LIVING IN MULBERRY ROW

As writers, most of us start with particulars we’ve known and try our best to abstract them – that is, make them more universal.

The dorm quad I now call Mulberry Row in my novel Daffodil Uprising is loosely based on one where I lived, though there was none of the clandestine financial intrigue I create to symbolize the old-boy network and its manipulative contortions. No, when I lived there, it was all simply a tad dowdy.

The dining hall, too, was far from the gloriously remodeled Annenberg Hall in Harvard’s great Memorial Hall – everyone who peeks in seems to utter something about Hogwarts – but it had its own low-key potential.

When I drafted the earlier novel, I had no idea what was about to happen in reality. The quad has since been renovated and refocused. From this distance, it all looks pretty exciting, actually.

I’ll assume the fictional benefactor Mildred Chouthonian would be proud.

My room was at the corner of the building at the right, in the center of this photo.

 

The dining hall looks much more modest all these years later, but it’s definitely been spiffed up.
Advertisements

PLAYING WITH CROWNS, LIKE IN CHECKERS

Last week, I wrote about relearning Spanish and the tree of Crowns the online Duolingo course uses.

As I’ve been earning Lingots for rebuilding those, I’ve had a series of sessions where I’m presented with a sentence or phrase to translate and a set of mosaics or buttons to choose from, one word on each. It’s kind of like a Magnetic Poetry Kit, except that you have to click on the word you want.

In the first hour of my day, my mind wants to run off in whimsical directions.

Here are a few examples.

Approved answer: The girl wants sugar on her apple.

Rejected answer: The girl wants sugar on her husbands.

(Or just a sugar daddy?)

Approved: Are you going to school today?

Rejected: Are you going downstairs today?

(There are days we don’t want to get out of bed, right?)

Approved: I want to go to the movies with my friends.

Rejected: I want to go to the movies with my girlfriend.

(Except that she doesn’t like the action-adventure stuff we do?)

Approved: I always go to work by bus.

Rejected: I always go to work by duck.

(There’s an opera about a guy who goes to work on a big swan. I’d settle on a big yellow duck, wouldn’t you?)

Approved: Do you have to work today?

Rejected: Do you have to speak today?

(Some days simply speaking is a lot of work … especially if it’s in Spanish. That’s the polite explanation. The other one is “Firme la boca,” I think.)

Approved: We don’t open the messages.

Rejected: We don’t open the refrigerator.

(You never know what’s inside.)

Approved: We are buying a car.

Rejected: We are buying a brother.

(Hope he’s worth it.)

Approved: My husband never gets up with me.

Rejected: My husband never gets up on me.

(That would lead to a lot of words we haven’t learned yet.)

Approved: I want a modern kitchen.

Rejected: I want a modern husband.

Also rejected: I want a modern dog.

(Oh, don’t even try to make the connection. Puleeze!)

I START MY MORNING WITH SPANISH

For the past two years, a daily online language class has opened my day. The practice began shortly after the annual sessions of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends, where repeated happenstances with our guests from Cuba had me realizing how much of my high school Spanish I’d forgotten.

Well, a lot of my recall also got tangled up in my college French, but that’s another story.

A conversation with my elder daughter, the linguist, convinced me to try a free online refresher course via Duolingo, which some of you probably know of. The high school text I’d carried since 1964 soon went into the trash – it was terribly dated.

So I rise, usually before dawn, brew some full-bodied, fair-trade Cuban-style coffee beans we get at Costco (they’re like espresso but better), and head off to my laptop in the attic for a half-hour of language learning. Let’s say that at that hour, I make a number of stupid mistakes. I’m still groggy.

A few months ago, the powers-that-be behind the free course decided to alter a few things. It’s inevitable when it comes to anything computer, isn’t it? So instead of seeing something like “You are 67% proficient in Spanish” on the home page, they were taking a different tack. Most startling was that my Crown Level had decreased significantly. Look, that was something that would occur if I missed a few days of practice, but I had been faithful. I felt robbed.

That’s when I started thinking about some of the motivating factors the Duolingo brain trust applies.

The first is something they call Lingots – kind of like Monopoly game cash you can hoard, like me, or spend on things like commentary or idioms. If you do 10 uninterrupted days of study, you’re awarded Lingots – one point when you hit the first 10 days, two more at 20, three at 30, and so on. You can also wager some of yours for other accomplishments. Look, it’s stupid but highly addictive, especially when you reach 150 straight days. That’s 15 Lingots, hombre.

The Crowns, meanwhile, are part of a “learning tree” Duolingo has for advancing. When you start a language, you begin by clicking on a little button labeled “basics,” do the required number of lessons within it, and it soon turns color. You earn a Lingot or two and move on to the next, maybe “articles” or “vocabulary.” Eventually, all of them – 30 to 50, maybe? – change color and you go back to raise each of them to the next level.

Or from that point you can simply do a random set of practice questions. Oh, but that option doesn’t win you a lot of Lingots.

What I really want at the moment is to hit a thousand in my account. Hoard them, in fact. Es muy loco, verdad, but it keeps me going.

And then I move on to the latest manuscript in progress or check up here at WordPress. Both in American English.

TIME TO BLOW THE DUST OFF A FEW STACKS

As my wife and I started listing what’s keeping us busy these days, we were both surprised to find that one thing – one important thing – was missing.

What we both realized is that regular reading … as in books … had been pressed out of our schedules.

Instead, we’ve been doing bits and pieces of reading online. It’s just not the same as luxuriating in a deep volume.

How about you?

REWORKING A TEXT

When several of our lifeguards were complaining about their high-school term papers and having to meet the length requirements, I decided to show them a couple pages of my novel in progress, the book that’s emerged as What’s Left.

They were blown away.

It wasn’t any different from what I’ll assume all serious writers do. Just look at the examples in the Paris Review’s acclaimed author interviews. I remember my own shock at the first few I saw – what, we don’t write flawlessly the first time? Oh, the folly of youth!

Well, nowadays we don’t always work from typescript or even printouts – what I showed the teens-to-whom-I-fully-trusted-my-life had now become the exception. I should have photographed some for posterity but instead trashed them during a purging of my studio under the rafters.

Few readers imagine how thoroughly a serious writer or editor will rework a text – major sentences, even paragraphs, are struck out, new words and notes are scribbled everywhere, even fresh pages of inserts are taped to one side or the other of the page.

Tell them this is from the fifth or seventh revision of the manuscript, they’re even more incredulous. The discarded material is a flood compared to the drop or two they struggle to compose.

As the saying goes, inspiration goes in the first draft, genius comes in the revisions.

As we might add, if one’s lucky.

COMING OUT OF SEMI-SECLUSION AFTER BEING IMMERSED IN REVISIONS

Writers work in many different ways.

Some sit down and write two hours a day. When I read that in interviews, I used to think, “What slackers!” Only later, when I realized how much other work needs to be done to sustain that, did I revise my opinion. Research, reading, and correspondence are also crucial parts of the job. For many professional writers, you can add teaching to the list – it can be what really pays the bills.

Others charge up and then lock themselves away for an orgy of keyboarding. Say, two weeks to two months of doing nothing else. There are tales of some writers in the old days who would rent a hotel room for a week or so to do that – they must have had a very nice advance and known exactly what they were setting out to do, it seems too short a time for me these days.

When I was working full-time, my method was rather piecemeal. I’d plunge into writing heavily one day a week – it helped when my four-day workweek allowed me three days off in a row, though I paid for it with that double-shift each Saturday. The rest of the week I put in a couple of hours each day for keyboarding and the supporting labor.

That schedule, in fact, led me to concentrate on poetry much more than fiction, though the budding novels typically got their attention on my vacations and holidays. Looking back, it was a rather schizoid existence.

Since retiring, a major shift has happened, and I’m just now seeing its impact. I’ve been able to immerse myself in drafting and deeply revising a work, to live with it more thoroughly.

I’m going to blame Cassia, the voice of What’s Left. Working with her was unlike anything I’d attempted before. The focus shifted from her curiosity about her father’s past to a close examination of his photos and the family he discovered to, finally, Cassia herself and her siblings and close cousins – the Squad. The spotlight went from being on what happened to the individuals themselves. It was no longer action-driven but character-driven.

That, in turn, led to a similar reworking of my other novels, often with Cassia in effect sitting beside me. Again, unlike anything else I’d done before.

Doing this, though, has involved a lot of semi-seclusion. I’m definitely ready for a change.

THE LONGEST GRASS AND THE SEARCH FOR A WORKABLE ITINERARY

Back in my college days I came across a column by a magazine writer who was retiring. He mentioned something he had recognized early in his career, that if you want to be a writer or a serious reader, you need to get comfortable with having the longest grass on your street. (An editor is something of both.)

It’s been a powerful – and to me, helpful – image.

Studious reading and writing require large chunks of time and concentration. Sacrifices have to be made. Quite simply, you can’t hope to do all the things everyone else does … or seems to do.

With my wife back in the workplace (and me now retired from paid employment), she’s looking at the list of things she’d like to see done to keep this old house and our big garden in shape. As that editor was saying about the grass?

A few weeks ago, I revisited some notes I had made in looking forward to retirement. It was embarrassing. I had always anticipated this as a time I could finally devote fully to my literary and spiritual callings rather than as a time to kick back and indulge in a life of leisure. (No golf clubs or even tennis racquet on my horizon.) Still, even then, I felt challenged in trying to find a balance for all that I wanted to accomplish. Frankly, these plans looked like boot camp for a senior citizen. Rise at 5, sit down to meditate, exercise, and hit the keyboard for three hours. That sort of thing.

What my theoretical charts didn’t include was housekeeping and the like. And then when I did retire, I hadn’t anticipated taking up daily swimming in the city’s indoor pool or online Spanish lessons or weekly choir rehearsals in Boston.

As for the big household projects like painting or ongoing repairs or time in the mountains to the north or at the beach to our east? Fuhgetaboutit, as a New Yorker would say.