Monday, April 27, 2009

Island of the Misfit Novels

A friend is writing an essay called “Island of the Misfit Novels” and asked me to say something about what abandoning a novel feels like to me.

Well, it feels awful.

I am absolutely convinced that each novel I’ve written, published or abandoned, exists somewhere in the universe, absolutely real. For example, way back in the 1980’s, I set a novel in funky little resort town in northern Michigan, a place that was remarkable to me in a number of ways, including the fact that there was a mangy caged bear at a gas station at an intersection near the lake. Giving directions, locals would say, “Turn left (or right) at the bear,” and I loved this so much that I gave one of my characters a house you got to by turning left at the bear.

To this day, I have never turned left at the bear myself—and, though the bear is long dead, I never will. It’s crazy, I know, but I’m convinced that May is living with her quirky mother in the fabulous Victorian house that I made for her, looking out on the lake, pondering the relationship I set in motion, and waiting for me to return and help her resolve it.

If I turned left, whatever real world I found would vanquish the one I imagined once and for all—and I would never be able to get back to it or to the people I made and for whom I feel as responsible as I do for my own children.

Which, I guess is what I have to say about abandoned novels: I am pretty much in denial about the fact that I’m never, ever going back to them. It feels as if there’s a door in my head for each one of them, and some part of me just can’t stop believing that someday, if I can just live long enough, I’ll open those doors one-by-one, fix my characters’ lives, resolve...everything.

It’s exactly the way I feel about my own (real) life.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Lack of Imagination

On Monday, there was a rally for the arts on Monument Circle in Indianapolis. It was a crappy day, which suited the state of arts funding in our city--where a forty-eight million dollar deficit due to to the mismanagement of sports venues paid for by taxpayers (unwillingly by many, including me) has taken a big bite from arts funding already diminished by the failing economy. It was nice to see people come out and plead the cause for the arts in the rain--but I left feeling vaguely aggravated and dissatisfied and I didn't quite know why.

The president and CEO of the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association noted that "...the twenty-two million annual visitors to Indianapolis come for a flourishing music, theater and visual arts scene, as well as sports and conferences;" the CEO of WellPoint reminded us that the arts "...enhance the city's national reputation, while pumping tens of millions of dollars into the Central Indiana economy;" the mayor, who cut arts funding severely well before the general economic decline, said, "...people who consider moving to Indianapolis look specifically at cultural institutions such as the Indianapolis Museum or Art and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra." The superintendent of schools also spoke of the importance of cultural institutions in providing programs that introduce disadvantaged kids to the arts.

Aside from the mayor's hypocrisy and the focus on the dollars that the arts bring to the city, as opposed to the enrichment the arts bring to our lives, what was to be aggravated about? Everything they said was true. Okay, maybe I was also a little aggravated about the fact that, aside from lovely performances by local musicians and a dancer who braved the elements, no artists' voices were heard. But I understood that. The world is about money and politics--the people who bring in the big bucks have considerable power over the policymakers. The arts desperately need their support, so they get to speak--and it's important that they do.

It wasn't until later, thinking about what the superintendent said, that I identified the source of my dissatisfaction. He spoke of the importance of cultural institutions that provide experiences in the arts for school children, but said not a word (nor did anyone else) about the benefits of people engaging in the arts--as opposed to being "exposed" to them.

As an artist and a teacher, I believe that this is the greatest benefit the arts offer--to anyone, of any age.

There are few things in the world that please me more than watching people engaged in the act of writing. The quality of silence in the room, each person in his own world; the scratching of pens, the tapping of computer keys, the occasional sigh. Even better is the moment when a student's face lights up after writing something she didn't know she knew--and to see that new understanding understanding manifest itself in her behavior and her world view over time.

Writing, dancing, acting, drawing, composing music, it's all the same. You bring every part of yourself to the process of creating another world--and you're a better, smarter, more compassionate person for it. The world is better for it, too.

Sadly, in this culture of The Standardized Test, the arts are considered fluff. Teachers are too busy preparing kids to parrot back answers to questions they're likely to encounter on Test Day to take time for creativity.

But, guess what? There are no answers to any question that really matters. The kind of thinking you have to do in real life exactly mirrors the kind of thinking you do to write a story, compose a piece of music, sculpt a figure. You assess, consider the options, try, fail, try again--and again and again, until you hit upon an inevitably less-than-perfect (but workable) solution.

Engaging in the creative process is not fluff. It's crucial in a million different ways, not the least of which is helping us find our way out of the economic and spiritual morass we're in.

So, yes! Support the arts!

I love museums, I love the theater, I love dance and music. We need them!

But we need more than the opportunity to experience and appreciate the imagination of others. Each of us needs (and deserves) the means to develop and celebrate our own imagination, too, which is essential to being fully, richly human.

Friday, April 17, 2009


I have never been able to relate to the concept of prayer as personal request. I mean, church people are always saying, “God knows what’s best for you.” If that’s true, why petition? Isn’t that second-guessing God?

Plus, people ask for most absurd things. This first came to my attention watching high school basketball games when the Catholic players would make the sign of the cross before taking a free throw. Even if you did believe in the kind of God who sits on a throne in heaven saying yes or no to the billions of prayer requests wafting up from earth, wouldn’t you want Him to be concentrating on things like, say, world peace, rather than your free throw?

Still, I feel certain that if there is a God and if He is taking requests, he would certainly say “Yes” to this one.

The Gift

Lord, You may not recognize me
speaking for someone else.
I have a son. He is
so little, so ignorant.
He likes to stand
at the screen door, calling
oggie, oggie, entering
language, and sometimes
a dog will stop and come up
the walk, perhaps
accidentally. May he believe
this is not an accident?
At the screen
welcoming each beast
in love’s name, Your emissary.

Louise Glück

Louise Glück was born in New York City in 1943 and grew up on Long Island. She is the author of numerous books of poetry, most recently, Averno (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award in Poetry; The Seven Ages (2001); and Vita Nova (1999), winner of Boston Book Review's Bingham Poetry Prize and The New Yorker's Book Award in Poetry. In 2004, Sarabande Books released her six-part poem "October" as a chapbook.

Write a prayer in which you directly address God, asking Him for something seemingly small, but so important for someone you love.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Jackie's Birthday

My sister, Jackie, died of brain cancer in January, 2003, and I brought at least a dozen vases of beautiful cut flowers home after the memorial service. I thought a houseful of flowers would brighten my spirits, but they only made me sad. Already, some the petals were going brown at the edges. We had spent a year and three months watching Jackie die, and I simply couldn’t stand the thought of watching these small, inevitable deaths now. So I took all the flowers to the basement and stripped the petals onto cookie sheets I set on the pool table: roses, daisies, lilies, lavender, snapdragons—every kind of flower, every color. Over the next weeks, watching them fade, dry, and shrivel up, I tried (I’m still trying) to believe that Jackie was really gone.

Her birthday was April 13 and, that first year after her death, my other sister, my daughters, and a group of Jackie’s women friends gathered for a dinner of all her favorite foods. I divided the flower petals, put them in glittery see-through bags, tied them with ribbons, and attached a little card to each with this quote from Jane Austen: “Where shall we see a better daughter or a kinder sister or a truer friend?” Which exactly describes the kind of person Jackie was. There was a bag for each of the women—and two extras, to be tucked into her sons' brides’ bouquets someday.

We’ve celebrated Jackie's birthday every year since then. Tonight, we ate pizza and birthday cake and toasted her--which made me miss her all over again.

I love this poem by Lisel Mueller, which I read at Jackie’s funeral, and find it more and more true as the years go by.


The first time we said your name
you broke through the flat crust of your grave
and rose, a movable statue,
walking and talking among us.

Since then you’ve grown a little.
We keep you slightly larger
than life-size, reciting bits of your story,
our favorite odds and ends.
Of all your faces we’ve chosen one
for you to wear, a face wiped clean
of sadness. Now you have no other.

You’re in our power. Do we
terrify you, do you wish
for another face? Perhaps
you want to be left in darkness.

But you have no say in the matter.
As long as we live, we keep you
from dying your real death,
which is being forgotten. We say,
we don’t want to abandon you,
when we mean we can’t let you go.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Family Values

I’ve been meaning to write about my good friends Emily and Noreen, who were married in California last fall after a long, committed partnership that demanded the kind of love and loyalty that most of us can only imagine. It was a double wedding, actually. Noreen’s sister Monique and her partner Jackie were married in the same ceremony, both couples attended by Mo and Jackie’s kids, the fabulous Bella (mentioned here before), her equally fabulous brother, Sammy. It was a small, informal ceremony, held on a weekday morning, in a public garden. Just family—and this is one of the closest, most loving families I know.

Anyway. When I opened the Indianapolis Star this morning, turned to page two, and saw this headline, “Gay Families invited to White House egg roll,” it made me extremely happy. I thought, excellent! I'd much rather write about my friends in response to story like this one, as opposed to one of the way too many stories about gay life that are full of hatred and mistruths.

In February, I flew out to California to attend the wedding dinner that Em and Nor threw for themselves, a really lovely affair at a local restaurant attended by a few dozen family members and friends. At every place setting there was a wedding photo, a rose, and a little box of red and pink M&M’s printed with the wedding date. There were tears and laughter, heartfelt toasts—and, of course, loads of funny stories about the happy couple’s ups and downs over the years. There was even a test over the facts of their lives—the one Bella and I cheated on and still didn’t win.

Afterwards, I lay in the guest room of their cozy home, wondering how many people who oppose gay marriage have actually met any gay people who are married and what they might think if they could open their minds and hearts, put all preconceived thoughts about this issue (at least temporarily) on hold, and spend a few hours with Emily and Noreen and their extended family. What they’d see is—just plain love.

So what I’m thinking is—wouldn’t it be cool if, rolling Easter eggs, a straight dead-set-against-gay-marriage family met a gay family like Em and Nor’s and…thought?

It could happen.

Bravo, President Obama. Whether or not you purposely made this first significant gesture to the gay community at Easter or not, it’s perfect.

I mean, WWJD?


He loved and accepted—no, embraced—everyone.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


MEMO: Human Genome Project
RE: One You May Have Missed

When my daughter Kate was a little girl, money burned a hole in her pocket. As a result, she spent it on a lot of dumb things. Once, on a vacation to Mackinac Island, we gave her a very serious lecture about being sure to spend her souvenir money wisely. She seemed to be listening, then went off exploring with her older sister. When we met at the dock, a few hours later, she ran to greet us wearing a red, white, and blue umbrella hat. We were speechless, which was probably just as well, because she was thrilled with her “sensible” purchase. A hat to keep you cool in the sun and dry in the rain: what could be better than that?

Yesterday, Kate sent me this photo of her daughter Heidi with the “sensible” purchase she made at the Science Museum in Seattle: a cup with a curly straw that takes the beverage up one side of her head, through a pair of goggles to the other side of her head and, finally, into her mouth. Heidi was thrilled with the efficiency this purchase allowed. “You can walk and drink at the same time,” she said.

I’m just saying…

Are you guys sure you’ve got them all mapped?