Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On the way to AWP

I'm on the way to Seattle tomorrow to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference - the largest literary conference in North America. There are 650 exhibitors at the bookfair this year, including the brand-new Bay Path College  No-Residency MFA in Creative Nonfiction, the only program of its kind in the country.  We'll have a table with our faculty books and program materials, where I will be joined by gifted writers and fellow MFA faculty Susan Ito, Audrey Ferber, and Jan Freeman for book signings, talks, and outreach.  Our goal?  Make contact with as many of the 12,000 conference attendees as we can and spread the word about what we think is the most exciting new MFA in the literary landscape.   

Goal #2 is, frankly, to revel in the abundance of creative inspiration: brilliant writers like Annie Proux, Sherman Alexie, Tobias Woolf, and Amy Tan, who will be there to give readings and participate in talks about writing and books.  Panels on everything from publishing in the 21st century to social media for writers to the broadening horizons for creative nonfiction (the magazine Creative Nonfiction is hosting a can't-miss 20th anniversary reading).  Social events including a "Tweet-up" for writers and a literary bash on Saturday night. 

This event, for writers and teachers, is a dizzying celebration of all things literary, a four-day bacchanalia of books and conversation, where lovers of language and writing can binge on the pleasures of lit-talk 24/7.   Think of it as a writers' nirvana (albeit in a corporate convention center), where we can learn from another, make new discoveries, and remind ourselves why we do what we do.  To say I'm excited is a profound understatement.  I going to take as much as I can to bring back with me, fill my rucksack with rubies and diamonds, as it were, and return to share them with you.  So get ready.  Literary riches are coming your way.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Eat, Write, and be Merry

Some days start off out of sync and stay that way.  Monday was a day like that: an alarm that failed to go off, a latte that exploded in the car, a meeting to which I arrived late (with a coffee stain the shape of an erupting volcano on my shirt), a server that went down, a flat tire on the highway.  In the freezing cold.  So cold I could feel a layer of ice forming on my teeth as I waited for the service truck. 

Thankfully, there are days that make up—more than make up—for the crummy ones.  Days like unexpected packages in the mail, covered with stickers and international stamps and hand-addressed to you. 

Today is a package day.   Literally: the book a certain Mr. D ordered for me as a V-day present has arrived, and it’s even better than I thought it would be.   Yes, sometimes that is all it takes to make me ridiculously happy.  As the writer Susan-Lori Parks says, “I’m hard to impress.  But I’m easy to please."  A philosophy that works for me.

So what is this book that’s transformed my day?  Why,  The Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.  I first heard about it on the excellent literary website The Millions, which published a wonderful piece about it, “Zen and the Art of Pie Making,” by Janet Potter.  Two sentences in, and I knew I had to have it. 

But this is a blog about writing.  What does a book about pie have to do with writing?

I’m glad you asked.  Reading well-written cookbooks is a unique pleasure, allowing one to revel in language invented for the sole purpose of describing the infinite variety of the sense world: taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch.  All come into play when cooking and eating, and all are evoked by descriptive writing.  I sit on the couch flipping the pages, immersed in this abundant sense world, tasting each pie, imagining the flavors, the aromas, the crumbly feel of the dough in my fingers.   And from there, memories effortlessly arise, about food and family, rituals and customs—rich material for any memoir writer.  

Food writer T. Susan Chang, who teaches the invitingly named course “Eat, Drink, Get Paid” for the Bay Path MFA in Creative Nonfiction, demonstrates these connections between food and memory in her stunning book, A Spoonful of Promises.   Less a cookbook than a memoir with recipes, it features short, sparking essays on the author’s life, each centered around a dish.  "I wanted to convey a sense that food isn't just about food, or that food is more than food," she says.  "I think of it as this unobserved companion that travels with us throughout our lives, helping to record our memories and lend meaning to even everyday happenings." 

Indeed.  My earliest memory, in fact, is about dough.  I’m lying on a stained linoleum floor, curled in a ball and weeping.  The source of my despair is four feet away from me: an alluring mound of fragrant cookie batter, Shangri-la in a mixing bowl, which a person I once loved as my mother is guarding like Cerberus at the entrance to Hades.  There will be no fingers in the bowl.  No sampling, no tasting, not a single lick of the spoon.  Hence, the collapse to the floor, the howl loud enough to rattle the bones of distant ancestors.   Hours later (it must have been hours), an exasperated hand descends in front of my face, holding a chunk of buttery deliverance.  I accept it reverently, chewing slowly as the room fills with light.  I am loved after all.  I can get up off the floor and live!  I think I may have heard singing, too, but memory is vague on this point.

What is not vague in the way in which food—and good food writing—serves as creative inspiration, a spur to use descriptive language in novel ways, a means to open up a scene from the small and commonplace to the larger canvas of life.  The acclaimed food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote about serving a meal to guests from a distant country, who as they dined tasted “not only the solid honesty of my red borscht, but the new flavor of a changing world.”

Food writing can be about the meeting of cultures and customs, or simply about the food and nothing more.  Here are Jane and Michael Stern, the “Roadfood” writers, describing their encounter with a slice of apple pie: “The crust is as crunchy as a butter cookie, so brittle that it cracks audibly when you press it with your fork; grains of cinnamon sugar bounce off the surface as it shatters.” This is food writing done so well it becomes a kind of evocative poetry. 

Which leads me back to T. Susan Chang.  Not only does she write beautifully about the linkages between food and feeling, food and family and love, she also describes food with a flair that can almost make a dish appear, ready to eat, on an empty plate.  In her talk at this Saturday’s Writers’ Day at Bay Path, “Finding the Flavor in Writing, or Escape from ‘Delicious,’” she will help writers learn to mine their vocabulary for fresh ways to write about food.  Such as this lovely little sentence, about panna cotta: "The final product was a subtly and sublimely decadent custard, which slid like silk stockings over the tongue."   Or this delightfully earthy paragraph, about ribs:

"In a lifetime’s and several pigs’ worth of ribs, these were exceptional, eyeballs-to-the-ceiling, swoon worthy.  There’s that “chunky rub” – an express train to flavor right there.  And then there’s that sour-sweet glaze, that alluring tamarind thing which balances the tart and the fruity in that kiss-slap!-kiss way I can’t get enough of.  It gilds the ribs front and back and reduces you to an absolute animal, if you aren’t one to begin with."

If, after reading this, you aren’t ready either to cook, eat, write, or sign up for Chang’s talk this Saturday, then I don’t know what will move you.  As for me, I’m up for all four.  Right now, though, I have a Caramel-Apple Cider Pie to make.  With any luck, I’ll write about its splendid success in my next post (without once using the word “delicious”…)!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

A Second Skin: Writing, Memory, and Clothes

Writers’Day at Bay Path is coming up in two weeks, on Feb. 15!  Seven very different and accomplished writers will be on hand for a lively day of discussions and workshops on memoir writing, publishing, food writing, and children’s books.  One of our guest writers, Elizabeth Peavey, will also perform that evening, in a solo play she wrote about her mother’s clothes, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother.

Clothing—that of others or our own—can be both a powerful memory trigger and a literary subject in its own right.  I’m thinking right now of the play Love, Loss and What I Wore by Nora and Delia Ephron, based on the illustrated memoir by Ilene Beckerman. Who can resist a memoir that opens with an image of a Brownie uniform?  (Immediately, I’m back in the basement of a rec center making a “beach cabana” with a giant communal box of Elmer’s glue and a constantly collapsing pile of popsicle sticks.)  Or ASecond Skin, a favorite collection of stories and essays by prominent writers (Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates, A.L. Kennedy) that explore the significance of clothes which have marked a particular point in their lives.  A mother’s sumptuous red velvet dress, a lost cashmere coat, a pair of ridiculously beloved stripey socks: all serve in these narratives as Proust’s famous madeleine

This morning, thinking about Elizabeth Peavey’s upcoming show, I find myself remembering not my mother’s clothes but instead the outfits she chose for me. Specifically, I’m recalling a red plaid dress with a white sailor collar, worn with white ankle socks trimmed with lace and a pair of clunky Oxford shoes.   The year was 1969, my father’s new business had gone bankrupt, and my parents, unable to afford even the school’s modest tuition, withdrew my siblings and I from St. Francis De Sales School and transferred us to Fremont Elementary.  At first, I was exultant.  No more ugly uniforms, no more tight-lipped Sister Agnes and her obsession with exposed knees.  I could wear color!  Skirts above the knee! I wouldn’t have to cover my head anymore in morning chapel (we were given caps for this purpose, which itched and wouldn’t stay put).

My joy was short-lived.

The first day at Fremont I was packed off with a “Lost in Space” lunch box, wearing the above-mentioned red plaid dress, my feet stuffed into the lace-up shoes and my hair forced into tight pincurls.  “You look just darling,” my mother said, sealing my doom.  “Darling,” as it turned out, cut no ice at Fremont.  I crept into Mr. Citarella’s fifth-grade class to find a sea of girls in Peter Max minidresses, go-go boots, and hot pink fishnet stockings. (Fishnets!  Sister Agnes would have a heart attack on the spot.) Their hair was long and straight, their attitude tough and appraising.  Some even wore white lipstick.  I wouldn’t be allowed lipstick of any kind or color until high school, my mother had made clear, and here were ten- and eleven-year-olds with Yardley Lip-Smacker in Silver Frost boldly visible on their pouty mouths.  Cool, the outfits telegraphed.  Modern, fashionable, free.  “Dork!” screamed my red plaid ensemble.  And dork it was, instantly and irrevocably, a label that lasted, as it turned out, for years. 

There were other reasons for my social failure besides the radioactive sailor collar, the “taunt me now” ankle socks.  I carried library books with me to the playground, and sat alone on a bench reading Little Women while my classmates raced, screaming, across the grass or bounced basketballs off each other’s heads.  I took piano lessons, not guitar, in which I learned to play “hit” songs like “Born Free” (“As free as the wind blows, as free as the grass grows…”).  I got As in school, which made the teachers like me, which made Mrs. Rankin (no, please don’t, please don’t) think it was a good idea to have me read my essay about cats in front of the class.  

But it’s the outfits I think of first when I remember my agonizingly long dork phase: the baggy Lee’s jeans instead of the mandatory Levis.   Childish socks instead of purple tights.  A summer “pool” dress my grandmother made of two matching bath towels splashed with a design of giant roses and stitched together, an outfit that so mortified me I cried each time I was told to put it on. “But it’s so cute,” my mother insisted.  “Just perfect to throw on over your bathing suit.”  (My sister’s was identical, except her roses were gold.)  My pleas for go-go boots and miniskirts, for bellbottoms and pierced ears, fell on deaf ears.  “You don’t want to look cheap,” my mother informed me, her lips tightening like Sister Theresa’s when I arrived for Mass one morning with my head uncovered.  She seemed blithely unaware that “cheap” was exactly what I wanted to look like.  I had no idea what it meant, but I knew I was desperate for it.

I wanted clothes to help me make friends.  I wanted clothes to protect me from mockery, to announce to the world that I, too, was in on the secret of growing up.  Sailor collars were for little girls; I was anxious to leave childhood—that realm of the powerless, of the small and frightened—as far behind as I could.   The right clothes, I believed, would get me there. 

Now, what they do for me is bring back a time so vividly I can smell the strawberry lip gloss, hear the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville” blaring over the loudspeakers at the public pool.  And see the ten-year-old clutching her library copy of Little Women, unaware then that books, not clothes, were someday going to take her precisely where she wanted to go.