Finding the time…

On the rare occasions when I venture out to speak publicly about my writing, I am always asked: “How do you find the time to write?” I always answer politely, but it seems the most inane question in the world. If you want, or need, to do something, the time is always there. Period.

What complicates a writer’s life is all the other stuff you have to cram alongside into it: Family, friends, gainful employment, eating, sleeping…  And sometimes it seems as if there is no time for the novel or even a journal entry. But there is. It’s just that one of those other things has to go. Usually, sleeping…

Now that my trip to the Connecticut seashore is over, I find, to my dismay, that my plans for an idyllic summer have been completely upended, due to a change in my employment status. Though my books always manage to rake in plenty of review stars, I can’t live off my royalties just yet. I’m making a lateral move in the field of retail education, and will now be teaching English to adults instead of children. Not sure how I feel about this: I loved my kids, but frankly, the learning center job had become less about English, and more like day care duty: taping band-aids to picked-over scabs, wiping noses, shushing the constant chatterboxes,  breaking up fights…and let’s not talk about the not-quite-toilet-trained four-year-old. Plus, a crushing load of paperwork: workbook corrections, progress charts, checklists, attendance charts, all with deadlines. I had sixty-four students, and I felt that the center directors, however kind they were to me, were exploiting me. I was coming home completely exhausted, too tired to write! And we can’t have that, so I had begun looking around. And a new opportunity came along much more quickly than I thought it might.

So it looks like the new opportunity will be dominating the rest of my summer, though I will be returning to part-time status—or so I’m promised—in the fall, just in time to bring out the new book. And start the next, maybe…I’m being encouraged to write a Merton book, even though personally, I think there may be enough books about him out there. We’ll see.

But there will be a novel. It’s done! Well, the first draft, anyway.  The novel I began at Gethsemani Abbey library was completed in a little beach house in Old Lyme, Connecticut—at a big table in the middle of the house, while members of my extended family—my mother, my father, my brothers (my sisters had already left), nephews and niece came and went and monitored my progress with amusement. I told you I could write anywhere!

“Is it done yet, Aunt Kathy?” That was my nephew Jack, taking a break from a crabbing tournament. And I was happy to tell him, finally, yes.

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about those book “shots”

So I started my day by reading the Washington Post online in bed, which is not always such a good idea, since there is guaranteed to be at least one article that will set me off. Today it was author James Patterson’s announcement of a new book format which would present very short, sparse outline-like fiction in digital form for today’s busy readers. Now I’m not going to rant about Mr. Patterson and his work, because I’ve never read anything he’s written, but what I’ve read about him makes me think I would not, or could not, be a big fan of his. I know his background is in advertising, which to me, does not bode well for the creation of great literature.

I’m just trying to wrap my head around the idea of quickie fiction. Is this really what readers want?  No character development, no splendid lyrical writing, no thorny issues or ideas to chew on…just plot, basically. Tell me a bedtime story, Mom. Is that it? Quick comfort reading, nothing too complicated and nothing even resembling real life, God forbid, which is just too messy, disconcerting, difficult and emotionally charged. And there we have it, the difference between ordinary ‘popular’ fiction and literature.

Now readers of Mr. Patterson’s brand of ‘lite’ fiction are never going to be reading this blog, so I don’t know why I’m even writing this. I know I’m preaching to the choir—and a glorious choir it is! But I feel compelled to cry out against the continuing erosion of American literature. Fiction writers have always been subject to the whims of a cruel marketplace, but come on…this kind of virulent mass-marketing of careless fiction is just a slap in the face to people who take their craft seriously. I just feel I have to make a feeble protest every now and then.

Mr. Patterson is a very, very rich man. Readers, I don’t want to put any burden on you, but think about how you spend those book-buying dollars. A few dollars will mean nothing to Patterson and his kind, but for a serious, struggling writer, particularly an independent writer, each dollar is a vote of support and confidence. And if you don’t know what a good book is versus junk, then start reading book reviews for heaven’s sake. The long-form versions that appear in blogs, newspapers and magazines, not the blips that turn up on Amazon and Goodreads. (And attention traditional newspapers and magazines: Start reviewing more independent work, you dinosaurs!)

That is all. You may now return to your summer reading. Something good, I hope…

Confectionary metaphors

This is a distinctly un-serious post, but a delicious one. This is a post about the most indulgently sinful candy you will ever have the privilege to eat. It has become the central metaphor in my new novel, an edible representation of forbidden desire. It’s fudge, but not just any ordinary fudge—which as a rule, has not been my favorite treat: I confess, I am more of a gumdrop and jelly-bean sort of girl. It seems  whenever I’ve tried various types of fudge (on the Jersey boardwalk, on Mackinac Island, the farm-stand, even at the best candy stores), it always seems to have a weird stale aftertaste, or not much taste at all. And sometimes I find the texture disturbing, so it’s something I usually skip.

On my trip to Gethsemani Abbey last spring, my friend the West Virginia priest told me to check out their famous fudge. He orders pounds of it at Christmastime to send to other pastors and friends. Well, I wasn’t necessarily going on retreat in search of candy.  But one day after lunch, several plates appeared in the dining room, with little beige and dark brown squares I assumed to be samples of the monastery’s famous confection. So as an afterthought, I tried one. And WOW!

The secret, you see, of Gethsemani’s outstanding fudge is the real Kentucky bourbon they apparently pour into it. It’s like a little solid mixed drink. Mixed with fresh milk and butter, plus excellent quality chocolate, it’s quite extraordinary. If you could have mouth orgasms, this would probably do it. You can only eat a very small quantity at a time—too much of it would probably kill you. But you likely could not afford to binge on it, because a pound of it will set you back at least two Benjamins.

So when I got home, I found myself thinking about that amazing fudge, and how I could replicate it at home. Because somehow, it found its way into the novel I am writing; I created a minor character, a runaway from a monastery who had been its ‘fudge-monk.’ So I turned to my cookbook collection, and then to the Internet, culling as many recipes as I could find for fudge with liquor mixed in. I decided not to copy Gethsemani’s superb version (and not ‘waste’ any of the luscious bottle of ‘very old’ bourbon I had purchased out in Bardstown), and instead turned to my own heritage, using Irish whiskey instead. Now, you can do the same, since I’m not about the divulge my final recipe here. For one thing, I have not yet perfected it. I’ve made about four batches so far—only one was a complete disaster–but I haven’t hit on the magic formula yet. Fudge is pure chemistry, involving variables of heat, time and motion. There are the ‘shortcut’ versions involving confectioner’s sugar and such, but I’m convinced true fudge has to be cooked. One of my problems is my balky electric stovetop, which doesn’t keep the mixture at an even temperature. And the timing—if you’re off by a minute, you end up with some sticky, gluey substance that refuses to solidify. But if you’re going to try it, here are some tips: Use the best chocolate you can find, not the chips on sale at Shop-Rite. Use brown sugar instead of white;  condensed milk instead of fresh—but fresh butter, absolutely.  And I’m not totally convinced on the necessity for corn syrup—it doesn’t seem to make a difference for me. The whiskey (or bourbon or whatever) should be added at the final stirring, or it will cook away.

When I figure out the best recipe, I will publish it in the new book! In fact, I’ll write a scene about it: How’s that for incentive to buy it!

My summer with Tom

Moving on from overly pious men…I am spending the summer with my old flame, Thomas Merton, in a very pleasant capacity. I am actually writing several commissioned articles about him, as my involvement with the ITMS (the International Thomas Merton Society—the New York City chapter) grows. Next month I will be traveling up to my alma mater, Saint Bonaventure, to visit the Merton Archives there and prepare an article I’m writing for an upcoming Merton Seasonal ahead of the national ITMS convention that will be held up there in 2017. So you see, I don’t just write dirty novels! Or hang out on the Strip in Vegas.

Tom was a bit overly pious, in his early days as a passionate convert to the Church, as a young monk, but eventually he shook off the narrowly unquestioning devotion to become a seeker and challenger, questioning not only his faith but the actions of the outside world as well, the injustice of racism and wasteful futility of war. Bear in mind that he is now a writer highly favored by our current Pope. I’m writing now of his mission, and the paradox of his working and agitating for a better world, while behind the enclosure of Gethsemani Abbey.

This all relates to that gloomy, blustery afternoon back in early April, when I sat, all alone, at his grave at that hillside at Gethsemani and felt that spiritual connection to him. My question that week was, how is this man relevant to me and my life, and since then, I’ve been trying to work it out the best way I know how. By writing about him. And that in turn is feeding my own vocation.

Merton was a prolific writer—he wrote books, he wrote poetry, he wrote letters and letters and letters. At the learning center where I work, I battle with students’ parents over the writing essays I assign. They say I am not ‘critical enough’ of their children’s work, and that I should be whipping them into shape as expert writers. But I’m simply trying to encourage my children to write, period. For some, it’s a battle just to get one coherent sentence on a page. I want them to just write, and write; to write at length and grow comfortable with the pen in their hand, and maybe look forward to writing some more. I don’t want them to hate or fear it, but embrace it as a necessary and comforting skill, even if it is imperfect, now. It will surely improve. And through Merton I see that such prolific output does indeed polish one’s skill and lead to greatness. I see it as I progress in chronological order through his life, and watch his prose transform and mature through the decades, through his voluminous journal and letters and published books. By the time he’s in his fifties, it’s a nimble, almost weightless, effortless sort of thing, yet sparkling and clear, this writing, best showcased, I think, in his extraordinary poems.

And I try to follow his example, and write as much as I can, when I’m not teaching or reading. Even after decades of doing this, I feel like I’m not quite ‘there’ yet, and I’m sure Merton felt the same way. A great writer should probably never think he’s reached his summit yet, but continually strive for the top.

This writing I’m doing now about Merton is a joy, because I know there are editors and readers waiting for it, there’s an audience for it, it has a definite sense of purpose my fiction writing doesn’t. But I’m trying to carry over the joy and lessons of it into my own work, which has been slipping into discouraging patches in recent days. Just breathe; just write; just live. That is going to be my mantra, for the rest of the summer, at least.

On Pious Men

It is very amusing to me that with the Novice Master, the criticisms about its sexual content (being gratuitous) are coming from men, while my female readers seem fine with it. With Secret Vow, it was the exact opposite, although that was twenty years ago. I can only conclude women have become more relaxed and comfortable with their sexuality, while maybe some men are regressing! But this idea of slightly prudish men turns out to be a very timely topic for me, since it is one of the themes in the novel I am currently working on.

My protagonists are two ladies of a certain age (OK, they’re in their 50s), who have been married forever to a set of best friends.  They are—as I know from experience, being a lady of certain age myself—changing in a good way as they age, becoming freer to express thoughts and longings, more comfortable with themselves and their sexuality (and that urge doesn’t necessary go away after menopause but sometimes gets stronger!) They are also struggling with identity issues, empty-nest syndrome, and society’s tendency to ignore and even denigrate older women.  Alas, females do often become invisible when they turn fifty. I was hoping that was a myth, but it happens to me all the time.

But back to my novel: These ladies have been married to very good, upstanding, decent men, men who not only grew up together on the same street, but spent a year at seminary together before realizing they had vocations to marry, not preach. So they are uber-Catholics, God-fearing men, but rigid and pious in the extreme. They are dismayed by the changes in their wives, and don’t want them to be quite so interested in sex!  Alas, they are not good lovers, because any kind of erotic adventuring seems sinful and immoral to them, even if it involves their own wives. And of course they want their wives to be completely devoted to them and their lives and interests, and not go off having interests of their own. They are no end of trouble for their more free-wheeling wives and not surprisingly, this has evolved into a comic novel.  It was always funny, in the old Marx Brothers’ movies, to see the staid matron shocked and outraged; and I realized this holds true for certain stiff-necked men, too. My male characters are not villains, but basically sweet, loving—if a bit overbearing and authoritarian–men hobbled by Church-dominated childhoods and moral rules concerning the body that were crafted in the 5th century by rampant misogynists.   Wouldn’t think you’d find such men in the year 2016, but trust me, there’s still more than a few of them out there. And I don’t offer any quick fixes for this dilemma–obviously my married pairs would have to seek marriage counseling at some point. Just assume that they do after the book concludes.

Let me just point out for the record that my own good Catholic husband somehow managed to transcend all that nonsense! (Thank God…literally!)

My poor boys are constantly being shocked and outraged, but I will console more sensitive readers with the news that there are no explicit sex scenes in this new book, only a lot of talk about it. And by the way…the word ‘gratuitous’ did pop up in a review I got this week—I was actually denied a star because of it, the enforcer-reviewer (a man!) had to let me know. I’ve already discussed all this in former blogs, so you know I don’t see or accept that word as a criticism of my work. It only tells me one particular reader’s lack of comfort with honest depictions of sexual activity, and frankly that makes no difference to me. My mission as a writer requires absolute fidelity to my own vision, and I’m not going to start backing down now.  Because I happen to be a woman of a certain age…

The Old Summer Writing Program

I used to be a winter writer. Summer was set aside for play and travel, and come September, I would buckle down and try to get serious about my prose. But for the last few years, I’ve been mostly a summer writer. Though I write all year round, it seems I’m most inspired when the weather is warm and the living is easy. Winter is perfect for hibernation and reading other people’s stuff; but in summer, I want nothing more than to tote the laptop onto the front porch, and bang out a couple thousand words.

I’m lucky in that I don’t need complete silence or privacy for my work. It’s a quirk developed, I think, from growing up in a large family and a small house, in a busy urban neighborhood. I can write anywhere—on a beach, a Manhattan subway, and even at work (though during test time, not while I’m teaching). But my favorite place is my porch, which fronts a busy street and a playground. I’ve learned to focus deeply when I write, in a kind of trancelike way, so that I can completely enter the world of my characters, but my surroundings give me just enough grounding in the real world to help me gently out of that trance: the babies crowing in the swings across the street, the cheeping of the birds who built a nest in one of my candle sconces, the endless parade of neighbors walking their dogs—and of course I frown a little at the dogs who linger a little too long in my front garden. And if an occasional neighbor clambers up on the porch for a chat, I don’t mind; I’m usually ready for a break anyway. I almost need the presence of others to write—again, a predilection from growing up in a house and neighborhood where I was never alone.

But I still need a bit of peace and quiet from time to time. I am not happy about the rise of the big lawn services in our little neighborhood—we don’t use one since our lawn is mostly a collection of small, interesting weeds rather than actual grass. But we do have neighbors who crave that perfectly manicured lawn, and are will to shell out big bucks to maintain it. Then come the huge deafening mowers and trimmers and leaf blowers, and I have to go back in, my ears ringing. If I ever need help with our landscaping, I’m just going to find a good man with a rake.

So that is my personal summer writing program. Still have to work afternoons teaching English, but I’ll just be hanging out in the morning on the porch, happily churning out book #6. And trying not to think about autumn, when I’ll have to decide what to do with the finished product.

The Desert in Bloom

On the last day of our quixotic journey West, we rented a car and took off into the desert—The Mojave Desert itself, Red Rock Canyon more specifically. It was a balmy 105 degrees Fahrenheit, but surprisingly bearable. I even did a bit of hiking, because I wanted to see some Native American petroglyphs, written high on a rock wall. I always like to check out other people’s art, and went away both moved and impressed. You can’t help but think of the people here before, the native tribes, who called this severe land home. It’s a fierce and unforgiving place, but I can see how you could come to love it with a passion: the magnificent colors and textures of the rocks and stone, the sharp blue canopy of endless sky, the brave and stubborn greenery provided by mesquite and cacti. When I was there, the cacti were erupting in flowers, beautiful and delicate apricot-gold blossoms. Life seems to find a way, almost everywhere on earth.

I understand now where the desert gets its reputation for spirituality. There is little there but earth and sky, you and God. A bit of sparse vegetation, a few critters such as snakes and scorpions, but really not much in the way of distraction. There is nothing to do but hike, look for water…and pray. The utter vastness, the bigness of it all suggests both eternity and its creator; and as the only humans out there—I guess we went on a slow day—it was easy to feel humble and small. A friend had told us that night was the best time of all, that the stars were magnificent; but alas, by nightfall, we were already in transit back to the East,  up in the sky ourselves with the stars.

And now back in the relatively cool, humid East, with its limited vistas, I feel a little crestfallen, looking at the pictures I took over and over again, remembering almost fondly the ovenlike heat and the crunch of rock underfoot (under the superbly impractical flip-flops I actually wore). Walking the Las Vegas strip was fun and diverting; but walking the desert was a true experience of the spirit and the soul, one I won’t forget for a very long time.

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