Monday, October 26, 2009

Mr. Kipling Bramley Pies

My sister went to Paris and brought me a gorgeous silk scarf: red, printed with mille fleurs from the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry in the Cluny Museum. I love it. But what I went berserk over was what she brought me from the London leg of her trip: two boxes of Mr. Kipling Bramley Pies.

Okay, I’m a food philistine. I know it. I embrace it. In France, I’d eat a baguette, some cheese and a raspberry tart at every meal, if I could. In the Netherlands, I crave the stroupewaffels you buy on the street: two thin, hot waffles with to-die-for caramel syrup in between. In Italy: gelato. Preferably pink grapefruit from the stand just up the hill from the Hotel Giotto in Assisi.

In England, it’s Mr. Kipling Bramley Apple Pies. I’m extremely fond of Mr. Kipling Apple and Blackcurrant Pies, as well. But, according to my sister, none were available in the London stores—or in Woking, where my cousins Kim, Tim, Max & Zoe live. Tim made a special trip to grocery stores in Woking, where he lives, in search of them.

Anyway. They are absolute heaven: tart apples, crust that melts in your mouth. Plus, they’re so cute, like doll pies, each in its own little foil pie pan. But what I love best about Mr. Kipling Bramley Pies is the way that, for a delicious moment, eating one takes me right back to England.

I’ve eaten Mr. Kipling pies on numerous memorable outings with my cousins over the years—in the garden of Jane Austen’s house in Chawton, on the Roman wall at Silchester, on a hill overlooking Pilgrim’s Way near Compton, and in the strange silence of Maiden Castle, which is not a castle at all, but an enormous hill fort of stone and earth, like Stonehenge, built of England’s mysterious prehistoric inhabitants.

With my intrepid traveling companion, Pat, I consumed Mr. Kipling pies while exploring Roman archaeological sites, wandering through churchyards, marveling at the green, green countryside in the Lake District, tracking down the (sometime pretty obscure) literary haunts of Dickens, Hardy, the Brontes, Wordsworth and other authors we love. Not to mention, mesmerized and a little spooked while visiting Avebury at dusk.

Later, visiting my friend Margaret-Love, when she was directing the University of New Hampshire summer program at Cambridge, I snacked on Mr. Kipling pies in her cozy room overlooking the green courtyard at Gonville & Caius College, hiking the River Cam to Grantchester, and tagging along on field trips to Stratford-on-Avon, Dover, Canterbury and other places.

I no doubt had a box of them in my backpack the day I took the train from London to Newmarket, where my parents met at a dance at the Golden Lion Pub during the War—he, an American G.I.; she with the Women’s Royal Air Force. Mr. Kipling pies weren’t invented then, but I like to imagine them sharing a box of them, nonetheless.

My sister and I ate an apple pie for dessert after having lunch together on Friday. I am embarrassed to say that I ate two more on the way home in the car, leaving the steering wheel so sticky that I was busted when Steve drove it and I had to give one to him.


I ate the all others myself, though—all the while thinking of England.

They were gone by Sunday morning.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Dear Dan--

Birthday greetings from your devoted but too-freaking-busy friend. So busy, in fact, that I still haven’t answered your letter that came in April. That is absurd.

May I say first that I love that you wrote said letter on a finished writing tablet—something that nobody else I know would even thinking of doing? (And that your letter begins: “Things are tough in America spring, 2009. Who ever thought the end papers of cheap stationery would ever be so useful and valuable?”)

I love that you still write letters, rather than take the easy route of e-mails, Facebook, or—God forbid—Twitter to keep in touch with people you care about. (Or, uh, blogs.) Bravo for holding the line, being one of the last true men of letters. I have a fantasy of someone coming across a cache of your letters far, far in the future and assuming that everyone living at the hinge of the centuries was like Dan Patterson. How cool would that be?

Better yet, if everyone living at the hinge of the centuries really was like you. It would be a better world, for sure.

Thank you for telling me that Alan remembers that I’m the one who gave him the Colts cap—and that when he turned three, he claimed to be thirty-three. I think that is hilarious.

I loved hearing about Kate’s attempts at sounding out words, though I’ll bet—by now—she’s reading like a champ.

Reading about them made remember visiting you guys in Portland last year and what fun I had. Plus, I like being able to imagine My People in their places, so it was lovely to see you in your cozy house, full of books, and to eat pancakes that you and Kate had made for dinner.

And, of course, I always love your “Important New Theories of Life.”

As in, “If your whole house, so to speak, is in good order, that’s a bad sign.

"But if there’s something completely awry, you’re on the right track. For instance, your gums won’t stop bleeding from lack of flossing, or there’s a hole in your roof where the water pours in. Or your library books are two years overdue. If means you’re doing something right.

"Because if everything is in good order, you’re not focused. You’re committing the sin of dabbling. Sure, everyone is healthy and well-fed, but what are you getting done?”

Brilliant! Spot on!

Or maybe I just like to think it's spot on that because my life is pretty much utter chaos at the moment, and I really need to believe that I am not completely insane. The thing is, I love every single thing I do—and would do more, more, more--if only there were time.

Writing, of course. I love living inside my own worlds, constantly astonished by how they evolve. I finished a draft of Looking for Kerouac and am back at it again, trying to make it more real. It’s set in a steel mill town in 1964. When things get too complicated in his life, the main character takes off with his friend to look for Jack Kerouac. But the Kerouac they find—a sad drunk living with his mother in St. Petersburg, Florida—is not the Kerouac they thought they’d find. It’s been fun—and disconcerting sometimes—to be back in that time and that place all these years later.

I really want to write a creative writing book for high school kids, too. And I’ve got this Piero della Francesca novel mixing it up in my head. Among about a million other ideas.

I love being the director of the Writers’ Center, too—though I never in a million years thought I would (or should?) be the director of anything. But it’s a kick making things happen, connecting people—and ideas. I like the idea that I started as a writer there (What would I have done if the Writers’ Center hadn’t been there?) and that, helping to keep it alive, I’m making writing possible for someone out there who needs it as much as I did.

I love my fabulous family—and being with them, too. And my amazing friends. Every single one of them.

I love traveling. The Assisi workshop was wonderful this year: painting, teaching, walking the beautiful countryside…gelato. Afterwards I met Jenny and we spent ten days together seeing Venice, Florence and Rome. Also wonderful.

How lucky I am! I shouldn’t complain that there’s not enough time, but:


I mean, really. What is wrong with people who sit on their couches watching television? All. The. Time.

They need to tape Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day” on their refrigerators, the one that ends:

"Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?"

Uh-oh. I feel a rant coming on.

So I’ll stop here—but not before saying that I cherish our long friendship that began when you were in my first creative writing class at Broad Ripple. I still use your story “Yard Wars” as an example of good student writing—and it still makes me smile. I remember the time you guys gave me the surprise 35th birthday party at the cemetery, complete with gray-iced tombstone cake and my own personal epitaph written by the inimitable John Smith that read: Here she lies/Cold as ice/Barbara Shoup/She was nice/She wrote many a book/with many a plot/And now she has one in which to rot.

What ever happened to John Smith, anyway?

I remember, too, reading your journals—even into your twenties. Those little blue spiral notebooks you bought first (I think) at the long-gone stationery store in Broad Ripple. I always felt so honored that you would share them with me.

I’m so glad that Jen was out there waiting for you—and that you found her and, together, made the kind of life you imagined when you were in high school. I’m glad you’re teaching again, too. I can’t imagine any person in the world better suited to shape the lives of little children.

Have a happy, happy birthday, Dan.

I’ll write you a real letter soon. I promise.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Beginnings, Middles, Ends

I love poems that serve as vehicles for learning elements of—well, anything—but, especially fiction. If you (or your students) are stuck on that “Show, Don’t Tell” thing, use the structure of this wonderful poem by Billy Collins to practice. Use the first three lines of each stanza to get started, then replace Collins's imagery with your own to make the reader see/hear/feel the nature of beginnings, middles, and ends.


This is the beginning.
Almost anything can happen.
This is where you find
the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,
the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.
Think of an egg, the letter A,
a woman ironing on a bare stage as the heavy curtain rises.
This is the very beginning.
The first-person narrator introduces himself,
tells us about his lineage.
The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.
Here the climbers are studying a map
or pulling on their long woolen socks.
This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.
The profile of an animal is being smeared
on the wall of a cave,
and you have not yet learned to crawl.
This is the opening, the gambit,
a pawn moving forward an inch.
This is your first night with her, your first night without her.
This is the first part
where the wheels begin to turn,
where the elevator begins its ascent,
before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.
Things have had time to get complicated,
messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.
Cities have sprouted up along the rivers
teeming with people at cross-purposes –
a million schemes, a million wild looks.
Disappointment unsolders his knapsack
here and pitches his ragged tent.
This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,
where the action suddenly reverses
or swerves off in an outrageous direction.
Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph
to why Miriam does not want Edward's child.
Someone hides a letter under a pillow.
Here the aria rises to a pitch,
a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.
And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge
halfway up the mountain.
This is the bridge, the painful modulation.
This is the thick of things.
So much is crowded into the middle –
the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,
Russian uniforms, noisy parties,
lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall
too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,
the car running out of road,
the river losing its name in an ocean,
the long nose of the photographed horse
touching the white electronic line.
This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,
the empty wheelchair, and pigeons floating down in the evening.
Here the stage is littered with bodies,
the narrator leads the characters to their cells,
and the climbers are in their graves.
It is me hitting the period
and you closing the book.
It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen
and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.
This is the final bit
thinning away to nothing.
This is the end, according to Aristotle,
what we have all been waiting for,
what everything comes down to,
the destination we cannot help imagining,
a streak of light in the sky,
a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

Billy Collins

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Heavens Are Hung in Black

One of the best things about being a writer is having friends that are writers and being privy to their creative process along with your own. This is especially true when a writer-friend is a playwright and you get to see the early draft of a script that you read (and loved) come to life, deepened and polished, on the stage. Better yet, as the “date” of said playwright on opening night.

I met James Still about ten years ago, when he became the playwright-in-residence at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. Just before his first visit to Indianapolis in that role, he happened upon my book, Stranded in Harmony, in his library in L.A. He liked it, and asked Janet Allen, the artistic director, if she knew me. She did; Janet Allen knows everybody. She invited me to come down to the theatre and meet him. We were friends instantaneously, real friends, and we’ve been friends ever since. In fact, over the years, I’ve come to think of James as a kind of cosmic brother.

Friday evening, I had the privilege of being his “date” for the opening of his amazing new play, “The Heavens Are Hung in Black,” also the opening of IRT’s season. He was kind of a wreck, which I found endearing and which also made it all seem more exciting, more real.

He was the playwright, for Pete’s Sake! I grew up in “The Region” in one of those dreadful subdivisions full of ticky-tacky houses that sprang up after the War. I had nothing but library books and the dreams they set spinning in my head. In high school, I read Moss Harts’ Act One and the world of writing plays and opening nights and agonizing over what the critics would say made its way into the mix. And here I was, living what I had imagined.

I loved “The Heavens Are Hung in Black” when I read a draft of it several years ago. I could feel James’s wrestling with this rich, unwieldy material in the text. I was astonished and humbled by the depth of his knowledge and insight about Abraham Lincoln and by the fact that there was something in this play about Lincoln that seemed absolutely new. The ending gave me that cold feeling in my head that I get when I know something’s really, really, really good.

And, to be honest, with that came the moment of despair that inevitably follows such a response. Will I ever write anything this good myself?

But the play, seeing the play! The set was gorgeous, as IRT’s sets always are. The actors perfectly cast. Lincoln was Lincoln for those few hours.

I was intensely conscious of James sitting beside me as we watched the play together. Sometimes I felt him noticing a glitch or being aggravated by people down the row, whispering. Sometimes he laughed along with the audience, which pleased me so much, because I knew he was living in the play, as we were.

How strange it must be to see your characters come to life before you, I thought; how wonderful and harrowing the visible response. It’s nothing like sailing your novel out into the world, then waiting the good, bad, or (worse) nonexistent news of its reception in the safety and privacy of your writing room.

The response to “The Heavens Hung in Black” was exactly what any playwright would hope for. The theatre was abuzz at intermission, people excited about what they were seeing, marveling at the performances, remarking on particular details—and on the play’s timeliness, as our country is poised on the brink of a war as likely to tear us apart as did the Civil War, and Vietnam.

Afterwards, James invited me to join the company for the celebratory toast, an IRT tradition on opening nights. The cast was crowded in a tiny, dimly lit room, some still hurrying down the hall half-dressed. Mary Todd Lincoln wore a bathrobe; Lincoln lounged in a chair, grinning. Glasses of champagne were set out on a low table—and when everyone had gathered, they were distributed and the toasts began.

I toasted, too. To my cosmic brother James, to the cast, to the IRT—and, secretly, to a long ago flight of imagination made real.

The play runs through October 25. See it, if you can! For tickets visit