A Little Less Domesticity

I was reading last night when my daughter opened my door and asked what’s happening. Through the opened windows, a fox was screaming — a chilling sound — as if a child was in distress. The fox wandered in the woods and ravine behind our house, coming and going, calling.

Eventually, I turned off my light and lay in the darkness. Our cat sat on the windowsill, pressed up against the screen, listening to the wild world. What a relief — simply the natural world, hungering.

The power of dissent is a rich part of who we are.

— Sameer Pandya, Members Only



Creative Mountains

Driving to Stowe this morning, my ten-year-old daughter pointed at Mt. Mansfield and said with utter joy, I’m going up in those mountains today.

She did. With her companion and the child’s mother, they skied higher than she ever had, returning at the day’s end with cheeks sweaty red, her braids tumbled. On the way home, as she told me about her day, I realized she had made a mental map of her journey, laying winter skiing over her summer hiking.

While she skied, I sat in a sun-filled room with strangers and climbed my own mystical creative mountain, traversing the terrain of novel writing through rock and streams, dusty back roads and the variated sky bent over a village. My villagers (like the people I know) sleep and dream, wake and eat, their hearts filled with desire and lust, with unhappiness and the unrequited past, with daily pleasures, like eating salad and enchiladas with a child and listening to her story.

How I admire this child and her fearless joy, her unalloyed pleasure in sun and snow, in steep mountains, and the wind over her face. As creative adults, shouldn’t we aim for that confidence in hard places, that dusting away of doubt that so frequently plagues us?

More to the heart, perhaps, like a child, we should savor unfettered happiness in our hours.

And then, of course, the novel-writing itself affects the novelist, because novel-writing is a transformative act.

Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel


Photo by Molly S./Woodbury, Vermont

Unfolding Fern

I’m reading tonight at the Hartland Pubic Library, in Hartland, Vermont. Here’s a paragraph from my essay about writing this novel:

From the opening sentence, the book arcs as a metaphorical unfolding of a fiddlehead, from youth’s smallness to the generous flourish of a mature woman. Fenollosa writes, “A true noun, an isolated thing, does not exist in nature…. Neither can a pure verb, an abstract motion, be possible in nature. The eye sees noun and verb as one: things in motion, motion in things….” (10) In Hidden View’s opening lines, late winter sunlight glints harshly over icy snow, and cowshit tracked by boots erodes the pure white. A mixture of shit and beauty winds all through this book; opposites, as the yinyang symbol reminds us, do not exist as discrete entities in nature. The conundrum of how our fairest aspects are equally suffused with our foulest elements rises to the forefront as the novel climaxes. I imagined my characters as ascending, grappling birds. As they fought with each other – husband and wife – brother and brother – their interior natures battled, too: would decency and kindness prevail, or fear and its loathsome clutches? How would it settle out for Fern? For her husband? How would her love affair with her husband’s brother resolve?….

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Photo by Molly S.

Singing and Writing: a Small Blue Book

The other morning, between errands, I stopped in at Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, and found a small novel by Tomas Gonzalez, a Columbian, In the Beginning was the Sea. The book is beautifully crafted and fit just about in the palm of my hand, yet with a real heft and weight. And – it was my favorite color: blue.

These past few days I’ve swum down into the sea of this book. I’m not at all likely to head south to Columbia, and the book itself is not gleaming feel-good read. But it’s writing with a depth that goes down and down, and is as true and real to me as drinking a glass of my own well water.

As a Vermont writer, I’m often asked about sense of place and its importance in my writing. Yes, of course, place-centered geography centers in my writing. But equally, I know, the beauty of  a tropical paradise can also drive an inhabitant over the edge, and to write with a sentiment that place is only holy seems false to me. Surely, the yingyang flip of holy is unholiness. While this short novel holds the beauty of human life and the moonlit sea, the writing also contains the deeper elements of all the vagaries of human existence.

“So WHY does our writing matter again?” (my students) ask.

Because of the spirit, I say. Because of the heart. Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul… We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.

— Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird