A Hill Runs Through It

A certain hill looms large in my memories, although it wasn’t particularly large itself.

The yard behind the house in Clifton Park, NY where I grew up (we had yards back then, rather than manicured lawns) was wide enough to contain a swing-set and a clothesline before it sloped down toward our elderly neighbor’s garden plot at about a 45-degree angle. It wasn’t a large area, but to child-me, it was the world.

In summer, clad in shorts and a sleeveless top, my mother would lounge on an ugly gray blanket and work on her tan, one eye on me and one on the mystery novel she was reading, ears tuned to the ballgame playing on the portable radio. (Go, Yankees!) My bedroom window looked out onto that hill and when my father mowed it, sheering the grass in long rows, the heavenly fragrance graced my dreams. My friends and I flung ourselves down on the crest of that  hill and, arms tucked tight, rolled to the bottom, then sat up and laughed as the world whirligig’d around us.

In fall, we did the same, the only difference being the vast pile of leaves raked into a heap at the bottom to catch us, because what’s the point of fallen eaves if you don’t jump into them? As the days grew shorter, we did our best to stretch the  hours lingering on the hill as late as possible, darting in and out of shadows, dancing in the light from the big bulb above the back door.

In winter–ah, winter!–the heavy snows packed and froze, then melted a bit and refroze, growing a crust thick enough to support my weight. In what I once thought was a bid to do me in, my mom waxed the bottom of my aluminum saucer with Pledge furniture polish and I careened down the hill, my heart in my throat, hanging on for dear life, laughing breathlessly, spinning in circlescirclescircles as I shot past the dead stalks in the neighbor’s garden and halfway up the distant embankment which, if breasted, would have landed me in the middle of Route 146. I never made it that far, the angle of the second hill being enough to turn me back the way I’d come, but it always seemed a close thing.

Spring was the hill’s quiet time, a sedate emergence from winter as brown grass slowly put out bright green shoots to match the budding iris in my dad’s flowerbeds. Games of pretend made us cowboys and Indians, and gave us horses our parents wouldn’t let us have in reality. As the evenings grew warmer, we sat on the brow of the hill, we kids, and counted the stars, pointing out the Big Dipper, the only constellation we knew at the time.

The hill is gone now, flattened in the wake of the property being sold and the house demolished. There’s a Stewart’s store where my home once stood, gas pumps where poppies grew. A few trees remain–old friends still–but nothing remains of the hill except for a ghostly outline only I can see, and the distant laughter of children.

Living the Lie

worldcon-1“Sometimes we just want to lie. I meet a woman I’ll never see again at a swimming pool. ‘How many children do you have?’ she asks, never imaging the number zero. ‘Oh, four,’ I say. ‘Two still at home, one married, and one in his junior year at Northwestern.’ I smile with pleasure.” — Natalie Goldberg, Old Friend from Far Away

We all lie, despite our best intentions to be (mostly) truthful. We’re often ashamed when it occurs–especially if we get caught–but we keep right on doing it. Big lies and small ones. Lies to soften a blow. Lies to save to our own asses. Lies to embellish, and lies to tear down. Lies to hide from ourselves, and lies we hope will become truth given enough time.

You name the situation, we’ve got a lie for it.

But not all lies are bad. My best–the one with which I had the most fun–was perpetrated at the 38th World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), also known as Noreascon II, held in Boston in 1980. It was my first-ever convention–talk about a trial by fire!–and I attended with my then-best friend, Eileen Accurso. We were 22 years old and our time together was coming to an end, much as we tried to deny it. She was inexorably closing in on marriage and motherhood, while I was headed to Southampton College to pursue a dream. With bold determination to ignore the approaching fork in our shared road, we were bent on celebrating life among others of our own kind.

Within moments of arrival–having secured floor space in a room with people Eileen had met at another con–we donned our costumes and hit the convention hard. Costumes?  you ask. Oh, yes. But rather than co-opt another’s universe, we portrayed characters from our own shared world: Kyl (pronounced ‘kyle’), the mercurial and tempestuous captain of the Silver Panther (that was Eileen), and me as her second officer, the stalwart and steady Laryne. In black pants, boots, home-sewn silver tunics, and, yes, blasters at the ready, we joined in the fun and games, racing through the lobby, engaging in battles with other groups, and teaming up with a bunch of teenage boys whose names I desperately wish I could recall (Captain Steve?), who were some of the best role-players I ever met. Because, see, for the days of the con, no one retained their day-to-day identity. Eileen was Kyl. I became Laryne. Captain Steve wasn’t some high-school kid from Massachusetts battling acne and college-quality grades, he was sure-as-shit Captain of his ship and don’t you forget it! And his crew! Never out of character and, frankly, it’s difficult to resist a group of good-looking young men who come to attention and salute, fist-to-chest, whenever they see you.

I’ve attended many conventions since then, but none will ever surpass the joy (fear, frustration, anger, magic) of that first time. The land was full of heroes. Not only could I walk among them, I could meet them face-to-face, and engage in conversation. Alan Dean Foster. Barclay Shaw. Isaac Asimov. Harlan Ellison. Terry Pratchett. Spider Robinson. Damon Knight. Frederick Pohl. Lester del Rey. Robert Silverberg. The Wombat, Jan Howard Finder. Catherine and L. Sprague de Camp (who one day, at a much-later convention, would share a breakfast table with me and some friends from Buffalo).

Honestly? I miss those days.

Writers lie. We create and pretend. We change the rules of the universe. We play God, a little bit. That time at WorldCon/Noreascon gave me freedom beyond the page to be what/who I wanted to be. It allowed me a brief window into another world, one I’d yearned for without actually knowing it existed. One in which geeky, four-eyed, bookish little me was accepted just as she was.

And she was fine.

The King is Dead

Packy the elephantSomehow, I thought he would live forever.

Ridiculous, of course, but it’s the sort of notion that arises. Maybe it’s more of a hope or prayer, a mantra against the inevitable.

Like many others, I thought of him as mine, although I had little claim on him. I wasn’t there when he arrived on April 14, 1962, the only child of Belle and Thonglaw, 225 pounds of astonishing baby Asian  elephant, the first of his kind born in captivity in over 40 years. I didn’t see his childhood among the growing herd, watched over by diligent Al Tucker and his crew. I never got to enjoy his teenage years and see him come into his own, pitting his intelligence–and rising hormones–against my friend Roger Henneous, who took over the elephant barn when Tucker retired.

I came on the scene in 1996. Packy was 34 years old and fully mature, a father seven times over, although only one of his children–Sung-Surin, better known as Shine–has survived him.

He was astonishing; jaw-droppingly wonderful, amazing, incomprehensible. Immense. Packy, the Oregon Zoo's famous bull asian elephant, born in 1962.Grand. Majestic. An earth-bound leviathan better than twelve feet tall and weighing more than 14,000 pounds in his prime. You’d look at him, and your brain couldn’t seem to grasp the fact of him.

Stories abound. I know some of them and wish I knew more: how he challenged Roger during a performance in front of hundreds of spectators; how he gave Dr. Bets Rasmussen her first clues to the estrus cycle in elephants by touching the tip of his trunk to a damp patch of soil and then lifting it to the roof of his mouth; how he bit eight inches off Hugo’s trunk; how much he and Al Tucker loved each other.

Now his stories are over. The world is a greater place for his having been here, but smaller now with his passing.

But I have this hope:

Close your eyes. Imagine a vast plain of grass stretching to the horizon and beyond. As far as you can see, there are elephants–grazing, playing, napping. On a knoll stands a lone female, her wise face turned toward the East and the rising sun. Her ears fan open as she catches the sound of familiar footsteps. Walking out of the dawn comes Packy, her son, her beloved. She hurries to meet him, squealing, rumbling, crooning with delight. Their trunks coil around each other and they are, at long last, reunited. Forever.

belle-packy-12

Packy & Belle

Motherline

Some time ago, inspired by the nonfiction book “The Grief Club” by Melodie Beattie, I began to research my female ancestors. Beattie recommends going back a couple of generations, enough to give you a sense of where you come from. I knew back to my great-grandparents on both sides, so figured I’d delve two or three generations beyond them.

I became fascinated by the beauty of their names, these sadly faceless women whose blood runs in my veins. Hextilda, Rohese, and Albreda. Gwaladus, Eschyna, and Angharad. And the usual run of Margarets, Marys, Elizabeths, and Katherines.

Common family history holds that my mother’s line comes from Britain, my dad’s from Germany, but in my walk backward through time I discovered France, Italy, Norway, Finland, Turkey, and Armenia, among others. Truth is, if you go back far enough, you find that we’re all damn-near to being related. There were only just so many families to marry into way back when. (And much fascinating reading about “Mitochondrial Eve” and the idea of seven mothers from whom we all originate, should you care to dive into that particular pool.)

I found Maud De Greystoke (does this mean I’m related to Tarzan?), of French descent but born in Palestine. The three warring factions amid Scottish rule–Comyn, Bruce, and Baliol–all make an appearance.  There are O’Tooles, O’Briens, and even some Bacons. (How many degrees from Kevin am I?) And I laughed long and loud to find myself descended from Alfhild Gandolfsdatter, daughter of Gandolf Alfgeirsson. (Yes, I’m aware that Tolkien spelled it differently. Cut me some slack, willya? I’m having fun.)

What struck me hardest on this journey were the blank spaces where names disappeared into obscurity. Who were they, these women who tended hearth and home, birthed children and often buried them, or died giving them life? How many of them kept things running at home while their husbands and sons and fathers went off to this or that war? How many–like my Grandmother Geneva–raised their family alone after their husband died or abandoned them? How many bore the children of marauders and rapists? Why are they not recorded or remembered? Is it because they were considered unimportant, mere property like a dog or horse or sofa?

They’re important to me. Those women had faces, and spirits. They laughed and cried, swore and fought, loved and lost. Some did whatever it took to survive. Others surrendered and died where they stood. Some were obedient to the dictates of their age. Others were a constant trial to their families and likely suffered for it. We don’t know, but we should.

Remember your grandmothers. You are here because of them. Celebrate that they were here. Lift a glass to your Genevas and Virginias,  your Minnies and Lucretias. Honor especially those who will remain nameless for all time. Don’t let them disappear entirely. Salute the vanished, for they are us.

Magic

“Children see magic because they look for it.” – Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend

When do we, as adults, lose our sense of magic in the world? When do we cease believing that the second star to the right will take us to Neverland? What makes us surrender the power to see magic in a rainbow, the arc of a fish as it rises from the water, the simple beauty of morning sunlight on a spiderweb, or the first snowflake?

Are we afraid of ridicule? Has being “grown up”–in truth, not a role I’ve ever aspired to in the usual sense–come to mean that we should look at the stars and remain unmoved? Are we so fearful of being viewed as someone different, eccentric, quirky? (Never mind that far too many of us walk around every day with an electronic bug in our ear, talking to thin air. That’s not strange at all …  now that it’s commonplace.)

Writers can’t afford to relinquish the hold magic has in our lives. It’s where the words come from: PFM, Pure Fucking Magic. It gives us the what ifs and how comes, the why and wherefores and what abouts. Magic helps us to dream.

 

Love It or Leave It

One of the first rules I learned as a writer is when it comes time to submit your work–to a fellow writer, a writing group, and most especially an editor–make sure your copy is as clean as possible. Does formatting meet requirements? Is there word repetition? Are you prone to incomplete or run-on sentences? Is there consistency in the world you’ve created. (One of my favorite inconsistent moments occurs in the movie “The Mummy.” Why does Evelyn (wonderfully played by Rachel Weisz) need glasses when working in the museum library, but is never again seen wearing them?)

And dear God in Heaven: do not, under any circumstances, rely on spell-check to save your ass.

Have enough respect for the work (not to mention other writers, editors, readers, and–oh, yeah–yourself) to pick over the manuscript like you’re combing for nits. Endeavor to let nothing escape notice because, honestly? Things will. You’ll grow tired and your eyes will slide over mistakes. Errors will creep in despite your best intentions, but that’s no reason to be lazy in the first place.

To paraphrase a remark once made to me by writer Harlan Ellison: Perfection is probably forever beyond our grasp, but we do our best to get as close to it as we can.

That being said: Don’t slack off. Give your best effort every single time. Work to the best of your ability, and if your ability isn’t very good, then work to improve it. Love the craft. Honor it.

Or leave it.

Manning (Womaning?) the Barricades

I made the decision yesterday to walk away from Facebook. I don’t know yet if this break is temporary, as I’ve done in the past, or permanent, and I’m not wasting much time thinking about it.

Back in the day, FB was a fun place to connect with long-distance friends and family, reconnect with people from my past, and make new acquaintances. Now–as I’m sure you’ve observed–it’s largely a format for political diatribe, hate messages, finger-pointing, and laying blame.

There are positive messages as well–I don’t mean to imply that there aren’t–and people engaged in doing positive work on both sides of the fence to ease the turmoil that’s erupted in the wake of the latest U.S. presidential election. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the mudslingers are the ones who get the most attention.

So, I’m taking a break. I will continue to do what I can, in my own small way. I will donate to those causes I feel are worthy. I will speak out when I think I have something important to say. I will strive to be polite enough to give every side an opportunity to state its beliefs, and hope they will offer me the same courtesy.

And I will continue to hope, and to believe in the essential goodness of humanity. Perhaps one day soon, people still stop to draw breath, and think on these words, penned by Abraham Lincoln, who anticipated even then the brutal war in which the United States would soon be engaged:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

(For a look at this in detail, please read this opinion piece from NPR.)

Stop and Go

It’s a quandary to me–and likely to most writers–how one story can flow from your brain and through your fingers to the keyboard with hardly any effort at all, while others are like the largest breech-birth on record.

Sometimes it’s a question of finding your voice. I experienced that while writing THE MAN WHO LOVED ELEPHANTS. For the longest time, it felt as though I was dryly reporting events to the reader rather than showing them as they occurred. Once I found my voice–or, rather, Roger’s voice–the story came together with astonishing speed and ease.

Conversely, I’m working on something now–might wind up as a short story; possibly a novella–that’s been plaguing me for ages. I’m making progress, but it’s in inches rather than leaps and bounds. That’s okay, because at least progress is being made. Writing always feels like work–it should, because it is–but this feels like WORK. Once it’s finished, though, what a sense of accomplishment there’ll be.

How Many Drafts Are Enough?

I found myself thinking about that question this morning as I worked on the third … no, wait … probably seventh incarnation of a bit of flash fiction.

The story began a few years ago as something much longer, but never went anywhere after the first dozen pages or so. This made me sad, because I like the idea behind it a lot and I’ve grown very fond of my main characters. Because writers get rid of nothing, I filed the story with the idea of revisiting it every now and then to see if the characters had anything new to say. Eventually, I plucked them out of that story and set them down in a piece I did for The Exquisite Project. Now I’m working on it again, expanding it a bit, following the trail of breadcrumbs the characters have left behind.

There are writers who never edit their work. I don’t know whether this is because a) they aren’t certain how to go about it; b) they’re afraid of facing the work again–after all, writing can be damned difficult; or c)  they’re convinced their prose is so golden, sprouting unblemished from the brow of Zeus, that it needs no revision.

On that last one? They’re wrong.

I’ve heard of writers–the late Isaac Asimov comes to mind–who legend says could sit down at their keyboard, whack out a story, stick it in an envelope, and it was all good-to-go, destined to be sold. That isn’t me, nor is it any of the writers I know, whether personally or only through their stories. There’s always room for improvement.

So how many drafts are enough? The answer is in the question: however many it takes. That’s infuriatingly enigmatic for those of you who want a concrete answer, but it’s as solid as you’re going to get. Every piece of writing is different, but I’ve never written anything that wasn’t improved by time and editing.

In the first flush of completing a new story, you’re in love. You’ve written the next Great American Novel or Pulitzer Prize-winner! You just know it! My advice? Go take a long, cold shower. Put the story away for a few days, maybe as long as a week, and then come back to it with a fresh–and critical–eye. Trust me, you’ll find things that’ll make you cringe.

I can sometimes nail down a story in as little as four revisions, but seven seems to be my lucky number. However, my latest book, narrative nonfiction titled The Man Who Loved Elephants, went through eight revisions before I felt confident enough to offer it to agents. (Thank you, Bonnie Solow, for believing in this project!)

It takes time and effort to develop confidence in writing, let alone editing. It takes much practice, and it helps if you have other writers willing to critique your work with honest eyes–meaning not people who think your worst garbage deserves a gold star. It’s painful to realize, but it’s also growth to accept that some stories aren’t meant to be. I have a trunk manuscript of a novel I was convinced was going to be terrific. Three hundred pages–and many edits–later, I realized it was a muddy pile of dreck. There are good bits in it which I may use one day, and that’s why I’ve saved the manuscript. Among other things, writers are scavengers.

But you can also over-edit. Beware the EEL, the Endless Editing Loop, where you think that “just one more tweak” will somehow make the magic happen. It could be that the piece was never really very good and you should have abandoned it ages ago, chalking it up to experience. What’s more likely is that you’ve ruined what had been a fine bit of story-telling and it’s going to take even more work to go backward and try to salvage it … assuming you should.

My advice? Start something new. Always start something new.

What are you waiting for?

little-me

 

Truth

“Nothing is wasted when you are a writer. The stuff that doesn’t work has to be written to make way for the stuff that might; often you need to take the long way round. And … you’re bound to discover things about yourself you didn’t realize before, may indeed prefer never to have known …”

— Abigail Thomas, What Comes Next and How to Love It