Ruth Knafo Setton's Blog

December 4, 2019

A Theory of Grace: guest post by Ethel Morgan Smith

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday!

I spent a couple of weeks in November as a resident at VCCA, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a truly wondrous home for the arts. I've been there many times, and each time, it's an amazing experience. While there, I worked on revisions for my novel-- still working on them-- and will tell you more about that soon. But I came home in time for Thanksgiving!

Today we welcome Ethel Morgan Smith to the blog. She will share an overview of her forthcoming book, A Theory of Grace: Voices & Visions of the Civil Rights Movement.

It sounds fascinating and relevant, and I look forward to reading it. Take it away, Ethel!

Ethel Morgan Smith

Theory of Grace tells us stories we’ve not heard before about The
Civil Rights Movement. The voices of the 10 individuals interviewed
offer more than personal stories; they afford a fresh historicalperspective. Their stories will move us, teach us, and take us on acompelling journey. This work is dynamic and will raise new questionsabout what it means to be human beings who seek justice againsttremendous resistance.                                   
One narrow and prevailing view sees the TCRM in terms of Martin Luther King, Jr. and/or Rosa Parks, marching and making speeches. Many others consider that it ended with the Obama presidency. The TCRM is so much bigger and deeper than that.It grew from intellectual and historical efforts; and it continues toadvance. The Movement is and was powered by mostly people like theindividuals I write about, ordinary citizens, stepping into bigmoments by working behind the scenes, whether it was our teachers, ourparents having bake sales, or car washes to raise money for civilright workers, or volunteers who helped with voter registration in ourchurches and homes. This work expands the TCRM to the present andfuture. Some of these brave warriors worked at the elbow of icons, andothers were clearing new paths, all passing through history withoutwide recognition. The beauty of this book is the implied notion thatthere were–and still are--thousands, and thousands more, each doingtheir bit to achieve social justice for all. Theory of Graceintroduces us to some new witnesses and new voices that most peoplehaven’t heard. It takes a giant step forward toward negotiating thenarrative of a continuum of time periods, making it a work of socialchange. And like the narrative that it is, it writes a new chapter inhistory; a new culture is born.
We cannot talk about TCRM without visiting earlier movements thatbegan planting seeds of hope and freedom: slavery, Reconstruction, JimCrow, the Great Migration, WWI, and WWII. Many of my interviewees:Emma Bruce, John Canty, Andrea Lee, Ann Cole Lowe, and VirginiaBlanche Franklin Moore, can trace their ancestry back to slavery,which provides a direct chain of narrators. We will learn not onlyabout their contributions, but also about the extraordinary impact ondozens of others. The book will view contemporary events, in all oftheir catastrophic and challenging potential, through the lens of thebrave individuals who overcame equally extraordinary obstacles of thepast.
Ethel Morgan Smith is the author of two books: From Whence Cometh My Help: The African American Community at Hollins College and Reflections of the Other: Being Black in Germany. She has also published in The New York Times, Callaloo, African American Review, and other national and international outlets.

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Published on December 04, 2019 05:17

October 23, 2019

Guest Post: Footnotes on the Cutting Room Floor

A guest post today by Marlena Baraf, whose lovely, lyrical memoir about growing up Jewish in Panama, resonates deeply with all of us who--to use the title of one of my essays-- "live between question marks." Marlena writes:

"I love words that illustrate different perspectives. Hybrid. Hyphenated. Bilingual. Multicultural. Synthesis. They point to the richness possible with human groups."

I asked her about the stories she couldn't tell in her memoir, what she had to leave out....
Take it away, Marlena!

 My memoir, At the Narrow Waist of the World, is a mother-daughter story set in Panama that moves with me to the United States when I was fifteen. It began with a single scene. A memory of my mother under the calabash tree in our brick patio. She had just received shock therapy, “the sugar kind,” my uncle said, which referred to the use of insulin to induce shock treatment many years back. It’s an image I’d buried until it surfaced during a creative writing exercise. That scene opened the door to the story of my mother’s overwhelming anxiety that pushed away the fledgling love of her children.
There was always someone’s telling line, or a snapshot in my mind. Me as a five-year-old, waiting at the door for my father to arrive from work, feeling my heart soar like a pink, party balloon. My mother’s manicured hands placing tiny boxes of matches on the bridge table, her bracelets clinking as she set them down. I built the story on scenes, scenes with emotion--show not tell—because I felt that the real truth had to arrive unvarnished.
However. There is a “however,” of course. My story happened against the backdrop of a country few Americans know, the tiny Isthmus of Panama, within a family of Sephardic, Spanish-Portuguese Jews ensconced in Panama since the 1850s. Readers could not read my mind and all I knew. (How I wished they could!)  I had to provide grounding information.
I used scene and character--my great grandmother, Julita, a matchmaker of hearts--to tell the early family story. Through family legend about my wildly creative grandfather Jicky, I was able to comment on the building of the canal and the early life of Panama City. But some information did not fit within the roller coaster of my mother’s illness and the lyrical memoir that was taking shape.
In his novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz--feeling he had to ground readers in the story of the Dominican Republic and the 31-year rule of dictator Trujillo--provided extensive footnotes. It was a controversial move, and I had understood its necessity. I considered adding footnotes to my manuscript to catch the compelling facts I was uncovering.
In my book, I describe morning mass in the nun’s school I attended. In those years there were few options for Jewish children in Panama. About three years after I left Panama, two Argentine Azkenazi brothers arrived in Panama and founded the first Jewish school, open to all religions. My little brother went to “Einstein” as the new school was called--but that was long after my story. Many of my cousins and some Catholic children attended Einstein as well. This I felt was a sidebar, but an interesting one, to orient Jewish readers.

There were also details about the treatment of mental illness in Panama and the US in the 50s and 60s. I’d visited my mother at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Father and son, Charles and Karl Menninger, are said to have introduced psychiatry to the United States. They railed against the conditions at asylum facilities in the mid-twentieth century and believed in providing psychiatric treatment in a humane environment, certain that people with chronic disorders (like my mother’s) could return to their families and lead productive lives.
I got advice from “beta readers.” One reported, “I love the footnotes. Why don’t you put them in the back of the book, so they don’t interrupt the flow.” Another reminded me of the nature of my memoir: textured and immediate. Footnotes might give it an “academic feel.” I wavered back and forth for months, and finally I decided. I wove into the narrative information I couldn’t bear to leave out. And I dumped the rest.
Here’s a scene from the memoir and the matching footnote that landed on the cutting room floor. In the book (on page 119) I’ve just returned home from college in the United States and traveling in a rickety train along the cinch belt that was the Canal Zone that cut through the narrow waist of Panama: “…It would be hot. My clothes would stick to me uncomfortably. The backs of the double seats inside the train would be shifted forward or back so that members of a family could face one another, though I’d be riding alone, looking past the open windows at swamps, tall grasses, and jungle—bamboo reeds sticking up in low-lying water—scenes that made me think of Vietnam, deep in my consciousness after a year of campus protests at Oxy.”
On the cutting room floor:“At that very moment American soldiers were training for Vietnam in the jungles of Panama and in the towns I was crossing on that train ride home.”
The footnotes live in a Word file on my screen.
Marlena Maduro Baraf is a Jewish Latina who immigrated to the United States from her native Panama. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine, Lilith, Lumina, Sweet, Huffington Post, and other publications. In past lives Marlena was book editor in New York City. She also studied at Parsons School of Design and the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. You can visit her at

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Published on October 23, 2019 07:26

October 14, 2019

9 Tips for NaNoWriMo

            At a recent writing workshop I led, everyone was talking about NaNoWriMo with varying degrees of panic and excitement. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month or, as non-writers call it, November.             NaNoWriMo has become a global phenomenon with thousands of writers participating, joining in online communities, charting word counts and progress, sharing stories of success and failure, and providing pep talks for each other.So what’s the deal? You try to write a novel in one month. Can it be done? Sure. At least a first draft for fast writers. Writers who move to a different beat may not get a complete draft down, but they can get an overview of the novel and quite a bit written, often more than they thought they could. At the very least, it’s a catalyst that gets your ass in chair and your mind moving. It also forces you to focus on narrative momentum and getting the story in gear. To that end, I’ve put together a few tips that writing colleagues and I have found useful, and that I hope will help put this journey in perspective. And in case you’re wondering, yes, I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo before, and I’m going to do it again! I’m at the tail end of one novel and hoping to plant the seeds for a new one.
Here goes!
1. Prewrite!!! Start prewriting now, if you can. Write a tentative outline, draw a map, brainstorm circles and connections, list key scenes and beats, motifs and symbols… whatever it takes to help you envision the big picture.
2. Clear the decks of other obligations as much as you can. But hey, life goes on. Families, jobs, responsibilities—we’re not islands. Do what you can with what you have. Make that enough, and it will be enough.
3. Dive right in and write what excites you, what you’re dying to write, the reason that drives you to write this novel. You can work your way out from there, and back and up and forward. Start at the throbbing heart of your story.
4. Maintain a regular writing schedule. Whatever your lifestyle/work habits, wherever you are-- train/bus/coffeeshop/library/your own study—create a time that is yours, preferably the same time everyday, devoted to writing. But make it realistic, the kind of schedule you can keep up for a month.
5. Try to get the big research issues dealt with before you start writing, but inevitably questions will arise. You can sink into the quicksand of google and spend days looking up details. Keep it to a minimum. Wherever I need to research, I type: XXX. When I’m looking back over the manuscript, that’s easy to find. I tell myself: “I’ll XXX it now and look it up later.”
6. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t get too precious with your words. There’s a time for that. It’s called December.

7. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t expect perfection in a first draft. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not a speedy writer who races to the finish line. Focus on getting as much done as you can.
8. Don’t stop writing on November 30th. Be thankful you’ve started a great practice. Try to maintain it, with modifications of course. The reason diets don’t work is because they’re intense and exaggerated for a brief period, and impossible to maintain over a long time. What does work is changing your attitude and lifestyle. If you make writing a part of your daily life, NaNoWriMo will simply intensify what you’re already doing.
9. Have fun with it! Don’t get so tense and obsessed with daily word counts that you can’t be playful. Think of this month as an adventure, a voyage you’re embarking on. Look at the blank page as a place where anything is possible, your Queendom or Kingdom. This is the beginning—every road beckons, every door is unlocked, and your imagination is the only limit.
Here’s my writing mantra:
            Say it hot.            Say it short.            Say it you.            Say it now.

Writing is such a solitary practice that whenever we can connect with other writers and form a community it helps on many levels. If you’re in a writing group, you may decide to work on NaNoWriMo together, sharing encouragement and experiences as you go through the month. If not, you may find it helpful to get a writing buddy, online or in person, with whom to compare notes. The most valuable part of this experience may be the heightened awareness that although we write alone, we are not alone.   
Good luck and happy writing, you wizards and witches! And if you have any tips to add, please share them in the comments!
Happy Halloween!
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Published on October 14, 2019 06:58

October 1, 2019

Guest Post: The Reader and the Writer’s Imagination

Hello, friends! Back with another guest post by a wonderful writer and dear friend, Miryam Sivan, whose new novel, Make It Concrete,  just came out last month. It's a beautiful novel, and I highly recommend it! By the way, I took the above photo during one of Miryam's and my long walks, during which we talk about everything under the sun. This one was taken in Central Park on a hazy summer afternoon, a good time to brood over the power of the imagination.

In this post, she poses fascinating questions about points where "reality" and our lived experiences intersect with the imagined experience of "fiction." Where does one end, and the other begin? And does it matter? These questions are in my mind as I navigate the final stretch of my novel-in-progress. More on that in the next post! For now, enjoy Miryam on The Reader and the Writer's Imagination!

Recently I read a book review that praised the writer’s autofiction.  That got me thinking about that genre and what we once called autobiographical fiction. After a little reading I realized there’s a bit of a muddle. To some degree the new name (since the 1970s) of autofiction has added cache to the older familiar genre of autobiographical fiction. Autofiction sounds sexier and often includes the voyeuristic meta aspect: writers writing about writers writing. I get it. And I like it, if, like with Philip Roth’s Zuckerman trilogy, the writing itself is superb. And in general, since I don’t read to mine a writer’s private life, I don’t care what’s auto and what’s not. I care about the quality of the sentences themselves, the story being told, the larger philosophical or political concerns of the text.Not caring about sources is reflected in my own fiction. I do not have an agenda to use or not use my life’s experiences. And I do and don’t use them. For the most part though, I don’t, at least not in terms of plot and characters. The most deliberate mining of my own life comes in the emotional lives of my characters. Which is also where the deepest motives for writing a story are revealed. Example: if I write about violence against women, then I will use the feelings I may have had in relation to a specific incident (either a news item or from someone’s life I know) to express my character’s pain, fear, anger, helplessness, etc. What exactly happened, to whom, and how I make up, imagine, if you will, but the emotional landscape is often already known. Though even then it’s blended with the imagined….I am less interested in what happened and more interested in what might happen. Sticking to a character based on myself, seems to me infinitely boring, limiting, and frankly I don't think I could pull it off.... I would be hyperconscious all the time of how I was molding and resisting strands of what I think are true, want to be true, want to erase – both from memory and certainly from the page. I know how profound influential unconscious bias is and would track it in my sentences. This would compromise my great pleasure in the freedom of making stuff up. And while I believe in the wonderful work of psychotherapy, I don’t want it to become part of my writing process. The irony of course is that no matter how imagined, readers who know me think much of the material in my fiction is autobiographical. In my recently published novel, Make it Concrete, my protagonist, Isabel, has a boyfriend, a lover near home, a lover in a foreign country, and is capable of picking up a sexual adventure in her travels depending on her mood. Not only have certain readers expressed discomfort with her sex life (another subject I intend to write about soon), but they assume it reflects my life style. “I wish,” I respond, not going defensive on Isabel’s account. Je ne suis pas Isabel Toledo! And stop looking at me like I’ve invited you into my bedroom. Same goes with many details of the book. Isabel has 3 children. I have one. One person actually asked me how I was able to write about this. Huh? Or how about Isabel’s dog? She has a small Jack Russell terrier while I have always had large dogs. Someone said to me that they knew I’d put my dog in my book. Guess all dogs look alike to some people. Back to emotional mining. I am the mother of one and can easily imagine being the mother of three. I am a dog lover and size in fiction or in real life doesn’t matter. I know this emotional bond very well. It’s not hard to put it on the page and it’s certainly not hard to imagine loving a dog with a very different temperament than the ones I’ve been lucky to live with. Luckily for many writers their readers are not always people they know personally, so they’re not subject to this kind of personal scrutiny.I say all this stridently, but I don’t feel this way. I actually find it amusing, not upsetting. Even when I write imaginatively people assume I’m writing autofiction. And in Make it Concrete  I confuse them even more since the novel is about a writer who writes! Isabel Toledo is a ghostwriter for Holocaust survivors… something I did once years ago. Isabel has been doing it for twenty years and is on her sixteenth book…. like one child versus three…. So heck, let readers think I’m having fabulous erotic encounters with gorgeous men in unusual sexy locations. Yippee!

Originally from New York City, Miryam Sivan has lived for over twenty years in Israel. She is a Ph.D. and teaches literature and writing at the University of Haifa. Many of her short stories have come out in American and British journals and two were staged. SNAFU and Other Stories, was published in 2014 (Cuidono Press), and her novel, Make it Concrete was published in 2019 (Cuidono Press). Sivan is currently revising a novel, Love Match, a Romeo and Juliet story set in Haifa, and is working on a screenplay about Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s.

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Published on October 01, 2019 06:35

September 10, 2019

Ode to My Library: Guest Post

It's been a long day's night of a summer, working on a couple of projects which I'll tell you about in my next post, but today Kate Racculia is here! Kate is a wonderful writer whose new book, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, will be out next month. I can't wait! In the meantime read on to find out about her relationship with her books. Impossible not to relate! You've got me thinking about my shelves and their crazy "organization"....

Here's Kate...

Ah, books and their shelves...

My books and I, we have a problem.When I say “my books” I mean, of course, the many, many volumes—primarily of fiction, but a smattering of poetry, plays, and nonfiction—I have amassed over my lifetime. The books of my childhood: The Westing Game, The NeverEnding Story, anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. The books of my teen years—a copy of Jurassic Park with SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE emblazed on a red starburst—and of college (Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare), graduate school (Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, A Room of One’s Own), and beyond, up through the past decade of my life as a professional novelist. The problem my books and I have now isn’t so much that I have too many of them (I do), or even that I have a problem getting rid of them (I don’t, when I bother to weed), but that I possess enough now to comprehend the flaws in my initial organizational system.            This system, if you want to call it that, is a mishmash of circumstance and affection, maintained by a mix of habit and laziness. Eternal favorites go here. Current reads are here, and travel back and forth between living room and bedroom. Books I was reading when I moved are shelved here, vintage mass market paperbacks are stacked there. Books I’ve borrowed and intend to return but admittedly probably never will are stashed there. Books that I can feel exerting that special kind of gravity, that I’ll end up writing about someday, even if I’m the only person who will ever be able to trace their influence—are stacked, precariously, there. I am both a re-reader and a used bookstore magpie, and go to my own shelves to revisit gems or discover un-read treasures. The result is that my apartment, which is quite big enough for one person and two cats, is full of not only overstuffed bookcases but random stalagmites of books (from my vantage on the couch, I count five) that I admit are trending less “cozy” and more “cluttered.”            But now comes the problem: if I am, as Marie Kondo suggests, to pile all my books into one room, sort through and only keep the ones that give me joy—where and how on earth am I going to put the joy-givers back, and ever hope to find them again? I’ve Kondo-tidied other parts of my life, my kitchen, my closet, so I know the delight and freedom that comes from only surrounding yourself with objects intentionally chosen. And humans better equipped than I have already come up with plenty of useful organizational schema: Melville Dewey gets points for complexity. The alphabet—a classic. I half attempted, several years ago, to make a bookshelf of favorite authors, snuggling my Barbara Pyms up to my Stephen Kings, and plan to return to it (probably around the same time that I read and return those borrowed books). Bookshelves organized by spine color give me hives, though of course this is essentially how my books are organized too: by a design entirely of my own making, based on my recall both of the book’s physicality and when it came into my life. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a gift, is a TV movie tie-in with Jane Seymour on the cover—it’s in the mass market stack. Beloved was a used book sale score, missing its cover: a rough linen spine on the eternal favorites overflow shelf. In order to organize my library in such a way that any human other than me can find anything in it, I need to surrender the very particular ties I have to each of my books as objects. I need to depersonalize it, in other words. Which is probably why the idea feels so uncomfortable, and why I’ll get around to re-organizing as soon as I return those books I’ve borrowed: they’re already organized just so, as the library of my life.    
Kate Racculia is a novelist living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the novels This Must Be the Place and Bellweather Rhapsody, winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Award. Her third novel, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. She teaches online for Grub Street, works at her local public library, and sings in the oldest Bach choir in America.          

Visit Kate at:
Here's information about her latest novel:
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Published on September 10, 2019 04:26

June 17, 2019


I have always loved the idea of literary salons, in which creatives from all disciplines gather to discuss issues, challenges, inspirations, and joys in their work. One of my greatest pleasures in maintaining this blog is the chance to create an online version of the salon with guest posts by people I admire and love.
Today, I'm delighted to welcome my friend, sister writer, Janice Eidus, and her daughter, Alma.
The ways in which Janice and Alma, whose photos illustrate the post, connect through their art inspires me. I hope it will inspire you too!
Take it away, Janice!

            I marvel at the intensity and craft of the photographs in my daughter’s portfolio. Now 16, Alma has wanted to become a professional photographer since she was in middle school.             I marvel too at the deep connection between her work and mine as a writer. For instance, a while back, Alma took a series of photographs of her close friend Natalie. Tall, thin, and doe-eyed, Natalie is conventionally attractive by society’s standards. But Alma’s intention was to reveal her friend’s inner beauty: her loyalty, generosity, intelligence, and empathy. In one photo, Natalie is surrounded by lights seemingly suspended from the sky. In another she walks dreamily through the rain.

            My intention too is to explore the inner lives of my characters. When the husband in my comic novel Urban Bliss cheats on his wife, I delve into his past so that readers will understand why. In my short story Vito Loves Geraldine I examine what underlies teenaged Geraldine’s unconditional and undying love for Vito, the cutest boy in their Bronx neighborhood.             One afternoon on impulse Alma took a photo of a young girl alone in a playground. The girl’s back is to the camera. Unmoving, she sits on a swing, appearing disconnected from the world around her. My story Davida’s Own was similarly inspired by my sighting of a girl the same age alone on a beach, staring at the water.            In her self-portraits, Alma limns her transformation from a shy 13-year-old to a poised high school junior. Her tentative expression and stance at 13 are determined and confident at 16. In my autobiographical essays, I reveal myself as a woman grappling with a difficult past while delighting in current joys. I describe how as a child I scrawled short poems, plays, stories, and “novels” about my life with a charismatic yet violent father and a depressed mother. Like Alma’s friend Natalie I was sometimes surrounded by light and sometimes by storms.            Recently, Alma shot a black-and-white series of a woman’s hand. The woman appears to be sitting at a table with a copy of The New Yorker, an energy bar, and a cup of tea in front of her. As the photos unfold, the woman’s hand turns the pages of The New Yorker. She takes bites of the energy bar. She sips from the cup of tea. Here, Alma is paying homage to Andy Warhol, an artistic hero of hers and mine. Like Warhol, whose subjects range from sleep to soup cans, Alma brings together seemingly quotidian details while analyzing the texture of contemporary life and art. And by the way, it’s my hand, magazine, and cup of black tea in Alma’s photos, which makes me feel a heightened and profound connection to them.

            Alma’s current subject is shadows. With intricate lighting and meticulously arranged vases, flowers, and everyday items like fabrics, she captures with her camera shadows of various shapes and sizes. These shadows remind me that my writing – even the most comical – contains dark and shadowy truths. In Urban Bliss, the husband’s illicit affair is painful for both himself and his wife. In Vito Loves Geraldine, I look not only at the pleasures of unconditional love but also at its implicit heartaches.              Many photographers inspire Alma, including Martin Schoeller whose portraits of both celebrities and non-celebrities are un-posed and natural, evoking their genuine personalities. She also loves the work of the young British photographer Juno Calypso whose photographs subvert the meanings of the words “feminine” and “romantic” as she embarks on a solo world tour of honeymoon hotels.            As for me, I’m influenced by numerous writers. Angela Carter’s stunning, elegant prose and fierce feminist vision show me how fiction can transform readers’ worldviews. Edgar Allan Poe’s unreliable narrators have intrigued me since I was a little girl reading Annabel Lee for the first time.        Day by day, Alma inspires me as well. I’m confident that she and I will continue on our respective artistic journeys. Along the way, we’ll learn more and more about the power of the imagination, the thrilling and rewarding artistic process, and our own deep – and ever-deepening – connection.Photo by Alma Kastan

Alma Kastan is a rising high school senior. She studies photography at The International Center of Photography and New York Film Academy, and plans to become a professional photographer.Janice Eidus is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and a writing coach who works one-on-one and in small groups. She’s twice won 
the O.Henry Prize as well as a Pushcart Prize; her novels include The War Of The RosensUrban Bliss; and The Last Jewish Virgin. Her short story collections are Vito Loves Geraldine and The Celibacy Club. Her website is

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Published on June 17, 2019 06:10

May 23, 2019

Dark Fascination: Serial Killers and me

What have I been doing the past year-- besides not blogging? If you've seen the photos I've posted, you've probably imagined me wandering through nature appreciating moments of wonder, beauty and peace. And though that is true, I doubt you've imagined me devouring books and movies about serial killers. And if you happened to peek at my browser history, which on a given day might include searches for homicide by strangulation and the decomposition of a body buried in a pit, you'd be forgiven for backing away, carefully.

If you're a writer, you know I'm doing research. The two main characters in my new novel are a female magician and a serial killer. My fascination with murder and mystery is not new. I was a noir kid growing up in suburbia. By night I was a fearless detective who helped Nancy Drew, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlow navigate the dark unknown. Problem was that by day I was a wimp, scared of the dark, horror movies, snakes, and clowns.

My imagination magnified all dangers. A mere glimpse of a scene in a horror film would root in my mind for decades. Here's one I can't forget (I've blocked the title!): the moment a man realizes that his wife has been possessed by evil forces. As he stares in horror, her face shifts from human to leering skeleton and back to human. But from that moment on, no matter what she says or does, he knows that she hides her true self behind the mask of a beautiful woman.

My desire to be a detective led to my desire at age 9 to be a writer, or a detective with a pen. My writing is a search for clues to understand what it means to be human. In the end, isn't that the greatest mystery of all?

Maybe that's the source of my dark fascination with serial killers: how they manage to compartmentalize their various identities and roles. I have seen the face of madness, more than once. Once you've seen it, you never forget the terrifying moment when the mask is removed, and the shadow-self is revealed. Serial killer, Ted Bundy, called his dark force The Entity. Dexter, TV's favorite serial killer, called his shadow, The Dark Passenger, and said, "The only way to kill a Dark Passenger is to take out the Driver." When the Driver is charming, charismatic, and attractive, it is difficult to believe the gruesome brutality of his crimes. Which leads us back to Ted Bundy.

I began reading about him a few years ago, and quickly grew fascinated and dove into the extensive Bundy bibliography. In the early days, I had the naive hope that if I read enough, learned every detail of his life, the secrets he hid to the stories of every woman he murdered, I'd come closer to understanding him and perhaps find the human connection that would help me create my own killer.

I soon realized that would not happen. Psychologists who studied him could come to no conclusions either. But I'm not the only one who is fascinated by Bundy. Though his murderous rampage was conducted in the 70s, you could say that he's the serial killer of the moment. There are two movies about him currently airing on Netflix, both directed by Joe Berlinger. The first is a 4-part documentary, "Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," during which we hear Bundy analyze himself through a third-person perspective that allows him to distance himself from his "confessions." Even so, the interviewer recalls that when Bundy "really got going," his blue eyes "went absolutely black," echoing Carol DaRonch, who described his "beady, blank, lifeless eyes." DaRonch was the one that got away, and it's because of her testimony that he was first caught and sentenced.

Hoping for a clue to the "why," we listen to Bundy describe his idyllic childhood much the way his mother describes "the best son in the world," but at every point his whitewashing is punctured: he had no idea how to act with people, especially girls; he was arrested twice for suspicion of burglary and car theft, the records expunged when he turned 18; he was a loner who wandered his neighborhood at night, peering into windows to watch women undress. We hear him pontificate on all manner of subjects at mind-numbing length until on Death Row, he finally admits to committing at least 30 murders, and we hear the chilling whisper of a killer confessing in first person to transporting the head of one of his victims for necrophiliac purposes.

How do you reconcile the monster who went on a one night mad rampage of rape, torture, and murder through a sorority house in Tallahassee, and then stole a car and while on the run, stopped to buy socks with a stolen credit card. Lots and lots of socks.

"One of my fondest dreams is to have all the underwear and socks I ever could conceivably use. It’s one of my fantasies. To be able to wear new socks every day!"

Yes, that's Ted. Obsessed with socks. He once said if he'd had enough white socks, he'd have been happy. A sock fetish? A need to be pure, as if by changing into a new pair of white socks every morning, he could erase the crimes of the day before? A wish for enough money to buy dozens and dozens of socks and never have to worry that he couldn't pay for them? Maybe a mix of all the above.

All his life he envied those who had money and felt insecure and outclassed by them. The truth is he was insecure around everyone because they seemed to hold the secret to... simply being human. What did it mean to fall in love with someone? To be one of the popular guys who knew what to say and do, who got girls effortlessly? That insecurity was matched with an arrogance-- he was smarter than everyone else. And for years, it seemed that he was.

The second film, "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," is a feature film starring Zac Efron as Bundy, that is based on Elizabeth Kloepfer's memoir, "The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy." Efron is great but the movie wants to have it both ways: to tell the story from Liz Kloepfer's perspective while describing events she had no way of seeing. The book actually reveals the tension of what it meant for her to love and live with Bundy on and off for several years.   

I first read her account a couple of years ago, hoping to find out what she saw and experienced. Were there clues to his secret identity? Did she sense something was wrong? I also wanted to know how it was from his perspective, how he managed to live with a woman and her small daughter for years, day in day out, no escape hatch, no place to hide. It was while he lived with her that he began his killing spree, attacking female students at universities in Washington and Oregon. He killed, and then went home to Liz and her daughter. Were they only his cover, his mask to appear normal, or did he feel something for them? He did have black nights, when he disappeared to his own apartment. Ah, I thought, that's where he went to take off the mask and breathe before returning to the performance of being Ted Bundy, law student, suicide hotline operator, and loving boyfriend.

Ted Bundy and Liz Kloepfer
Liz did grow to suspect him. Turns out that the nights the girls disappeared, he did not stay at her apartment. He had curious objects in his car and apartment--a hatchet, crutches, pantyhose, and a bowl of female underwear. She called the police in Washington and in Utah to report her suspicious boyfriend, but they dismissed her calls. After she reported him, she stayed with him. That's the stumbling block for most of us. You suspect your live-in boyfriend is a killer, but you take him back again and again.

And yet isn't that what we do with handsome, charming men who-- as Ted Bundy put it-- "snow" us? We don't want to believe that evil hides behind a smiling human face. Centuries ago, Shakespeare said it: "That a man may smile and smile and be a villain." Our first instinct is to insist that evil is something foreign and separate from us, as if the killer is out there, an alien monster, non-human, and we are watching safely from behind our curtains. It's a means of self-preservation, a delusion we want to preserve, because the alternative is far more terrifying, maybe the source of the true horror: the Dark Passenger is the guy in VW Beetle next to you at the red light, smiling, and when the light changes, off he goes, leaving a trail of white socks.
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Published on May 23, 2019 13:40

May 16, 2017

From Mummies to Aliens: The Power of Language

Alien language in the film Arrival

Coffin of the Lady of the House, Weretwahset, circa 1292–1190 B.C.E. Brooklyn Museum)
I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum and was fascinated by the exhibit, "Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt." The ancient Egyptians believed in rebirth, and therefore, placed great importance on the rituals of death and burial, including mummification, spells carved on tomb walls and coffins, and the prayers in the Book of the Dead that accompanied the body. 
A curious belief they had was that in order to make rebirth possible for a woman, she had to briefly turn into a man. According to Egyptian belief: the man created the fetus and transferred it to the woman during intercourse. So... a woman alone in her tomb could not conceive the fetus of her reborn self. What do you think they did? Deny women the possibility of an afterlife? Or come up with a creative solution? Like magically transforming a woman's mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus? 
That's exactly what they did. Priests turned a female into a male by the strategic use of male color and language. Red was the color used to represent a man's skin so they painted the woman's skin red -- on her coffin. 
And as a writer, here's what I find most interesting: the "you" in their language had both a masculine and feminine form. On the woman's coffin, and in spells recited by the priest, the woman was addressed with the masculine form of the pronoun, as if to fool the gods that the body buried inside the coffin was a man.
Earlier scholars attributed this to mistakes, but recent research reveals the logic behind the transformation, and the magical power of language to not only affect reality, but to change it. Later, the woman will return to her female identity and be reborn as a woman, but for a brief time, the ancient Egyptians believed that through words she could be transformed into a man long enough to give birth to herself. 
Like everything that explores and demonstrates the power of words, this blows my mind. It reminds me of the film, ARRIVAL, in which a human linguist (Amy Adams) decodes the written language of aliens. Their ink blot language is circular, no beginning or end. As the linguist learns their language, her mind expands to accept their vision of time, and she begins to perceive the world as they do, circular rather than linear. The verb tenses, or concepts of "future" and "past" no longer have any meaning, or at least not the meaning we attribute to them. The film's central idea demonstrates the theory of linguistic relativity -- that the structure of language affects its speakers. Past and future events swirled through the movie in no apparent order -- making it a frustrating experience for some viewers and a very exciting one for others. 
The idea that language shapes our world dates back to the mummies, and long before. Whether or not we believe in the power of words to express our thoughts and beliefs, and even more, to actually shape and determine them -- i.e., to transform gender or to see past and future as a flowing circle rather than a horizontal line -- we can, I think, agree that language teaches us a great deal about who we are, what we fear and desire, our potentials and our limitations. And our responsibility to use language with care.
Words can offer passageways into wondrous realities. Or slam the door in our face. 
As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul.                                                                                     -- Edmond Jabes

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Published on May 16, 2017 07:04

April 24, 2017

Owning a New Identity, As Writer

Working on the very last edits of my novel before it went to press. If  I had to select one photo of truest self, this would be it.My friend and sister writer, Kate Brandes, just published her first novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard, a powerful, compassionate story that is both relevant and timely. It's my pleasure to turn today's blog post over to her. She has very insightful words to share about what it means to be a "real writer." Take it away, Kate!

                                               OWNING A NEW IDENTITY, AS WRITER

A photo of me as a child with the word "thinker " written on the back At the age of 46, after seven years of working on my novel, it will be published this yearJ
I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties. Before that I worked as an environmental scientist and didn’t think of myself as a creative person.
I found after my first son was born that I wanted to try making something that would reflect my view of the world. I’ve always loved reading fiction and understand the world better through stories.  I’ve also kept journals all my life, used mostly for working out problems or making important decisions. So perhaps it was inevitable that I turned to writing as the creative outlet I found myself searching for.
Even though I had two small children, a full time job, and more volunteer commitments than any sane person should have, I crammed in time to learn how to tell a story on paper. I worked hard, whenever I could. And eventually, after years of rewriting and rewriting, I got a publishing contract for my book.
Part of the job when you have a book coming out is to seek out successful novelists and ask if they’ll do you the favor of reading an early copy of your book and, if they like it, write a short “blurb” you might feature on the cover or inside pages of the final novel.
So last fall, this is what I found myself doing and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I had to ask established writers that I admire, all people I didn’t know well, if at all, if they would read my entire novel and say something about it even though I could offer nothing in return and they were busy with a million other important things. Some said no, but to my surprise several said yes and were gracious and generous. I will always be grateful to them.
I confided to one of these writers how hard it was to reach out to her and ask this favor because, I told her, she was a real writer with commercial success, and I was just pretending to know what I was doing.
She quickly emailed back and told me she had two words of advice for me and they were: Own It.
I’ve thought a lot about her response. She’s right. We should own everything we do. I’ve worked more than a decade on my writing. I do have a newly published book and some short stories. And yet... I still struggled to feel like myself in these new writer shoes.
It’s been an interesting journey from environmental scientist to writer. My entire community of people used to know me only as a scientist.  This includes everyone with whom I went to college and graduate school and everyone I’ve worked with over 20+ years.
But lately, some people only know me as writer. In many ways my long-held identity as a scientist is fading to the background as my investment in my writing self grows. It’s dizzying at times.
But what I’ve found is that with each new experience as a writer, which have been many this year with a first book coming out: readings, signings, teaching my first workshop, and more – I am more a writer everyday. I am owning it because I’m having to live it. That’s the way people grow all the time. I don’t hesitate much anymore to call myself a writer.
Working as the science director at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania in 2009
With my kids in 2013

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Published on April 24, 2017 04:32

April 17, 2017

Miracles for Breakfast or How I Learned to Love Poetry

The professor I was secretly in love with gave me the book. I’d never heard of the author, Elizabeth Bishop, and I didn’t like poetry.
“I have an assignment for you,” he said.
“I won’t like it if it’s work,” I warned.
“Keep the book by your bed, and every night read a poem until you find the one that speaks to you. Then read it over and over, dream about it, write it out word by word, sing it, draw it, eat it, drink it… until it’s inside you.”
“Then what?”
“Then read it to me.”
The book was slim with a torn cover. It had belonged to him. On the title page he’d written, “For Ruth,” in his confident black scrawl. I breathed in the pages to see if I smelled his solid, sensual, hard scent. Then I set the book on my windowsill, where it absorbed fresh air and sounds from other windows. Each night I restlessly searched the pages, but 
“A Miracle for Breakfast.” found me.  
At six o'clock we were waiting for coffee, 
waiting for coffee and the charitable crumb 
that was going to be served from a certain balcony 
--like kings of old, or like a miracle. 
It was still dark. One foot of the sun 
steadied itself on a long ripple in the river. 
Each night I read it like a prayer… a love letter… a note thrust into a crevice in the Wailing Wall. I knew nothing about the poet, nothing about poetry, nothing about form. But I knew about miracles, and I knew how breakfast—coffee, a roll, eating crumbs off my palm, the sun rising over water—could be a miracle. I knew nothing... but I tasted this poem. I tasted the poet.
Winter turned to spring, and each night I kissed the words. My bedtime ritual. No matter how late I came home to my tiny apartment, the last thing I did before sleeping was to read my poem. Sometimes only the first and last stanzas. Sometimes I skipped around. I loved these lines:
Was the man crazy? What under the sun 
was he trying to do, up there on his balcony! 
Was the man crazy? Was I? One night, stunned, I discovered the pattern. Six words were repeated creatively, wildly, in each stanza: coffee, crumb, balcony, sun, river, and miracle. I looked it up: a sestina! I was as awed as if I’d discovered a new country, scaled a mountain peak.
The pattern made me fall in love with the poet. To be able to do that—to disguise the pattern, to use the same words in different order, and yet to tell a story—that was a miracle. That was art. I cried that night, alone in my bed crammed with books, papers, dreams of stories half-written and travels not yet taken. I cried for Elizabeth Bishop, for the narrator of the poem, for my professor, for myself, for all of us waiting for a miracle for breakfast.
Months after he’d given me the book, I went to his office and read him the poem. His eyes teared. So did mine. I thanked him but it took me years to understand the power of the gift he’d given me. The gift I try to share whenever I can.
Years later, I learned the poem, written in the mid-1930s, was about the Depression.
Decades later, I read Billy Collins: “They want to tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.” And I thanked my professor again for showing me how to fall in love with a poem. 
Last week, I watched Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson, about Paterson, a busdriver (played by Adam Driver), who creates poetry out of the miracles of everyday life. Each morning over his breakfast of Cheerios, he ponders the beauty and power of a humble Ohio Bluetip Matchbox and transforms it into the flame of his love for his wife. The poem (written by poet Ron Padgett) begins with these lines:
We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue tip . . .

Simple, concrete words. William Carlos Williams, the patron saint of the film, said, “No ideas but in things.” He called poetry, “a necessary guide amid the bewilderments of life.”
Throughout the day Paterson eavesdrops on conversations, walks his dog, drinks at a neighborhood bar, and jots down his lines. Slowly, we see what it means to live life as an artist: to be here in this world, and simultaneously to be there in the world you’ve created. The artist merges the two.
Every art teaches us how to see. It takes strands of reality and weaves them into something that makes others see what you see, and in the process helps them to see their own reality, transformed into a poem, a painting, a song, a story. Poetry shows us how to see the miracle in the matchbox.
We licked up the crumb and swallowed the coffee.
A window across the river caught the sun
as if the miracle were working, on the wrong balcony. 


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Published on April 17, 2017 07:44