Saturday, March 21, 2015

Then and Now

The boys, then (c. 2002) . . .

and now.
Memory is a funny thing. What we remember is certainly not a literal retelling or reliving of experiences. Science has confirmed what we already know; memory is fluid, selective, and associated with strong emotions.

Our family has been coming to Bozeman for years. My first trip here was in 1988/89 after my husband and I got married. He'd been telling me about his cousins, Frani and Kim, for some time and I imagined two sisters living in a log cabin. It wasn't until we were planning our trip, that I realized my mistake - Kim was a man, and Frani's husband.

For a New York City girl like me, their home was truly in the middle of nowhere. And yet, I fell utterly in love with its beauty and solitude. We visited several more times as a couple, then 'invaded' with first one son, and then a few years later, our second. Over the years, our memories of this place overlapped and merged, much like successive waves on a beach, until it's hard for me to separate out what we did on which visit. Which kid a particular skiing story was about.

On several trips, we have made the trip to visit Yellowstone Park. Only a little bit of the park is open for travel in winter, but one of the most memorable places is the Gardiner river, also called the boiling river. It's where the hot springs dump into and forms a natural hot tub.

Apres a dunk in the boiling river. . . c. 2002?

On the way to Yellowstone, back in 2002, we stopped at a bend in the river to take photos. We found that people had left stone towers at the river bank, so we made our own. Yesterday, 13 years later, we stopped there to have a picnic lunch and build stone monuments again.

By the Yellowstone River, 2015

What we left by the river.

This is the poem I wrote in 2002, from the memories and details of a trip to Yellowstone. I had nearly forgotten about it until we retraced our steps yesterday.

The Devil's Slide
(for Frani and Kim)

Once, before we learned to tame rock,
lay tar paths in straight lines,
men drove cattle through this valley.

We follow the bright ribbon
south and west while it wanders
to meet the road. Our tires
clatter over loose shale.
We stop. Our breath mists
in thin, sharp air.

These mountains towered, old,
eons before hunters stalked
grazing herds across long seasons.

Light glances off glassy water,
amplified. Stones line the river.
I choose one.
It glows in my hand--
a live coal warmed by sun's breath.

Locked in stone,
dinosaur bones sleep
beneath this constant sky.

Along the shore pilgrims have piled
monuments. Some stand
solid.  Some scatter
beneath our shoes.
We make music as we walk.

The earth heaved,
shook, thrust liquid rock
up through fractured land.

I hold this small reminder
even as the road reclaims us.
Its faint imprint burned
in a callused palm.

    - LJ Cohen, 2002

To return to a place that has so many memories is a gift. To be able to create new ones is even a greater gift. Our lives have changed markedly since our first journey out here. We have experienced great joys and terrible losses, both on a personal and a family level, yet our connection and love of this place remains.

I am so grateful for the memories we continue to collect and cherish. 

Namaste, Montana!


Thursday, March 19, 2015

Could I live here? Do I want to?

One of my favorite places on earth: atop Pierre's Knob, Bridger Bowl, Bozeman, Montana

I grew up in the north east - around the New York City area, and although I was raised in the suburbs (an unholy compromise that is the worst of country life and city life in one place) I spent a lot of my formative years in Manhattan. I guess that makes me somewhat of a 'city mouse.' Certainly, I have always been comfortable in cities. I like the energy of a city, the diversity and the mix of cultures, and styles.

The man I married is a self-described country mouse. He prefers open spaces and quiet. He enjoys visiting cities, and then returning home.

We are currently visiting family outside of Bozeman, Montana, staying in a log cabin on 20 acres of land. There is a lot of space and quiet here. Wild turkeys and deer wander the property. At night, when it is clear, the stars are very bright.

We have been coming to visit here for over 25 years and each time, my husband and I would have a conversation about what it would be like to live here. We even have gone as far as looked into real estate, but never went beyond the dreaming stage.

Each time, despite how happy I am here and how relaxed I feel, I wasn't sure I could imagine myself living in a place like this.

But things have changed. Now I am a full time writer and my work is wherever I happen to be. The internet has come to our cousins' cabin, albeit slow service via satellite. Our house would sell for considerably more than we paid for it 22 years ago and cost of living is cheaper here. My children are grown. My need for solitude has also shifted. While I live outside of Boston, I spend great swaths of my time alone, in the 'company' of my characters and stories. And I am happy.

So I wonder - could I live here? Do I want to? 

I'm not sure. I think I could be happy here - happiness is not a product of geography, but of being content with one's self and circumstances.  There's a lot to love, not the least of which is access to amazing skiing and a long winter.

At least for now, I don't see us making such a major change. My husband is not yet ready to step away from his job, and our children are still coming home for school holidays. Home is still home for them. And there's no compelling reason to pull that rug out from under them.

I don't know if this is in our future. Maybe it is. Maybe we'll find ourselves in Western MA, or Vermont, or any one of a hundred places. Maybe our lives will take us in some other utterly unpredictable direction.

With Frani and Kim, circa 2002ish

But change is coming. I can feel it like the shifting of seasons. There will be a time when we will be ready to leave our house, to simplify our lives, to make some choices. Life is short and there are no guarantees. Our cousin's wife passed away in the fall, just a year after she retired, just after she and her husband had started making plans for their new future. I feel her presence here. If she could whisper in my ear, I think she would tell me not to wait too long. To spend less time worrying and more time living.

I wish she had been able to take that very advice. I wish she had had more time.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

When the popular kids sit at the genre table

"Hogwarts or West Point" photo by US Army, used under cc licence (CC by 2.0)

There have been several kerfuffles on the internet of late about the town/gown split between genre and literary fiction. The most recent has been remarks by Kazuo Ishiguro on his latest, THE BURIED GIANT and Ursula K. Le Guin's response to the sense that Ishiguro was being patronizing about the genre elements in his novel.

In this opinion piece for Esquire, Stephan Marche seems to be firmly on the side of genre fiction: The very title of the article is "How Genre Fiction Became More Important Than Literary Fiction", after all. And I read it with interest.

I am not one who likes false dichotomies. I read widely. Classics, literary fiction, SF, Fantasy, YA, thrillers, non-fiction, biographies. You name it, I'll read it. But my home base, if you will, is genre fiction. It's what I gravitated to as a strong young reader in the 1970s, after outgrowing the children's section of our neighborhood library. It's still what I love to read. It's what I choose to write.

So reading Marche's pronouncement
"Resistance to genre, among literary writers, has given way to eagerness to exploit its riches."
 made me realize this this was not a position of respect, but one of co-option. 

 And there is still the not-so-subtle snobby put down:
"The boundaries between high and low are increasingly meaningless for audiences."
As if all things genre were automatically considered 'low' entertainment and all things literary, 'high'.

I think this attitude is unfortunate and contributes to the divide that still seems to rule the world of letters. Here's the thing, Shakespeare's plays were considered the 'low' entertainment of its day. And yet, today, we look at works like The Tempest as part of high literary cannon. At its heart, it is a fantasy story. If you will, an urban fantasy story. 

There is nothing inherently better about a work of literary fiction, just as there is nothing inherently worse about a work of genre fiction. To assess genre work on a metric of literary merit is to compare apples to the color orange.

It does not compute.

Marche also says:
"The great gift of literary realism has always been its characteristic ability to capture the shifting weather of inner life, but the mechanisms of that inner life and whose inner lives are under discussion have become as generic as any vampire book: These are books about privileged people with relatively small problems."
Here we see that less-than-subtle classicism again.  'Generic as any vampire book.' So if there is a vampire in the story, it automatically becomes equivalent to any other book with vampires in it. Which means that Bram Stoker's Dracula is the same book as Twilight and should be judged according to the same criteria.

I'm not here to tell you which has literary merit and which does not. That's not my job. I'm one writer. One reader. But I will tell you that genre conventions are not something to appropriate into literary work simply because
"The book war is over. The aliens, dragons, and detectives won."
Rather, those conventions, characters, situations, and ideas are a fertile ground for a writer's imagination to push a story past its typical boundaries.  As a writer, I will incorporate the best of what I know to tell the story that I need to tell. I hope that is what all writers do, regardless of what they write.

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Thursday, March 05, 2015

More true tales from the glamorous life of a writer

notes, notes, and more notes

Life has been a little hectic recently. I spent a week playing medical advocate for my elderly father who lives in Florida. It was wonderful spending a week with him and frustrating that the week was mainly at the hospital where my greatest asset was my ability to rattle cages while smiling politely.

It doesn't hurt that I have a long history of working in the health care system. And let me tell you, it's a mess. But that's another blog post for another day.

The best news is my dad is now in a rehabilitation hospital, gaining strength so he can go back to his home and his community. And, since I had none of my usual distractions while I was there, I got a ton of writing done on ITHAKA RISING, the sequel in progress to DERELICT. The projected story length is about 80K or so. I'm just shy of 52K with a solid roadmap of the next big chunk of the narrative. Those notes are part of my 'now what' brainstorming sessions.

The past 2 weeks have netted me over 20,000 words for this novel. I'm proud of that work.

I've begun to believe that half (or more!) of writing a novel is not getting distracted. But the flip side of that is the tendency to hyper-focus on the writing to the detriment of everything else in life. (Bills, phone calls, laundry, etc). So a big part of my internal work is searching for balance. I have not been very good at finding it lately. But this morning, I completed the FAFSA for my son's college financial aid and made a bunch of phone calls that I had been avoiding. And tomorrow I'm making time to go to the ceramics studio.

One of the biggest problems of being a writer is the isolation. Writing is a solo sport. It requires focus and introspection. And it can be lonely, despite the 'company' of our characters. I struggle with the need for external validation and support so I don't feel as if I'm working in a vacuum. When I'm lonely, or frustrated with the writing, it's so simple to click over to a browser window and hang out on twitter/fb/google plus. There is a steady stream of conversation happening. It's a kind of anesthetic for the mind and makes me feel like I'm not so isolated. However, what I've been realizing lately, is that it also has a very negative side effect.

I read everyone's reports of their best selves, best accomplishments, most witty presentations on social media, and I feel terrible. I fall into self-pity, self-loathing, and envy. And let me tell you, those emotions do not fuel the creative process in any sort of healthy way.

It creates a black hole that sucks away joy and the ability to be playful and take risks, all of which are necessary to creativity. I know things are bad when I start to do the "why not me" routine. There's the insidious believe that I deserve to be successful, sell books, garner fans. This way lies madness.

Here's the thing: No one owes me anything.

I am not owed readers or fans or patrons or supporters. Would I like all those things? Sure. And a JK Rowling-sum of money would be great, too.  But just because I create, write, publish, doesn't mean I deserve a cookie for it.

So I wrote this to remind myself that it's about the work. The need to spin a story is what drives me to fill out notebooks, to research translations of Greek poetry, rare isotopes, and the symptoms of traumatic brain injury, and to return, again and again to the writing.

No, it's not glamorous. I'm not likely to have a zillion twitter followers who hang on my every word. I'm not likely to have my manuscripts go to auction and have publishers tripping over themselves to be the buyer. But I have written and published novels that I am proud of. Some of them have found their true readers, readers who have found something that came from my strange and murky imagination to be moving and meaningful.

And that's the true glamour.