Monday, October 3, 2016

Oh, the perils we face

Garfield Falls

Trailhead: N45 3.1032  W071 7.8642

In the New Hampshire woods you'll find what you're looking for. I seek high drama, preferably from a distance and especially this time of year. For instance, I like to feel the roar of the falls. That  thunder underfoot reorients the soul nicely. For extra impact, the spongy soil broadcasts the boom of the falls through a network of porous bone. The more grounded you are, in my case that means size 10 boots gripping the soil, the better to receive the full effect. And, yes, massive water still pours off the boulders, mushrooms push through the thin carpet of leaves and well-fed fox trot along, cocky as ever. As for the horny bull moose, they are gearing up....

I am interested in tenacity, which is probably why I see it everywhere. Here is a leaf that has fastened itself in the bough of a fir. Hang in there! Said leaf is unwilling to let go quite yet. Someone else will read this scene quite differently. Perhaps an artist will find that it is reminiscent of a dynamic composition: The leaf provides near garish relief amid so much brown and green.

This tree fungus is opportunistic. It found a weak spot, a canker on a sturdy trunk, and burrowed in. Perhaps the relationship is symbiotic but what I see, and I spot this intrusion from a great distance, is persistence. This little life form has found a place to dig in. Hurrah! In time it may compromise the tree. I wonder, though, how a fungus gets a foothold on a healthy tree? In time this tree will fall and cede its substance back to the soil from whence it came.

Not everything is deadly serious. I encounter frivolity here — stark white fungi sprouting milky frills all over the forest floor. Lighten up, everyone. Lose the drama for a second. Have some lunch!

Life hangs in the balance. There's no other way to interpret this wrenching struggle as the once great tree clings to the bank, tilting ever closer to the east branch of the Diamond River. I'm seeing that tenacity only gets you so far in some dire scenarios. On the other hand, what better way to explain this feat of balance than sheer tenacity?

Buried in a small crevasse, bounded on all sides by rock, a small brown mushroom prospers. Protected from the elements and rodent teeth, this little domed soldier digs in for the duration. 

Adios, little wonderland full of stories. Surely you'll have more after another winter in the North Country.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Why we need Natalie Goldberg

"In the past my most reliable elixir 
had been to continue under all circumstances."
                                           — Natalie Goldberg

Writing is work but I’d never suggest it is crushing work the way picking strawberries or replacing a transmission or sanding and repainting a house demands everything you have, often under brutal conditions like summer heat and humidity, an empty stomach or failing knees. Relatively speaking, writing is good work.  

In her new book, “The Great Spring: Writing, Zen and This Zigzag Life,” Natalie Goldberg says, “Being a writer is not easy. Layers of skin are yanked off.”

I suppose so, but that kind of discomfort comes easy to me. I hardly need to write to feel like I’m being skinned alive. One reason we hear so much about this profession is because it’s made up of writers. And they can be rather expressive.

The act of writing is the best part of a writing profession. You sit quietly and think. You’re in an orb of possibilities. You’re ripe! Ideas and words stream through, yours for the plucking. Some writers put these words on paper and some use a keyboard. Some dictate, especially when they break something in their hand or arm. Inside a writer’s head (or anyone’s head, to be honest) is a vast fantasyland where anything can happen. You just have to organize these scenarios a bit and then get them onto the page. I find writing to be fun, especially when I disconnect from self-consciousness, expectations, doubt and fear.

But getting to writing can be quite difficult. We all know the house has to be clean, the desk dusted and the interruptions blocked. We can’t write after an argument, after a hard day at work or after sex. We can’t write when our husband is in the hospital or when we’ve got nothing planned for dinner or when we realize we’ve got to get the dishes done before friends come by for cocktails. We can’t write with a headache. We can’t write when we’re sleepy or crabby. We can’t write when the TV’s on. We can’t write through Facebook notifications, text message alerts or ringing phones. We can’t write when we have poison ivy. We can’t write when an ambulance pulls up to the neighbor’s house or when we spill coffee in the keyboard.

Fear not. Goldberg has figured it out for us.

“Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.”

Really, that’s all there is to say. She could have spared herself the work of a whole book since she wrote these two lines on page xiii of her introduction. “Continue under all circumstances. No excuses.” I bought the book because of these two lines. I needed to know I’m not the only one battling circumstances.

Writing gets us all balled up because we know we have to write a lot all the time and we have to write every day if we are ever to perfect our craft or keep the momentum going in our writing projects.

I like Natalie Goldberg’s book. Here’s a link to my review (or go to the end of this post). Maybe she has to dramatize the writing trade a bit because she makes her living, in part, talking about writing as a practice, like she talks about Zen as a practice. Zen is harder than writing. On Zen retreats you eat watery soup sporting the occasional scallion and sit cross-legged, back straight, for hours. You try to solve koans, which make your brain ache and your self-confidence hurt. And Zen masters can be tougher than readers who skewer writers’ work, their pens dripping red ink.

Goldberg’s book is about writing, in passing. It’s really about living among friends while maintaining two demanding disciplines. She’s a strong, adventurous woman. She values friendships. She loves reading and writing. We go on hikes with her as she thinks about Zen and gets perilously lost, we learn about a doctor’s diagnosis she calls “hard,” we travel to various parts of the world with her and we find out, almost in passing, that her mother neglected her. I especially enjoyed reading about Goldberg’s travels in Japan, about her surprising time in a Zen monastery, and about her obsessive reading of “Musashi,” a book about a great Japanese sword fighter. She found the book while in Japan and read it on a train to the exclusion of all else. This travel with Musashi growing in her heart is a very nice piece of writing. Here Goldberg describes the aftermath of Musashi’s victory over his greatest rival and her reaction as she reads:

Musashi walks the ten paces over to the prone body and kneels. No sign of anguish or regret on Ganryu’s face. Only satisfaction at having fought a good fight. This man is the most valiant of all Musashi’s adversaries. Never in his life would he meet another opponent like this. He bows. The battle is over.

I am crying uncontrollably. Nose running, I grope for a tissue I do not have.

But Musashi’s victory proves nothing. More people want to challenge him. His only resolve lies in the depth of his heart. He knows the confused mind is a shadow that people beat their heads against.

My head jerked up. Where was Michèle?

Michèle, her traveling companion, had already left the train and Goldberg was going to have to backtrack to find her though she couldn’t understand the language or the signage.

I read to the end of “The Great Spring,” wondering where we’d land. “If we can stand still and attentive in our lives and not run away, even right in the middle of the ruins, we will find fertile ground.”

She’s talking about living but she’s also talking about writing.

Hold still. Be quiet. Pay attention. Now, write.

And, all you sensitive writers out there, try to hang on to your skin.

Here’s the book review, which ran in GateHouse Media newspapers and websites.

30-year anniversary of ‘Writing Down the Bones’

The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life
By Natalie Goldberg. Shambhala, Boulder, 2016. 207 pages. $22.95.

Many hold Natalie Goldberg in their hearts as their first, or perhaps most important, writing guru. And many will appreciate her newest book, a circling back to the essentials — writing and practice. Things are more nuanced now, with timely considerations about living and the end of living. In Zen as in life, it’s best not to forget where we’re headed.

Thirty years ago Natalie Goldberg published her first and most widely read book on writing, “Writing Down the Bones.” She’s written many books since, including memoir, books on writing, fiction and poetry. She also made the documentary film, with Mary Feidt, “Tangled Up in Bob: Searching for Bob Dylan.” An anniversary edition of “Writing Down the Bones” has just been released along with this new book of essays, “The Great Spring: Writing, Zen, and This Zigzag Life.”

Goldberg, now in her late sixties, maintains two practices, Zen and writing, and she frequently teaches at workshops and retreats in the United States and abroad. Goldberg is a hiker, a good friend, an abstract painter, a knowledgeable reader and a fine essayist. In her short pieces, she comes to readers a robust, adventurous, self-aware and strong woman with clear boundaries. She lets us know she’s also just begun dealing with a serious health issue she declines to name outright. This admission, in the introduction, opens a vulnerability that deepens the scope of her considerations. When she writes, toward the end of the book, that longtime students used to warn newer ones that she is not warm and fuzzy, readers have already figured that out. Her boundaries protect the vulnerable part of her. “… I felt like [my students] would eat me alive.”

There are lots of reasons to read this book. Writers and Buddhists will recognize the struggles of a kindred spirit. Students of the essay will admire each piece’s ambitious range — the “zigzag” — before homing in. Readers, artists and and fans of the arts will like her spirit as she heads right to the source to learn more about someone like Cormac McCarthy or Robert Zimmerman a k a Bob Dylan. Students of human nature will see a strong woman take change and wrestle for an advantage. Maybe you want courage. “Continue under all circumstances,” she says about writing. “No excuses.” Why read further than this, on the third page of the introduction? All of the above.

I suspect Goldberg has found ways to handle second thoughts because she regularly takes courageous stands and remains standing. In “Losing Katherine” she mentions that she wrote a book titled “The Great Failure” about her Zen teacher sleeping with his students. She says that people didn’t want her to write this book and one of her dearest friends, Katherine, became estranged for four years because she didn’t like the book. This essay presents a beautiful portrait of Katherine who dies after a fall. “We are no different from a flower, I think. It gives off its radiance—then dies.” Goldberg then concludes with a haiku she wrote.

“Lost Purse” is fun and shares a couple of good lessons. Goldberg loses her purse during a writing workshop she’s leading one weekend in Lenox, Mass. We are treated to her key message to writers, one she promises them if they find her purse. The essay concludes with a second message, one that requires a sense of humor and a bit more thought.

In “Another New year” we are stopped in our tracks when Goldberg reconsiders her lifelong “elixir,” as she calls it. “In the past my most reliable elixir had been to continue under all circumstances. But now the biting thought: someday no circumstances will exist.”

We all nod yes as she continues, “Daily life is so seductive: we believe if we keep moving we can finally catch up, get our bills paid for all time.”

The three essays I cited come from the back of the book — Losing. There are other sections less concerned with loss and death. They are daily life under the microscope, and they nudge us further on. We are ready for Losing when we get there.

Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at Read her blog at or follow her @RaeAF.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Self-publishing? Don't do this. And this. And this...

Readers start early. 
They know a good book when they see one.

Let’s call him Joe. 

Joe writes a novel about a father-son fishing trip gone horribly awry when his son Josh disappears at dusk. Dad gets impossibly lost searching the back country for Josh. Wouldn’t you know, Josh resurfaces a week later, having taken refuge in another fisherman’s cabin that had been stocked with a few cans of beans and tuna. Why he stays a whole week is a mystery. On top of that, no one can find Dad.

And Joe can’t find an agent. He emails his book to a slew of agents, unsolicited, before giving up and going straight to the publishers. The publishers reply to Joe’s “Cabin Fever” query with a standard ‘thank you but no thank you.’

Joe believes in his mystery-thriller and decides to publish on his own.

Here’s where the real drama begins.

Jillian Keenan is doing a great job getting the word out 
about her new memoir, "Sex With Shakespeare." 
She knows how to connect with people. 
Even her editor showed up to support her at her 
recent reading at Half King in NYC. 

Joe, kudos to you for believing in your work and investing your hard-earned money in self-publishing your book. Please. Don’t make the following mistakes. Mistakes like the ones I’m about to list will almost certainly guarantee that no one other than your mother will read your book or take it seriously.

  • Don’t copyedit and proofread the book yourself. Even professional editors and writers know they must hire professionals to scour their book not once but several times before committing it to print. I’ve received numerous review copies of self-published books with hard-to-ignore typos. Once, I got a phone call from an author asking me to toss the book into the trash and wait for a new printed version because there was a typo on the back cover.
  • Don’t format the book yourself. You need a professional graphic designer who specializes in book production to create a readable format. 
  • Don’t design the cover yourself just because you own a copy of Publisher. Covers sell print books and ebooks. Invest in a professional graphic designer with cover design experience. 
  • Don’t do anything until you have a solid marketing plan you’ve run by some savvy authors and marketers. If you make a book you want to sell it, right? 
  • Don’t query book reviewers with incomplete sentences, misspelled words or a recommendation from your pastor.
  • Don’t create a website that fails to have an “about this book” page. In fact, the book should be front and center. If you’re going to nab a reader, you won’t do it on the merits of your bio. It’s going to be because they are interested in the book. And don’t create a website that has not been copyedited. And don’t launch an unsightly or clunky website. Hire a professional or use Squarespace or some other program that makes ugly close to impossible.
  • Don’t use a photograph of yourself taken at your bachelor party, Joe. That’s just wrong. 
  • Don’t expect your local independent bookstore to carry your book. Shelf space is a gift, not a given. Chances are, and this is sad, no bookstore will carry your book. Even authors with traditional publishers can’t get their books in bookstores for more than a couple of weeks, at best. Thousands of books are published every month. “Cabin Fever” has a short shelf life, no matter what. That’s why you need a marketing plan with a reliance on alternative methods of sale including Internet sales.
  • Don’t fail to express gratitude every time someone reaches out a helping hand. That includes book store proprietors, librarians and your ever-loving mother. Kudos to Mom. There’s almost no such thing as an entitled author, just unschooled wannabes who don’t understand how the game works.

If you don't have a winning personality or you tend 
to bully librarians and bookstore proprietors, 
consider playing with kittens.

In conclusion, self-publishing holds a valuable place in the making of books. But at this time, these books can still look and feel self-published. If so, “Cabin Fever” is doomed. If you want your book to have a fighting chance, it must look professional, handsome and hard-to-resist.

Self-published authors can be at a disadvantage unless they come from a publishing background because they don’t understand what it takes to put out a quality work. Agents and editors provide a much-needed reality check on all things publishing, from editing to marketing to behavior in bookstores. If you don’t have an agent at your side helping you find your way, you owe it to your work and your investment to find out what a professional author needs to do to get the book noticed and sold.

Joe, if you want people to find “Cabin Fever,” please do everything in your power to make sure the book doesn’t wind up in a landfill, a mess of typos. And Joe, you are your book’s key emissary. Be tactical, yes, but be gracious as you go. Otherwise, forget it.