Author Archives: Denise

The Company of One

Solitude
I wonder, sometimes, if our children ever will appreciate how lucky they are to grow up in an age when it’s easier than ever to find your tribe. As a young girl, it was almost impossible for me to indulge my passion for all things geeky. Comic-Con was in its infancy and still on the fringe, so if I wanted to talk about Star Wars, or dress up as Mighty Mouse or Spiderman or Batman, I most certainly could have, but I knew it meant I’d be bullied into the next galaxy or fictional universe. There were few kids who shared my interests and fewer still who were willing to join me in crossing the then-solid lines of gender norms.

To make matters worse, I grew up in a Brooklyn, N.Y. neighborhood in the midst of a massive flight to the suburbs. It seemed anytime I made a connection with someone, they were gone by the next school year. Most of my closest friends moved away by the time I was 8. My classmate who shared my love of literature and writing disappeared around fifth grade. Another who could discuss with me endlessly the finer points of the previous night’s The Dukes of Hazzard episode never made it to junior high.

What this meant was that I spent an inordinate amount of time alone during those early years of adolescence. It came up in conversation recently with a friend whose parents moved him to a new neighborhood and school at that same precious age—that time when you’re forming your identity both with and against a larger circle of friends. We agreed we both suffered, albeit in different ways. My understanding of myself was very much as an outsider, if not an outcast. I went to the mall by myself. I walked down to the point of Breezy Point, N.Y. alone on stunning summer days more times than I care to admit. I also rode my bike solo through Marine Park, mostly on Sunday afternoons, when there was likely to be less traffic on the city streets.

Sometimes I felt I was living in a John Hughes film, and I wondered when or whether I’d eventually fit in somewhere. I held out hope that maybe the Jake Ryan to my Samantha Baker, (à la Sixteen Candles), would pull up in his red Porsche and not only give me that look, but that he would actually see me. Almost 30 years later, that’s one fantasy of mine that has yet to be fulfilled.

What happened, instead, wasn’t planned or expected. I still blossomed—though I was a predictably late bloomer—and I became very much myself, but not in any sort of traditional way. Forced solitude is not something I’d recommend, even though it’s incomparable for building character. On all those days when I longed for meaningful companionship, I found I had no choice but to feel into the emptiness. I brought a radio or cassette player with me everywhere and listened to the moodiest possible music I could find. Sometimes I even allowed myself to cry. That is when I began to find solace in my surroundings. I noticed the gulls skimming the Atlantic shoreline. I admired the dignity and determination of elderly women as they passed by in their headscarves pushing shopping carts with unbalanced wheels. I developed an appreciation of sunsets. I learned to embrace the quiet of New York City streets late on a Sunday—the only time during the week when such silence was even imaginable. At an unusually early age, I discovered how to appreciate the essence of a place beneath its everyday sights and sounds.

There was no way I could have known then that for all I thought I had lost, I was gaining in a far greater sense: I was cultivating my strong emotions, developing sharp powers of observation, but mostly, building deep empathy. Every one of those things was preparing me for a future I could not see.

Even though my life now is rich and full with many dear friends and loved ones, I continue to take my walks alone. I’ll get on my bike late in the day just about every Sunday. As I’m riding through the streets of my suburban town, I hear the occasional clink of dishes through an open window. The smell of dryer sheets permeates the air. I see more birds and deer than people. Sometimes I’ll bring along my moody music, sometimes not. And when I do, that’s generally my only companion.

None of it makes me sad or wistful, as it once did. In fact, I relish those hours of pure presence. Because even in my solitude, never, ever do I feel alone.

Dinners with Darth (or The Dark Side of Novel Writing)

Darth
For Christmas my son received a 1,000-piece Star Wars puzzle. Being a total Star Wars geek, I enthusiastically volunteered to help him put it together. We began in hyperdrive, assembling the border and Darth Vader’s white-hot light saber in just a few hours. Darth’s helmet and armor emerged during the holiday week, with only a few pieces missing. By mid-January, we hadn’t made much more progress, and I decided we’d had enough dinners with Darth at our dining room table. I slid the puzzle onto a sheet of cardboard and brought it up to my bedroom, where Darth remained on the floor for several months watching me sleep with his one completed eye.

A few weeks ago, annoyed by walking past an unfinished puzzle every morning and night—and more than a little creeped out by the unwanted visitor in my room—I invited Darth back to the table. My son examined the puzzle for about five minutes before deciding he was done. I was more determined, plus I wanted to set a good example. We finish what we start. Every chance I had, I combed the pile of puzzle pieces looking for the slightest variation in color or pattern on each one that might give a clue to its place among the whole. I made slow progress, separating like pieces into plastic bags and identifying parts of Darth’s belt and the flames that climbed up his cape. Both of my children asked me repeatedly not to inspect the puzzle (or the contents of the sorted bags) while we ate meals. It was impossible to resist. It was always in those off moments, when I wasn’t entirely paying attention, that I suddenly noticed an unusual tab and simultaneously spotted the blank into which it might fit.

It is now almost July, and the puzzle remains half finished in spite of our best efforts. It seemed like a perfect metaphor for where I’ve found myself in the process of writing my first novel. Novel writing most certainly is like tackling a complicated jigsaw puzzle. There are the parts that come together effortlessly in the initial rush of enthusiasm. The rest? Let’s be honest: It’s a slog. There’s a reason writers often quote Dorothy Parker’s famous phrase, “I hate writing, I love having written.”

Writing well, so that every piece is in its place, is no simple endeavor. The puzzle of my novel hasn’t opened to me fully in spite of having a full draft finished for about a year. I’ve also had to “clear the table,” in this case my desk, to allow for other priorities over the course of these last 12 months. As for the remaining pieces, I suspect they’re going to be like those hundreds of nearly identical chips that belong who-knows-where on Darth’s imposing personage. I’m sure I’ll be scrutinizing both the puzzle and the words I’ve written for countless hours more. Because somewhere at the end of those hours, a perfected whole exists. Even if I can’t yet see it.

How Much History is Too Much?

NovelSourcesThere probably are few things as important to a novelist as his or her beta readers. Those are some of the first people to whom we entrust our precious words and fragile egos. They are the ones who hold our hands as we emerge from the deep caverns of the creative process. They remind us that we’ll soon see light—if we haven’t already—and they reassure us our work will, too, even if it requires a little more time and thought.

I’m blessed with some wonderful beta readers in my local writer’s group. We call ourselves the Salonistas. In truth, we’re five suburban moms who cook and clean and shuttle children to their activities in the afternoons. But for the few hours we meet each month, we’re fueling our artistic and intellectual spirits with vibrant conversation. (Not to mention a lot of coffee and tea!)

As I’ve been sharing with them the first draft of my historical novel, an interesting question has arisen: How much history does a reader need in a story? And how much prior knowledge should a writer assume? It’s a fascinating concern, and one certainly appropriate to a literary salon. I’m writing about recent history—primarily World Wars I and II and the post-war period—so I’m expecting readers will be reasonably familiar with the main events and personalities of that time. One of the critiques I received from one of my writing partners was that she wanted more detail about a particular occurrence that I glossed over in a sentence or two. It was a conscious decision on my part. As I was writing, I felt most people knew what happened anyway, and I worried too much explanation would hamper the story’s pace. Also, I think we’ve all read fiction where the author seemed to be performing an encyclopedia dump. Even if your audience is comprised entirely of doctoral candidates in history, they still deserve better. Regardless, she felt readers would benefit not simply from having more detail about the event in question, but also from knowing how it impacted the protagonist. What’s more, in true salon fashion, she argued her point quite effectively. Back to the cave for me.

Could I place my main character at the center of historic events in the case she cited? Absolutely. There is precedent for it, and it would be plausible. However, I don’t want him to become Forrest Gump. There are other occurrences later in the book where he will be very close to the real-life action. I’d prefer those scenes have more credibility, and therefore, a greater impact. One thing that I can and will do is to include more of his interior monologue. There’s a fine balance between art and reality when writing historical fiction. Perhaps I’ve erred in having too light of a hand.

Interestingly, I’ve discovered that our conversations usually lead to more questions, and answering those questions leads to even further discussion. History is so full and rich, and it informs so much of who we are and what we’ve become. In my mind, there never can be too much of it, but of course, I’m limited by time and the page. Luckily, I’m being guided by some ridiculously smart and savvy readers.

The Stop I Almost Missed

Twenty years ago this month I boarded a plane for Paris to embark on a timeworn rite of passage. With a small, rolling suitcase in tow and the typical, myopic worldview of an American youth, I spent the next several weeks touring eight European cities in five countries. It was, without question, a defining experience—an opportunity to see what lay beyond my upbringing and all I was taught, a chance to push against my edges and discover my boundaries along with my boundlessness.

Looking back it is unthinkable that I chose to skip Hamburg, my grandfather’s birthplace. No one in my family had returned to Germany, let alone Hamburg, since he left in 1931. Fate, however, refused to allow such a glaring omission from my itinerary. On the way from Vienna to Copenhagen, I was forced into a four-hour layover while changing trains at the Hamburg Hauptbahnhof. I resented the disruption in my plans, but used the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the city and to take some pictures for my mother and grandmother to see. At the time I kept a diary on tape, and as we chugged alongside the mass of brick warehouses known as the Speicherstadt, I whispered into the microphone that I spotted a river, but did not know the name. As I listened to that recording a few weeks ago in preparation for this blog post, I was stunned to discover I knew nothing about the Elbe, not even its name. For the past five years the Elbe River, the entryway to Europe’s third largest port and the lifeblood of Hamburg, has been at the center of my writing and research.

I regret how poorly I used those precious hours. I took the dubious advice of some Army cadets I met at the Hofbrauhaus in Munich and hopped on an S-Bahn train to Reeperbahn. It took but moments to realize I was in the middle of the Red Light district. “I’ll never have another St. Pauli Girl beer now that I know what a St. Pauli girl is,” I breathlessly told my recorder as I walked back to the safety of the S-Bahn station. It was, of course, a slight exaggeration. I clicked the tape on again moments later with a truer sentiment: “How will I ever tell my mother what this city is really like?”

On returning to the Hauptbahnhof, the central station, I accidentally stepped off the train too early and landed in a shopping district I likened to New York’s Fifth Avenue. I wished I had found it sooner. But even with this somewhat better impression of Hamburg, the city still felt sterile, drab, lifeless. I felt no connection with the streets, the buildings, the people, the water. Surprisingly modern and somewhat disjointed, Hamburg possessed not the least bit soul or vital essence of the other cities I visited, and I was thankful not to have wasted even a day of my trip there.

Of course, I didn’t know then what a rich history my family had in Hamburg. It was years later that I learned the truth about my heritage and that my ancestors had been among the leaders of the Jewish community in Hamburg and Altona dating back to the 1600s. As I unearthed my family’s hidden past, I became especially surprised by the disconnectedness I felt during my brief stay.

My recent research has offered one possible explanation: Perhaps it was because the Hamburg my grandfather left behind in the 1930s was not the one I encountered in 1995. The soul of a city lives not only in its residents, but also in its landscape, its architecture. It’s embedded in the stone, the steel, the cement, the soil. During World War II, Hamburg was almost completely destroyed under some of the heaviest artillery deployed by the Allies at any point during the war. The week-long bombings, known as Operation Gomorrah, killed 42,000 people and wiped out more than half of the city. Hundreds of years of history were lost, replaced by new streets, new structures, and inevitably, new stories.

I’ve since checked maps of the wreckage. Among the ruins was the elegant, neoclassical apartment building owned by my great-grandparents. If ever I return to Hamburg—and I hope I will—visiting their former address will be one of the first items on my itinerary. Today a parking lot stands in that exact location. But the absence of any landmark, some trace of the past, is almost incidental. As I’ve learned over the years, even the things we can’t see or touch inevitably shape who we are and who we become.

Fact and Historical Fiction

IMG_1626There are many things I miss about college, but footnoting research papers is not one. I’m old enough to have used a typewriter, which meant the inevitable missed key, followed by pints of Wite-Out and plenty of finagling with the platen. (Historical note: That’s the roller that feeds the paper.) There was a time, usually at 3 a.m. and only halfway through a 20-page thesis, when I thought “ibid.” was positively the greatest invention of any language. Still, I was a stickler for accuracy and documenting sources. As a dual major in newspaper journalism and history, I felt the responsibility of both to get things right.

Mercifully, those days are long past. In writing historical fiction, there is no need to prove I learned about the growth and development of Barranquilla, Colombia by studying a 1935 Pan American Union pamphlet. Most people probably won’t care that I’m reading the private memoirs of a Warburg family member to give an accurate rendering of upper-class domestic life in pre-WWII Germany. The details are important, yes, but what will matter ultimately is whether I can tell a compelling tale.

Facts are what make historical fiction, even if truth is superfluous to storytelling. Put another way, a ship need not be watertight to remain afloat. Screenwriters and moviemakers tend to ride particularly leaky boats when it comes to historical accuracy. Just look at the recent controversy over the movie, Selma. Historians called out the producers, writer and director for their false portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role in the Civil Rights movement and his relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. A perhaps even larger and more emotional debate arose years ago over Oliver Stone’s JFK. Both films still received critical acclaim amidst the criticisms.

So what responsibility then do artists have to readers or viewers when portraying real people and real events? It depends. Authenticity of period and place and an accurate timeline are essential. Anachronisms and incorrect details simply break the spell of a good story. (Just because Shakespeare got away with it, doesn’t mean the rest of us should.) In the novel I’m currently writing I’ve taken some liberty, mostly because certain things are unknowable, but mainly because my intent is to portray some larger truths. It’s clear my story is entirely fictionalized, but also, I feel 100 percent comfortable with the deviations I’ve made because they’re based in solid research. If pressed, I could write a footnoted thesis about the actual history of the people and milieus I’ve chosen. But can I tell you how relieved I am that I don’t have to? The notes would be as long as the paper!

Any historical fiction, regardless of the medium, owes something both to past participants and present consumers. One of the wonderful things about living in 2015—and not at another point in history—is that we’ve developed technology that allows us to openly debate what happened and what didn’t. With a few clicks of a mouse or taps on a screen, the reader or viewer can dig deeper and learn more about the actual history, as well as the motives and intent of the artist portraying it. Just look at the articles, videos and tourism spawned by PBS’s Downton Abbey series. As a fan, I was engrossed by a documentary with the show’s historical adviser examining Edwardian manners and how they are conveyed to the actors. The History Channel miniseries Sons of Liberty has sparked a lively discussion online about the difference between historical fiction, docudrama and alternate history—important distinctions that should be made in evaluating any fictionalization. As a writer and a huge history geek, I can only believe these are good things.

Arguments about historical accuracy are sure to continue as long as artists turn fact into fiction. Even historians armed with reams of footnotes can find themselves at odds. But if there is one truth upon which everyone can agree, then it’s probably this: The best historical dramatists are inevitably the ones who have done their homework.

Reclaiming a Lost Legacy

LetterSnippet2

The letter sat at the bottom of my mother’s closet inside an old shopping bag, tossed among yellowed photographs, her Cuban passport and her American citizenship papers. It was written in German, a language she didn’t speak, but she kept it because it was addressed to her father, who died in 1961 when my mom was only 19. It was one of the few possessions of his that made it with her to the United States when she left Cuba.

Years went by and life got in the way, as it so often does. Any curiosity she had about the letter’s contents wasn’t enough for her to take the time and trouble to have it translated.  She might have even forgotten about it if we hadn’t tracked down lost relatives of his in Colombia who shared our German roots.

Faded and crumbling, the letter was addressed to my grandfather from his sister in 1949. Its contents must have rocked him to the core. Sixty years later, it had that exact impact on my mom and on me as we read the translation. Two of his aunts were murdered at Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp. That meant my mother’s great aunts were killed in the Holocaust. It meant I, too, was descended from Jews exterminated by Nazis.

Most sons, daughters, nieces and nephews of Holocaust victims and survivors live with that knowledge all of their lives. It becomes part of their identity. Also, most are almost certainly Jewish. We are not. My grandfather was Lutheran. My mother is Cuban American and Catholic. I am half Cuban, half Italian and was raised Catholic. But the fact of my baptism doesn’t change the truth of my family history: I am a 3G or “third-generation” survivor.

As I’m close to finishing a novel based loosely on my grandfather’s life, I’ve given a lot of thought to what it means to be writing about Jews and the Holocaust without actually being Jewish. It’s a quandary similar to that faced by any author when writing about an ethnic group or race that is not one’s own—but not exactly. The legacy handed to me is as legitimate as that of someone who has lit Shabbos candles or attended synagogue their whole lives. Regardless of what religion I practice, no matter how I’m seen or even how I identify myself, all the branches of our family tree that extend from that point have been shaped in some way by the experience of anti-Semitism, displacement, hate. My own story, in fact, has been influenced not by one, but by two diasporas—Germany in the 1930s and Cuba in the 1960s.

It is likely my grandfather left Germany in 1931 at least in part because his father was Jewish. He certainly never returned. As a writer, I find myself returning for him, reawakening a memory he intentionally put to rest. It’s a lesser-told story of the Holocaust, but certainly no less real.

No Boxes

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I did a little experiment earlier this year. I posted a rather sexy selfie on Facebook. Anyone who knows me well knows a) that is not at all like me and b) my account certainly must have been hijacked. I only became a proponent of the selfie within the past year, and now have been using it to explore, well, myself.

Is that woman in the fitted black dress posed provocatively in the mirror really me? Yes. And no. This is not at all the image I’ve cultivated over the years, although the form in the photo is unequivocally mine. There are a lot of sides to me, as there are to most people. There’s the mother, the wife, the journalist, the aspiring historical novelist. They live inside of me alongside the athlete, the dancer, the sultry señorita (she’s surprisingly shy), and the Brooklyn native who blasts hip hop and rap music in the car.

When I told a friend about my decision to share a photo that normally would be completely outside my comfort zone, she responded with two words, “No boxes.” All I could think was how I wished someone would have said those words to me years ago. No boxes. Don’t put yourself in a box. You’ve got a little bit of Barbara Walters and some Shakira inside of you? Great! You like the Beastie Boys and classical music? Wow! You’re really well rounded!

If you viewed my recent YouTube history, it would look something like this: TED talk, Pitbull song, historic newsreel, documentary, dance instructions and how to make Turkish coffee. If I’m completely honest, there might also be a Star Wars clip in there somewhere. Too weird? I’m willing to bet the majority of us have similar dichotomies. (Dichotomies? Ha. A $10 word. That’s definitely the journalist talking.)

As I explore themes of identity in my writing, and especially in my novel, I’m constantly reminded how we’re not always seen as we would like to be seen, and rarely are we seen as we truly are. People view you through their own lens of belief and experience, which tends to be limiting and hardly ever takes into account that we all are far more complex than we appear. Knowing this, we sometimes typecast ourselves before anyone can do it for us. We preassemble our own boxes to ensure that we’re understood, accepted, even loved.

For me that meant hiding for years behind glasses and 600-page history books to ensure I was taken seriously. Allowing people to peek behind that persona hasn’t been quite as scary as I thought it would be. In fact, it made me feel more comfortable with being both studious and a little sassy.

As a writer and an artist, it’s my job to think outside the box. After all these years I’ve begun living there, too. What a different world this would be if we all felt safe enough to do the same.

 

Artwork: Livingston (N.J.) Youth and Community Services Mirror Project

The Art of the Journey

PathAbout a decade ago, frazzled from working at home with an infant and toddler, I decided to take a day for myself. I could have gone for a massage or hit the mall, but instead, I did something that at the time was entirely uncharacteristic: I went to a retreat center for a labyrinth walk.

It was an odd choice for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m a city girl and normally feel the greatest comfort when swaddled in activity. But it wasn’t so much that I was needed a break from the noise in my life (though I could have done without the crying and whining). What I was trying to escape was the noise in my head—that voice that’s constantly hollering about the things that need doing and how badly you’re doing them.

I spent a while in the chapel in prayer and meditation, which made me antsier than I was when I arrived. As I said, I’m not big on quiet. Then I walked into the room where the labyrinth was set. It was a portable labyrinth, printed on vinyl and stretched across an empty conference room floor. Nothing about the atmosphere felt particularly spiritual, especially not the molded plastic chairs and florescent lights. That is, until I stepped onto the mat.

The first thing I did was to look at the center, jumping far, far ahead—pretty typical of me, to be honest. Then it hit me: I hadn’t even walked into the maze and already an insight. There was a long path ahead, and I was focused only on the end.

It occurred to me that I might want to walk slowly, something that doesn’t come naturally as a native New Yorker. And so I did. I even looked up every so often. What did I see? Well, for one thing, the view was always different depending on where you stood. Sometimes you could see where you were going. Other times you were looking at where you’d been. There were points when I was so close to the center I could touch it, and then the path led me as far away as when I started. A few times I was so near, I was tempted to leap over the printed lines and get the whole thing over with in case there was still time for the mall. But generally I’m a pretty good scout, so I stayed on the trail.

There were sharp turns and straightaways, any number of optical illusions. Nothing was what it seemed, but everything was as it should be—certainly, as it was planned. I was so excited to reach the center. Maybe I could squeeze in a manicure! I was about to consider some celebratory polish colors when I was brushed by another insight: The center was not the end at all. It was another beginning. And so I started back. Except nothing looked the same. Everything had been transformed. By what? By experience? By knowledge? By insight? All of it.

I’m grateful for what I learned that day about enjoying life’s passage and just being wherever you are. I also see now the opportunity I have as a writer to build labyrinths with stories. Sometimes we need to take those metaphorical journeys to understand the meaning of our own. I would say it’s healthy. And necessary.

Writing on a Different Page

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In recent years I’ve discovered how important it is for me to have a physical outlet. I can be a fairly emotional person, and all the feelings that accrue as we go about a day—happiness, anger, passion, peace, outrage, frustration, cheer, lust—often beg for release. Some of that energy gets diverted to the page, either onto a blank computer screen or into a journal, but even there it finds a bodily expression. If I look back through what I’ve handwritten, my mood is as obvious in my penmanship as it is in my words. When I’m upset, the lines are thicker and deeper, sometimes embossed on the opposite side of the paper. Loops are opened or closed, letters neat or sloppy. It can vary by the day, or sometimes even the time of day.

That uninhibited expression of emotion, and ultimately of self, is essential to any art. Our first art, however, isn’t always enough to unleash all that lives inside of us. Certain feelings demand a different liberation, and so I’ve found myself drawn to figure skating. What is it about skating that holds such appeal? For me, it’s the dramatic physicality, much like dance. You can display tenderness in your shoulders, push sadness through your feet. The elements at your disposal are like brushes and colors in a painter’s kit—your rate of speed, the position of your body, your choice of music. There are no words involved, but the conversations you can have with yourself and with others are limitless.

I’ve learned a lot about being an artist by practicing another art. For instance, if I put too much of myself into a spin when I’m skating, it throws me off balance, much as if, when I write, I try too hard to capture something I’ve experienced and the phrasing becomes awkward or the thought too obvious. Other lessons are purely aesthetic. Movement in skating often follows the rhythm and pacing of the music. Sometimes it’s steady, sometimes it builds to a crescendo. It’s all for different effect: to build suspense, to convey calm, to shout joy, to radiate love.

I’m endlessly fascinated by the second arts of other artists—writers, in particular. I love that Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and other authors play in the band, The Rock Bottom Remainders, and that J.R.R. Tolkien self-illustrated his famous works, including The Hobbit. John Lennon, in addition to composing some of the most memorable songs of our era, also enjoyed line drawing in pen, pencil and ink. On the flip side, Bruce Lee, known exclusively as an actor and martial artist, wrote and translated poetry.

There’s much to learn about ourselves and our craft by playing with different forms, by expressing ourselves creatively in multiple ways. Because ultimately, a blank page, an empty canvas or an unblemished expanse of ice serve the same purpose and offer the same opportunity: to tell a story.

 

Failing at Success

missouri-riverYears ago, I was absorbed by Ken Burns’ documentary about the expedition of Lewis and Clark. Among the things that stands out all these years later is a quote Burns pulled from Meriwether Lewis’ diary on the occasion of his 31st birthday.

            This day I completed my 31st year… I reflected I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence and now soarly [sic] feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended.

 He concludes, promising,

 …in the future to live for mankind, the way I have lived heretofore for myself.

What struck me about Lewis’ lament is that it came a little more than a year into one of the greatest journeys ever undertaken. He and William Clark mapped a vast, unexplored territory, determining the true course of the Missouri River and its major tributaries. They studied plants and wildlife along their 8,000-mile trek, providing the first scientific descriptions of the grizzly bear, prairie dog and mountain goat. Their contact with Native American tribes opened trade and provided the first survey of indigenous lives and culture. How could Lewis possibly have felt he was diddling away his days? Perhaps he had impossibly high standards, or maybe he was blind to his accomplishment. Or was his birthday meditation a simple expression of mortality?

All the time I feel I’m wasting time. I’ll batter myself over spending too long on Facebook or walking downtown for my favorite coffee. But somehow, the work gets done. As in any journey, the steps add up to miles. Every hour doesn’t require some greater meaning or accomplishment. It’s the minutes that count.

Time, injudiciously spent, certainly can haunt a soul. I’ve been working on my first novel in fits and starts—between paid assignments and childrearing and housework—for about four and a half years. Most days I feel I’ve accomplished nothing, and then I’ll come across the dozens of file folders I’ve filled with research or the list of 75 books that currently comprise my bibliography. I’ll hit the “Project Statistics” button in my manuscript and see that I’m fewer than 20,000 words from a completed first draft.

Like many writers, I’m frequently flailing in a sea of self-doubt. Yet every day—often in spite of myself—I’m moving toward the shore.

Who is to say how our hours are “judiciously expended?” I rediscovered Lewis’ quote recently while rifling through my old journals. What appeared to be procrastination offered its own reward.

 

Photo: Missouri River, archives.gov

Me, Myselfie and I

IMG_2850From a very young age, I hated how I looked in pictures. My nose always seemed too large. My eyebrows were too thick. My awkward stage was painfully awkward and then drawn out through years of braces, glasses and acne. Even in my 20s, I hadn’t found my groove yet—any groove, really—and it hurts even now to look back at snapshots of myself wearing clothes and an identity that didn’t fit when I should have been in my physical prime.

If the TV show What Not to Wear had existed circa 1994, I would have been a shoe-in candidate for a makeover. I was the “invisible girl” type, hiding in plain sight, wearing dull, frumpy clothes. It was easier not to be seen than to be viewed as nerdy, odd or ugly. That’s truly how I saw myself. I can’t imagine what the teen or 20-something me would have done if she’d had the added pressure of preening for social media. It was hard enough facing kids in school each day.

I was reflecting on this (and, naturally, shuddering) this week as the Oxford Dictionaries chose “selfie” as Word of the Year. Unless you’re an Ayoreo Indian living in the Paraguayan bush, you probably know by now that a selfie is a photo you take of yourself, generally with some mobile electronic device, which you then post to a social media website like Instagram, Facebook or Flickr. If you’re female, these self-portraits almost invariably emphasize your, shall we say, feminine qualities. But even men these days are under pressure—either self-imposed or from others—to showcase their sex appeal. That, of course, has had varying success.

Even when I did eventually come into my own, sometime in my 30s, I still was fairly modest. The selfie, to me, always seemed the opposite of modest—not necessarily immodest, though it certainly can be, but rather, self-aggrandizing and vain. It took a while to realize my opinion might have been fueled by the slightest tinge of jealousy, the painful reality that I wasn’t 100 percent comfortable with myself.

I’m not sure what made me take my first selfie. I suppose you could blame it on owning a smartphone with a reverse camera. I remember accidentally hitting the switch button one day and having to face my own face on the screen. It was disconcerting, to say the least, and that fish-eye lens made my nose look even larger than normal. After a while, I began to use the camera as a mirror to check my lipstick or to make sure there were no strands of pulled pork stuck in my teeth after dinner. At least it was good for something.

Then, a little more than a year ago on a family trip to Maine, it happened: I was out on a hike and snapped my first selfie along the trail. It was hideous. My chin was pointed up at a strange angle, and I had a completely unnatural, self-satisfied grin. I deleted it almost immediately, ashamed for even trying. A few months later, while checking my makeup in my overpriced mirror, I thought I looked kind of OK and pressed the shutter button, again. This time, it wasn’t so bad. I was at the beach down the Jersey shore waiting to have dinner with some friends. The sun was near the horizon, gleaming with golden light. The sky and water behind me were a clear blue. After the first one came out all right, I kept snapping. In one shot, the wind blew my hair across my face. It wasn’t good in terms of what we think of as a selfie, but I liked that photo best of all. It was far more interesting to me than the others, and that was the key. It was for me. I kept it for myself.

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Since then, I’ve become a pretty regular selfie taker. In fact, I can be a bit of a camera whore. (Yeah, I said it.) I share some of these photos, but not all. Mostly I take them as a way to tell myself a story about where I am in that particular moment. In some ways, it serves the same purpose as journaling for me. It’s nice when they turn out pretty, which they do more frequently than I ever thought possible, but maybe that’s because I believe now, as I never did before, that I’m beautiful just as I am. I also try—like never before—to enjoy every day more than the last, to be open to all of life’s loveliness. The proof is in the pictures.

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(Most) Writers Aren’t Saints

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When I mentioned recently I was visiting the relics of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a friend asked if I was going to see a finger bone or something equally macabre. The mortal remains of this Carmelite nun have, in fact, previously traveled the United States, but these were true artifacts: her pen, inkwell and writing case.

Thérèse lived a short but full 24 years during which she wrote her spiritual masterwork and autobiography, Story of a Soul, before dying from tuberculosis in 1897. My church had the good fortune of hosting her writing relics on their recent tour—the first time these items have left her Carmelite convent in Lisieux, France. Thérèse used the writing case, or écritoire, as it is called, nearly every day from 1894 until her death. She crafted upon it countless plays, poems, letters and prayers, as well as her book. You could say an écritoire was the first laptop. It’s a wooden box that you place atop your legs. A drawer for paper, ink and other essentials pulls out from the side. (My essential would be dark chocolate—a hint at how well I’d survive in a 19th-century convent.)

Apparently this was not Therese’s first lap desk. She gave that one to her sister, Céline, when Céline became a novitiate at the convent. Instead, such was Therese’s humility, modesty and devotion that she dug out of an attic the heaviest, ugliest writing case she could find for herself. It was stained, cracked and warped, its surface entirely inhospitable to paper and pen. Yet she wrote on it every day without fail: in prayer, in meditation, on days when maybe when she wasn’t so thrilled with God’s plan for her, and certainly on her death bed as she suffered.

As I sit here typing these words on an Apple wireless keyboard, sitting in an adjustable TempurPedic chair, sipping a café latte with a leaf pattern worked into the foam, I am beyond humbled. I’ll admit it: I am shamed. As I stood at the altar of my church last month looking over her entirely inadequate tools, I was forced to think deeply about how I face my task each day, particularly the spirit and dedication with which I approach my writing.

So many times we as writers lament that we don’t have a better desk or a private office or a prettier journal. We complain about our kids or the laundry piling up or a general lack of inspiration. (Guilty. Guilty. Guilty.) Thérèse was known as “The Little Flower” because of the smallness with which she presented herself before God. There’s clearly something to be learned from a more monastic approach to our art, and Thérèse is inspiring me to make myself smaller and humbler than ever before the task.

My contact with Thérèse’s relics moved me on many levels, personally and professionally. While I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo, my vow this month is to write 1,667 words each day and finish the first draft of my novel. To keep that pace, I’m hoping to embrace a more ascetic lifestyle in semi-seclusion and largely away from social media. I might even try sitting on the floor or a bench, balancing a heavy box on my knees while writing in longhand.

Though you’ll have to pry my coffee cup from my bare, withered finger bones. If I do this right, maybe one day someone will want to visit them.

 

Photo credit: Sandy Dawes

The Unlikely Reunion That Was Meant to Be

IMG_3358Years ago when I was feeling creatively stunted and questioning my ability as a writer, I stumbled upon Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I was utterly convinced of my lack of talent and hoped her book might work as some magic elixir. It didn’t transform me instantly into the writer of my dreams. I’m still working on that. What it did, however, was teach me some things about the creative process.

A lot of Cameron’s New Age ideas were hard to digest at that time and place in my life. She talked about asking your Higher Power, whomever or whatever that might be, for help. “Once you accept the idea that it is natural to create, you can begin to accept a second idea—that the creator will hand you whatever you need for the project,” she wrote. “The minute you are willing to accept the help of this collaborator, you will see useful bits of help everywhere in your life.”

The idea of such synchronicity at work seemed as likely as having George Clooney show up on my doorstep. (Sorry, Hub. Just needed an apt analogy there.) In the real world it takes hard work to succeed or a lucky break, or maybe some combination of both. For years I believed that with such ferocity that I would frequently tell people, “I make my own luck,” which was true on some level.

Here’s the problem with my former worldview: When real synchronicity occurs, there is no mistaking it. It’s only in recent years as I’ve made a serious commitment to my creative writing that I’ve witnessed this force at work. The Historical Novel Society, of which I am a member, has kindly included my essay about one such instance as part of their Stories of Serendipity series.

As I complete my first novel, I’m awestruck by the help I’ve received seemingly out of nowhere. Still, none of it was going to solve my lack of confidence—or so I thought until this past summer. My husband and I were vacationing in July with his family in Sicily. Staying in a picturesque, yet remote coastal town, we hadn’t heard another American’s voice in almost two weeks. That is until one day when my husband was hanging laundry on the line outside his uncle’s apartment, and below him were a couple of lost, English-speaking tourists. He called down to them and soon learned one of the two was from New Jersey, just like us. They laughed at the coincidence, he gave them their directions and they went on their way. Several hours later while my husband and I were having a late-afternoon espresso at a café in town, he spotted the couple on the piazza. Sure enough they started walking our way, so my husband waved and they came to our table.

“We sure are a long way from New Jersey!” said the man. “And Brooklyn,” added his female companion.

That’s when I perked up. “Brooklyn?” I said. “I’m from Brooklyn.”

The next words out of her mouth floored me: “I used to teach at South Shore High School.”

Now what are the chances of running into someone more than 4,500 miles from home who happened to teach at your high school? (One of hundreds of high schools in New York City, by the way.)

It turns out she taught English, though she left about six years before I arrived. But still she had my attention because for years I’ve been looking for one of my high school English teachers, Jane Fields, the person who had the greatest impact on me both as a reader and writer. In Jane’s class (of course we called her Ms. Fields back then) we had the good fortune to delve deep into English lit, as far back as Beowulf, The Canterbury Tales and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In our second semester, she introduced us to American classics including, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. I also wrote my first piece of fiction for Jane. The assignment she gave was to emulate Hemingway’s journalistic style by writing three chapters in the first person about life as a Brooklyn teen. She loved my piece so much that she asked for a copy to keep. It was the first time anyone offered me such praise for my writing. Though being 16 and a far worse procrastinator than I am now, I never got around to giving Jane the copy she requested. It has haunted me ever since.

Unfortunately Jane was long gone by the time I sought her out, and my Internet searches for her were fruitless. Now sitting in a Sicilian café with possibly one of her former colleagues, I figured it was worth a shot.

“Do you happen to know Jane Fields?” I asked.

“I just spoke to her this morning,” the woman replied.

It turns out this stranger—who incidentally was staying in a town two hours away and was visiting our village only for a short while—was best friends with the first person to recognize my gifts and believe in me as a writer. And that was how I got to thank my 11th-grade English teacher after almost a quarter century.

I visited Jane last month at her lovingly restored brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We enjoyed an alfresco lunch and a leisurely conversation, alternately reminiscing, catching up and getting to know one another anew. She pulled out pictures of our class trip to The Cloisters, back when I had my big 80s hair and wore a garish, oversized purple varsity softball jacket. She also gave me a tour of her historic house and beautifully tended garden. It could not have been a more perfect visit.

Before I left, I gave Jane the work of fiction I had promised her all those years ago. We sat on her sofa and she laughed aloud and nodded frequently as she re-read the assignment I had written for her. I did the same while perusing some of her recent poems and bitingly humorous vignettes.

There’s nothing more assuring than watching someone engage with your work. And if I could accomplish that as a first-time fiction writer at age 16, I certainly am capable of it today.

That was all I needed.

I understand now what Julia Cameron meant when she wrote, “I have learned, as a rule of thumb, never to ask whether you can do something. Say, instead, that you are doing it. Then fasten your seat belt. The most remarkable things follow.”

Back to School, Back to Work

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I’m probably one of the few people I know who eagerly counts the days until school begins. Not that I ever would wish summer away. As a wife and mother of two young children, the warmer months are devoted to visits with friends, field trips and vacations. There’s also a good amount of lazing about, punctuated by sunscreen applications, scraped-knee clean ups and meal prep.

With all of its activity, summer is an excellent time for outer explorations—those experiences that fill the well for any artist. I find vacations especially flood the senses in surprising, and ultimately necessary ways. The contemplation of a foreign landscape, the sound of an unfamiliar voice, the taste of a new meal, any one of them sets synapses firing, thoughts ricocheting across webs of neurons, forging new connections, the traces of which settle deep into memory, safely stored and awaiting retrieval upon our return to our desks.

That’s really my greatest frustration with summer: not having that time at my desk, the luxury to retreat inward, those uninterrupted hours when there won’t be someone just outside the office door hollering for a Band-Aid or a juice box. My seasons as a mother are arranged a little differently, I suppose, and so September is very much my New Year. This is the month when I take stock, reassess, make resolutions.

This year I’ve resolved to devote myself more fully to my fiction writing.

 

Mi Abuelo, Mein Opa

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For years, my grandfather’s life could be boiled down to the two most lasting impressions he left upon my mother. The first occurred when she was 10. She and her sisters were sitting around the kitchen table eagerly awaiting the eggs he was preparing at the stove. They were my mom’s favorite: sunnyside up. But as her egg journeyed from pan to plate, its delicate skin ruptured, depriving my mother the delight of puncturing the yolk herself.

The next egg arrived, flawlessly cast, and as any jealous sibling would, my mother reached over and poked her fork into the perfect yellow dome atop her sister’s plate. Naturally, her sister began to cry, to which my grandfather responded by clearing the table of everyone except my mother. “You want eggs?” he told her, in his German-inflected Spanish. “I’ll give you eggs.” And he proceeded to cook egg after egg for my mother, forcing her to eat them until she was so pale and green that my grandmother screamed at him to stop.

The other story that endured was of my grandfather’s reaction when my mother, at age 16, lost his paycheck. He asked her to pick it up for him at his workplace, which wasn’t far from the small house they rented in the town of Bauta, outside Havana, Cuba. When she returned, one of her sisters mentioned that a boy my mother liked had just passed by. My mother sprinted outside to catch sight of him, taking no notice of where she placed the check. That night, when her father asked for the slip of paper that barely covered their food and rent for the week, she couldn’t find it. They spent at least an hour searching for it, and although the check turned up safe under a seat cushion, my grandfather, in scolding my mother that evening, threw her into a chest of drawers and broke her nose.

For nearly four decades, that was how I knew my grandfather. He died about a dozen years before I was born, at age 56, most likely of a stroke. In many ways, I was glad not to have known this severe, rigid man. Though perhaps if he had survived until my birth, my mother would not have felt so free to tell me the truth about him.

The only picture I had ever seen of him frightened me. It was probably one of his last photos, and it seemed to have been taken without his notice. In it he is rising from a chair. His eyes—full-lidded and heavy—are focused somewhere off to the left outside the picture frame; his dark, tanned arms offset by fingers so thick, they resemble cigars. He is wearing a white t-shirt with a glasses case in the front pocket, and a melancholic expression. His cheeks are slack, but his forehead tight, with deep lines arching from temple to temple.

When I initially learned my German-born abuelo was half Jewish, a fact he actively hid from those who knew him in Cuba, I became intensely curious about him. In more recent conversations I’ve learned he was also intelligent and generous. He spoke four languages, loved classical music. Could there have been more to his temperament than his own family realized? It’s a question I’ve been attempting to answer for nearly four years.

At first I thought I had a memoir on my hands. But there was so much I didn’t know—so much that was unknowable about mi abuelo, mein opa, my grandfather. It seemed the only way to reach him across time and space, the only way to understand something approaching the truth, was through fiction.

Beneath the Label

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For the past couple of years I’ve visited my daughter’s elementary school as a Diversity Day speaker, and I’m sure as the students enter the room they’re wondering why a lady with skin as white as Carrara marble is standing at the front talking about multiculturalism.

I introduce myself as an Italian-American from Brooklyn, N.Y., which I am. My dad’s family was from Italy, so I had an Italian maiden name. I grew up in a primarily Italian and Catholic neighborhood, but also, I had the requisite New York accent, ate red sauce on Sundays, and wore big hair and fake nails like the rest of the guidettes.

My street cred was pure, but inside my parents’ row house, stowed in a kitchen cabinet behind the Ronzoni pasta, was the truth. It had a blue Goya label on it. The mere sight of the box sent me into overly dramatic convulsions and retching fits. “Deneeese,” my mom would coo in her somewhat neutralized Spanish accent, “you have to try this guava paste. It’s delicious. How do you know you don’t like it if you won’t even try it?” Then she’d proceed to hold a cube of quivering jelly the color of a pencil eraser beneath my nose in a vain attempt to force open my mouth.

What almost no one knew about me was that my mother was Cuban. In a place where the word “Spic” was thrown about as casually as “fugeddaboudit,” it wasn’t the sort of information you volunteered to the kids hanging out at the corner, or to the adults sitting on the stoop fretting about a black family that had looked at a house for sale several blocks away. My mother wasn’t ashamed of her heritage, but she didn’t want to be seen as less somehow. She was happy to keep her Goya stash tucked behind the Tuttorosso tomatoes, and her origins safely hidden behind her husband’s Italian last name.

That would seem like the end of my presentation and enough to teach the students a valuable lesson about making assumptions about others—but it isn’t. The story really gets going the year I turned 27 and traveled to Cuba with my mom to meet my family for the first time. One of my mother’s sisters had been trying to leave Cuba for many years, but couldn’t. She thought she might finally succeed by obtaining their father’s (my grandfather’s) birth certificate from Germany so she could claim German citizenship.

As a journalist and a history buff, I naturally wanted to see it. I knew a little German from having dated an Austrian guy in college. Most of the words on the birth certificate had about 26 letters, nine syllables and made no sense, though next to my great-grandmother’s name one word jumped out: lutheranischer. Lutheran. What came after my great-grandfather’s name, however, rocked my world. Judischer. Jewish.

This is where I really get the kids’ attention. Because seriously: How weird is it to arrive at adulthood thinking you’re as Catholic as they come—the one thing in your life you could claim as 100 percent—only to find out your grandfather was half Jewish?

Early in the presentation I briefly mention the summer my mother sent me to camp at a Jewish pool club near Coney Island in Brooklyn. I spent nearly every day being teased or shunned for not being a member of the tribe. Would the children have treated me differently if they knew I was at least part Jewish? Would they have welcomed me if they found out, as I did years later, I had blood relatives murdered by Nazis at Theresienstadt?

At the time I was simply grateful they couldn’t see the guava paste in the pantry.

Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

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I’ve always been fearful of writing fiction, mostly because I didn’t think I had anything worthwhile to say. The lack of confidence that held me back for so long almost certainly stemmed from a want for identity. I was born to a Cuban mother and Italian father in Brooklyn, N.Y. in a neighborhood that was exclusively Italian, Irish and Jewish. While all of my friends had a label neatly attached, mine—Italian—never quite stuck. There weren’t any asterisks for “half-Cuban.” And since there was no denying that part of myself, and no way to acknowledge it, it was easiest to understand and explain myself simply as a New Yorker or an American.

When you don’t know who you are, you flounder. And for a long time, that’s just what I did. If I was doomed to living as a ship without a port, I at least needed an anchor. I found it in 2000, when I decided to travel to Cuba. Getting to know my aunts and first cousins, whom I had never before met, wasn’t just a life-changing experience—it was a life-making experience. I connected immediately with their warmth and wit (and that of other Cubans) and felt a sense of belonging like never before.

As serendipity would have it, I got a job soon afterward at Latina magazine. Suddenly, I was a part of something even bigger—the Latino community—and I was amazed to discover our shared experiences: the tension between past and present; the longing for a sense of place; trying to figure out where “home” is and what that word really means. Understanding those things gave me the belief in myself that I needed to make a real career as a writer. It also helped me to see that my story is the story of many others, not just Latinos, but anyone who ever has been involved in a diaspora. As the world gets smaller and more interconnected, it seems there are more of us fishes out of water than ever.

Now that I’ve been firmly moored for some time, I’m ready to set out again, this time into deeper waters. I know now that my story, my experience, my history are as worthy as any I’ve explored in my nonfiction. And in writing literature I will have more powerful tools with which to share the truth of what I’ve learned.

Yes, I have much to say. And finally, I am ready to say it.

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