Cities of Women, a novel



I may have been silent about my writing for some time, but I have not been inactive.

Just returned from an eight-day writing residency on Enders Island, Connecticut, a program sponsored by Fairfield University as part of the M.F.A. in creative writing, which I began this summer. (Yes, you read that correctly. I have begun graduate studies in creative writing on the cusp of my 70th birthday. Why not?)

I’ve had a novel in mind for more than a decade and I am finally getting it into shape, with the help of excellent faculty guidance and collegial support.

Here’s the concept:

While researching Christine de Pizan’s manuscripts, Prof. Verity Frazier stumbles upon evidence indicating some of the most beautiful designs in the collection have been the handiwork of a woman. The novel flashes back to the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries to recreate an imagined relationship between Christine de Pizan and Héloise Tapis, a remarkable woman employed by de Pizan to illuminate her manuscripts.

The obstacles facing these women in the past reverberate into the present as the novel returns to the 21st century when Prof. Frazier confronts resistance to her efforts to document Tapis’s significance in Pizan studies.

Exploring themes of religious scandal, political corruption, catastrophic disease, and gender and class conflict through the lens of an era the historian Barbara Tuchman called “a distraught age whose rules were breaking down under the pressure of adverse and violent events,” the story tracks a time remarkably similar to our present.

Parchment

The research has been an extraordinary experience for me, taking me to the Morgan Library, where I learned about parchment production, and the British library in London, whose collections of Christine’s works provide the setting for some of the novel’s contemporary scenes.

Page of Christine’s MSS, British Library.

But it’s the imaginative process of writing that will engage me fully in the coming months, as I develop further the voice, character, and structure with which to tell this story. I have had the expert guidance of Eugenia Kim, whose novel writing workshop at Enders spurred me further into the development of my craft. And I will be working with Karen Osborn this fall on structure and voice in the novel.

Stay tuned for further updates.

 

Loss and Mourning and Beginning Again



It seems loss and mourning intend to remain my regular companions on and off the stage. Last month, in my new play, The Origin of the Seasons, I plumbed these subjects. They returned with an unexpected alacrity to trouble my thinking.

A few weeks ago, my brother-in-law lost a brief, valiant battle with brain cancer. He was gone before any of us could even wrap our minds around his diagnosis.

After a keen and graceful marriage of 42 years, my sister’s wounded heart needs special healing. She’s found solace in revisiting family photo albums; a few books (Chasing Daylight by Eugene O’Kelly among them) offered insight into what her husband was experiencing. Like O’Kelly, my sister told me, her husband tried to make the most of his last months of life: giving away special things to people and groups he loved, visiting with close family and friends. And laughing a lot. He even made a list of who not to invite to his memorial!

“For a guy who led a quiet life,” my sister said, “he suddenly wanted to be visited by more and more people; he created a very busy social calendar to manage. It was exhausting. But I understand now why it mattered so much to him. He was preparing to leave. It was exactly what he needed to do.”

I’m grateful I could be with her during the shocking first days following her husband’s death. As she tried to keep putting one foot after another along this uneven new path in that ever-unpredictable journey we call “life,” we busied ourselves with details—financial matters, writing the obituary, planning the celebration of his life.

One morning, my sister pointed to the tiny Chinese Elm Bonsai her husband had tended so carefully for a dozen years.

“Have you noticed what’s happening to his Bonsai?”

I hadn’t.

“I’ve done everything as he instructed. Watered it lightly and not too frequently. But it must know; on some deep cellular level it’s connected to him. Because it’s dying now too.”

I watched in amazement over the next few days as the tiny tree’s leaves continued to fade from bright green to dust.

I finished reading Oliver Sacks’ memoir, On The Move: A Life, while I stayed with my sister. It’s a lucid appraisal of Sacks’ life and work, including this latest, and last, stage, of his having terminal cancer.

Never having given much thought to death or dying, even though he had “lost all three of [his] elder brothers, as well as many friends and contemporaries,” Sacks describes being thrown from one extreme emotion to another—“from terror to relief, then back to terror”—during the course of his initial treatments. He was able to keep the cancer at bay for nearly nine years. But recently he learned it had metastasized to his liver. As he wrote in the New York Times opinion pages, “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”

So much prevents or distracts from rich, deep living; so much enables us to ignore mortality. Perhaps we must ignore it, at least for some important part of the unknown time we walk on this earth.

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity. (George Eliot, Middlemarch)

Yet, paradoxically, to ignore it altogether is equally, fatally perilous.

The Origin of the Seasons will be performed at Unity Santa Barbara in Santa Barbara on June 7th (2015) at 7 P.M. in a reprisal by the original cast from Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy.

Red City Reviews Picks Diving for Pearls as Finalist in Ongoing Book Award Contest!



Screen Shot 2014-10-10 at 11.00.39 AMI am thrilled to report that Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, has been chosen by the reviewers at Red City Review as a finalist in its first annual book award contest. I received an email from them this morning, announcing the finalists. Winners in each category, and the grand prize winner, will be announced on December 1st.

I almost didn’t open the link included in the email. It was one of those days where trying to keep myself focused on several things at once, coupled with (I admit it), the unbearable weight of several recent disappointments, made me hesitate for several minutes before clicking onto the web site. I couldn’t resist shouting as I scrolled to the list of finalists in memoirs—there was Diving for Pearls!!

Two weeks ago, in San Diego, I gave a talk as the September guest speaker to the San Diego Writers and Editors Guild Meeting about my journey as a writer and independent publisher. “You have to keep writing, keep marketing, keep getting your book into public view. And, stay clear about your vision for your book!” In my talk, I offered a number of pointers, including finding sites to have your book receive a literary review, and those that might be having awards contests. Red City Review was one of the places I recommended. What a delight to be able to see my book listed as a finalist.

My upcoming trip to Sweden is around the corner and I am trying to keep track of at least three different strands of thinking in my head:

  1. About the two academic papers I am completing, one for a workshop on “Love Studies” in the Collegium of GEXcel, which is “a collaboration that brings together the Centre for Gender Studies (CGF) at Karlstad University, Tema Genus at Linköping University and the Centre for Feminist Social Studies at Örebro University., and another for a presentation on my research on Hannah Arendt, co-sponsored by the GEXcel and the Centre for Feminist Social Studies (That track clearly has two byways!).
  2. About marketing my new book, Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, including getting the word out via reviews, submissions to book competitions, and other venues.
  3. About organizing my files and clothes for the trip, which on the way back will include two more lectures on Diving for Pearls, one at Union College, Schnectady, New York on Nov. 3, and the other at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut on Nov. 4.

Today’s news was a welcome boost of spirits and energized me to get on with the remaining tasks, while looking forward to seeing my friends and colleagues in the gorgeous fall colors that will surely be gracing of Sweden in mid-October and likely still be on display on the east coast a few weeks later.

My good friend, Anna Jonasdottir and I, sharing a laugh.

My good friend, Anna G. Jónasdóttir, Senior Professor of Gender Studies, ÖU, and I, share a laugh. And who said feminists have no sense of humor!

 

 

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