Saturday, November 14, 2015

Tapping on our Brows

Principal Don Reiter, right
I’ll start by saying I know absolutely nothing about Maine Principal Don Reiter, or what happened in his office when he met, privately, with a student at Waterville Senior High.

But isn’t that where we arbiters of sexual misconduct always begin? Peering through tightly shut windows where the shades are drawn, then drawing conclusions about what happened? We take dueling narratives, leaven them with our opinions about the narrators (he’s a predator/angel/victim; she’s a liar/heroine/victim, take your pick) drop them onto the roulette wheels of “justice” and watch … as lives are wrecked.

Here’s the only thing we do know: somebody’s lying. One of two people is an unreliable narrator. And in the absence of any evidence beyond he said/she said, which story do we choose to believe?

Principal Don Reiter’s tale: on the first day of classes this fall at Waterville Senior High he was meeting with a female student in his office. They were sitting on the couch. She propositioned him. The meeting ended, and he reported the incident to school authorities. And his wife. Who filed for divorce a few weeks later.

What little we know from the student: during a meeting alone with the principal, he told her that he had a secret: every year he chose a student with whom to have sex, and that this year he’d chosen her. He threatened her … she’d never graduate … if she revealed this secret. She was upset, and promptly reported the incident.

Because of legal issues surrounding privacy, further information is sketchy, but if news reports are credible, other details include:

·        Shortly before classes began this fall, the student and her mother had appeared in Reiter’s office to discuss the student’s credits because it didn’t look like she was on target to graduate. He said they needed to meet with her guidance counselor.
·        After conferring with guidance, the student reappeared at the principal’s office, where she was told she needed to make an appointment.
·        On the first day of school the student was called out of class, down to Reiter’s office. At this point the closed-door meeting in question took place.

Within days of this incident, the superintendent placed Mr. Reiter on paid leave, called the cops, and investigations began. Two months and many, many interviews with staff and students later, the superintendent has recommended that Mr. Reiter be dismissed, the police have filed a report upon which the District Attorney has yet to act (she says she’ll wait to see what the school board will do) and the school board is now grappling with whether to accept … or reject … the superintendent’s recommendation to fire Mr. Reiter. As the board met this past week, crowds of Mr. Reiter’s supporters gathered outside their doors. When, after many hours of deliberations they emerged undecided and scheduled a subsequent meeting, folks were upset.

You can’t make this stuff up. Well, you can … but it’s called drama. Approaching the level of Greek tragedy. Because everyone loses. Everyone. Either Mr. Reiter is a predator, a wolf who has been prowling, undetected for years, among our innocents … or he is a cruelly, unjustly accused victim whose career and personal life have just gotten trashed.  Either she’s a traumatized victim, a child whose doe-eyed view of life has just been shattered… or a psychopath along the lines of the borderline-personality-disordered character Amy in Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel (also a movie) Gone Girl.

If that weren’t bad enough: enter the Greek chorus. Lawyers, from both sides. The administrators who just want to make it all go away, crying for his job on a plate. The mobs of friends of the accused rallying in his support. The victims’ rights advocates claiming: see? See how difficult it is to speak out against sexual predation? This is why so many cases of rape and sexual misconduct go unreported.

My head spins. So does my imagination. Which is why I usually retreat to poetry at times like these, because what constitutes hard and fast, legal and the fair, eludes me here.

Edwin Arlington Robinson, a son of Gardiner, Maine, wrote, in his poem Eros Turannos: “We tell you, tapping on our brows, the story as it should be. As if the story of a house were told, or ever could be.”

If ever a line reaches out and grabs you by the throat, it’s that one. All of us, the readers of these disparate stories, tapping on our brows. As if we know. Could know. Perhaps the true tragedy is that we don’t have the slightest idea what went on behind that door, yet are required to judge. Life demands it. Continuing to rise and shine and work and go to school together demands it: a choice. A decision. Justice.

Someone is lying. And that lie is a Molotov cocktail thrown into the living heart of a community. Regardless of how this sad business concludes, everyone gets burned.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Almost there ...

Plot map for my next book.
Among the many ways I torture myself (besides stringing real cranberries and popcorn for the Christmas tree each year): rereading passages from my finished books while I’m in the early stages of writing a new book.

It’s like that scene in the movie Crimes of the Heart, where the sisters regularly sneak peeks at their father’s medical text, Diseases of the Skin. They know it will horrify them but they Just. Can’t. Stop.

Now, I realize how that sounds, and no, I’m not saying my finished work is akin to leprosy. But my “unfinished” work sure is.

First drafts and early exploratory journal entries into new worlds and new characters are terrible to behold. Well, mine are, anyway. I flounder. I grasp. I struggle to understand: who are these people and what the hell are they trying to do? I write barely comprehensible fragments, or run-on-paragraphs that lead nowhere good. I use adverbs. Lots of adverbs. Stephen King would have a field day with my use of –ly.

Somehow, miraculously (well, it’s not really a miracle, it’s called REVISION) all that bad writing eventually rights itself into a story arc; visual scenes; dialogue which isn’t cringe-worthy. You shift the tectonic plates of your imaginary world and kill off characters left and right until you can focus on the small stuff. Tweaks. Like, Is that really the verb I want here? Should I use a pronoun or proper noun here? Should I change her ring tone … ?

Yesterday I wrapped up the almost-final draft of my next book (I say “almost final” because it still has to go to a copyeditor, who checks for typos, inconsistencies, the sort of nit-picky stuff that drives me crazy but can absolutely sink your book if you miss it so yay for copyeditors!) which means I’ve been living with The Small Stuff for a few weeks now.

Coincidently, my writer friend, Paula Bourque, asked via Facebook for other writers to share their late-stage revision tips, and a treasure trove of terrific suggestions poured in. A few I knew/already used, but several were brand new to me, and turned out to be super helpful. Here are a few of my favorites:

From Lynda Mullaly Hunt: Set a day aside and read the entire thing out loud. You hear things you don’t hear when reading silently. (Thanks, Lynda! I read myself hoarse.)

From Cynthia Lord: Change the font and print a copy. It will look different enough that your eye will read every word again … if it looks familiar your eyes sometimes read what you think it says, not exactly what it does. (This was a great idea, Cindy. I swapped Times New Roman for Arial and found all sorts of errors.)

From Sarah Albee: Do a ‘find/replace’ for words you suspect you use too much. (Wow. My characters frowned and shrugged way too often! Glad I checked.)

From Lynn Plourde: You can delete “that” most of the time. (THAT is so true, Lynn!)

From Megan Frazer Blakemore: Give yourself breaks and walk around, even if it’s just around your house. (I don’t think I did this enough, as my aching back will attest ….)

From Kate Messner: When I review copyedits, I take a blank piece of paper to cover up everything beneath the line I’m reading – helps me to slow down. (I will definitely do that when the dreaded copyedits come back!)

My own late-stage tip is to hunt down adverbs and the verb “to be,” replacing them as much as possible with vigorous, transitive verbs. Examples of writers who “do verbs” brilliantly: Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See and E. Annie Proulx in The Shipping News. I’m a big believer in verbs.

Okay, now: to follow Megan’s advice and get out of this chair.  No, better yet: vault from this chair!  (See? Didn’t that create a picture in your mind?)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Poem for a Monday

Frisbee, ball in mouth.
The past five months I’ve spent even more time than usual attached to a chair. General household order and muscle tone number among the casualties, but The Revisions to the Next (as yet unnamed can you believe it?) Novel are almost done.

No one will be happier to see this phase of the writing process end than my Australian Shepherd, Frisbee.

“Ah,” say those of you who know Aussies. You say this as you envision flying plastic discs, bouncing tennis balls, and random sticks hurled boomerang-style. You say this as you imagine an exhausted middle-aged woman trudging outside in all sorts of weather (Maine’s coastal weather can be summed up as “all sorts,” often within a 15-minute span) because an Aussie will walk. Every. Single. Day. You say this knowingly, even though I would delete the word, because it ends in –ly, making it an adverb, which, in this season of revision means it must go, go, GO!

As Stephen King warns in his memoir, On Writing, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” And let’s face it: Stephen King would know how the road to hell is paved.

For those of you who don’t know Aussies, think: somewhat dumber Border Collie. In other words, busy in the extreme, focused to the point of obsession, relentless … with a side order of lovable goofiness. If the Border Collie is the Harvard student with perfect SAT scores, the Aussie makes the honor roll and gets into the respectable safety school. Then plays Ultimate. Or rugby.

At any given moment as I write, rewrite, and unwrite (which feels like an appropriate word for the detangling this manuscript has needed) I can look across the room to the futon where Frisbee pretends to nap (yes, this entitled dog jumps up on the furniture) and at the slightest movement from me her eyes will open, wide, and she will channel “Are we ready to go YET??” She plays these Jedi Dog Tricks all day, and always succeeds.

I could not pull off this work without her, and in this I am not alone. I was reminded of that this weekend, not only when I read Maira Kalman’s lovely essay “True Love” in the Sunday Times, but also when I met, for the first time, in the most unexpected setting (I was wiping tables; he was sweeping floors) the author Ron Currie, Jr. who commented he’d just spent the past 12 years inside with his dog and realized he needed to get out.

The poet Mary Oliver devotes an entire volume, Dog Songs, to this bond. Here’s one that reminds me of my girl.

Percy Speaks While I am Doing Taxes

First of all, I do not want to be doing this.
Second of all, Percy does not want me
   to be doing this,
bent over the desk like a besieged person
   with a dull pencil and innumerable lists
      of numbers.

Outside the water is blue, the sky is clear,
   the tide rising.
Percy, I say, this has to be done. This is
   Essential. I’ll be finished eventually.

“Keep me in your thoughts,” he replies. “Just because
   I can’t count to ten doesn’t mean
I won’t remember yesterday, or anticipate today.
I’ll give you ten more minutes,” and he does.
   Then shouts – who could resist – his

      Favorite words: Let’s go!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Making Mole

It’s nail-biting time.

To be clear: this is not that lovely “Between Books” interval which author Ann Packer described so perfectly in her recent New York Times essay. So I haven’t just finished the final round of copy edits on a purchased, soon-to-be-published novel, I’m not casting about for a new project whilst planning a launch party, or purchasing boxes of “signings” pens.

I’m in that post-completed-manuscript-ecstasy/pre-accepted-for-publication hell.  In other words, I finished a new novel, revised it a few times, finally got the “thumbs up” from my agent (she’s a stickler, which is why I love her) and now she’s shopping it. Which feels a little scary this time around because the wonderful, wise editor for my last three books has left our publishing house, reportedly to join the circus (she was joking when she said that, but you never know …) so Baby Book and I are searching. For a new editor; possibly a new publishing house. We wait for the phone to ring.

I know there are authors out there who would use this “down time” as an opportunity to dive into a new project, and I have a little something I’ve been playing with for a while (see last week’s post and think: Australian Shepherds) but here’s the thing: I’m still living with these other characters. I’m still tinkering, still hearing their voices. I’m not ready to leave them behind and enter a new world, especially because … but no. Won’t say it. Won’t jinx it. Karma’s a B**** and I won’t tempt the publishing gods by suggesting anything about what might happen to Baby Book and what revision might follow.

So instead, I’m cleaning my office (Baby Book made a mess), updating my website, organizing closets and making mole poblano. From scratch.

Yeah, I said that to impress you. Mole poblano from scratch. It was on my Cooking Bucket List. Three types of Mexican chilies, Mexican chocolate laced with guajillo, herbs, seeds, spices, blending, rehydrating, sieving (is that a verb?) and hours of concentrated cooking time. I cranked Carlos Santana and a little Spanish fusion music while I worked, mostly because I love it but also because I’m pretty much a Spanish “fusion” with a little Irish thrown in, and while I can serve up some pretty good Cuban food and approach my mother’s arroz con pollo, I’m a total novice at Mexican food. So I needed a little cooking Karma, a little Carlos. We pretty much believe (and by “we” I mean my mom, my daughter and I) that what comes out of the oven or the skillet is a direct reflection of what’s going on in the cook’s heart and soul.

So please, dear lord, don’t let this mole suck. Because Baby Book and I need some good mojo right now.

(Note: the above pictured mole poblano got two enthusiastic thumbs up from the spouse! Kudos to chef Shannon Bard of Zapoteca in Portland, Maine. I used the recipe from her new book, “The Gourmet Mexican Kitchen.”)

Wednesday, June 3, 2015


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hitchhikers. I couldn’t finish my novels without them.

Let me explain.

First: these are metaphorical hitchhikers. The characters you see along the road on your writing journey. Which, to use another metaphor, is pretty much driving in the dark on a foggy night with the headlights on: you can only see about ten feet ahead, but if you keep going you’ll eventually reach your destination.

We like to think this is predictably linear, a planned plot clearly marked by lines you can see even in the dark. But that’s a lie. A sweet security blanket we cling to. Because even though the ten feet of road ahead appear straight, this highway is anything but. It curves. It dips. It angles sharply and narrows suddenly in places where the shoulder is studded with gravel or practically nonexistent or mere inches from a sheer drop. And you’re out there without a GPS or a smart phone app or even a map for goodness sake, and what the hell? What were you thinking, taking this on? I mean, this was supposed to be fun, right? A trip, a journey, possibly a vacation. Instead, it’s this trial of nerves, endurance, fortitude, faith and … yeah.

Sorry. I lapsed into metaphor. I know: writing is not parenting. Or marriage. Or even getting out of bed in the morning and putting one foot in front of the other until the day ends. It’s a job. It’s work. Creative work, true, but just that.


Second: picking up hitchhikers is dangerous. Let’s face it, sweet grandmothers carrying baskets of warm baked goods are not thumbing it on the road on cold foggy nights. These characters you see out there have knives in their backpacks. Evil intentions. You let them into your car, and you will most likely not survive.

Third: my advice is to pick them up anyway. Metaphorically, that is. Because the ride is going to be way more interesting now. Even if it kills you.

In every one of my novels an unexpected hitchhiker got into the car and started talking. Starting filling my ear with things I didn’t know, things I found fascinating. Before long, I started asking her questions. Asking for advice. Asking if he or she had any suggestions for alternate, more interesting routes.

Wow, did they ever. Not only did they suggest different routes; they suggested different destinations. Forget going to California, they said. Go left at the next light and head south to Texas. Ditch wine in Napa: we’re getting barbecue.

“But I don’t want barbecue,” I argued. “I love wine.”

“Trust us: you will love barbecue,” they insisted.

Here’s the thing: in writing, and in life, you just have to be open. Characters, real and imagined, cannot step into a closed heart or through a locked door. Let them in, and you might be in for some pain, but you might also be in for the trip of a lifetime.

In my first novel, Brett McCarthy: Work in Progress, Mr. Beady was the hitchhiker. I thought he was simply an old man having dinner with the main character’s grandmother, but then he kept showing up and saying funny things. Next thing I knew, he was steering the plot and setting up the climax for the novel.

In my second novel, Jersey Tomatoes Are the Best, Eva the ballerina was the hitchhiker. She was simply supposed to be the main character’s best friend, but then she kept turning up in scenes. At one point, when my main character was about to head to Florida for summer camp and leave Eva behind in New Jersey, I commented to my daughter, “My editor is going to make me cut Eva. I’m leaving her in New Jersey while the plot moves to Florida. She doesn’t make sense.” My (wise) daughter sighed, grabbed a stack of her own young adult novels, and tossed them on my bed. “Clearly,” she said, “Eva doesn’t simply want to come along for the ride. She wants to tell her story. You need a two-narrator novel. Check these out.” The final, published novel indeed has two narrators, and Eva is one of them.

Finally, in Out of Nowhere, Myla the college volunteer is the hitchhiker. She was simply supposed to be the random person who directs the main character’s community service job. But she was cute. Funny. Flirty. Next thing I knew, she was knocking the main character right off his feet and inserting herself in chapters. Myla ends up being the solution to many of the main character’s problems.

The novel I’ve just finished (which I won’t name here because it’s still printing from my computer) for the longest time didn’t seem to have any hitchhikers, which worried me. It was not a good sign, I thought, that no one knocked on my car window, demanding to be let in for the ride.

Until late in the game. In the final third of the book a guy named Joe steps in. The room is dark, he’s pouring powerful drinks … and he meets one of my main characters. Suddenly, we’re walking into a room I didn’t even know existed ….

Let the hitchhiker in.