Back to the red-pencil brigade

Like most writers, I can’t live off doing what I love, so I am always looking for other forms of income that complement my writing, but don’t impede it too much. I had hoped at this stage in my life to be writing full-time, but alas, the economic reality is that I’ll keep chasing after gainful employment the rest of my life. If I have any regrets, it’s that I did not ignore my overbearing father and study English Literature in college, instead of Journalism, and then go into academia, which would have been much more suitable to my temperament, as well as a kind  of economic backbone. Instead I worked for years as a New York City editorial drone, who got to write an occasional blurb or headline. It took a few decades, but eventually I was able to segue into freelance editing, which kept me afloat while I wrote my fiction. But then the recession and big downturn in the publishing industry made this kind of work impossible to find, even in the NYC area. So I tried a different tack: the commercial teaching of English.

I began my teaching career in the notorious field of SAT tutoring, and I have nothing good to say about that industry, which pays its teachers pathetically low salaries for the thankless job of getting some precious child into a “good” college, using abominably bad syllabi and materials (Yeah, pretty much impossible). From there I moved on to working with immigrant children, which was more rewarding, if not better paying; and then on to teaching adults business English, which again, not as well paying as it should be. The sad truth about monolithic corporate educational endeavors is that you will never be paid enough to live on; you’re better off setting up shop on your own. But now I’m coming to the end of my relatively brief teaching career, and will be returning to freelance editing, because, surprise, there are paying jobs available again. Not only that, I am being offered work out of the blue, so I guess it’s time to make the move—not up or down, but a little backwards.

I have to admit, I’m not crazy about the editing process, which can be lonely, tedious and a constant reminder of your own writing, laying there, waiting. I really enjoyed teaching, I liked the idea that it got me away from the computer, and that I was connecting in a meaningful way with other human beings. But beyond financial issues, there were geographical problems to contend with:  It’s pretty likely we will move out of New Jersey at some point in the near future. And this final position involved a great deal of commuting to odd corners of the state: Frankly, I am sick of all that driving, which around here, is not so much fun. I kept hearing the siren call of my next novel as I tried to concentrate on the highway and traffic. And I also admit, I’ve gotten way too attached to the shiny new office complex where I teach, with its spiffy cafeterias continually offering specialty teas and coffees, and elegant lounges. But go I must. I can only hope my students forgive me, for leaving them. If I do teach English again, it will be on a purely volunteer basis, and not for money.

So, on to the red-pencil brigade, although nowadays editing is mostly done on Microsoft Word with digital sticky notes. I do have a least one client who likes old fashioned paper and ink, however. But first will come a bit of a summer travel break: Back down Pensacola way, to see mom and that dad who strong-armed me into journalism; then back to the Enchanted Mountains (pictured above; that photo is, precisely, Merton’s Heart, just south of Allegany, NY). And then later in the summer, a journey to the setting of my new mystery novel—which is not set in New Jersey. Where? That’s a mystery for now…

The Gospel of Details

Continuing with my self-imposed Mystery 101 course with Prof. Chesterton, I’ve been reading and re-reading many of his stories, and what amazes me is the sheer amount of detail, much of which is essential to the solution of the mystery. I’m also charmed with his formatting—a mediocre mystery, I realize, is one that simply keeps dropping clues until the climax, or resolution, is finally reached at the end. Chesterton, on the other hand uses all kinds of plot devices and distractions and never really follows a straight line from A to Z. Sometimes the culprit is revealed well before the end, and we’re left pondering the mystery of how it was all achieved. Without the many voluminous details he gives us—some of which are unimportant but others crucial in figuring out the solution, this kind of ziggy-zag plotting would never really work.

Now I certainly think Chesterton is an acquired taste, especially these days. Some readers (like myself) happily wallow in myriad details, storing them and sorting them all out as we go along; but others find them tedious or overwhelming. It’s a lot like decorating a house: Some of us are minimalists, others of us want to cover every inch of wall space. But most of us, I think, fall somewhere in the middle, which is what I’m aiming for in my mystery novel.

Details are an important tool for a mystery writer, and perform several different functions. The first, as I mentioned, helps flesh out the plot and give credence to the solution (“Oh yeah, that dark stain on the library floor…”). Details, particularly physical detail about a person’s appearance, are also a kind of shorthand, so instead of writing paragraphs full of description, you can just use a few strong details, concentrating on what is most noteworthy about the person: Is he missing an eye? Is she quick to anger, or wearing too much makeup? That sort of thing, and let the reader judge from there. And lastly, detail adds authenticity, real-ness, but it has to be presented in a unique, not boring and hackneyed way, i.e., “He had deep blue eyes,” or “She wore a red felt hat.” They are like little points of light, or illumination. Not all of it has to relate to the conclusion of the story, but some of the details must.

This is all what I call tapestry writing, and maybe mysteries make the most vivid tapestries of all. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, you have to look close at all the little scenes and people, and then step back to appreciate the work as a whole. So this should give you some clue as to where I’m going with my own book. I may be writing to market, in an established genre that won’t be considered literary. But I’m not writing anymore for attention, reputation and acclaim, but just for fun—and to keep the arteries in my brain from shutting down!

Mystery of the mystery

This week, I attended a fascinating program at Seton Hall University based on G.K. Chesterton’s beloved ‘Father Brown’ character (thanks to ‘Graceful Grammarian’ Maura Harrington Logue, for alerting me!). It included a staged  reading of ‘The Invisible Man,’ with commentary following by two Chesterton experts. It sent me right home to reacquaint myself with Mr. Chesterton, who I had not read since I was in college. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, I am dipping a toe into the mystery genre, but found myself daunted at the prospect of facing a whole new type of audience, probably less forgiving than the one I have now. An audience who, I was sure, would see my attempts as amateurish, feeble or just muddled and uninteresting.  I worried that my plot was too artificial, or too easy to unravel, but how complex and layered does a plot have to be? There were also style considerations: I may be writing for genre, but I want the language to be sound; I want the book to flow naturally, and the characters to be vivid, the setting colorful, but not too distracting.

Fortunately, Chesterton provides much guidance for the would-be mystery writer, not only through the many outstanding stories he produced himself, which are so entertaining you forget the craft behind them, but also in little primers he wrote about the art of mystery and detective writing. In these I’ve found much support and encouragement. In “How to Write a Detective Story” (from his Weekly, Oct. 17, 1925) he outlines several basic principles to begin with: “The first and fundamental principal is that the aim of a mystery story…is not darkness, but light,” as he compares the resolution, or climax, of the story to the breaking of the dawn. In other words, you are working toward the reader’s epiphany,  by intentionally leaving him or her in the dark in the pages preceding. From darkness to dawn: That alone seems the simplest, yet most  effective plan for creating a mystery.

But…don’t go overboard. “The second great principal…is not complexity, but simplicity. The secret may appear complex (my italics, not his) but it must be simple; and in this also is a symbol of higher mysteries.”  Moreover, when the secret or mystery is finally revealed, it should be perfectly obvious, and not require all kinds of explanation, as seems so common on television mysteries I’ve seen. It’s as if you don’t trust the reader or viewer to completely figure it out on their own; you deny them their moment of epiphany, or sunrise.

Thirdly, the culprit (or criminal) should be in the foreground, “not in the capacity of a criminal but in some other capacity which nevertheless gives him the natural right to be in the foreground.” Well, of course! But sometimes a culprit is brought in halfway through (which immediately makes them suspect), or even toward the end; and sometimes he or she is so obviously the culprit there’s no point in continuing.

One of the interesting aspects of the Father Brown series (the stories and books, not the TV series, which I find lacking) is that “higher mystery” that Chesterton alludes to. When you introduce the idea of ethics and morality, it adds an interesting layer to the narrative, the characters and even adds to the suspense: Does the “good” character have a dark side, or does the bad guy surprisingly have a conscience? One of the things pointed out at the Chesterton presentation was that Father Brown rarely turns to government or police authorities for aid, and doesn’t necessarily turn his culprits in for civil punishment. A story might close with him talking to the murderer or criminal, perhaps offering consolation and illumination. Very interesting…

Talk about food for thought. Chesterton has given me a banquet, which I intend to consume over the next few week, in small but steady bites…

Moving on…

In the third month of 2018, my “new narrative” has already gotten bogged down, eclipsed by events both delightful and miserable. I was deeply distracted by my alma mater’s improbable rise to national prominence, which, alas, ended last night in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Those events provided some invaluable pre-publicity for my upcoming book on Father Irenaeus and the St. Bonaventure campus; but it kept me from getting a lot of work done. And we have been negatively impacted, along with the rest of the entire Northeastern United States, by the relentless series of ‘nor’easters’ that continue to dump thick wet snow on everything in sight. St. Patrick’s Day was usually the day I’d plant my peas, but there’s still a good eight or ten inches of snow sitting on my garden bed right now, so that’s not happening anytime soon.

Our downsizing plans have taken a hit too, but for good reasons: My husband has been getting some local short-term work, which makes moving out west a bit impractical right now. So we are simply moving those plans ahead to the latter part of the year, or maybe to next year, who knows? Go with the flow, as they say. Preparing our home for resale, it turns out, is a chore of epic proportions and it may take until next year to get it into presentable shape. For us, sometimes, nothing is easy. But we must keep moving on…and so, even this turn of events leads to another opportunity.

I said I would not write another book just yet, but it turns out I was fibbing. I have started another book, mostly to amuse myself. It’s not only fiction, but it’s genre fiction! Yes, I have succumbed to non-literary temptation. I have always, secretly, loved mystery novels, the more complex the better, and so decided to try my hand at it. I’m finding it absolutely irresistible, like putting together one of those 1200-piece jigsaw puzzles, struggling to fit everything satisfyingly in place.  I’m even wondering if it will evolve into a series,  though I  thought my next book would be another serious non-fiction work. And of course I’m going to self-publish it, because I already know exactly what I want the cover to look like, and how to market it effectively. I’m planning to release it under a pen name—not because I’m embarrassed about it, but because I think mysteries sell better under androgynous names, where you don’t know the gender of the author. It also creates a little mystery of its own, although my most loyal readers will probably figure out very quickly that it’s me.

I had carried around the idea for this book for almost a year, all through the writing of the biography, but kept pushing it to the back of my brain. I actually had the entire thing plotted out in my head by the end of February and then decided, what the hell, might as well pour it into the laptop. In two weeks, I’ve written over 17,000 words (17,835 to be exact) so I guess it’s a reality now. But I do find myself thinking a lot about the genre in general now—and all the crazy arcane classifications and subheadings for it these days—trying to figure out precisely where my little book will fit in. Also working hard to put some of my best writing into it as well; although plot takes primacy here, there’s no reason there can’t be a little pretty language thrown in as well.

Meanwhile, there’s another nor’easter predicted for next week, so I should have plenty of time to work on it…

March madness: The man who was a fan

One of the most gratifying things about writing Called to Serve, my biography of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, was being able to document his friendship and spiritual influence on the writers Thomas Merton and Robert Lax. The man who had been a high-school drop-out and shipyard worker from Camden, NJ, became a great scholar and historian in his own right. But he was also a crazy, almost fanatic, college basketball fan, which I think is one of the most endearing, and human, things about him.

You would not think a man who created a 43-volume bibliography of the Franciscan Order would have much time to follow basketball, but I remember seeing him at the games, when I was a student. He would be standing by the either the front or back entrance of St. Bonaventure’s Reilly Center, close to the court, dressed in his brown Franciscan robes, his arms tightly folded, watching the game with intense, almost grim interest. When he got older, he would leave at the half, and listen to the rest of the game on the radio, claiming a too-close game was hard on his heart. I didn’t realize how much the team meant to him until I went through his letters and a small diary he kept, when he traveled through Europe for several months in the 1960’s—during the basketball season. The diary is filled with events both charming and moving (Visiting Rome and the Vatican, his birthplace in Alsace, then cold-war Berlin) but through the whole thing, he frets about not being able to “get the scores” of his college’s team. The diary actually closes–after a rather poetic description of riding the night train through the darkness of rural Pennsylvania–with this aside: “Finally got the score on that Niagara game from Joe Magnano.”

His letters to the poet Lax, living on an isle in Greece, are peppered with references to the Bonnie’s team, rivals and games: In one of his responses, Lax writes as a postscript: “Too bad about the ECAC,” which refers to the old East Coast Athletic Conference, perhaps a tournament game that was lost badly.  To Merton, Father restrains himself and doesn’t mention the team much until one letter, written in the 1960s, when he describes in considerable detail the construction of the new gym and basketball court to be named Reilly Center, something he was obviously quite excited about. Merton graciously replies that he might no longer recognize the campus if he were to return.

I think the most poignant story was from at the very end of his life: He worked every day until the day he died, showing up at his office in the library to work on his vast correspondence. In a letter he wrote to a friend and library philanthropist, Samuel Lasser, on January 27, 1981—written the day before he died, and perhaps the last letter he ever wrote—he joyfully mentions, after a discussion of a lost invoice, the Bonnie’s triumphant victory at home the night before over long-time upstate New York rival Syracuse.

As I was writing this part of the book in late 2017, the Bonnies had just defeated Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, and the commentators made much of the fact that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim had once vowed never to return and play the Bonnies at Reilly Center, after a particularly humiliating loss. I looked up the date of the game, and sure enough…it was the very game Father Irenaeus had been talking  about in his final letter to Sam Lasser.  Hmmmm….coincidence? Or as Father himself would say, the Divine Hand of Providence? (the deity, not the city or college basketball team)  Still, I can’t help but imagine his spirit imbuing the Bonnie’s rather meteoric season this year, which Father must be utterly thrilled about, wherever in the cosmos he is now. Should the Bonnie make the Final Four, perhaps we can post it as Father’s first miracle toward canonization…

Postscript, 3/11/17: Well, the Bonnies did get into the Big Dance this year, just barely, and somewhere Father Irenaeus is smiling. A little: he’s not really happy about the play-in nonsense or the seeding…





Louisville Epiphany


Being a riverside dweller, I can’t help but be moved by the plight of those living along the Ohio River right now. In fact, just a month ago, I drove along the “Scenic Ohio River Byway” in Southern Indiana, on my way from Cincinnati to Louisville, and I’m pretty sure the road I drove along is mostly underwater now, as well as much of the Louisville waterfront. I was there, too,  doing some sightseeing, and it was there that I also suffered a small, rather comical, mishap. But at least it came with a little revelation.

When I was at the Thomas Merton Archive at Bellarmine University, I picked up a bookmark describing Merton’s “Louisville Epiphany.” At the corner of Fourth and Walnut Streets, he writes (in his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) of being overwhelmed with the realization that “I loved all those people and they were mine and I was theirs…” Which seems at odds with his determination to live a life of solitude, but there it is. I decided before leaving Louisville, I would have to go and see this fabled spot, but getting downtown from Bellarmine was no easy matter, especially late on a weekday afternoon. Even with the directions printed on the back of the book mark: the first road they recommended, I-264 West, was like a parking lot, so clogged you couldn’t even get on to it.   Phone Siri, usually my trusted pal, was no help at all, and kept trying to make me drive the wrong direction down one-way streets. I decided to drive as closely as I could to the river, then park and reconnoiter on foot (on a freezingly cold gray day with the winds whipping down from Indiana), but surprise, no street parking, only those  claustrophobic and expensive parking garages. I chose what I hoped would be the least expensive option, locked up the car, and set out to find the magic spot.

Walking east on Muhammad Ali, I kept vainly checking my Google map to make sure I was heading in the right direction. It was absolutely frigid, in this city I’d always associated with balmy spring Derby Days and baseball, and I was clad, impractically, in a dress, short jacket and my prettiest but not most comfortable pumps. I stalked about miserably, ruing my impulsive decision to hunt down this random corner of the city and for what? To say I’d been there? To write about it, in my blog?!!

But then, all of a sudden, I was there, and all my frustrations fell away. I gazed at the metal sign denoting the spot as Thomas Merton Square, in awe to see this official, municipal acknowledgment of his existence, and work. Then I looked around for people walking around “shining like the sun,” but saw very few, though the streets were clogged with cars and traffic. I turned around, and confronted Fourth Street Live! in all its commercial glory, and thought, well, there’s some strange city planning. I decided to walk down the block and loop past the Louisville Slugger museum back to the parking garage. The street was paved with those granite Belgian blocks which don’t always give you a level surface to walk on, and suddenly, I felt the heel of my pretty pump thunk against something, and  felt myself pitched forward: I actually saw the gray granite coming up toward me, and instinctively threw out my arm. Pain shot through my wrist and fingers, but fortunately I did not hit my head.  The next thing I knew, half a dozen people were trying to help me up. My un-guilty bystanders. They helped me to a nearby outdoor café, its metal chairs still set out in January, but I was basically OK, only my left arm and hand had been scraped up.

But what I felt more keenly than the pain, was an overwhelming sense of humiliation and shame.  Falling in the street was such an old-lady thing to do! Was I becoming prematurely old and feeble? Was this it, the end of my independence, my sense of well-being, my sense of balance? I was actually thinking and fearing these things, when a rather unkempt woman came up to me. Maybe homeless, maybe not, but probably about the same age as me.  She touched my arm.

“You okay? I seen you go down, honey,” she said to me. “I seen you trip on that stone. It wasn’t your fault! Anybody coulda trip on that stone. If I was you, I’d sue!!!”

I smiled, and assured her I was okay, and not planning to sue anyone. Still, she insisted on helping me up and walking with me to the end of the block, then tottered off with a friendly wave. No, she hadn’t been looking for a handout: Just being kind. They were mine and I was theirs…  In any case, her words were an unexpected consolation, and made me realize I was mentally making too much of what had simply, and literally, been a misstep. And considering, I had gotten off easy: a few scraped knuckles, an impressive bruise on the underside of my arm,  probably far more bearable than what parts of Louisville are experiencing now, with the flood. Though for weeks afterwards,  I would feel a twinge in my fingers whenever I flexed them:  A reminder of that cold day in Louisville, and the simple decency of some human beings on this earth.

My crazy, wonderful index

One thing that gives me great sorrow, is when a really terrific non-fiction book lacks a proper index. I actually feel offended, as a reader. It’s as if the author is taunting you: Don’t be picking and choosing bits and pieces that interest you, read the whole damn thing! Chances are I’ve already read the whole damn thing, and want to return to the stuff I found most interesting—quickly.

I can’t claim that my new book-to-be has a proper index: It has only an index of names, which I felt was my prerogative, as the author of a ‘popular’ biography, not an academic project. I compiled the index myself, and really enjoyed doing so, in the same way I enjoy my various knitting and craft projects. It’s a glorious mosaic of names, of people who, in most cases, have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But they all have some connection—however thin or tenuous–to my guy, Father Irenaeus. Here for example are some random entries—and yes, these some of the names that appear in my book. If you want to know why, then you just have to wait, and buy it when it comes out: Dante Alighieri, Jack Dempsey (yes, the boxer), Dylan Thomas, Thérèse of Lisieux, Karl Barth, Anna Pavlova, Mamie Eisenhower, Virginia O’Hanlon (the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Clause” girl) Pierre Salinger, Art Rooney, among many, many others. But my favorite  is “Amerigo Vespucci” and I’ll explain that here, because it’s obvious that Father Irenaeus and Amerigo missed each other by a couple of centuries.

Simply put, Father was born in Alsace, near the town of St. Die, where apparently Mr. Waldseemuller the cartographer printed his famous map naming our continent after Mr. Vespucci. (And yes, Mr. Waldseemuller is in my index, too) A story that didn’t make it into the book  because I couldn’t put in every single thing,  is when Father wrote a letter to Channel 2 News in Buffalo in the 1970s, when they were having some kind of patriotic what-America-means-to-me campaign. He crisply informed them that the patron saint of the United States should be St. Emeric, who was the son of St. Stephen, the martyred medieval king of Hungary. Why?  Because Amerigo Vespucci’s actual baptismal name was Emeric. Now who else would know that? Except Father Irenaeus, at the extreme   southern end of Channel 2’s viewing area.

I admit that a fair number of these names are people Father merely researched at some point, or wrote about, and  was only indirectly involved with. But this is important because although he can come across as a geeky kind of history nerd, he firmly believed in the faintly revolutionary idea that education, research and study was a direct route to God.  And so, there it is, one of the links that joins me, my husband, our re-enactor friends and my archivist friends: Yes, we’re all crazy, geeky history nerds, but maybe…all possibly bound for heaven!