Singapore Redux

In the first place, I had no idea I would ever be in Singapore and in the second place, I had no idea I would ever return. Almost year ago, a young man from Singapore, Kamil Haque who had been a student of mine at AMDA here in LA, returned to Singapore to open an acting academy. “It’s been my dream,” he said.

He phoned last fall and asked if I would come there and teach. I am retired from forty years as an actress and now teach creative writing workshops. This made me unsure what might be a good fit for Kamil’s population of students. Should it be acting or writing? I eventually landed on story telling. Actors benefit by using their own stories as jumping off places for scene study, for creating monologues and developing their own performance material. I said yes to going. After all, who am I to say “no” to a section of the globe I had never visited: Southeast Asia? At 75, how many opportunities, with wings, would come headed my way? Continue reading “Singapore Redux”

Read this, you will thank me

book cover finalIf you were on a long demanding trek across the Andes then it’s possible you haven’t heard about Annabelle Gurwitch’s book, I SEE YOU MADE AN EFFORT. I am privileged to call attention to it. Still, I am well behind the       first wave, for it was launched in May. I can only hope this might reach some of you who have just returned from the Andes, thereby giving rise to yet another wave.

This is an often hilarious and always self-deprecating look at women shakily hovering around fifty. I worked with Annabelle as a reader/editor and cautioned her from the start that I had little sympathy for fifty being well on   the north side of that number. So, often I found myself stifling a snort while managing to keep an objective eye.  To her credit, she was patient with me and together we were a good team, committed to finding what worked best and why.

I often do overview edits on projects, tracking structure, developing character and keeping the story in motion.  I am careful to not re-write, but instead uncover what is on the page and what is not. It is my job to shine a light on what’s in front of me with clarity and focus, not to change it. Why rob the author of the priceless “Aha!” when they see what’s needed and dig back in to make it happen? So, know that a great deal of care and effort has gone into this book and yes, it may look effortless…don’t be fooled, it never, ever is.  But it’s the caring artist’s job to make it seem that way.

A side note: I just returned from a week long writer’s conference at Squaw Valley Community of Writers up north near Tahoe. I cannot say enough good things about this week. The critiquing shakes up your material and energizes you with possibilities previously unseen. I also worked with writer Steve Almond (CANDYFREAK) whose work I didn’t know and now will eat with both hands.  His notes turned me completely around with grace and insight. Whew.

I say, go online and order his very small book THIS WON’T TAKE BUT A MINUTE HONEY essays on this and that and most stunningly, on writing.

That Was Then and This is Now

I was just eight years old in 1947 when my parents and I drove up from Florida to Massachusetts to race our greyhounds at the Taunton Dog Track just outside of Boston.  Dad took a wrong turn and we found ourselves trapped in Manhattan traffic on Times Square. The twenty or so dogs in the trailer we were pulling were fretting and restless no more so than my father who gripped the steering wheel as if he might wrestle it completely off.

“My golly, my golly, my golly. How in the Sam Hill are we going to get out of this, ” he said shakily.

Mother, our usually calm and authoritative navigator had a road map unfolded covering almost the width of the front seat and had fallen uncharacteristically silent.  I, however, cranked down my back window and looked up at a movie marquee with shiny black letters, ringed in small flashing lights right next to a turquoise and orange Howard Johnson’s sign: Ice cream 28 flavors!  People circled right around our car and trailer as if we weren’t even there. Some of them were eating hot dogs while they walked! Imagine that. I could have reached out and touched them. I could smell the asphalt all hot from the sun. Car horns blared. High up on the other side of the street was a Chesterfield cigarette billboard with a giant face of a man, puffs of mechanical smoke jetting out of his mouth. This place is the place for me, I thought. Of course I was going to be an actress but now I wanted to live in New York City almost as much.  Maybe more.  So, many years later, when I was nineteen that’s exactly where I landed.  For thirty years.

First, a studio apartment on the west side which I shared with Adele Imperati who I met in summer stock in Minnesota.  She was from Queens so I figured her for a street-wise New Yorker.  What she was, was an enthusiastically  demonstrative Catholic.  Her idea of décor was bleeding icons on every available wall space.  Before anyone I knew came over I managed to slide them under the fold-out sofa. Sometimes I didn’t get them back in the right places and Adele huffily retreated to Queens after just two months.

I moved then, to a rent-controlled walk-up tenement in Yorkville around the corner from Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s house.  This was also called Germantown a far cry from the exotic and sophisticated New York I had fantasized.  Most indelibly stamped in my memory is  the New Year’s window display at the Schaller and Weber the big German Deli on 86th St. I was alarmed, yes, but yet equally riveted by the two large pig carcasses, eyelids sewn shut,  one dressed in Lederhosen and the other wearing an embroidered apron, propped up on small chairs at a poker table holding playing cards attached to their little hooves. Or whatever.

Later, when I was married and having children, I moved to a houseboat on City Island for five years. My parents were stunned speechless but managed to keep their very  valid trepedations to themselves for fear of alienating me, their only child.

The winters were mercilessly cold with winds screaming down across the bay causing swells that impossibly lifted the barn of a boat up, then slammed it back down with spine jangling results. With all that, the summers were seductive enough to keep my husband and me attached to the concept. Maybe not the reality, but the concept.  Besides, no one in their right mind would buy the white elephant of a boat from us. Still, on summer nights from the bow I could see the skyline of Manhattan no bigger than my thumb in the distance and the planes to La Guardia hovering over the bay waiting to land, while schools of fish slapped up against the hull running from schools of  even larger fish.  The cold finally got to me as did my flawed marriage.  I divorced and, taking the two boys moved off the houseboat, then landed on West End Avenue, the upper West Side, paradise to actors, singers, playwrights, musicians, ballet dancers and a multitude of really, really old, even ancient artists reminding us daily of our very very young, even naive dreams. We were in perfect harmony.

That’s why when Googling on the internet I was stopped by a glossy ad for upscale condos in pre-war buildings in my old West End Avenue neighborhood like the one I left behind almost twenty years ago when I moved to California. Those buildings were gracious and stately, with maid’s rooms and servant’s bells that no longer worked.   A photo of the blocks I had walked slammed me with sensatios. The smell of the Hudson a little brackish and salty overlaid with the fragrance of coffee seemingly generated by the pulsing neon Maxwell House Coffee sign on the Jersey side.  The sound of garbage trucks gnashing and grinding ten stories down.  How nicely empty West End was in the early mornings when I waited under the canopy for the school bus to pick up my youngest son and watched my older boy rounding the corner to the 103rd St stop.  The Korean deli around the corner, Ginko trees, circling to find a parking place, the satisfying sound of the elevator doors sliding open and closed that I could hear from inside my kitchen. Voices in the hallway as people got home from work. And in that moment in front of my computer in Los Angeles, I wanted to be there again. But did I, really? Did I really truly want to move back to New York City, the same place I yearned for when I was eight?  The upper west side, the speed, the clamor, the demanding cold and wind ripping down the tunnels of buildings off the river, the rain sometimes slicing sideways. No cabs.  Lugging groceries, my dry cleaning slipping away and dragging on the sidewalk.  And that last difficult marriage?  All over again?  Late at night, taking a paperback book with me and getting on the M-104, riding down to Columbus Circle and then back, hoping he had passed out by then.

No, what I wanted in that moment was for my sons to be little boys again with skateboards and Matchbox cars, their latest haircuts and Walkmans.  Homework. Swim meets, and I even wanted to be folding their laundry.   I wanted to be forty one and wearing big earrings, good boots and size ten jeans in my mink coat. A working actress; audtioning, singing, booking jobs, flirting. I wanted to be young and doing it all over again.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990. At my house here, outside at night, the light falls down on the top of a long table under a lemon tree.  On the table is a white lace tablecloth hanging down on all sides.  On the tablecloth is a vase of dead sunflowers and Queen Anne’s lace. There is a clear bottle of water on the table and the light is reflected deep in the middle of it.  I smell the honeysuckle that grows on top of the garage.  I look back into my house through the open French doors. Cool night air skims my face, my shins, the tops of my feet under the table.  My dog lies with her side up against my foot. Her breathing flutters against my instep.

I hear a hum of cars from the avenue a block away.  On the table are two coffee mugs, milk and sugar, Equal, a thermos, spoons in a green glass jar.  Four cookies. Two bunches of grapes with only a few left on the stems.  The naked stems look like drawings from a textbook of capillaries and veins.  I have just finished teaching a workshop.  There are three yellow pads on the table.  A pen.   “Best American Essays of  2010,” “Teaching a Stone to Talk,” “Writing in Restaurants,” “Letters to a Young Poet,” “The Old Man and the Sea” and a “Far Side” cartoon.  Harpsichord music plays from the stereo.  I am drinking a glass of Zinfandel because, though it is pink, it was the only wine that was cold.  I eat popcorn.  The boys became men. One is middle aged, married with five children and living in Chicago. The other son lost a long terrible struggle with depression and is gone.  Wherever I have lived is marked by what I wanted and then, by what I got;  love, loss, mistakes, money, no money, gains, sorrow, blame, forgiveness, creativity, art.

I am in am in my seventies. I have no doubt that if I get another fifteen years, I will be remembering Los Angeles just as bitter-sweetly as New York and remembering quite simply that I was younger. There will always be a time in which I was younger.

Sometimes it Takes a Poet

“We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.”

This is an excerpt from a poem by Jack Gilbert who recently died. I wrote him a letter a few years back to try to put into words what this poem did for me.  When I have written what might qualify as a “fan”  letter I try to make it so remarkably moving, witty, revelatory, and profound that surely they will see me as someone of merit with extraordinary insight. They will want to have dinner with me and long talks by a slow flowing river. Then, when I’ve posted those few letters and heard the mailbox clunk shut, I realize that the one-way-street aspect of admiration is exactly what it should be. It is enough. Anything else is about my little, persistent, (yet surely attractive) ego. So, though Michael Chabon, William Zinsser, Bill Moyers, Jack Gilbert (the above-mentioned poet) and Eddie Izzard may have kept a folder labeled “Claudette” I don’t need to know about it.

Back to this poem “A Brief for the Defense.”  I heard it read by Jack Gilbert in a video at a UCLA awards ceremony that he was unable to attend. I was sitting in a large auditorium listening to a series of awards for fiction, non-fiction, journalism, etc. and finally, poetry. He began to read and I saw that the poem was asking a question that has haunted me for years, each time going  unanswered for I never got traction. I could find nothing to hold onto.  It eluded me and left me feeling poor in spirit and a lesser person than I would like to be. More than anything, it left me wanting. My question was, and remains something like: What right have I to be happy in a world so tough and unrelentingly filled with poverty, pain, injustice and deprivation? What right?

 As I watched and listened to the image of this elderly poet, unknown to me until this evening, he came to a line at which a storm of tears swept my face. It was a punch to the heart, the kind you have waited for and realize you will never forget.  He asked my same question but didn’t stop.  He pushed further and found the answer in the wider, knotty human condition into which we are all born with its tragic, elegant and breathtaking beauty.  I couldn’t have done it by myself. I needed a poet.  2013 was a year deserving of such a poem as this.

Enough about my epiphany. There may be something here for you.

A BRIEF FOR THE DEFENSE  from Refusing Heaven—Jack Gilbert

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight.  We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment.  We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world.  To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island:  the waterfront
is three shuttered cafes and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.


I love the theater.  No, I mean, I love it. I love doing it. Now I love teaching for the same reasons. They come from the same place.

This kind of love isn’t a casual one-off statement thrown into dinner conversation. It is core for me from a place I couldn’t begin to verbalize which is what knocks me out about large ideas—love, belief, and sacrifice—those ideas.   They are bigger than words and their origins mysterious.  Even undefinable they are an engine that can keep you in motion.

Though I no longer act I shifted into some place equally fulfilling by teaching.  And not teaching acting, but teaching writing. I had no idea this is where I would land but once here, it felt like meeting an old friend who had been waiting for me. I began to see how my years as an actress donated to this transition.

The other day in class my long time pallie Mitch Ryan who has spent a life time acting in almost anything you have ever seen said, “You know, I don’t care a fig about TV and movies. Theater is where it has always been for me. Writing feels that way too. ” Mitch is someone who, after a long career in acting, dipped into writing and found it wasn’t such a stretch.  In fact, many of the people I work with are theater actors, already sharing practice and principles with writing.  We love the theater because we get to slow down and find what works and why. We get to make it ours and it’s easy to love writing for the same reasons, process being the glue between disciplines.  You will find if you have been spending time in one, you can borrow from it for another.

Okay. Think about this:  when you are doing play, all you have is the script and the story on paper. Then you begin to say the words. Throughout rehearsal, you add movement, and intention reflected bythe behavior of the character. You are bringing the words to life by interpreting them with your body, your inflections and your expressions.  That same element of behavior is key to good writing. The actor “behaves” in person, in writing, your characters must “behave” on the page.

Try these examples on:

“Bill reached down the whiskey bottle.  His big hand went all the way around it.”


Dennis carried the drinks outside then, the plate of sandwiches on top of one of them.”

–Alice Mc Dermott

“He went into the kitchen and drank two glasses of water. He turned off the living room light and felt his way along the wall into the bedroom.”

–Raymond Carver

“He put his hand on the dead boy’s wrist. He was quiet for a time, as if counting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, and used Kiowa’s hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.”

–Tim O’Brien

…and then, probably my favorite and certainly most charming…

“Wherefore, the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of strong imagination, he failed.”

–Charles Dickens

Look at your lines of dialogue and see what you can offer the reader by way of gesture, attitude and movement to demonstrate a feeling.  Show it with behavior.  It’s fun. If you find this puzzling, then sit down and remember one big family dinner. Go around the table of aunts, uncles, cousins, in-laws and describe how everyone eats; now that’s behavior!


Here’s how it goes:

Nice Smart Young Woman New to Writing: (Enters class on a Friday morning her laptop under her arm) Shit. I didn’t write anything! (She slumps down into chair, dropping her oversized handbag to the floor.)

Me: So what does that matter? You’re here anyway. That’s the deal.

NSYWNTW: Well yes, but I don’t have anything. I just couldn’t write. You know, here I am going on and on about the same old crap—going to the health clinic in fucking Sylmar because I don’t have any money and about how awful they treat everyone even if you’re a legal immigrant, which most of them probably aren’t, and how just saying that makes me feel like a racist, and the health care system being fucked even for people like me who have a heart condition and have to have their blood taken every month, even from when I was  kid and then calling my crazy mother to see if I could drop in on her knowing she would say “It’s not a good time,” not because it wasn’t a good time, but because she has turned into a hoarder and there are no chairs to sit on and you have to climb over stacks on the floor and I can remember a time when she was beautiful, really beautiful and it makes me so sad.

Me: Oh. Yeah…..and…?

NSYWNTW: Well… just nothing.

Me:  (head down on the table laughing helplessly) “Nothing” you say?  (another fit of laughing)

Of all the people I get to work with the ones new to writing are often my favorites. They show up because there is something they want to say, they wonder if they can and if they do, will it be worth it.  They are at their most curious and innocent at the same time—a great combination. The liberating logic is, if you don’t know how to do something, then you can’t screw it up. (If  wanted to be a taxidermist, for example, I wouldn’t have any expectations. Rest easy. I’m only saying.)

They may just want to get something off their chests: memories, losses, scary stuff, secrets. And that’s a bad thing? If it makes anyone feel better to write their experiences (like the NYSWNTW,) and in the doing discover something deeper that with care can lift into story, isn’t that growth? I ask you, where does fiction come from anyway?

The newcomer may move on without latching on to a project and if so, I don’t mind  because for sure I know they  leave better readers with respect for the layers that inhabit any creative effort.

Then there are the times when someone new to writing finds that spinning a tale can be much like flying a kite. You run into the wind, let out the string and once up, your job is to hang on to the wonderful flying thing in the sky.

(Forgive me for becoming all rainbow-ish, but the analogy was irresistible.)

Art is not an esoteric remote ideal, it is grounded in ordinary, lived lives and imagination. The bottom line is, novice or professional, the imagination is a muscle and gets stronger with use.

P.S. I’ll take an excited newbie any day over “I’ve got a book in me, I just know it. Everyone says so.” Shoot me.

Read this book







If asked, I bet you can name at least five turning points in your life or close to it. They would be times after which nothing you thought you knew was ever quite the same—times when you had to take a leap of faith you hadn’t planned because the alternative was either unpleasant, the status quo not good enough, or you believed there was something better in the offing.

The leap itself isn’t really the problem, staying in the air is the challenge.

Now apply this to your work. Think about where you must go as an artist. You step in front of a canvas, onto a stage, pick up a musical instrument, sit down at your desk, etc.  There is endless discussion about the writer’s blank piece of paper but I think there is more to be said about the half-filled pages, those graphic but undeniably disturbing reminders that what you have is, gasp, unfinished!

What happened?

You are one third of the way through your novel or into act two of your screenplay. You have been charging forward as if you were channeling. You can’t wait to get to the computer and find yourself getting up in the middle of the night to jot down notes.  They know you by first name at the local coffee shop. You are so delighted and energized that you begin to haplessly and foolishly read it aloud to spouses or even more distant family members, best friends who only want the best for you and then—you hit a snag. Though “snag” is a fairly cute word, it can become black and deadly when it lasts more than an overnight. Weeks perhaps.  Maybe longer.  Like a fungus! And what happened to all those assurances and accolades from your nearest and dearest? This is when it’s good to remind yourself, that the people who know you are not the ones who publish novels or produce films. They are people who like you and want to make you feel good which has little or nothing to do with your work. You, after all, are not your work. But that’s what I mean by “looking down.”

There are as many versions as this as there are starfish in the sea. They sound familiar because we return to them again and again, like a stuck CD.

“What was I thinking?”

“Someone else has already written this.”

“Who am I to think I have a story to tell?”

I’m not for a moment suggesting that you can negotiate or reason with these messages. That’s insanity. I’m convinced those blindly rhetorical questions are built into our creative and cultural DNA. Can’t say why, (actually not interested) but for sure, they make you look down. While you were confidently sailing through the air in that leap, you looked down. (Think Wile E. Coyote and his desperately windmilling legs. It can’t end well.)

Do this.  Focus back on where you were headed in the first place. Keep your eye on where you wanted to land.  It was what put you in motion. It is something dear, something true, something worth tending.  It is what matters.  It wants you. And for all those reasons, it’s trustworthy. In fact, it’s your best friend.

Write the destination. Write the last scene of the movie, the essay, the poem or even the last chapter of the book.  You brought it into being when you leapt. Don’t abandon your first impulses. Sure, a lot gets in the way, but so what? A lot gets in the way of everything—raising children, money, appearances, position, geography, leavings, sorrow, falling out of love, falling back into love, ageing—so what?

The work of the artist is to simply continue.  Or even, continue simply; beyond sensibility, beyond knowing.  It is key to discovering that the capacity for growth is what has been set in motion by your leap of imagination. I ask you, why wouldn’t you want to think that?

Which brings us around nicely to the word “faith.”

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

What? Me worry?

I am one easily given to great bursts of emotion—weeping, raucous laughter in large crowds, even rage, (at inanimate objects in particular.) In writing, strong feelings can set your pen in motion but unless attention is paid they are nothing more than a pastiche of momentarily satisfying and often embarrassing noise.

Feelings are what get you on the page, but they seldom keep you there.  In fact, feelings may end up blackmailing your work. You are not your work and your work is not who you are.  Not separating the two will guarantee you a permanent seat next to the complaining cousin at family events.

You might be doing it and be unaware.  Here are some of the symptoms:

“Who do I think I am? Who would want to read anything I write?  Nothing interesting ever happens to my characters, to me, to the people I know.”  Ya da, ya da, ya da.  You might  as well be saying “I’m nobody. Nobody likes me. I’ve led a dull life. Why bother?” There is still a smidge of dignity operating because at the very least you realize that those things said out loud, would clear rooms. But you’re fooling no one.  It’s still whining. And why do we whine?  Because we don’t want to look like fools. And why don’t we want to look like fools? Because we are fearful.  And why are we fearful?  Because we don’t want to feel uncomfortable. And why don’t we want to feel uncomfortable? Because we want to be in control. Aha! Control:  the everlasting curse of creativity. Creativity is chaotic. Art is a disturbance of spirit. Give over to it.

Here is a variety of reactions that occur in the critiquing part of my workshop: stony silence, tears, one-liners, apologies, excuses. None of us are strangers to this. We do it everywhere—with our spouses, our children, lovers, bosses.  Not for a moment would I disavow anyone of strong feelings, but good teaching is what can help to separate “self” from work and like anything, it takes practice.  The payback is worth it.

What thrills me about teaching is when I unexpectedly land on something that rings so true I wonder where it came from. “Your work is more important than how you feel about it.” As it was coming out of my mouth I understood in a flash if I was to truly be of service in teaching I had to rely on translating the principles of craft as I understood them; anything less would serve only to make it all about me. The creative convergence between teacher and student is a two-way street, its intersection, the words on the page.

Don’t despair. This confusion happens at every level; novices and pros. No one is exempt.  The only difference is that some push through and others enjoy the noise.  Doubts are just the mosquitoes in the jungle of art.



“You need to have a look at this,” my mother said. She passed me the Reader’s Digest across my homework on the kitchen table open to the page “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power.”

“Choose one and use it this week, young lady.”

I was more interested in reading “Life in These United States” and the jokes at the bottom of the pages the same way I now flip through the New Yorker scanning the cartoons first.

Still “aberration,” “indelible,” and “mundane” held a satisfying attraction.   I chose “mundane.”  So, I told my gloomy friend Eleanor that it was good we weren’t selected to be pep girls for the seventh grade softball team after all because most of the ones who were chosen were “mundane” as far as I was concerned. “School itself is pretty mundane,” I added. I was on a roll.   But just to cheer her up I told her that Miss Claussen, who we loved, wasn’t that impressed with pep rallies but she was very pleased with Eleanor and me as spellers. We might even get to the city-wide.  And we did.

One of the most absorbing tasks in re-writing is to linger on a word and toy with the options.  No word is ever the last word. When you go back over a draft even if you are tracking the larger issues of structure and story, note where you might want to return and in the margin or even right over the script, put down word choices in a wild circle. Be messy. It’s finger painting at this point anyway. And  because you aren’t necessarily focusing on individual nouns or verbs just yet, you are probably more open to possibility at this early point.

Poets, good ones, can bedazzle with a word or a phrase just like songwriters. They have to because they don’t have the luxury of space and time as do writers of novels or short stories. Every word counts.

Stanley Kunitz (1905-2006, that would be 101 years! ) when talking about words in an interview with Bill Moyers said that poetry was hard  “…because in our daily lives we enslave words, use them and abuse them until they are fit for only menial tasks and small errands.”  He continues, “You have to remove the top of your head and plunge into the deep waters of the buried life in order to come up with words that are fresh and shining.”  A good read about creativity is the Bill Moyers collection of conversations with poets titled THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE. These writers talk about their process. Here is where I’d like to state that I am not a poetry maven, but I love the words—the sounds and combinations.  You don’t have to love poetry to like it.

You might want to begin to love Roget’s Thesaurus if you don’t already.   I’m fond of the dictionary, but I’m mad for the thesaurus for it takes me off in a multitude of directions connected in ways with implications and innuendos I might not have suspected.  Peter Roget, born in 1779, graduating  from medical school at the age of nineteen in Edinburgh then making his way to England becoming an expert lecturer on medical subjects, establishing a charity clinic and in 1815 becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society serving as secretary for almost twenty years and, (my personal favorite) was  a founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge, (oh yes,  he also devised a slide rule and “spent much time trying to perfect a calculating machine”)—to think that he would have determined that there was a need for a catalog of words organized by their meanings and idiomatic implications, is thrilling.  I hold his mind in my hand when I turn the pages. He and my mother at the kitchen table were not so far apart .

Words connect. Words express. Words describe and words move.  No matter the century.



How Some Other Things Work: Landing on paper

Four writers began with “It chooses you.”

This exercise is not unique. Most writing classes use a version. It is the one place where being mindless is a good idea. You choose a phrase or a word and begin writing. You only follow the motion of your pencil. You don’t get to re-read, re-write, or stop writing.  In a workshop, there is no comment on the content. It is just what it is, with or without punctuation, grammar, spelling or thought. It’s the safest place you can be. Here are some examples that began with the phrase “it chooses you.”  I did not change anything about them. They happened in about six or seven minutes.

Go try it. Open a book and write down a word or a phrase. Then, go. When you are finished, read it aloud to yourself and then tear it up.  Let it go.  There is always, always more to come.


it chooses you what does life love does this mean i should wait stay indoors under the covers snuggly and uncommited and just let something happen i dont think so but i do believe it chooses you its just that in order to be chosen you have to participate how would i ever play soccer on the hard old tennis courts as a child if i hadnt gone over and got involved and then been chosen for one team or another it can be hard though playing in order to be chosen because we are not always chosen when ready or by the people we want to choose us which kind of once again removes the self from the equation i guess its about finding something at the moment youd forgotten you were looking for it does this mean i need to give up looking or allow myself to be distracted to be lost without a map or compass and just wander should such wanderings be directionless though or have a distinct goal for years goal orientation has driven me on but i am only now beginning to be aware of the journey for this is where you are chosen the trick is to be open to being chosen if you are or rather im too focussed on the goal its easy to miss the clues and signs  of something else choosing you and it just seems so much more exciting not knowing but terrifying too drifting a little perhaps but if you have a heading and keep pushing towards it and allow the wind and teh sea to take you off course as and when they choose too perhpas thats when ill find what my subconscious was/is leading me towards and has been desperately sending signs that this is where i should go ive missed.


It chooses you.  This moment, second, hour of sadness so thick you could spoon it up like pudding.  You can try to fight, push back, justify, tell it to go away, but you know that in the end, you’re not holding the wheel.  And sometimes, as you’re riding the wave of grief, you think, “I just can’t see a single way to get back”.  And so you just ride the current, grateful that you’re not sitting on a piece of what used to be your roof, ten miles out to sea, watching what used to be your life getting farther and farther away, and knowing that even if you do make it back, your wife is gone and your life will never be what it was.  So somewhere in the tide of grief and hopelessness, gratitude comes up and bites you in the ass.  And sometimes you even resent the gratitude.  Fight it. Wrestle it to the ground.  But if you can carve out just a teeny pinprick to let it in, the water calms, the eye of the storm gives you a minute to breathe, get your bearings, speak a word without choking.  And if you get there, then maybe you can help with homework, clean the bathroom sink, drink a glass of water.  And then it passes.


It chooses you. And it has and is now.  What is this ennui? This thickheadedness that has engulfed me since the Japanese earthquake?  It has spilled over to every part of my life-first self-censure that this earthquake – this one has riveted me to the TV- has washed over me like the horrible, horrible images of the tsunami I saw all through the night on Thursday when I first heard of it driving home from my class.  The shock – the Oh My God of it – I’m going to Tokyo and Kyoto in three weeks – this can’t be happening.  Selfishly bringing it as always back to me – to finally achieving one of the dream trips: to Japan.  As I watch and see the horrible shaking but then a helicopter shot of the tsunami picking up houses, cars and Oh My God, people as it relentlessly moves toward a bridge with a few unsuspecting cars driving over it.  I shout, NO!!! to myself alone – as my husband, on the other side of the country safely sleeps not knowing that our trip is gone – that an entire part of a country is gone- that thousands are gone! Gone!!!

It looks like the end of the world and it is in a way.  I shudder at the dire predictions for another one here.  I remember ’94 – how terrified and unsafe every step felt.


It chooses you.  The little idea comes dancing in.  It sizes you up from a distance, trying to see if you will pat attention to it.  If you are too busy with anything electronic it will fly away.  It hates noise and likes the sound of water.  So it will often choose you in the shower or when you are washing dishes or if you are swimming.  Repetitive motion attracts it.  Digging, sweeping, knitting, scrubbing.  But noisy kids in a chaotic car will send it running.

When it chooses you, you must be ready to catch it because it won’t stay long and it won’t come back.  You have to write down what it tells you word for word so you won’t forget.  Because you will forget.  It speaks in a disappearing language and the words and ideas it gives will melt away after awhile leaving you with nothing but a vague memory of what was said.  And no matter how hard you try to conger or woo it back it won’t come.