The Wandering MInd

 

 It reached eighty degrees here last week. Normally I’d drive down the shore, take a beach chair and a book and sit out for a few hours before treating myself to a nice lunch and driving home.

But a weird thing happened. Last week I also put the finishing touches on a Christmas novella and sent it out.  A couple of days later I started on my next mystery which as it happens also takes place at Christmas.  The beach idea flew right out of my mind.

I was in word count mode and my imagination was full throttle.  I had to set a timer so I wouldn’t forget to go to the gym each day.  Now here’s the weird part.  Do you ever get lost in your book, whether reading or writing so that you lose track of time, or place or . . . the weather?  The timer went off.  Time for the gym.  I finished my sentence and headed to the closet for my coat.

And stood there. There were no coats in the closet.  No scarves, no winter hats, no gloves.

Because I had put them all away several weeks before.  I’d forgotten because I was so immersed in snow and good cheer (No I was only drinking black coffee all morning.) that I had totally worked myself into thinking it was winter outside.

That’s a great thing to happen when you’re reading and writing.  It makes fiction seem so real.  But it’s just a little scary when it doesn’t stop when you close the book or when your lap top switches to sleep mode.

I’ve pretty much successfully trained myself not to plot while driving. I’ve been known to arrive at a destination that wasn’t intended.  Or look up at a light  and wonder how I got there.   But that was in years past and needless to say, not in a high traffic area, for instance midtown Manhattan, but in those places where your full concentrations wasn’t needed.  Regardless, I decided that plotting time would have to go during driving time.  Now I listen to music as I drive and keep my eyes and mind on the road.

Which means my mind has to take over other noncrucial moments to play out a plot line. Which has led to the charred dinner rumor my kids passed around. Let the record show, I do not burn everything I cook.  In fact, I hardly ever, well, not often, not too often . . . It was just those grilled sandwiches that I wandered off to look at my email and forgot until the smoke alarm beeped sending me running back to the kitchen.  Now if I cook, I stay in the kitchen.  We eat a lot of takeout.

They say a mind is a terrible thing to waste.  It’s also pretty funky when it wanders off like a misbehaving child.   But what adventures it has.

I hope you’re just like me nad have learned to coral those pecky ideas.  Where has your mind wandered lately?

Charles Dickens and Advertising

In high school I hated having to read Dickens’s  A Tale of Two Cities and Melville’s Moby Dick. I thought they were ponderous and esoteric and long. Though in hindsight  I’m inclined to think it might have been the way they were taught rather than the books themselves. In the years after high school, Dickens became a favorite author, though I never really took to the whale.

But this isn’t about the merits of Victorian fiction, just an lead in to something I was reading about last week, A New York Times article titled: ARTSBEAT; “Dickens and Advertisements: A Gallery Opens Online.”

This article caught my eye not only because it was about one of my favorite all time authors but because of the word “Advertisements.”

There has been some argument recently about adding advertisements to books to offset the cost of printing, (in the case of hardcopies), and to discourage piracy (in e-books).  I won’t go into the pros and cons presented by various interests, it’s easy to Google if you’re interested.

Needless to say, there are some strong opinions about the subject, especially among authors.

I personally prefer my entertainment (of all varieties) without ads flashing in front of my eyes when I least expect it.  (Actually I don’t even like it when I know it’s coming.)  You’re sitting in your favorite chair,  hunched over your suspense novel, biting your fingernails, turning pages (pressing buttons, or swiping) as quickly as you can because you know on the next page . . .is . . . is . . . an ad.  Momentum killer. I can imagine a groan, a few choice words and depending on how you’re reading a toss against the wall.

I’m afraid there is an inevitability about this notion. I suppose we will eventually adapt, as all creatures must, in the same way we’ve conditioned ourselves to automatically reach for the mute button when the commercial comes on.

But back to Dickens and how he fits into modern day publishing.

Dickens wrote and published serially, and thanks to a program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Our Mutual Friend. The Scholarly Pages, we’re able to view original pages of the story, the Marcus Stone illustrations, Illustrated by Marcus Stoneand 32 pages of advertisements that were included in the serialization of the book. And they’re so indicative of the times that they’re worth viewing just for themselves.

Here’s a quote from the UCSC site.

 “The official advertising sections for Our Mutual Friend contained a greater volume of material than any other previous work by Dickens in original parts—no less than 320 pages. In the first issue alone (May 1864), the 32-page insert contained 5 clothing ads, 3 ads for foodstuffs, 3 for inks and polish, 3 for telescopic field glasses, 7 for furniture and household goods, and one each for jewelry, embroidery, monograms, umbrellas and croquet sets. Additionally, the first issue advertised commemorative souvenir medals and portraits of Shakespeare and the Princess of Wales respectively, as well as a startling number of cosmetics and medicines (16 beauty aids and 9 cure-alls). Scholars often look to the Boffin/Wegg plot in Our Mutual Friend to measure the growing consumerism that characterized Victorian London; but surely there is no better gauge for the consumptive forces of Dickens’s society than the ad campaigns that preceded his last completed serialization.”

 

Here is the project’s website.  It’s a fascinating window into publishing of the past and of interest to authors is the workings of the royalty system.

http://omf.ucsc.edu/publication/index.html

So advertisements were appearing in books even then.  The question is whether the advertisements that might make their way into books today will be interesting or shed any light on our society 150 years from now as it does for Victorian advertisement today. Hmmm.

Union Square

I was in the City (NYC) the other day having lunch with friends.  We met at a restaurant on First Street between First and Second Avenues, Alphabet City and the Bowery. Things looked a lot different down here when I first moved to the city.  And it got me to thinking about change and set off one of my many hobbies which is 19th Century NYC in general and more specifically the theatre of that era.

I drove my daughter up to Union Square to catch the train.  Union Square. The name sends a thrill up my spine, because when I’m there, even when I’m in a hurry, even when I’m stuck in traffic, I don’t see the teaming traffic of today but the bustling traffic of the 19th Century.

People strolled through the park buying hot corn or roasted chestnuts, having their likenesses drawn.  Tossed pennies to beggars and ogled the swells and were taken in by the thimble riggers.

You had to stop and carefully watch to cross the street.  The southwest corner was know as Dead Man’s Curve. Men would sit at the hotel bar making bets as the trolley come barreling down into the turn, as to whether it would crash or stay upright and how many pedestrians might meet their maker.Deadman's Curve

The opposite corner was known as the Slave Market, where the actors were the slaves as they waited to find out about jobs in stock companies or traveling shows where they would be paid a pittance and sometimes be stranded in a distant town with no means of returning home.

In the 1870s and 80s Union Square was a thriving theatre community. “The Rialto District.” There was Wallack’s and the Union Square Theatre, the Theatre Francaise, where international stars of the stage appeared. And just down the street was Tony Pastor’s Theater right next door to Tammany Hall. And a few blocks away were Daly’s and Booth’s with its elevator stages.

There was Steinway Hall and the Academy of Music. Street bands and concerts, oddity museums and operas, plays and variety shows. Visitors stayed at the Clarendon, Everett House. Morton House.  Dined at Luchows. There was Brentano’s, and theatrical agents, newspapers, and costume shops.

Union Square has also long been  the meeting place of orators, protesters, political speakers and union organizers.  Parades and riots and religious experiences.

But as with all neighborhoods, it changed.  Theatre began to move uptown.  Business began to move with them.  And Broadway became the New Rialto.  I confess, I wish I could have seen those buildings. Met those people.

But the light changed and I drove west on Fourteenth, where several blocks later I looked ahead and aboe me and framed by two buildings I saw the skeleton of the old elevated and people walking along the landscaped High Line above me.  A cab whizzed by me and I forgot to look at the building that stands on the site of the original Macy’s where people flocked to see their Christmas window displays.

I turned uptown heading for the West Side Highway and New Jersey.   Did I come back to the Twentieth Century then?  I did not.  There was the Hudson River in all its sometimes ragged glory and I wondered what Henry Hudson thought as he traveled into the wilderness.

 

 

Learning Lessons

When I left the gym this morning, The Sleeping Beauty Ballet was playing on the car radio.  Now those of you who know that I was a dancer in a former profession, won’t be surprised that I could still remember whole bits of steps.  The only time I was ever in Sleeping Beauty was when I was fourteen, many years ago.

It was a summer production by an established, semi-professional, regional ballet company,  being set by two dancers from the Royal Ballet in London. They held outside auditions and I was accepted.

It was that summer I learned my first big lesson.

I was young, I was away from home and I wasn’t really tall.  But I made the cut for the sixteen member corps de ballet.  A big coup.  It meant that I actually got to dance instead of just being one of the  townspeople who stood around watching the others dance. I was also called to understudy several soloists. I was in heaven until the next day.

That’s when I learned that one of the local girls who hadn’t made a place in the corps complained to her mother.  And the mother, being a patron of the ballet company, went in and demanded that her daughter be put in the corps. One minute I was standing waiting for my entrance at the end of the line, the next I was dismissed and the girl (whose name I will always remember but not share) stepped into my place.

I wasn’t so young and naïve not to see the looks that went around the room.  More than one dancer said something to me about it not being fair.  No, but it still had happened.  And I didn’t have a mother nearby to champion my cause.

Variation rehearsals were held in the mornings.  And each morning I was there, ready to dance my heart out, the umpteenth understudy for Blue Bird, Puss N Boots, Lilac Fairy, and every afternoon I would go into the group rehearsal and watch everyone else dance until it was time for the crowd scene where I had landed a spotlight role as one of the knitting ladies who the three spinning ladies came out of the crowd to down center, with knitting needles as I recall,  and were banished from the kingdom (offstage left). That was my summer.

I was living in a dorm with a group of ballet boys from a New York Dance company who had been imported to do the major roles.  They were nice but older and had their own lifestyles so after rehearsal I ate something from a corner market and sat in my room.  Kind of depressing even for a fourteen year old.

This went on for weeks and then it was time for our first costume fittings.  I walked past yards of shiny colored satins, bejeweled tutus of tulle and velvet, fur lined cloaks, to where the spinning ladies were being fitted.  A nice lady helped me into the heavy black wool dress.  It was several inches too long, and even in the air conditioning terribly hot and itchy.  But I put it on and looked down at the heavy long sleeves, the hand stitched  seams.  The cuffs and collar were edged in black braiding.  I’m sure there was years of sweat residing in its folds, but it was the most gorgeous  thing I’d ever seen and for a moment I didn’t miss the white gossamer tulles of the corps de ballet.

Rehearsals went on and I was given many compliments on my dancing the umpteenth understudy part of the variations.  Maybe they were just feeling guilty for knocking me out of the corps.  They told me I had talent.  The rehearsal pianist who said he had played for Pavlova told me  the world was waiting for me.  And ruined it all by telling me that I first needed to tape back my ears, because they stuck out, there was nothing to do about the points but hope for the best.

That’s when I grew  to love and appreciate those ballet boys and their odd lifestyles.  They said I had “diva” ears and people would kill to have them.  I can’t remember if I believed them or not, but I didn’t tape them back.

So rehearsals  continued and I continued to walk out of the crowd on cue to meet the other two spinning ladies, only to be banished from the kingdom and chased off stage left.

Then came the first dress rehearsal.  I put on the heavy costume.  Did I mention it was an outdoor amphitheatre?  Huge and hot.  The orchestra was in the pit, the music swelled.  Dancers took their places.  I watched from the wings  until it was time for the crowd scene.  I entered cloaked by the others.  And something happened.  I was suddenly in the kingdom of Sleeping Beauty.  It was the most magical thing I had ever seen, or heard, the  sets, the costumes, the music.  I floated on a cloud of sheer awe. And only dimly became aware of a voice yelling over the microphone that directors used when they were watching from the  front of house. “Third spinning lady, Where’s the damn third spinning lady?

The words barely penetrated my rapt state, until I was shoved out of the crowd and stumbled onto center stage to meet the two waiting spinning ladies who looked a little miffed.  We were banished stage left.  And the show went on.

I never reached that state of pure awe after that.  I didn’t dare. I waited in the wings, listened to the music for cue.  Was alert and ready when it was time for my less than fifteen minutes of fame. I never missed a cue after that, even though I never danced a step on stage.

That wasn’t the last time I lost a part or a role because someone had more clout.  But it was the last time I let it happen without putting up a fight. I learned some valuable life lessons.

One, if you don’t have a rich mamma, you gotta learn to take care of yourself.

Two, a truly great performer always has to reserve a bit of him/herself to keep the character doing what he should on cue.

Three, the shape of your ears can be dealt with and aren’t really that important.

And the most important thing of all.  People can step on you, push you down, laugh at you, or dismiss you as unimportant.  There are no small parts.

And no one, no one, can ever take away the magic inside you.

I”m sure we all have lessons to share.  What’s yours?

 

That Still Small Voice

It occurred to me this week when I was running around both physically and mentally, that I was neglecting my work because of it, or perhaps it was just an excuse to not work.  Which is even worse.

There was a wrestling match for my attention, the networking, the shopping, the elections, the novella I’m writing.  And consequently I was just hearing a lot of noise.

A still small voice.

That phrase came to me at some point this week.  I was at my desk one morning, like all mornings. I was posting on FaceBook, talking on my email loops, updating my website.  I’m not sure why I chose now to jump into the social stream.  Maybe because I have a book coming out in June, maybe it was coincidental.

Either way, I started answering email.  Making some comments.  Going on line, doing some business, checking out StumbleUpon; then it was time to go to the gym. After lunch I sat down and wondered why the ideas weren’t flowing as fast as I thought they should.  As they had last week, or maybe it was the week before.

A still small voice.

When I was in college I meditated twice a day, even when I was on tour with the dance company. Then life got too busy, I traveled too much, and those two hours of listening to solitude went by the wayside.

I’ve been thinking about that still small voice quite a bit lately.  Wondering if in my hurry to get one more book out, one more post, one more visit to a museum, one more dinner with friends, one more blog, if I’ve shut out that voice.

I always admired poets for their distilling small voice.  Searching for just the right word, the right cadence, the right tone.  Using fewer and fewer words until a poem was forged.

So I thought, yeah, I’ll get back to that still small voice.  But did I take off my shoes, turn off the phones and sit cross-legged in the silence?

No.  I Googled it.

Did I really think I’d find it on the internet?  Of course not.  But I suddenly had a need to know where that phrase came from. So I went through several searches and ferreted out the Bible, Mahatma Gandhi, Jiminy Cricket, “Once Upon a Time,” William Dean Howells.

Now I had a whole bunch of quotes about it, but it still eluded me.  Are you surprised?  Of course not.

And while I was on the page with a list of quotes attributed to Howells, my eye wandered down to another of his quotes.  And I thought, Oh.

Here it is.

There will presently be no room in the world for things; it will be filled up with the advertisements of things.  William Dean Howells

 Interesting, coming from a man who was born in 1937. But what on earth does this have to do with that small voice that I was looking for?

It showed me where it isn’t.

 I, and I’m thinking a lot of people, are on sensory overload, and what that happens to me, it dilutes my voice, muffles my thoughts.  Too much static prevents me from being able to hear that small voice.  It might not speak to us in words, It doesn’t even have to be divine.  But it’s the wellspring of clear thinking. Necessary.

So the question is, how do we declutter and distill and find a path to clear thinking and creative energy, and all those things that need a quiet place in which to flourish?

Writers I Love To Read

 

 

Mary StewarOne of my favorite all time, ever since childhood, never to be surpassed author is Mary Stewart. Not the Mary Stewart, daughter of James 1 of Scotland, and not Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, though I’m sure they both had some interesting stories to tell. But Mary Stewart, the English novelist.

 

I first heard of Mary Stewart after seeing the Disney movie of the Moon-Spinners, starring Hayley Mills, Eli Wallach, and Peter McEnery.  My aunt Mot, short for Martha, lifted an eyebrow and told me I should read the book. Don’t let the eyebrow fool you, she also turned me on to the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Carson McCullough, but that’s a different story.

The Disney Movie

When summer came I found the book at the library.  As a child overly affected by the heat, summers in Georgia left me wilted like a proper southern miss.  Most days, the heat kept me inside, air-conditioned with my nose in a book.  I always won the summer reading club medal for most books read.  And that summer I read my first Mary Stewart.

Boy was it a shock.  I was still a bit young to appreciate the beauty of the language and wonderful plot construction. It took a few more summers before I successfully made the leap from Hayley Mills to Nicola Ferris and I fell in love.

Ah, romantic suspense, mystery and love story, the way to a young girl’s heart, to a young  woman’s heart, to a middle-aged—but I digress.

Each time I read a new novel, I fell in love with it and its characters.  The Moonspinners, Airs Above the Ground, Madam, Will You Talk?  Nine Coaches Waiting, Thunder on the Right, and This Rough Magic. Even the titles seem magical.

And the language.

Pick a page any page.  From This Rough Magic: “The way to the beach was a shady path quilted with pine needles.  It twisted through the trees, to lead out suddenly into a small clearing where a stream, trickling down to the sea, was trapped in a sunny pool under a bank of honeysuckle.”

She easily switches between idyllic description to heart pounding suspense by the sheer power and rhythm of the language.  No high speed chases or instruments of torture, but a motor boat, a handgun and a dolphin that have the reader’s heart pounding as she races through the pages, knowing Lucy Waring must be saved, but not quite believing it to be possible.

And then there are the Arthurian stories.

Simple and yet mesmerizing, her stories never let me down. I read them over and over, listen to them on old cassettes. The Crystal Cave was the first download to my Iphone. I look forward to the romantic suspense novels being available digitally. Until then I’m quite content to open a book and turn the pages and reenter the familiar yet still wonderful world of Mary Stewart.

Join me next week for another Writer I love To Read.