Posts Tagged ‘Janet Burroway’


Brookline Booksmith. Photo by Eric Wilbur

I had one hour and forty-five minutes. It was a rare oasis of time for a Sunday. Time for myself, away from home, away from the temptations of planning out the week’s meals or running a load of laundry so as to start the week in an organized manner. Big One had a birthday party just far enough from home for it not to make sense to drop her off, go home, then pick her up again. But she’s just about 9 now, and it was made clear that parents were not to taint the party with the uncoolness of their presence. (Besides, I confess to doing a little jig for joy when she was invited, four years ago, to her first “drop off” birthday party. I think there may have been some liability waiver to sign, a padded room and gymnastics equipment, but it all seemed wonderful to me at the time.) So I left her in a moon bounce with about eight other girls (and many more, disgorged from vehicles sidling up to the sidewalk while parents watched them cross, streaming over to the yard, present in hand, shoes already half kicked off) in the eighty degree relative coolness that has followed a week of temperatures hovering around 100 degrees. Feeling light, I decided to take a stroll around Coolidge Corner a few blocks away.

I was well aware of the danger: the Brookline Booksmith, fabulous independent book shop, sits squarely in the center of Coolidge Corner, wedged between two coffee shops. I intended simply to mosey around and take in the new stores and restaurants, let my thoughts float. I considered crossing the street before getting to the book shop, just to reduce the likelihood of my getting ensnared. I thought: I do not need more books. I do not need more books. Not now. My shelves are already overflowing, and on my bedside table alone are three books I’ve been toting about for weeks: Erin Morgenstern‘s The Night Circus, to investigate what all the hullabaloo is about; Rosie Llewellyn-Jones’ Engaging Scoundrels, part of my research on Lucknow; and Janet Burroway‘s Writing Fiction, my current craft Bible. I tried to convince myself I had no immediate need for more unread books. I can always go purchase one later, correct? In my study, piles of unread books hide the spines of others.

I approached the book shop door, confident of my fortitude, steeling myself against its power. Just then, a woman pushing a stroller with another young child on a scooter trailing behind her paused in front of the door, clearly trying to devise her strategy for pulling it open and maneuvering her charges in. Instinctively, I opened it for her, and instinctively, I followed her in. Just for ten minutes. Not intending to buy anything. Just curious as to what books were displayed up front. Research into marketing and promotion for a book I hope to send out into the world soon.

Stop snickering, please. I can hear you.

I abide by schedules, even–perhaps especially–my own. I was, in fact, in there for just ten minutes. But in those ten minutes, an entire sea of thoughts, emotions, memories, hopes and ideas. Even dreams. In those ten minutes, I took in, in the most superficial of ways–my eyes sliding over displays, barely taking the time to focus–the “Recently Arrived” and “New in Paperback” tables and the second half of the fiction section, going backwards from Z to K, not even bothering to turn my head to read the spines. But even in that quick time, in my refusal to succumb fully, the book shop worked its magic.

There were many of the books I hear about repeatedly, and I must have reached the magical hear-about-it-seven-times-in-order-to-buy it moment in the case of three of them, because within two minutes they were tucked under my arm. There was Cheryl Strayed‘s Wild, which has received, well, wild acclaim. In what I’ve read of her and by her, Ms. Strayed seems like quite a likable person, and her story is compelling. There was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (actually, Bringing up the Bodies, but once I decided I’d buy one, it made sense to start at the beginning) which I justified as another piece of research, to see how an author brings to life such a distant time period with such success. There was B.A. Shapiro‘s The Art Forger, which keeps popping up ever since I took a seminar with the author at last year’s Muse & the Marketplace conference, and which I can also chalk up to research (neat how I do that, no?) because it is fiction that involves the art world, the way mine does.

There were the books of people I’ve come to know via social media and for whom I’ve been cheering, whose familiar names staring out at me from book covers made me smile for their success at bringing a book to market: Together Tea, by Marjan Kamali, whom I met in person at the conference last year, and whose journey to publication seems not dissimilar to mine (barring the minor fact that she actually has a book in stores now); and Eden Lake by Jane Roper, a woman of extraordinary grit and humor who is managing to have a writing career in the midst of a massive family challenge.

There were books I have read, and whose images, atmospheres and characters remain strong in my mind. Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, magical for its storytelling power, and vividly rendered on the screen by Ang Lee. There was Jesmyn Ward‘s Salvage the Bones, which left me with searing images of a bone white dog, ragged but tough children, earth and blood and roiling water. I give it as a gift to an elderly Jewish grandmother and to a teacher/mentor of mine before reading it myself, then wondered, after I had read it, what they’d think of it, of me. There was Abraham Verghese‘s Cutting for Stone, memorable for its cast of characters, its unusual setting (beginning in Ethiopia of the 1950s) which I recommend widely. There was writer and polemicist (isn’t that such a wonderful word?) Arundhati Roy‘s The God of Small Things, and images of a small boy’s confusion in the sticky darkness of a cinema (the “talkies”) in south India, and an alluring dark body dancing by the river.

There were the many, many books I wanted to purchase that I didn’t. Not this time around. I was drawn to the cover of Polpo, a beautiful octopus splayed out on a cookbook from a Venetian restaurant by the same name. I thought of how much my children both love octopuses–one of them sleeps with a stuffed octopus, one of them is always keen to eat marinated octopus. There was Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, whom I admire greatly not only for her writing but for her success as a versatile writer, adept at many genres, and able to avoid being pigeon-holed. There was The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht whose name and background, and achievement at a young age, are intriguing (enviable?).

But my time was up. Ten minutes. I worked my way through the pleasing crowd to the cash register, paid my $49, and left.

I stepped out into the world, a dramatic sky overhead, part thundercloud and part dazzling blue, and it seemed everyone around me harbored an obsession. A wrought woman, all skin and bone, walked in the opposite direction, one hand clutching her phone to her ear, one arm wrapped around herself, as though to hold herself together. A group of seemingly homeless folk were gathered around a bench, one of them perhaps three hundred and fifty pounds, wedged into a electric wheelchair, the arm rests digging into the folds of flesh at his sides. The others were weathered, coarse, cigarettes dangling from their dry lips. A short man covered in tattoos held a beribboned little girl in his arms, her shoes, skirt, t-shirt, sunglasses and hair ribbons all varying shades of pink. In the coffee shop, an elderly woman so thin as to look two dimensional was hunched over a tall cup of coffee and drinking the entire thing with a tea spoon, occasionally looking up and around with wild and distrusting eyes. Stories everywhere.

When are my next ten minutes?

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Wake up and throw on clothes chosen day before. Brush teeth, toss water on face. Downstairs, check weather forecast, put on water for tea, pack lunch boxes: hummus, whole grain flatbread, baby carrots (cooked for one, raw for the other), salami slices, cut up cantaloup, apple sauce packet, granola bar, milk with ice cubes for Little One. Wake kids. Negotiate appropriate clothing. Make breakfast, slice fruit, nudge Big One to set table, avoid eye rolls, pour drinks. Navigate around husband making his lunch. Extra kid in tow to help a friend. Sit down for 15 minute Civilized Breakfast together. Remove scrambled egg from curly head and inside fold of diaper (?!) Apply sunscreen on melange of limbs and faces. Pack towel, extra clothes, water shoes, diapers, sheet, blanket, sleep animals, sun hat, tuition check. Pack my own bag, remember I have a life of my own somewhere. Where? Computer, power cord, bottle of water, brilliant Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway, pack of almonds, fleece for overly air-conditioned coffee shop. Remind kids to fill water bottles with ice and put plates IN dishwasher. Put away perishables from breakfast. Turn blind eye to rest. Switch carseat, grab tuition check from husband of neighbor who forgot to bring hers in. Pile kids in car. Field conflicting requests for music. Preschool drop off. Pry toddler off leg. Camp drop off. Repeat “goodbye” several times until Big One acknowledges she has a mother who is leaving. Fill out liability waivers, yes I agree you will not be responsible for anything that might happen to my child, just take her until 4 pm. Walk back to car, call neighbor to coordinate camp pick-ups, grocery shopping, dinner, evening logistics. Drive to coffee shop, stake out table, order coffee, turn off phone. Now: clear mind, be creative and write. Go!

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A notice came home a few weeks ago: “This year, all third, fourth and fifth graders will become published authors!” My first, and admittedly petty, thought: Oh, great, rub it in, why don’t you? My second thought: What? They want the parents to type out the 8-page stories? But underneath it all, I found the idea sweet, and fun, and creative. The children are to write at least 8 pages (in Word, the notice to parents pointed out rather pointedly) and submit an accompanying 8 pages of illustrations. The books will be printed and bound, many copies made, and there will be an author party. Well, I guess if I can’t quite plan my own yet, I should enjoy my daughter’s!

I’ve watched K agonize over this project for over five weeks now. I supposed “watched” is misleadingly passive a word for what I’ve done. Until today, I tried to limit my involvement to just making sure she paces her work, prodding her a few times a week to work on a page of writing or a drawing. Each time she’s groaned, sighed, reluctantly schlumped or stomped up the stairs after trying to find various lame excuses which don’t fly with a mother who would leap at the suggestion that she hole herself up in her room and work on her story.

The project is due in a few days, and I’ve set an earlier deadline—three days earlier, to be precise—for her to turn over her handwritten pages to me so that I’m not stuck typing them up at the eleventh hour. Some might say I’m projecting my own odd characteristics on my child, forcing her to complete her work faster than required by her teacher. I was, after all, the exceedingly odd college student who turned in her Master’s thesis a full week early so that it wouldn’t ruin my Spring break. Maybe I am projecting, but since I’m the parent overseeing this project, and since it requires my involvement at the end, I believe this is my prerogative.

Yesterday, she seemed to enjoy her writing time, and returned from her room smiling. I decided it was safe to poke a bit. What type of story is it? She looked at me blankly. You know, I continued, you were telling me about different types of books: historical fiction, informational, fantasy, all those categories. What is yours? She shrugged. I dunno. Just a story. Ok, I thought, that’s fine. Spurn categorization. Good for you. It’s all just a marketing gimmick to figure out where on the shelves—assuming there are still shelves– to place your book. I decided against asking if she’d thought about the plot ahead of time, outlined the scenes, developed her characters. Is she an outliner or a pantser? Good grief, I said to myself, she’s 8 years old! Just let her write whatever.

But then today, as she was sitting next to me working on a detailed drawing that involved jellyfish, octopuses and bookshelves, I suggested she hand me the first few page so I could start typing. She did so happily, and I started the transcription.

A fish’s new friend

Once upon a time there was a fish. Her name was Splish. She was blue and she had black fins. She was a very lonely fish. She did not have any friends or siblings.

One day, she went for a little swim. She went to the fish playground. She saw another fish about her age. “Can I play with you?” But the fish ignored her. So she played by herself. When she went home she had a very boring lunch.


The story goes on in this manner. Prominently featured are dinners, snack times and breakfasts, with dutiful clearing of the table by the fish. A potential new dolphin friend. Then there is “open circle” and a discussion, in this underwater class, of “calm bubbling.” There is reading comprehension and math workshop, and another snack, and several recesses, and play dates between the fish and her dolphin friend, and so on, through the week, until we get to Saturday.

K has about two more pages to go, and she’s stuck. “How about introducing a problem?” “Huh?” she asks, with that blank look and way that some third graders have, I’ve discovered, of seemingly turning off their brain. “Well, you know, something that makes the reader think oh no, what’s going to happen?” She informs me that she doesn’t like “books like that.” I say that those are the types of books many people like to read, and besides, I’ve seen her read lots of mysteries, and aren’t there problems and clues and foreshadowing in books like that? “Well, I’m not good at writing,” she says. “I’m not a writer.” “You’re writing, aren’t you?” I say. Helpful, no? She shrugs. “But it’s not my job to be a writer. Like you are.” I stifle the urge to point out that it’s not my job, either, and that I don’t yet earn money from my writing. Because I do like to think of her thinking that it IS my job.

What I do respond is that I don’t want to hear her saying “I’m not good at” something. So you want me to lie? She asks. Sigh. They’re so literal at this age. I said no, I just want you to try to believe it. Well, I don’t, she said, and jabbed her marker at a pink fish. The problem with that attitude, I said as gently as I could, is that you need to believe in yourself so that others believe in you. “You believe in me,” she said. Again with the irrefutable logic. “Yes, of course I do. Because I know you well. I know what you are capable of.”

We had veered off course. I left it at that. I’m back to just trying to make sure she gets the assignment done, to make sure I’m not typing it up at 11 pm the night before it’s due. I don’t want to open that can of worms any wider. Belief in oneself as a writer, and how much it affects others’ belief in us. Giving oneself permission to not do a good job, to write something that is not perfect (as Janet Burroway so artfully expresses in the first chapter of her book Writing Fiction which appears, inexplicably, to be out of print).  An eight year old need not trouble herself with these questions. An eight year old should just write her story about a friendship between a fish named Splish and a dolphin named Splash, and their non-adventures in ocean school in between mealtimes and snack times. At least they know to clear the table when they are done.

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