North Carolina’s Gov picks a Poet-you know-Laureate

A bit of a stink going on in North Carolina this week.  Nothing so serious that lives are at risk, but serious enough, in a state that prides itself on its ability to nurture and grow literary giants, that the story moved all the way up the Looky Here ladder to the New York Times.

I’ll get right to it:  After North Carolina Poet Laureate Joseph Bathanti’s two-year term was up, Governor Pat McCrory took it upon himself (a big no-no right there, see below) to appoint Valerie Macon, a nearly unknown poet, to the prestigious post.

what is poetryI am not going to pick on this poor woman  who, as I understand it, writes poems about the homeless, a subject after my own heart.   No, I’m going to pick on Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, the guy who appointed her, subjecting her in the process to  intense scrutiny and extreme humiliation, all because the dumb bugger apparently didn’t know the first thing about appointing a Poet Laureate.

Not every state has a Poet Laureate.  (Michigan, my Michigan doesn’t have one, though the folks in the U.P took it upon themselves to appoint one for our neck of the woods.)  But North Carolina has a long  history of producing and nurturing poets and writers. within the state itself and within the writing program at Chapel Hill.   They take their writing claim-to-fame seriously.

Note to Michigan writers:  Not saying we don’t take our writing seriously.  We do.  Some pretty famous writers and poets have come out of our beautiful state.  So really, folks, why don’t we have a Poet Laureate?

But back to NC:  Traditionally–and rightly–writers from all over the state, including members of the North Carolina Arts Council, have always been consulted before the poet laureate selection.  They’re the only ones in a position to actually know which poets have the credentials to be up for consideration.  They then pass along a recommendation to the governor, who, since he has bigger fish to fry (we’re hoping), just goes along and signs the decree.  Then almost everyone is happy.  (The exceptions being the poets who thought they should have been chosen, of course.)

Gov. McCrory has only been in office for a year and a half.  His previous job was with Duke Energy.  It could be that Valerie Macon is the only poet he knows in the entire state, and since he’s the governor he thought it was his duty, and his duty alone, crazy as it seems, to choose a Poet Laureate, whatever that is.

But didn’t Valerie Macon know enough about the job to be able to say to McCrory, when he asked her if she was interested, “Are you nuts?”  She had to know her flimsy credentials didn’t even begin to qualify her for such a post.  She self-published two chapbooks,  claimed she was a Pushcart Prize finalist (an impossibility for a self-publisher), and has had to admit she didn’t actually win the prestigious award cited in the governor’s press release about her new position.  (The award went to a poet who had mentored Macon.) Right there, she should have known there would be trouble ahead.

So, okay, poor unsuspecting Valerie Macon.  She was thrilled.  And who wouldn’t be?  But for over a week now she has been subjected to unrelenting, mostly hateful comments about her ethics, about her life, about her work as a poet.

I won’t repeat them here, or link to them.  She doesn’t deserve all that hate.  They’ve attacked her abilities as a poet and that’s not fair.  She may not be Laureate material, but poetry is so uniquely personal and individual, who gets to decide what’s good and what’s not?

At least one screed ended on a thoughtful note,  saying, in effect, “Let’s help Valerie be the best Laureate she can be by inviting her to places where she can be exposed to actual poetry”.  The writer then went on to publish an entire poem written by Macon–without her permission–and take it apart in an appalling, insufferable, holier-than-thou critique.

In a little less than a full week, Valerie Macon resigned her new post.

Governor McCrory owes her an apology.  And so, by the way, does that patronizing poetry critic who went on to call her poem “patronizing”.  (And me, too, for even bringing it up again.)

It’ll all be over soon.  With the help of the literary community in North Carolina, a new Poet Laureate will at last be chosen.  And everyone can get on with their lives.

Except maybe Valerie Macon.

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Harper Lee: You Don’t Know Me

Harper LeeMore than 50 years ago Nelle Harper Lee wrote a book called “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   It was her one and only book and it is a masterpiece, but the story behind it has always been a tantalizing enigma.

Through the years there have been rumors that her best friend and neighbor, Truman Capote, edited her writing so much, by rights he actually wrote it.

The fact that Lee never published another book gives doubters reason to corroborate that notion, but I’ve never bought it.  She lived in a small Alabama town, her father was a trial lawyer, she knew well the story of the 1930s Scottsboro trial, where a group of young black boys were accused of raping a white woman in Alabama, she studied law herself, was a Fulbright Scholar at Oxford, and she was not a novice at writing. 

It isn’t that Capote couldn’t have overwritten it to suit his own style–his  book, The Grass Harp, is as sublime, as bitter-sweet, and was also written from a child’s point of view.  But everything I’ve read about Harper Lee says she has her own specific talents as well as a formidable stubborn streak.  Her friend Truman might have helped her with the technical aspects of a manuscript, but it’s an insult to suggest she’s not the true author of that beautiful book.

We’ll never know for sure, of course, because Harper Lee isn’t talking.  She sees no need to tell her side of the story.  The story is the book.  She is a writer, not a celebrity, and the limelight isn’t what most writers strive for.  Their goal is to tell a ripping good tale, and Harper Lee has done that.  She owes her fans nothing more.

She is now 88 years old.  For over a half-century people have been knocking at her door, trying to find out who Harper Lee really is. In all these years she has never let them in.  It isn’t that she is such a recluse she has never appeared in public, never spoken publicly.  She has.  Many times.  And it isn’t as if she has never left Monroeville, Alabama.  She kept an apartment in New York City until fairly recently and went back often, for months at a time.  Until recently, when both of them moved into a nursing home, she lived with her older sister, Alice (102 years old!),  in the town where they grew up.

She speaks publicly but only when she wants to.  She is not keen on inviting the inevitable over-analysis of her famous book, and has no interest in being a celebrity.  So because she is who she is and would rather be left alone, she is seen, of course, as the ultimate “get”.

No matter how much time has passed since her one and only book was published, the author Harper Lee can’t get away from celebrity scrutiny.   In 2004 Marja Mills, then a journalist on leave from the Chicago Tribune for medical reasons, moved into the house next door to Nelle and Alice and stayed for a year and a half   She had many conversations with Nelle’s sister, and with friends and neighbors.  She assured her publishers that she had also spent a considerable amount of time talking to Nelle.  But Nelle denies ever giving her more than the time of day.

Now, 10 years after Mills left Monroeville and the Lee sisters, the book, awkwardly titled The Mockingbird Next Door, Life With Harper Lee, is out.  If you believe Harper Lee,  Marja Mills lied to get this book published. There is no other way to look at it.  Yet the publisher’s note on the Penguin Press page says the following:

In 2004, with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. She spent the next eighteen months there, talking and sharing stories over meals and daily drives in the countryside. Along with members of the Lees’ tight inner circle, the sisters and Mills would go fishing, feed the ducks, go to the Laundromat, watch the Crimson Tide, drink coffee at McDonald’s, and explore all over lower Alabama.

Nelle shared her love of history, literature, and the quirky Southern way of life with Mills, as well as her keen sense of how journalism should be practiced. As the sisters decided to let Mills tell their story, Nelle helped make sure she was getting the story—and the South—right. Alice, the keeper of the Lee family history, shared the stories of their family.

Nelle Harper Lee says that never happened.  She says she never agreed to tell her story to Mills, and she never developed a friendship with her.  In fact, Lee says, she would go out of town whenever she heard Mills was coming because the woman hounded her so much.

As early as 2011, when the news came out of the forthcoming book, Harper Lee denied any cooperation with Mills.  Mills’ agent calmly suggested that Lee may have “forgotten” her cooperation since her stroke in 2007.

So even with Harper Lee’s painstaking efforts to get the word out that Marja Mills’ book about “life with Harper Lee” is stacked with lie upon lie, the presses rolled.  The book is in print.  The reviews have been written.  (Note that there is no mention in the Washington Post review of Lee’s 2011 insistence that she did not cooperate with Mills.  Not a hint that she fought hard against it.)

If Marja Mills had written an unauthorized book about Harper Lee, I might hold my nose but be forced to agree that she has that right.  But if, as Harper Lee accuses, Marja Mills and her publisher, Penguin Group, pushed forward with the publication, knowing full well that the entire book was built on the lie that Lee gave it her blessing,  that whole conversations were real and not imagined, then the subtitle, “Life with Harper Lee”, is a falsehood.

So who are you going to believe?  Nelle Harper Lee or Marja Mills?  Is there some truth, some lie in both stories?  Could be.  But if Harper Lee says she’s the unwilling subject of a book and the author claims otherwise,  there’s a problem.

I don’t know Harper Lee but I do know “To Kill a Mockingbird”.   More than 50 years after it appeared, the book still resonates.  It is still a classic, so beautifully written we’ve never been able to get over it.

The author did good.  She gave us an amazing gift.  Now she should be able to rest.

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What Does The Death Of Cursive Mean?

As someone who dreaded Penmanship class, and who always–and I mean always–got poor grades in it, let me just say if writing in cursive  goes away I’ll be right up there in front mourning the loss.  (Cursive:  flowing letters all connected to make one word.  What we used to call “handwriting”.)

We learned the Palmer Method in grade school, where every letter had to follow a pattern and fit between the lines, and where loops and curlicues had to loop and curl, but not too little or too much.  Just right.

cursive palmer methodSo much pressure!  I choked.  I couldn’t do it.

But some time after the 6th Grade, after penmanship was no longer required and I could relax, I realized that if I could barely read my own writing there was no chance that anyone else could, either.  I began looping and curling on my own, starting with row after row of connected capital S’s.  I spent hours over the course of many days looping and curling, not worrying about staying within the lines, and before long I found to my amazement that I was creating letters and then words that were actually legible.   It wasn’t exactly true Palmer Method–it was better.   It was a variation on the theme of Palmer and it was all me.

Maybe it’s because handwriting came so hard for me, I don’t know, but I’ve been taking the news of it’s imminent demise pretty hard.  I’ve noticed over the years that fewer and fewer people were actually writing in cursive and more and more were printing, but I had no idea there was an entire movement bent on killing off our lovely, traditional form of English handwriting.

In a USA Today article called “Is Cursive’s Day in Classroom Done?” I was shocked to read that 41 states do not require the teaching of cursive penmanship.  When did this happen?  To the casual observer it might seem obvious that cursive should go the way of the quill pen.  It takes up valuable class time to teach it, and, since the advent of the computer and digital keyboards, pecking has already taken over for block printing, which took over for cursive writing.

Nobody wants to actually write anything by hand anymore but when they have to they want it to take longer (In speed trials between cursive and printing, cursive wins, hands down) and look like the plain letters kindergartners use before they’re ready to try real handwriting.   I get that.

There are already young people out there who learned to read and write block print only and can’t read or write cursive.  That’s astounding, but apparently true.  When a witness in the George Zimmerman trial, a friend of Trayvon Martin’s, was handed documents written in cursive she was embarrassed to have to admit she couldn’t read them.

But in a Washington Post article, “Cursive is Disappearing from Public Schools”, there was this:

Deborah Spear, an academic therapist based in Great Falls, Virginia, said cursive writing is an integral part of her work with students who have dyslexia. Because all letters in cursive start on a base line, and because the pen moves fluidly from left to right, cursive is easier to learn for dyslexic students who have trouble forming words correctly.

Another side of it is that there is an art to writing in cursive.  With a stroke of the pen, we can set ourselves apart.  Whether our handwriting is beautifully executed or more akin to chicken-scratching, it’s all ours.  Nobody else can do it like we do.

I admit that I do most of my writing on a keyboard now.  It’s so much faster and ridiculously easy to correct.  It has become second nature to think and type at the same time.  I will even admit that electronic word processing has changed my life.   But when I want or need to write by hand, nothing is more satisfying than creating a visually satisfying sentence that couldn’t have been written by anyone but me.

But in that same WaPo article, here comes this guy:

Steve Graham, an education professor at Arizona State University and one of the top U.S. experts on handwriting instruction, said he has heard every argument for and against cursive.

“I have to tell you, I can’t remember the last time I read the Constitution,” Graham said. [in answer to the claim that if the teaching of cursive dies out there may come a day when people won't be able to read the original manuscript of the constitution] “The truth is that cursive writing is pretty much gone, except in the adult world for people in their 60s and 70s.”

Well, that would be me, buddy, but I’m not such a stickler for traditional anachronisms that I want to keep this particular kind of handwriting around for old time’s sake.  (Though, of course, that’s a part of it.)  No, I want to keep it around because to kill it off severs one more part of us that is unique and individual and takes some effort.

We’ve done enough of that already.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

 

 

Update: My former friend Frank from the website “Frankly Curious” has taken issue with my piece here and has curiously chosen to take me down a peg or two. Over handwriting, of all things. It’s here. Give him a thrill. Read the damned thing.

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Detroit’s Rivera Murals are now a Historic Landmark. Bloch and Dimitroff Would be So Proud

Great news today:  The Diego Rivera “Industry” murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts have been designated a National Historic Landmark.  Before we get too excited and actually think this will allow us to breathe easier about the ridiculous but real threat of a forced sale of certain treasures at the DIA, this is an honor more honorary than it is concrete. (I know! Concrete!)  But since the murals are embedded into the walls, I’m guessing the Big Guys will think twice once they realize removing them means destroying them and there’s no real money in rubble.  I’m guessing.

In March, 1986 I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts to interview Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, two fresco artists who fell in love and married while working on those famous murals in the 1930s.

Lucienne and Stephen were in the area teaching and lecturing for a couple of weeks, so after our initial interview at the DIA, I talked to Lucienne on the phone a few times, either to clarify my notes or to add something she remembered and wanted me to include. Once we got the business out of the way, our conversations turned to the difficulty of being liberals in the Land of Reagan. (I wish I’d had the good sense to have recorded those conversations.)  

 Lucienne and Stephen were funny, smart, quick and totally devoted to one another. Even after all those years, Stephen still seemed in awe of the fact that Lucienne, the daughter of a famous composer (Ernest Bloch), was his wife. She knew it and used it playfully. They were quite a pair. Lucienne wrote to me after she got back to California and invited me to their ranch. I didn’t, of course, hold her to it; I I don’t know how sincere the invitation was, but the invite itself was enough for me. I still have it, along with the copy of Dimitroff’s book, which Stephen insisted I keep. When I asked him to autograph it, he was as flustered as I would have been had he asked me for mine.

I wrote this piece for the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers, where I wrote a weekly book column and occasional freelance articles. This piece was published on March 20, 1986.
_____________

When artist Lucienne Bloch was a young girl in her 20s, during the height of the Great Depression, she gave up a job teaching sculpture for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin to grind powdered paints for Diego Rivera–a backbreaking, poor-paying, thankless job at best.

She met the famed Mexican muralist in 1931 in New York, at a banquet given in his honor during an exhibition of his work. “My romantic notions of art and life, at age 22, were knocked out of joint by this burly giant of a man, and I marveled at his preposterous opinions,” Bloch wrote in a recent article for Art in America titled, “On Location with Diego Rivera”.  What swayed her the most, Bloch wrote, was Rivera’s notion that man doesn’t control the machines, “The machines control us,” he told her. “We are the catalysts that transform the raw materials of the earth into energy. We are the continuation of the geologic process.”

Last week Bloch and her husband, Stephen Dimitroff, another of Rivera’s early assistants, stood in the Rivera Court at the Detroit Institute of Art, transfixed by the 53-year-old Detroit Industry murals. They stared at them, moved closer to pick out certain touches, and delighted in them as though they were seeing the 27 frescoes for the first time–as though they themselves had not worked on them.  “Can you imagine the genius of the man?” Dimitroff said. “He was incredible. It was the thrill of our lives to work for Diego.”

Dimitroff and Bloch – Rivera muralists, DIA

When Bloch asked Rivera at the banquet if he would let her grind colors, she did it knowing the muralist already had a reputation as a self-centered perfectionist who worked his assistants until they dropped, then refused to pay them a dime when a nickel would do. He had the energy of 10 men half his age, and if he worked 20 or 30 hours straight, as the Dimitroffs said he often did, his assistants worked as long, without questions. Yet there were plenty of young artists, including Dimitroff, who begged for the job.

Stephen Dimitroff was born in Bulgaria but his family eventually settled in Flint [Michigan], where he and his father worked in the auto plants. He went to Chicago to study art, but left in a fury when the art school wouldn’t recognize his three yeas of night art courses in Flint.

In his book, “Apprentice of Diego Rivera in Detroit”, Dimitroff remembers: “An overwhelming urge to reject art schools and meet a living, active artist, Diego Rivera, had propelled me by night bus and streetcar to the DIA. That early chilly November, 1932, I ran up the marble steps boldly. I winked at the bronze hulk of Rodin’s The Thinker – then the fact hit me that this was Monday, when all the museums of the world are closed!” Dimitroff cajoled the guards and finally got in by saying he had to get back to Flint “where my dad was laid off from Buick”. The guard turned away,saying, “Well, son, if I don’t see you go in I can’t stop you.”

He met Rivera and told him he just wanted to watch. He did that for days, going back each night to his $2.50-a-month room, until finally somebody let him grind colors. “It was the depression then, you have to remember, and nobody mentioned money,” Dimitroff said with a laugh. “But I was there to learn. It was what I wanted to do.”

He was finally hired when one of the assistants suddenly quit. Rivera asked to see some of his paintings and the young man was terrified. “I showed him landscapes and still lifes and portraits of my family, including one of my dad coming back from the factory with his lunch pail. [Rivera said] ‘Very fine, sketches good–but why you not paint workers’ factory? That’s interesting.’  “I was stunned”, Dimitroff said. “I didn’t know how to answer. The factory was just plain routine to me.”

At one point Dimitroff stopped working long enough to pose for Rivera, whose habit it was to choose real people for the subjects of his paintings. He appears as a pink-shirted worker on the North Wall lifting a motor block with another Rivera assistant, Art Niendorf.

Stephen Dimitroff, cleaning his 1933 portrait – DIA 1986

Though Bloch and Dimitroff both worked with Rivera in Detroit, they didn’t meet there. “I left for New York one day, and Steve showed up in Detroit the next day,” Bloch said. They met for the first time months later in New York when Dimitroff and Niendorf came to her door begging for money. They’d been sent from Detroit to Rockefeller Center to prepare the walls of the RCA Building lobby for Rivea’s next job–three frescoes commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller depicting “Man at the Crossroads”. Rivera kept “forgetting” to send the two men their living expenses and they were dead broke. “You’re the only one we know in New York,” Niendorf told Bloch. “Can we borrow $20?” When Bloch hesitated, Neindorf said she could be chief photographer for the Rockefeller project. Bloch says now “It was the most significant $20 I ever parted with.”

Throughout her days with Rivera in Detroit (where for several months she shared an apartment with Rivera and his wife, Frida Kahlo) and in New York, Bloch managed to find time to keep a diary. A passage, dated March 20, 1933 has Bloch looking for the Riveras in New York after they’d arrived there fresh from the Detroit project: “I met Dimi (Stephen Dimitroff) at RCA. We went together to the Barbizon-Plaza and looked all over for the Riveras. They were in (Mexican artist) Covarrubias’s apartment. They looked great! Diego is relating with hilarious gestures the scandal in Detroit about his frescoes. There are many ‘experts’ who want to remove them–or whitewash them. Puritanical groups are shocked at the big nudes. Some object that the workers in the factory scenes don’t look happy. But the greatest of the commotion is the panel which some call a ‘travesty on the Holy Family’. This is a small panel, glorifying the great medical research work of science. It shows a blond baby (The model, Bloch said later, was the kidnapped Lindbergh baby, which Rivera sketched from newspaper photos.) gently held by a nurse with a pretty white cap framing her face. A doctor, the likeness of Dr. Valentiner, director of the DIA, stands by, vaccinating the child. In the foreground are the ox, horse and sheep–the source of serums needed to control epidemics. A beautiful theme! Newspapers are having a holiday on the furor the mural causes. Luckily Edsel Ford shows real GUTS not to weaken before the hue and cry of the bigots. I’m impressed. Maybe he’s got some of his Dad’s stubbornness. Diego says that thousands of people are visiting the Art Institute who never went there before.”

Today, a half-century later, Rivera is back at the DIA in the form of a major retrospective, on view through April 27 before going on to Philadelphia, Mexico City, Madrid and West Berlin. It includes Rivera’s huge preparatory drawings–or “cartoons”, in museum lingo–found in the basement of the museum in 1979, after the Dimitroffs and others assured staff members the drawings existed and should be there.

And the Dimitroffs, major forces during Rivera’s United States stay, are back, too. They’re here at the DIA’s invitation to teach and lecture on Rivera’s Detroit frescoes. Twice a week they’re at Detroit’s Northern High School teaching the lost art of fresco painting to gifted students who “with such joy, do all the dirty work”, Bloch said.

The adults in the class come from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. “There’s a 70-year-old man who’s just marvelous,” she said, “So full of life!” Bloch herself is a 75-year-old dynamo who admitted she works all the time. “We’re only happy when we’re working,” she said, “Our work is our joy.”

The lecture schedule is filling up: Oakland, Jackson, Flint, Adrian College and more, before they head back on March 30 to their home in Gualala, 125 miles north of San Francisco, on the edge of California’s wine country. And if the year 1986 is significant at the DIA (the retrospective celebrating 100 years since Rivera’s birth is a major event designed to coincide with the DIA’s Centennial celebration), it is no less significant for the Dimitroffs. In September they celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

The two fell in love in New York while they worked on the ill-fated Rockefeller Center frescoes. After seven months of work the murals were almost completed when Rivera, an avowed Communist trying to get back in the good graces of the party, painted the head of Lenin into one prominent scene. The sponsors protested, but Rivera refused to remove it. All work stopped and the murals were eventually smashed to bits.

Earlier, as Dimitroff and the other assistants ground colors and applied the five coats of plaster needed for Rivera’s style of fresco, Bloch, the designated photographer, shot roll after roll of film. Later, when the assistants got wind of the shut-down, the photographs took on a new importance. Near the end, when RCA guards were ordered to confiscate cameras, Bloch tucked her little Leica into her blouse and entered the building with Dimitroff, saying they had last-minute work to finish up. While Dimitroff pounded on boards to mask the sounds of the clicking shutter, Bloch took the final photos of the murals–including the controversial head of Lenin.

“It was insane, that destruction,” Bloch said. “Ill never understand why they couldn’t just cover the murals with canvas. To destroy such a work. . .and to think it could have happened to the Detroit murals, too.”

Rivera went back to Mexico and the Dimitroffs never saw him again, though Bloch corresponded with Rivera’s wife, Frida Kahlo. The Dimitroffs set up a lecture tour to discuss the “Fresco Debacle”, as they called it, and when the interest waned, Bloch signed on as a WPA artist.

“You had to take what they called a ‘pauper’s oath’, saying you didn’t have any money, ” Bloch recalled of the government project. “Steve absolutely refused to do it, even though he was so broke, but I wanted to. They asked me how much money I had and I told the truth–I said I had $60. They weren’t going to let me sign up and I said, ‘Listen, by next week I’ll have nothing. My rent is due and I have to eat.’ Well, they wanted a woman fresco painter so they let me go.”

She painted two frescoes in New York City, one at the Washington school, since torn down, and one at the Women’s House of Detention. About that mural she later wrote,” Conversations with the inmates revealed with what sarcasm and suspicion they treated the mention of art. I chose the only subject which would not be foreign to them–children–framed in a New York landscape of the most ordinary kind. In their make-believe moments the children in the mural were adopted and renamed. Such response clearly reveals to what degree a mural can, aside from its artistic value, act as a healthy tonic on the lives of all of us.”

They moved to Flint, Dimitroff’s hometown, where he worked as a machinist and later a draftsman, and she taught art classes twice a week at the Flint Institute of Art. “After we’d been there about eight years–by that time we had three kids and a house–we proposed a mural for the offices or dining room at General Motors,” Bloch said. “Something in the style of Rivera. They weren’t the least bit interested. That’s when we decided we had done all we could in Flint, so we sold the house, loaded up the kids, tents and sleeping bags into the car and headed out west.”

As they surveyed the frescoes at the DIA last week before rushing off for another speaking engagement, Bloch said, “Since those days with Diego, Steve and I have never stopped working together. And our great love is still fresco painting. We do other things out of necessity. You can’t make a living from frescoes–each one takes too long–so we’ve done book illustrations, mosaics, anything anyone asks of us.

“Sad to say, fresco painting is becoming a lost art. It’s scary to see in print how much work goes into it. It sounds more complicated than it really is. There’s a joy to it. You can see it in the students at the fresco workshop. But it is very difficult work–time consuming–and artists nowadays seem to want to do everything spontaneously. They don’t seem to understand that even the spontaneous Japanese and Chinese brush painting is done only after 30 years of study. Very disciplined study.

“So our joy is turning people on to painting frescoes again. Aside from a man we heard about in Texas, we seem to be the only true fresco painters left in this country. And that is so sad.”

( Stephen died in 1993 and Lucienne in 1999. Her NYT obit is here)

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A Writer asks a Famous Writer to Stop Writing Because–Why Again?

Every writer is jealous of other writers.  Whether it’s fame or fortune or talent, we can’t help but snivel a little when they become Them and we’re still just us.

Girl writing brightMost of us do it in silence or in the midst of a narrow group of co-commiserators.  Not many (Okay, a few, but they’re gone now) do it as publicly as a writer named Lynn Shepherd did recently when she wrote a blog post on HuffPo UK telling J.K. Rowling she’s had her turn and if she had any decency at all she’d hang it up and give someone else a chance.

Now, who is Lynn Shepherd to be telling the great Jo Rowling she’s being selfish with all that extraneous publishing now that Harry Potter is done and over?  Beats me.  I don’t know and I don’t care.  Honestly, I don’t.  I’m all for audacity and truth-telling but I can’t get past her own admission that she really doesn’t read Rowling.  It’s all about the fame and fortune.  One person apparently shouldn’t have that much.

A snippet of what she said:

I didn’t much mind Rowling when she was Pottering about. I’ve never read a word (or seen a minute) so I can’t comment on whether the books were good, bad or indifferent. I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds. . .

. . .It wasn’t just that the hype was drearily excessive, or that (by all accounts) the novel was no masterpiece and yet sold by the hundredweight, it was the way it crowded out everything else, however good, however worthwhile. That book sucked the oxygen from the entire publishing and reading atmosphere. And I chose that analogy quite deliberately, because I think that sort of monopoly can make it next to impossible for anything else to survive, let alone thrive. Publishing a book is hard enough at the best of times, especially in an industry already far too fixated with Big Names and Sure Things, but what can an ordinary author do, up against such a Golgomath?

I guess you noticed that she never read any of the Harry Potter books?  Seems odd, doesn’t it, that she would then go on to say, “I did think it a shame that adults were reading them (rather than just reading them to their children, which is another thing altogether), mainly because there’s so many other books out there that are surely more stimulating for grown-up minds.”

Gulp and gasp and get outta here!  I’m a grown-up, I read a LOT.   I loved the Harry Potter books.  I felt a lot of things while reading them, but I’m pretty sure I never felt shame.

So here’s my dilemma, and I’m going to be honest about this.  I don’t much like that this person who puts herself in league with “ordinary authors” (see above) is getting all kinds of attention simply because she’s in a snit over someone else’s fame. (Check out her FB and Twitter hits.  Many more than I (sniff) ever got.  Hmmmph.)   And here I am, adding to the so thoroughly unearned attention.

But why Jo Rowling?  Because she had the nerve to move on to “adult” books instead of staying in the kiddie section where she belongs?  Because people are buying her books simply because her name is J.K Rowling?  Because she doesn’t deserve it?

I have a feeling Lynn Shepherd knew exactly what she was doing with this piece.  A friend tried to warn her, but I think she saw it as the perfect attention-getter for her own books.  If that’s what it was, she failed.   Look at this (My bold):

So this is my plea to JK Rowling.  Remember what it was like when The Cuckoo’s Calling had only sold a few boxes and think about those of us who are stuck there, because we can’t wave a wand and turn our books into overnight bestsellers merely by saying the magic word. By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.

Jo Rowling’s success was anything but overnight.  I get that she’s talking about her fame giving her a head start with any subsequent books, but Jo Rowling has certainly paid her dues.  There isn’t a writer on earth who doesn’t know about Rowling’s struggles while working on the first Harry Potter book.  She was a single, jobless mom living for a while on welfare and food stamps.  Her fame was not handed to her.  No magic wands.  Not by a long shot.

But, by golly, Lynn Shepherd got what she wanted.   First Huffington Post and now here.  (Oh, I’m kidding!)  I admit I’ve never heard of her or read her books, but I don’t need to in order to say this:

That was a cheap trick.  I’m sorry I got pulled into it but if I hadn’t I wouldn’t have been able to say publicly that that was a cheap trick.

It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. – Albus Dumbledore”
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

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NOTE:  I wrote this post last night, before I heard there was a negative-review bomb against one of Lynn Shepherd’s books over on Amazon.  At last count I saw 44 one-stars, most of them published yesterday.  They were all paying her back for what she wrote about J.K. Rowling.  What I wrote above is fair game.  It’s my opinion, just as Lynn Shepherd’s opinion is hers.  What is happening to this writer at Amazon is an attempt to destroy a writer’s work by giving it deliberately low ratings.

I left my post as it was originally written because my thoughts about Shepherd’s piece haven’t changed, but I’m frankly appalled by the outside attacks on works that have nothing to do with what she wrote at HuffPo.  This is chilling to any writer who writes opinions on controversial subjects.

Whatever I said about cheap tricks above goes ten-fold for those who think this is a cool way to get back at her.  Get back at her for what?  I think Jo Rowling will be just fine after this.  Whatever I think about Lynn Shepherd’s opinions, I don’t want to see her writing career ruined over a simple thousand-word essay.

I hope I’m not alone.

_________________________________

Follow Up:  This is what Lynn Shepherd told The Guardian on 2/27/14:

Speaking to the Guardian today, Shepherd apologised for upsetting writers and readers alike, explaining that she had “only ever meant to raise the issue of how hard it is for new writers to get noticed and how publishing is much more of a zero sum game than people often think”.
“Many writers face the same challenges and frustrations when they’re just starting out, and JK Rowling did herself,” Shepherd said. “She’s been a phenomenal success since then and has millions of fans who are passionate about her books. That’s an amazing achievement. With hindsight I’d have written my piece an entirely different way, as I never intended it to upset anyone, and I’m very sorry that it did.

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Why Self-Help Almost Never Is

Here’s the thing about self-help:  If you’re reading a book or an article about how to fix your current miserable existence, or listening to a self-described “expert” tell you and hordes of others how to fix it, it’s not even close to being self-help.

It’s not that these folks don’t want to help you.  They do!  They really, really do!  The goal is to help you to let go and try their tactics on your own. (But not to such a degree that you won’t be buying their next book or watching their next program.)

They want you to spread the good news–it works!  Buy their book!  Watch their program!  You can do this!  But remember: you couldn’t have done it without them!

The self-help industry is based on one simple concept:  In order to overcome whatever it is that’s dragging you down you need to feel good about yourself.  In a nutshell.  But how many ways can it be said?  Just for fun, I went to Amazon and typed in Self-Help books.  There were 194,648 for sale there.  And that’s just the English versions.

Then there are diet books.  There were 80,690 of those.  I didn’t separate the numbers of books telling us we can eat anything and still lose weight, but there were many more than I thought possible.  (I’m pushing for a category all by itself called, “Scams and Shams and Just Plain Silly”.)

As Matthew Gilbert  wrote in his Boston Globe piece, “Self-Help Books and the Promise of Change”,

“The healing begins and often ends with a visit to the bookstore or a download. ‘What a lot of people want when they go to self-help books is to just feel better,’ says Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, author of a just-released look at self-help culture “Promise Land.” ‘And it doesn’t take that much to feel better. You feel better buying the book.’”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI admit that I’m a perpetual mess, physically, psychologically, socially, educationally, maternally, relationshiplly (not a real word and misspelled besides), and maybe even philosophically, but I feel good about myself knowing I never for one minute thought I could fix those things by accepting a complete stranger’s pop notion of what was wrong with me.

But a while back, on Maria Popova’s brilliant website, Brain Pickings, I read about a self-help book which, if I were into those things, I might actually read.  It’s Alan Watts’ “The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message For An Age Of Anxiety”.  It was published first in 1951, when, contrary to current popular opinion, we were a country full of anxious people.

Watts’ main message is that in order to be happy we have to learn to accept insecurity. [Aside: tell that to a jobless/homeless person--you have nothing to be insecure about but insecurity itself]  But this is what struck me:

I can only think seriously of trying to live up to an ideal, to improve myself, if I am split in two pieces. There must be a good “I” who is going to improve the bad “me.” “I,” who has the best intentions, will go to work on wayward “me,” and the tussle between the two will very much stress the difference between them. Consequently “I” will feel more separate than ever, and so merely increase the lonely and cut-off feelings which make “me” behave so badly.

I love that!  In the end, it’s a battle between me and myself.  The message, as I’m reading it, is for everyone else to butt out.  Even Alan Watts.

(Before you all come after me about the usefulness of therapy, let me be clear:  Reading a book or watching a TV show isn’t therapy.  Therapy requires a give and take, a mutual trust, an assurance that someone is actually listening to you.  Therapy may move you along toward helping yourself but it never was and never will be “self-help”)

Ramona

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Farewell, Pete Seeger. Peace Be With You.

I woke up this morning to the sad news that Pete Seeger, America’s folk singer and man of peace, has died.

He was 94 years old, so we should be grateful that we had him with us for so long.  He was a man whose presence was timeless and inspiring, and the truth is, we needed him.  We need him still.

He was more than a singer/songwriter, although in his case that would have been enough.  He was a man of courage, unafraid to face down fancy fools and demagogues.   In the 1950s he was hauled before Joe McCarthy’s Red-scare witch-hunters and branded a communist–a brand he neither confirmed nor denied until much later, when he said he had been a communist for a time but dropped out.  He never failed to remind those who asked that it was never illegal in this country to be a communist.  The young ones were, as you might imagine, surprised to hear it.

He was jailed, blacklisted, and was sentenced to 10 years for contempt of Congress. (That last one was overturned, but he was able to retain the bragging rights.)

 In 1955, Seeger was subpoenaed to testify in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He was famously uncooperative, citing the First Amendment (freedom of speech and association) instead of the Fifth (freedom from self-incrimination) when he refused to answer, because he believed there was nothing “incriminating” about knowing communists or being one. Clubs and TV shows canceled the Weavers’ bookings, their recording company voided their contract, and their records vanished from stores and radio airplay. Seeger was indicted for contempt of Congress, and sentenced to ten concurrent one-year terms in prison (a sentence he didn’t serve, as it was overturned on appeal). Seeger and his band were blacklisted, and for years worked only in tiny clubs willing to take the risk of hiring them.

Pete never failed to let us know he was one of us.  His concerts became one big sing-along, where everyone joined in and became his back-up singers.  (That could be because Pete himself said as a singer he made a pretty good song-writer, but his audiences loved it.)

We knew the words to his songs by heart and understood where the words came from.   He cared about the least of us.  He was a union man.  He was a man of peace who would not submit.

Solidarity forever, Mr. Seeger.  It was a privilege to be on this planet with you.  You will live on.  We’ll make sure of that.

Edited to add the link to Seeger’s  “Old Devil Time”.

No storm nor fire can ever beat us down,
No wind that blows but carries us further on.
And you who fear, oh lovers, gather ’round
And we can rise and sing it one more time!

(Thanks to Tangly Cottage for the reminder.  What a shame if I had missed it.)

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