Saturday, December 29, 2012

Having crushes on Victorians

Have you ever had a crush on someone of the past? A daguerreotype that you couldn’t stop staring at?

A number of years ago there was an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California called Silver and Gold: Cased Images of the California Gold Rush.

As I wandered around the exhibit, I found myself suddenly arrested by a group shot of men. There were maybe five men in the image, and one of them: well, he stared right out at me and I felt a jolt of recognition.

I don’t think I believe in reincarnation and yet I’m obsessed by the idea. I love the concept that you might encounter the same souls again and again in different incarnations. And if there is any truth to the idea, then for sure I was looking at someone I once knew.

The image isn’t online, but I just now realized there was an exhibition book that went along with the exhibit. I know what to put on my birthday wish list! I’d love to see him again…again.

* * * * *

I was reminded of this exhibit recently for a few reasons. One is that I wrote a gothic novel in which someone looks at a black and white photograph with a loupe and has a moment somewhat reminiscent of my experience.

The other--and the reason that I actually googled around and located the website for the 1998 exhibit at the Oakland Museum--is that I found this guy pictured above. And he gave me a similar sort of jolt--not necessarily the “I know you” jolt, but the “I would like to know you” jolt.

This is Charles Keeler circa 1895, an early Berkeley poet and a founding member of the Berkeley Hillside Club. I’ll blog more on this historic club later.

This photograph seems so contemporary to me, almost like it was staged to look Victorian. Charles isn’t necessarily my type, but something about his probing gaze is saying, “Let me set down my cheroot so I may better address my attentions to you.” I picture him saying all sorts of banal things but with an undercurrent of “I’m a gonna take your clothes off, layer by lacy layer, stripping off that shirtwaist and throwing your whalebone corset across the room.”

Charles: I’ve checked with my husband and timetravel hooking up isn’t really cheating. I’ll meet you in 1896, okay? New Year’s Day? Right by the oak tree in the Oakland City Hall plaza?

. . . . .

Friday, December 28, 2012


Novelists earn their keep by imagining themselves into other people’s circumstances. We professionally emote. We empathize by trade.

Several weeks ago, I was in the middle of drafting a blog post, when I clicked over to another screen and learned the news about Newton, Connecticut.

I grieved for those parents and those children and those teachers with my entire body. Not just tears, not just sobs: entire back-breaking heaves that I only hoped could somehow ease something there, just a bit, somehow. If I took on one woman’s pain, just one tiny atom of its immense and universe-sized volume, I hope I helped her.

Their world was altered in mere minutes and they will spend lifetimes trying to return to the moments before that man entered the schoolyard with his assault guns. They will never succeed.

My love and my grief to you, town of unspeakable misery.

Poem for Newtown, Connecticut

A dimple
that is what they can remember
maybe it will be her cowlick
or her arm really at the wrong angle

to write correctly, coming down
to the paper, not up to it. That report card.
She was supposed to improve
her sloppy handwriting but they didn’t
get around to it yet.

She was wearing spirit wear.
Her room is still messy.
She had that light husky cough.
They talked of keeping her home.

They can’t really remember those
who passed, elderly parents and neighbors,
without photographs. And so it will be
with her.

It will someday be impossible
to conjure up exactly how she was.

They will study
the worksheets and the papers
with their dotted lines inside solid lines
like a road, really, an escape route
that showed her how to correctly form
her letters. They will scrutinize
the drawings: mermaids with wings,
fairies with crowns, beetles crawling
the margins. They are going to try
very, very hard to retain her.

They are going to fail.

She was brevity itself.

She is already unsnatchable
from the air, a vapour,
a hint of something dear,
something so wrenched
from their very blood,
their breath,
the threads of their meat,
the throb of their pulse,
the water that still

rocks inside them,
like they are oceans set
askew, tilted.

They will comb the air
for her, they will claw
the air, they will scry
the air for her,

they will look
and look and look
and look and look

and look

. . . . 

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Nanowrimo 2012


Now that I’m (slowly) coming out of my sleep deficit for Nanowrimo, I wanted to post about my inaugural experience with it.

Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it’s an initiative invented by Chris Baty, a wacky Berkeley guy. When I interviewed him for Oakland Magazine, he said, among many witty things, “In every group of friends, there’s someone who says, ‘Let’s dress up like donkeys and go down Market Street.’ I’m that guy.” After that, I knew I had to participate in Nanowrimo myself.

In essence, each November 1, thousands of people around the world drop everything and try to write a novel—well, at least 50,000 words—by Nov. 30.

There’s a supportive, cheerful website that fuels the whole endeavour, You sign up for free, and once the month begins, you are able to update your word count (obsessively, in my case) in a display next to your name/photo. Your page includes a bar graph showing your progress and the expected progress, and your statistics show you the date you can expect to finish if you continue at the same rate. You can add buddies and track their progress too. You can attend local write-ins, where you meet up with other nanos and write together; I went to one with a group that wanted to talk rather than write, but I really liked the concept anyway. At the end of the month, you cut and paste your novel into a little text box, and within seconds your word count is verified and you’re announced a “winner.”

If you hit 50K words, that is.

And it’s….really….just not that….easy.

To hit 50K words in 30 days, you must write 1,667 words per day. That’s about six double-spaced pages. For me, six pages represents not just a good writing day, but a great writing day. And therefore, during November, you must have a great writing day every day. That’s hard.

Right away, I felt overwhelmed. By Day One, I was already behind. By Day Two, I was thousands of words behind. By Day Three, I thought, “I might not be able to do this.”

On either Day Four or Five, I invested in myself. I parked the children at a drop-in daycare center and hied myself to a café. There I worked for 1.5 hours, writing steadily, then walked down the length of the little strip mall to a taqueria, where I spent the next 1.5 hours, again writing steadily. In three hours, I wrote 5,000 words. That was enough to almost catch me up. Not quite, but enough to feel like I was in the running again.

My month continued like that. Days where my word count was abysmal, and then days when I would write hell for leather and almost catch up. “Almost” being the key word. I kept watching that darn diagonal line in my bar graph and trying to reach it.

I came up with a few strategies to up my word count:
1. If your sentences are excessively wordy, great! Don’t fix them. Plenty of time to do that on Draft 2. Just let them stand. Every word counts in Nanowrimo.

2. Find some kind of gimmick to up the word count. My novel is set in Ireland so I hit on the idea of including characters from some of the fantastic Irish ballads. Nancy Spain? Why yes, there she is on page 125, trying to hawk her ring. The Star of the County Down? That pretty lady appears too.

3. Try writing from another character’s point of view. All along, my novel was written first person. When I decided to write a few scenes from another character in third person, suddenly pages came pouring out of me, and I had a couple of 2K word days. I think those scenes enrich the book and they’ll stay.

By the last week of Nano, I was exuberant. I knew I could make it. I had to stay up to midnight to do it (my target bedtime is 9:30, wild life, right?) and I’m still reeling from that. But it was worth it. It was just one month out of the year, and I threw myself into a project with a zeal that has previously only come from doing writing retreats where I was by myself and someone else fed, sheltered and studio’d me.

Nanowrimo will certainly humble you if you can’t make space in your life to achieve that “ridiculous” (Chris Baty’s word) word count. A good friend’s father went into the hospital this November and she had to suspend her nano writing or I know she would have made it (yes, he’s fine!). It’s fun, zany, serious, debilitating, exhilarating, all-consuming. Thanks, Chris Baty, for a fantastic month.

What about you? Are you on board for next year?

. . . . . .

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Literary Joke

The other day I was looking at a list of donors for a local school’s funding drive, and on one line by itself was this donor:


I laughed with delight. I love finding literary jokes hidden in the real world. Magwitch of course is the character in Great Expectations who is a secret donor funding Pip’s education, although Pip believes it is Miss Havisham (sorry for the plot spoiler, but the book is 200 years old!)

I wish I’d thought of it.

Anyone have any literary jokes they’ve come across over the years?