Finding the right question

January 21, 2009

I have begun compiling agents. From acknowledgment pages, from people, a few here and there: the list is short, but I’m beginning to find places to look. I’m researching the names I have, which begins straightforwardly if they have websites. I have more work to do along these lines, likely a lot of it, but I’m getting on to the next step, and that’s the hard part.

It’s the one most of the guides I’ve found don’t talk about. When I was job hunting, the first part was self-reflective: defining what you were looking for. The second part was networking. You have to ask questions — but you have to ask the right ones. What I’m looking for now are the questions to ask.

The best way to find an agent or a job is to know someone who knows one. When I was looking for a job, I learned how to ask for help so that I didn’t intrude. The right question was: would you talk with me for ten minutes about what you do or do you know anyone I might talk to?.

When it comes to agents, there are two standard approaches I can see. The better and harder one is to find a person who can recommend me to an agent. The other is the query letter. In the first, in some cases, a variation on the job questions may work. In the second case, I think the right question is a variation on: may I tell you about my book.

It isn’t would you publish my book. I’m guessing here, but I know it frustrates me when someone gets in touch with me at work and says, ‘would you write a story about about me?’ I can’t answer that question until I know more about them; it’s no good asking until they have told me what they are doing and why it’s exciting.

And I want to make the offer. I just put that into words, and there are reasons behind it. I want to feel confident in any story I assign. Anyone is welcome to give me story ideas, but no one is welcome to press me to commit to a story in a hurry. What I run is my responsibility, and the people who want stories from me don’t know the constraints I’m working under.

Once, I asked for information from a PR rep, and she wrote back to say she had set up an interview for me. This put me in an awkward position; I had wanted color to fill out a press release, but there were a number of reasons why I could not have written or run a story about her organization and event then if I had wanted to. I had to write and tell her to cancel the interview.

Some questions can close a discussion before it begins. So I can appreciate that it is important to ask the right question. Ask it as well as possible — ask it at the right time — ask it knowing that agents want good books the way I want good story ideas, and that we both want good writers. But find out how to ask it.

I say this humbly. I’m a brown trout in a beaver pond, and I like it that way; I know these are pilot whales and humpbacks and belugas I’m trying to call, and that’s why it feels so large. But whale song is a marvel when you can hear it right.

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School’s in

January 11, 2009

My weekly magazine hit 40 to 48 pages a week shortly after my last post here. It stayed a weekly magazine, 16 to 24 pages, through the first week in November. And then I plowed through the last five chapters of the fourth draft of my novel. So my prediction in June came out right, and likely will as long as I have this job: in summer, I’ll have less time to write here. But now it’s a new year.

And I have a book to sell.

Yes, it still needs work. But there comes a time when you have to try to do something with it regardless. It has a structure now; it has the shape of the book it will be. Revisions won’t mean taking it apart and putting it back together, as the last three drafts have done. So it’s time to start working on the next part.

I went down to the local library and checked out most of its books about literary agents. That makes four, all five to ten years out of date. (Any that look useful I’ll look for in an updated edition.) I’m trying right now to get a sense of how the process works. It’s huge, and I’ll need to break it into manageable pieces, but I can’t cut it til I’ve got it assembled. (Like pie.)

So I’m going to be talking a lot about it here. As I figure out what I want to know, especially if the books won’t tell me, I’ll be thinking things through here, trying to figure out how to act on it and what questions to ask.

Here’s a start. Read the rest of this entry »

The Lovers’ tasks

June 29, 2008

A week ago, I went back to coastal Connecticut, where I grew up, to help move my grandfather into one room in a nursing home. My parents had already packed up his apartment, and all day we carried pieces of him out of the moving truck — the wooden stand he made for his ships’ clocks, the chronometer, small tables from his mother’s family, the brass bell two men had to carry.

He had already had to scale back, and the things he had left all belonged to him. I remember them in their places. We tried to come up with their stories, where they were made, what flea market he found them in, what craftsman in his city made them, all the time we were dispersing them.

My aunt brought the bed he had made for her, and them kept for her when she moved, into a guest room where she always sleeps. The posts scraped the ceiling, and we spent a hilarious half hour trying to find four places where the floor boards were low and the ceiling was high at the same time.

We brought his medical school microscope home for my sister. She and her boyfriend were packing up her first year med school dorm. The case has my grandfather’s name on it — Mister —. I’ve never seen it written out like that. He’s been a doctor since my mother was born.

My parents went to pick up my grandfather, then, and my brother and I took over a job that had been my grandfather’s all through our childhoods. We drove back to the city where he has lived all his life, through the archway on Wooster Street where the tricolore flies, and waited in line at Frank Pepe’s Pizzaria.

When we were kids, and my grandfather lived a short jog from there, he used to wait there for us, an hour or more at a time. He’s been coming to Pepe’s for 92 years, and he knew all the guys in the kitchen. We would sit on the counter, near the juke box, watching them deal slices of mozzarella onto the rounds of dough, and sometimes they would give us slices of cheese.

My brother and I sat on the window ledge in the lobby, breathing garlic and oregano every time the door opened, and waving the line in ahead of us. A team of teenage girls pased the window in basketball jerseys, eating lemon italian ices. We waited an hour or more.

My grandfather came in on my father’s arm. I sat on a bench next to him. He said, is your name Margaret?

It isn’t.

Then he said, you have a new job. I do. And he told us he had just learned that Margot is a German nickname for Margaret, and that Damariscotta, Maine, have gotten its name from Damaris cove.

He does still know me. He does still know that he loves us. When we had all gathered, and toasted, and stretched out dinner until my sister and her boyfriend made it through traffic (eat slowly, my mom said, as soon as the pizzas touched down), we all saw him home. And he told us so.

He told us stories about the paintings he still has, and the ship’s wheel, and the lamp he made from a lignum vitae dead-eye that came off the last Canadian wooden ship to challenge the American clippers. Her name was the Blue Nose.

And I had another post in mind when I sat down to write this one, about books and plots and making the risks real. But I wound up writing about my own instead. My grandfather looked after me, and gave me pretzels in his waiting room, with the elevator that had a diamond pane of glass in the door so you could watch the brick wall slide by. He got me into the Yale library, all through high school, and once into Beinike, so I could look at Papist tracts about Colonel Thomas Blood. He paid house calls and built wooden boats in his back yard and let me try his sextant for a science project.

He lives in a room slightly larger than my sister’s dorm room. As far as I know, he isn’t in pain. At 92, to be warm and dry and fed and loved is a great deal. I just don’t want him to be lonely.

Absorption

June 15, 2008

It’s summer, and I have fallen headlong into my new job. I’m sorry for the break in writing here. In May, I got bowled over by a flying calendar, 72 pages’ worth, and since then my quiet three-page weekly section of the local paper has bloomed into a weekly magazine, 24 pages and counting.

So this blog will run on a kind of reverse academic schedule for the forseeable future. Whatever writing time I carve out over the summer I’ve been saving for my novel. But I’ll still be here when I can.

There’s a pleasure in absorption. It’s finding out what I can produce, and holding each magazine in my hands when it’s finished. It’s walking through new buildings, and reading my freelancers’ hikes up trails three miles from here that I’ve never heard of, and getting to tell people about them. It’s sending a staff writer off on his first trail ride and hearing him laugh about it afterward. I feel that I’m doing good work.

And in the cracks, when I’m walking home late on a deadline day, blissful because it’s done, sometimes somewhere along the wood fence by the stream in the park I pull out a pocket notebook and jot a note about my own book. My novel is always with me, and it hasn’t stopped reminding me that the hardest chapters are here already.

I am loving this season for its bareness. Mixing bread dough in the morning, barefoot in pajamas, I gloat when the stretched neckline of the old shirt I wear slides over my shoulders. I’m loving the blue haze of mountains, and I’m loving the headlong rush of work, most of the time. In part for the way it makes me think, and carefully finger all my spare moments, and for the way it keeps me here.

It’s easy to be impatient in a new place, in a new job — to want comfort and company all at once, and to feel I should be doing more, faster. I still have five chapters left in a draft I wanted to have done in May, and I’m still single, and I still haven’t planted snapdragons under the front window or oregano by the drain pipe. And I’m still laughing at myself. You see what I mean?

Too much absorption can be dangerous. But all the same, if you never let yourself fall wholly into something, you never stretch yourself wholly. The greatest joy of graduate school was to let myself love the work I wanted, and choose it, and knock myself silly finding out how to do it. Now I’ve done that, a few minutes by the stream in the dark, and a few hours writing longhand in my arm chair, will keep me going weeks at a stretch.

Without that time to want it openly and think it through, I wouldn’t be able to see the work clearly. I feel more firmly myself for it. So I’m wishing, for many people I know, enough sleep, and enough spurring from like minds, and enough space, and enough time to fall in love.

World enough and time
For Rachel on her birthday, March 21, 2008

When you are walking wide streets under palms
or leaning forward at an outdoor table,
let the sun steep you in the gentle heat
of argument. A breeze lifts linen from you.
Bowls of dates hold corners of translations,
and muezzins call, not far away.

People from all reaches of away
felt with you the soft, dry shade of palms
and read with you translations of translations.
They cupped a flame and blessed a sabbath table
and left that flame to live today with you.
Hold to your forehead that absorbing heat.

This afternoon you will run the first heat.
The canopy has been folded away
and all the courtyard beckons bright around you.
Drink among the orange trees and palms.
Talk begins like rain around the table,
and you begin to write your own translations.

Among you, you will write your own translations
as once Toledans quickened in the heat
a university around a table
with a hundred definitions of away.
A ladder rung leaves friction on your palms.
Stories out of stories will enthrall you.

Classmates chant a blessing, turn to you,
laughing with the quick joy of translations.
Clap and sing contemporary psalms
until your palms are glowing with the heat.
Now within time, every here and away,
every sabbath table is this table.

Swallows’ shadows fly across the table.
Dusk has cooled the courtyard stones while you
were rapt, while you were looking for a way
to unite the root and all translations,
imprint the dates, the swallows and the heat,
this communion touching palms to palms.

Let palms inscribe your palms then; let this table
heat in the sun and brand its knot holes through you:
translate away from love — love from away.

flesh and spirit

April 28, 2008

In the last week, too many people I know have talked about feeling distant from their bodies, confused by them.

Read, Write, Poem talked about specific or specialized vocabulary this week, and about sonnets. I found myself thinking about scientific classifications. Too many people I know have felt classified in unnatural ways and unable to move freely. I don’t think classifications have to bind. A name can give the essence of what’s named, and can change in reaction to what’s named — a name can recognize.

This is a love poem, then. (I’ll put the translations below, for anyone curious.)

Reclassification

When you look up from dishes, flushed with steam,
you are amica blanda. When you pass,
fides baccata, bearing a wet wine glass
wild in reflection from a candle flame

you sing old words and dig the roots and gaze.
Soft down lines your temple. Meadow lark,
alauda mega singing in the dark,
you are the whole creation that you praise.

Rename yourself now. Name your living body.
Anima caronis, name each sinew,
tongue and toe and forehead, palms and lips.

Name every cell and fluid wall within you.
Shiver in frost and darkness, bare before God,
holding out your arms to the eclipse.

* * *
For three days, I have danced my feet sore. Dancing to live music, in a familiar pattern, with several hundred people at all hours of the day is tiring, and blissful, comforting the way all hard exercise is comforting. It clears your head. You can forget time and place in a dance. And at the same time, it is inescapably physical.

You can’t pass through a hundred people’s arms and not be aware of yourself in space, spinning and aching and steadying yourself against their hands. You can’t help feeling the way they move, feeling those who make you comfortable and those who put you off. And you talk by touch. Without speaking (you have no time, and you can’t be heard over the fiddles) you read enjoyment, pressure, confusion, confidence in their hands and bodies, and you decide to match their steps or to assert your own.

It is as clear an illustration as I’ve ever had that mind and body have no clear limits. And every single separation I’ve ever seen has been painful. Lord knows, I wish I knew how to say that in any useful way.

Amica blanda — alluring friend or loved one. (blanda suggests blandishments, not blandness at all.) Latin, like English, seems to need more words for different kinds of love.
fides baccata — fruit-bearing faith
alauda mega — great skylark (mega evokes vastness for me, omega, though I know very little Greek.)
Anima caronis — soul or spirit of the body or flesh.

Some stories we trust?

April 18, 2008

The conversos‘ dismissal of Isabella

We were never silent.
We shouted, and we cursed you.
We sang in Arabic in the coffee houses.

We would have deafened your old men
in their red tassels, if they had ever come
in to the streets.

When we left you, we followed the storks
to this place of sand and cinnamon
and the fat of the lamb
to remember over cold mint tea
the thousand stories you will never hear.

And in your desert
a thousand years beyond your death
our walls and waterfalls will speak still.

And hear the thrushes singing

March 18, 2008

Witch song

Why ride a broom with a long, hard handle?
I’ll ride the wind tonight.
As it rushes high and higher
I’ll rise in a lazy, hazy spire
like the smoke of a blown out candle.

If I want the feel of wood, I’ll light
in a living, breathing tree,
an April tree with buds still new
and seed pods streaming wet with dew,
and rock in the wind all night.

This came from my week’s reading: I came across several witch poems that seemed content to talk about gnarled old women on besoms, and after them, I wasn’t.

Clear, soft, supple lines. A beat, and a beat, and a beat again. Rhythm and rhyme so natural they look easy. They’re not easy. I’ve been reading children’s poetry, these last two weeks. The last hundred years have seen many good children’s poems. And I’ve been finding out how many of them are out of print.

Everything I know about poetry began with my giant Child’s Garden of Verses illustrated by Gyo Fujikawa. I still have it, taped together, with two book plates in the front and my name in crayon. The first poem I learned by heart came from it: In winter I get up at night and dress by yellow candlelight….

Stevenson’s poems sound as simple as talking. They have a child’s sense of time and space — the excitement of waiting for the lamp lighter, a city child’s dizzy, rare glimpse of the night sky. A dark hallway goes on forever. A toad stool holds off the rain. A city winds over the rug and jungles grow behind the sofa. These are poems of games and transformations, the feeling of more to find out, the slow time and endless curiosity of a child’s days.

They are simple, but they are not easy, and they tell stories. A good children’s poem reminds me how it feels to stand up to my ankles in mud, to hold a violet against my cheek, to see everything closely. A good children’s poem has other places and times and echoes in it. It knows change will come. It looks at crickets and neighbors and tigers with a sturdy equality.

A good children’s poem is one a child can read. It’s one a child can play with and hold onto and kick around like a tooth-marked rubber ball. That doesn’t mean it has to be nonsense, or plasticene, or tapioca. It can have meanings the child may not puzzle out for years. But it has to speak and let the child talk back.

A year ago, Sharon Ruth Gill wrote that children’s poetry collections now nearly always go back to the classics — How do I love thee and Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, illustrated in bright watercolors. Some scholars have actually argued that children should only encounter poems by “the masters”.

An illustrated book of sonnets can be beautiful, and if you want to paint one, I’d love to see it. But please, please, don’t try to teach children poetry by making them afraid of it. Don’t tell them only God-fearing geniuses are allowed to write it. Don’t shut it up in glass fronted bookcases behind wing chairs.

Give me instead the woman from NH who brings a program on children’s books into the schools and encourages children to write and illustrate their own. She talks with them about different stories and different words and pictures — what do you like about them, and what do they mean? She lets the kids play with them and flip them like pennies.

Gill has a list of poets she likes, poets who write for children. I’ve been going through it and looking through the local library for writers— Roger McGough, Aileen Fisher. X. J. Kennedy has a collection with some new voices: Talking Like the Rain. Isak Dinesen opens it, telling about an evening she began talking in Swahili verse in a muddy field. The people she spoke to loved the sound. “As they had become used to the idea of poetry,” she said, “they begged: ‘Speak again. Speak like the rain.'”

Why I love New Hampshire (a companion piece)

March 6, 2008

My Eagle Pond post I meant, but thinking back now, the tone has a touch of New Hampshire curmudgeonly in it. In Hall’s dozenth essay, he’s asked to write about “why he hates Vermont”, and the essay is finally published under the title “Why I Love New Hampshire”. He felt curmudgeonly too.

So here, to go with my last wrestle with his book, is another response to it — here’s what I love about the state we’ve both lived in. Some of it is also what I love about western Massachusetts, and some of it is not. New Hampshire, even in the fast-growing coastal region where I lived, can feel farther from anywhere except Quebec than the Berkshires ever do.

When I woke in New Hampshire, I could look backwards out the window, up the undersides of white pines. Hemlocks grew all along my street, protected somehow from the southern blight. My landlord played the piano one floor up. He also tuned up the snow blower every fall and cleared the driveway all winter; he is in his eighties.

When he moved there, and Orchard Drive still grew an orchard, his children got to choose a special Christmas gift. They got moccasins and taught themselves to walk silently over all the stone walls. Coming into town, you drive by the stable to get to the University visitors’ center. They have one of the earliest agricultural schools in the country. When the wind sets right, you can smell the dairy barn, or the sea.

It has bizarre and beautiful kinds of open-heartedness. It is the only state I know of whose second language is French. Its coastal living history museum contains glassware from a brothel. Its sugar houses hold music jams to mark the start of maple season. I know a farm with a log cabin sauna, a church that held a group ceremony after Civil Unions came into effect, a community where people get together to paint each other’s houses.

I love the individual stubbornness of New Hampshire. People do things by hand, there. People repair old things and craft new ones. Ordinary people play the fiddles their grandparents’ left them: often fiddles their grandparents made. In the city on the coast, the houses have close set clapboards low down, as though the walls were sliding into themselves; they stand up against the weight of snow.

People don’t forget anything, there. The best people I know there are the kind of people you want with you when things fall apart. Hall, and a close friend of mind from grad school, call it a high tolerance for eccentricity. I would call it the kindness of people who have seen everything go wrong, deeply wrong, and don’t pretend about it. People who know what grief is, and don’t confuse it with anything less, and have gotten through it somehow… they aren’t afraid of someone else who is facing it.

People work hard. College freshmen from mountain towns may not know how to read a syllabus or take notes, and their parents may not know why they are trying, but they try hard. College may be only a practical step on the way to a job. Or not. For people with jobs, hours a week or health insurance may not matter. The people involved may matter, or the work that gets done, inside the day job or out of it.

New Hampshire doesn’t compromise well. New Hampshire values everything — including land — by its current use. New Hampshire has more young orchards than young people. People pick 50 pounds of peaches at a time and preserve them. New Hampshire was the first place outside New York to circulate the Moosewood Cookbook, when the Moosewood was xeroxed and even more outspoken than it is now. The vegan restaurant on route 4 serves locally grown kale 365 days a year. The college students run their own organic garden and sell five kinds of basil down by the science buildings.

It’s as hard to explain love for a place as for a person. I spent nearly four years there, eating its icecream and crossing its wide spans of bridges over the bay, admiring the conductors’ brass buttons in the old railway station, and learning to write in landscape dimensions, and playing its music. It will always be the place where I learned to write a novel, and to play dance tunes by ear. I like who I was when I was with New Hampshire. And some days I miss it powerful much.

The need of being versed in country things

March 3, 2008

I’ve just reread Donald Hall’s Here at Eagle Pond. I’ve been reading a series of books lately that have their feet on the ground. My novel has land at its heart — acres and roots and mud puddles — and Hall loves a New England that moves me too, the hay drying in the sun, the people who remember who lived in that 1800’s saltbox when it was built, the people who work with their hands.

It always surprises me how much I disagree with him. I care about so many of the same things. Rereading him now, when I have lived in New Hampshire and left it again, I often felt homesick. His New Hampshire is a stubborn back country — the winter is cold, families work or starve, and the names on the civil war monuments are the same ones on the mail boxes.

Yes, I know these people, and this spirit. I know people who live within a mile of the place where they grew up. I know people who seek out their elders for their stories and memories, play music with them, tell stories of the Shaker sisters who taught them to cook. I know people who live on odd jobs, a man who has walked across frozen lakes with six-inch nails in his pockets, to haul himself out if the ice gave way. When Hall says his community lives where it lives because it wants to, and that it rejects commercialism and migration, he is partly right.

I love the independence and obstinacy that keeps contradance music alive. And Hall recognizes some of its costs, in rusted trailers and a lack of zoning laws. But he does not recognize all of them. And in upholding their strengths, he limits the meaning of country.

He says, simply, that his counry was created by Protestant Americans after the civil war. He brings into his understanding of country life a set of values, what he calls the country of the church dinner — a value for hard work, for family, for place. But many of these values, otherwise applied, have grown industries and cities. A love for land and an ability to live on it takes many shapes. And 18th century farming clearcut the whole state of Massachusetts.

Reading him raises a vital question for me: what does it mean to live in the country, to live with the land. How can a community be rural and vital at the same time? Country matters vitally: country Hall wants to keep hold of. At the heart of these essays, in his return home to his grandparents’ farm, he is trying to preserve a place he loves, in the face of a world he feels does not value it.

And reading him frustrates me because his definitions keep him from answering fully enough to help me. He doesn’t need to persuade me to hold onto the country. I want to know how. He doesn’t answer because he doesn’t want change of any kind. He wants country to be exactly as it is on the one-family dairy farm. He can be disingenuous in its defense — New Hampshire has a wide tolerance for eccentricity, but it is not, as he claims, diverse. It is also not young. A vital past is a fine, rich thing, but without a vital future, it’s a Shaker museum.

I want to live in the country, and I want to feel alive doing it. I want to know how to help other active, intelligent people live where they love. I don’t want to change old milltowns into mid-town Manhattan to do it: I want the country to be country, wild and fertile and animal and uncut. I don’t think intelligence, a desire for useful work I can do well, and a need for earth under my feet are incompatible.

Those of us who love the country and love to think should stick together; I agree with Donald Hall that we need each other, because others who do not love what we love can so easly take it away and not even know they have. If we are going to keep the country alive, I think we need to see it as here and alive already and kindle it slowly and steadily. The only ways I know how to do this are slow, one light at a time.

One thing we will have to do, and he does: we will have to want it. We will have to teach people its value and hold on to others who want it as much as we do.

Hall actually says the opposite, and this I do not understand at all: “It turns out that the fulfilment of desire is to stop desiring” (18). He’s quoting Sam Johnson, whether he knows it or not, and I’ve written a whole thesis proving him wrong. He proves himself wrong, in the same essay. He loves his place achingly.

He desires it ardently in every page: that’s why he’s writing. The fulfilment of a desire increases desire, deepens it and roots it until it takes over — and delights in it, laughs in it. You ask any couple who have grown into love over time, and not out of it. And when you have realized a desire, when you have held it long enough to believe it is yours — then you will fight for it.

I began these thoughts the last time I reread Eagle Pond; here, for anyone who likes circles, is the beginning of the thread.

Read the rest of this entry »

Early for thunderstorms

February 25, 2008

This week, Read, Write, Poem prompted weather… and also characters. I haven’t often written from another point of view in poetry, and I remembered friends telling me about a Midsummer Night’s Dream they saw years back at the Folger’s Library, and big, brassy Helena who knew how to laugh at herself. And she started talking. Don’t know whether she’s finished yet.

Helena

I know what I want.
Don’t you know the strength of that?
All their minds blowing around me
like aspen leaves in yellow storm light,
and the air heavy with mischief,
and only I come straight
through the wood.
I sleep in the fern beside the path
and wake and come on.
If you know your longings —
and what would you give to know?
— would you not walk barefoot
over wet pine needles
to meet them? The clouds build.
The woods breathe, waiting for the rush.
Rumble in my throat, static lightening
in my hair — give me the shock
of closing space. Say it with me:
I want you.