Hanging Out with Thoreau and Hemingway

I like to have a little light summer reading on hand, nothing terribly controversial or heavy, so I picked up a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

Boy, that Hank can drone on, can’t he?  He’s been going on and on about how little it cost him to build that damn shack in the woods, all the while trying to convince me that the slop he was eating was perfectly satisfactory to him.  My bet is he was dying for a good steak.  I do appreciate his professed love of simplicity, though.  It got me to thinking about my own situation.  I’ve often grumbled about my tiny house in a not-very-good neighborhood.  Hank has brought my ungrateful attitude to my attention, for which I owe the Almighty a lavish apology.  He did make an interesting observation about writing:

“For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains.  However, in this case my pains were their own reward.”

I can relate, Hank.

Then there’s Hemingway.  I’m sort of giving Mr. Hemingway a second chance here. I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea in high school.  Unfortunately, high school English literature teachers have a nasty habit of ruining great books.  By the time he got done explaining all the symbolism that was going on, I had no idea what the story was about.  To this day, I can’t remember.  I honestly have to wonder if Hemingway had any idea his writing was so rife with symbols that it would have to be explained ad nauseum to a group of very bored teenagers.  Anyway, it turned me off Hemingway in a hurry.  I recently read an excerpt from A Moveable Feast and decided to give the guy another go, glancing over my shoulder periodically to make sure there isn’t a high school English lit teacher lurking nearby.  So far, I find myself liking the guy.

Summer reading in hand, I plan to make the upcoming holiday weekend one about reading new ideas and writing (hopefully) great stuff.

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The Riot on 17th Street

Pop Lenahan

In light of recent events, I’ve decided to repost this true story from June 2014. It’s the view from the other side of the badge through a child’s eyes.

THE RIOT ON 17TH STREET

Copyright 2014, MJ Belko

My great-grandfather, Pop Lenahan, bought a home on 17th Street in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn at the turn of the last century.  It was a two story red brick building on a block lined by brownstones.  Both of my parents grew up on that block not far from Prospect Park.  It was a beautiful neighborhood back then, full of immigrant families who took a first-time owner’s pride in their homes.  Such a thing would never have been possible  in the Old Country.  The sidewalks were paved with a smooth, dark gray stone flecked with sparkles.  The idea that the streets were paved with gold was more than a metaphor to the new arrivals.

The homes on 17th Street had postage stamp-sized backyards, backed by the occasional garage on the next street.  Pop Lenahan had fenced off the greater portion of his yard and planted a rose garden.  I never set foot in that garden while he was alive.  It was off limits to all of us.  Pop guarded that little garden with a possessiveness only an Irishman could understand after generations of his people being denied ownership of that much of their native soil.

Pop’s daughter, Annie, married Richard and they raised their six children in that house with Pop.  It was a typical Irish New York family—cops, firemen, and the occasional priest.

Sometime in the late sixties and early seventies, the old neighborhood changed, overrun by welfare recipients who had no respect for what they hadn’t earned.  One by one, the old timers left, driven out by the crime,  the filth, and the willful destruction.  Old Mrs. Pascoe, the landlady of  the brownstone my mother grew up in, was one of the holdouts.  A Polish immigrant, she had spent decades caring for the building she owned, getting down on her hands and knees every day to polish the wooden floors and railings.  But even she had to surrender after an angry tenant dangled the old woman by her wrists over the third floor railing one day.  But Pop Lenahan refused to go.  Annie, widowed by then, stayed with him.

Every summer, Annie’s brother Dan, a Maryknoll priest, came home for a visit.  His return was celebrated by a cookout attended by the whole family—an innumerable multitude of siblings, cousins, children, grandchildren, and in-laws.  That particular day turned ominous when uniformed cops began coming and going from the house during the day.  They didn’t stay to eat or visit. They quietly walked into the nursery at the end of the hall on the ground floor, stayed for a moment, and left.  I wanted to know what was going on but knew the adults wouldn’t tell me.  It was simply none of my business.  When no one was looking, I went in through the kitchen and peeked into the nursery.  Police riot gear was resting against the wall—shields, batons, and helmets.  I wondered, very briefly, why the gear was there; but the furtive behavior of the adults made it clear there would be no explanation.  My uncles were cops and fireman.  My late grandfather had been a cop.  They knew what they were doing.

The party broke up earlier than usual that year.  Most of the adults and children left, but we stayed behind.  We didn’t own a car and I imagine my mother didn’t want to risk taking six kids (including one still in a stroller) home on the subway in a dangerous neighborhood without my father.  My father, the eldest child, was not going to leave his grandfather and widowed mother alone to face whatever was coming.

As it got dark, my father ordered us all to stay in the backyard.  Most of the remaining adults moved nervously in and out of the house.  Finally, I learned what was happening.  A riot was about to begin.  I don’t know how the police knew about it so many hours before it began; but something had tipped them off, prompting the strategic placement of riot gear in the home of a cop’s widow.

The shouting began first, then the fires.  From the backyard, I could see the glow of the flames over the rooftops.  The houses had been built in a tight row, with no space between them where you could see the street.  I imagined the rioters, monsters to my young mind and not humans at all, scaling the front of the building and climbing down into the backyard.  I looked at my youngest brother, asleep in his stroller, then at the cinderblock back wall of the garage behind us, and wondered how we would carry him out of there if the rioters tried to get to us.  I knew my mother, who rarely left our apartment, would never make it over that wall.  My father was somewhere inside the house, probably on the upper floor with the rest of the adults.  We were on our own.

Curiosity finally overruled my father’s orders and I crept through the kitchen and hid behind the stairs at the end of the long front hall.  There was a cop standing in the vestibule watching the street through the wide open double doors.  My great uncle Dan, the priest, was standing next to him, casually dressed in khaki pants and a white T-shirt.  The survivor of a Japanese prison camp during World War II, he seemed unfazed by what he saw.  Outside was pure chaos.  Fires were burning, people were screaming, and men were running madly down the street toward something I couldn’t see.  If you had asked me then what a riot was, I’d have told you it’s when a bunch of angry people all start running in the same direction.

After standing there silently for a few minutes, the cop turned to my great uncle and said what remains my last memory of that night:

“Father, you better put your collar on.”

About That Writing Group…

A quick update.

I bit the proverbial bullet and went to the writing group I blogged about a couple of weeks ago. Though nasty weather and prior commitments made it a small gathering, I met some really nice people who are very supportive of one another.  It was great to sit and talk to other writers.

Because I’d never before had contact with other writers, I often felt like the Lone Ranger.  What a relief to meet with people who also struggle with ideas, rewrites, and busy schedules, but who love the craft too much to abandoned it as a hopeless dream.

I feel reenergized and can’t wait to get back to work on my current story.

Just As I Thought!

Putting the draft of that story in print really made its flaws obvious. In fact, it was so glaringly awful I felt compelled to type “first very rough draft” at the top of the page.  Anne Lamott expresses the fear that someone will find her first draft and read it before she has a chance to make any revisions, thereby convincing them that she’s a terrible writer. (By the way, if you haven’t read Bird by Bird, get a copy immediately; but finish reading this post first.)

As I explained in my last post, you have to get something down, no matter how choppy, or you won’t have anything to revise.  I did all that a few days ago and instantly knew I had a very long way to go, but the direction was clear.  After wrestling with this story for so long, I finally have that sense of having slipped into the proper groove.  You know the feeling.

Now, if I sit still for too long, the thyroid disease makes me nod off, so I decided to lie down.  Out of nowhere, I had an idea for the story that involved an alligator and a string of pearls. No time to explain, but it brought the plot into focus and my draft was quickly marked up with new ideas.  Unfortunately, the revision may require that I ditch the line and title that I began with and that sparked the initial idea for the story. I think someone called that “killing your darlings”.  No biggie. I can put those aside and use them another time and in the right groove.

Right now, the main character talks too much, the people around her need to say something, and I need to figure out where to put that alligator.

I Can Fix That Later

I’m exhausted, but in a good way. I spent yesterday wrestling with that stubborn story whose plot and format have danced just out of my reach for years. I’m happy to report I’ve identified the bones and laid them out in their proper configuration. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments to follow. Now I need to switch from scribbling wild notes on paper to sitting at the computer to create the setting. There are parts of a story I have to compose on the computer because my mind goes too fast for my pen to keep up.

This will by no means be the finished product. This is part of that “shitty first draft” we all know so much about but are often afraid to admit we write. I think I actually write a preliminary first draft and then a first draft, if that’s possible. I start with an initial concept and character and write out what I have in my head, then I take that information and start making sense of it. I love getting a draft down, printing it out, and then going at it with a red pen. I know some of you really hate revision, but I love it. I have something in front of me, crappy though it may be, that I can work on. It means I’ve moved from that staring into space stage to slipping deep into the words in front of me. It’s an amazing sort of self-hypnosis. The porch could be on fire and I wouldn’t notice.

Years ago, when I tried to write stories and failed, it was because I kept rewriting the first few lines, trying to make them perfect before moving on with the story. I murdered whatever inspiration put the pen in my hand to begin with.

When you put something on paper and print it out, you make it a lot easier for your creative mind to search for better words or more interesting descriptions. Once you’ve laid the foundation, which is very hard work, your mind is free to wander a little farther down the road to see what’s out there.

If you’re afraid to write your story down right now because it’s too scrawny and sickly for the world to see, get over it. Nobody has to see it right now. Take the time to feed it and care for it before you take it out for a walk. The crap you put on paper now can be worked into a wonderful piece of art if you tell your ego to shut up for a while and let your creative mind do the work it needs to do.

This is Awful

I spent the weekend working on a story that has been giving me trouble for years. I can’t settle on how to tell it.  I have the basic plot down and the main character, but I haven’t been able to move the story along.

In spite of my struggles, I know I have to write this story.  It’s been hanging around too long.  It won’t go away, though I’ve invited it to take a flying leap on several occasions.  This tells me there is a jewel in there somewhere.  I’ve just been digging in the wrong places.

I’ve never been this clueless about a story for so long.

Stubborn b***h that I am, I’m pressing ahead with the excavation, digging with my bare hands.  I’m writing the story down, knowing that this draft is awful and will have to undergo major surgery to make it work.  I read somewhere that you can’t edit what isn’t there, so I’m putting words on paper, forcing the story to take some sort of recognizable shape.  It will change again, perhaps many more times than it already has; but isn’t that what an embryo does? 

This is where a lot of aspiring writers fall by the wayside.  That initial flash of inspiration hits, but grinding out the details feels so much like work we are fooled into thinking that the inspiration is gone.  I used to think if the writing didn’t come easily, I wasn’t a good writer.  Not so, Writer Babes (and Bobs)!  The thinking, agonizing over words, trying a different voice, changing lines–that’s when the writing happens. 

The embryo takes shape over time and will not be rushed.  It will eventually emerge, but it will take heavy labor to get it out into the world.  Focus and breathe.

Not Sure I Did the Right Thing

OK, it’s nothing serious.  I found a local writing group and joined.  I’ve received several emails from them asking for an RSVP to their next meeting, but I haven’t replied.  I’m still not sure about getting together with a group of writers, let alone allowing anyone to critique my work; but like a lot of you, I find myself isolated much of the time.  Now, that’s usually not a problem for me.  I’m a loner by nature and generally don’t get along well with people.  I know it’s me and not them.  I just rub people the wrong way.  I don’t mean to.  But sometimes the isolation I prefer leaves me feeling disconnected in the sense that I’m not around anyone who understands the whole writing thing.

The next meeting is in two weeks, so I have plenty of time to think about going. I’m not sure what to expect. I’m not comfortable allowing other people to see and critique my work. I’ve heard bad things about writing groups, that there are people in them who think it’s their calling in life to tell everyone how much their work sucks. You know, the resident wet blanket. I don’t want my desire to write to be crushed by someone who has just had a bad day, doesn’t like my bumper sticker, or thinks my jeans are too tight. Is objectivity among writers (or any other group of humans) truly possible? I’m afraid of finding out through a soul-crushing experience.

My other major concern is that there seem to be so few people writing picture books. Most seem to be into novels or poetry. Writing picture books is incredibly hard. If you don’t agree, I invite you to give it a try. Trying to bounce ideas off another adult is tough because most adults have forgotten how to think like a child. A picture book story just doesn’t grab their attention.  It may come off as too simplistic or silly. Unfortunately, picture books seem to be the bastard stepchild of the writing world. I once complained to Writer’s Digest that they were neglecting a very difficult genre. They replied that they would be featuring more articles about writing picture books in the future. What they did was reprint a section from a book about writing picture books that I already had on my shelf. It’s also the one genre that agents and publishers seem most determined to talk writers out of pursuing.

My paranoid reservations aside, curiosity will probably compel me to attend the next meeting (if my husband can get the car home to me in time) and see how it goes. I hope all my fears are unfounded.

Have you ever belonged to a writing group? What was your experience?

I’ve Never Had a Vacation

Well, summer has finally arrived (even in Michigan!) and everyone is planning a vacation.  This got me to thinking.  In my entire adult life, I’ve never taken a vacation.  I mean a real vacation, not the kind where you take time off to travel to another state for a wedding or family reunion.  That’s busy time.  Everyone wants to see you.  Everyone makes plans for you.

What I find myself craving is some time completely alone, maybe at a cabin in the woods.  A few days when I don’t have to worry about making dinner, letting the dog out, or setting an alarm.  Watching the sun rise.  Quiet, muggy afternoons sitting in a rocker on the porch and listening to the insects buzzing past.  Pointlessly strolling through the woods.  Reading Thoreau and Frost.  Letting my brain quietly soak in everything around me without trying to attach a story to it.  Not having to hold up my end of the conversation.  Just “being” for a while.

Financially, this is impossible right now, so I’ll have to create my own cabin experience right here at home.  No forest retreat, but a lawn chair in the shade will do if I get out there before the neighborhood kids are out and the lawnmowers start up.  It’s a bit of a drive, but there’s a wonderful biking/hiking trail I know of where the sound of traffic gradually disappears, and you can hear the birds so clearly it almost startles you.  If I miss the morning birds because I have to be at my computer, I have a CD of morning songbirds I can play over and over again.  Not ideal, I know; but if I can’t use my imagination to restore balance to my own mind, I can’t expect to use it to bring make believe to a child.

What will your retreat look like this summer?

I’m Hiding My Blog

My friends and family (with the exception of my very supportive husband) don’t know I have a blog.  Most don’t even know I write stories and want to be published.  We have a long tradition in my family of being as unsupportive of one another as possible.  Sad, I know.  I put a story up on my Facebook page a while back and left it there for a few weeks.  I got one “like” from a cousin, but nobody else bothered to read or comment on it.  I should’ve known better, I guess.  I actually dread what they would say in the comment section of this blog if they knew it existed.  Makes me very grateful for those of you who follow here and hit “like”.  For my part, I’m reading as many blogs as I can, though their number sometimes overwhelms me.  So much to choose from.

I’m puzzled by the motivation of people who consistently tear other people down.  Is it jealousy?  Is it because we have the guts to stick our necks out and pursue our dream and they don’t?  Are they afraid we might actually succeed?  Maybe they think their harsh words serve as a reality check, intended to prevent us from going too far with this writing thing and getting knocked on our asses.  Do they think they’re doing us a favor?

I have a very simple way of dealing with people who want to sow destruction and discouragement into my life.  I simply limit my contact with them or cut it off entirely if the situation is bad enough.  Creativity is a delicate thing.  It’s most easily crushed by those closest to us.  Sometimes what they offer is not an honest critique but an emotional response based on our relationship with them.  Recognize that.  I think we sometimes confuse the two and end up with an unfair and unrealistic assessment of our work.  It takes time to recover from something like that, time that would be better spent writing.

What has been your experience when sharing your work with family and close friends?  Do you face derision from them or do you get encouragement?  Are they too supportive, afraid to give you anything but praise?  How do you handle it?