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On Thursday, I heard Marilynne Robinson give the last of a series of four lectures at Yale. The series was called “Absence of Mind: The dispelling of inwardness from the modern myth of the self."

The talk was in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, a domed lecture room with seats that might be as old as I am, the kind with a fixed wooden arm to write on. Mine had smoke weed carved deeply into it; also, cut in less deeply: emerson and his brothers.

There were lots of gray-haired people, including three women talking about their writing group. Some of the students were formally dressed. There was a guy with the aggressively unimpressed air of a reporter with a brown scarf slung around his neck and an open laptop in the front row. Tall, black mikes stood in the front of each aisle that made me imagine urgent, lengthy questions before anything started. A sign language interpreter sat on the stage with his shirt sleeves rolled up, casually chatting with friends. It was beautiful day out, although it was supposed to rain. The daffodils were already in bloom. After I looked at the people a while, I noticed the huge black hearth near the entrance. Then, the stained glass, beautiful, with allegorical figures and words like music, religion, reverence , science, research, art, intuition, allegory. There were bas relief profiles and heads of Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, Plato, Franklin, et all, each in his own little alcove above a window around the dome. A student tapped the mike before he sat in the adjoining row.

Marilynne Robinson has iron gray hair, straight, with a little flip at the shoulder. She had on a black pantsuit and purple silk scarf. I had the impression of wryness and intense reserve. Also of a lot of lived experience, and that she was not someone to back away from a rant should a rant seemed called for. She didn’t refer to her novels except in response to questions, but she is one of my favorite writers: Housekeeping. Gilead. Home.

I loved being under the sound of what she called the beautiful voice of human thought.

• She suggested that the soul could be thought of, not as an argument, but as an experience.
• She referred to the response that God gave to Moses when asked who he was: I am that I am, saying that people use the phrase I am, often, almost always with a modifier. I am hungry. I am typing. I am a reader. She called this the abrupt descent into singularity from the breadth of existence.
• Also: Complex life may indeed be the wonder of the universe. If it is, it is not diminished by the fact that we kill it routinely.
• The mind is what the brain does.
• She said that contemporary thinking about the soul tends to use the model of the wager -- that the soul exists primarily to be saved or lost, not as a name for an ongoing experience. She said that she, along with Descartes, thinks that the soul is mind’s self awareness, the part of self that stands apart and appraises. And that human beings are capable of negotiating our own enhancement.
• She said: The strangeness of reality consistently exceeds the expectations of science. Science not a final definition of reality, but a highly fruitful way of inquiring into it.

I talked to her a little afterwards, and asked if that definition -- a highly fruitful way of enquiring into reality – would extend to writing fiction. She smiled, and said that she wouldn’t disagree.

One of the most moving things she said was when, in response to a question, she spoke about having written three sad book. She said that she hadn’t set out for them to be sad, but that she knows that they are. But then, she said, she has spent years immersed in art of all kinds from all over the world, and knows that art at the highest levels can absorb huge levels of pain and make it thrilling.

Then she spoke about getting letters from readers, saying things like: My father was dying, I read your book aloud to him. I was so comforted.

She said, “Something that breaks your heart can enlarge your life. It’s amazing.”

When I spoke with her, I told her a little about what is going on with my novel. She told me to be brave. I said that I am. So, there’s that to live up to.

I loved the intellectual stimulation and moral seriousness; her beautiful, stern, aging presence; even the little chair desks that were fixed and immovable, yet still accommodated me in all my fullness at this difficult moment in my life. It was a pleasure -- a rare, fine, sweetness – to get to hear her talk.
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  • I was going to skip dancing this morning, but my body wanted to do it, so I jumped on my trike and went downtown. I liked shaking, liked the drummers, liked rolling around on the floor and kicking my legs in the air, walking my feet up the heated pipes along the wall. Okay, maybe I really am a hippie. I was singing "The Age of Aquarious" as I pedaled away.

  • I rode to State Street Fruit to get a ticket for a poetry performance, then read about Dickens and mesmerism at the bagel place.

  • The big poetry show was at the Academy of Music. There were slam poets I enjoyed, but the deep heart of it, for me, was Richard Wilbur. I got to hear him read poems I love, including this one.

    In which he says to his daughter, who is working on a story, about writing:


    It is always a matter, my darling,
    Of life or death, as I had forgotten.



    I'm needing nerve, focus, and flexibility. There are so many ways to keep getting there: movement, poetry and community among them.

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I just joined Facebook, so if you're there and want to friend me, that'd be swell.

Paul Lisicky is reading the manuscript of my novel, and posted this beautiful thing about it last night.
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I quoted this yesterday in an email to a friend, and keep thinking about it.


Only the action that is moved by love for the good at hand has the hope of being responsible and generous. Desire for the future produces words that cannot be stood by. But love makes language exact, because one loves only what one knows. One cannot love the future or anything in it, for nothing is known there. And one cannot unselfishly make a future for someone else. Love for the future is self-love--love for the present self, projected and magnified into the future, and it is an irremediable loneliness.

Wendell Berry, from Standing By Words
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Last night I read a story, "The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea," which I loved in a salted, dazzled, aching way. The boy walks much too far out into the desert of a low tide and then runs into a cave, just before the waves, running the same speed as the sea! He gets backed to the wall of the cave by the water and stares at the sea to stop it. It's about passion, this story, imagined from the school dormitory by the children who didn't run away to sea, and it is beautiful in a way that wrenches me.

It's a translation from French in the October 27 issue of The New Yorker. The author, J.M.G. Le Clezio, won this year's Nobel Prize. I hadn't been paying enough attention to remember that, and I've never read his work before. This story is so good.

Noah's Ark

Aug. 25th, 2008 09:16 am
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I just noticed that an excerpt from Noah's Ark, Judith Frank's novel-in-progress, is up on the NEA site.

Judy is a lovely person, with a life that keeps getting fuller and fuller in such gorgeous ways. She brings heart, nerve and ambition to her writing, taking on the most charged subjects and insisting on the complexity of her characters. And she's generous with her critical eye -- she's brought such passion and nuance to the critiques she's given Spider in a Tree.

This taste of her novel-in-progress this morning made me want to praise her.
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There are dangers here of parochialism, isolation, and romanticizing home (who makes it, at what cost; what happens there; who gets to stay and who gets to leave and who has to stay and who has to leave), but, still, this is speaking to me this morning:

To stay at home is paradoxically to change, to move. When poets -- and people of any other calling -- stay at home the first thing they move away from is professionalism. They move away from "professional standards." Their work begins to develop under pressure of questions not primarily literary: What good is it? Is it at home here? What do the neighbors think of it? Do they read it, any of them? What have they contributed to it? What does it owe them?

from "Notes: Unspecializing Poetry," in Standing by Words by Wendell Berry


PS: A old school bus painted green and white with THE VEGAN BUS painted on its side just had a hard time making the corner to drive down my narrow street. They gave a little toot of a honk a bit farther down. I wonder what's going on at the fairground this weekend! Okay, I just googled: The Vegan Bus. Either they are going to the Hunter/Jumper horse show at the fairgrounds, or some of them just live around here.

Insight

Aug. 8th, 2008 07:48 am
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Over a few weeks, I got into a rhythm with this round of revision of my novel. I had already gone through the manuscript, moved big chunks around, marked passages with ideas or just the desire for more depth, and made a table listing all of the chapters with their dates (refining an effective grasp on when actual events happened and how that relates to the narrative needs of the novel has definitely been one of the ongoing challenges; for instance, how to keep continuity and a sense of urgency when I'm making leaps of years...), bullet lists of each chapter's content, and ideas for editing. I'd never done anything like that before, and it really helped me to have a way to see the structure of the book at a glance.

The book had twenty five chapters at the start of this revision, and twenty three at the end of it. The first four chapters went more slowly, but I got into a rhythm of revising a chapter a day. Since my lap top crashed, and I work much better out of the apartment, I was going to the public library every morning with with folders full of paper. Every morning, working in 45 minute chunks with 15 minute breaks (I love that!) I'd read and edit what I'd done the day before, then start to work on the next chapter. When I finished, I'd usually swim or go somewhere on the trike, then at night at home, I'd type up the changes I'd made and print them out to read the next morning.

I was pretty immersed, and making big changes (I've cut more than seventy pages over the course of two revisions), and it became pleasurable in a kind of light, stringent way. I kept getting clear ideas that seemed simple and right to me about things that I'd been struggling with, in the pool or on the trike or in bed. A lot of the work was about pushing the emotional and dramatic tension that I feel pulsing so strongly in the story closer to the surface so that it helps pull the reader with human urgency through a story about religion in the eighteenth century. No one else has read the whole manuscript yet, but I've got some really strong, good response to the beginning of the book. (I knocked on the side of the wooden drawer of my desk when I said that. No jinx.)

Last week I read an article in the The New Yorker about scientists trying to trace how insight works in the brain. Here's an abstract of the article. I was interested because a lot of what the journalist, Jonah Lehrer, was describing was consistent with the experience I was having of solving difficult problems in the book. This is one thing I found interesting:

[Psychologist Jonathan] Scholler had demonstrated that it was possible to interfere with insight by making people explain their thought process while trying to solve a puzzle -- a phenomenon he called "verbal overshadowing." This made sense to Jung-Beeman, since the act of verbal explanation would naturally shift activity to the left hemisphere, causing people to ignore the more subtle associations coming from the right side of the brain.

For me, something about that feels true, even if everything is happening in words.

Again

May. 30th, 2008 07:02 pm
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The bulletin board over my desk fell down.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
Franz Kafka

Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say 'It is in me, and shall out.' Stand there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
James Baldwin

The novelist doesn't write to express himself, he doesn't write simply to render a vision he believes true, rather he renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to his reader. You can safely ignore the reader's taste, but you can't ignore his nature, you can't ignore his limited patience... I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts.
Flannery O'Connor

Victory Lap

Apr. 9th, 2008 09:50 pm
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I'm really excited to get the revision of the novel off! I hopped on my trike and did a victory lap around Look Park.


  • On the way, I came up a steep entry ramp to the bike path fast and made a sharp turn. A woman walking by (I check for pedestrians! Not reckless!) sort of cheered and said, "Wow."
    That's the ramp where I did my only wheelie. I have to go fast to get up it, and it's not iced in any more. It's spring!

  • When I was coming in the entrance to the park, a couple of nice people I know saw me from across the way, and the man started singing, "There she is, Susan on her trike," to the tune of "Miss America" in a booming voice across the park. I waved and yelled, "I finished a revision of the novel!"

  • I made happy phone calls to my parents and other dear ones while I was on the far side of the park. I don't think I've ever called anybody from the trike in motion before! I was breathless, and kept saying "whooo!"

  • Heading home (downhill all the way!), I crossed a road just as a little boy learning to ride his bike was coming up the path. He gave a little shriek when he saw me, and turned the bike into his Mom, who caught him and it both. "Don't worry!" I said. "We had to stop anyway," she said, laughing. (It's true, they were almost to the stop sign.) He didn't really seem scared -- we all thought it was funny.

  • Home before dark!


  • There will be more feedback, editing and revisions. But this round is out!

Belong

Apr. 6th, 2008 12:40 pm
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Being in the moment utterly, yes -- eat an apple when you eat an apple, as Zen phraseology might have it -- but then trying also to move on from there as mindfully and scrupulously as possible, bringing any intellectual or imaginative arabesques back to the authentic human experience where they belong.

Padma Hejmadi, Room to Fly: A Transcultural Memoir

Items

Apr. 1st, 2008 10:02 pm
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  • Alison Bechdel is going to be at Amherst College tomorrow (Wednesday!) at 8 pm. I'm going! Details here.


  • The Nolose conference is going to be in Northampton, September 26-28. Look out!


  • I hear that letters and phone calls to Massachusetts state legistlators are the most important next step on H. 1844, the anti size discrimination law, so if you live in the state, that would be a great thing to do. Who they are and what the contact info is is easy to find online. I emailed Peter Kocot, the Northampton representative, about it, but haven't heard back from him. The legistlators have to act on the bill by June.


  • I'm in the middle of a spate of intense work on the novel, and won't be around here for a while. I want the book to be intellectually and emotionally adventurous! Aesthetically thrilling! Humanly compelling! Pages turning and turning and turning. Whoa nellie, do I ever aspire!


  • It's raining. There's something I find so moving in this common, intimate way about the sound of a car driving past on a wet street when I'm inside my apartment, warm and dry.

Today

Mar. 25th, 2008 08:15 am
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  • Today, 2 pm, the State House in Boston. Hearing on the anti size-discrimination bill 1844. Room A2. Three minutes to speak. Much to witness.

  • I'm not going to be lyrical.

  • I've been kindly offered a ride by a nice person who says she's inexperienced and nervous about driving in the city. We're trying to park right on the Common! Will we make it out of there before dark? Boston's long history shows up in its labyrinthian one way streets and lack of helpful signage indicating the way to I-90. I've been stressfully lost on the streets of Boston like nowhere else. Here we go.

  • Evidently, there's a luncheon. I hadn't heard.

  • I was having a fantasy of going to look for the reading room in the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, which I didn't know existed when I was young and washing my hands in its grand marble bathrooms during my fire escape painting days. But there's a luncheon.

  • My laptop crashed.

  • A deadline's near and the work's not done.

  • My printer broke. I rode the eleven or twelve miles roundtrip to Hadley yesterday to get a new one. Uncleared ice on the bike path! Vigor, sunshine, low hills.

  • I'm a little frazzled. And novel haunted.

  • It's good to have a strategic moment to say: Discrimination based on height and weight is wrong. It's good to act to try to help stop it.

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Northampton, the small city I live in, has a long history with both problematic and transformative ideas of itself as paradise. Jonathan Edwards had a role in that and suffered consequences from it, too. In 1992, we went through a media frenzy sparked by a National Enquirer story about Northampton as "Lesbianville, USA: 10,000 cuddling, kissing lesbians," which framed it as another kind of paradise and/or freak show, depending on your perspective. But, yeah, it's not alone in that. My brother, the landscape painter, gave me this book. The tension between idealism and the mess of human reality continues to fascinate me. I keep struggling to be able to make a whole out of experiences of both.

From Rebecca Solnit, Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscape for politics:

The fundamental desire could be described as the desire for paradise, or perhaps the demand for it -- for the city on a hill; for a more perfect union; for getting to the mountaintop, in Martin Luther King Jr.'s sense as well as Thoreau's and Muir's; for the peaceable kingdom that devolves into the gated noncommunity but is also this country's rich history of utopian communities and social experiments. )
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My friend Judy sent me a link to this article about Politeness and Authority by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times:

It’s a delicate thing, coming to the moment when you realize that your perceptions do count and that your writing can encompass them. You begin to understand how quiet, how subtle the writer’s authority really is, how little it has to do with “authority” as we usually use the word.


Tomorrow's my birthday. I think I'm going to climb the firetower in the state forest with my love to look at far stretches of trees on the hills.
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  • The trike has a flat. Rear left tire. It's leaking quickly and hissingly from the stem, so I think that this means that it can't be patched. I think I need to take off the tire and order a new one. I'd been thinking that I'd have to take the wheel off, but just realized that I probably don't. I have not done this before, and, in the meantime, it's suddenly much harder to get to places like the grocery store, the swimming pool and the bike shop.

    I discovered that the tire was completely flat when I was at the laundromat with a full load of clothes in the basket.


  • I've been sending the novel out via email, and there seems to be a problem with Word displaying my past edits. The Normal template is defaulting to, with the reviewing pane toolbar visible, displaying the command "Final showing mark up" in a box on the left. Just to the right of this box is another box with a check-off list, and it defaults to Show comments, insertions and deletions, and formatting. If I click "Final," instead of "Final showing mark up" all the record of past edits disappears from the visible text, but when I email it or copy it to another file, it defauls to "Final showing mark-up," and the person receiving it sees the messy and distracting editing. Making the review pane toolbar invisible does not fix the problem, and while I can get to the window to edit the normal template, there doesn't seem to be an option for editing this.

    I don't want to keep a record of this editing at all, but I can't seem to get rid of this. Any ideas?


  • I got to talk about Spider in a Tree this morning at a course on Sexuality and History in the Contemporary Novel at Amherst College, taught by Judy Frank, which was really fun.

    The students -- who were smart, engaged and interesting -- read chapter nine of the novel, and due to the problem described above, some of them had it printed out with visible edits.


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  • I'll be reading from the novel this Saturday, 3:20 - 4:10 pm, at First Churches in Northampton as part of a conference on Jonathan Edwards and the Environment. Come if you'd like!

  • I finished another draft of the novel. People are reading. Some have been praising. Who knows what will happen next, or how, or when? I'm summoning my patience and resilience. Deep breaths.



I'm still dreaming of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole for the cover. I hear that the word shaddai, the Almighty, appears to be written upside down in Hebrew letters on the distant hill.

Here is the painting.  )

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