Channeling Stephen King: writing and inspiration

I’ve been hankering road trips lately, before winter really sets in.  Something about being on the road, playlists at the ready, lifts me from a certain melancholy that kicks in this time of year. I relish holiday gatherings with family and friends who have become family, but there is no escaping the mixed blessing that generational drift, coupled with generations gone, evokes.

Last weekend found me on the road with my husband, headed north, Mohonk Mountain House, our thirty-fifth anniversary celebration. By coincidence, the weekend was billed as a ‘couples’ romantic getaway.’  The setting is idyllic, even if the activities billed for the weekend were a little too precious for our taste. ‘Love Birds Walk’ (7:30 a.m.), not a chance.  While other couples might be finding harmony in art via a workshop, ‘Unity in Creativity’ (10:30 a.m.), we would be just finishing breakfast, ready for our own leisurely walk around the lake.

 ‘Beer Tasting’ (5 p.m.) might have been tempting if not for the fact that my husband doesn’t drink.  Good time for him to take a nap and for me to go to a meditation class.

Turns out that ‘Tomahawk Throwing’ is a regularly scheduled, popular afternoon activity. Turns out, too, that our room is the one Stephen King apparently stays in whenever he visits Mohonk. Oh what a silly thrill. You could almost feel his presence, a kind of haunting.

I asked myself, what would Stephen King make of, or do with, the infant crying in the adjoining room? On a couples’ weekend, to boot. Putting aside disturbed sleep, would he be touched by the tenderness and need in all its innocence? Then again, he apparently takes the adjoining room as well so he would never have to hear what’s going on next door.

All glibness aside, Stephen King is a master of narrative pulse and the telling detail.  My appreciation for him grew to new heights when I read his review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I subsequently read On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  I keep a copy on my desk (along with Patti Smith’s DevotionWilliam Blake Poems selected by Patti Smith, Dinty Moore’s The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, Francine Prose’s  Reading like a Writer, and Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed.) 

“What I want most of all is resonance,” writes King, “something that will linger for a little while in Constant Reader’s mind (and heart) after he or she has closed the book and put it up on the shelf.” I could not say it better myself.

There is some serendipity here. Keyword searches for a projected Just Like February advertising campaign on Amazon have me in a tizzy. Coming-of-age novels have an appeal to both adult and teen/young adult readers and their reach is broad. Stephen King’s The Body, incarnated into a favorite movie of mine, Stand by Me, is a coming-of-age story. It seems, too, that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch falls within the parameters of innocence-to-experience tales. So strong is the genre that sites like Literary Hub will enumerate The 50 Greatest Coming-of-Age Novels of All Time.

It’s a humbling thing to be a writer.  And Madeleine L’Engle says it so honestly and eloquently in A Circle of Quiet:

I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what. . . .And I think, too, and possibly most important, that there is a faith simply in the validity of art; when we talk about ourselves as being part of the company of such people as Mozart or van Gogh or Dostoevsky, it has nothing to do with comparisons, or pitting talent against talent; it has everything to do with a way of looking at the universe.

After my encounter with Stephen King, you would think I might plunge right into The Shining, get a jolt of adrenaline to jump-start a new story. But no. In the way that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus completely captivated me, The Starless Sea, her latest work, pulled me right in.  In preparing to work on the new novel, the heart of which is the nature and creation of stories, she relocated to a house that was not wired for internet. And she played video games

There’s magic, indeed, in reading. And there’s a sense for me of not so much being inspired by as infused with the words of writers who move me.

There’s magic, too, in the way we find kindred spirits in online writing communities.

I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Jayne Martin, a gifted writer of flash fiction, for several years now. It takes a very particular skill and mindset to compose stories that pack so much in a single paragraph, or a few. Her first collection, Tender Cuts, was recently released. And it’s a gem. I could say, without equivocation, too, that these are stories with resonance.

Letting Go

The other day I became obsessed with finding two books I could not easily locate.  It was a reference to one of them—The Family of Man—in Sally Mann’s wonderful memoir that set me on my mission.  The other book, To Be Nobody Else, bears a connection in my mind to The Family of Man, mostly for the photographs that make for a compelling narrative. They speak to a certain time in my life.

I looked in all the logical places I would have placed them after they’d been released from boxes following completion of a renovation.

I created stories – did I lend them to someone? Did I use them in a writing workshop?  Did I share them with a visiting friend who inadvertently tucked them under the sofabed? Books have a way of disappearing, then turning up in unexpected places.

Let it go, I said.

I looked at the same shelves over and over again, a strategy that sometimes works when my mind or eyes are not playing tricks on me.

Are they under a couch?

Let it go, I said.  They’ll either turn up. Or they won’t.

But I couldn’t let it go, and my last-ditch effort took me to the last place I would have expected to find them—a crawl space where my husband stores old files. Apparently some overflow boxes from the renovation were tucked away here, until they were forgotten.

I can breathe better now.

* * *

I grapple with letting go. The two concepts—‘grapple’ and ‘letting go’—would seem to be a contradiction, maybe even an oxymoron. Years of doing yoga have me yearning for ‘effortless effort’, that sense of moving from pose to pose with such fluidity that I’m (almost) light as a feather. I have my moments of grace, and I’m thankful for the patience and, yes, the consistent work that has brought me to these moments.  But I can’t help thinking the greatest insights come during the plateau phases or the walls we hit when striving for something. It’s the reason I decided to learn to swim at 66. 

There’s an image that comes to me sometimes when my breath moves into a slow, easy rhythm during meditation. I’m sitting on the edge of a high cliff, very much at peace. How I got here is beside the point.  To watch Alex Honnhold do his free solo climb of El Capitan is to bear witness to being as in the moment as it gets. Letting go is not an option.

Language is my métier. ‘Let go’ is a world apart from ‘let it go.’ One added word brings a pause. The free fall of letting go now has room to negotiate its landing.  


On a visit that my daughter used as an opportunity to clear out clutter (pre-Marie Kondo) she handed me a small box fashioned from a cut-up manila folder. Decals (a bat and a cat) adorn the outside of this time capsule. Inside is a cornucopia of candy wrappers, her private stash of indulgences not readily available in our home. 

I smiled.  This was not deprivation by design.  Her sweet tooth, like her father’s, found satisfaction enough during family outings, movie nights, birthdays, Halloween.  Or so I thought. No surprise that she’s become the baker her mother never was.

As I move into my own decluttering, is it time to let this precious memorabilia go? My daughter insists it is.


A very large Webster’s dictionary sits in a cubby all its own in my office. It’s something I acquired many years ago—1962, to be exact—an award with a name as cumbersome as the dictionary itself.

Take a peek. Read the inscription.

Elsa Ebeling—now there’s a name worthy of a short story.

I was just twelve when I graduated from eighth grade. A December baby, I would enter kindergarten before I turned five. In the middle of fourth grade I was plucked out of my class and moved into fifth grade. They called it ‘acceleration.’ I could only see it as displacement, but who was I to complain?

Eighth Grade Graduation Day, 1962. Valedictorian. As if the isolation of being singled out—oh so smart—weren’t enough, here I was standing on a stage looking out at a sea of faces, speaking words (mostly mine) but possibly made a little loftier by a teacher’s coaching. I finished my speech, back to my seat, a sigh of relief.  Only to find myself called back to the stage when the award was announced. 

I can still feel my heart thumping.

The gift of an oversize dictionary was, is, and will always be cumbersome.  It requires a table, maybe even a room, of its own to be of any practical use.  We kept it on a low bookshelf.  Sometimes I would lug it out for more than a basic definition of a word, other times just to be awed by words and illustrations that might open me to something unknown.

To call it an underutilized, if not underappreciated, tome is an understatement. 

Today, as I pull it from its cubby with every intention of letting it go, I can’t help seeing it as the embodiment of a very particular moment in my life much better expressed without words.

What did you read this summer?

Summer reading is a world unto itself. It’s not as if the love of books doesn’t have us immersed in reading all year long. But summer brings with it memories of freedom from school, with all that’s attached to assigned reading, textbook or otherwise.

Some things, like the smell of library books, the feel of their plastic protective covers, are imprinted in memory. Before the neighborhood I lived in as a young girl had a library of its own there was the Bookmobile arriving once a week. Apparently they still exist in rural areas.  It’s a given—if you love books, you love libraries and summertime always brings my younger self into fresh view: walking home from the library with a stack of books in my arms. Sitting on a wooden bench outside the building in which I lived. Reading.  Hard to say when the need to possess overtook the need to borrow, but here I sit, in a home office with books surrounding me, most of them read, enough still in that TBR realm.

No surprise that my very first paid job would be in the newly built local library. I would shelve books, do clerical work in the office, graduate to checking books in and out at the front desk.

Summer days still have me reading outside.  Some summers are for tackling the big books, Anna Karenina one year. Others are for breezy beach reading or a mix of the light and profound. Not every book is to be analyzed in a way that teaches a writer something about craft. But I do learn something from every book I read: I learn what I like and what I don’t like.  Years ago, reading Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight, I was hit with how he ended chapters in a way that made you want to read on. It’s called pacing.  My current read, Despair, has me savoring the way Nabokov begins and ends chapters. The title, with its echoes of how the current state of the world has me feeling, had me hankering to read the book. As it happens, Nabokov’s use of the word is tinged with irony. The book is brilliant. Its wickedly dark narrative is as much a commentary on the nature of writing itself.

Just prior to this I read Sing, Unburied, Sing, which joins Jesmyn Ward’s earlier novel, Salvage the Bones, as a National Book Award winner. It takes a certain kind of writer to tell disturbing stories with lush, beautiful prose.  The book had me thinking of another novel, Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. The novels are as different stylistically as they are in the stories they tell. And yet both resonate with a cultural undercurrent that speaks to the times in which we live. Both have a lingering impact.

Madeline Miller is another writer who makes her mark with a distinctive voice. First came The Song of Achilles and more recently Circe, both of which bring a very human dimension to the gods and heroes of mythology.

Years of summer breaks and end-of-August back-to-school mode are ingrained. With the approaching transition to autumn I get energized, ready to move full swing into a project. As a writer with a new book, my work for now is mostly getting out the word.  Speaking of which, if you follow me on social media, you know my novel has now been named a finalist in two contests.

If it made your summer reading list, I’d love to know what you thought. I’d also love to know what else you read this summer. If you haven’t yet read Just Like February, I hope you will.  And if you like(d) it, ratings and reviews on Amazon and/or GoodReads really have a way of making a writer’s day.


Today it’s all about the book

Writers, more often than not, are uncomfortable singing their praises.  The work we do, in the quiet of a space we relish, is what sustains us. Lots of time spent being invisible for the sake of the visibility and resonance we hope our stories bring.

Maybe Joan Didion was right when she characterized writing as “the act of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” It’s certainly a provocative, Didion-esque way of putting things.  But ultimately writing and reading are a transaction of sorts in which the reader brings her unique perspective to what the writer has put out. 

It’s a long hard road from conception to finished novel to publication and Just Like February, now out there, has to take on a life of its own. Timing and luck certainly play their part. If, as my mother liked to say, timing is everything, I can’t help but see a certain synchronity in the publication  of a novel that evokes the ‘80s in a time when echoes of that decade appear to be back in pop culture, art, and politics.

In the weeks since publication, I’ve gotten some very gratifying reviews and plugs from sites like BuzzFeed, and I’ve written essays for other sites—on topics as varied as bonding with my daughter at rock concerts, learning to swim at the ripe age of 66, and simply, why I write. A new page on my website, News and links, will give you a glimpse of what I’ve been up to. Just click the link in the menu bar above and  take a peek while I take break and turn my attention to that next big marker in my life, my daughter’s wedding.




Stories begging to be told

Tell anyone you’re a writer and inevitably you hear these words—Oh do I have a story to tell! If only I knew how to get it all down. Maybe I could tell it to you and you could write it for me.

 “Writing isn’t particularly different from hibernation,” observes the polar bear/narrator in Yoko Tawada’s very inventive Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is writing at its most artful, even playful, a story offering up both literary and social commentary, something to especially savor during this month in which we celebrate reading women in translation ((#WITMonth). The smaller the world seems, in terms of how we connect, the larger it gets. Diversity, in all its expression of form, feels more urgent than ever.

Some say it takes courage to write. For me it’s more surrender, not so much sweet as the kind that comes from all that quiet time spent wrestling with words/thoughts/worlds. Not that courage doesn’t play its part, especially when it comes to telling a story that’s been kept quiet for too long. Unless it’s journal writing, for your eyes only, to write is to imagine you have a story people just might want to read.

First comes a kind of liberation—there! I did it—but once it’s out, the same vulnerability that may have kept you from putting down the story in the first place exposes you now to a world that can be as forgiving as it can be harsh. Did that inner critic we thought so demanding mislead us? Did that muse who lit the fire dissolve in her own ashes?

More than courage, it’s humility that’s on my mind. Madeleine L’Engle expressed it so perfectly in A Circle of Quiet:

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what.” It’s not about pitting ourselves against the greats, she goes on to say. It’s about a way of looking at the universe.

We are a storytelling species, which means we all have stories to tell. Some are transcendent, some banal. Some are driven by the artful play of words, others by the raw power of the story.

Look anywhere, listen—really listen—to what people say, and a story idea is bound to take shape. The other side of that equation is the story that finds the writer, the one she is simply meant to tell.

Woman at Point Zero. Nawal El Saadawi is a feminist force of nature in her native Egypt and her novel was sparked by an encounter (in her role as psychiatrist) with a female prisoner condemned to be executed for murdering a man. Firdaus, the prisoner, entrusts her story of abuse, female genital circumcision, enslavement, and prostitution to El Saadawi, who shapes it into a compelling narrative that touches on issues that ultimately touch us all. El Saadawi may be the conduit but Firdaus is the hero who turns on its head the question of victimization.

Monkey’s Wedding. The time is 1953, the place Southern Rhodesia, the tensions between native populations and the white ruling class growing. Rossandra White spent part of her childhood in Zimbabwe, which makes it impossible not to see her in Elizabeth McKenzie, as spirited a young heroine as it gets. Central to the narrative is Elizabeth’s relationship with Turu, the son of a man who works for her family. And like the best of novels that straddle the YA/adult fiction fence, Monkey’s Wedding lets the wisdom of innocence ring through a complicated political and cultural scenario.

Veronica’s Grave. The opening pages of Barbara Donsky’s very moving memoir take us right into the mind of a young girl who can’t make heads or tails of her mother’s ‘disappearance.’ One day mommy is there, the next day she’s gone, no explanation. People are at her home, crying, still no explanation. And no mommy. A baby brother will surface soon enough, but still no mommy. Like all children, she will find ways to express the confusion, the pain, the anger, and Donsky does an especially skillful job of letting the narrator’s voice change as she herself is transformed.

All of which takes me full circle down a long and winding yellow brick road, with its twists and turns and archetypes and metaphors. Who hasn’t had at least one you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment in his/her life? Who doesn’t need a little more courage, a little more heart, a little more wisdom sometimes, the secret of course being what that trio of beloved characters knows only too well: they’re nothing without each other. I don’t know if there’s no place like home in a world of displacement but I do know there’s no dearth of stories that begin or end there. Some need a little coaxing, others are simply begging to be told.














I live in music

The other day I had a yearning, very specific in its musical nature. I wanted/needed to hear “Dance me to the End of Love,” à la Leonard Cohen when he first recorded it. Maybe not an anthem song in the way “Hallelujah” is, but there must be a reason his last two tours opened with that number. It’s a set-list/strategy that works. Make a show of time with a song of yearning transformed into a wistful me

Tracking down the original is easy these days. Yes, you have to be a fan to appreciate his voice (not that ‘voice’ was ever his strong point). And, yes, only a fan would want to go back, immerse herself in the sound/the spirit/the poetry that first hooked her. For all the change, subtle and otherwise, that years bring to a singer/songwriter, any song is bound to be infused with echoes of its earlier incarnation.

I downloaded. I listened. Found myself transported, in an instant, to another time and place. Nothing does that to me the way a piece of music does. Don’t ask how many nights I needed those “Sisters of Mercy” or slipped into the longing of “Suzanne.” Or told a boyfriend that’s no way to say good-bye.

But this is not about being maudlin (though I can be). It’s about the power of music, the way it infuses itself into your heart/your soul/your bloodstream. It’s about the ways in which a piece of music courses through your body, taking you back, no line between today and yesterday. Here I am/there I was: sprawled on a white Haitian cotton couch, head resting against the pillows, a twenty-something living in a NYC studio apartment, my sanctuary. Take a toke, pump up the volume. Feel the space between the notes and the lyrics. Leonard Cohen got to that crack in my heart. Janis Joplin took a piece of it. Billie Holliday made it ache.

Pink Floyd required my undivided attention.

Bob Dylan LPs had a shelf of their own.

Rubinstein playing Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” brought me to tears more than once. When I got around to reading the liner notes (something I still resist before getting my own impression), I learned that the great Russian composer was emerging from a period of despair when he wrote this concerto. Doesn’t the heart know what the mind takes time to figure out?

I happened to live next door to a talented concert pianist. He lived next door to the disco kid. It was the ’80s. Walking down the corridor to my apartment gave new meaning to the battle of the bands. We were all friends.

Turns out my concert pianist friend, Michael Lewin, is a featured artist on “Winds of Samsara,” which won the 2015 Grammy for best New Age Album.   Not long ago I felt compelled to reconnect in the way that old friends do on Facebook. Now I had reason to give a congratulatory shout-out, share the news on my wall, along with a You Tube link of him playing the Ricky Kej/Wouter Kellerman arrangement of a Chopin nocturne I love. What a thrill!

Better yet, it brought us from Facebook to e-mail. We did our best to catch up on twenty+ years. He asked me to choose a CD I’d like in exchange for my book. If just sampling the range of possibilities via his website brought it all back home to me—the sound of his Steinway echoing through the walls—imagine the sensation when I listen to that full spectrum of birdsong made manifest in his enchanting CD, If I Were a Bird. Now I know something even more about him than I did back when.

CD birdMusic is infused into the very fabric of more than one novel by Richard Powers, including his latest, Orfeo.   A glimpse into his way with words may tell you why I just can’t get enough of his work.

Music forecasts the past, recalls the future. Now and then the difference falls away, and in one simple gift of circling sound, the ear solves the scrambled cryptogram. One abiding rhythm, present and always, and you’re free. But a few measures more, and the cloak of time closes back around you.




What’s in Your Beach Bag?

I’m sitting on my deck, birds flitting here and there, a tiny fawn at the heels of her mother in the grassy patch along my driveway, bicycles instead of school buses on the road. All of which I take note of only in passing, the real concentration saved for the book in my lap. Summer reading — a phrase, an idiom, a state of mind that conjures memories of my favorite bench, one of the many dotting the middle-income housing project, Brooklyn, NY, where I grew up, me reading one of the seven or eight or ten books I got from the library. It was a defining element of the season. A break from school. Twice as many books to be checked out for twice as much as time.  The heft of them in my arms, the library binding that practically creaked when you opened a book, no better reminder of that wonderful shared experience.

So imprinted is the notion of summer reading that it speaks to a certain license, more often than not light reading at the beach, sprawled on a towel or  in a chaise. Sometimes, though, there are summers when that very same ‘license’ suggests the really hefty book, the one I’ve been wanting to sink my teeth into for oh-so-long if only I had the uninterrupted time. Maybe it’s all that daylight, a circadian shift that conjures the overriding rhythm of the school year (long gone if not forgotten), making two weeks of vacay feel (almost) like two months.  One summer it was Anna Karenina. Another summer, when I lived in Sag Harbor, it was Moby Dick. Call me crazy.

Call me curious. Or just call me delighted to join in the summer reading link-up for bloggers hosted by Jennie @ Life is Short, Read Fast and Kelly @ Reading with Martinis. Summer is, after all, party time, and this party is about the books that entice and excite, the ones we read and blog about.


I don’t know if it’s the power of suggestion, but something Russian has taken a hold on me.  The premise of Daphne Kalotay’s novel, Russian Winter, is nothing if not intriguing:  a Bolshoi ballerina star, precious jewels, the mystery of  of something from the past coming back to haunt the heroine. Did I mention an escape from Stalinist Russia?





A great story demands being read more than once; in his introduction to The Essential Tales of Chekhov, Richard Ford writes, “The more you linger, the  more you reread, the more you’ll experience and feel addressed by this great genius who, surprisingly, in spite of distance and time, shared a world we know and saw as his great privilege the chance to redeem with language.”  This is the summer I plan to reread the Chekhov stories that hooked me in the first place, and discover a few new ones as well.





Then there’s that other great literary heroine who fascinates me, the French one, Madame Bovary, all the more compelling (to a writer at least) for being written by an author known for his obsessive revising and all the more alluring in a new translation by Lydia Davis. Put together le mot juste with the “original desperate housewife” (so says the jacket copy) and I’m sold. All I need is a glass of good French wine (or a martini).





How can you resist a title like this?  Doesn’t hurt that I love stories alluding to mythology and Buddhist and Zen tales (even in parody) or that cover cross-cultural, intergenerational terrain.  And if the title isn’t enough, there’s the twin protagonists Moonie and Mei Ling Wong (known as the “Double Happiness” Chinese food delivery girls)  and their coming-of-age via the tales Marilyn Chin weaves together in Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen.






I had the pleasure of meeting Masha Hamilton when she received the 2010 Women’s National Book Association award for her work as a journalist and novelist as well as her literacy projects, including the Afghan Women’s Writing Project and the Camel Book Drive. I read her latest novel, 31 Hours, which I found riveting, and am now following with The Distance Between Us, the story of a journalist in the thick of it, the Middle East. Such is the appeal of her work, I may well end up reading all of her novels.




Now, lest you think your eyes are playing tricks on you, take another peek at the image at the top of the post. I admit it,  I’m a sucker for a beautiful bookmark, all the more reason to be delighted when I chanced upon the whimsical In My Book bookmarks that double as notecards. Printed on heavy-duty watercolor paper, they come in fifteen different designs, each one as charming as the next. Doesn’t every good book deserve one?