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lay down your burden
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the view from Fort Saint-Elme
On a hike to Fort Saint-Elme I met a woman, her hair a frenzy of sweaty gray curls, her gait steady, I’d venture in her early 70s. Her sweet dog, the color of the most delicious café crème, trotted by and I leaned down to stroke her back which prompted the woman to speak to me. I don’t know everything she said because she spoke rapid French and according to Duolingo my French vocabulary is 692 words. She asked why I was alone and I explained my husband had been “la bas le couteau” which means “over there the knife.” I’d been trying to say “under the knife” in reference to his two recent joint replacement surgeries. When I made myself clear she unleashed a torrent of words. Her husband too has joint troubles. Her husband is a silent and dark presence in her home, in front of the computer all the time, her children live far away, she had breast cancer in the past and wants to be outside everyday, so she hikes alone. I shared that I too survived breast cancer. That my daughter lives far from me. That I yearn for closer relationships with important people in my life. We talked about the heat. The world. The pandemic. Coffee. Confiture. My attempts at French. Her dog. How my husband and I ride bikes together in lieu of hiking. We smiled and chatted in the tattered shade of an ancient tree.
I guess I am telling you this because, even though I’ve been warned that the French don’t get too personal in their conversations, Joelle (Yes, I know! The coincidence of her name!) unburdened herself. I watched her face lighten as she told me about her life. I’m sure she saw the same in mine as I shared my own intimacies. At the heart of our talk was a kernel of loneliness, the kind we all suffer from, a wish to be known.
When I was a little girl my mother unburdened herself to me. Often she told me things I was too young to understand or to carry. Yes, I’ve felt resentful about being parentified. (I’ve written about my mother here and here.) Yet I believe I learned something valuable from her habit of not holding things in. I was the wrong audience for her heartbreaks, her exhaustion, and confusion, but from her I learned the value of putting a burden down. Speaking the words can diffuse the intensity of painful emotions, can poke holes in the wrongheaded and sometimes shameful belief that we are alone in our suffering.
If we are lucky enough to meet a Joelle on the trail, to pause and listen and speak, we learn our experiences are common. Any shame we carry that we are the only ones not managing, screwing up, making bad decisions, yearning to be closer, diminishes. Shame thrives in secrecy. If you are a regular reader of my newsletter you will remember the question an audience member asked of the poet Ada Limón at a reading. “How do you deal with the grief and beauty of being alive?” On the trail, Joelle and I unburdened ourselves. We shared the grief and beauty of living. When we parted we kissed, left cheek-right cheek. Her eyes were such an honest blue.
I picked up THE GIRLS, by Emma Cline. I know I’m late to the party on this one. And to be honest, I’m not certain I can continue reading as it is terrifying. Cults, murder, lost girls, a desperate desire to belong. The writing is honest and gorgeous, but even typing these words to you now I’m filled with dread for what lies ahead.
Also reading THE TOOLS, by Barry Michels and Phil Stutz. It’s a personal growth/self-help book with some pragmatic advice that I find very useful, as well as some woo-woo higher-power stuff that doesn’t (yet?) speak to me. Maybe you’ve seen Jonah Hill’s Netflix documentary, STUTZ, about his therapist?
Also reading ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld which is a romp and I’m loving. There is a long epistolary section in the middle that was a delight to read. Watching two people fall in love over email during the pandemic lockdown? It’s marvelous.
***I have a question for you! I am planning on teaching an online class on the short novel in the fall. A sort of take apart the clock look at some favorite novellas and learning how the writers did it. The class will have a component of generative writing and culminate in a bit of workshopping for the last two weeks. And so I ask you, what are your favorite short novels? Please send me an email or leave a note in the comments section.
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I advise my students to touch their writing project everyday and yet there are great swaths of time that I don’t follow my own solid advice. Well, I’ve been doing it here in France and the advantage is that suddenly the entire world is conspiring to add to the richness and depth of my book. Oh look at the light! That is what the afternoon sun might do in a scene I’m writing. Perhaps that tiny bit of dialog I’ve overheard at the market can find a place in a story. The annoyance of the construction workers starting at 7 in the morning right outside our Airbnb can certainly add to the zeitgeist of a character’s frustration.
Do you write everyday? Even 5 minutes, looking over the last page you got down, thinking about tension and motivation, remembering who your characters are and what they’re up to, where they are, what they want, all of it enriches the work.
In case you’re interested, I’m teaching a class over at Grub St. on how to use what we learn from our reading to strengthen our own work.
E Annie Proulx said, "You should write because you love the ship of stories and sentences and the creation of different words on a page. Writing comes from reading, and reading is the finest teacher of how to write."
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18 excellent questions to more deeply inhabit a scene:
1. What time of day or night is it?
2. What season does it seem to be?
3. Where is the scene taking place?
4. What’s the temperature?
5. What does the air smell like?
6. Where is the light coming from? Ceiling light? Stars? Street lamp?
7. How old are the characters?
8. Who else is in the scene?
9. What is happening?
10. What are the sounds you hear?
11. Why are the characters there?
12. What things/objects are in the scene?
13. What’s directly in front of the character?
14. What do they see when they look to the right?
15. The left?
16. Behind them?
17. What’s below and around their feet?
18. What’s above their head?
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In high school I was a fuck up—stoned a lot. My counselor, Mrs. McNeill, didn’t believe I would thrive in college, and honestly who would’ve believed it? She suggested I sign up for a baking and cake decorating class. It was wonderful and I don’t remember anything except how to make frosting roses and the bookfold technique one uses to make layered and flaky croissants. Neither are skills I use in my day to day life. But I must say I am grateful for the bookfold technique and the flaky croissants I am enjoying nearly everyday that I’m here in France.
Here is something I do use at least once a week and I suggest you do as well. Bear with me as I’ve been buying all my produce at le marché and everything is measured in kilos so I cannot tell you specific amounts.
Roasted Green Bean with Jammy Tomatoes + Feta
Green beans (as many as you need to feed the people around your table)
Cherry tomatoes (one-third the amount of the green beans, you don’t want the tomatoes to take over the dish)
feta (really this is to taste)
onions (one half a red onion, sliced thin)
garlic (1 to 2 cloves, slivered)
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Top and tail the green beans. Toss them with a glug of olive oil, the onions and the garlic, some salt and pepper, put on a sheet pan and roast for about twelve minutes, until the onions are wonderfully limp and fragrant and the beans are al dente. Remove the green beans to a bowl.
Toss the tomatoes with a bit of olive oil and salt, put them on a second sheet pan and place in the oven for about ten minutes. Check to see that they are collapsing in on themselves and releasing some juice. When they begin to brown slightly, remove from oven and add to the green beans in the bowl.
Crumble feta over the top. Perhaps a squeeze of lemon. The dish is delicious hot, warm or cold at a picnic later.
What would read.write.eat. be without a little bit of
Stanley Truffe, a delightful French dog with whom I’ve become acquainted! (I miss Stanley so much!)
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Please, remember to tell your people you love them, and take good care of your skin.
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