"Keep working on a plan. Make no little plans. Make the biggest you can think of, and spend the rest of your life carrying it out." Harry S. Truman

Friday, June 29, 2007

A book about reading

I've been reading Francine Prose's "Reading Like a Writer. A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them."

I'm urging all writers to rush to the book store this instant to buy a copy of the book, which is already on the New York Times Bestseller list, anyway, so maybe this is old news to everyone but myself. No library borrowing for that one : you want to have it on the closest shelf possible. I can't wait to finish it so I can read it again, more slowly this time.

Francine Prose has chapters on words, sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue, details, and gesture. And she illustrates her thoughts with carefully chosen quotes from authors as diverse as Chekhov, Kafka, John Le Carre, and Raymond Carver. She concludes with a humbling list of books "to be read immediately."

Why humbling ? Well, I did think I was rather well read until I saw that list. Not only have not read all the classics on it, but she even mentions authors whose names I'd never heard or seen before. Of course, one tends to read classics while in school, and having gone to school in France, my list of classics is bound to differ a bit from Francine Prose's - even though she does mention a couple of French authors - Flaubert, Stendhal, with her preferred translators - along with several Russians, Cervantes for Spain, Garcia Lopez Marquez for Latin America, and others... No matter: it's never too late to catch up. So that's my mission for the next few months. Actually, I'll probably re-read even the old classics that I read many years ago, only with a different goal.

At the last SCBWI conference in LA, last summer, Jacqueline Woodson - again ; I did say that she'd made a huge impression on me - said that we should all read our favorite books at least twice. The first time to satisfy our curiosity for the story, and the second time to study the writing, the way the author creates a certain emotion, the plot, etc. This is hard for me. At any given time, I have a good dozen books piling up on my bedside table - and on the floor, when there is no room left on the bedside table, just ask my husband - all waiting to be read. And I do tend to devour books because I want to know what happens in the story, and once I know, well, I just want to read another one. Got to work on that ever growing pile, you know ? It used to be even worse. Novels like Anna Karenina or Gone With the Wind I read in one or two nights when I was in high school. That's how greedy I was, how much in a hurry I was to know what happened... but not only that: novels with heroines like Anna Karenina or Scarlett O'Hara I actually read several times. Not for the writing, nope. Just because I couldn't get enough of these characters. They fascinated me. They lived in a world of passion in Anna Karenina's case, or they were so strong and so irresistible, in the case of Scarlett O'Hara... I so wanted to be like them, to live passionately.

I'm happy to report - or am I? - that I HAVE calmed down considerably. I don't rush through books the way I used to. I do stop to savour beautiful sentences, reading them several times. So, maybe I'm finally ready to revisit old classics and enjoy them in a different way. With my writer's hat on.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Exercise: One of my very first memories in a "fiction" format

Ok, meeting my own challenge, here. This is a " fictionalized" account of one of my recollections from my First Memories post. Consider it a draft (I'm the type to revise ad nauseum) and feel free to critique, everyone.

The shrill of the doorbell crashed through the silence that lay, thick, oppressive, throughout the whole apartment. Thankful for the diversion, Alia ran to the door, opened it, and found a soldier standing on the threshold. He held a cardboard box.
“Is this the home of Senor y Senora C. ?” he asked, looking ill at ease.
Alia sent a worried look back.
« What is it? » asked her aunt, walking heavily to the door.
She was drying her hands on her housedress, but as soon as she saw the soldier, she let out a piercing wail and ran back to the lavadero. The tiny balcony held a sink with an inclined board where Tita Lola washed the laundry before hanging it to dry on the circling line that ran outside from one end of the balcony to the other. Alia loved making that hanging line turn as fast as she could.
The soldier looked visibly distraught. Alia didn’t know what to do, what to say. Her aunt cries seemed to rebound off the walls of the narrow patio outside the lavadero, and a few neighbors showed inquiring faces. Alia went to her aunt and gingerly touched her arm.
Her aunt made a visible effort to compose herself, and after what seemed an eternity, she walked back toward the soldier and took the cardboard box. She lay in on the table, opened it and found some photographs, papers, and a belt. She grabbed the belt, and let out a whine of wounded animal, before she rushed back to the lavadero. But this time, she banged her head against the walls. She paced the narrow space and banged her head against each and every wall, letting out scorching cries. Alia could see the neighbors at their windows looking in with concerned faces.
“I need a signature,” said the soldier, clearing his throat and showing a piece of paper.
Alia looked at him.
“Maybe you could sign?” he added, glancing again toward the lavadero where Tita Lola was now sobbing as she could never stop.
Alia hesitated. She looked helplessly toward the patio, where the neighbors now seemed to be exchanging comments on how to get her aunt’s attention, some even trying to talk to her from their balcony.
She nodded, took the paper and the pen that the soldier gave her and scrawled some letters that were supposed to represent her aunt’s last name. What difference does it make? she thought. Tita can’t write, anyway.
The soldier pocketed the paper and the pen, and left with an obvious look of relief. Alia closed the door after him, and walked to the lavadero where Tita Lola, still crying and moaning, and holding the leather belt tightly to her chest, had pushed her back to the wall and let herself slide down to the floor next to a pile of dirty laundry. The shirt she’d been washing was dripping water on the tiles.
The neighbors had gone back inside their apartments and silence had returned. Alia felt it seeping into her throat and lungs, making it hard to breathe. She squeezed in next to her aunt and sat on the wet floor. And she waited.

MeMe : 8 facts/habits about...

Well, what do you know, I've been tagged by none other than Jay, from the Disco Mermaids (I asked for it, but still, isn't it totally cool?) So, here is the rule of the thing called MeMe ( and it is definitely not a grandma:)

By now, you’ve probably seen (if not answered) the 8 facts/habits MeMe that’s been going around: Each player lists 8 facts/habits about themselves. The rules of the game are posted at the beginning before those facts/habits are listed. At the end of the post, the player then tags 8 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know that they have been tagged and asking them to read your blog.

Here we go:

1: The first time my mother left me alone in our apartment to quickly run an errand, she sternly commanded that I do not open the door to anyone. She was secure in the fact that very rarely did people ring the door at that hour. As irony would have it, the postman came ringing. I knew better than to open the door, but curiosity had me drag an armchair across the floor so I could look at the peep hole and see who it was. Of course, the post man heard the racket. "Is anyone there?" he asked. And yours truly to reply in a very convinced tone of voice: "No, there is nobody."

2: My father used to play a game with me. He'd send me to the next room to see if he was there. I always went, because, even though I could see he was here, well, you never know, do you?

3: I believed in Santa Claus until I was 9 years old. My friends at school would tell me; my 6-year-old sister! would tell me; but I was adamant that they were thoroughly mistaken and they would pay the price one way or another. In the end, my father decided to address this worrying issue himself and he took me to my piano class, walking - one hour each way. He figured he'd need that much time, and he was right. I argued the whole way there, and then, the whole way back, about how and why I knew without possible error that Santa Claus does indeed exist. And then, I cried and cried and was very upset at the whole world.

4: I have seen the tooth fairy, except that it was The Little Mouse, as we call her in France ( one of the reasons my father had such a hard time convincing me that Santa doesn't exist, by the way. I knew better, you see.) Anyway, The Little Mouse lifted the rolling shutter of the hotel room we were staying in, in the south of Spain (she was very strong and fit) and she scurried next to my pillow, and I SAW her! I can still see her in fact.

5: I'm very stubborn. Proof? I once got lost in the dark at the foot of the volcano Mount Bromo in Java, with only a tiny useless flashlight. We were supposed to walk there and climb to the top of the volcano to watch the sunrise, but it was pouring, and the tour guide had everyone climb into a jeep instead. Only, I wouldn't hear of it, because I had payed for a walking tour (Mm, I like to believe that I have matured a bit since then, even though I was already 29 years old at the time. Thing is, I had a weight problem and I figured that particular walk would make me shed 10 pounds all at once. Yeah, I know...) So, the guide just drove away with the other tourists gaping at me, and I found myself alone in the dark and the rain. Another jeep rescued me, later on, after I'd waddled in the mud, and even though I did get to the top of Mount Bromo, breathed the sulfuric vapors, and enjoyed the view, I missed the sunrise. That's what you get for being so hardheaded.

6: When I gave birth (naturally and very noisily as well, Robin) my husband had the order to get me a steak, medium RARE if you please. He had to argue with the birthing center chef because their policy did not allow them to serve meat that was not thoroughly cooked - I call it carbonated, myself ! But my husband can be very persuasive, and I did get my rare meat, in the end.

7 : I was held at gunpoint twice in a week, in Haiti. First time, in a dark alley, as I walked back to the guest house I was staying at. Second time, I was sleeping peacefully in my bed, minding my own dreams, and this guy wearing a bandanna on his face shines a flashlight in my face. That woke me up, all right, and I remembered with horror that I had no UNDERWEAR on beneath the flimsy sheet ! Only a top. It's true, I swear. Now, don't let that influence your opinion of Haiti, OK? I ended up marrying a Haitian man - no, not that one ! ttt - and I love Haiti.

Jay, thanks for tagging me. That was really fun. I feel like I flexed my writing muscles. Only now, there are only 10 mns left before I have to go fetch my daughter at her play group. :)

Oups, no, I have to tag EIGHT people !! Not sure I know that many bloggers. I'm just a debutante, you see. OK, Rilla, you are tagged, again. Natasha, you are it, too. And Janee, want to try?Agh, just checked your blog and you've already been it ! Ok, I'll keep on looking. Have to go, now.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The shamelessness of the writer

Oh, my, oh my, what have I done ? After writing the last post, I remembered I had already began working on a draft about one of the experiences I reported : the scene at my aunt's apartment, when the soldier came to deliver my cousin's effects. Somewhere, I had seen a line recommending writers to write about their first experience with death. So, I dug that file out, put on my critique's hat, got the machete out, and started reading and revising. And almost immediately, a thought struck me ; here I am, using a very painful event for my family, something that happened almost 40 years ago, and yet, my aunt wore black clothes up until recently( when she started wearing grayish colors again), my aunt who could never dust the portrait of her son smiling in his uniform, the last picture that was taken of him, without tearing up. So, here I'm using this and turning it into a writing exercise !!! How moral, or rather, how immoral is that ?

It reminded me of something I read a while ago about Truman Capote. I'm pretty sure it was him, even though I can't recall the title of the book. The essence of what I remember is that he had very few friends because he used everything and everyone around him in his writing. He just couldn't imagine not doing so. And I just found another quote in Bonnie Friedman's Writing Past Dark. The quote is from the Tao Te Ching : "Care about people's approval/and you will be their prisoner." Another quote from Friedman's book, by Charles McGrathe, when he was an editor at The New Yorker : " If you want to be a writer, somewhere along the line you're going to have to hurt somebody. When that time comes, you go ahead and do it." Mm. Even for a blog ? But of course, it's not only for the blog. I'm writing because I feel the need to write. Because I can't think about anything else, basically. I mean, I do : every day, I go about the business of living, of bringing up two kids, etc, but I can't help looking at everything and everyone, wondering whether I can use it or them in my writing. It's like a disease. Or rather, an obsession.

And as I write these words, I realize that I'd better stop writing about the fact that I want to write, and start actually WRITING. So enough of that. Well, no, I'll add a last quote from Friedman's book about writer's block, in a chapter aptly titled "Anorexia of Language": "I could not write until I could risk appearing ugly." ... "When I embraced imperfection, silence dissolved. The inner absolutist, the fanatic mistress of restraint who, suffering, defines herself through refusal, at last departed, or rather receded into me, which is of course where she'd come from in the first place..."

First Memories

There seem to be various games of tag going on in the children's literature blogosphere. They are called meme. My first reaction was to read that the French way : meymey - kind of, I'm not good at phonetics - which means grandma. But I wonder if it's not meme, as in me, me ??? Or is it a short for something else? No idea. Anyway, Linda Accorn, from Just Like the Nut started one about My First Memory. Rilla, then, tagged me, and so, it's my turn to write about my first memory.

Now that's a tough one, because I have basically no recollection of my childhood. Really, I don't remember anything until I'm at least 6 or 7. Or do I? Upon much brain raking, two souvenirs finally scrambled to the surface. Since I don't know which one came first, I'll recount both.

Here I am, age 5 or 6.
1 : I'm standing in line with mom at the butcher's shop in Paris. When our turn comes, the butcher asks my mom what she wants. His tone of voice is rather gruff. My mother, who is Spanish and speaks French badly and with a thick accent, asks for something, and the butcher sighs and rolls his eyes and asks her to repeat because he didn't understand. He exchanges exasperated looks with the other customers in line, and my mother turns to me, looking rather helpless. I repeat the order and the butcher gets what we need, and when he hands the meat to my mother, he says something. I don't remember exactly what, only that it is insulting - something along the lines of : foreigners should just stay in their country. What I do remember is the ambivalence I felt. I hated that man for being so mean to us, of course. But I also hated my mother for not speaking French properly. People always noticed us everywhere we went, and I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear.

2: We are in our apartment in Paris, a small apartment on the third floor of a small old building, and my mother has just received the news that her nephew died in a car accident. He was 19 and doing his military service in Spain. I don't know whether we already had a phone at the time. Maybe we got a telegram. Anyway, mom starts crying, and runs to my parent's bedroom, and I remember standing at the open kitchen window with my dad. It was early summer and the day was beautiful. I ask him why Mom is crying and he tries to explain to me what has happened.

Another early memory related to the death of my cousin takes me to Spain, a few weeks later(funny how it all comes back, now) : I'm in my aunt's apartment - my cousin's mother - and the doorbell rings. My aunt opens the door and sees a young man wearing a military uniform standing there with a cardboard box. She cries a horrible sound and runs to the lavadero - the small terrace-like laundry room that usually opens onto a patio, in Spain - and starts bumping her head on the walls and wailing and all the neighbors put their heads out. I'm standing there, not knowing what to do, and the young soldier is also standing there with that box in his hands, looking like he just wants out of there.

It's all rather sad and makes me wonder if I don't have some fun first memories ? I'll have to think about it some more. Anyway, as I was writing these, I kept thinking, ok, I'm writing a first memory, but the writing is not good, and, most of all, it's flat. It's true, but flat. So, I have an idea for an exercise.

How about trying to fictionalize our first memory? Turn the flat reality into a little piece of reasonably good writing. It doesn't matter if we have to bend the truth a bit or even a lot. Let's use that episode and turn it into a good piece of writing. Whether we call it fiction or not is up to us.

Whoever tries that exercise, let me know and if you have a blog, paste the link in the comment section - I believe this is the way to do this. And you can ask others on your list of children's writers to do the same. More tagging. Thanks, Rilla. This is fun.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Vignette : Transportation or the art of balance

I was in the car, today, looking around, totally enthralled by the ever going spectacle around me - I've been living in India for almost 3 years, now, and I don't know that I'll ever get tired of it, nor used to it - and I decided to write little vignettes about life here and post some photos. I've taken to carrying a camera everywhere I go. One always has to be prepared. So, today's post will be about transportation.

Indian people seem gifted with a supernatural sense of balance. One comes across the most extraordinary sights in the streets and on the roads. Entire families riding a motorcycle : dad, mom, and up to three kids, with mom barely holding onto anything - I mean, she seems to simply perch there, more often than not sidesaddle, her dupatta or sari floating behind her. Sometimes, a child sleeps in her arms, totally oblivious of the noise and traffic. Lone men - or sometimes more - on bicycles carrying loads so enormous that the rider seems to disappear and one wonders how it all manages to move forward. Auto rickshaws filled way over their actual capacity, with people hanging outside. Of course, there are lots of accidents. But people have to go about their lives and that means going places. And so, life goes on.

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Full time mother

Monsoon is here, in Hyderabad, and what a relief that is ! Temperatures have dropped, humidity is up, and last evening, I was walking around the house feeling the cool floor under my feet - it gets so hot in this part of the world during their summer that even the door handles become warm - breathing in the fresh air and feeling blissfully comfortable for the first time in months.

Now, where have I been, and doing what ? First, I got really ill. Some virus that gave me the most horrible nausea and made me so weak I could barely stand for more than a few minutes at a time. Not pleasant. And while this was happening, my nanny decided she didn't feel like working anymore. So, I'm now a full time mother, and even though it makes me realize how stressful my usual life is in comparison, I'd still rather go back to my hectic schedule. I don't like the feeling I have that I'm not being productive at all. And I'm not the type of person who can just sit at the computer and say, ok, I have 30 mns and I'm going to use each and everyone of them to write. I need to know I have several hours ahead of me. I need to ease into the mood. And once I'm in it, just leave me alone and don't you dare interrupting me, whoever you are. Go explain that to a not quite 3- year-old or her not quite 7-year-old sister ! Also, my computer turned out to be riddled with viruses in spite of good old Norton, and so I had to reinitialize the whole thing and then wait for the service provider guy to be willing to show up and set up my Internet connection again. In the meantime, I was using my husband's laptop with a wireless card and it was so slow, not to mention the connection being constantly cut, that I couldn't use it for anything other than writing a few emails.

So, what else is new ? And how come I'm able to find the time to write a blog, today ? Well, I'm doing what I swore I would NEVER EVER EVER in my lifetime be caught doing : I'm using the TV as a baby sitter. Tttt. Bad mom. But I'm not going to apologize. Tough times call for tough measures, so there.

The only good news. I woke up this morning with an idea for a Picture Book. I was still in that hazy land between sleep and full alertness - well, yes, I do reach the state of alertness at some stage during the morning - and these words floated in my mind, and I saw a very vivid picture, and then another. I kept mentally repeating the words, so they would not disappear into the realm of my subconscious. It's happened so many times. I often dream that I'm writing the perfect book. I mean, in my sleep, the plot is just outstandingly brilliant, the writing flows, and it's pure bliss. And then, I wake up, and I've forgotten everything, or, just as bad, what I remember makes no sense whatsoever. Don't you hate that? But not this time. I've written the idea down. Let's see if it evolves into something.

Well, this is a catch-up blog. Feels like a journal entry, but I need to get back into the flow. I'm off to work on my writing, now. I have about half an hour, maybe less, before Barney's DVD ends and the little one comes down the stairs demanding some attention. Let's see if I can use my new situation to try and reverse what I mention above about not being able to work within a short time frame. Life is about learning lessons, evolving, becoming better, etc, etc, right ? Like good wine. Let's see what I manage to do with my vintage.