Sunday, April 30, 2017

Meeting our earlier selves

One strategy I have often enjoyed to get started writing is to find an intriguing quotation and react to it. I think of many of these posts as responses to a sentence or two; they are exercises in adding to the ongoing body of inherited ideas, planting a borrowed idea and seeing how it will flourish in my own soil.

I don't see total originality as a possible goal for me as a writer because I know I am indebted to all I have read and absorbed and to which I must contribute.

Today, thanks to Maria Popova, I found an arresting statement by Joan Didion: "We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not."

She is referring, I believe, to reviewing regularly her diary or journal entries from decades past and seeing what she was then thinking.

Didion's statement raises numerous questions for me. Can we in fact connect with the people we used to be? And: How much do we really change in a decade or two?

I don't have extensive journals in the confessional sense but a literary-spiritual journal that extends from 1980 to the start of this blog, and I am often surprised what I read there. The surprises are of two kinds: pleasant and unpleasant.

On the negative side, I am easily ashamed of the style of my earlier writing or at a na├»ve notion that I have recorded; I tell myself that my present self would never have written that. But the positive side is seeing how much I have learned, changed and developed over the years.  I have often been taken aback by a good insight I recorded in my journal, occasioned by an experience I have long forgotten.

The underlying question is: is the self I meet in earlier writing (or old photos) the same self as I am now?   My body over the years, including the brain, has changed radically, so in a very real sense I can say that I am not the same person I once was.

No wonder I shun school reunions since classmates of 40 or more years ago are not the same people I remember from our school days. You might say their inner or true self (or soul) is unchanged and unchangeable, but it is unlikely for anyone at a party or reunion to see each other's souls.

So I'm not sure I agree with Didion. I rarely review my old self except in the memories that are colored by my present apprehension of them.  Why should I revisit my struggles and insights of thirty years ago unless I want to remind myself of my progress since then--or the brilliance of a few of my former insights?

The main thing for me is that a quote like this becomes, for a writer, a great tool for exploring a new topic and discussing it with others. If you who are reading this have a reaction to Didion's statement, perhaps you could share it in the Comments section.  Thanks.

As a writing teacher, I know how useless it is for writers to think they must develop insights or stories out of thin air; no, we are always indebted to the vast web of insights recorded by others we can build on: hence the value of reading.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lit Again
When I met several members of the Florida Writers Association recently to talk about "The Benefits of Blogging," I invited anyone interested to guest blog at this site. I am happy to say that Judith Minear accepted my invitation and sent in a brief memoir of a favorite teacher.  So thank you, Judy, for being my first guest blogger.   I welcome comments and ideas for future blog posts.  Contact me at

by Judith Minear


"Nothing moves me more-"

The note card had two elephants facing each other playfully. On the back was the  name of  an animal rights organization. Inside: pure gold.

English literature in high school has the potential to inflame young minds with the ability to find meaning in symbol. In the hands of an inspired teacher the flame can last a lifetime.  

Browsing thru the Facebook site for my suburban Chicago high school, I grew restless with the announcements of reunions and deaths that had nothing to do with the class of '64.  Boomers as a rule like to be connected almost as much as they crave recognition. I own these traits, perhaps I should not project them.

To the faceless unknowns on the high school Facebook group I inquired,  "Does anyone know the whereabouts of Joyce M or Dona K in the class of '64?" Since they were both cheerleaders I expected some name recognition. Joyce's niece responded and made the connection.  

An exchange of emails, photos and eventually phone numbers. Joyce looked much as I remembered her. While I hadn't actually given her much thought over the past 53 years, she thought of me every time she drove past my old house to see her now 97-year-old mother.
As we caught up we had no trouble filling in the missing years, including marriages as well as divorces and who was still around the neighborhood. To prove we hadn't lost our memories we supplied details of slumber parties and dances held in a repurposed building named the 'Morgue'. Then we struck pay dirt. Our English lit teacher was Mr Mabie.

Mr Mabie was a most unconventional English teacher. Collegiate studies were more his level of expertise, but he was stuck this year with naive high school students. That didn't stop him from showing us how to unpack a symbol. He demonstrated how the river is actually a character in 'Huck Finn'. He took us into the aims and imaginations of authors and helped us flush out some of the common themes of great literature. We read and memorized poetry.  

"I read the entire summer reading list," Joyce recalled. We agreed out of our four years this teacher had made a lifelong impact.

A quick internet search. There he was in California at 87 years of age. His address for the taking. I wrote him a note to tell him that Joyce and I were singing his praises. I reminded him of his novel approach to discipline for the always unruly student: he would simply point to the door and say," Out!"  I mentioned I had a rough first draft of a memoir. I thanked him for opening my eyes to words, symbols, meaning and my lifelong love of learning.  

One week later the elephants, known for their long memory, arrived from California.  The message on the card was terse but powerful.

"Nothing moves me more nor gives me greater pleasure than to learn that I've had a positive influence in the lives of my students.   Thank you, Jack."




Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Vatican and World War II

Do you ever wish you could interview a well-known author or performer and get to know him or her? Often I think of this after reading an obituary of a distinguished life. I am not thinking of popular celebrities but notable people I might have liked who made a difference in the world.

One such person is Sir D'Arcy Osborne, British diplomat in Rome, where he lived and died. He wasn't famous but he lived a fascinating life and seems to have had the best of both worlds: a life in Italy, which he loved, and an aristocratic English background, which meant he had money to hire servants and help refugees during the Second World War.

Most interesting fact: he lived in Vatican City for more than four years during the war, along with his butler, a female typist, his dog, and several Italian servants. How they all fit into the small suite provided at the Santa Marta residence (precursor to where Pope Francis now lives) is a minor mystery.

What he thought of Pope Pius XII, often a subject of controversy, is, of course, among the main things I would ask Osborne. According to a fascinating book I have just read, "Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War," by Owen Chadwick, Osborne generally admired Pius and defended him as humane and generous when the attacks were launched in the Sixties claiming that the pope was guilty of unpardonable silence during the Holocaust.

Even though he helped rescue as many as 800,000 Jews (according to an Israeli historian), Pius XII is often blamed for being too reserved in his language and failing to prevent the massacre of Jews. What's interesting is the British role in supporting Pius, hoping he would initially keep Italy out of the war, then relying on his neutrality and great diplomatic discretion to be a broker for peace. 

Chadwick's book, drawing on Osborne's diary and some of his dispatches to London, reveal much about this fair-minded Protestant diplomat and polished gentleman at the heart of the Catholic world at an impossibly tense time, when Rome was surrounded by Fascists and Nazis and the very existence of the Vatican was threatened.

I can't and won't go into defending or criticizing Pius XII. I will only say that Chadwick's account of Osborne's dealing with the leaders of Britain and the Vatican reads like a thriller. Consider the Vatican's role, with Osborne involved, in a top-secret plot to assassinate Hitler.   Although a recent book (by Mark Riebling) claims that Pius XII was himself involved in this plot and authorized it, thus helping to explain his silence after the war, it seems more likely that the Pope was not involved; but Osborne, the Brits, and some German Catholic resistance activists were.

I found this 1988 book in researching an upcoming talk on the papacy during these tragic war years, and I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Osborne, his diary, and his eyewitness view of one of the great dramas of the past century. Osborne was not a hero but he was a man of quiet courage who did his best in the midst of the horrors of war.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

What should I write about?

I remember being a young would-be writer in my twenties thinking, Aren't all the topics taken?  Haven't all the great stories been told?  Perhaps it was the result of being an English major and feeling hopelessly inadequate.

Of course, I gradually learned that, with knowledge doubling every few years and the range of information seemingly infinite, there is no dearth of material to write about, of people to quote or comment on, of experiences that can be turned into stories.

In my writing workshop recently, a student submitted a piece on visiting a laundromat (launderette) for the first time.  She assumed that everyone in America was like her: able to afford their own washer and dryer. But, facing a heavy, stained blanket, she decided that a larger washing machine was needed. She felt out of place at first, unsure what to do.

What she observed was a revealing cross-section of society: of people who avoided her gaze; they did not want to be seen publicly doing private things (folding their underwear).  She began to wonder what led a twelve-year-old boy to sort, wash, dry, and fold the family's laundry. She wondered about class distinctions, the haves vs. the have-nots.

The result was a subtle narrative that resembled a short story but was, in fact, non-fiction: it had happened to her. Since it was brief, I suggested it be revised and submitted as flash non-fiction. I had recently read about Dinty W. Moore, who edits Brevity, an online journal devoted to flash non-fiction and who has written widely on this new genre.

I hope my student's work is published there or elsewhere; if not, it showed us that concerns and fears (writer's block) about being original are unwarranted if we just look around at our daily life-world: there are stories everywhere. We don't have to create them from scratch or wait for divine inspiration.

This, I hope, is encouraging to anyone who resembles my younger self many years ago or anyone who is stuck with "what will I write?"  After all, it's the approach, the angle and style that we take to the ordinary that can make it extraordinary. What is personal is often universal (maybe always).