Thursday, February 28, 2013

Once, a long time ago

Once, a long time ago, I thought I'd write a memoir.  Here is a piece of that experiment.

August 27th, 1966
My brother and I sleep on green canvas cots in the barn. My sister, who is only six, sleeps in the house. In the early morning I awaken to a trembling on my chest: it's a chipmunk! I scream, and it scurries off. My brother throws a cow bone at me for waking him, but he’s sleepy and it clashes against the slats of the barn wall. He has a collection of cow bones from the neighbor’s pasture. He’s trying to make a whole cow, but he will grow up and drill gas wells, leaving the pieces behind.  
My brother and I eat Special K for breakfast. My sister eats only white toast. No one forces her to eat vegetables or fruit, get some iron in her blood. There is, at this moment, a freedom at home, an agreement to let some things slide.
My father has hung a long rope from a high branch of the sturdy maple in our front yard. At the bottom of the rope is a dowel from a broken chair, tied to the rope with knots I will never learn. I sit on this swing, an Olympic contender. There are specific feats I must perform, exactly right. I pull back, push off, lean back, pump, point my toes, hold one arm out, fingers cupped together. On the back-swing I must switch hands. I do this very well. The trees applaud.
Inside, my mother cooks cabbage soup, my father’s favorite, although he won’t eat today. The house and her clothes will smell bitter for days. My mother stands over the soup and stirs, and only now that I am a mother do I know that she wept into that broth no matter what she made us believe.
In the woods, I tie my sister to a mast. My brother makes me walk the plank. The trees oblige: there are so many masts, so many planks, so many places to hide. My brother dares me to eat currants that grow along the back field, and I do, even though I know how bad they taste. My sister eats only one, but doesn’t spit it out, and we tell her how good she is. She doesn’t understand much yet, but she will.
We keep our voices low at dinner. Upstairs, my father coughs. My mother excuses herself, and doesn’t come back down for a long time. We do the dishes. Afterwards we sit in front of the black and white TV. We watch the pictures of our planet, sent down from the lunar orbiter. We see the ball of our earth, the tattered cover of clouds, the shadowy shapes of continents. My mother comes downstairs and sits between us on the couch, laying an arm over my brother’s shoulder. Later we go outside and look up, but can’t find the moon. From outside we hear that cough, and I count the repetitions like the seconds after lightening.
My brother and I sleep in the barn. A branch scrapes against the roof, prying at the shingles. We pretend we’re in a cabin in Alaska, wolves pawing across the roof. We play at being alone. In time, we’ll be perfect at this. We’ll be fine.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On mothers lessons

Bottled water, matches, flashlights, batteries.  Rice, beans, lentils.  Canned tuna, chicken, salmon.  Canned fruits, vegetables, soups, milk.  (What else comes canned?  What am I forgetting?)  Chocolate, hard candies, sugar. Salt, flour.  Sharp knives, can opener.  Candles, hurricane lanterns, kerosene.  Bandages, gauze, duck tape, antibiotics.  These are the words I go to sleep by, or that, more likely, hold sleep at bay.
              The list has been with me since I moved out of my family’s house and into my own home—at the age of seventeen.  I left my family but I brought along my mother’s fear of the end of the world, and her fantasy of surviving by keeping a well-stocked basement hidey-hole, a room you don’t show your neighbors.  And I brought along, no matter how many times I moved, her love of apocalypse writing.
              The first poem I can remember my mother reading to me when I was about six is “The Wreck of the Hesperus” by Longfellow.  “Come hither!  Come hither! My little daughter / And do not tremble so; For I can weather the roughest gale / That ever the wind did blow”
              Oh, her eyes lit up as she read it!  Although my father was the actor, and she was never interested in the stage, she delighted in reading aloud the gloomiest tales.  I grew up with Poe and Shakespeare.  In my childhood, and even now, reality was a tricky concept.  Pretend was rehearsed and memorized, and performed. 
              Her physical belief in the worst to come, and our survival, lay in the basement, behind a wooden door.  (Even she must have known that door should have been made of steel, not flimsy wood.)  It was the time of the cold war, and books like Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank sat on our bookshelves like bibles. 
              She didn’t see what was really coming—the death of her husband, the father of three.  She had no weapons, no provisions, to save him from cancer.  We survivors, tied together at the mast of loss, held on.  Apocalypse stories must have lost their appeal.  Instead, Anne Tyler, with her stories of odd characters finding redemption, filled the bookshelves, along with bestsellers of the worst sort—with rich women getting revenge on the world. 
              My mother is dead now, of cancer, the same kind that took my father, lung cancer.  They both smoked cigarettes, the invisible gun of their youth.  I have inherited a dozen hurricane lamps.  Nobody needs that many hurricane lamps, except me.  I will take all the help I can get.  Because I believe in my mother, and my mother believed in me.  I will continue on, come hell or high water.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

On reading an ARC

ARCs.  I read a lot of ARCs—which are bound galleys—uncorrected proofs of books--and are not for sale but are sent out by the publisher to potential reviewers at newspapers, magazines, libraries, bookstores, blogs, etc.  Basically, if you’re lucky, your publisher prints a good deal of these.  They want to get a buzz going.  The people who might be most interested in your book get to read it first.  And therein lies the rub.
              A lot of work goes into the final book, rewrite after rewrite, and we writers want readers to read the perfect gem we have been working on for years.  Pull you into our story, captivate you with the characters and plot, keep you in our dream world.  Show you how brilliant we are.  It’s a piece of art, worthy the reader’s time.  We don’t want you to see the imperfections, the missing or misspelled words.
              There are a lot of words in a novel or book, and up until that last, hopefully perfect version, we do make mistakes.  The words are in our heads but haven’t made it to the page, or we’ve typed boot when we mean boat but just haven’t caught that mistake yet because the word boat is in our head and the mind wants to see boat, so it does.  It takes agents and editors and copy editors to tap us on the shoulder and say, “Ah, you screwed up here.  Did you notice?”  And we thank them.
              But the process isn’t done by the time that ARC is printed, and sending it out to readers that I really want to impress makes me wince.  Because I know when I’m reading an ARC for a review, I see those mistakes, and suddenly I’m a line editor, not, say, a charming and verbose kidnapper, or girl waking up in the future.
              So here’s the question, for those of you who do read ARCs.  How forgiving are you?  Have you ever read the final version after reading an ARC?  Is an imperfect version of a piece of art not a big deal?  Or, am I making too much of it all?