Saturday, September 27, 2014

Looking Back (in amazement and revulsion)

In recent weeks, I have been reading about the Mitford sisters, enjoying the lively memoir by Jessica Mitford, Daughters and Rebels (1960), which led me to look at the lives of the other five daughters and the notorious family  that made weekly headlines in British newspapers in the Thirties.

Just this week, the last of the Mitfords, Deborah (Dowager Duchess of Devonshire) died at 94. She was the youngest daughter of Baron Redesdale and lived a quiet life presiding over the grand country home, Chatsworth, where she collected Elvis memorabilia. Several of her sisters  carried eccentricity to much more alarming heights. Four wrote books about the family, creating the Mitford Myth.

Jessica became an American and a Communist (and later a civil rights activist) after running away to Spain to fight in the civil war with Churchill's nephew, with whom she eloped; this happened just after her sister, Unity, became "Hitler's English girlfriend," having become a pistol-carrying Nazi, complete with black leather outfit and swastika.  The most glamorous sister, Diana, also met and adored Hitler: she left her husband and two sons for the fascist leader Oswald Mosley. She was married in home of Joseph Goebbels in 1936, with the Fuhrer in attendance. Diana and Mosley were interned in prison during World War II for treason.

So much for the three main ones. Two lived quietly. Another, Nancy Mitford, wrote fourteen books, including fiction based on the family and its tyrannical father, whose hated of foreigners and overall bigotry was something the children absorbed in various degrees yet also rebelled against.  Each of them carried the title The Hon. before their names, but few were honorable: they come across as arrogantly assured of their own privileges and opinions.

Like their parents, they never apologized for what they did because they felt they were always right. I refer mainly to Diana, the worst of the bunch, who until her death at 93, never altered her view that Hitler was wonderful. Her obit called her "A charming, unrepentant Nazi who was fatally loyal to her Blackshirt husband."  She and Unity, who shot herself in the head when England declared war on Germany, were described in one book as representing the "frivolity of evil."

As I look at this family and this period, when so many in the upper classes in Britain were also fascist or pro-German and anti-Semitic  (even when England went to war against Nazi Germany), I have many questions about what the origins of such attitudes.   How much of the Mitfords' hate came from their upbringing, how much from their upper-class milieu, how much from their need to be independent?  What leads talented, bright, attractive people to such dangerous extremes?

Jessica, whose life is the most colorful and amazing, sensibly says, "We delighted in matching wits with the world and this became a  way of life, an ongoing battle against our class."

Although these class distinctions are less sharp in today's world, similar kinds of anger and hatred are alive and well in Europe today, where again anti-Semitism is on the rise and where terrorists are poised to strike at what we call the civilized world.  Can we not learn lessons from recent history? If not, we need the humility to recognize, unlike those now-dead English aristocrats, that we are not always right.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

When writers don't write

As I finish my first novel, hoping to end the long process sometime next year, I find myself taking breaks, sometimes weeks at a time, when I do no work.  I feel no compulsion to hurry since I have no deadline, no editor or agent breathing down my neck (fortunately). I can take my time and think.

That's what writers have to do. Too often I suspect less experienced writers feel obligated to finish whatever they start as soon as possible, recalling their school assignments or the deadlines in their past. My wife, Lynn, has finally finished a short story that she began more than ten years ago. It needed time. Like me, Lynn thinks about her work off and on all the time.

Like much of our writing, various pieces of fiction sit on the back burner, simmering. We can lift the pot whenever we wish and when we do, we will invariably add, delete, and polish what we find there. Other pieces of writing are on the front burner: a month or two is enough time for them. (Non-fiction tends to require much less time: there are no characters to worry about, fewer descriptive details to add or delete, etc.)

So I was glad to find on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish blog a piece by Bill Hayes, advising writers not to write: not only can it be good for one's writing, he says, but it can be good for the writer. Some respondents were surprised at this advice, yet it is in keeping with what I have long been telling my students.

A reader responding today to the post by Hayes says, "I can go for months without writing a single word and then suddenly out of the blue I get inspired and write dialogue. . ." He/she reminds us that writing is about thinking: "To feel good about my writing, I have to spend time away from the keyboard and journal. I have to be curious about the things happening around me. . ."

In other words, a piece of writing, of any length, has to breathe. Horace, or one of the other ancient Roman writers, advised letting any manuscript rest for nine years before finishing and publishing it.

That's a bit extreme. But it's true that the overall process cannot be rushed; the creative-thinking activity comes at odd times and places (that's why I have little pads of paper in most rooms of the house since I never know when I will have an idea that I overlooked, a comment I need to add, a description that's missing in my draft of a novel).

To those who face writer's block, I think the advice here about slowing down, enjoying the process, and not feeling pressured to go public with your work would be helpful. Isn't much fear about the writing process based on worry about being able to complete it "on time"?

Being a writer is more than just writing: it becomes part of your life.  Or I should say your "lives"--the real, everyday world of reality around you and the imagined reality of the story you are creating. I know that my work benefits from multiple revisions, each one coming after a suitable hiatus so I can read what I have composed with a fresh perspective.  None of this can be hurried.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Students or Sheep?

What is the point of going to college? This has become a key question for many young people and their parents as costs increase, jobs grow scarce, and the old ideal of a liberal education seems, to many, outdated. This is one of the central questions raised in a new book by a former Yale professor.

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaninful Life by William Deresiewicz comes, amid some controversy, as a welcome addition to the ongoing debate about higher education.

Like the author, I, too, began college (not an elite one) because it was the thing to do for someone who had attend a college prep school, with only vague goals in mind as to what I might do with a degree. Today's students tend to be more practical: finding majors that will land them jobs--and being pushed on all sides to do so, while hoping along the way to pick up some knowledge and have a bit of fun, too.

Higher education, even in the Ivy League, has become commercialized with students, according to Deresiewicz, too busy jumping through hurdles to analyze what they want, too busy developing a resume to enjoy the life of the mind. Too stressed to meet the wide variety of people and ideas that will help them develop their true selves. Instead of four idyllic years of cultivating the mind, they live with a fear of doing things that might put their future careers at risk.

The author talks about problems found at state universities, too, the kind of school where I taught for many years: students with little time to make real friends, professors geared to research rather than teaching, and a pressure to succeed that often lands students in the over-crowded mental health center on campus.

The students the author encountered at Yale were, he says, smart, driven to succeed but timid, anxious and lost: great at what they are doing but with no idea why they are doing it. What seems missing is an over-arching vision of educational goals, the kind of humanizing education we once spoke of in academe--and tried to inculcate in our curricula until recent decades when careerism took hold.

Deresiewicz found students on their high-pressure treadmill to be cheerfully confident but lacking in the moral purpose he sees as basic to education: the combination of introspection, observation, critical thinking and reading that leads one to build an individual self.  Of course, a four-year program of study is only the beginning of such a life-long quest, and perhaps the author overemphasizes the moral purpose of a college education. 

If so, the emphasis is welcome since the other two reasons for college education--commercial and cognitive (acquiring information and learning about critical thinking)--have become dominant in the competitive collegiate world.  In these two areas, the author says, elite universities have excelled, while ignoring the moral-philosophical (or liberal arts) ideal that is sadly missing from what many schools provide and what most students want today.

Are today's students "excellent sheep"? Perhaps. And perhaps it's impossible for any quality institution of higher education to be all things to all people, providing the freedom of a humanistic, moral education as well as satisfying the practical demands of parents and students.

But perhaps our universities are doing a better job, overall, than this welcome and provocative and very readable book suggests.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A time for wacky things

Today, after reading several cartoons and an article in the current New Yorker, I found myself in a silly mood, interested in several of the wild and wacky things I have been reading about (or have collected recently).

The cartoon that brought on this delight was a picture of "God" doubting the existence of man. Then I read a tiny notice about a current NYC production of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in Yiddish: absurdity raised to the highest power since hardly anyone speaks Yiddish anymore.

The news, when it's not tragic, is often hilarious.

The cartoon reminded me of a book title from years ago: "Is there life after birth?"  And I thought of the student who spelled Judaism on an exam "Judy-ism."  This is one of many bloopers that have tickled me.

I have been reading about the Mitford family of English aristocrats and eccentrics, prominent in the 1930s, when the head of the family, Lord Redesdale, to cut down on expenses, did away with napkins at the dinner table. Guests who spilled even a drop of food were loudly attacked by the host as "filthy swine."

The antics of his daughters were often serious: one of them became notorious as Hitler's English girlfriend and shot herself in the head when war broke out in  1939; unfortunately, she lived eight more years, brain damaged. This young woman, Unity Mitford, was conceived in the mining village of Swastika, Ontario.  Jessica, one of her sisters, to get even with the Fascists in the family, became a Communist and an American; she (unaware of the inconsistency of a Communist engaging in capitalism) bought a bar in Miami where she and the husband she eloped with in the midst of the Spanish Civil War worked.

Other bits of amusing trivia:

  •   At the funeral of Charles Darwin in Westminster Abbey, the scientist's son, feeling a draft, removed his black gloves and placed them on his bald head, where they remained for the rest of the ceremony. (Only in England)
  •  I have a friend who is a noted expert on canaries; when he is not judging canary shows, he rides roller coasters in various countries as a member of the American Coaster Society.
  • A man from Florida drove 17,000 miles a few years ago to earn a place at the World Duck Calling Contest (considered the Super Bowl of duck calling).
  • In Australian slang, a "duck's dinner" is a drink of water with nothing to eat. (That seemed relevant.)
  • When a cat named Help was lost, her owner ran down the street calling "Help!" until she got assistance (but no cat, apparently).
  • When Alex, an African gray parrot died in 2007, he was given an obituary in newspapers around the world as well as 6,000 messages of condolence sent to his owner, a researcher on the intelligence of birds. Alex had become famous from numerous TV appearances.
I am not making these up!  If anyone reading this has a bit of wacky bit of reality to share, send it to me at

Monday, September 1, 2014

All in the Family

As the literary agent and publicist for my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, I thought I would use this post to announce, to parents,grandparents and others who like to read to children, that she has published several new "read-aloud" stories on Kindle.  You may find on her Amazon page something inexpensive as a gift for a child in your family. There are many titles to choose from.

These include two stories about a little wind that lives at the North Pole and plays tricks on people:  "Gusty Wants More Time"  and "Gusty Plays his Tricks."  Gusty, of course, is the little wind (a challenge for any illustrator).

Several other books feature Giggle, a little ghost who goes to school (she's in the 4th grade) and enjoys helping people.  This week, a reviewer, Jaclyn Bartz (author of The Retired Tooth Fairy) wrote this about Giggle Goes to the Moon, a collection of three stories:

     "These sweet stories are a great addition to any child's bookshelf, or, in this case, Kindle library.  Lynn Schiffhorst tells each tale in a precise, fast-paced manner. . . a well-executed, well-crafted work."

The full review by Ms. Bartz is at  The reviewer notes the positive attitude toward a disabled child in one of these Giggle stories.

Another reviewer on Amazon had this to say about Lynn's book, "A Cat and Mouse Christmas":
    A lovely story to add to this magical season!

If my followers and/or their friends are thinking about giving books to children in the coming months--especially books to be read to children--I hope they will consider some of Lynn Schiffhorst's special Kindle editions, which require a smartphone, Ipad, or Kindle.  Most are priced at 99 cents.
All are listed on her page.