Monday, July 27, 2020

A Writer Moves From Memoir Back to Fiction

Most of the blog posts I wrote these last few months had a pandemic journal subtitle. It's a Dog's Life ... July and the Simple Life ... a pandemic journal.  I'm thinking I shouldn't attach the a pandemic journal anymore to these blog posts. There's no end in sight to this crisis and a pandemic journal could run for years—a reality show that endlessly spins and spins. Everyone agrees on that—the part that there is no end in sight. The despair is deep and leaves a bitter taste in the mouth if you focus too much on it, although the stories people tell me of how they are living are filled with such courage and honesty I will continue to blog about that. It always surprises me how much grit people evince, the ones who are quiet, especially, the ones whose modesty and acceptance teach me how to live through this time. 

Oh, I'm just a writer. That’s what I say when people ask me what I do these days. “Oh, I’m just a writer ... you know.” Weeks revolving around deadheading petunias and reading novels on my Kindle fill the time too, but it is writing which absorbs me during this pandemic. The oh, I’m just a writer part really doesn’t let people in on how much work writing is, though. How many hours it takes. How writing is something that you either do, or you don’t. Sometimes, there aren’t enough hours in the day to write all you want to write.

As the pandemic rages, I've been thinking about Ava Stuart, the heroine in A Portrait of Love and Honor. The people she’s met, her memories of when she and Jay first fell in love, their son who would grow up and never get to know the man his father was. 

I read an interview with novelist Elizabeth Strout after she reintroduced Olive Kitteridge in Olive, Again, a book I read this summer and loved, as I did Olive Kitteridge. In this interview in The New Yorker, Strout says:
"I never intended to return to Olive Kitteridge. I really thought I was done with her, and she with me. But a few years ago I was in a European city, alone for a weekend, and I went to a cafĂ©, and she just showed up. That’s all I can say. She showed up with a force, the way she did the very first time, and I could not ignore her."
Like Olive, Ava has much to say as she ages, a woman alone. So, I'm  putting my completed memoir on the backburner and writing fiction again. I feel free, letting Ava tell her story, instead of me. 

Although I have written two memoirs, who can ever truly analyze oneself? I have begun to believe it is impossible, especially the older one gets, and considering the times in which we live, where there are more questions than answers. And how does one write with clarity about people with whom one is intimately involved, without in some small measure, at least, betraying confidences and making the whole business seem trivial through endless dissection? I know ... changing names, changing identifying characteristics, creating compelling scenes, all tools of fiction writing, anyway. I did this in both my memoirs and loved the process, but it seems a new story needs telling from another point of view.

Ava can speak about writing, because she is a writer. She can speak about growing old because it has been years since Jay died and her loneliness and her solitude are worth exploring. She’s acerbic and sometimes judgmental. Regret, disappointment, it's all there, and she doesn’t have to worry if her grown kid likes what she writes, or if an old boyfriend might sue her for libel because she reveals his inadequacies, and her own, at the same time, which can be sad. There's a freedom and energy in letting Ava tell her story. It’s not a watershed moment in one’s life, like chronicling an abusive childhood, hiking the high trails above the Pacific, grieving the death of a child, performing a unique job like trampoline artist ... just the ordinary days of a woman searching for meaning.

Although even when I wrote fiction people thought it was memoir, this move back to fiction feels freeing, gives me energy in the morning to write. It's all good, as people say. Writing is a force during this dark time. What could be better than that?

Monday, July 20, 2020

It's a Dog's Life—A Pandemic Journal

The old adage, it’s a dog’s life applies. Or, in my case, it’s a puppy’s life.
I post pictures on Facebook ... puppies taking naps, puppies playing with squeaker toys, puppies begging to come in the house. Everybody loves puppies. My son got a dachshund/beagle puppy in March. Although her name is Goose, we call her the 'diva' because she is fearless and loves showing off. She’ll make one flying leap off my deck, airborne for a brief, sweet moment, before landing on the lawn and racing after Lily, my yellow Lab. I spent July 4th weekend entertained by the diva dive bombing off the deck.

My older son got a German Shepherd puppy on my birthday, July 11.We drove all the way out to Ohio to get Rin, which is short for Rin Tin Tin. 'Rin' means companion in Japanese, fitting since my son is a black belt in the Japanese martial art, aikdo. This past Saturday, I spent the afternoon puppy-sitting Rin. All went well, puppy chomping on a chew toy and on Lily's ears until the neighbor started his lawnmower. It's crazy how fast a puppy can disappear. I raised two kids. How could I lose a puppy? I panicked until I realized she was under the deck. She remained terrorized under my deck for the next two hours. She’s a baby. Not quite nine weeks.

Both puppies nip at Lily’s ears. At seven years old, Lily wasn't prepared to be Mama to two upstarts, to herd them around the backyard, to have the upstarts hog the attention, to shamelessly prance off with her toys. That’s her lot lately, her life in pandemic world. 

Then there's my lot in pandemic world. Like most writers, I vent. The blank page serves as a sounding board, an 'in-house' psychiatrist. It had been three weeks without a dishwasher. The machine wasn't due for another week so when the plumber called Friday morning and said he had it and could he come by to install, I jumped. Absolutely! Two hours later, a young guy arrives. I met him outside, wearing a mask, one of those blue things the dentist wears. He looked at me, “Oh yeah, I have a mask in my truck. I should get it.” I felt like saying, yeah, you should. I was so thrilled to have my new dishwasher installed, I felt like it was Christmas so I didn’t say anything, not when he lay on my kitchen floor, huffing and puffing to take the old dishwasher out and wasn’t wearing a mask. Not when his ‘backup’ appeared about an hour later, another guy in his mid-twenties, wearing a bandana that covered his mouth but not his nostrils. Not when he asked me to sign off on the work order, asked to borrow a pen, and wasn't wearing a mask. 

After they left, I disinfected everything in my kitchen top to bottom. As I scrubbed away, I thought of Bukowski, who said, “If I bet on humanity, I’d never cash a ticket."

That's how I'm feeling lately. I’m not a person to police other peoples’ activities, or tell them what to do. I know the plot we’re all living. I get it. It's hard. But what's so hard about covering your face with a cloth? 

If our warped, vapid president would wear a mask, others might too. If the deranged governor in Georgia would enforce a mask mandate, maybe we’d be where Thailand is with little or no spread or infection and I could travel again. Our country’s lack of leadership has turned us into pariahs in the EU because our infection rate is soaring. Even Canada and Mexico don’t want us. 

I met two friends last week for a picnic lunch.
Ninety percent of the conversation revolved around pandemic world. One friend had, not one, but three, appliances conk out since this madness began. Another is heading to New England for a vacation. We’ll be doing a lot of take-out and barbecuing, she said. Some vacation, I think. Half the fun of a vacation is dining out, lingering over cocktails in an air-conditioned bar, eating a leisurely meal and not cooking. I'm going nowhere this summer, so I talked about the puppies. What else? You should see the diva, I joke.  It's a dog's life here in pandemic world.

There’s an excessive heat warning today. No outdoor pools open. Just Lily and me. I’ll be writing, reading and doing what I usually do to keep my sanity ... appreciate that I’m still virus-free ... at least for now. And, playing with puppies sooner, rather than later, no doubt. Oh, and running my dishes through the dishwasher again.


Monday, July 13, 2020

Pandemic Gardening and Nature's Eternal Lessons

Marilyn Gilpin

My garden has always been a haven. I can lose myself, or rather lose my cares and worries, when I am surrounded by nature. This escape has become so much more essential during these pandemic times. 

The news is almost all bad. There is the worsening health crisis, mismanaged at all levels, and the cavalier attitude about the virus of many of my fellow citizens. There are police killings, protests, vandalism, climate change, Hong Kong. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed to near despair.

So, I venture into my garden. Far from perfect, it is messy and chaotic, with so many weeds that I have redefined what a weed is. If it is not invasive, or if it flowers, it can usually remain. My little oasis is a stunning, elegant and delightful nook where tranquility reigns; peace prospers. My sunflowers don’t have covid; my hydrangea never heard of coronavirus; climate change hasn’t yet touched my maples and poplars. I find solace in the certainty that Nature knows what she is doing. Acorns grow into oak trees with no help from any human.

I learn patience while tending my garden. If my new clematis doesn’t flower, I am certain that it will next year. A garden’s needs are simple. If my morning glory looks wilted, I water it. If my astilbe looks dead, I examine it carefully for any sign of growth. Growth means life. If it dies, I plant something else. Nature has been growing things for millennia before I arrived. I get to be a caretaker for just a little while, choosing what to plant and where in my small corner of the world, but Nature is ultimately in charge. 

One of my favorite quotes is from the Talmud: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers GROW, GROW.” It is such a comforting thought. I belong to the universe, and the universe has my back. 

This little pandemic will be a minor blip in the eternity of Nature, unnoticed by birds and rivers, trees and stars.

Marilyn Gilpin has been an avid reader and writer for as long as she can remember. Some of her pieces have been published in The New Sweetwater Reporter, the newsletter for East Nantmeal Township. She is a passionate gardener, theatre lover, and student of piano and has contributed to numerous Women's Writing Circle read arounds. She lives in Glenmoore, Pennsylvania with her husband, Michael, his many guitars and their four cocker spaniels. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

July and the Simple Life—A Pandemic Journal

Reflecting on how to reinvent, to conjure new dreams within the framework we are living, is pandemic life. I prize solitude, but some days, I feel weariness as time hangs heavy like the humid air outside my window. Friends tell me they also grapple with finding meaning. Independent as they are, this time challenges their self-sufficiency. I feel very isolated, one woman said. Another walks in the woods by herself, calling it her outdoor church. 

Purple hydrangea, blue-green hosta. When I cannot garden, I write. When I cannot write, I read. Before the heat of the day, I take Lily for a drive. A goal, a purpose, a little adventure, anything, consumes my days. At the park, Lily and I follow the path leading to a church cemetery. Small American flags by granite tombstones flutter in summer breezes. One headstone reads. You left us far too soon. Ours is not to question why. Only God knows.
When I return home, my copy of Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, author, aviator and champion of women's concerns, catches my eye. Its cover of sea water and sand appeals on a hot summer day. I page through it. One passage stands out. Lindbergh writes: I mean to lead a simple life, to choose a simple shell I can carry easily—like a hermit crab. But I do not. I find that my frame of life does not foster simplicity. She goes on to lament the endless commitments, duties and errands of wife, mother and friend. Although the book was written more than sixty years ago in another time and place, the words resonate with philosophical meditation. 
Now, with this pandemic, many of us face fewer commitments. In Julys past, I traveled. Now, my dream to see the world is on hold. Publishing my new memoir feels less urgent in a Zoom-world. I taught in public libraries and held workshops. Not such a good idea right now. Virtual lacks intimacy. 
Simplify means to breathe easier, reduce stress. Buying clothes? Not needed except for the basics. Doing more with less. Lilies on a pond and sunlight in green water offer reflection this summer. My simple shell and its bare beauty tell me to cherish this strange time. As Lindbergh writes: "In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life."

July is bittersweet. I was born in July and memories abound. I remember childhood July 4th celebrations. We kids decorated our bicycles with red, white and blue crepe paper. Playing cards attached by clothespins to the spokes of our wheels made a neat flapping sound as we pedaled in parade to the elementary school playground and open fields of Queen Anne's lace. Potato sack races, awards for the best decorated bike, my mother in her bright yellow sleeveless dress, all pass in the rear view mirror of time.
This July a friend emails. I want a refund on 2020, she jokes. Haha, me too, I respond. Except, there are no refunds on time. Time is what we make of it. If ever there was a moment to carry the simple, bare shell, this is it, I suppose. The neighbor and I chat about our love for dogs and her longed-for getaway with family, coming up this week. I don’t care if it rains. I just need to get away, she sighs. No restaurants, no beach, we have a pool at the house, we’re cooking each night. The simple is bliss.
Each day brings new challenges, new relationships, new memories. I look up at a summer sky with billowy clouds and take it in. Family, friendship, faith, moments of being. The tides shift and change. Nothing is permanent. I carry my simple shell. I remind myself to appreciate its bare beauty with gratitude and acceptance.

Monday, June 8, 2020

A Little Girl Remembers Church and A Woman's Life

As a little girl I wore a hat and white gloves to church. Everyone dressed up for church in those days. There was my dad in suit and tie, his Phi Beta Kappa key tucked into his vest pocket. My mother in stockings and heels, a skirt and silk blouse, held my hand as we walked into the cool sanctuary.

Sometimes on special occasions like Palm Sunday or Easter, my grandparents came out from Germantown, along with my Aunt Edna. She lived with them and years later, after her parents died and her schizophrenia spun out of control, she ended up in Norristown State Hospital. Edna had lovely pale-yellow hair, and she wore velvet roses pinned to her coat lapels and rhinestone bracelets on her skinny wrists. She led a tragic life. She was my first experience in questioning whether or not there is a God. 

My grandparents were Lutherans, but in my family, my parents became Episcopalians and so did I. This sounds like a mere recounting, but in a way, it makes me realize how my family always went to church, not that we were devout Christians, rather, Christians by birth and by routine passed down from generation to generation. 

We went to church not questioning the patriarchy or the liturgy, the Our Father, never the Our Mother. It wasn’t until later—much later when I was in my mid-thirties and had two small children and was teaching Sunday School with my husband that I became acutely aware of the politics that run through a congregation. It was at an Episcopal church that the controversy centered around disapproval of the ordination of women—and, of course, homosexuality and ordaining gay priests and marrying same sex couples. But politics in church often went deeper than the controversial issues of the day. I felt it at all levels, right down to the sermons. I remember one male priest preaching about a woman’s place being in the kitchen, baking apple pie. He and his wife had four boys and I wondered who those boys would grow up to be, would they respect women with a father like that and a mother who allowed that message. 

When it comes to politics, gender and race, people’s views are stubborn. Change must come from within. No arguing, persuasion, facts or information alter how a person feels. No sensitivity training is the answer, for, as one priest told me, they tried that in the inner city and it doesn't work. Biases are like intricate wrought iron, intractable and unyielding. Communities often remain insular. 

It wasn’t until I was in my late forties that I began to ponder the value of church. Not the message of the Gospels, certainly not that, but the institution that was the church and the people who ran the various congregations—both ministry and lay people. A lot of this converged at a time when as a widowed woman and a writer, I began noticing women in the clergy shying away from words like “empowerment” and “feminism”—as one woman priest told me—they were "buzz words". It made me wonder how I might keep my faith and attending church compatible. It was tricky because I felt I needed a community and practicing Christianity solo felt like climbing a very narrow passageway to nowhere. I’m Christian. Not Buddhist. Gazing at a blade of grass and seeing in it the eternal, doesn’t work for me. 

I couldn’t talk to the priests that their message that bringing up feminism and misogyny were best left unspoken, discourteous to others of a different mindset. I have always listened to others. I ran a writing group for ten years and the importance of listening with an open heart to another’s story is sacred to me. My feeling that I should remain almost voiceless, out of decorum and courtesy, left me bewildered. I tried to separate the priests from their sermons, focus on a universal message ...  the least among us must come first, the here and now is merely passing ... keep your sights on the eternal. 

Once again, in church we face times of political turmoil
. Who is on this side politically? Who is on that side? How much do we say? How much is left unsaid? As I write this, I have come to believe that my own spiritual journey must focus on learning more about the Gospels, as well as giving back to the church through teaching and writing, as well as monetary donations, both here and internationally. I admit I’m struggling with the American Protestant Church. The work lay and religious people are doing with children in Africa inspires me and gives me hope.

I remain faithful to the teachings of love and renewal, to my own instincts of what is right and wrong. I attend church, virtually. When church reopens its physical doors, I will once again try and be there in mind and spirit. I remember that little girl, holding her mother's hand as they walked into a sanctuary of people and prayer. I remember the wife and mother teaching Sunday School. I remember the widow, who one day stumbled inside a church and saw sunlight shining on the altar through stained glass windows and stopped questioning why, as much as how. I remind myself that maybe church needs me, as much as I need it, now more than ever.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tattoos, A Baby and Broken Sky: A Pandemic Journal

Life is passing and with it comes the hope to make each day meaningful, even in a world trafficking in crisis and fear. Although it might have occurred in another universe of time—a time before the pandemic―the memory returns.


It was a Friday morning devoted to getting my hair cut and colored―a chance to keep looking somewhat young for $140. An extravagance. My stylist Meredith used her magic potions and foil strips to fashion streaks and wash away the gray. “It will give your hair depth,” she said of the streaks.

Everywhere I go, I see women of all ages ... platinum and blond streaks, a plethora of Jennifer Aniston streaks, purple and blue, pink and green hues and streaks. 

Meredith has a tapestry of blue roses and bird tattoos adorning her right arm. I admire her arm because it’s a statement, a style all her own. Tattoos were frowned on in my house, just like pierced ears. My mother would hardly recognize this world, if she were alive today. Take Judith, the sixty-something woman in my exercise class. Judith has a greenish-blue tree tattoo with long roots running down to her wrist. She married her partner in January, who is now her wife. 

I had been going to Meredith for two years. In all that time she tried to get pregnant. Now on this Friday morning, she shared that her eggs were harvested and two implanted with her husband’s sperm. She confessed the surgery was painful. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said. She was twenty-eight and childless and her life focused on having a baby. 

I wished her good luck, that I would pray for her surgery to be a success. “Have a Happy Mother’s Day with your boys,” she said. I had shared stories with her about my sons; that they have been my joy. As I drove home, I remembered thinking how I took getting pregnant for granted, how easy it was for me. It seemed so unfair. I remembered changing diapers, longing to get back to work, so unaware that my life as a young mother would never come again. Practicing a little patience and what they now call mindfulness would have been wise. But I was so young then and wise was not a part of my vocabulary. And no one talked about mindfulness.


Before the world changed and the pandemic engulfed us, I went back to the salon. It was another Friday morning. Gray, rainy. Meredith was pregnant with twins. A boy and a girl. We embraced.


Crimson geraniums grace the kitchen windowsill and a warm breeze ruffles the white azaleas outside my front door. I take a deep breath. A moment of grace and contentment to be savored. A phrase comes to mind. I heard it when I traveled to Costa Rica: Broken Sky.” Here’s the way it was explained to me. Gray sky and clouds part and a shimmering patch of blue shines and breaks through, high about the volcanoes. 

There is the brokenness and the unexpected in our lives. Then the clouds part. The sky opens. That’s the joy of connecting, of sharing our stories and our lives. That’s the joy of the writing life. The days of gray, the blank page waits, and then without warning, a shimmering patch of blue. 

“I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me ... I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life ... I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I'll ever have.” ~ Natalie Goldberg, American author.

Author's Note: This blog post is an excerpt from A Woman Alone, my new memoir.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Reconciling Social Media: Guest Post By Novelist Claire Fullerton

In this day and age of social media at the center of an author’s career, there is much to reconcile, and I wrestle with keeping a proper perspective. 
On the one hand—and you’d think this to meet me in person—I  am ridiculously extroverted; I have what author, Pat Conroy, labeled the “Southern sickness” of assuming everyone I meet is my best friend, yet on the other, I am intensely private. I don’t like showcasing myself because it feels like grandstanding, and quite frankly I’m not impressed with myself to the point that I think I have anything lofty over any other writer. We are all of us playing a long game, making our way in our chosen field. But sometimes it seems that one has to have an elevated sense of oneself in order to promote one’s work as an author. There’s a fine line these days, and it’s the one thing I didn’t realize going into “being” a writer. I’m probably like many people in their 50’s. We were the generation who woke up one day to discover the entire world was online and all over social media. When that realization dawned on me, it was a major hustle to catch up.
Then there is the concern of reconciling novel-writing as art and publishing a novel as a business. Once upon a time–as little as ten years ago—authors wrote books and turned them over to their publishing house to promote. If they had an audience to justify a book tour, the publisher paid for the author to travel from bookstore to library to book club to meet readers in person. This is still done, but on a small, discerning scale primarily intended for authors who have wide name recognition. 
As for authors with a small or independent press, when it comes to a book tour, it’s all out of pocket and they’re essentially on their own.  Because book publishing options have opened up and there are now thousands upon thousands of authors in the waters, the effort is geared toward keeping abreast of the tide and waving one’s hand above the noise. What’s more, in this day and age, the lion’s share of promotion falls to the author and is not only about promoting a book; authors are expected to promote themselves.
I’ve been torn over this for a while, now. I’ve promoted my novels on social media but limited myself in self-promotion by only going so far. I’ll take the opportunity here to add to Conroy’s definition of Southern sickness: friendly as we are, Southerners are an unflashy lot given to personal discretion. Too much going on about oneself is succinctly considered bad form.
I see it all on social media. People post all kinds of personal information from their family to their lifestyle to their political views. I’m not passing judgment, just making an observation, but I do know that too much online, personal information can put one in a vulnerable position and lead to an unintended consequence. It’s the downside of social media and it’s a struggle to strike a manageable balance.
So, how does an author effectively promote their book on social media?  I think an author has to arrive at a healthy balance. Much comes down to author etiquette, and at the center of this is author engagement. Beyond an author’s personal profile on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, there are legions of book groups on each. Following, liking, and adding encouraging comments in key. Sharing content from fellow authors is wonderfully appreciated; reading and reviewing a book goes a step further.
And it’s worth mentioning, should an author have something worth crowing about, that how one shares news is also a consideration. Prefacing news of a book award with gratitude is gracious. Thanking readers for being a part of the book’s journey is inclusive.
Above all, consistency on social media translates to sincerity. Though some authors use social media while promoting their book then disappear once word gets around, it is helpful for an author to remember they are part of an author’s community. Between book releases, supporting fellow authors keeps one involved.
Love of the written word and the power of story is what drives a writer to write in the first place. In my mind, it’s a privilege to have a book published and lends a great amount of verification that one is on the right path and, therefore, it motivates one to continue. A published book is well worth sharing on social media, but for those of us wrestling with how to best do this, I think the answer is found in seeking a balance.    

Claire Fullerton hails from Memphis, TN. and now lives in Malibu, CA. with her husband and 3 German shepherds. She is the author of Mourning Dove, a five-time award winner, including the Literary Classics Words on Wings for Book of the Year, and the Ippy Award silver medal in regional fiction ( Southeast.) Claire is also the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel, a Kindle Book Review and Readers' Favorite award winner that is set on the west coast of Ireland, where she once lived. Claire's first novel is a paranormal mystery set in two time periods titled, A Portal in Time. She is a contributor to the book, A Southern Season with her novella, Through an Autumn Window
Little Tea is Claire's 4th novel, released in May 2020 by Firefly Southern Fiction. Little Tea is the August selection of The Pulpwood Queens Book Club ( 785 chapters) a Faulkner Society finalist in the William Wisdom international competition, and a finalist in the Chanticleer Review's Somerset award. She is represented by Julie Gwinn of the Seymour Literary Agency.