Soil Writing Exercise

In a writing workshop I attended years ago, a professor grilled another student about a field she had recently driven by. What emotion did the field evoke in you? Older than me and not a close friend, the student was a woman I admired. A single mother, she was simultaneously brassy, insecure, funny.

The professor kept asking questions: Any moon or starlight? Rock piles? Did a river or trees border any edge?

The woman paused and finally said one word: sad. The emptiness of the harrowed up field evoked a sense of waste. The conversation might have ended there, but the professor pushed a little further, probing, and the woman said she thought the sorrowful emptiness was just one long snapshot of the field’s story.

That evening, we were not in our usual seminar room, clumped awkwardly instead in a half circle of chairs with writing desks attached. The overhead fluorescent lights made the windowless room uglier than it needed to be.

Every now and then, I find myself wondering what happened to this woman, and which way her story bent.

In the end you should probably know your characters as well as you know yourself. Not only what they had for breakfast this morning, but what they wanted to have for breakfast.

– Colum McCann



The Ole Golly Space

When I was about seven or so, my older sister read me Harriet the Spy, a book she liked so much she wanted to share with me, who couldn’t yet read that length of novel.

Early in the book, we hit a plot point of great excitement, when Harriet takes the journey to visit Ole Golly’s mother – her nanny’s mother. Oddly enough, I can still remember the rented townhouse living room where we read, with the glass doors leading out to a balcony suspended over a scrubby backyard.

It’s the ‘Ole Golly’ space I find in reading – and in my own life – forty years later. Open up that door. Introduce me to someone who will make think differently about this life. Clearly, I am no longer seven, my sister and I gnawing on the ends of our braids, but don’t we live the same things in our lives, over and over, and yet all the time changing?

Well, you must realize, Harriet, knowing everything won’t do you a bit of good unless you use it to put beauty in this world. True or false?


Hardwick, Vermont

Robert Pirsig

Robert Pirsig, dead at 88, I hear this morning, driving along a rutted back road.

I pilfered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from my dad’s bookshelf when I was a teenager, intrigued by its title, lured by the lush fatness of reading material. Not that many years later, my dad showed me an article (in the Times Book Review section, maybe?) Pirsig had written about his son’s murder.

What I’ll always remember about that book is the high school teacher who told me the book saved his life. What higher complement to give a writer? And yet every time I think of Pirsig, I think of that essay, too…..

Sometimes I like to think about truth in the image of an old and wrathful Buddhist master who grabs us, shakes us, and shouts, ‘Drop it now!’ Truth can be wrathful.

– Anam Thubten, No Self, No Problem: Awakening to Our True Nature



Murky Matters of the Heart

I’m in the firewood chore time, a task I’m embracing with gusto. Wood stacks satisfyingly, drying for toasty winter evenings sprawled before the hearth, with tea and books and board games. The chore is pretty much zero-loss; if the piles fall down, I’ll restack, a redoing with little loss but of time – perhaps even a gain in the muscle category.

Not so, in other aspects of human life. Last night,  I lay awake late, sucking lemons and reading Jung Yun’s Shelter, a novel about specific family actions with that extremely gray subtext of what I can only call ‘matters of the human heart’ – the moral (or immoral) meanings of our actions, the elements of our lives that mean the very most to us. The novel reminds me of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, a family saga about human choice: the uniquely human element that often seems so baffling. What the heck must I do now?

Hence, the pleasure of stacking wood on a balmy August day, with the bittersweet scent of freshly-drawn sap, the dryness of dust on split logs, and the tidy wisdom of ordering a piece of my land for the colder days to come.

Of all the people in the world, he (Kyung) never expected Reverend Sung to be a source of comfort, the first real sense of comfort he’s felt in so long. He’s thrown by it, stunned silent by the possibility that he isn’t so underserving of kindness as he believes himself to be. Kyung sits down and takes the reverend’s hand, squeezing it to convey the volume of things he can’t, and the reverend, in another act of kindness, simply stands there and lets him, saying nothing in return.

Jung Yun, Shelter


Woodbury, Vermont




Living Literature

My kids and I saw a live theater production today of one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel I tutored to high school students years ago. At one point, I had taken that novel apart in all kinds of ways, knew it backwards and forwards, in and out: mad dog, camellias, serving lemonade in times of stress.

Listening today, for the first time I realized compassion (that thread I’ve returned to, over and over this year) is at the heart of this novel. Tom Robinson, poor Southern black man, is the only person who has compassion for Mayella Ewell, a young woman about as white trash as could be, with a nasty father, too many little siblings and no mother, and scant means all the way around.

Tom Robinson did what Atticus advised; he imagined walking around in another’s skin, not because he desired anything from this woman, but purely from the decency of his own heart. If for no other reason, that’s why we need literature more than ever now: we desperately need that imagination.

Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives.

– Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird





Novelist as Voyeur

Among many, I’m reading Gay Talese’s intensely bizarre The Voyeur’s Motel, and I squelched an impetus to conceal the unmistakable cover at the lake with my kids this afternoon. There’s an underlying subtext of, well, porn, which is something I never read.

Perhaps the other subtextual issue is that I realize, like all novelists, I’m a tenor of voyeur, too, always looking at other people and parsing their lives, wondering at the mechanics not only of their material lives, but their souls, too. Talese’s book reminds me of the far classier Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and the four horsemen in relationships. Over and over, I’ve thought of that Contempt horseman rearing its head. (How much I wish I’d heeded Gladwell’s words, many years ago.)

A third of the way through the motel book, I’m already longing for Talese to toss me some kind of bone of human decency, and perhaps one reason I keep reading is I want that decency to rear up at some point.

You can never really determine during their appearance (of couples) in public that their private life is full of hell and unhappiness. I have pondered why it is absolutely mandatory for people to guard with all secrecy and never let it be known that their personal lives are unhappy and miserable.

– Gay Talese, The Voyeur’s Motel

Such a grim view. Then there’s this: swimming, we could see a bank of clouds rushing across the lake today. In this humid day, with no sign of lightening, only the rain rushing in and rushing out, the girls kept swimming in the downpour, just the two of them in all that cool water. Voyeur that I may be – beneath a cedar tree in a shower storm – I hope to catch a more joyous slice of human life.


Greensboro, Vermont