Radiance and Rawness: Hallelujah and the Blues

Catching up with a friend yesterday, she mentioned she’s trying to figure out the parenting thing.

Let me know, I say, when you do. Pass your wisdom along.

I’m not expecting a parenting epiphany anytime soon. In my experience, epiphanies are few, and I was gifted one recently. My teenager and I were listening to a Leonard Cohen song while brushing our teeth one night when I realized the novel I’m writing reflects that song. In the same lightening flash, I saw my whole life was that song, the lyrics and Cohen’s voice imbued with the nearly unbearable beauty of living and the simultaneous godawful blues – that all of human existence, all the way back to the preliterate days of stick and stone warfare, of hunting and gathering, was about the holy and the broken hallelujah.

Hard at work in revision, my novel staggers upward, soaring, full-throated and lusty. The bitter blues I have in spades. What I need is bacon sizzling in a cast-iron skillet, fat crisping golden, succulent and salty, hot fat melting on my tongue. I make a mental note. Write in: more bacon.

…I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but hallelujah….

Montpelier, Vermont

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

Book Group

For years, my daughters and I have been eating peppermint stick ice cream at Cassie’s Corner in Greensboro, Vermont, while admiring an immense red barn just across the side road. Who lives there, we wondered?

This sun-filled afternoon, I was lucky to sit with a group of women who had all read my novel and asked stellar questions. What a gift for a writer. Often, I imagine myself straddling the outside ledge of a cupola, my fingers hardly holding a grip, my toes clenching a ballpoint pen, while I fervently ponder plot and backstory and spy on passersby. The truth is, maybe I just need to get out more.

Many doors have opened to me via Hidden View, but to sit with a group of smart women, talking about craft and literature, is an especially savory bit of summer. Who knew open barn door would reveal such a stunning view of the lake  – and couple that with conversation? – terrific.

One has to be just a little crazy to write a … novel. One must be capable of allowing the darkest, most ancient and shrewd parts of one’s being to take over the work from time to time.

– John Gardner

Round Church in Richmond, Vermont


And A Little More Tension All Around for Everyone?

A recent unpleasantness with my eye meant a seat in the opthamologist’s chair, where I was reassured to hear at least I had good eye pressure going for me. I mean, that’s something. In the garden later, plucking a drooping and dying pepper plant, I realized pressure, of course, is part of what makes us alive; tension imbues us with the life force.

We’re at that point in the midsummer now, where the initial ecstasy of sleeping with the windows wide open and splashing through the shallow edge of a lake has lost its rarity. Our life – while good – is filled again with a kind of tension that might just be contemporary American life, or might just be who we are in this household.

The truth is, tension is creativity’s life force. All afternoon, working alone, I sunk into writing my book, spiraling deep, imagining myself upside down, descending into an abandoned stone-lined well. Nothing flaccid, nothing flabby, but all muscle, clenched and cunning. Alive.

Like most others, I was a seeker, a mover, a malcontent, and at times a stupid hell-raiser. I was never idle long enough to do much thinking, but I felt somehow that some of us were making real progress, that we had taken an honest road, and that the best of us would inevitably make it over the top. At the same time, I shared a dark suspicion that the life we were leading was a lost cause, that we were all actors, kidding ourselves along on a senseless odyssey. It was the tension between these two poles – a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other – that kept me going.

– Hunter S. Thompson



More Than the Whole

This afternoon, my daughters baked a raspberry tart, gathering like any craftswomen the pieces of their creation: oats, sugar, butter, fruit. Thinking over the book I’m writing, like any writer I gather my pieces – characters in their tangible and intangible complexities (a green and gold wool vest, a port wine birthmark, the memory of driving rashly along a rainy street), story, and language – shaping this creation.

But a book is greater than the sum of its pages and cover, and I kept thinking of Akenfield, a nonfiction book about a small Suffolk village in the 1960s, told primarily in the villagers’ own voices. The village, too, of course, is more than the sum of its people: nurse, blacksmith, head mistress, gravedigger, odd-job man.

Now that the tart is half-eaten, made in merriment by two sisters, I see that sweet delight is more than the sum of its parts, too.

… I am willing to forgo a lot of the things other people now take for granted in order to keep Akenfield, by which I mean the deep country. The power of wonder is here…. It is man’s rightful place to live in Nature and to be a part of it. He has to recognize the evidence of his relationship to the great natural pattern in such things as flowers, crops, water, stones, wild creatures. Where he destroys such evidence… he gradually destroys a part of himself.

From the village poet in Ronald Blythe, Akenfield

Galisteo, New Mexico

Break That Cliche: Writing Lesson from the Kids

My ten-year-old came downstairs the other morning dressed in shorts although it was only 39 degrees. No. I immediately said. But it might warm up, she insisted.

In this afternoon’s rain, the kids have headed down the road to the neighbors’ trampoline because it’s fun in the rain, apparently, even in a cold May rain.

These Vermont kids, like the unfurling leaves in my apple trees, are vigorously unstoppable with their own flowing sap. At ten and eleven, the world is as new to them as this magnificently unfolding spring. Lacking rigid expectations, why not leap in the rain? – Although I did notice the girls had the foresight to pull on extra pairs of socks.


The artist, and particularly the poet, is always an anarchist in the best sense of the word. He must heed only the call that arises within him from three strong voices: the voice of death, with all its foreboding, the voice of love, and the voice of art.

– Federico Garcia Lorca

Vermont dusk