelye who served for three years during the Civil War as Franklin Thompson. He’s also written a mystery set in the 1950s titled Her Future Past. His poetry and articles have appeared in various journals. Charles lives with his wife in Michigan where he enjoys gardening, cooking, painting, and getting away—he loves to travel.

Wanderings in Woodhull County
by Charles van Heck

There are mornings at Whitman Pond when I want to wander the fields, to forget about writing and simply blend into the landscape. Yesterday morning, though, there were errands to run. A walk would have to wait until the afternoon.

I had driven over to Handy’s Hardware store in Bolivar to pick-up a bottle of fuel stabilizer for the lawn mower and some burlap to wrap around the shrubs. Then there was an errand to run for Irene Longworthy at the Sublet Pharmacy. Both stores were decorated for Christmas. Jack Handy, a Baptist in good standing, had a Menorah Tree. That was something new for me. Phyllis Amacher, over at the Sublet Pharmacy, though I think, gets the prize. She had a good sale on her leftover inventory of Halloween candy and cards. The display was beneath a navy blue tree decorated with the “Nightmare Before Christmas” ornaments, orange lights, and black garland.

The holidays don’t mean very much to me. I’m tired of the news about retails sales; Black Friday stampeding hoards pepper spraying one another for midnight sales, and Cyber Monday. Perhaps I’m becoming a bit of a Scrooge, but it seems to me the magic, mystery, and wonder of the holidays, be it Chanukah or Christmas has been lost. Most importantly, the meaning of the holidays has been replaced by mindless consumerism.

My mother, Alice May Bunt, grew up on a farm in Allentown, New York. She seldom spoke about her childhood. She did speak about the Christmas that her grandmother gave her a handkerchief embroidered with her initials. Her father would cut a tree. It would be placed in the parlor and decorated with candles. On Christmas Eve the candles would be lit, eggnog or hot cider would be served. A few songs would be sung. Then the candles would be extinguished.

My father, Charles van Heck, Jr., would talk about coming home from church on Christmas morning to find the tree decorated in the living room of his parent’s apartment in Brooklyn. He remembered his father cooking dinner, and the family gatherings around the table. I don’t recall him mentioning one gift that he received.

Simplicity? Perhaps. Those were different times. The economic reality from 1914 to the eve of the Second World War was harsh in the agricultural and immigrant communities; particularly during the Great Depression. My mother’s father would lose his farm to the bank. He found employment in the oil fields of Allegany County, New York.  My other grandfather shuttered his corner grocery store because his customers could no longer pay their bills. He went to work as a chef at The Browns, a Borscht Belt resort.

Driving into Evoraburg, I stopped at the Red & White Market for a few groceries and the mail. The floorboards are worn; a few creak as I moved along the narrow well stocked aisles. There is a large fan in the back where Volney Poort stands behind the meat counter. I ordered a fresh chicken for Christmas. “You’ll have to pick it up two days before,” he said. “We’re going to be closed Christmas Eve.” Claribel Poort rang me up at the cash register. “Is Terri going to make a fruit cake?” she asked.

It was obvious from the containers of candied fruit, but the folks of Evoraburg tend to either question or state the obvious, then gossip about it until the obvious becomes unrecognizable. Before the week is out it will be around the village that Terri is baking sweet potato pie for Christmas and I was seen driving off with Ursula Lovecraft, the high school nurse, who happened to be leaving the store the same time. Small towns are like that.  “You forgot your mail, Charlie,” Claribel called. Yes, I was seen leaving the Red & White with Ursula Lovecraft and was in such a rush I forgot my mail.

Outside the air was crisp. The sky was overcast. In the village square, known as Peace Park, the volunteer fire department was putting up an ice skating rink. Doug Seiters, Harvey Cooney, and Ernie Lange of the village Department of Public Works were hanging lights and other decorations on the gazebo and the trees. Watching the workers, I found myself recalling special winter nights in my hometown of Oakland, New Jersey.

Every December there was a Christmas Carol Sing-along outside the Ponds Church. The street was closed off. Hot Chocolate, coffee, warm cider, doughnuts, and cookies were served. There was always a good size crowd. Afterwards, my parents and their friends from the Oakland Volunteer First Aid Squad, some of the police officers, and volunteer firemen would gather at the home of Arnold and Connie Monks. They lived next door to the church. Their home was warm, and nicely decorated. While our parents conversed, we kids got to play. I recall those evenings with fondness and affection for the Monks.

Those days seemed less hurried, less materialistic, and definitely more innocent. At times I feel as if I am playing at being an adult. This is especially true at the house. It seems odd to have accumulated the furniture, paintings, and necessities. Occasionally, I expect someone to tell me I have to clean up the mess. I know that won’t happen.

At this point in my life, I have less interest in things and more in simply being, enjoying, and sharing. I have an extensive library; a carryover from my days in academics both as a student, a theological librarian, and a teacher. John Adams once remarked that he had spent an estate on books. I too have such a passion for books.

I miss teaching undergraduates, meeting with scholars, giving talks at various churches. To some measure that is why I created the Whitman Pond website at the urging of others. Whitman Pond is a place for stories, poetry, art, humor, and commentary on current affairs in a quiet voice. There is enough anger and rancor in our media outlets. I wanted to create an environment that mirrored the living room of Arnold and Connie Monks, and my grandparents’ front porch where people conversed. What was most important to me was to create a place that honored the code of respect for others regardless of their race, creed, nationality, gender, or sexual orientation that my father instilled in me.

Some will say that I am attempting to create an idyllic place based on the past. Perhaps. The historian Joseph J. Ellis has observed, “…all attempts at making the past relevant to the present inevitably require some measure of distortion.” I prefer living the present moment to dwelling in the past. However, I believe the past should inform the present. But a warning, I ascribe to the notion that simplicity is seldom what it appears.

With the groceries and mail in the car, I started across the street to Chaim’s Kosher Bakery and Deli for lunch and to visit with Chaim and his wife Yocheved. Woodhull County Sheriff Patty Hoppack drove past and waved.  After lunch, I returned to the house, then, after changing, went for a walk in the hills around Whitman Pond as a light snow began to fall, stirring me to catch snowflakes on my tongue, and reminding me of the approach of the holidays.

You may visit Charles' website Click here: On Whitman Pond and read more of his elegiac musings.

November 06, 2011

Am I Crazy or What? Or how social media and YOU can bring a book to life

So you wanna get published, right? So you think only a big house can get you anywhere worth getting, right? So, you think you need an agent first thing, right?

I thought all these things and have the credentials to prove that I’ve been on a literary journey: English major, Phi Beta Kappa, teacher, professor, MFA degree, literary journal editor, literary prize winner. But no big house and no agent.

Instead, I did what some may think is crazy. I went with a product development company that dabbled in publishing. But my book got out. And I went to work. I have an active public Facebook page, a Twitter account, a website always under revision as new stuff happens and I write a blog where I try to post at least once a week.

Today’s post that you are reading would have been this essay. But this site begged for it and it’s theirs. But later you may see this post on my blog. Go check out this: How to buy a dress and end up with a book party.

(Re)MAKING LOVE: a sex after sixty storyI don’t tweet about my memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story much, though some. I don’t blog about my book much, but some: actually, I blogged the book while I lived it—that’s the first crazy-some-say thing I did before the product development company found me—and that accounts for the banner of a blog that deals not with erotica but with literary thought, interviews and essays on writing and books.

Now you’d think a book with this sordid, unconventional history wouldn’t be doing very well, right? And, indeed, I’m not getting rich. But is that what we artists are really about? Okay, a girl could hope but that’s never been the goal: The work will out.

But get this: The small print in the visual for the book from Amazon says, #7 top rated in the Kindle store for Non-Fiction, Biographies & Memoirs, Arts &literature, Authors.

The week before it was #5 behind The Diary of Anne Frank and Steven King’s On Writing.

And guess what: The book party at Upstairs on 7th (aka: “How to buy a dress and get a book party”) resulted in the promise of another book party by one of the women who came.

Then I went to dinner with a banker-friend I know and told him what happened. He called his wife and is planning another book party and he’ll be providing the wine.

Is there a moral? Ain’t no good here at morals. But I will say this: If you put your heart and soul into your book and you’ve edited it like crazy with a cool eye, had others eyeball it and critique it, then find a reputable publisher and work—yes that means you—to sell one book at a time. Because like the memoir I wrote, it’s all personal.

PS: Another piece of good news: A new and much more experienced indie publisher has taken my memoir. Be sure to check out the second edition (more edits and a prologue) now from Outer Banks Publishing Group.
Mary L Tabor, author of (Re)MAKING LOVE: a sex after sixty story

September 16, 2011

The Poet Speaks: Helen Mallon on "The Delight of Sheer Language"

I have the great pleasure today to introduce you to poet and guest blogger Helen Mallon. We met first through this blog when I was writing my memoir "live." She followed, read, commented, encouraged and lived the journey with me. I didn't know where she lived but I knew her. Then I was invited to Rosemont College as the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. On the last day of my visit, I gave a public talk, closed with the last, ever so brief story in The Woman Who Never Cooked. Outside the theater, I signed books and there was the angelic, lithe Helen. And here she is today. At the end of her piece, you can read my review of her book of poems Bone China and click to buy it. Her brief bio, she is ever so humble, appears after her essay so that you may click also on a new, eStory she's written.

The Delight of Sheer Language
My first experience of delight in sheer language came from my mother’s yearly reading of the doggerel about Saint Nicholas: “’Twas the night before Christmas…” Now these lines feel stale, but to a 5-year-old, they conjured a world pregnant with meaning. “As leaves before the wild hurricane fly…” made me quiver. I saw something that our ordinary moonlit nights promised, yet never quite revealed: “The moon on the breast of the newfallen of snow/Gave the luster of midday to objects below.” For me, ignorant of cliché, the reference to the snow’s “breast” transformed winter hillsides into something living.  The new word “luster,” half-understood, tinged the landscape with silver foil.

For me, well-chosen language is a union of sensuality and meaning. The effect is most striking in poetry, but in the fiction I love most, sentences also have a physical quality that makes them say more than can be put into words. As Eudora Welty wrote of herself as a child in One Writer’s Beginnings: “The word ‘moon’ came into my mouth as though fed to me out of a silver spoon.”

I began my writing life as a poet, and although I have migrated to fiction, I respond in prose to the kind of economical writing found in poetry, in which every word hefts (say) three times its own sensual weight. The fiction writers I most respond to have a love affair with language itself that is sheer poetry in its effect.

The writing of novelist-poet Michael Ondaatje is so beautiful it’s actually distracting. When I begin one of his novels, it takes a while to extricate myself from the seductive currents of his prose and, shaking off water, become immersed in the story. Otherwise, I might spend an hour on a single page.
Spare language, of course, can be no less “poetic.” Part of the ache in Kent Haruf’s novel Plainsong comes from his use of toned-down language to convey intensity. Here he describes breakfast in a household in which the mother has retreated to her bedroom in a depressive fog:

Kent Haruf
Ike picked at something in his eggs and put it at the rim of his plate.  He looked up again. But Dad, he said.
Isn’t Mother coming down today either?
I don’t know, Guthrie said. I can’t say what she’ll do. But you shouldn’t worry. Try not to. It’ll be all right. It doesn’t have anything to do with you.
He looked at them closely. They had stopped eating and were staring out the window toward the barn and corral where the two horses altogether were.

In the spare logic of Haruf’s voice, each phrase lends grave dignity to the family’s sadness. The situation is grim, but each simple action—Ike places something precisely on the rim of his plate, both boys stare out the window in mute defiance of their father’s insistence that “they shouldn’t worry”—is a distillation of emotional unease through concrete images. Through Haruf’s clean imagery, our identity with the boys is almost physical.

Because language is often reduced to a tool which we humans use in our drive to get through life, it’s easy to forget that the “how” of language controls the “what.” The music of words in a story, whether measured and few, or torrential and rushing, gives us a sense—if just for a moment—that messy, jagged life itself can be poetry.

Memoir offers a close take on this notion. Presumably the writer didn’t have to labor to find the story, so how it’s told becomes primary. Here Mary Tabor’s dreamlike prose comes to mind.  Her recent memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story was first incarnated as the spontaneous expression of an online journal, recorded as it happened. A fearless spontaneity is apparent in her readiness to layer literary and pop culture references into her own story of love lost (and found). These disparate references reflect the sometimes tentative, sometimes bold quality of the journey she began when her husband announced that he wanted to be alone. The associative leaps she employs, common in poetry, are not verbal decorations.

I must find the way through all the screens on the stage that slide one in front of the other. I want to shout, “Fire.” Like the clown in the theatre who called out to the laughing crowd while the coulisses burned, while the crowd applauded, disbelieving. I slide the scenery panels of my life through the backstage grooves while they burn and no one sees the fire.

These juxtapositions bring deep cultural resonance to the personal events portrayed. Here prose ranges over life in the service of a poet’s heart.

As in my naive childhood vision of winter transformed by the sensuality of language, prose writers who embrace the devices of poetry create new meanings out of events both ordinary and tragic.

Connect with Helen Mallon: Helen W. Mallon is the author of Bone China, poems. Her eStory, “Did You Put the Cat to Bed?” is available from Books to Go Now.  Helen lives in Philadelphia.

Here is my review of Bone China: I discovered Helen Mallon when she discovered the memoir I was writing "live" as a blog and she wrote me—a gift I treasure for who Mallon is. I bought her beautifully bound book of poems and was deeply moved: "Trustee" and "Inheritance," touched me with razor sharp precision before I visited one my grown children. The poems in their brevity range across the exigencies of existence—an accomplishment that startles. Mallon's poems cut to the heart of the matter like "light shot off smashed glass." This is a voice worth hearing. Buy Bone China on Amazon.

August 30, 2011

Martin King: childhood memories and #100BLOGFEST

Martin King, author, and daring blogger, decided in the month of August to post 100 childhood memories: as he says, "roughly 3 a day." I found Martin through the wonderful Cathryn Wellner. You can link to her  and her childhood memory by Catching Courage in the margin of my blog: Excellent Friends and Heroes.

Here is Martin's lovely memory: a tribute to childhood and motherhood:

Did you ever have a problem with anyone nicking (our phrase for stealing) from you when you were younger? I did. I was only about eight at the time and my mum used to give me sweets that I left in my coat pockets. My coat was hung up in the cloak room.

So one day I came to get my chocolate bar (see blog # 80 for a discussion on your favourite sweets) to find it wasn’t there. So you get be excused for thinking that I had lost it on the way to school or aliens had visited earth and stolen it. But then it happened again and then again.

I told my mum about it and she was livid. But she concocted a cunning plan. She bought a packet of rolos and very carefully unwrapped the packet. Then she carefully injected mustard into them, through the little indent at the top so you couldn’t tell.

The next day I left my doctored rolos in my pocket. The trap was set. That lunch time I checked my pockets to find the tube of chocolate rolos had gone. The culprit had taken the bait. I never did find out who the light fingered person was, but from that day foreword, they never visited my coat pockets again.

Does that remind you of any jokes you may have tried? Tune in to further blogfest stories to see the one about the joke shop.

These blogs are all about fun and sharing. Thank you for reading a ‘#100blogfest’ blog. Please follow this link to find the next blog in the series:

When you link back to Martin's site, you will find other writers, whether published authors or not, who have joined him in the search for the willed word. And you will find me. I will post what I wrote for Martin  here soon as well. For now, link back to him and discover a world of memory.

June 30, 2011

Upstairs on 7th meets (Re)Making Love

Girl walks into a dress shop feeling frumpy and comes out with a hot black dress and a book party. The store is Upstairs on 7th and the owner and CEO is Ricki Peltzman. Here she is: gorgeous and fashionable. Don't you love that necklace? You could buy it from her!

Photo from Upstairs on 7th
And here's what happened: I live in the Penn Quarter (downtown D.C.) where Forever 21 makes me feel forever 61—and I've been searching for a store where a woman my age might find clothes that are both funky and elegant. So, somehow I wander into her store that is inside the building where the fab Tosca Restaurant resides (Barack took Michelle there recently!) and Ricki, while I'm trying on clothes, reasonably priced and gorgeous, asks me what I do. I say, "Oh, I'm a writer." She says, "Books?" I say, "Well . . ." Not so good here at self-promotion. She wheedles it out of me; I try to get her to buy the Kindle version but she wants my book in her hand, and as I live barely three blocks from her, I go home to get a pair of shoes to try on with the slinky black number and bring her one that she promptly buys.

See this image to the left from her website and you'll know why I wanted to buy everything in her elegant shop that is truly a salon in the way literary folk used to know of such great places.

So Ricki reads the book, starts while I am still in the store (read the ending!) and then that night stayed up late with what she calls a-can't-put-down memoir. The next day she gets to the store early and before her educated and elegant clients begin to wander in, she finishes the book. And while she's reading, she e-mails me (Of course, I wanted to be on her e-mail list for sales and news! You should too; she sends her stuff all over the U.S.). As I like to say in the memoir, I am not making this up: Virtually all the e-mails had this subject line "OMG This Book":

Ricki (e-mail #1): Every ROM-COM you mention I LOVE although so far you have not mentioned The American President, one of my all time movies ever and one I think I have seen at least 100 times. Just too adorable and funny. And also Sleepless in Seattle which I am a total sucker for. I think when I was very young and newly married A Man and A Woman was my favorite movie for the longest time. The music at the end when he is driving to see her was masterful. I love the mentions of all the restaurants that are around here and which we eat at all the time. The bread alone at Zaytinya makes me swoon. I could eat just that and be thrilled!

I love your La Perla story. Hilarious. Especially that you spent all of that for so little pieces. Only Jewish women could understand this I think.

I read in bed and when I got up at 6 I got my coffee from the trusty Miele machine and sat on the porch and read until 8:30.

We will have to do a book party. This is way toooo good.

Ricki (e-mail #2); they were coming every 15 minutes; I guess the book is a fast read!): So I have the book on my desk and this customer tells me that she is just retired from being a happy housewife since her husband left her and I tell her she HAS to come to the book party! And then all her friends signed up on my email so they can hear when it is so they can attend also. So when shall we do it? I will have everyone over for drinks and a light supper and you can talk about it and then sell lots of books.

Ricki (e-mail #6); she arranged the book party in the other three; I think there were eight e-mails in all; I was afraid to leave my computer on a Saturday afternoon for fear of missing one of these!): I LOVE LOVE LOVE YOUR BOOK. I have customers here but I am just at the part where you are in Paris with your tiny appliances.

And then she blogged about the book and the party. She then caters the party in her shop: food from Tosca and champagne. Here are a few photos and then some thoughts about all this.
Don't you love that bracelet????

Ah the women, the books, the shop!

The slinky black dress that will go from summer to winter. You gotta get this one!
I sold 18 books at the party and Ricki has since sold five more! Can you believe this amazing woman?

At the party, I read Chapter 8, Deceptive Cadence that I wrote while listening endlessly to the Schubert in G Flat Major and one woman told me she wants to give me a book party at her home in Dupont Circle, have me read this chapter and have a pianist play the Schubert in G. I'm having lunch with her in a couple of weeks (gorgeous, sophisticated, successful woman!). Whether or not that happens, I think I've made a friend.

And get this: I'm telling this story to a banker-guy I know and he sends an e-mail to his wife and a bunch of her friends and copies me. Here it is: The subject line is "Literature, Wine, Writing and Italian Clothes":


How well do I know the women in my life?  I have begun the planning of an event for all of you which will feature Mary Tabor, an author friend of mine who also teaches at GW. You will all read her recent book, discuss it with her and discuss writing. Add some Roy Family wine to honor my favorite female winer proprietor and the beautiful clothes from Italy and Europe with Chris.

Stay tuned for more detail.


Should I be singing that song from The Sound of Music again?

So somewhere in my youth or childhood/ 
I must have done something good . . .

June 20, 2011

Angel on My Shoulder

Illustration by
Sometimes I want to break into song like my grandchild Lila, who at two years old knows the entire score of The Sound of Music! She can sing "I Must Have Done Something Good" and that's what I feel like singing today because CMash Loves to Read loves my memoir (Re)Making Love.

In early June she made me her Shining Light and put that light on this blog where literary work and writing and writers get discussed, among this and that that my guest bloggers write and where I first blogged this memoir.

Today I am her guest author. Please go and comment if you have read the book. And if you haven't, you might want to be a part of her GIVEAWAY of (Re)Making Love. She's got two signed copies of my book  that will be in a lottery and you could win one. Click on the word Giveaway in the preceding sentence.

Comment here because you care and definitely on Cheryl's blog because she is such a good soul. You have from June 20th to July 5th to comment and win!

Again, I offer a flower for the angel on my shoulder, Cheryl, who truly does love to read and has an open heart.

June 05, 2011

Go home to discover your memoir

In May I had the great pleasure to guest teach Joanne Glenn’s class on “Writing Memoir” at the Vienna Community Center in Virginia. I was hoping more of her students would contribute to this blog post, but two extraordinary women did. I made this offer to everyone in the class: Do this writing experiment (I guided them through it as a guided imagery free write—and they did love it!) and I will post on my blog 100 words of whatever you write.

The experiment you’ll see in a moment, but first I must tell you about another extraordinary event in my life that occurred simultaneously with Joann’s invitation and my visit. I grew up on Grantley Road in Baltimore. As I say in my memoir (Re)Making Love

“I grew up in a Baltimore row house with stairs to the second floor and stairs to the basement and a view from the front door to the back door and the clothes tree outside the door. My childhood house didn’t have hallways or a foyer. There was no place to hide anything or to hide. I could hear the neighbors when they argued and everything that everyone said inside my narrow house was fair game for anyone in the back, the front, up or down the stairs.”

Across the street lived Maxine Kahn, who (or should that be "whom"? Do we care?) you will meet today. I had not seen or heard from her since she moved away when we were both fifteen years old, and we were best, best friends: never-ending hours of Canasta gave proof to our love of cards—I went on to Bridge that nobody seems to play anymore—and to our ability to be with each other. She was my safe harbor when I was a child. Recently for some reason she decided to “google” me, found my website and me, and we’ve been corresponding ever since. And it turns out, that Maxine dabbles in poetry. Well, that’s what she calls it. I guess we’ll see about that.

What I am about to prove to you is that if you want to write a memoir, go home first. Here’s how you do it.

Here’s how Achamma Chandersekaran did it, first with my comments and then with her rewrite:

A Happy Home Full of Life

 We were the ‘singing family’-- My father and his 8 children. 

The scene I remember most is of us getting together to sing.  My father sat in his special chair with his favorite violin.   My brother, Joe, stood near a table as he didn’t like sitting down to play the violin.  My second brother, Thankan, had his flute and the youngest one, Marcel, sat on the floor to play the harmonium.  My sisters and I were the vocalists.   Oh, did we have fun! All the neighbors knew that we were all home for the holidays. 


This piece is very close to being. I struck through only one sentence. The reason is that the reader knows this. You need not state what you have proven through the details.

Now as to those details. They are marvelous, particularly the way Joe gets identified as not wanting to sit. We see where everyone is. I have a sense that it might help to “see” the father’s chair. Here’s why: Take your suitcase, as I like to say, and turn it into a painting. You’ve unpacked. Now look at what you’ve got as if it’s a canvas that you’ve begun. Take your writer’s brush and paint in again and again the details, all the concrete, small observations that make story live. The story is in the details.

But I am happy to publish this on my blog as is. Let me know about the strike through—something I think you should do—or if you want to add anything. I would title the piece simply “Singing,” for the same reason I give you for the strike through, but again this is your choice.

Here is Achamma’s rewrite:


We were the ‘singing family’-- My father and his 8 children. 

We were a unique family in the village and we did the singing as a family.  Girls singing in church was very unusual during those days. My father was the choir master and one of the very few in the village who could play a musical instrument.  One by one, as we grew up, we all joined the choir. Singing in the church got us into singing for any function that took place in the village. So the word ‘family’ is special to me.

The scene I remember most is of us getting together to sing. My father sat in his special chair with his favorite violin. My brother, Joe, stood near a table as he didn’t like sitting down to play the violin. My second brother, Thankan, had his flute and the youngest one, Marcel, sat on the floor to play the harmonium.  My sisters and I were the vocalists

All the neighbors knew that we were all home for the holidays. 

And here is how Evelyn Caballero did it:

Married to Market and Cooking

Mommy cooked every meal and always served Daddy first at the family table.  She went to market weekly buying fresh fruit, vegetables and fish for his favorite dishes.  She continued this habit after we left home, even when he at 89 became terminally ill.

No one knew he would leave us that late afternoon in May of 2010.  Mommy served him breakfast.  That evening she repeatedly said , “I greeted him then I went to the kitchen to cook his breakfast…

She never went to market and rarely cooked after Daddy died.  Daddy and Mommy were married 65 years.

Here is Evelyn’s piece with my edits:

Mommy cooked every meal and always served Daddy first at the family table. They were married 65 years.[I moved this up because it is basic info the reader needs quickly so that she knows how long Mommy did this.She went to market weekly buying fresh fruit, vegetables and fish for his favorite dishes.  She continued this habit after we left home, even when he at 89 became terminally ill.

No one knew he would leave us that late afternoon in May of 2010.  Mommy served him breakfast.  That evening she repeatedly said , “I greeted him then I went to the kitchen to cook his breakfast… .”

After he died, she stopped going to market. She didn’t cook. cooked after Daddy died.  Daddy and Mommy were married 65 years. 

All the changes here are to give punch to the ending and an echo to the opening line. The key metaphor here is cooking. Even though “rarely” cooked is more accurate, the writer can choose the stronger, more emphatic choice. In essence—meaning, sure she had to eat, but “cooking” was gone with your father—I suspect my phrase is pretty accurate. If not, don’t use it.

And here is Maxine Kahn’s poem. She didn’t do the free write, but she did go home to find her poem:

 Summer Nights in Baltimore

I remember summer nights in Baltimore
We were ten back then in 1956
Boys in crew-cuts
And girls in swinging pony tails and short summer dos
From early light til dark
We ran up and down hot city streets and sidewalks
Escaping the heat on cool, wet summer lawns
We jumped and twirled
In and out of rotating sprinklers
And small round plastic pools
That dotted backyard lawns
Innocent and joyous
We lept about in shorts and skimpy shirts
Arms and legs poking out, lean
Brown as chestnuts
From long hours spent under the sun
We ran in packs then, into the twilight – til dark
Our feet snug in nifty blue Keds, and white PF Flyers
Carrying empty mayonnaise jars
With holes punched into their lids
Air vents for our future captives – lightning bugs
Like shooting stars – elusive
Speeding by in the night sky
Lightning bugs -
Our nighttime summer companions – our prey
Flashing on and off like Christmas lights
Disappearing and reappearing in a blink
As if playing hide-and-seek with us
Trying to outwit us
But for the glory of the hunt
We persist
Our voices rising into the night sky
One after another, claiming victory in the chase
“I see one, over there….no,  there its goes…it’s over there….I got it”
“And there’s another…..I got that one.”
Shouts my next-door neighbor,  Ronnie Aaronson
As he quickly snatches a set of lit wings
Out of the dark, and into a small fist 
Pulsing with warm yellow light
And carefully transfers each glowing catch
Into a jar
Then another and another, again and again
Two, three, four …
All blinking on and off
A light show behind glass walls
We are mesmerized by the sight of it
These flaming jeweled wings
Warming and lighting their temporary glass homes
We come together to compare, to see
Who has the best catch of the night
We huddle closer
To view the accumulated light from our jars
Now reflected onto our faces
Distant voices edge into our circle of excitement
It is our parents, perched above the street
Observing from railed cement porches
Connected to
The long stretch of red brick row houses
That lined our beloved Grantley Road
Our parents,
Sitting and rocking back and forth
On squeaky metal gliders
Sipping cool summer drinks
Calling our names out
Across lawns and into the streets
Waving us home for the night
We resist the calls
Wanting to stay in our huddle of friendship
But, as darkness falls, we give up our night chase
And head home
Our precious cargo in hand, lighting the way

More on Maxine and home and memoir in an upcoming post.