Monday, June 17, 2019

GUEST POST: MY DAUGHTER’S PHOTOGRAPHS; MY WRITING: CONNECTED BY VISION AND LOVE

I have always loved the idea of literary salons, in which creatives from all disciplines gather to discuss issues, challenges, inspirations, and joys in their work. One of my greatest pleasures in maintaining this blog is the chance to create an online version of the salon with guest posts by people I admire and love.
Today, I'm delighted to welcome my friend, sister writer, Janice Eidus, and her daughter, Alma.
The ways in which Janice and Alma, whose photos illustrate the post, connect through their art inspires me. I hope it will inspire you too!
Take it away, Janice!



            I marvel at the intensity and craft of the photographs in my daughter’s portfolio. Now 16, Alma has wanted to become a professional photographer since she was in middle school.
            I marvel too at the deep connection between her work and mine as a writer. For instance, a while back, Alma took a series of photographs of her close friend Natalie. Tall, thin, and doe-eyed, Natalie is conventionally attractive by society’s standards. But Alma’s intention was to reveal her friend’s inner beauty: her loyalty, generosity, intelligence, and empathy. In one photo, Natalie is surrounded by lights seemingly suspended from the sky. In another she walks dreamily through the rain.

            My intention too is to explore the inner lives of my characters. When the husband in my comic novel Urban Bliss cheats on his wife, I delve into his past so that readers will understand why. In my short story Vito Loves Geraldine I examine what underlies teenaged Geraldine’s unconditional and undying love for Vito, the cutest boy in their Bronx neighborhood.
            One afternoon on impulse Alma took a photo of a young girl alone in a playground. The girl’s back is to the camera. Unmoving, she sits on a swing, appearing disconnected from the world around her. My story Davida’s Own was similarly inspired by my sighting of a girl the same age alone on a beach, staring at the water.
            In her self-portraits, Alma limns her transformation from a shy 13-year-old to a poised high school junior. Her tentative expression and stance at 13 are determined and confident at 16. In my autobiographical essays, I reveal myself as a woman grappling with a difficult past while delighting in current joys. I describe how as a child I scrawled short poems, plays, stories, and “novels” about my life with a charismatic yet violent father and a depressed mother. Like Alma’s friend Natalie I was sometimes surrounded by light and sometimes by storms.
            Recently, Alma shot a black-and-white series of a woman’s hand. The woman appears to be sitting at a table with a copy of The New Yorker, an energy bar, and a cup of tea in front of her. As the photos unfold, the woman’s hand turns the pages of The New Yorker. She takes bites of the energy bar. She sips from the cup of tea. Here, Alma is paying homage to Andy Warhol, an artistic hero of hers and mine. Like Warhol, whose subjects range from sleep to soup cans, Alma brings together seemingly quotidian details while analyzing the texture of contemporary life and art. And by the way, it’s my hand, magazine, and cup of black tea in Alma’s photos, which makes me feel a heightened and profound connection to them.

            Alma’s current subject is shadows. With intricate lighting and meticulously arranged vases, flowers, and everyday items like fabrics, she captures with her camera shadows of various shapes and sizes. These shadows remind me that my writing – even the most comical – contains dark and shadowy truths. In Urban Bliss, the husband’s illicit affair is painful for both himself and his wife. In Vito Loves Geraldine, I look not only at the pleasures of unconditional love but also at its implicit heartaches.
              Many photographers inspire Alma, including Martin Schoeller whose portraits of both celebrities and non-celebrities are un-posed and natural, evoking their genuine personalities. She also loves the work of the young British photographer Juno Calypso whose photographs subvert the meanings of the words “feminine” and “romantic” as she embarks on a solo world tour of honeymoon hotels.
            As for me, I’m influenced by numerous writers. Angela Carter’s stunning, elegant prose and fierce feminist vision show me how fiction can transform readers’ worldviews. Edgar Allan Poe’s unreliable narrators have intrigued me since I was a little girl reading Annabel Lee for the first time.
        Day by day, Alma inspires me as well. I’m confident that she and I will continue on our respective artistic journeys. Along the way, we’ll learn more and more about the power of the imagination, the thrilling and rewarding artistic process, and our own deep – and ever-deepening – connection.
Photo by Alma Kastan

Alma Kastan is a rising high school senior. She studies photography at The International Center of Photography and New York Film Academy, and plans to become a professional photographer.
Janice Eidus is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and a writing coach who works one-on-one and in small groups. She’s twice won 

the O.Henry Prize as well as a Pushcart Prize; her novels include The War Of The Rosens; Urban Bliss; and The Last Jewish Virgin. Her short story collections are Vito Loves Geraldine and The Celibacy Club. Her website is www.janiceeidus.com








Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dark Fascination: Serial Killers and me



What have I been doing the past year-- besides not blogging? If you've seen the photos I've posted, you've probably imagined me wandering through nature appreciating moments of wonder, beauty and peace. And though that is true, I doubt you've imagined me devouring books and movies about serial killers. And if you happened to peek at my browser history, which on a given day might include searches for homicide by strangulation and the decomposition of a body buried in a pit, you'd be forgiven for backing away, carefully.

If you're a writer, you know I'm doing research. The two main characters in my new novel are a female magician and a serial killer. My fascination with murder and mystery is not new. I was a noir kid growing up in suburbia. By night I was a fearless detective who helped Nancy Drew, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlow navigate the dark unknown. Problem was that by day I was a wimp, scared of the dark, horror movies, snakes, and clowns.

My imagination magnified all dangers. A mere glimpse of a scene in a horror film would root in my mind for decades. Here's one I can't forget (I've blocked the title!): the moment a man realizes that his wife has been possessed by evil forces. As he stares in horror, her face shifts from human to leering skeleton and back to human. But from that moment on, no matter what she says or does, he knows that she hides her true self behind the mask of a beautiful woman.

My desire to be a detective led to my desire at age 9 to be a writer, or a detective with a pen. My writing is a search for clues to understand what it means to be human. In the end, isn't that the greatest mystery of all?

Maybe that's the source of my dark fascination with serial killers: how they manage to compartmentalize their various identities and roles. I have seen the face of madness, more than once. Once you've seen it, you never forget the terrifying moment when the mask is removed, and the shadow-self is revealed. Serial killer, Ted Bundy, called his dark force The Entity. Dexter, TV's favorite serial killer, called his shadow, The Dark Passenger, and said, "The only way to kill a Dark Passenger is to take out the Driver." When the Driver is charming, charismatic, and attractive, it is difficult to believe the gruesome brutality of his crimes. Which leads us back to Ted Bundy.

I began reading about him a few years ago, and quickly grew fascinated and dove into the extensive Bundy bibliography. In the early days, I had the naive hope that if I read enough, learned every detail of his life, the secrets he hid to the stories of every woman he murdered, I'd come closer to understanding him and perhaps find the human connection that would help me create my own killer.

I soon realized that would not happen. Psychologists who studied him could come to no conclusions either. But I'm not the only one who is fascinated by Bundy. Though his murderous rampage was conducted in the 70s, you could say that he's the serial killer of the moment. There are two movies about him currently airing on Netflix, both directed by Joe Berlinger. The first is a 4-part documentary, "Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," during which we hear Bundy analyze himself through a third-person perspective that allows him to distance himself from his "confessions." Even so, the interviewer recalls that when Bundy "really got going," his blue eyes "went absolutely black," echoing Carol DaRonch, who described his "beady, blank, lifeless eyes." DaRonch was the one that got away, and it's because of her testimony that he was first caught and sentenced.

Hoping for a clue to the "why," we listen to Bundy describe his idyllic childhood much the way his mother describes "the best son in the world," but at every point his whitewashing is punctured: he had no idea how to act with people, especially girls; he was arrested twice for suspicion of burglary and car theft, the records expunged when he turned 18; he was a loner who wandered his neighborhood at night, peering into windows to watch women undress. We hear him pontificate on all manner of subjects at mind-numbing length until on Death Row, he finally admits to committing at least 30 murders, and we hear the chilling whisper of a killer confessing in first person to transporting the head of one of his victims for necrophiliac purposes.

How do you reconcile the monster who went on a one night mad rampage of rape, torture, and murder through a sorority house in Tallahassee, and then stole a car and while on the run, stopped to buy socks with a stolen credit card. Lots and lots of socks.

"One of my fondest dreams is to have all the underwear and socks I ever could conceivably use. It’s one of my fantasies. To be able to wear new socks every day!"

Yes, that's Ted. Obsessed with socks. He once said if he'd had enough white socks, he'd have been happy. A sock fetish? A need to be pure, as if by changing into a new pair of white socks every morning, he could erase the crimes of the day before? A wish for enough money to buy dozens and dozens of socks and never have to worry that he couldn't pay for them? Maybe a mix of all the above.

All his life he envied those who had money and felt insecure and outclassed by them. The truth is he was insecure around everyone because they seemed to hold the secret to... simply being human. What did it mean to fall in love with someone? To be one of the popular guys who knew what to say and do, who got girls effortlessly? That insecurity was matched with an arrogance-- he was smarter than everyone else. And for years, it seemed that he was.

The second film, "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," is a feature film starring Zac Efron as Bundy, that is based on Elizabeth Kloepfer's memoir, "The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy." Efron is great but the movie wants to have it both ways: to tell the story from Liz Kloepfer's perspective while describing events she had no way of seeing. The book actually reveals the tension of what it meant for her to love and live with Bundy on and off for several years.   

I first read her account a couple of years ago, hoping to find out what she saw and experienced. Were there clues to his secret identity? Did she sense something was wrong? I also wanted to know how it was from his perspective, how he managed to live with a woman and her small daughter for years, day in day out, no escape hatch, no place to hide. It was while he lived with her that he began his killing spree, attacking female students at universities in Washington and Oregon. He killed, and then went home to Liz and her daughter. Were they only his cover, his mask to appear normal, or did he feel something for them? He did have black nights, when he disappeared to his own apartment. Ah, I thought, that's where he went to take off the mask and breathe before returning to the performance of being Ted Bundy, law student, suicide hotline operator, and loving boyfriend.


Ted Bundy and Liz Kloepfer

Liz did grow to suspect him. Turns out that the nights the girls disappeared, he did not stay at her apartment. He had curious objects in his car and apartment--a hatchet, crutches, pantyhose, and a bowl of female underwear. She called the police in Washington and in Utah to report her suspicious boyfriend, but they dismissed her calls. After she reported him, she stayed with him. That's the stumbling block for most of us. You suspect your live-in boyfriend is a killer, but you take him back again and again.

And yet isn't that what we do with handsome, charming men who-- as Ted Bundy put it-- "snow" us? We don't want to believe that evil hides behind a smiling human face. Centuries ago, Shakespeare said it: "That a man may smile and smile and be a villain." Our first instinct is to insist that evil is something foreign and separate from us, as if the killer is out there, an alien monster, non-human, and we are watching safely from behind our curtains. It's a means of self-preservation, a delusion we want to preserve, because the alternative is far more terrifying, maybe the source of the true horror: the Dark Passenger is the guy in VW Beetle next to you at the red light, smiling, and when the light changes, off he goes, leaving a trail of white socks.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From Mummies to Aliens: The Power of Language

Alien language in the film Arrival



Coffin of the Lady of the House, Weretwahset, circa 1292–1190 B.C.E. Brooklyn Museum)
I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum and was fascinated by the exhibit, "Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt." The ancient Egyptians believed in rebirth, and therefore, placed great importance on the rituals of death and burial, including mummification, spells carved on tomb walls and coffins, and the prayers in the Book of the Dead that accompanied the body. 

A curious belief they had was that in order to make rebirth possible for a woman, she had to briefly turn into a man. According to Egyptian belief: the man created the fetus and transferred it to the woman during intercourse. So... a woman alone in her tomb could not conceive the fetus of her reborn self. What do you think they did? Deny women the possibility of an afterlife? Or come up with a creative solution? Like magically transforming a woman's mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus? 

That's exactly what they did. Priests turned a female into a male by the strategic use of male color and language. Red was the color used to represent a man's skin so they painted the woman's skin red -- on her coffin. 

And as a writer, here's what I find most interesting: the "you" in their language had both a masculine and feminine form. On the woman's coffin, and in spells recited by the priest, the woman was addressed with the masculine form of the pronoun, as if to fool the gods that the body buried inside the coffin was a man.

Earlier scholars attributed this to mistakes, but recent research reveals the logic behind the transformation, and the magical power of language to not only affect reality, but to change it. Later, the woman will return to her female identity and be reborn as a woman, but for a brief time, the ancient Egyptians believed that through words she could be transformed into a man long enough to give birth to herself. 

Like everything that explores and demonstrates the power of words, this blows my mind. It reminds me of the film, ARRIVAL, in which a human linguist (Amy Adams) decodes the written language of aliens. Their ink blot language is circular, no beginning or end. As the linguist learns their language, her mind expands to accept their vision of time, and she begins to perceive the world as they do, circular rather than linear. The verb tenses, or concepts of "future" and "past" no longer have any meaning, or at least not the meaning we attribute to them. The film's central idea demonstrates the theory of linguistic relativity -- that the structure of language affects its speakers. Past and future events swirled through the movie in no apparent order -- making it a frustrating experience for some viewers and a very exciting one for others. 

The idea that language shapes our world dates back to the mummies, and long before. Whether or not we believe in the power of words to express our thoughts and beliefs, and even more, to actually shape and determine them -- i.e., to transform gender or to see past and future as a flowing circle rather than a horizontal line -- we can, I think, agree that language teaches us a great deal about who we are, what we fear and desire, our potentials and our limitations. And our responsibility to use language with care.

Words can offer passageways into wondrous realities. Or slam the door in our face. 

As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul. 
                                                                                   -- Edmond Jabes


Monday, April 24, 2017

Owning a New Identity, As Writer


My friend and sister writer, Kate Brandes, just published her first novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard, a powerful, compassionate story that is both relevant and timely. It's my pleasure to turn today's blog post over to her. She has very insightful words to share about what it means to be a "real writer." Take it away, Kate!

OWNING A NEW IDENTITY, AS WRITER

If  I had to select one photo of truest self, this would be it.
Working on the very last edits of my novel before it went to press.

A photo of me as a child with the word "thinker " written on the back

At the age of 46, after seven years of working on my novel, it will be published this year :)

I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties. Before that I worked as an environmental scientist and didn’t think of myself as a creative person.

I found after my first son was born that I wanted to try making something that would reflect my view of the world. I’ve always loved reading fiction and understand the world better through stories.  I’ve also kept journals all my life, used mostly for working out problems or making important decisions. So perhaps it was inevitable that I turned to writing as the creative outlet I found myself searching for.

Even though I had two small children, a full time job, and more volunteer commitments than any sane person should have, I crammed in time to learn how to tell a story on paper. I worked hard, whenever I could. And eventually, after years of rewriting and rewriting, I got a publishing contract for my book.

Part of the job when you have a book coming out is to seek out successful novelists and ask if they’ll do you the favor of reading an early copy of your book and, if they like it, write a short “blurb” you might feature on the cover or inside pages of the final novel.

So last fall, this is what I found myself doing and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I had to ask established writers that I admire, all people I didn’t know well, if at all, if they would read my entire novel and say something about it even though I could offer nothing in return and they were busy with a million other important things. Some said no, but to my surprise several said yes and were gracious and generous. I will always be grateful to them.

I confided to one of these writers how hard it was to reach out to her and ask this favor because, I told her, she was a real writer with commercial success, and I was just pretending to know what I was doing.

She quickly emailed back and told me she had two words of advice for me and they were: Own It.

I’ve thought a lot about her response. She’s right. We should own everything we do. I’ve worked more than a decade on my writing. I do have a newly published book and some short stories. And yet... I still struggled to feel like myself in these new writer shoes.

It’s been an interesting journey from environmental scientist to writer. My entire community of people used to know me only as a scientist.  This includes everyone with whom I went to college and graduate school and everyone I’ve worked with over 20+ years.

But lately, some people only know me as writer. In many ways my long-held identity as a scientist is fading to the background as my investment in my writing self grows. It’s dizzying at times.

But what I’ve found is that with each new experience as a writer, which have been many this year with a first book coming out: readings, signings, teaching my first workshop, and more – I am more a writer everyday. I am owning it because I’m having to live it. That’s the way people grow all the time. I don’t hesitate much anymore to call myself a writer.

Working as the science director at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania in 2009

With my kids in 2013

Monday, April 17, 2017

Miracles for Breakfast or How I Learned to Love Poetry





The professor I was secretly in love with gave me the book. I’d never heard of the author, Elizabeth Bishop, and I didn’t like poetry.

“I have an assignment for you,” he said.

“I won’t like it if it’s work,” I warned.

“Keep the book by your bed, and every night read a poem until you find the one that speaks to you. Then read it over and over, dream about it, write it out word by word, sing it, draw it, eat it, drink it… until it’s inside you.”

“Then what?”

“Then read it to me.”

The book was slim with a torn cover. It had belonged to him. On the title page he’d written, “For Ruth,” in his confident black scrawl. I breathed in the pages to see if I smelled his solid, sensual, hard scent. Then I set the book on my windowsill, where it absorbed fresh air and sounds from other windows. Each night I restlessly searched the pages, but
“A Miracle for Breakfast.” found me.

At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee,
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb
that was going to be served from a certain balcony
--like kings of old, or like a miracle.
It was still dark. One foot of the sun
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river.

Each night I read it like a prayer… a love letter… a note thrust into a crevice in the Wailing Wall. I knew nothing about the poet, nothing about poetry, nothing about form. But I knew about miracles, and I knew how breakfast—coffee, a roll, eating crumbs off my palm, the sun rising over water—could be a miracle. I knew nothing... but I tasted this poem. I tasted the poet.

Winter turned to spring, and each night I kissed the words. My bedtime ritual. No matter how late I came home to my tiny apartment, the last thing I did before sleeping was to read my poem. Sometimes only the first and last stanzas. Sometimes I skipped around. I loved these lines: 

Was the man crazy? What under the sun
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony!  

Was the man crazy? Was I? One night, stunned, I discovered the pattern. Six words were repeated creatively, wildly, in each stanza: coffee, crumb, balcony, sun, river, and miracle. I looked it up: a sestina! I was as awed as if I’d discovered a new country, scaled a mountain peak. 

The pattern made me fall in love with the poet. To be able to do that—to disguise the pattern, to use the same words in different order, and yet to tell a story—that was a miracle. That was art. I cried that night, alone in my bed crammed with books, papers, dreams of stories half-written and travels not yet taken. I cried for Elizabeth Bishop, for the narrator of the poem, for my professor, for myself, for all of us waiting for a miracle for breakfast. 

Months after he’d given me the book, I went to his office and read him the poem. His eyes teared. So did mine. I thanked him but it took me years to understand the power of the gift he’d given me. The gift I try to share whenever I can. 

Years later, I learned the poem, written in the mid-1930s, was about the Depression.
Decades later, I read Billy Collins: “They want to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” And I thanked my professor again for showing me how to fall in love with a poem.  

Last week, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson, about Paterson, a busdriver (played by Adam Driver), who creates poetry out of the miracles of everyday life. Each morning over his breakfast of Cheerios, he ponders the beauty and power of a humble Ohio Bluetip Matchbox and transforms it into the flame of his love for his wife. The poem (written by poet Ron Padgett) begins with these lines: 

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue tip . . .

Simple, concrete words. William Carlos Williams, the patron saint of the film, said, “No ideas but in things.” He called poetry, “a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.” 

Throughout the day Paterson eavesdrops on conversations, walks his dog, drinks at a neighborhood bar, and jots down his lines. Slowly, we see what it means to live life as an artist: to be here in this world, and simultaneously to be there in the world you’ve created. The artist merges the two. 

Every art teaches us how to see. It takes strands of reality and weaves them into something that makes others see what you see, and in the process helps them to see their own reality, transformed into a poem, a painting, a song, a story. Poetry shows us how to see the miracle in the matchbox. 

We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Art of the Writers Residency

                                                Rocaberti Castle
                                               
I've been to many writers residencies, and in fact, I'm looking forward to returning in late September to the wonderful Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. A writers residency can offer the priceless gifts of time and space to create, but it definitely helps to know how to prepare for one, and my friend Georgia Clark offers helpful tips below. Take it away, Georgia!


Abby Rodriguez, Georgia & me at Rocaberti


By Georgia Clark

Ruth and I met in a 14th century Spanish castle, a few hours north of Barcelona, on my sixth writers’ residency. I’d never been on a residency before moving from Sydney to New York, and stumbled across my first one (the wonderful Martha’s Vineyard residency) quite by accident. Now, I absolutely love them. Allow me to share my passion with you…

What the hell’s a writer’s residency?
An organized time and space for writers to work. Some are free, some cost money. (The free ones are generally the most competitive). Some include meals, some include one meal, some have a space for you to cook. Some are structured (our Spanish residency included time with a mentor), most are not. Some will be life-changing. All exemplify the adage ‘you get out what you put in’. They exist because writing is hard, community is important, people are generous, and hey—who doesn’t want to spend a few weeks somewhere gorgeous, bashing away in a room of one’s own?



How do I get in?
The application for a residency can be a lot of work (possibly including a writers resume, sample, outline of intended work and references), but once you’ve done one you can pretty much repurpose it for other residencies. Be as human and engaging in your project pitch as possible: explain why the work matters to you and what you’re about, really. Don’t be too formal. The magic of a good residency is about artists who think and feel, not business people who have perfect CVs. Overwhelmed by choice? Narrow it down to ones you can travel easily to, ones friends recommend (and might be a reference for; this helps), ones you can afford.

Find your ideal residency at Res Artis, Poets & Writers, Artist Communities or random Googling.

What do I prepare?
Great question, Georgia. Even though most writers’ residencies are self-directed, it’s a great idea to mentally and physically prepare for them. Decide well in advance what you’ll be working on, and set the bar high for yourself. At my last Martha’s Vineyard residency, I committed to writing the outline for my next novel, which was a big, unwieldy task that would’ve taken me three times at long in my usual, distraction-heavy environment. At the Obras residency in rural Portugal, I made the mistake of assuming I was there to polish what I thought was an almost-completed novel, only to hear back from my editor on Day 1 that is was an “okay” first draft. I wasn’t prepared for that and consequently spent a lot of time crying into large glasses of admittedly excellent port.

Alternatively, you might be on residency to relax and find inspiration: long solo walks, time away from the kids, etc. Again, set some goals for this: maybe you’ll commit to finding three great ideas for your next project.


Tips on having a great residency!
·      Join your fellow writers for at least one meal a day, ideally dinner. It’s a great way to take a break and make real connections. Pair up and take turns cooking meals.
·      Bring sleep aids and exercise gear. You’ll be mentally exhausted but not physically which can make it hard to sleep.
·      Disconnect from the outside world. Set up a vacation email and manage loved ones’ expectations of contact. Once phone call a day is fine, constant texting is not really the point.
·      Don’t worry about anyone else’s work. It can be easy to feel annoyed or jealous at how much or little other writers are doing or have achieved in their careers. Let it go. This is about you.
·      Know that there will be at least one crazy person. Give them a wide berth. Don’t get involved in drama; just enjoying gossiping about.
·      See something special as a group. To make it especially memorable, plan a group outing to see a local landmark/museum/bar. Being a good writer means having a good community.

Have fun! I’ve met wonderful people from all around the world in residencies; they really are one of the most fun parts about being a creative.



Share your tips, stories and advice about residencies in the comments below!

Georgia Clark is the author of THE REGULARS, forthcoming from Emily Bestler Books/Atria in August 2016. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @georgialouclark. Sign up for monthly writing tips at georgiaclark.com