Thursday, March 31, 2011

Three quotes

Fabulous singer-songwriter Lara Herscovich sent these today.
Mistakes are the usual bridge between inexperience and wisdom.
-Phyllis Theroux

Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
-Winston Churchill

Blessed is that man who has found his work.
-Elbert Hubbard

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Pencil Facts

A single pencil can draw a line 35 miles long, or write around 45,000 words. John Steinbeck loved the pencil and started every day with 24 freshly sharpened ones; it's said that he went through 300 pencils in writing East of Eden (1952), and used 60 a day on The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and Cannery Row (1945).
Our common pencils are hexagonal to keep them from rolling off the table, and they're yellow because the best graphite came from China, and yellow is traditionally associated with Chinese royalty.
-Writer's Almanac


Last night I dreamed that I was reading a paragraph about the myth of redheads. It was all about the differences and lore of having red hair. In the dream there was a pure white cat lounging nearby. Was it my cat without his red coloring?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Verbal & Visual Improv

Yesterday's after-school painting session at Beacon School was FABULOUS. We also played a surreal writing game where someone writes a sentence or two then hands it to another who adds a sentence and then passes it along, and so on, several participants making a surreal vignette. It was a great hit and got the kids to linger, writing, reading, laughing and painting. We created an environment of play and all student self-consciousness melted away. My favorite way to learn and teach is to follow the model of theater improvisation games, blues jams, and jazz improvisation, because artistic discoveries can happen through play, especially when creating as a group. Two of the school's theater majors tried their hand at painting and a few other students participated in other ways while passing through. We're all looking forward to Wednesday. A few teachers have been tremendously enthusiastic, checking in and cheering on the results. I couldn't be happier.

Surreal Story

Yesterday during my after-school Beacon School murals class, we circulated a blank page with each student contributing a sentence.
A man carrying a gray suitcase walks across an empty parking lot. He stops in the middle and puts the suitcase down and proceeds to open it. Pink tights! A whole stash of them. I couldn't believe it. He pulls a pair over his clothes then pulls a huge boom box out, hits play and begins dancing to the song, It's Raining Men. His boots get muddy and dirty as he dances along. Then the TV show Cheaters runs up on him, cameras and all. The man realizes he was caught and calls a flock of pigeons to save him. They begin to float up and up and people begin grabbing his legs forcing him down.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Russell Banks

Excerpts from Russell Banks Paris Review Interview The Art of Fiction No. 152 by Robert Faggen
The distinction between high and low culture depresses me, dividing all culture like Gaul into high, middle, and low. It’s a very comforting way to think about culture, so long as you think of yourself as highbrow. I think it speaks to, and speaks out of, anxiety about class, especially in the United States, as people from the lower classes begin to participate in the literary arts and intellectual life in an aggressive way. Then folks start claiming there is high, middle and low culture—so know your place, please, and stay there.
-Russell Banks

You dedicated Affliction to your father. What was he like?


He was violent and alcoholic. He abandoned the family when I was twelve.


Did you ever reconcile with him?


Yes, I did. In my late teens I sought him out and even lived with him in New Hampshire for a while and worked as a plumber alongside him until I was twenty-four. I remember a talk I had with him when I was trying to write at night—stories and a novel and so forth, trying to invent myself as a writer while being a plumber. I remember talking to him about it, at one point saying, Jesus Christ, I don’t want to do this, I hate plumbing. He looked at me with puzzlement and said, You think I like it? I realized, My God, of course not. What was he then? Around my age now and he had done this all his adult life. He was a very bright man, talented in many ways. But he grew up in the Depression and when he got out of high school at sixteen he went right to work to help support the family. No matter how bright he was, his life was shaped entirely by those forces. I’ll never forget that moment.

But it was always a testy, anxiety-ridden relationship on both sides. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties that I began to feel at ease with him. I vividly remember a perception that transformed my relationship to him. He had given me a Christmas present—a cord of firewood. Typically, it wasn’t quite a gift. I had to go pick it up at his house. The wood was pretty much frozen solidly into the ground when I finally arranged to get over there. It was snowing and I was out in the yard kicking the logs loose and tossing them into my truck. I was pissed off, goddamn it, he could have given me something smaller or he didn’t have to give me anything, instead of this damn wood! The old man was in the kitchen watching me. Finally, he put his coat on and came out and worked alongside me. I was working pretty furiously, ignoring him, but after a while I looked over at him and saw that it was very difficult for him. I suddenly saw him as an old man, and very fragile. We reversed our polarity at that moment.
-Russell Banks

What happens—at least this is what happened to me, and I suspect it has happened to a lot of writers—is that there comes a point when the work starts to shape your life. Early on you intuit and start to create patterns of images and narrative forms that are bound to be central to American mythology. If you start to plug the imagery and sequences of your personal life into these patterns and forms, then they are going to feed the way you imagine your own life. Before long, writing will turn out for the writer to be a self-creative act.
-Russell Banks

The novel, I think, has a mimetic relation to time. The novel simulates the flow of time, so once you get very far into a novel, you forget where you began—just as you do in real time. Whereas with a short story the point is not to forget the beginning. The ending only makes sense if you can remember the beginning. I think the proper length for a short story is to go as far as you can without going so far that you have forgotten the beginning.
-Russell Banks

The trick, I suppose, is to find the point between control and freedom that allows you to do your work.
-Russell Banks

With a short story, I never know where I’m going until I get there. I just know where I entered. That is what comes to me—the opening, a sentence or phrase, even. But with a novel it’s like entering a huge mansion—it doesn’t matter where you come in, as long as you get in. I usually imagine the ending, not literally and not in detail, but I do have a clear idea whether it’s going to end with a funeral or wedding. Or if I am going to burn the mansion down or throw a dinner party at the end. The important question—the reason you write the novel—is to discover how you get from here to there.
-Russell Banks

I didn’t know the meaning of it, but I trusted that the meaning would be acquired through getting there. The journey itself would be the truth and meaning of the ending. As in life.
-Russell Banks

I think that the main threat to children has more to do with power, adult power and the misuse and abuse of it.
-Russell Banks

The victim’s great conflict is how to avoid becoming an abuser himself.
-Russell Banks

. . . because I was able to write these novels and stories, I think I have managed to live a different story than the one I was given by my childhood.
-Russell Banks

. . . if you submit the material of your life—all the materials, not just the conscious materials but all your obsessions and dreams and your dimly apprehended intuitions of the world—if you submit those materials to the rigorous disciplines of art, then you are going to end up with a clearer story about someone other than you than the one that is about you. You can use your own books in the same way you use anybody’s book—to inform your life about the person who inhabits it. I think the reason you write, after all, is to inform your own life with a book that is made out of the subconscious materials of that life.
-Russell Banks

There is a mystery at the center of all the books . . . for many reasons. One is simply that it provides the engine that drives the book—it provides a quest, the quest for knowledge, in most cases, for information. I suppose, too, at bottom I must believe that the oldest question—What is the secret of the universe?—is still worth asking. And I must believe that there is not just a question but also an answer. So the books are an attempt each time to find the answer. The mystery in the book, the literal mystery that might exist in the plot of the book, is really a metaphor for the other, deeper quest that the author is engaged in. Remember that great Borges story “The Aleph”? Each time you sit down to write, you hope that this will turn out to be your aleph. This will be the story that decodes the universe for you. So you will never have to write again.
-Russell Banks

. . . it felt not as though I was speaking through them like a ventriloquist, but rather was listening to them and transcribing what I was hearing. I was listening to a voice; occasionally, the signal would get weak and I could, as it were, adjust the tuner and bring in the signal again and begin to transcribe again. Obviously this is a complicated process. It’s not simply opening your ears up, because you are simultaneously broadcasting and receiving. But while you are engaged in the process your attention is fixed on the listening part and not the broadcasting part. When it doesn’t work is when my attention has shifted to the broadcasting part. I know I am speaking figuratively but that’s how it feels.
-Russell Banks

What makes you inarticulate is a feeling of threat. And it is generally true that poor people and children feel more threatened than rich adults and, surprise, the people who feel least threatened turn out to be the people we think of as the most articulate—rich, white men.
-Russell Banks

. . . authorial invisibility is extremely difficult to achieve, because to give the work any real heat and power you have to go straight toward what matters to you personally. You have to deal with what really is a life-or-death issue for you. Because of that you are inadvertently, almost inescapably, going to end up becoming visible in the book. So you have to discover and impose on the text a means of keeping yourself out—you have to keep catching yourself in the glare of your own light and then getting the hell out of there.
-Russell Banks

Russell Banks

Most of us stopped learning very early, and spend the rest of our lives defending that point at which we stopped learning. It's funny, you know, most of the characters I've written about only learn anything as adults as a result of a terrible calamity -- like Wade Whitehouse in "Affliction," or Bob DuBois in "Continental Drift." At the end, yes, they learn something, but it took something terrible for them to learn anything, whereas Bone and Nicole learn early on. You get the feeling at the end of each of those books that those two characters will continue to learn as they go, that it's a process that has begun in adolescence and that will continue as they grow older, even as old people. At least you hope that's true.

Nelson Algren

When we get more houses than we can live in, more cars than we can ride in, more food than we can eat ourselves, the only way of getting richer is by cutting off those who don't have enough.
-Nelson Algren

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Megan Gunnar

We don't know when the door of the brain's plasticity closes.
-Megan Gunnar

Louis Simpson

When I write a poem, I don't know quite what it means. If I think I know what it means, I've got a bad poem. I want a poem to be beyond me. I want it to be something that transfers a feeling I don't quite understand the limits of.
-Louis Simpson

Saturday, March 26, 2011


The women slashed their faces with sharp razors, once on the right cheek, and sometimes on the left side too. It caught on and became the fashion. When done right the razor cut became a scar, and the woman become an instant member of the scar clan. Their daughters took it further, slashing their thighs and calves and upper and lower arms and bellies and buttocks, displaying their marked bodies on the beach. That was when the scar clan mythology began spreading through the culture. In time, whenever people dented their cars, scratched their wooden floors, chipped a tooth, knocked over a bottle of ink, they celebrated these moments, without sadness or anger. To scar accidentally or deliberately was to claim and celebrate life, to display and create a place where spirits can escape and new growth can step in.

Public Performance Painting

My mural class at Beacon school is evolving. The mural has become a living tableau - the background acts as a stage, and the characters come and go. The class is now performance painting in the hallway of the second floor math and science wing. We have quite an audience of onlookers and passersby. I get these kids involved by handing them a brush loaded with paint; "Here you go, make a mark!" They're scared at first, but I reassure them that they won't hurt anything. It is really fun to combine my love of performing and painting and connect with the students. I even get pre-performance butterflies in my tummy before going on stage.

Neighborhood Teacher

Yesterday I was walking down a road in Blackstone, one I haven't been on in months. I came upon a man stacking firewood in his driveway while listening to a musical. I stopped and said hello and asked him which musical he was playing. Les Mis, he replied. I love musicals, I said, but I am not familiar with that one. It turns out he taught high school and middle school for 45 years here in Woonsocket. We chatted about how teaching is a form of theater. His face lit up as he told me stories about some of his students. Even his neighbors are former students, all grown up now.

Birds Eye View

Today on my walk with Lily I spotted a hawk in a tree by the reservoir. I stood and stared for a while to see if he'd move. He was calm perfectly still even with a nearby dog barking. He made me think of the day I walked to the library and saw a man with blue tattoos all over his face; both cheeks, chin and forehead. He was wheeling a baby in a stroller. The only time I've ever seen tattoos like that before was in my circus freaks book. As he approached I recognized the US Army eagle on his right cheek.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Flannery O'Connor

I'm a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. You may be able to do without them if you have genius but most of us only have talent and this is simply something that has to be assisted all the time by physical and mental habits or it dries up and blows away. I see it happen all the time. Of course you have to make your habits in this conform to what you can do. I write only about two hours every day because that's all the energy I have, but I don't let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn't mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don't think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don't sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won't be sitting there.
-Flannery O'Connor

Kate DiCamillo

I talked incessantly about being a writer and read books about writing and imagined, in great detail, my life as a writer. I did everything except write... Finally I sat down and thought very seriously about exactly what it took to be a writer. I came to the conclusion that one thing, absolutely, was required: writing.
-Kate DiCamillo

Police Blotter Highlights

Glasgow Poet John Nolan's Police Log from the Rochester Times of New Hampshire
12:20 p.m. — A man takes two types of medication and drives away from Willowbrook Apartments with the parting assertion that he would be dead before he was found. Police can neither find him nor the concerned caller.

2:09 a.m. — A man walking in Walgreen's parking lot was almost hit by a car, whose driver then got out and kicked him in the face.

2:56 a.m. — Someone reports banging and screaming in a neighboring apartment on Academy Street and holds the phone to the wall to let dispatch hear. Dispatch confirms, yup, that's banging and screaming all right.

3:07 p.m. — At Cumberland Farms on Knight Street, a young man waxes angry when they will not break his $50 bill. He breaks the door latch.

6:56 a.m. — A "half-dead" skunk on Olde Farm Lane, is trapped and keeps on spraying, Fish and Game tell police they'll come, you bet the cops are praying.

10:12 p.m. — A home on Juniper has been egged. An investigating officer concludes that a single egg was involved. Brown or white is not revealed.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tennessee Williams

I am a compulsive writer. I have tried to stop working and I am bored to death.
-Tennessee Williams

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Theodore Roethke

Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries.
-Theodore Roethke

Henry James

To live in the world of creation - to get into it and stay in it - to frequent it and haunt it - to think intensely and fruitfully - to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation - this is the only thing.
-Henry James

Sean O' Casey

The world's a stage and most of us are desperately unrehearsed.
-Sean O'Casey

Paul Harvey

In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these.
-Paul Harvey

Louis Adamic

My grandfather always said that living is like licking honey off a thorn.
-Louis Adamic

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Three Quotes

To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.
-George Santayana

I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.
-Agatha Christie

There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.
-Jiddu Krishnamurti

Thursday, March 17, 2011

May Sarton

It is only when we can believe that we are creating the soul that life has any meaning, but when we can believe it - and I do and always have - then there is nothing we do that is without meaning and nothing that we suffer that does not hold the seed of creation in it.
-May Sarton, Journal of A Solitude page 67