Harriet the Spy

Answering a Challenge: Five Favorite Reads

I began blogging a couple of summers ago for an audience of approximately one. Me. I still sit here and write mainly to myself because the thought that anyone else actually reads this thing makes me cringe a little inside. The weird moments occur when a colleague tells me his wife read my blog or when the author of a book I've reviewed steps in to say hello. I wonder then if I should go back and scrub clean some of my language or wipe out all the TMI bits or if my family will curse me, or... But mostly it's pretty calm here and occasionally it's magical. Like when you meet a kindred spirit in the blogosphere. And when that kindred spirit just happens to be Irish, as in Living-in-Ireland-Irish, well then you know you aren't here just whistling dixie. My fellow writer and adventuress of the blank page, Edith, who blogs here: In a Room of My Own has been a source of encouragement and inspiration since we chanced upon each other last summer (and Edith, I'd treasure you if you were from Hoboken or Bangkok, you know. It's just that I have this thing about your Emerald Isle!).

Recently Edith tagged me in a lovely challenge: to cite Five Favorite Books and to pass along the challenge to other bloggers whom I admire. A nearly-impossible feat (this naming of only five favorites) but I shall try.

First, let me toss the baton to these wonderful writers, readers, bloggers who inspire me with their writing and life journeys:

mag offleash writing with grace and introspection from a quiet place in the Northeast U.S.

In a Vermont Kitchen a brilliant cook and a passionate reader and writer whom I feel as though I've known forever; someday we shall meet in the flesh!

Grace Makely writer, illustrator, adventuress

Ideas to Words novelist, imaginist, dreamer and doer

Word by Word healing through aromatherapy, inspiring through words in Aix-en-Provence

And now to narrow down a lifetime of reading to five greatest hits:

  • Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh Read when I was six years old, this book set me on my journey to become a writer. Never mind that I took a thirty-eight year detour. Harriet and her journal, Ole Golly and her yellow bathrobe, Sport and the sleep in his eyes, Dostoevsky, and tomato and dill sandwiches never left me. Friends once even read my journal and tossed me out for it, further bonding me to my Harriet. My hero.
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen I make it a point to reread an Austen each year, to remind myself that characters carry a story, that language is to be revered, and that at heart I'm just a girl who loves a love story with a happy ending. Jane Austen reminds me that fewer joys are as pure as a wonderful story.
  • Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner It has been ten years since I read this, my first Wallace Stegner. I cite it as the book that transformed me from a casual, although avid, reader to an analytical one. The book that set me on the path first revealed by Harriet the Spy. For this novel opened to my intellect the wonder of writing and the power of carefully crafted prose. Reading Stegner made me ache to write; he pulled open the empty space in my heart that has finally been filled by my own acts of literary exuberance.
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald I find tremendous inspiration and motivation from reading books on the craft of writing. I am grateful to the writers who explore and contribute to the vast canon of helpful advice for those of us still groping in the dark. That being said, if all those texts were taken away and I was left with only one example of the perfect novel, it would have to be The Great Gatsby.

The first four came to mind with ease. The last is torture, for it means excluding dozens upon dozens of glorious reads. And so the last shall be reserved for an ever-changing roster of "The Last Book I Read" even if it was one I did not enjoy. Because literacy and time to read and the chance to hold someone's heart and soul in my hand are gifts beyond reckoning.

This gives me an easy out, since the last book I read was by one of my favorite writers. And in a sweet turn of chance, I begin and end by delighting in the literary treasures of Ireland: a circle that includes my friend Edith whom you met at the start of this ditty, and the author Colm Tóibín, who completes my favorite reads list.

You can explore my reviews of Tóibín's books here in my blog or via my Goodreads page. Tóibín has given reader-me breathtaking, troubling, resonant stories; for writer-me, he is teaching me to see and listen to the empty space between the words. As a mother-to-be, I took my baby's name from one of his stories. If you know my story, you will know I never had a chance to meet that child. After that loss, as in other impossible times, books became my solace. Weeks later I finally began to find words of my own.

Reading has changed my life. How about you? Although I hand this off officially to the bloggers above, I would love to hear about your five favorite reads.

Tag. You're it.

Just A Homework Assignment

I'm currently enrolled in an essay writing course taught by writer and journalist Amy Paturel. Our first assignment was to craft a profile of ourself as a writer. How's that for a stretch of the imagination? Profile of a Writer-in-Progress

I ran my tenth half-marathon three weeks ago.  I completed my first long-distance race in November 2003 and I have run at least one half-marathon every year since.

So yes, I run. But I stumble when calling myself a runner. Runners are sleek, long-legged creatures who speak of fartleks, negative splits, performance shoes, PR's. Runners are "A" personality types who train to qualify for Boston, layout their gear the night before, and eat meals calibrated to maximize protein and carbohydrate loads.

Me? I've got ten pounds I can't seem to outrun, no matter how fast I sprint on interval days. I've followed several Runner's World training programs, but in all these years I've never broken out of the Intermediate Category. My running togs are crammed into a dresser drawer; early mornings find me cursing quietly as I sort out black shorts from dark blue shirts. I finally sprang for a fancy Garmin GPS sports watch a few months ago. Now I have an accurate-to-the-footfall accounting of how slow I am. Yes, I run. But I feel ridiculous saying "I am a runner."

I was in my early thirties when I first felt compelled to cross a finish line. Yet,the desire to write has been in me since I could tie a pair of tennies on my own. I have wanted to write since 1975, when I read Louise M. Fitzhugh's classic "Harriet the Spy," at the age of six. But the intent faded over the years to a "Wouldn't that be lovely?' dream as I pursued graduate work and created a career developing study abroad programs. I traveled, I schmoozed in various ivory towers, I had articles published in Transitions Abroad, a chapter in a textbook, and I contributed to our department newsletters.

But that was work; it didn't make me a writer. Writers attend Tuesday evening writer groups; they have bulletin boards covered in Post-Its that detail characters and plot threads; they have MFA's, manuscripts, agents, and a folder full of rejection letters that prove the prodigiousness of their efforts.

Two years ago I stopped keeping a journal, a practice I had started in 1975, inspired by Harriet and her notebooks. After a year's hiatus, I was aching to write. I wanted to be free from recording the minutiae of my day, yet be accountable to an audience. So last summer, I began this blog. I construct essays and book reviews and my reward is a writer's rush such as I never experienced scribbling in my journal. It's like a runner's high. Even when it hurts, and I suck, and I'm injured, and it rains, and I'm just not in the mood, running feels ridiculously good. Similarly, once the page begins to fill with words, the literary endorphins flow.

I am a self-taught writer; my classroom is the endless library of fiction and non-fiction that I live to read. I can conjugate the past conditional of irregular ˆre verbs in French, but I can't keep straight when, in English, to use a semi-colon or when a simple comma will do. I absorb the advice of the accomplished: Stephen King makes me think twice before employing an adverb; Natalie Goldberg fills me with guilt for not writing enough; William Faulkner compels me to murder my darlings; William Zinsser just scares the crap out of me.

Returning to the page in this blog has given me the courage to find my voice and to pursue fiction writing. I enrolled in a two-year, non-residency fiction writing program late last autumn. My writer-mentor critiques my assignments. I bask in or shrink with her feedback. I rewrite and carry on. I attend the occasional workshop at The Richard Hugo House, a writing center in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood. I soak in the amazing writer juju and soothe my sense of inadequacy when we read our efforts aloud with the knowledge that I am taking essential risks. By risking, I will learn.

I find myself using the essay to mine my memory for inspiration. I search for sensations, images, encounters, even fragments of conversation that I can pin to my mental bulletin board. I am learning to listen and to look for the smallest details that will spark my imagination and ignite a new story. Based on the work I have submitted as part of my writing program, I am now working on a series of short stories inspired by my experiences living in Appalachia, the Rockies, central Africa, France, Japan, and New Zealand. And I dream of a stone cottage in the Languedoc where I would write to the sound of goat bells in the garrigue.

My first short story - and I mean first, as in written and submitted - was published last month.Thirty-six years after a precocious eleven year-old from Manhattan's Upper East Side - sporting black-rimmed spectacles, with a penchant for tomato sandwiches, and mentored by a Dostoevsky-quoting nanny - entered my life and inspired me to write, I have published my first story. Just don't ask me to call myself a writer.

N.B. I am now four weeks into Amy's essay writing course and preparing a couple of non-fiction pieces to submit to magazines in the coming months. The class been hugely beneficial - I highly recommend it - Amy is an amazing writer and teacher. And I'm keeping a journal again.