Approaching Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  I love it because it has resisted in quite admirable fashion being morphed into a “Hallmark Moment,”  replete with cards, gifts, and candy.  I love it because it is one of the few holidays (July Fourth being the other) that everyone who considers themselves American celebrates together.  It doesn’t matter where you are from or what religious traditions you follow, it belongs to everyone. 

 I love asking my community college students what they eat for Thanksgiving.  Seems as if almost everyone has turkey, but what ends up inside the turkey is as wide-ranging in its diversity as the country itself. The sides might be tamales,  pancit,  or sticky rice  in place of, or alongside mashed potatoes with gravy, and the bread might as easily be tortillas or injera as dinner rolls.

 Thanksgiving speaks to the universal need to express gratitude, an acknowledgment of this simple fact by the nation with the most to be grateful for.  Sure we have our problems, collectively and individually, but I try to remind myself that even at the lowest points of my life (which those who know me are aware have been pretty low) , I am more fortunate than most of the people on the planet.  For many years in place of a grace that  my agnostic family could  not say with any real sincerity, we went around the table and said a few things we were grateful for.  And then we dug in and ate and ate and ate.

But my purpose today is not to write about my personal list for this year, but to talk about some of the “big picture” things I am grateful for.  I was reminded of some of these by an article by Don Harrison, editor/publisher of San Diego Jewish World, which appeared in that paper today.  He had made a visit to a local university and been moved by a corridor which featured quotations from different wisdom traditions around the world.  Here are a few that particularly touched me:

Corridor of Wisdom Traditions at the University of San Diego.  Photo by Don Harrison
Corridor of Wisdom Traditions at the University of San Diego. Photo by Don Harrison

Buddhism on Service: May I through whatever good I have accomplished become one who works for the complete alleviation of the suffering of all beings. May I be medicine for the sick. May I be their physician and attend to them until their disease no longer recurs. May I be an inexhaustible storehouse for the poor and may I always be the first in being ready to serve them in various ways. May I be a protector for the unprotected, a guide for travelers on the way; a boat, a bridge, a means of crossing for those who seek the other shore. For all creatures may I be a light for those who need a light, a bed for those who need a bed, and a servant for those who need a servant — Bodhicaryavat?ra of Shantideva

Judaism on Wisdom — Happy is the person who finds wisdom and who gets understanding. In her right hand is length of days; in her left hand riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life for those who grasp her and whoever holds onto her is happy. Do not forsake her; she will preserve you. Love her and she will protect you, hug her to you and she will exalt you, embrace her and she will bring you honor. The wisdom is a house built and by understanding it is established. Whoever finds wisdom finds life and obtains favor from the Lord. — Proverbs 3

Christianity on Love: Love is always patient and kind. Love is never jealous. Love is not boastful or conceited. It is never rude and never seeks its own advantage. It does not take offense or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes. — 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Native American Tradition on Respect: O Great Spirit Whose voice I hear in the winds and Whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I am small and weak. I need Your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty and let my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunset. Make my hands respect the things that You have made and my ears grow sharp to hear Your voice. Make me wise so that I may understand the things that You have taught my people. Let me learn the lessons that You have hidden in every leaf and rock. I seek strength not to be greater than my brother and sister but to fight my greatest enemy: myself. Make me always ready to come to You with clean hands and straight eyes so when life fades as the fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame — Let Me Walk in Beauty

Today I am thankful for the opportunity to reflect upon service, wisdom, love, and respect, and thankful for the lives of those who have passed these words on for all of us to contemplate.



Pretend It’s Broken

A short time ago I wrote a diary entry here entitled “Keeping Still.” I don’t allow comments on my site, since I am inundated by spam when I leave that possiblility open, but I wanted to share a wonderful response I got via e-mail  (please feel free to write to me in the same way, at lacauthor@gmail.com). It’s from David Fuller, author of the much-acclaimed novel SWEETSMOKE.  

“I have not reread SWEETSMOKE in some time and do not plan to in the near

David Fuller
David Fuller

future,” he writes. ” I went through it… for any changes I might have wanted to make to the paperback, and it was a slog because of how I had to read it — carefully, looking for problems.  Then there are times when I will read something in it that I feel is pretty good, and I know it’s my work, but it’s certainly not what I would write even now if I was thinking about certain things.  It’s not the work that you pen the first time through.  That fact can feel a little odd when you are reading something of your own that you like but don’t necessarily recognize as your style. ”

I’ve had a lot of experience with what David Fuller is talking about, having writen seventeen YA (Young Adult) books before switching to narrative non-fiction with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, and seguing there into historical fiction with THE FOUR SEASONS.  It’s really quite amusing–and very weird–to pick up one of my YA books on, say, Afghanistan, and not to recognize my writing at all, nor in many cases to remember material I once knew well enough to write about.  It’s like consulting any other book on the shelf, but having to remind myself that although it feels all new to me, that particular book is my work.  

“At that point,” Fuller goes on,  “I try to remember the immense amount of time I spent rewriting, combing those sentences until  they were humming.” Though perhaps too much time has passed to remember my YA writing clearly, I do recall parts of  subsequent works that well.  There are passages of only a couple of pages that took as long to get right as it took to write and edit the rest of the chapter in which they appear.  I don’t know why it is that some things stay clumsy and inert and other spring to life as if they have  just woken up rather than been created at all, but that’s the way it is.

But memory of which is which does fade.  I once heard a young mother say that it was lucky recollections of labor quickly receded, or women would definitely think twice about ever having another child.   Writing a book is a lot like that. Or should I say writing another book.

Fuller’s advice?   “Walk away from it.  Pretend it’s broken.  […] You need perspective, which can only come with time or a fresh set of eyes.  When you come back to it, you’ll be clear-headed and you will almost certainly find the nuggets of joy and brilliance, and you’ll dig them out.”

So that’s what I’m doing.  I have relegated THE LAWS OF MOTION, my newly completed book, to the same mental compartment as the cranky laptop that needs to go in for repair, the water filter in the fridge that needs replacing, and the car that needs servicing.  Other things beckon right now. Nothing’s really broken, and their time has not yet come.

And speaking of that, David Fuller also solved the mystery of the old advertising slogan I quoted in “Keeping Still.  Paul Masson is the wine that wouldn’t be sold before its time.  I don’t know if Paul Masson wine is still around–haven’t seen it for a while–but I hope, with patience and more work, that the LAWS OF MOTION, when published, will have a long and lovely “shelf life.”



Where Were the Women?

The earliest stages of the writing process for me involve no writing at all.  Long stretches of poring over other people’s work are punctuated by intervals spent staring out of windows or at blank walls.  It is in this stage, when I am trying to grasp what my story might be, that I notice most acutely the dearth of historical records about women.  

To pull off a historical novel, one must have piles of information, and sometimes the inverse proportion is what is most golden–the more mundane and trivial a piece of information may seem, the more exciting it is to the novelist.   Sure, it’s important to know the things that historians revel in–famous people’s actions and words, but I want to know what swear words people might have uttered under their breath, how they took care of their bodily functions, and what they wore to bed.

Most lacking is information about what was happening in the women’s sphere–the home, and the immediate neighborhood. To be sure, some historians specialize in such things, but even they can’t conjure up records of things no one thought to write down.  And unfortunately, those things often render to women the final blow of invisibility: even their names are often unrecorded.  This is especially true for Jews, who lack the baptismal records that are sometimes the only evidence a person existed.

Right now, for example, I am looking into the life of a famous Jewish scholar and diplomat in Medieval Spain.  I know the name of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, but no one at the time recorded the the name of his wife.  Sources all name his three sons, but disagree about whether he had daughters, and if so, how many.  One major source refers to periods of great domestic happiness in this man’s life, but I am left wondering what that means.  That happiness is enhanced by an invisible wife?  That sons are all a man really needs?  I hate these thoughts and try to banish them quickly, for I don’t really believe that’s the way it was.  But without such records, how much we have lost!

And then again, information can come from the most unlikely sources.  I recently bought a cookbook of recipes from the Sephardic Jews of Spain.  Ironically, one way to gain enough notoriety to have one’s name recorded for posterity was to be brought before the Inquisition.  Because the original target of the Inquisition was those Jewish converts to Christianity whose practice of their new faith was perceived to be insincere, neighbors and servants often gave testimony against “New Christian”  women who were still following the Sabbath and keeping kosher homes. Inquisition records often go into great detail about what foods these women cooked and what practices they observed–a gold mine for the novelist, from a period of human history wretched and vile enough to bring even housewives out of invisibility.

My novels all focus on women–real where possible, and imagined in situations where I know such women must have existed. Unfortunately, even where the women are real, their stories are achingly sad, leaving one to think that perhaps they had not been quite invisible enough.  Still, as a novelist, I embrace the chance to let their silenced voices speak to us about their world,  our shared humanity, and the continuing mistake of valuing some lives more than others.


Keeping Still

I’ve become a big fan of Facebook as a means of keeping in touch with fellow authors.  It’s been fun to show up a writers’ conferences and feel that so many people are already friends.  I know more about some of them than I do about people I’ve said hello to for twenty years in the mailroom at my college  (although I know more about some of them as a result of Facebook as well.)

Some of my author friends are slogging through writing the middle of books and getting little cooperation from their characters, some have newly released novels or are counting the days till release,  some are just starting research, and others are resting up for the next one, perhaps still wondering what indeed it might be and whether they have it in them to take it on.  Some are dealing with rejection and some with a little more success than their life energy can handle.

But we all know essential things about each other that no one else really can–those things that are part of the private world of being an author.  And so it came as no surprise to me that there was an outpouring of comments to Sandra Gulland’s recent post, which she entitled “Post-Finishing Doubts.”

“Now that I have finished the first draft of The Next Novel, I’m awash with doubts. I don’t think I’ve gotten to the heart of the story,” she writes.   But he nice thing about first drafts is that it’s not too late.  The hard part is that we may feel we’ve already given it everything we can, or are willing, to give.   And so the question becomes something akin to what Robert Frost meant by “what to make of a diminished thing.”  The book isn’t as good as we wanted or hoped, and perhaps we will have to resign ourselves in the end to John Steinbeck’s sentiment that “It’s not good enough, but it’s the best I can do.” If he felt that way about THE GRAPES OF WRATH, what hope could there possibly be  for mere mortals like my Facebook friends and me?

There’s a deeply uncomfortable window of time when one has finished the first draft of a novel and has no stamina or creative juices to call upon to address one’s dissatisfactions or doubts.  It’s easy to get a little freaked out at this point.  I’m there myself with my novel THE LAWS OF MOTION.  I can envision seeing it published some day,  but I wouldn’t want it fixed in print just the way it is right now. The problem is that at the moment I don’t know how to make it better, nor do I have the energy to dig right back in, even if I knew what needed to be done.

I’m with Steinbeck on this. I think his attitude is probably the healthiest one to have while negotiating the huge amount of work involved in writing a book.  My first pass at a scene won’t be good enough, but it will be the best I can do at the moment.  The second pass will be the same, and the third, fourth, and twentieth.  And then eventually the whole work really will be the best I can do, and it will be time to send it forth and hope that some of the lessons I learned stick for the next one.

A friend of Sandra’s put it perfectly in her Facebook response: “This may be a ‘keeping still’ time,[to] allow what you’ve done some time to be absorbed without wondering and worrying about it for a bit.”  Another recalled those great Orson Welles ads for some cheap wine whose name I have long forgotten. In a stentorian voice he proclaimed, “We will sell no wine before its time.”   Perhaps we will finish no book before its time either.


On Research

In the Q&A session after a recent talk I gave,  someone asked how I go about  the research involved in writing historical fiction.   SInce I am now in the early planning stages for my fourth novel, it’s a subject that is very close at hand, and I thought I would say something about it here.

  I have tried out a number of research strategies in the course of writing my novels, and I have settled on a method that works  efficiently and effectively for me.  First, I spend a number of months just reading about the era in which a book will be set.  I read histories, cultural studies, biographies, and anything else that seems essential to a basic understanding.  At this point I’m not sure who my characters are going to be, or even what the personality of the main character will be like, but it’s important to have a good sense for what their culture makes them likely or unlikely to do, think, or say.

As I study, I am making note of particularly colorful people and events, to see if I can figure out a way to work them in. As the chronology and cast of characters begin to emerge, I figure out a timeline and settings for the novel. Because I always have a strong female point-of-view character, I can then give her a date of birth, a name, a family background, a place of residence, and so on.  From there, I build my initial plan for the novel, incorporating a broad outline of the key characters’ life stories into the chronology I have established.  Unlike some authors I know,  I don’t outline in any more detail than this, because I’ve learned from experience that the story will turn out differently as I get to know the characters better.

There’as an amazing point in every book where the characters take over, and I feel more like the recorder of something that really did happen than the inventor of it. Emile Zola called his works “experimental novels,” meaning that when a character is put in an situation ( i.e., a new experiment), who they are will drive what happens.  That’s when a book begins to have a life of its own. I know generally how my characters will react to their situation and what decisions are consistent with who they are, but I don’t know exactly what they will do or say next.  Sometimes they surprise me as my fingers fly over the keys, but I end up realizing that what I wrote was consistent with who they are at a deeper level than I had understood before. When they take on additional depth for me, they do so for the reader as well.

Because I usually get inspired to start writing before I have studied more than the best general sources, I stop often to fill in the gaps in my knowledge on a need-to-know basis.  The advantage of this approach is that the research doesn’t drive the novel, but rather the needs of the novel drive the research.  I don’t like it when a historical novelist intrudes to share background information, regardless of how interesting it is.  To me that’s fictionalized history rather than historical fiction.  The characters and the story have to come first on every page, and the task is to find a way to share interesting information through the characters.  If a writer is thinking about how to build in as much as possible of the research he or she has already done, the priorities will shift away from the most immediate tasks at hand, character development and plot.

No research plan is perfect.  It can be a little scary starting to write without having all the material I need.  Perhaps in earlier times more research was necessary from the beginning. Today, with information about almost any topic available in seconds online, I favor keeping my mind as free as possible of anything except the immediate writing task at hand, and the floor of my study as clear as possible of stacks of books I may or may not ever use.  And for that, my ever-patient and supportive partner (who shares that study with me)  gives a big thumbs up as well!


Coming Down with a Book

I’ve named it CWS, this affliction I suffer from: Chronic Writer’s Syndrome.  It starts out simply enough, with the feeling that just maybe you’ve reached the point where you’re ready to take on the challenge of writing a full-length book, and before you know what’s happened, a few years have passed and you don’t feel you’re living at your fullest unless you are writing  a book. 

I have written four books in six years,  beginning  in early 2004 with UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH, and ending with a finished first draft of THE LAWS OF MOTION in September 2009, so I know how CWS sets in.  You get,  say, 80 percent of the way through one book, and you find your mind wandering to what might be next.   It’s a subtle, almost unnoticeable process by which another set of characters from another place and time start tiptoing into the study and sitting down to wait quietly for you to notice they’re there.

Next, I find my breaks from writing being taken up with online bookstore crawling for works on the subject of the next novel, as well as quick online searches for answers to little questions that start lodging in my mind.  At this point, there might still be a battle going on between several ideas for books– probably lucky those characters aren’t really sitting in my study, since it might get ugly!  I haven’t been grabbed yet by one idea or another, but by some subtle process I can’t explain, one concept, or era, or character emerges, and everything else is put aside as I  acknowledge to myself that yes, I now know what I will write next.

Diane Ackerman very wittily calls this stage of the process “coming down with a book.”  And I have come down with one.  This is the stage where writers tend

With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center
With Diane Ackerman at a reception in her honor at the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center

 to be very possessive and don’t  to share much, so all I will say at the moment is that it will be set in Iberia in the era known as Age of Exploration.  It will be  a multi-generational saga, set in the richest cultural and historical  setting I  have ever worked with. It will be the most difficult challenge of my career as an author, and I am ready for it.

It’s a little rocky for me right now, since I don’t really want to be coming down with another book quite so soon. I am always  exhausted physically and emotionally after finishing a project, and I order myself not to jump into the next thing.   And this time I was doing a little better.  I’ve been writing book reviews for various publications,  creating  new materials for my  humanities classes at San Diego City College, and developing presentations for upcoming appearances. But  it’s not feeling like enough.  I’ve learned that, surprisingly, I could do all those other things and be writing a book too, since having less time is good motivation to use all time well. 

My good friend and fellow author Stephanie Cowell gave me this beautiful advice about this dilemma:  “It’s hopeless to fight it. The wonderful stage of beginning something is it’s so free…you don’t have to make the thing come together as a whole piece. You are just wandering in a wonderful new country like a tourist with money in her pocket and no place she has to be, sitting in a cafe, drinking wine thoughtfully….”

I like it.  And who says CWS has to be all bad?  How about a few tapas with that wine?
With author Stephanie Cowell in New York
With author Stephanie Cowell in New York

A Super September

Thanks to all my website readers for making September the most-visited month yet since the launch in January 2009. 

I broke the 1000 mark for  the first time, having 1068 unique visitors, who made 1951 total visits to the home page over the course of the month.  The number of foreign visitors has been steadily growing too, the most numerous being German, Canadian, Dutch, French, and British. 

 By far the most popular part of the site is the diary, which had over 3500 hits, many of these directly from the RSS feed. The most frequently hit diary entries include “Begin Again, Ernest, and This Time Concentrate,” Will the Woman in the Corset Please Get Off the Court?” and “Judging a Book by Its Cover.” 

Interestingly to me, all four of my books, fiction and non-fiction, published and unpublished, got roughly the same number of visitors to their sections on the site.  Hope that’s a good sign of interest in my future work! 

In a few months, I’ll soon be doing another major update and refurbishment to the photo gallery and the books section, so I hope you’ll keep checking in.  Again, thanks for your support not just of me but of  all those who work hard to write better than they think they can.


A Poetry Lover Confronts Her Closet

All you liberal arts, English major types might enjoy this.  It’s a poem I wrote after staring at my closet one day and having verses from a couple of poems flit into my mind.


A Poetry Lover Confronts Her Closet2881576414_fee6127938


About clutter I was never wrong.

And had I but world enough and time, I might have more.

Clutter to the left of me, clutter to the right of me,

But clutter is junk and junk clutter.  That is all I know on earth and all I need to know.


Today we have the purging of clothes.

Oh shorts, thou art stained—no grandeur in these dappled things.

Ignorant stray socks have clashed too long by night,

And your gossamer threads caught somewhere, oh my tights.


I’m martyr to a surplus all my own.

The apparition of these t-shirts in a pile

Is too much with me and lays waste my floor.

There is no going gentle into that top drawer.


Two earrings diverged on an unknown trip.

One with somewhere to go sailed calmly on.

Safe in its alabaster chamber, its mate’s forlorn.

Nevermore, I quote the raven, to be worn.


Here are some pants against which I have no official complaint.

But will there be time?  Will there be time

To arise and go, and go to Hems R We

Because rolled bottoms are too old for me?


I real cool.

I shopping fool.

Beware the credit card, my son—

Since feeling is first, we want no dream deferred.

Getting and spending in ah!—bright hopes,

Little we see in paychecks that is ours.


Shall I compare thee to what so much depends upon?

 The chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Or perhaps that is not what I meant at all.

Perhaps that is not it at all.


Authors Galore!

With author William Powers at the 2008 Backspace Conference in New York
With author William Powers at the 2008 Backspace Conference in New York

The Fourth Annual San Diego City College International Book Fair is just around the corner! It opens on Friday eve., October 2, with two speakers and a knock-your-socks-off concert by Perla Batalla, and then continues all day Saturday, October 3. I’m really excited and deeply honored to be one of the writers on the program.

The biggest excitement for me is the chance to connect again with a fellow author I met several years ago on a panel at a conference in New York. William Powers writes with quiet dignity and eloquence about what he calls the “soft world.” His subjects are indigenous people living amid the cultural onslaught and environmental degradation of international corporations in places like West Africa and South America. His books UNDER THE PANDA’S THUMB, and BLUE CLAY PEOPLE are must-reads for people advocating for true global citizenry, and Bill himself serves as a good example of what one tenacious person can accomplish.

He would be a hard enough act to follow, but looking at the schedule I see that I also have to come after someone who is arguably the best-known person on the program. Marilyn Chin is a renowned poet who has now written what sounds like a very entertaining debut novel about two young Chinese women trying to balance assimilation with traditionalism while driving a delivery van for a (bad) Chinese food joint.

An hour of inspiration followed by an hour that promises lots of laughter, and then it’s my turn. Gulp.

Nevertheless, I must admit that I am truly excited about the opportunity to speak about UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. Most of my appearances since the publication of THE FOUR SEASONS have been about that book, and I have been hoping for opportunities to share with audiences what I learned from writing UNTIL OUR LAST BREATH. After a short introduction to the book’s specific subject matter—Jews who fought back against the Nazis in Vilna, Lithuania—my experiences writing the book will be the primary focus of my talk.

The fair is an important part of San Diego City College’s emergence as a hub for writing in the San Diego area. It’s the brain child of Professor Jim Miller, the original director, and thrives now under current director Virginia Escalante, with the enthusiastic support of college president Terry Burgess, the City College Foundation, and many local sponsors. Come on down, if you can, and bring your kids–there a whole children’s area for budding authors. Here’s a complete list of speakers and events.


Happy New Year and Thanksgiving

medtashlichviIt’s mid-September, so what’s up with these greetings? My Jewish friends will understand the first. This weekend marks the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”). The High Holy Days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur, are a time for reflection on the past year in a uniquely Jewish way.

One important part of the process is a meditation known as Vidui. It’s essentially an inventory of all the ways a person can fall short of the mark. Though much of the prayer is focused on what is perceived as improper behavior toward God, there are also sections in which the focus is how we might have let ourselves and others down by not being the best person we can be.

The idea is to identify shortcomings and make amends if these have caused harm to others. Being sorry is not enough. One has to act on that sorrow with a genuine desire to heal the damage, directly if possible and indirectly if not, and then resolve to not fall short in that way again.

It’s a deeply moving process, if taken seriously. I have found in my own life that the High Holy Days have helped me come to grips with the unfinished business of the past, find a healthy and forward-looking resolution, and truly feel I can move on. Whether a believer of another faith or not, reviewing the Vidui for yourself can function as a form of self help–free therapy from an ancient rite! Those who want the secular take can scroll quickly through the rest.

So why is it Thanksgiving? This is more personal. There’s a ceremony on the first day of Rosh Hashanah called Tashlich, where Jews throw bread upon water as a way of casting aside the last year and moving into this period of renewal. I feel I keep a pretty close watch on myself year-round. I think I do a pretty good job of being mindful of the needs and feelings of others, and I do my best not to behave in a way that loads others down with burdens that rightfully I should carry. I’m pretty good about finding what requires atonement and doing it at the time. Since I’m not very good at coming up with a long list of things to repent, I use Tashlich a different way.

As I stand at the edge of the Pacific Ocean, I do my best to be grateful for something specific as I throw each morsel of bread. I’m grateful for friends and family; for meaningful work to do; for a comfortable standard of living; for opportunities to grow artistically, intellectually, and spiritually; for good health, and for so many other things. I give thanks, in essence, for the opportunities life provides me for happiness and the ability to move on from the things that stand in the way. May it always be so. Happy New Year!