Sunday, October 23, 2011

I’ve Been Everywhere, Man . . .

Kevin Scanlon Photographing at Dawn
copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

In case you’ve been wondering, I haven’t gone missing. I’ve been on the road, traveling with my favorite photographer, Kevin Scanlon (who also happens to be my husband). Kevin shows me the world in ways that I would otherwise miss. All I have to do is hang out with him and watch him work to see things in new ways. Believe me, it’s not just with anyone that I would venture out early enough to watch dawn break over the city on a cold morning. Writer Jack Kerouac, who was a friend of photographer Robert Frank (Kerouac wrote the introduction to Frank’s book The Americans), once said that a good lesson for any writer is to pay attention to how a photographer works and to look at what he shoots. I say, Amen.

There’s an excellent interview with Kevin at “Wedge of Smoke” by Chris Crook, which reveals insight to his creative process and the evolution of his subject matter. Click here to read the interview and see some of Kevin’s photographs.

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Monday, September 19, 2011

Lauren B. Davis: Our Daily Bread

Lauren B. Davis’ new novel, Our Daily Bread (Wordcraft of Oregon, September 2011), is a story of insiders and outsiders – and it’s also about the difference between outsiders (community members who internalize feelings of difference) and outcasts (those who are banished by the community). The situation of the story is based on the infamous Goler clan of Nova Scotia, who were finally charged and brought to trial in the 1980s after generations of child abuse, rape, incest, and other violent crimes. In Davis’ backstory, she tells of wanting to write about how communities can marginalize people into “us” and “them.” Having lived in Nova Scotia in the early 1970s for a short time, she’d heard stories of the Goler clan, and she explains that “the extreme marginalization of the community and the terrible ostracism haunted me and it seemed the perfect framework to explore how such ordinary people could do such dreadful things, or permit such dreadful things to continue.”

Set in the fictional town of Gideon, Our Daily Bread is told from multiple points of view. Main characters are bread deliveryman Tom Evans and his two children, fifteen-year-old Bobby and ten-year-old Ivy; Dorothy Carlisle, a widow who owns an antique shop and befriends Ivy Evans when she is bullied by classmates walking home from school past the store; and Albert Erskine, who longs for a life different from the one he was born into and forms a friendship with younger B
obby Evans. Each of these main characters has secrets, and each feels apart from the others in their own way. At the heart of this story is loneliness through isolation, abandonment, and exclusion. Issues are substance abuse and addiction, poverty, and ignorance.

The fictional Erskine clan i
s based on the Goler clan. The Erskine patriarch and uncles are moonshiners turned meth makers, and children on the mountain grow up terrorized, hungry, and living in dire poverty. The townspeople of Gideon turn a blind eye to what happens on the mountain as long as it stays on the mountain and doesn’t concern them. But, of course, the two worlds do not remain separate, and when the isolation of the mountain is breached by insiders and outsiders alike, events ignite.

Divisions separating the characters in the town of Gideon are familial, societal, theological, and even geographical in nature. These motifs run through Davis’ work (she is the author of five books) including her terrific blog, “View From The Library Window.” A few years back I read her excellent novel The Radiant City, a book I still think about, the characters still haunting me. I was a bit hesitant about this new novel, mostly because the title and the cover image reminded me a little too much of the religious tracts and evangelical churches of my childhood, until a description labeling the novel as “backwoods noir at its best” sparked my interest. I dug a little further and found an author’s note where Davis wrote, “My family, afflicted by mental illness and alcoholism, was going through a rough time the summer I was nine. I was an only child, and adopted, and rather bookish and prone to making up stories, all of which helped to make me ‘Other’ in the eyes of some of the children in the neighborhood. That summer a lady who owned a little antique shop near my house let me hang out around the store . . . it was a refuge from loneliness and bullying and I’ve never forgotten it.” OK, now I was really interested.

Reading Our Daily Bread, Davis hooked me early in the first chapter, and her well-paced suspenseful story kept me spellbound for long stretches of time. I had to find out what happened next. And when I finished the book, I knew I would have a very hard time selecting what book to read next that would hold my attention and keep me turning the pages in the same way. Each of the main characters was interesting, but the most complex by far is Albert Erskine. For me, this was Albert’s story, and it will stay with me for a very long time. Davis taps into deep human emotion and shows us our own darkest and brightest sides. I highly recommend this book.
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Sunday, August 14, 2011

August Is County Fair Season

County Fair, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

August is county fair season here in Pennsylvania. Fairs and carnivals bring out the kid in me, evoking the same sort of muscle memory reflex that shows itself as I watch parades with marching bands. Long dormant band practice drills awaken within me at the sound of a drum cadence, left-right-left-right-left-right, and I check myself to see if I’m actually marching in place from the sidelines as a spectator. I get a similar adrenaline jolt at the sound of a Ferris wheel motor starting up or hearing the bells and whistles of games along the midway.

Carnies, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Growing up, summer meant 4-H Club projects. End of summer meant county fairs and carnivals coming to town before the start of the school year. For rural kids, the county fair was an amusement park that traveled to us each year, bringing with it a sense of mystery and a hint of danger. The rides excited and distorted the senses, the games of skill and chance always seemed rigged, and the nomadic outsiders working the fairs looked more world-weary than the locals. It’s the ultimate story premise: a stranger comes to town.

Dunk Bozo, copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

What draws me in most is the carnival atmosphere, especially at twilight when the mood shifts with the light as it changes from the golden glow of sunset to bright, spinning neon. After dark spookiness sets in, an underlying sense of danger, which probably works better to create added tension in films than in books since it’s so visual. No specific scenes from books come to mind as I write this in the way that scenes from films do, particularly Alfred Hitchcock’s film noir “Strangers On A Train.” I’ve yet to read Patricia Highsmith’s novel on which the film was based, so I don’t know if the carousel scene in Hitchcock’s film was part of story in the book. I never tire of Hitchcock’s visual mastery in storytelling, be it in black-and-white or Technicolor – and no one used color better than Hitch.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Further Along On The Road

Road Trip 1978, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved

Road trips make great stories, summer the perfect setting. This summer brings back two famous journeys, one by Jack Kerouac and one by Ken Kesey, in new formats – a book app for On The Road, and the documentary “Magic Trip” using restored film footage of Kesey’s 1964 cross-country trip with the Merry Pranksters. The beat and hippie generations, two eras colliding for Kesey, and with Neal Cassady serving as the legendary wheel man in both stories. Born too close to the end of the baby boomer generation, I missed out on much of the great stuff – at least that’s the way it always seemed growing up. But, I was just old enough to fully embrace the ‘70s with my art school friends, and we have a few road stories of our own.

The picture above was snapped by Kevin as he was about to set off on a cross-country trip with his best buddy KT in the summer of 1978. KT is the shadowy figure in the driver’s seat. Shortly after Kevin took this photo, the two departed Pittsburgh for what was to be a summer’s long road trip to British Columbia and then down the west coast. Riding along in spirit were friends who’d painted their names on the blue VW beast, and that big thing on the passenger’s door was supposed to be a hawk (KT was a big fan of The Band, known early on as The Hawks when they were the backup band for Ronnie Hawkins). I’d moved to Los Angeles a month or so earlier, and one of those boxes on the roof rack contained some of my favorite books which they were kindly transporting west for me.

Kevin and KT made it as far as the Ohio border before the blue beast developed serious engine trouble. They sputtered back to Pittsburgh, managed to borrow a car from KT’s dad, transferred their gear and my books to the loaner car (a Pinto, Ford’s legendary fiery deathtrap of a ride), and set out on the road again later that same day.

The year before graduation and this road trip west, Kevin and I both happened to be reading On The Road for the first time – the 25th anniversary paperback edition, the one with the bright orange sunset on the cover. That book brought us together, connected us. Most couples have a song they call theirs, we have our book. We return to it again and again. I’ve reread it many times over the years, and Kevin keeps adding new editions of it to our bookshelves, the latest being a new hardback version he came home with a few weeks ago, this one with a new version of the yellow and orange sun on the jacket. It’s likely that my first copy of On The Road was in that box strapped to the roof rack.

It’s also likely that my copy of Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest hitched a ride to Los Angeles with Kevin and KT. Last Wednesday I happened to catch Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s “Magic Trip” on cable. It must’ve been a preview prior to its official release last Friday in theaters and on pay-per-view. You can read a review by Charles McGrath for The NY Times here. Filmmakers Gibney and Ellwood managed to salvage forty hours of footage shot by Ken Kesey and the Pranksters during their 1964 cross-country trip in the psychedelic bus, Further (and the New York City World’s Fair) their destination. My favorite scenes included glimpses of novelists Larry McMurtry and Robert Stone, and of Kerouac, who seemed to be having no fun at a prankster party. Kesey, who’d already published Sometimes A Great Notion and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, appears incredibly young in the film.

Just as with all good stories, there were complications and unexpected twists in Kevin and KT’s road trip of ’78. KT ended up having to drive all the way back across the country alone for the final leg of his journey. Kevin decided to stay in California and start a different journey, and convinced me to join him in San Francisco. I’m a sucker for happy endings. KT remains Kevin’s best buddy after all these years. And after all this distance, all this way further along the road, it turns out the road trip of ’78 was really just the beginning.

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Sunday, July 3, 2011

Guest Post by Erika Dreifus: "Mannheim in Pictures and Prose"

This month’s guest post is by Erika Dreifus, author of Quiet Americans. I’m a longtime subscriber to Erika’s blog “Practicing Writing” and to her “Practicing Writer” e-newsletter, both of which are wonderful resources for writers. A big thank you goes out to Erika for contributing this essay to my blog – and for her tireless and generous efforts in providing information on the craft and business of writing to practicing writers.

Mannheim in Pictures and Prose
Guest Post by Erika Dreifus

As the author of a recently released short-story collection (Quiet Americans), I have been appearing before audiences and reading brief
excerpts from my book. One of the excerpts I’m most fond of presenting is a section from a story titled “Homecomings.”

Like much of the book, this story draws inspiration fro
m the experiences of my paternal grandparents, German Jews who immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s. In “Homecomings,” a couple with a similar background—Nelly and Josef Freiburg—return to Germany for the first time in September 1972. At one point in the story, the cousins who are hosting them drive them back to Nelly’s home city: Mannheim.

In fact, Mannheim was my grandmother’s home city, and my grandmother did return there for the first time in 1972. I was too young to be awar
e of the occasion at the time, but Grandma spoke about it in later years, and I often thought about what she said, and imagined how she must have felt. I thought about all of this even more in 1990, when my father and I traveled to Mannheim ourselves for the first time, and on two later trips.

Some of those commingled thoughts, observations, and imaginings appear in “Homecomings”:

Mannheim’s water tower still stood, surrounded by well-tended lawn. The florist shop she and her father had visited each week, so that he could buy a bouquet for her mother—still there, too. The office where her father had run his business, until the Reich outlawed that. Only the shoe store had changed; now it was a café. The shoe store, where she had found a job at the age of eighteen, because even with her Abitur she couldn’t attend university. Not then. Not in 1933. But her father had said: “You’re not just sitting around here, my dear girl. Waiting to emigrate. You shall do something useful.”

Her cousin Daniel turned the Citröen off the city’s main ring, onto Ifflenstrasse, and Nelly thought she’d stopped breathing. The b
uilding, where she and her parents had lived in an apartment that occupied the entire second floor, was the same! The same purplish stone. The same flowerboxes. The same big windows.

No. The windows. Those were not the same.

“Those men came in,” her mother had said, once they could speak freely about that night back in November 1938. “They smashed the windows. The china. The paintings.”

In writing these paragraphs, I relied not only on memory and imagination. I relied also on photographs.

I am proud to share some of those photographs w
ith you, in the spirit of "In This Light," and with thanks for Dory's invitation to contribute a guest post.

The florist shop she and her father had visited each week....

The office where her father had run his business....

off the city's main ring, onto Ifflenstrasse...

Visiting a location isn't necessarily essential for every writing project. But I believe that for "Homecomings," it mattered very much.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories. She is a contributing editor for The Writer magazine and Fiction Writers Review. Web:

Photo Credits:
All photographs copyright by The Dreifus Family, all rights reserved, used by permission

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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Guest Post by Cliff Garstang: “Images: Inspiration IN AN UNCHARTED COUNTRY”

It’s my pleasure to host a guest post by Cliff Garstang, author of In An Uncharted Country. I’ve been a reader of Cliff’s blog “Perpetual Folly” since back in the days when I was the cofounder and fiction editor at Paper Street and found his annual
ranking of literary journals based on Pushcart Prize awards and special mentions. A big thank you to Cliff for contributing this essay (see author bio below).

Images: Inspiration in In an Uncharted Country

While working on drafts of a couple of novel
s, where a handful of characters and a single place remain central to the narrative over the course of a few hundred pages, I’ve found it useful to keep images—photographs—at hand as a starting point for fictional creations. For the characters, the images help me visualize and then describe physical attributes, especially faces. I used postcards I’d purchased for one project—portraits of various celebrities whose faces came close to the look I wanted for a character. For a recent long project, I used photographs clipped from magazines. I tacked them to my bulletin board where they gazed at me while I worked, reminding me of who my characters were, or at least what they looked like—bearing in mind that no plausible fictional character is as flawless as a fashion model. When it comes to place, I’m often a little more specific about my story’s needs. I may have a particular style of house in mind where the story is set, for example, and I’ll try to find a photograph of just the right house. Or I may have envisioned a landscape that’s important to the book’s setting. If I find it, that image is helpful as a constant reminder of the environment in which the fiction exists.

But image in two broader senses will also at times inspire story, not merely reflect the story or characters I’ve already imagined. Two examples come to mind from my linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country.

My favorite use of image from the book is in the story “The Clattering of Bones,” a tale of a marriage that is struggling to survive both alcohol addiction and a miscarried pregnancy. The story—its imagery, but not its plot, at least not directly—arose out of an incident that occurred shortly after I moved from Washington DC to rural Virginia. I got up one Sunday morning and came into the kitchen to make coffee. Standing over my sink, looking out the window, I noticed movement in the yard. Because the trees were in full leaf, I had to shift to get a better view, but
when I did I was shocked by what I saw: a deer stranded on the barbed-wire fence that separated my yard from a pasture. I wanted to help the animal, but, as a city boy, I had no idea what to do. I thought I might be able to lift it off the fence, but the deer wouldn’t let me get close; her twisting and thrashing was only making the predicament worse. I called various agencies for help—the sheriff, the wildlife rescue center—but they couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything. Eventually, the poor thing died—what a slow, agonizing death!—and then its disposal presented me with a different problem that I was also ill-equipped to handle.

The deer on the fence—that was my working title for the story—is both an extended metaphor (the troubled marriage suggested itself almost immediately) and an image around which the story is organized. Because I had taken notes about the
actual event, when it came time to describe the image of the deer—its legs twisted between the wires of the fence, the struggle to get free, blood trickling down its leg—the work was already done. But, of course, there was still the little matter of the actual story about the conflict between husband and wife, which alternated with the image that the husband saw out his window: how it changed over the course of the day, how his wife reacted to it, how he dealt with it and was influenced by it. While I don’t have a photograph of that deer, her image is still sharp to me.

Another story in my collection uses a completely different sort of image, one that I didn’t see but only read in a poem. Probably my favorite poem of all time is “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens. It’s filled with glorious images—images in the sense of vivid description—and for my story “Savage Source” I borrow
ed from the poem’s last two stanzas, in which “a ring of men/ shall chant in orgy on a Summer morn/ their boisterous devotion to the sun,/ not as a god, but as a god might be,/ naked among them like a savage source.” I also incorporate into the climactic scene of that story references to the “windy lake,” the “trees, like seraphin,” and “echoing hills” and other images from the poem. I’ve always been able to picture that scene without the aid of a photograph. The narrator, a girl named Tina, has been brought to an isolated hillside by her boyfriend, Ben, in the middle of the night. Both teens are disaffected and long for acceptance. She thinks she has found what she’s looking for in Ben, but he has turned to a mysterious group for comfort. As the sun rises, the presence of others—all men, shirtless, similarly tattooed, facing the sun, chanting something Tina can’t make out—is revealed. When Tina tries to flee, Ben won’t let her go because he wants to share his salvation with her. The entire story was written so I could have the couple arrive at that moment in the sun.

There are m
any kinds of images: photographs; mental pictures; metaphors; vivid descriptions; apparitions. In my work, at one time or another, I’ve employed them all for the same purpose—to help me put on the page words that will evoke the world that exists only in my imagination. And yet the images are only the beginning. Invariably, the fictional world and the people who inhabit it take on lives of their own, moving far beyond the images that helped create them

CLIFFORD GARSTANG, a former international lawyer, earned his MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. His linked story collection, In an Uncharted Country, was published in 2009. Recent work has appeared in Cream City Review, FRiGG, Los Angeles Review, The Tampa Review, and elsewhere. He is the Editor of Prime Number Magazine. His website is He blogs at

Photo Credit: Author Photo by Carol Turrentine

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Chuck Kinder Interview at Flywheel Magazine

Popping in for a minute to point you in the direction of an interview with Chuck Kinder at the newly launched Flywheel Magazine. The thing I enjoy most about the Internet is being surprised by where I happen to land, such as at “Don’t Be Scared: An Interview with Chuck Kinder.” Regular readers of my blog know that Chuck is one of my favorite writers, not to mention an important teacher to me when I first fell in love with writing fiction and found my way into one of his classes at Pitt. Do yourself a favor and read the interview by David James Keaton. I promise you’ll smile. You might even laugh out loud – even before you get to the photograph at the end of the interview.

Chuck Kinder, 2004,
Photo Copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Spring is Late, Summer Schedule is Early

Dogwood, copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved

Spring came late to western Pennsylvania, but the bare trees are finally in leaf. Our backyard dogwood is still in bud and will soon blossom with pink flowers. It’s been a cold and wet spring, but yesterday we had a sunny day and managed to get our annuals planted. Today it is raining again. It was a small window of opportunity – one sunny day when we both had the day off work – and we seized it. It will be another month before we reap the rewards of flowering zinnias from seeds planted in the garden, but the flowerboxes and patio pots are filled with colorful blooming flowers that brighten this gloomy morning. Too soon to use the summer office, but it won't be long until I'm writing there.

Spring may be late this year, but the summer schedule at “In This Light” is coming early. My work on the novel is going well and I need to put my writing focus there for now, so the blog will switch over to a slower pace of monthly posting. I’ll be hosting guest posts by writers Cliff Garstang and Erika Dreifus this summer. Cliff Garstang is the author of In an Uncharted Country and blogs at “Perpetual Folly.” Erika Dreifus is the author of Quiet Americans and blogs at “Practicing Writing.”

A few miscellaneous things I want to share:
  • Fleeting Pages opens Saturday, May 7th at the former Borders Books at 5986 Penn Circle in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. It’s very exciting to see this innovative pop-up bookstore project, which I first learned of from Karen Lillis at “Karen the Small Press Librarian,” go from idea to reality. See the Fleeting Pages calendar for information on readings and workshops. Here is a link for a map and directions.
  • Through a link at the Publishers Weekly blog last week, I found my way to a transcript of a Q&A with William Faulkner when he spoke in the classroom to students at the University of Mississippi in 1947. Read his advice to writers at “This Recording” and enjoy the photographs (including one of Faulkner with Eudora Welty).
  • A reminder that you can subscribe to “In This Light” via e-mail or through a feed to your reader (such as a Google Reader or My Yahoo) using the links in the sidebar on the right side of this page. It’s a free and convenient way to keep up with the posts. There is also a “follower” link further down on the sidebar.

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Abandoned Things: The Garden City

The Garden City, 1980
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

The Garden City was a Southern Pacific steam ferry on San Francisco Bay in her glory days more than a century ago, and on one occasion she even flew the Belgian Flag as she carried the King and Queen of Belgium to a reception in San Francisco. The ship was retired in 1929 and moved to the Carquinez Strait where she was used for other purposes. By the time Kevin and I first saw her in the early 1980s, she was in ruin.

In the spring of 1981, we spent some time photographing the 4449 Daylight, a restored steam locomotive which was headed to Sacramento for the opening of the new California State Railroad Museum. We had our own brush with royalty in Dunsmuir, where a crowd of onlookers had come out to see the engine when it stopped in town. A particularly interesting looking old man, who leaned on a big walking stick and carried a plastic-wrapped bundle on his back, turned out to be Fry Pan Jack, King of the Hobos. Closer to the Bay Area near the Carquinez Strait, we’d scouted out a spot to photograph the Daylight from a hillside where the train would go past the abandoned Garden City, which was moored and rotting just beyond the tracks at Port Costa.

4449 Daylight and The Garden City, 1981
Copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Over the years I’d wonder about the fate of the Garden City and whether she continued to deteriorate at the strait. It turns out she finally met her end when hill fires swept through the area in 1983, just a year after we’d moved east from California. Not a happy ending to the story of the Garden City, but fortunately the 4449 Daylight still steams gloriously on.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Signs for the Times: Esso and Borders Books

Route 92, Arthurdale, WV
copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

Anybody else old enough to remember Esso gas station signs? The one above is from an old Esso station along Route 92 in historic Arthurdale, WV. The Exxon trademark replaced Esso in the United States decades ago, but the company is still known internationally as Esso (the name taken from the initials of Standard Oil). Classic vintage signs appeal to collectors and can be worth a lot of money.

Last week, new signs went up nationwide at Borders Books as well. At stores slated for liquidation, employees began posting signs of their own, some of which you can see at this link. Handmade, but classic in their own way – the message invaluable.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back: Red’s Java House on the Embarcadero

Red's Java House, San Francisco, 2004
Copyright by Dory Adams, all rights reserved

It’s easy to get distracted by research done as part of the writing process, especially when it involves looking at photographs of a place you love. San Francisco certainly stole my heart – it was where I fell in love and married. Lately I’ve been caught up in fact-checking details for 1988-1989, a time period six years beyond when that city was my home. My first visit back after we moved away was in January of 1990, just three months after the Loma Prieta earthquake, so I have some sense of the changes during that timeframe. However, all the changes in the decades after Loma Prieta tend to blur together in memory over time.

Much changed after 1990, particularly along the embarcadero. The controversial Embarcadero Freeway, an ugly double-decker elevated freeway along the waterfront, was demolished and removed after it was damaged by the earthquake. Now, a wide boulevard and pedestrian promenade stretches along the waterfront. New skyscrapers went up to dramatically change the skyline in the South of Market Area (SoMA), and an entirely new neighborhood known as South Beach developed in what had been an industrial warehouse district.

In 2004, Red’s Java House was still there at Pier 30, looking much as it did when Kevin first took me there for lunch in 1978. Red’s is all about cheap food and sitting out on the pier below the Bay Bridge while you eat. Memory tells me the building was painted a deep red back in the old days when we’d go down to the Embarcadero for night photography, but I can’t confirm that since any photographs we have of it from back then are in black-and-white. We shot a lot of B&W film in those years and possibly that’s why some of my memories of that time seem to be in B&W too. Or, maybe it’s just that I’ve been watching too many film noirs set there – visually interesting and lots of fun just to see what has changed across eras.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Private Lives in Diaries

Photo copyright by Dory Adams

How many of us keep daily journals? Or read diaries? I’m not talking about your big sister’s diary, but rather published diaries. Some of my favorites are Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel, and The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath. I’ve had the opportunity to glimpse a few original journals and notebooks on exhibition over the years, most memorably photographer Dorothea Lange’s notebooks at the Oakland Museum of California, James Agee and Walker Evans’ notebooks and correspondence at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, and John Steinbeck’s journals at The National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

Last week (via the National Geographic blog “Intelligent Traveler”) I learned of the exhibition “The Diary: Three Centuries of Private Lives” at The Morgan Library and Museum through May 22, 2011, where seventy diaries from the permanent collection are on display – including those of Henry David Thoreau, Charlotte Bronte, Anais Nin, Tennessee Williams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and John Steinbeck. Even if you’re far from New York City, you can still get a sense of the exhibit via the curator’s blog, online gallery, and audio podcasts.

Most of us probably had at least one of those little diaries that came with a key and lock when we were growing up. I would get those sometimes as Christmas gifts, but after a few weeks I’d get bored with writing the same entry: got up, went to school, came home, fought with my little brothers, did homework, watched TV, went to bed. (I probably embellished that part about doing my homework.)

I’ve kept journals most of my adult life, however these days most of my journaling is done in an electronic format. My most recent paper journals were plain Exacompta refills for the leather journal jacket I bought at the Steinbeck Museum in 2004 after I’d been inspired by seeing his writing notebooks. Journaling has become a habit, a way of recording days and events, and though I rarely go back to reread my old journals I suppose I have it in mind that someday I’ll read through them again when my memory fails in old age.

Recently I consulted the journal kept during my San Francisco years for setting details as part of research for my novel. My San Francisco diary was bought at Green Apple Books on Clement Street, a favorite bookstore back then, which is still in business today at the same location (and the same wooden gnome still stands on the street out front). I remember looking at those blank journals each time we visited the store, wishing I had $8 to buy one. Money was tight back then and we’d spend hours browsing and selecting used paperbacks for only a quarter or fifty cents apiece. I’d always stop to look at those journals, imported from Shanghai and covered in silk cloth in various colors and patterns. I’d hold one in my hands and flip through the clean white pages. By the time I had saved enough money, I knew exactly which one I’d buy. Today that journal is filled with entries beginning in April 1980 and ending in 1986, and even though it spans years with moves to other cities, I still think of it as my San Francisco journal.

As for those childhood diaries, none of mine survived the years. I would make entries for a few days and then abandon them, which is why I’m pretty impressed by the childhood diary a dear friend showed me. She recently found it after her mother died, among some things her mother had saved for her. My friend wrote in that diary faithfully for nearly an entire year, and in doing so managed to capture specific details and a personal history of daily life from that era. I wish I had done the same.

Photo copyright by Dory Adams

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Sunday, March 27, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back: “The Girl I Was, The Woman I Have Become”

Los Angeles Union Station courtyard, 1979
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

That's me in the picture, which was taken in 1979 at Union Station in Los Angeles. This photograph came to mind because I’ve been thinking about reminiscent narrators and journeys as part of the novel I’m writing. When I look at that image I see a girl headed into unknown territory, taking a break at a brief stop on the way to her destination – looking forward, not back.

Much has changed since those youthful days, including the story I might now tell about the journey north along the edge of the Pacific on the Coast Starlight. Back then, I was on the verge of making some important decisions, thinking only of the future. Now, I look back on that time with layers of knowledge that only experience and hindsight can provide to inform the past.

Writer Ellen Lesser, who was one of my mentors in the MFA program at Vermont College (now known as The Vermont College of Fine Arts), wrote an excellent essay on reminiscent narration. Lesser's article "The Girl I Was, The Woman I Have Become: Fiction's Reminiscent Narrators" originally appeared in The Writers Chronicle and has since been reprinted as one of the essays included in Words Overflown By Stars, which was edited by David Jauss (who was also one of my workshop teachers at VCFA). Ellen wrote the essay after noticing in workshop that "about half the submissions cried out for some added insight, of the sort a retrospective stance on their events could provide. The other half were set up as remembrances but never made particular use of the vantage point; some even appeared to forget, a few pages or paragraphs in, that their protagonists were gazing backward. It struck me that our developing writers had agonized over whether to narrate in past or present tense, in first or third person, but they'd approached this other crucial decision – the point in time from which the story gets told – at best casually, with little reflection." Lesser goes on to ask some important questions that every writer should consider about the use of reminiscent narration, and she looks at examples in the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, Alice McDermott, Edna O'Brien, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Jane Smiley, and W. D. Wetherell. I highly recommend this book, which I also wrote about here.

In telling the story that goes with the photograph now, I might choose to reveal some things beyond the frame of that rainy morning in the station courtyard. I could flash forward and back by decades, layering in whatever is relevant to the story I want to tell. What I’d say now might be very different from what I’d have said in 1979. Even if you are familiar with that grand Art Deco station, and even if you’d once sat on that very same bench back in 1979, you couldn’t know what I was seeing or thinking about as I sat there smoking that cigarette. There are things even I couldn't know then that would add depth and meaning to the story – for instance that this would be the only train ride I'd take on the Coast Starlight. Or, that I'd soon give up cigarettes forever. Or, that I'd marry the guy who took this picture. It's all about framing and perspective. Distance, and finding exactly the right point in time for the telling.

Los Angeles Union Station, 1979
Copyright by
Kevin Scanlon, all rights reserved,
used by permission

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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Salvage: Rescue, Recover, Reclaim

"Antique Junk" (photo copyright by Dory Adams)

I’m deep into the mess that is my novel-in-progress, work which had been temporarily shelved more times than I care to remember. I’d fallen into a habit of working on it in fits and starts, waiting for larger blocks of writing time to immerse myself more fully in the writing. Guess what – it will never get finished that way. I finally realized that I have to make the time now, even if it’s only a few minutes each day.

Thanks to the help of Scrivener, I’m pulling together all the bits and pieces existent outside the written chapters: notebooks filled with details for scenes and chapters, character sketches, settings, timelines, lists of changes to be made, notes on structure and POV; index cards with research notes; file folders stuffed with newspaper clippings, post-it notes and scraps of paper; maps and photographs. This has allowed me to see the threads and shape of the story better, to see what is left to be done and not feel so overwhelmed by it all. It became clear to me as I worked with these scattered pieces that even during those times I’d claimed the novel was shelved, it never truly was – it was always with me, tugging at me to come back and finish the story.

It’s likely my posts here will be shorter in the coming months, and the focus will probably be geared more toward the writing process. This week, I’m sharing some interesting pieces I stumbled onto from around the web:

  • Cynthia Newberry Martin has a series of posts at her blog “Catching Days” on Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit From The Goon Squad, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Cynthia’s post “Dear LA Times: This is a photograph of Jennifer Egan” takes the newspaper to task for running a photograph of Jonathan Franzen (who did not win this award) instead of a photo of Egan in their article. Additional posts explaining the photo choice can be found at LA Times’ blogs Jacket Copy and Readers’ Representative Journal.
  • One of my favorite books of all time is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Back when I was teaching, I always managed to work at least one of his stories or essays into the syllabus. Here’s a link to a video of a short interview with O’Brien by Jeffrey Brown at PBS.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Only One Hour

“1 Hour Cleaning” copyright by Dory Adams

Time is on mind. Mainly in the context of the novel I’m writing, but also for various other reasons. I’ve been living in that space between two worlds – the fictional world of my characters, and the real world. It’s a good place to be because I’m always happy when the writing is going well, even if it means fumbling my way through the real world a bit distracted.

In the real world, the start of Daylight Savings Time is a date I look forward to each spring. After the darkness of winter, I’m happy to turn the clocks ahead. I don’t even mind losing that hour of sleep on the night of the time change. It seems a small price to pay for more daylight in the evening. Spring is on the way, and it won’t be long until I can set up shop in my summer office again.

In the fictional world, I’m bouncing around time across decades with my characters in two main story arcs, a “now” arc spanning the last few weeks of October 1989 and a “then” arc set in October 1963. I’m at my writing desk very early, getting in a few hours of work on my novel before going to my job. The morning darkness doesn’t bother me much. I don’t even notice daybreak because I’m lost in the writing. A timer on a lamp is set to shut off the light an hour before I need to leave for work – a reminder to pull myself away from the writing and get ready for the workday ahead.

For most people Daylight Savings Time isn’t such a big deal. Unless you’re a Hoosier, that is. Until 2006, some counties in Indiana switched to Daylight Savings Time while others remained on Standard Time. To further complicate timekeeping there, the state is divided by two time zones. I’m glad I never had to deal with that on a daily basis! It may only be one hour, but it makes a huge difference to me as the earth continues to spin on this trip around the sun.

In the News
  • I received an e-mail from Chuck Kinder today alerting me to the recent article in Pittsburgh City Paper by Bill O’Driscoll about Kinder: An Anthology of New Fiction. The anthology was put together as a gift to Chuck from his current graduate students as he recovers from serious health issues. Be well, my friend!

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Sunday, March 6, 2011

Muralist Douglas Cooper’s Pittsburgh: “Pinburg”

Pinburgh from Douglas Cooper on Vimeo.

A video titled “Pinburg” is making the Internet rounds these days. I have to share it here as this week’s image because it’s so fascinating to watch. The animated film takes us into one of Cooper’s monochromatic murals depicting Pittsburgh’s industrial landscape and hillside neighborhoods. No matter how hectic your day is, do yourself a favor and lift your spirits by taking time to watch the five-minute video (be sure to view it in full-screen mode with sound). In fact, maybe this would be a good way to start every day.

Douglas Cooper, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Architecture, creates amazing charcoal-on-paper murals which emphasize Pittsburgh’s topography. The sidewalk stairways, which ascend to steep hillside neighborhoods and descend to the industrial river valleys, are somewhat reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s drawings. Cooper’s panoramas are filled with complex details for the viewer to discover – framed inside lighted windows, on porches, in passing trolleys and trains, and other surprising places within the scene. Many of these details show people engaged in activities, some of them based on memories of elderly Pittsburghers he has interviewed as part of his creative process.

Each time I see Cooper’s work on exhibition I’m transfixed, pulled into the scene in a very physical sense. Am I standing in the gallery, or am I standing inside the drawing? The scenes seem to be from multiple viewpoints and angles, yet merge together as vignettes that tell a story.

Doug Cooper’s first urban mural (created in 1992-93 as a work in progress at the Carnegie Museum of Art) is now on permanent display at the Senator John Heinz Regional History Center in Pittsburgh. Concept Art Gallery, in Pittsburgh’s Regent Square neighborhood, has smaller drawings by Cooper on display. To see more of Cooper’s work via the Concept Art Gallery website, click here. Cooper’s book, Steel Shadows: Murals and Drawing of Pittsburgh (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2000) is also still available in the paperback edition (144 pages, 11 x 9).

If you’ve read this far and still haven’t clicked on the “Pinburg” video, go ahead. Do it now. Indulge. Release your inner Yinzer.
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Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Year of Fog: The Final Missing Chapter

“The Great Highway at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, 1980”
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Some books stay with you long after you’ve finished the last page. Michelle Richmond’s novel The Year of Fog, which I wrote about as one of my earliest blog posts here, is one of those books for me. I read it in 2009, two years after it was first published in 2007. Today the book is still going strong and was chosen as the 2011 selection for Silicon Valley Reads.

The working title for Richmond’s novel was “Ocean Beach” and it is often the imagery of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, The Great Highway, and the Sutro Bath ruins that I connect with the characters of Abby and Emma. These were settings for important scenes in the book. They were also favorite spots of mine to explore when I lived in San Francisco, and they are places that tend to show up in my own fiction writing.

"Great Highway Parking at Ocean Beach, San Francisco, 1981"
Copyright by Kevin Scanlon, used by permission

Recently Richmond made the original ending, which she’d cut in the final manuscript edits, available as a download for e-readers as “Day 49: The Missing Final Chapter of The Year of Fog.” I want to be careful not to unintentionally reveal too much for those who have not yet read the book, so I’ll just say this: For readers, this is a unique opportunity to find out additional information about what happened to the characters; for writers, it’s an object lesson in editing.

Luckily for those of us who live far beyond the Bay Area, Michelle Richmond’s appearance earlier this month at the Morgan Hill Public Library was videotaped. Click on the video below for Richmond’s talk about the writing process, about research and editing, and about memory as a narrative device.

For a list of Richmond’s appearances at upcoming Silicon Valley Reads events for The Year of Fog, click here.

Around the Blogosphere:
  • Check out Kevin Scanlon’s photography and short essay “Mountain State Stories – Satori” in the most recent edition of The Photographers’ Railroad Page. This is the first feature in an occasional new series titled “Mountain State Stories.” In a recent message to RPP subscribers, Scanlon wrote, “I am pleased to announce that The Photographers’ Railroad Page will be under the direction of a new editor, Kevin N. Tomasic. Kevin will be soliciting and choosing new features for the site as well as making decisions on its general direction. The site will still be hosted by Lightsource Photo Imaging.”
  • At Photography in Place earlier this month, Edd Fuller ran several interesting posts on Edwards, Mississippi and photographer Walker Evans.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009: Tim Barnwell Print of the Month

"Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" copyright by Tim Barnwell,
used by permission

(click on image for larger view)

I want this photograph. It reminds me of the more remote ridges and hollows in Pennsylvania where I grew up and of backcountry areas in West Virginia (the areas without mountaintop removal coal mining looming high above, ready to bury the valley with debris from the overburden and pollute the groundwater). Because this is one of Tim Barnwell’s photographs, I suspect it was taken further south in Appalachia. If you are a long time reader of my blog, you know that I've written about his work in the past, which you can read here and here.

Barnwell’s photographs capture the landscape of my home, of my roots. And when I look at the rise and fall of the ridges and the contours of the snowy mountains surrounding that homestead, I am transported. Joyce Carol Oates wrote in one of her novels (possibly it was in We Were the Mulvaneys) that we never escape the landscape of our childhood. She was talking about the emotional landscape as well as the physical landscape. Barnwell's image "Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" evokes a strong emotional response for me: homesickness for how it feels to live nestled in the mountains; amazement at the pristine beauty; concern that this beauty will be lost; and admiration for Barnwell's artistry.

I have not yet had the pleasure of seeing Barnwell's work in exhibition, but I own a copy of one of his three books, On Earth's Furrowed Brow. Those images had the power to make me cry in the bookstore as I paged through the book for the first time. Although the price of a print of one of the images published there is beyond my means (Barnwell's photographs are included in the collections of several museums, including the Metropolitan Museum), Barnwell has launched a new "Print of the Month" program that is a wonderful opportunity for anyone who is serious about collecting fine art photography but has limited budget. "Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" is the first photograph to be offered as a print of the month, and it is available until March 31, 2011 – which just happens to be the timeframe when I'll see another birthday come and go. Last year I received a Bill Scheele photograph of Levon Helm for my birthday. This year, I'm thinking a Barnwell photograph would be a nice addition to our collection.

Here is the description from Barnwell's website of how the new program works: "The Print of the Month Program is designed to introduce collectors to new, previously unpublished, images by master photographer and printer Tim Barnwell. We are able to offer special initial pricing, as these images are not available through galleries until after they rotate out of the Print of the Month (POM) program." These are limited edition photographs (a maximum of thirty photographic reproductions will be made), and each is mounted, matted, signed and numbered. The price is $295 during the time the print is offered as a print of the month selection. Print size is 11x14 (prints of this size are normally priced at $600 for unpublished images and $1200 for images published in his three books). For an additional $35, framing is available (black metal 16x20 frame, with Plexiglas). More details and ordering information are available at his website.

I'm looking forward to seeing what images will be offered in the future through the Print of the Month program, but this first one has the power to make me a little misty around the eyes, in the same way that the images in On Earth's Furrowed Brow do. It’s the topology that does it. In the prologue to An American Childhood, Annie Dillard writes, “When everything else has gone from my brain – the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family – when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”

Tim Barnwell is a commercial and fine arts photographer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He is the author of three books, The Face of Appalachia, On Earth's Furrowed Brow, and Hands in Harmony. His fine art photography has been exhibited widely and his images have appeared in dozens of magazines including Time, Newsweek, Southern Accents, House Beautiful, American Craft, Outdoor Photographer, Sky and Telescope, US Air, Blue Ridge Country, U.S. News and World Report, Billboard, Travel South, American Style, Black & White Magazine, LensWork, and National Parks.

Photo Credit: "Waves of Trees in Snow, 2009" copyright by Tim Barnwell, used by permission

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