Friday, December 30, 2011

Endings lead to Beginnings

I thought I'd get a wee jump on the New Year by wishing one and all a very Happy and Prosperous 2012.                                                                

I noticed this morning that Samoa has decided to become the first country to welcome in 2012, instead of the last -- a pre-historic construct that was set in accord with the US well over a hundred years ago. On first reading, I fancied a slew of islanders literally lifting up the island and moving it westward in order to cross the International Dateline etc. My math is weak, and my assumptions about changing cartography and longitude and latitude and time zones is wobbly. Most I can manage is springing forward and falling back one hour -- but whole days?? For a moment, I thought time travel had become a reality.

The year sped by for me. When you are rapidly aging, it does this. And when major world events seemingly flow one into another, you don't notice time, you only notice the heartbreak, devastation and exasperation that most of these events engender.

The writing year has been peppered with more and more discussion  about electronic publishing. I see its future role, I see the many benefits, but I still look at it as the last resort, not the first, for gifted writers. Yes, I am a snob. I don't pretend to hide the reality that in our current cultural dross, dumb and dumber rules. I think Margaret Atwood means well when she says the internet is wonderful in that it basically forces people to be literate. I don't quite agree. The semi-literates outnumber the literates. And they want cheap, accessible books that are badly written, thin in language arts, bereft of depth and characters, top heavy in plot. Thing is, they don't notice -- or care -- that they are reading a lot of junk. Electronic readers are the big thing. Anyone at Amazon can be read. Some great books, yes, but also, thousands and thousands of bad ones.

So...will legitimate tree-killing publishers prevail in the coming years? I'm counting on it. I'm praying for it. If I had a magnificent pocket watch and a striped vest and fob, I'd wear 'em with pride! Real books with book smells, real books with paper and glue and bindings and face plates and heft -- those are the stuff of my dreams.

Some naysayers this past year have complained that new writers won't get the breaks they deserve because of bonafide publishing woes -- and the mid-list may dry up altogether.
And yet, The New York Times' list of "notable" books for 2011 included five or six first-time authors in their list of about 45 books. That's more than last year's crop. Hope springs eternal.

Are enough people reading important books? Seems to me that books and essays and "deep thoughts" are the last refuge intelligent people have -- 
And is writing itself the last refuge for the curious mind wishing to create new worlds, searing characters that leap off the page into the collective consciousness? Are serious writers becoming hermits, dumping the media wasteland into the trash? Maybe it's a good idea. Maybe it's time to stop obsessing about social media and web presence until it's actually time to consider it.
Maybe it's time to stop putting the cart before the horse. Maybe it's time to sit down and roll up the sleeves, and stare at a blank screen and then...write.
And keep on writing until a goal is met.

Maybe that's all that really matters. Everything else is probably an excuse to avoid the inevitable. A writer writes.

I plan to. I hope you (writers out there) will, too.

Do you have any goals to share? I'd love to hear them!
Happy Writing!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My Eyes (Still ) Adore You

A number of months ago I had a birthday -- not one of those major milestone birthdays, no, a rather quiet birthday, the kind that can either be greeted with muted enthusiasm, or as the dreaded ticking of Father Time's clock. The water torture of remembrance, a drip-drip-drip on the wrinkled forehead.

As luck would have it, I was spending the morning with my sister in my apartment. We were on the floor, side by side, doing Pilates.
That we were together at all, let alone doing Pilates, was a small wonder in itself. Normally, we see each other infrequently....and certainly not in the supine position.

After she left, I remembered that it was exactly 50 years earlier that she had treated me to a birthday movie, Fanny, starring Leslie Caron, Horst Bucholz, Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer. One of those terribly romantic tales of young love, illicit sex and its aftermath. 

When the movie ended, and after we wiped away girlish tears, we strolled in the warm autumn sunshine and marvelled at the trees ablaze in gold. I thought we would then go home, join the rest of the family for a simple meal, and a lovely chocolate birthday cake with candles and presents.

I was in for a surprise, because when I walked through the front door, my classmates jumped out of closets and thrilled me with the whole concept of secret planning, and successful surprise parties. This was to be my first -- and last -- such affair, but it was memorable. Thinking back on it, still damp in my tights and top, and sipping milk, I remembered that someone gave me my very first 45 -- The Four Seasons' hit song, Sherry. I was well familiar with it, although Frankie Valli's name did not trip off my tongue quite then. It was only a matter of months before he loomed larger than the group.

So, there I was, teetering on the precipice, one year away from official "teenage" status, and in possession of Sherry. I played it endlessly and to my mother's chagrin, I sang along with the falsetto voice.

Flash forward again to me, my tights, my now-empty skim milk glass, and I was gobsmacked. If I was blankety-blank years old now, just how old was Frankie? I googled him, I Wiki'd him, and almost passed out -- 77 years of age!!!

Gawd almighty. Gawd, gawd, gawd. But, he looks pretty hot and cool for a septuagenarian. Still an Italian hottie, I'm sure, and also, he really is quite a bit older than I. (Whew).

I felt very lucky. That my sister and I spent that time together, fifty years later, in relatively good health, that we giggled and enjoyed ourselves. That I was able to recall a much earlier happy memory with her in a movie theatre -- I really did and do count my blessings.

The cherry on the cake, is having Sherry still in my life, as well.
In fact, as peer group members drop like flies around me, it is especially comforting to know Frankie is still out there.

Dear Frankie, my eyes adore you!


Thursday, August 18, 2011

Spare Parts and Puzzles

I'm bogged down and I hate the feeling.
I've been working on the same stretch of the literary highway for days and days and days and still, those orange cones won't go away.
I suspect it's because I've boxed myself into a corner and refuse to accept it.

I know more than one person who approaches huge 1001-piece puzzles -- the ones that are all white...the ones with those infernal autumn landscapes... with fearless, positively immoral, disregard for fair play. They go along and spend hours sorting and fitting the right bits into the right places until they have completed a huge swath of the picture. BUT--when the going really gets rough and they're stumped, they have no compunction about forcing the wrong piece into the wrong slot.

And then there's the stereotypical male who decides to assemble something for the home, sans instructions. (Sometimes I think this is perhaps why all the bridges in Montreal are falling down, but, I digress.) Anyhow, this mythic creature of the male gender, happily or unhappily, fritters away a Sunday afternoon, trying to re-create the thingum, or the whats-its from Ikea with a zillion rubber washers and wing nuts and a badly finished mini tool that came with the product.

Of course, in the end, he ends up with a two-ton refrigerator which hums suspiciously, and a handful of mysterious parts which he is unable to install. So, he simply flings them away, fills out the proof of purchase for his guarantee, mails it, and Bob's your uncle. He tells you those parts were simply "extras."

I wish, I wish, I wish, I could be like that. But, no matter how hard I force a square peg into a round hole, I end up with lousy work and it doesn't ring true.

Thank God, this is only about a few paragraphs. Thank God for computers and not typewriters. I hate to think just how many sheets of paper I'd have gone through by now. On the other hand, it would probably feel really good to ball up a wad of crap and hurl it into the void. Oh, well, them's the breaks, as they say...and speaking of brakes (good segue, huh?), it's back to that highway I go.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Toothsome Prospects?

Oh, dear. I think I am writing what I know. Or, worse, writing what I want the reader to know. About me.

Since February, I have been consumed with dentists and dental appointments, trying to fix a slew of problems that are so expensive, I've been avoiding them as much as possible.
But, when push eventually shoves you, it becomes a matter of painful necessity.

And so, I've been a dutiful patient, trying my best to open wide and let the various experts fiddle, inject, drill, x-ray, chide, cluck, threaten root canals, suggest implants (oh,sure...anyone have about five thousand dollars per tooth handy? -- my email is listed), and generally fix my teeth -- again. Soon, my mouth will contain more crowns than a box of checkers. I only hope they won't be black or red. But, whatever shade, you can't bleach crowns. Once they're done, they're done.

I guess I've always been fascinated by teeth. I know I've read much about them -- evil and chipped, pearly and porn-ish in all manner of books throughout my life, as far back as Little Red Riding Hood. Thinking I might unearth a few gems to apply here, I conducted a light search -- emphasis on light -- and came up with next to nothing. Mostly, quotes about taking bites out of life, sinking teeth into bottom lines, bites in the ass -- not even an al dente description in the bunch.

I was rewarded with the following, however:

My fictitious characters will take the bit between their teeth and gallop off and do something that I hadn't counted on. However, I always insist on dragging them back to the straight and narrow.
Colleen McCullough

My mouth is full of decayed teeth and my soul of decayed ambitions.
James Joyce

Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders.
Walter Bagehot

Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.
Flannery O'Connor 

Well, it's something. Writers do talk teeth.

As to my initial lament, I've paid lot of attention to the humble tooth in my novel. Inadvertently? Absolutely. The recognition penny only dropped yesterday.

He never knew this because his was a walk-on part in her play; it was, however, a pivotal role that set off an unexpected chain of events the way a spoon of Breakstone’s cottage cheese sent her running for root canal. Her endodontist  said that a hair-line fracture could live undetected above or below the gum line for years until one day –  when you least expected it – bam.

And here:
She flashed a smile and peeled off her gloves. Her teeth were large and even – except for a pointy cuspid on the lower jaw which was crooked and crowding its neighbour. Lydia called it ‘The Ripper’ –  the infamous devourer of Porterhouse steaks, feared by herds of Black Angus the world over, and wanted in all five boroughs, especially Brooklyn, at Peter Luger’s Steakhouse.

I am fine with this, I think. I do wonder if I'd have written the same things without those dental visits. Probably. I always enjoy looking at Melanie Mayron's grin. She played Melissa Steadman in 'Thirtysomething' - all teeth (crooked and otherwise) and heart. I even remember her as Sandy in 'Rhoda'.

Maybe it's Melanie I'm channeling. I hope so. I have an appointment with a gynecologist coming up soon....

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Agent, Agent, Who's Got an Agent!?

Lately, I've been noticing the lemming-like rush on the part of new writers to land an agent. The problem is, they haven't finished their books, yet, and furthermore, they seem to think that if ten or twelve agents turn them down flat, then it's time to approach other agents, as many as 100. And when I say, haven't finished their books, yet, I mean, they haven't really done excellent rewrites, found excellent beta readers, gone back to the drawing board, and dug so deep that they hit pay dirt. Some secretly believe it's "good enough" to send out.

I have a problem with that. In fact, I think this is misguided, wishful thinking. But to each his or her own; after all, who am I to judge? Frankly, there are some bad books out there, which is another cause for dismay, and belongs to another blog post.

That being said, as far as I'm concerned, it is a wise writer who carefully researches a prospective agent, and having selected a few choice potential matches, approaches that handful, sits back and waits. Maybe no one will bite, maybe one or two might want to see entire manuscripts, but ultimately take a pass in a form rejection letter.
Isn't it quite obvious, if after six agents do this, there just might be something not quite right with the work and not the agent?

A very wise writer friend told me she sat down and composed her "dream" list of agents, numbering around a dozen or so, and sent off her queries to half of them, just to test the waters. She figured that if she got no bites at all, she'd revisit her book, and examine the structure for cracks, re-finesse the paint, mow the front lawn once more, before approaching the next handful. Why? Because she didn't want to send out anything less than perfect to the next group. She didn't want to burn all her bridges.

As it turned out, she needn't have worried because she found an agent -- a great guy -- on her first round of submissions.

I've worked with two agents on various projects in non-fiction and the children's market, but I haven't looked for an agent for adult fiction because I am not ready yet. When I am, I just know I'll never find 100 agents whom I'd feel would be right for me, because I honestly think that's a myth. Mind you, I am not writing in a particular specialty field, although even if I were, I'd still be skeptical about loads of agent possibilities. Loads? Really?

I still believe the best advice out there is the advice that reminds the hungry-to-be-published-via-real-publishers: Write the very best book you can. And
for obvious reasons, this is the advice most ignored. In a psychological way, it's a real downer. Some writers don't have sufficient skills to climb to the next rung. They don't want to admit this. They don't want to know they still have a lot more to learn, that they may never learn.

Then again, persistence does pay off. So, perhaps it would be better to focus on writing, writing, reading, reading, and not so much on agent blogs, gossipy, snippy diva-pods, and the latest news about Kindles versus real books in bookstores.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Roach by Any Other Name Would Just Be Wrong

The Things a Girl has to Do!

I am not into bugs. I shun Reptile Houses at Zoos. I only nod politely to very small spiders, and I will not live in a roach-infested dwelling.

But this little guy is no ordinary roach. In fact, he's a Macropanesthia Rhinoceros, and he lives under the ground much of the time in Australia.
He would never dream of entering a kitchen, and he has no odour -- in fact, he's very un-roach-like. This beastie is known as a Giant Burrowing roach, and he's a huge guy.
Maybe three inches long, no wings, just an insect (not a bug) who shares his love for mulberry trees with the koala bear.

As cute or as ugly as this fellow is -- with his "scoop" for burrowing -- he has ended up in the first chapter of my book.

This was not my decision. This is what happens when you allow your imagination to run wild, which mine obviously has, and as a result, he has created a teeny role for himself as an emcee, if you like. The very idea that roach art would appeal to my main character, Isobel, who collects oddities amongst other things for her rare emporium on Third Avenue in Manhattan, serves as a further entrée (no pun intended) into her character. She, too, is imaginative and completely offbeat.

And so, for a few key sentences, Mr. Rhino Roach moves front and centre as the star in an artist's collection of 'roach art.'

In order to do this roach art justice -- I have been forced to attack with a humorous bend and it's a tricky business.
I don't want to merely describe the artwork -- flat, telling etc. Even if the artwork itself is hilarious.
I need to show it, and I need to not be showy in showing it.

Subtle will do the trick, I think. You see, the roach art is presented like individual paintings, like Peeps dioramas. 

I have been playing with this for quite some time, and can't let it go until I hit the right tone.

Comedy is hard work.

And then there is pacing. Even if I had a hundred dancing rhino roaches getting down with Jennifer Lopez, I'd be off the mark. Good writing has to move along briskly, even when it quiets down. Melodic-like. Because, otherwise, the reader says, 'well, this is all very well and good, but, isn't it a tad self-indulgent?" 

I'm not a big fan of self-indulgent writers. I pop right out of their stories.

I think I shall ponder this tomorrow at the dentist's office, and then ready my wits for a long, rainy holiday weekend.

Bela Lugosi - Count Dracula
In the meantime, Isobel is considering which of the many roach dioramas she wants to house in her permanent exhibit. She has decided to keep -- "Bela Bugosi." Now he's a much scarier character than a rhino roach. Heh.

Monday, June 6, 2011


Funny how writerly things evolve -- sometimes they're subtle and sometimes it's a new smack-dab fact of life, but all of a sudden, you look around and your focus is different. Oftentimes, you don't know why, or maybe you do, but so what?

I changed mine in February. After ten years of working on and off on The Scarf Dance, my 19th century novel fraught with Sturm und Drang, I decided I needed to let some light in. I wanted to allow myself contemporary free-flow, unbounded by mannerly constraints. And, so, without warning, I began a fresh adventure, an urban fantasy --  if that's what the genre is -- I don't really know. I'll worry about what kind of animal I'm feeding once it's cut all its teeth.

What I am certain of is the setting, the characters and their fascinating story and what stumps me is that I cannot recall how I arrived at it. Usually, I can tell you exactly when a story idea came to me, even where I was or what I was eating. But, in this case, I am drawing a blank. All I know is that something propelled me to read about Egyptian cat mummies and from there, a labyrinth of plot and people and my favourite city, New York, got all mixed together like a sidewalk sale or swap meet under navy awnings. The contents of the assorted tables seem to have no relation one to the other, but, en masse they comprise a perfect tableau, a harmonious swath of pointillism. And each tiny dot is connected to the others.

I find the blank in my memory both alarming and amazing. I am not going to argue with it. So maybe I don't know how or why the story arrived, but it's here now, and it's calling my name. That is all that matters.

The opening.

Pebblestone’s Dilemma
Carol Krenz 2011

Chapter One

    When Zeno Cavallos agreed to paint Isobel Mansfield’s library at 34 Gramercy Park East, he changed her life forever.
    He never knew this because his was a walk-on part in her play; it was, however, a pivotal role that set off an unexpected chain of events the way a spoon of Breakstone’s cottage cheese sent her running for root canal. Her endodontist  said that a hair-line fracture could live undetected above or below the gum line for years until one day –  when you least expected it – bam.
    Isobel understood that Cavallos’ deed was purely unintended, like Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern in her barn that started the fire that burned down Old Chicago. (Of course, she knew the cow story wasn’t true but everyone believed it.)
    And so a question lingered in her mind about Cavallos  – was what he did fated to happen like her root canal? Or, was it really a random cow accident of the universe? Either way, she could not have anticipated it.
    What would she have noticed, anyhow? A paunchy tradesman in white overalls and mustache, looking fastidiously like Super Mario, who was inspecting the apartment with professional admiration, eyeing the ceilings and crown moldings as if they were the Sistine Chapel.
    “Beautiful,” he said, stopping at each fireplace to trace the veins in the marble. He praised the wide-plank oak flooring. “This place is all original isn’t it?”
    “Yes. My family moved in when it was built. 1893, I think.”
    They finished their tour and settled in the library.
    Cavallos asked, “So, what’s it going to be? We do the whole room?”
    “No, just three walls.” She handed him paint chips. “I like the Pale Iris. And, I think the wainscoting would look wonderful if you could make it the same sandy colour as the wallpaper.”
    “You serious? You will save that wallpaper?”
    “Yes. My great-great-grandfather put it there. It’s old, but I love it.”
    “Ah, family. I understand. You like to feel close. What’s that pattern? Egypt?”
    “Yes…hieroglyphs.” She stroked the paper. “Please, promise you’ll be careful?”
    He straightened up, eyes narrowing – he couldn’t have been more than five-foot-three – and suddenly the room filled with the towering presence of his wounded pride – a puffed up fire-breathing dragon with leathery wings and phosphorescent scales. “I always take care. I always do an excellent job--”
    She shrank from him. “Oh--I’m sure you do. I didn’t mean--”
    A final blast through the nostrils and the beast retreated. Cavallos’ smile returned and he moved on as though nothing had happened. Isobel marveled at the volatile temperament of artists. She wondered if there was a Mrs. Cavallos at home in a sackcloth and ashes who faithfully trimmed the dragon’s nails and polished its wings with leather balm.
    “What about the ceiling?” he asked.
    “Do you think it needs it?”
    “No, it doesn’t, but it will look dirty surrounded by new paint. Put your Pale Iris there, and do the moldings white. I will make you beautiful work.”
    “Terrific. How soon can you start?”
    Jeffrey was due home in three days. Jeffrey, not five-foot-three, but six-foot-four, incredibly handsome, neurotic, and a social phobe which was funny considering his business was the lecture circuit. He’d object to this invasion of privacy. He was obsessive and paranoid about his possessions and kept them under wraps.
    Cavallos said, “I can start now, if you help me move stuff. If it’s a rush job, I get Nino, my partner.”
    Were there any people left in New York who didn’t think everything was a rush job?
    Together they pulled furniture into the centre. She removed the Handel lamp to the dining area. Once Cavallos had submerged the bookshelves and the Charles de Gaulle desk under a waterfall of sheeting, he left to buy the paint. Farrow & Ball. Old-world  limewash, elegant and light absorbing. As restful as a tomb.
    In Cavallos’ wake, a vibration filled the air – like the whirr of a million humming birds – which entered her ears and washed over the back of her neck. She was attuned to these sensations to greater and lesser intensities. This one felt exciting. Good vibes. A good day.
    She brewed an espresso, lit a Moods Filter cigarillo, and called Lydia to say she was going to stay home.
    Lydia balked. “Izz, you’re heavily insured. They’re bonded and management approved. Why stay?”
    “I dunno…I suppose you’re right…”
    “Of course I’m right. Lock up your cashmeres, throw the silver into a large bag of kitty litter--”
    “I don’t have a cat--”
    “Who cares? You should always have kitty litter around. And, don’t forget to stick all the remotes in the washing machine.”
    “Gawd, Lydia. Where do you get all this stuff? Who’s gonna steal remotes?”
    “Not steal them. Use them to watch porn on the cable channels.”
    “I’m staying home.”
    “Don’t be silly. I’m only half joking. Besides, guess what just came in? Your rhino roaches. I draw the line at roaches, Izz. You unpack ‘em, not me.”
    “Did you see them? Are they all right?”
    “I told you, I won’t even touch the box. And it’s a big box.”
    “They’re dead, Lydia, they’re dead.”
    “They better be. I see you have Bloomberg’s number on your speed dial…”
    “Lydia, Bloomberg isn’t interested in dead roaches. He’s too busy chasing bedbugs.”
    “Just get in here, okay? You, me, the roaches, we’ll have a regular picnic.”
    “All right. About an hour, then. I still have to get dressed.”

    When she finished her coffee, she strolled the hallway to the living room, making note of the paintings. It was foolish to feel nervous – Cavallos was recommended. Nevertheless, there was one thing she would not risk damaging or losing – Mr. Ruggles, who was perched under treated glass on his marble pedestal. His round head faced the windows overlooking the park.
    “C’mon, my sweet baby,” she said, cautiously lifting the glass. His lattice-work linen wrappings were exquisite, his crooked nose wide and long. When she stroked it she sensed velvety fur and a Burmese face underneath. She carried him gingerly to her bedroom and placed him in the recesses of a closet. His vacant eyes regarded her with perpetual curiosity. “See ya, Ruggles,” she whispered and shut the door.
     Forty minutes later she was dressed like Beau Brummell – Tuesdays were Beau Brummell day. Cavallos and his partner, Nino, returned to find her in riding boots, black skinny pants, white-collared shirt with a blue silk cravat, a vest, and a black cutaway jacket.
    She stopped to finger-comb her long bangs in the foyer, saluted the men, and left.

    Outside on the curb, narrow trees, most of them Aspens, tossed their heads back and forth in a steady breeze, their buds ripening quickly in the sunshine. Two dusty gardeners inside the park were sweeping away lingering traces of winter. She watched through the wrought-iron railings as they cleared the path leading to the statue of Edwin Booth and was tempted to stay and root for the squirrels who were trailing the sandy debris, treasure hunting.
    Instead, she ducked over to the Starbucks on 23rd.
    Since their phone conversation, Isobel envisioned Lydia plastered against a wall, her auburn corkscrew pigtails quivering, her freckled face locked in a scream, as a herd of rhino roaches broke free from their box, hissing, clacking and scuttling their way toward her ankles and her ineluctable demise.
    Lydia was going to need fortification. Isobel ordered a grande triple shot cappuccino.

-end snip-

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Clenched Mind

When I was a kid I tended to take things quite literally -- I guess most kids do.
My mother told me that a young girl we knew had broken her leg; my mind took off on a gruesome voyage to her hospital bed, where I was convinced her leg looked like a fat salami which had been sheared in half. I could count the speckles, globules of fat and spices in that salami, and for a very long time, I was afraid of cold cuts. Seriously.

Then, much later, I read in the bible that Moses had to hold his arms up whenever the Israelites, led by Joshua, clashed with another group in war. If he did this, Joshua's army would win, but if his arms faltered, if he tired, they'd lose.

Somehow, that particular image got stuck in my brain. Sometimes I am riding in the passenger seat of a car, and I find myself mentally attempting to brake just a second or two ahead of the driver. See, if I don't do this, we'll crash.

Whether voluntary, or not, I always feel that so long as I root for the underdog, pray for the unfortunate, stay tuned to disasters, it'll prove I care, that I am not selfishly absorbed in my own corner of the world. Maybe, because I am watching, praying and rooting for a better outcome, things won't be so bad.

I was tuned to the TV early in the morning EST when the tsunami struck Japan. Actually, it gathered momentum before striking, then came rolling in with an inexorable finality. I was sitting on the couch and I literally lifted both my legs and pushed my heels against a wall of air, pushing and pushing vainly again, desperate to stop its advance. And then the enormity of what I was witnessing and the incredulity of it brought my struggles to a halt. I just sat there, staring, captivated, infused with adrenaline that was both horrible and exciting.

These kinds of calamities seem to occur in slow motion. Almost as though seconds stretch themselves into hour-long minutes. It was the same thing when I saw the Twin Towers collapsing one floor onto the next.

At any rate, when I witness horrible events live, I become involved in the anxiety and human drama. I tell myself I can't look away, can't stop wondering and caring about pelicans mired in oil, people fleeing water and nuclear contamination.
If I tune these things out, this will mean I am heartless, selfish, cold.

But just how many ways can you spell guilt?

It's no damn good. Unless I am sending a hefty cheque to the International Red Cross or running a country, or working with Doctors without Borders, or volunteering to distribute food, or applying for my own personal seat on the UN Security Council, it's no damn good.

While on one hand, the world's great calamities provide fodder for the creative writer -- and don't kid yourself, they do -- they also suck you dry.

I've never been successful at compartmentalizing my life -- probably my biggest failing. Have a husband, have a lover, have a sick child, go to work anyhow, be like Rose Kennedy and smile when your kids get killed, never go to bed angry because arguments are one thing, and sleep is another...So not me.
More's the pity, I think.

And, so, we arrive at the state I refer to as the clenched mind. Now, the clenched mind is no good to anyone -- you may as well have a stroke and get it over with. You certainly can't write with a clenched mind because any and all creative ideas become petrified in stone, moribund, as cold and dead as Charlton Heston's hands.

Normally I am an anxious person. And, to varying degrees, I want to control events in my personal life. As an infant, I was a placid thing, but I think someone dropped me on my head and after that, all bets were off.
So when I find myself following the news of myriad disasters -- and in all fairness, I didn't pay one moment's notice to OJ Simpson and his trial -- I am talking major disasters here -- I do get embroiled. As a former news person, I understand it. As a novelist, I have to sidestep it. I have to avoid the clenched mind.

What this really means is nobody is going to kill me because I want to write a story. Nobody is going to put my heels to the fire because I need to turn my back on the world's disasters for a few hours every day. I have something vital to do. I have to write a book. And even though my own brethren died by the millions in gas chambers while others danced to the strains of Glenn Miller and his orchestra, it doesn't mean those happy people were guilty of murder. Okay, so maybe some were... all boils down to useless guilt, a misguided sense of trying to fend off impending doom, and most abhorrent of all, the clenched mind.

People who train themselves to parcel up their hours into units of thinking, working, and feeling are not evil and cold-hearted. They are wise. They know that disasters inevitably end and life goes on. Artists, in particular, need to be "selfish" because if they weren't, there would be nothing of comfort and grace left to enjoy once nature's wrath recedes.
I don't think it's any coincidence that in learning to train the mind that way, one also acquires the ability to focus completely. In my case, the act of putting aside exterior intrusions means I've given my mind permission to play. It means I can concentrate. It means I am able to create without guilt because I have unclenched my mind.

Susan Hayward said, "I'll cry tomorrow." Scarlett O'Hara said, "I'll think about that tomorrow." And I am saying, "let the games begin."

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Looking on the Bright Side

In the writer's world, nothing goes to waste -- or, it shouldn't.

Even if minds change or projects get cancelled, there is still the work itself, and the way it makes us feel as we approach new ideas, and different ways to express ourselves. We learn from our writing experiences and I count all of them -- good and bad -- as a chance to view my work as the proverbial glass. It it half empty or half full? I always look carefully because I know there is something to take away from it, something I may well use later on. Inevitably, then, the glass is half full, waiting for me to sip. Oddly enough, the more I sip, the fuller the glass becomes.

One of my projects -- Lessons I Learned From My Mother, an anthology of essays, was to be co-written and co-produced...well, it's been cancelled.

If you were one of the many contributors who generously offered your time and essays, I thank you most sincerely, and wish you the best of luck with all your current projects.
And, please feel free to post your essay on this blog.

I thought I'd serve up one of mine because it touches on not only who I am as a writer but how this came to be.

“So shut your eyes while mother sings
   Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
   As you rock in the misty sea”
                               -- Eugene Field, (Wynken, Blynken and Nod)

In The Beginning Was The Word….
          For me there was no sweeter gift, no greater warmth or comfort than the sound of my mother’s voice reading aloud to me. A thousand kisses paled beneath this joy because they quickly evaporated into memory. But her musical words and phrases remained firmly in my head where they reverberate to this day.
          Mummy began her nightly reading ritual when I was three years old. We had come into possession of the well-reputed children’s anthology, My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller. Ours was the twelve-volume ‘rainbow’ edition and one of the last in a series of reprints that included literary works later considered either obsolete or politically incorrect. In 1953, however, such restrictions did not exist and I was able to enjoy the beauty of stories like Little Black Sambo  who was dressed in his ‘fine suit of clothes and purple shoes with crimson soles and crimson linings.’
          Mummy would sit on a simple wooden chair and read to my sister and me for a long time as we were a most demanding audience who quickly developed an addiction to this entertainment as some do with alcohol. One story was far too many and a thousand not nearly enough.
           She began at the beginning, which is to say, with Mother Goose and Walter de la Mare, and quickly progressed to folk tales, and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. She read as a seasoned actor in impeccable voice with a flair for both drama and humour, and even supplied sound effects. Stories and rhymes paraded into my brain with simple images of a cat frightening a little mouse under a Queen’s chair, or with deeper, more foreboding pictures of Rapunzel’s mother craving a dish of rampion that grew in a forbidden garden surrounded by thorns and nettles.
          When she read, my little corner of the world – an upstairs bedroom with twin beds and pale green walls – shrank to the size of a mouse hole where nothing stirred; sheets never rustled in boredom. Two daughters held still, eyes fixed on the book on my mother’s lap. With bated breath we waited to learn if the lion was going to eat Androcles after he removed a thorn from its paw. Would Sleeping Beauty ever be rescued, was Snow White really dead, and would the goblins really get us if we didn’t watch out?  
          I treasured the stories – even the very sad ones. I also favoured stories that mentioned food and there were hundreds of those. Tom, the Piper’s son, must have been very hungry because he stole a pig and was beaten for it. Jack Spratt and his wife ate fat and lean; in later years I envied them because they had worked out a perfect marriage. Then there was the Queen of Hearts who saw her tarts ripped off by the Knave! It seemed people the world over were eating bread and honey, roasting meats on spits, selling pies, and pulling plums out of them. And how amazing that Carl Sandburg’s Rutabaga stories included a Village of Cream Puffs. Had I been a resident, I know I would have consumed the entire town.
          My mother’s tastes in literature were as broad and eclectic as Ms. Miller’s; happily she read almost every selection from the anthology. There were great American and international writers, assorted fables from the near and far east, Indian folklore, biblical verses, Greek myths – a feast of  magical adventures and whimsical ditties.
          Progress on the books was steady, and as Mummy made her way through Book Four, both my sister and I were right there with her, our comprehension sharp, our eagerness the very catalyst she required. After all, she gave a grand performance every night, and even provided matinées. As her repertoire increased so did the demand for repeat performances. Wynken, Blynken and Nod, The Nutcracker and Sugardolly, The Owl and the Pussycat and The Selfish Giant were as popular in our bedroom as butterscotch lollipops. (We tended to avoid Chicken Little. Chicken Little was as unwelcome as licorice.)
          After a year of this listening, I had absorbed and retained a wealth of knowledge that would stand me in good stead when it came to studying the literary arts. But what mattered then were the stories and books alive with various drawings and pictures.
          And then, something changed.
          It was by now, a summer filled with sunny days and my sister, being two years older than I, had permission to stay outdoors longer while I was still sent early packing to the land of Nod. Mummy, however, continued her reading – and she decided to do something radical. She picked up James M. Barrie’s novel, Peter Pan, and announced her intention to take me to Neverland.
          “But, Mummy, there are no pictures,” I complained.
          “You won’t need any, I promise. Just lie back and listen like you always do.”
          And so the journey began. At first I balked when she read about hidden kisses lurking on the side of Mrs. Darling’s mouth. I began to squirm at references to stocks and shares and Mr. Darling’s concerns about the cost of having children. And then suddenly, Peter Pan’s shadow made its entrance and soon after my mother read the word “perambulator” and I shot straight up.
          “What’s a perambulator?”
          “A very fancy baby carriage.”
          “What is Kensington Garden like?”
          “It has a large fountain and green leafy trees in summer just like now and the flowers are white and purple and pink. There even is a statue of Peter Pan in the garden.”
          “Can I see it?”
          “Yes. When you go to London, you’ll see it.”
          The reading continued. I squeezed my eyes shut and smelled lilacs; I heard Mummy reading that the Lost Boys fell out of their perambulators. I heard Wendy ask if there were girls in Neverland, and Peter said: “Oh, no; girls, you know, are much too clever to fall out of their prams.”
          I was captivated by a boy who could teach you to fly, a naughty, jealous faerie named Tinker Bell, and the entire notion that anyone could follow Peter to Neverland.
          The secret to getting there lay in the book. But my mother closed it for the evening and promised to continue the next night.
          She kissed me goodnight and encouraged me to lie back once more, gaze out the window beside my bed and see if I could find the evening star. As dusk was scarcely upon us, I did as she suggested and watched the light fade gradually until I saw a twinkling in the sky.
          I fell asleep on a cloud of lilac and honeysuckle and the sweet damp odour of grass filtering into the bedroom.
I had entered a new realm – that of a real imagination which was as much in me as it was in Mummy and James Barrie. Surely there was a Peter Pan. After all, his statue was in a London park.
          If only I could read the book myself! If only! I could go away with Peter and Wendy and Michael and John and…and…oh, if only!
          My mother could not have known she had just sown the writing seeds of my future. Nor could she have realized how far reaching they’d be. Perhaps she had an inkling that I would come to regard reading as breathing itself, and a haven for the mind when one’s own reality is dreadful.
          I, of course, had no idea that the reason for all this literary entertainment was because she was living one of the darkest chapters in her life and escaping it by leaping into books.
          How ironic that what was brightest in my childhood – her gift of magic and the power of an imagination – came from such misery.
          My father was a handsome itinerate salesman, gone for weeks on end without a word. We were living in a remote corner of the country, far from family and home in Montreal. There was not enough money for food or coal in the furnace. Our future in doubt, Mummy was frightened and lonely. She never hinted at it.
          I missed Daddy, too, but this fell away completely when Mummy sat on a chair and opened a book.
          “Tonight,” she announced, “we’re going to meet Tiger Lily who lives in a lagoon.”
          “What’s a lagoon?”
          I rolled the delicious word over my tongue in the dark.
          She was right. I didn’t need to see pictures, I could imagine them without any more help. And very soon, I would read for myself and write my own words, too. I would never feel alone as long as a book stood nearby. And I would never feel as alive as I do right now when writing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Japan One Week Later

Nightmares once suppressed
Cherry blossoms desolate
Weeps again Japan.

Wooden doll paint chipped
Buddha peeks through snowy death
Seismic psyches split.

Hunger gathers pain
Beneath the stoic rain of
Gamma rays streaking.

Hope and hopeless meet
The will in surrendering
To life's ash and sweet.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Death By Chocolate -- A Saint Valentine's Day Massacre

Today is a lovers' paradise -- an excuse to "come out" and openly declare your passion -- nay, lust! -- for chocolate.

Your current secret paramour...Milk chocolate? Dutch chocolate? Swiss chocolate? Dark chocolate? No matter. And never mind the purists who point out that milk chocolate isn't really chocolate. (Just talk to the folks in Britain about their Cadbury bars versus the hitherto but now settled conflict with the EU's definition.) The point is, if you love chocolate, I hope you have indulged.

My favourite treats come from Leonidas -- a Belgian company that flies their wares into Montreal and other cities every week. The cards inside Leonidas boxes suggest you eat your goodies within 7 days -- there's real buttercream in many of their fabled centres. My personal passport to heaven is buttercream in dark chocolate. But, I certainly would not sneer at anything of the praline variety, either.

Okay, to be completely honest, I'll eat most of the chocolates out there -- just so long as they're fresh.

In keeping with this devilishly wonderful concept, the management at the venerable apartment house where I live, dropped off small wrapped cellophane bags, festooned in ribbons and hearts, filled with sweets. They enclosed a tiny pink card thanking us all for supporting their various efforts to keep century-old pipes from bursting etc.

A lovely gesture.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Flashpoint to Freedom?

 Oh, but what a time it is! I have been glued to events in the Middle East, watching and waiting with the rest of the world.
Brave people fighting for the end of a dictatorship, wanting to taste the waters of a new Nile. How and when it will come about -- if it truly can come about -- is written on the wind, and no one really knows which way that wind will blow.

I was thinking about a children's story I wrote several years ago, and am posting it now.
I hope some editor or agent out there reads it and likes it. (It's actually drawn from a proposed series of stories -- one animal, one child, one historical event in each, throughout history.)

In any case, when Aten's Goat made the rounds in New York in the 1990s, it garnered positive comments despite the rejection letters, and that was encouraging. But, writers can't eat encouragement any more than starving people can subsist solely on dreams of freedom; writers need contracts and books!

One thing strikes me as I revisit my story -- Hosni Mubarak needs to save face, retain dignity, leave office without shame, or so the culture strongly insists. I get that. I also get that it's very hard for despots to let go after thirty years of rule.

But, I also know that killing and torturing one's own people in order to control them is antithetical to my particular Pharaoh. When a famine comes to his ancient Egypt, he worries about his people because he is their royal god -- and he worries that his forefathers, not his people, are laughing at him.
Quite wisely, the Pharaoh in my story points out that if the people die, he will have no one left to rule.
Maybe he doesn't really care about "the people" but he is, at least, shrewd enough to see the obvious.

My question now is -- just how wise is modern-day Hosni Mubarak?

Here's my picture book text -- I hope you enjoy it.

ATEN’S GOAT         
          Long ago in Egypt when the Nile River sparkled and the Sphinx still had a nose, a man named Halem lived with his grandson, Aten, in a fine house near the Pharaoh’s palace.
          Halem was the Royal Soothsayer to the mighty Pharaoh. Whenever the Pharaoh was worried, it was Halem’s job to look for signs of good or evil in the heavens and in all of nature and explain what they meant.
          When the Pharaoh wondered if the water of the Nile was too low, Halem would read the stars and answer, “The Nile will rise again in one day and one night.”
          Sometimes the Pharaoh cried, “The Nile floods the land too quickly! Will it drown us?”
          Halem examined earthworms. If they were swollen, he'd reply, “Great Pharaoh, the Nile's water will return to normal in two days. It will not drown us.”
          There were moonlit nights when the Pharaoh couldn’t sleep. He would send for Halem.
          “Tell me!” the Pharaoh commanded. “Will Egypt’s enemies defeat us?”
          And Halem would sacrifice a ram or goat and study its intestines for important clues.
          “You must not fight for three days,” Halem would answer. “Avoid them tomorrow.”
          Halem’s advice calmed the Pharaoh. He would return to his stone bed and soft cushions and dream of his ancestors sleeping with eyes open, still and quiet within their tombs.    
          Sometimes Halem made a mistake, but the Pharaoh did not punish him because his mistakes numbered less than five in a whole year.
          One year, the Pharaoh was so pleased with Halem that he gave him a gift of fifteen hundred goats and sheep.
          “You honor me, Great Pharaoh,” Halem bowed low. “And honor is reward enough. In turn, I shall give the herds to the Royal Palace and your family.”
          The Pharaoh was indeed impressed. “Thank you, Halem. But I insist you take at least one of the flock as a symbol of my gratitude.”
          Halem chose a small goat with black ears to bring home to his grandson, Aten. The little she-goat would make a perfect friend.

          Aten was delighted. Every day, he sat beneath the laurel trees, in the shade of ripe figs. He drew pictures while his little goat, Set-Set, nibbled the grass and shook her long white coat in the sunshine.
          One morning, after Set-Set had eaten a golden orange, she began to sing. “I am a little goat of Egypt,” she sang. “Aten's goat. His only goat.” And then she jumped and tossed her head.
          “You can sing!” Aten exclaimed. “You are a magic goat!”
          Set-Set bleated, “Maa! Maa!” And tossed her head once more.
After a lunch of olives, cheese and pomegranates, the pair waited patiently for Halem’s return from the Pharaoh’s palace.

          Aten loved afternoons with his grandfather! They sat together in the sun-lit garden and drew pictures while Set-Set nibbled the grass nearby.
          One day, as Halem lifted Aten onto his lap, he smiled so deeply that Aten was able to count all the lines in Halem’s cheeks. Then he counted the brown freckles on Halem’s hands.
          “Why do you have so many lines and freckles?” Aten asked.
          “The lines come to everyone who seeks wisdom,” Halem explained. “Each freckle represents one wise thought.”
          “But you have many more lines than freckles,” Aten said.
          “Yes,” laughed Halem. “The search for wisdom never ends. You may have to look in a thousand places before you discover one single wise thought.”
          “Are you wise because you read the stars and sacrifice goats and rams, Grandfather?”
          “I am wise because the Pharaoh thinks I am,” Halem laughed.
          “Will you ever sacrifice Set-Set, Grandfather?”
          “Set-Set is your friend, Aten. Set-Set is not meant for sacrifice,” And then Aten and Halem went for a walk under the laurel trees and in the shade of ripe figs.
          Set-Set ran beside them, chasing the wandering bees and shaking her coat in the sunshine.

          When Aten and Set-Set had lived through eight plantings of wheat and barley, a famine came to Egypt. At first no one really knew it was there except for Halem. Sitting on a stone bench one morning, he looked into the sky and saw tiny red particles hovering in the sun’s rays. Yet no wind stirred the earth.
          Halem went at once to the Pharaoh’s palace.
          “A famine begins, Great Pharaoh,” Halem said. “Fill all the wheat granaries. Fill the water urns, too. For the famine comes.”
          And so the famine crept along the green valleys of the Nile and all the waters evaporated. Every green plant turned brown. The figs and dates shrivelled up. Frogs and turtles hid under bleached pebbles in empty ponds and eventually died. All the birds flew away. And the rams and goats were eaten so quickly that soon none remained, except for Set-Set.
          “We must hide Set-Set,” Halem told Aten. “Take her down into the wine cave and guard her.”
          Aten found a cool corner in the cave near the house. He sat with Set-Set on a soft pallet. Thin and hungry like Aten, Set-Set sang anyway. “I am a little goat of Egypt. Aten’s goat. His only goat.”

          Hunger made the children’s eyes grow large. So the Pharaoh opened the wheat granaries and the people of Egypt ate. Water in huge urns splashed into everyone’s cups until the last drop was  gone.
          The Pharaoh summoned Halem to the Palace. “How much longer will the famine last?” he asked.
          “I will count the number of teeth in the old men’s smiles,” Halem said.
          “Will you not examine the insides of a ram?” asked the Pharaoh.
          “There are no rams left, Great One. I will count the teeth, instead.”      
          When Halem had finished counting, he told the Pharaoh, “The famine will last another year. The old men’s smiles will fade.”
          So the Pharaoh ordered the caravans to bring water and food from the city of Byblos where there was no famine.
          “How long will it take before the caravans return?” asked the Pharaoh.
          Halem looked at the sky. Red dust marked the moon’s face like pox.
          “I cannot be certain, Mighty Pharaoh. There are sandstorms in the desert now. They will cut men’s eyes and blind the camels.”
          The Pharaoh grew angry. “You cannot be certain? That is a poor answer! Why do you not examine the intestines of a goat?”
          “The goats are gone,” Halem said.
          “And your grandson’s goat?” the Pharaoh demanded. “Has it died, too?”
          “She is too sick to be of any use, Great One. She is almost dried up,” Halem answered.
          “If the people die,” the Pharaoh shouted, “I will have no one to rule!”
          When the Pharaoh returned to his stone bed and soft cushions, he dreamt of his ancestors sleeping with eyes open, laughing at him.

          That night Aten found Halem looking at the stars.
          “What do the stars say?” asked Aten.
          “They say the Pharaoh comes to our house. He comes for Set-Set.”
          “But he can’t!” Aten wept.
          “If we try to stop him, we will surely die,” Halem answered.

          Halem was right. The Pharaoh arrived with trumpeters and guards. His face was dark.
          “I must take this last goat of Egypt,” the Pharaoh explained. “If I sacrifice her to the gods, surely they will pity us and end this famine.”
          The guards carried Set-Set from the cave. She was so weak that when she cried, “Maa! Maa!” only Aten’s heart could hear her.

          The next morning the people of Egypt gathered to witness Set-Set’s sacrifice at the Temple. The old men came, leaning on sticks. Hungry babies drooped in their mothers’ arms, and all eyes of Egypt looked for a sign of  hope.
          Aten stood in front of the crowd, shivering because he was frightened.
          “Since this goat belongs to the Royal Soothsayer’s house, he shall conduct the sacrifice,” the Pharaoh commanded.
          And so with a trembling hand, Halem lifted his knife up towards the sun, ready to strike Set-Set. All eyes watched Halem’s arm.
          Suddenly Aten shouted, “No, no! Stop!” And he ran so quickly no one could catch him.
          He raced up the stairs to the altar and threw himself across Set-Set. Halem’s blade stopped but a hair’s breadth from Aten’s neck.
          “Please, don’t kill my goat!” Aten begged the Pharaoh. “Sacrifice me instead.  The gods might like that even more!”
          The crowd rumbled. Aten was offending the Pharaoh!
          The Pharaoh was greatly surprised. “You would exchange your life for a small goat?”
          Aten nodded slowly. He stroked Set-Set’s head. “She’s my friend.”
          Just then, Set-Set sang out. “I am a little goat of Egypt. Aten’s goat. His only goat.”
          Halem dropped his knife in astonishment. The Pharaoh sat down hard on his golden chair and stared at Set-Set. No one spoke!
          Finally, the Pharaoh declared, “As I spare the boy and save his goat, so shall the gods spare Egypt.”
          Suddenly, the sound of trumpets filled the air. Temple messengers hurried toward the Pharaoh.
          “Great One,” they announced, “the caravans are only a few hours away. They are carrying bread, cheese, olives, figs and heavy water skins. There will be food and drink for everyone tonight!”
          The crowd remained quiet, unable to believe such good news. Then Set-Set cried, “Maa-maa!”
          Aten laughed. The Pharaoh looked pleased.
          And the old men smiled though they had no teeth.

All Rights Reserved Carol Krenz 2011