Today’s compliment goes to Caroline Leavitt, The New York Times bestselling author of IS THIS TOMORROW, PICTURES OF YOU, AND CRUEL BEAUTIFUL WORLD. Caroline is a generous friend to writers, hosting us on her blog, CarolineLeavittville, and saying lovely things about us, and our books. When my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, hit the stands in 2010, she called it an “…imaginative and fiercely moving new debut,” and then followed the review with a Q&A on her blog. When my second novel, THE PLUME HUNTER, came out in 2011, she posted a Q&A about that book, too, as she has done for hundreds of authors, never once balking or worrying that there are only so many compliments to go around.
If you know Caroline, and have followed her on Facebook or Twitter, or through her books, you know she’s not only generous, but supremely talented – one of her essays landed in Modern Love, which is on every writer’s wish list. (Many are called; few are chosen.) She’s also a lover of boots and turtles and The Boy (her son), as well as movies, Hoboken, and her longtime partner-in-crime. Have I said she’s a terrific person?
If you don’t know her, introduce yourself. Check out her website and her blog, and read her novels – but support her, please – because as my dad says, she’s one of the good ones.
Over the years, I’ve picked up some pretty great writing tips from various writers and workshop teachers. Here’s a sampling of what I’ve learned:
- From Larry McMurtry, the importance of creating compelling characters
- From Truman Capote, the importance of providing compelling narrative
- From Ron Carlson and Wallace Stegner, the importance of a compelling setting
- From Frank McCourt, the importance of voice (think: Angela’s Ashes)
- From Will Allison, the importance of self-awareness (on the part of your protagonist)
- From Ron Carlson, the importance of infusing your story with work
- From Robert Olen Butler, the importance of infusing your story with yearning
- From Lynn Freed, the importance of appreciating that characters don’t always need to respond to one another in the midst of dialog (How are you? Fine. How are you? Blah, blah, blah…)
- From Annie Proulx: the importance of telling the story you most want to tell
These last two months, I’ve learned something new. I’ve been working with eight other writers in a workshop taught by Jodi Angel, author of YOU ONLY GET LETTERS FROM JAIL, and I’ve learned that I’m not only capable of writing in first and second person (I’ve never written in anything but third), but in a genre I’d never considered: science fiction. I’ve also learned that I can create entire (if compact) stories based on prompts (“windows,” as Jodi calls them), and that in attempting to present work that is sincere and polished, I have several pieces of flash-fiction that, after some minor revision, I’ll be able to submit and publish. Mostly, though, I’ve learned to push myself harder than I ever thought I could, and this has come entirely at Jodi’s urging.
And so today I compliment Jodi Angel, the only workshop leader who’s ever asked me to go beyond my norm, my comfort zone, my stuck-and-staid self so that I might become not only a better writer, but a truer version of myself. Thanks, Jodi – I’m looking forward to getting to it.
This is Steve, just after he started his first year of college. The kitten he’s cradling is the offspring of a feral female, and I had to coerce him to hold it; cats are not his thing. That said, he was good to that kitten, gently coaxing it from its hiding spot under the house so I could hold it too. That’s one of the reasons I love him.
We met when we were fifteen, during our sophomore year in high school. Steve came to Rio Americano as a transfer student from San Jose, and I remember well the first time I saw him. I was sitting at a Formica table in the cafeteria with a passel of girls, and he and Bob Daneke walked up to us, lunch trays in hand. Bob introduced Steve, and Steve and I looked at each other, glued in that proverbial eye lock that foreshadows fireworks and a soundtrack. But we didn’t have any classes together and no mutual friends, so we didn’t speak, or say “hi” in the hall, or do any of the things that young adults do when they’re attracted to one another.
Then one night we showed up at the same party. Kids were drinking and dancing and swimming and smoking, but we stood apart from them, cautiously assessing the goings-on. Somehow we found ourselves alone in a cabana, a brightly lit room with sliding glass doors. We stood next to a counter with a dead telephone, too shy to speak to each other. A good minute passed, and then Steve picked up the phone’s receiver, said, “Hello?” and then handed it to me. “It’s for you,” he said – the most brilliant come-on ever. I laughed, and he smiled, and as soon as he got his driver’s license, he asked me out on a date. (A separate story that involves French fries, coffee, and a pancake house called Sambo’s.)
We’ve been together for forty-six years, and today, on Steve’s sixty-first birthday, I want to compliment him on his wits and his wisdom, his ethics and morals and courage – all the things that make him the person I so love.
Happy birthday, Steve.
Just before leaving the house to help Steve at his office this morning, I received a call from my neighbor Patrice. Someone had hit a hawk with a car near our pasture, and she wondered if we could check on the bird and perhaps pick it up. Steve wasn’t home, so I hopped into the car to have a look-see. Turns out a woman driving by had seen the hawk flailing, and had pulled over, wanting to assist. I saw her standing at the side of the road, and told her I would run home and grab a box, hoping we could load up the bird together. We scooped him up in short order, and when I got home, I took this photo. This guy is mottled and looks pretty small, so I’m guessing it’s a juvenile red-shouldered hawk, since our neighbor Linda has a red-shouldered hawk nest in her front yard. I’m also guessing he’s got a broken wing, and possibly a broken leg, as he can’t fly and won’t put his foot down. (It’s a sad fact that only about 10 percent of young birds make it through their first year.)
As it happens, my neighbor Rhonda works as a volunteer at Gold Country Wildlife Rescue, maybe six miles from the house. I called her and asked if I could bring the bird in, and she said, “Yes, absolutely.” Gold Country is a non-profit, volunteer organization dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of injured, sick, and orphaned wildlife, and has served the local community, at no charge, for over 20 years. That’s pretty darned impressive, so today I want to compliment the staff and volunteers, and tell them how appreciative we are as a community that they’re working hard to help wildlife.
If you’re an animal lover (and I bet you are), I hope you’ll consider donating a couple of dollars to Gold Country Rescue. Like every non-profit they need your help, and you can send a check (info here) or donate through PayPal. Red-shouldered hawks will thank you!
Compliments today to the tenacious western bluebird who decided to go another round in the box built just for her. Steve and I have been watching her comings and goings the last few days, and checked the box last night, after investigating the wood duck box near the pond (four of fourteen eggs hatched). We’ll peek again in a week or so, and see what we’ve got inside.
Here’s Jena in Costa Rica, where locals warned her to securely lock all valuables, not because of human thieves, but because of Capuchin monkeys, who steal cameras, clothing, and money to buy snacks. If there are no vending machines in their ‘hoods, however, Capuchins will steal lollipops from the tiny fists of toddlers, to which Jena can attest. She witnessed the aforementioned thievery first hand, and no doubt lit out after those monkeys, because like her sister she is brave and more than a little big-hearted.
Jena is a rescuer of dogs, specifically American Staffordshire-mixes (hello, Miley!), and of birds trapped in air-conditioning vents in the attic of her house. She is the best friend of all best friends, traveling thousands of miles to support women she loves in times of celebration and suffering and need. She is a loving wife, protective mother, and devoted sister, giving without hesitation her time, attention, and devotion. And she’s the original Goonie – a little geek, a little nerd, a One-Eyed Willy on a pirate ship.
My compliments to you, sweet daughter, for who you are now, and have yet to become. Happy birthday, Jena!
I met John Brantingham in 2003 at Squaw Valley Community of Writers; he was one of my roommates, and we hit it off, finding common ground in our apprehension as early writers about how we’d fare at the workshop, and then as the years passed and our skills progressed, in our struggles to get published. We’ve come a long way in 11 years and have rejoiced together as our stories and books found homes.
In thinking about John and all I admire about him (his ability to craft crime fiction, poetry, literary fiction and travel pieces equally beautifully), I have to include his talent as a teacher, and his sense of humor. Today on Facebook he posted a photo of his “really long classroom,” along with many generous and tender goodbyes to his students. One young man said of the photo: “This room needs a bowling alley or dance floor during finals,” to which John responded, “I was going to put couches in, but realized the number of ways that could go wrong.”
Thanks, John, for your kindness and caring, and all that you do to support students and writers. We’re honored to call you Friend.
Nothing says “volunteers” like the men and women who man the polling stations across the nation. Today Steve and I voted in the Official 2014 Statewide Direct Primary Election, casting our ballots at a fire station roughly three miles from our house. We were greeted at 8 a.m. by five volunteers – in this case, all women – who took down our names, asked for our signatures, handed us ballots and pens, and then pointed us toward our curtained booths, where we cast our votes. When we were done, another woman showed us how to feed our ballots into a machine that appeared to eat them. (The machine burped mine back, and I had to feed it again.)
The entire process took perhaps six minutes, in part because the volunteers performed their jobs beautifully, and because Steve and I were prepared.
When we left, Steve said it was a shame more people weren’t there to vote, and that he hoped more would show up later. I hope so, too, as voting is a privilege we hugely enjoy, and for which we’re sincerely grateful.
My friend Naomi regularly posts on Facebook about her kids, husband, and writing life, expressing appreciation for Dan, who cooks and cleans while she’s at writing retreats, and ensures she comes home to flowers. She writes, too, about her boys – who entertain her with their humor and wisdom – and friends like Rae, a woman who rolls up her sleeves and helps Naomi clean her sunroom – a space which, Naomi confesses, is overflowing with “twelve years’ worth of kids’ stuff.”
I admire Naomi for so many things: her writing talent, her dedication, her unflagging determination. I love that she is utterly candid, that she prefers truth to easy exaggeration, and that she acknowledges her flaws publically, which makes us all feel marvelously human!
My compliments, Naomi, for the person you are: good, kind, wickedly witty – and oh so talented.
How can I not compliment the female robin who has worked so diligently this spring, first sitting on eggs and now raising her young?
This is the fourth time robins have nested in the grapevine, exactly in this spot, and I despaired when they again began to construct a nest this year. Not once have they made it past the egg stage, as on-or-about the sixth day of sitting, a crow finds the nest and snatches the eggs. Each time, I have discovered broken egg shells near the wood pile, and have known without looking where they’ve come from.
This year, though, I noticed something different. The male robin didn’t pound the window nearest the nest, as has always been his habit, which made me wonder if the female had a new mate. But then the female’s behavior was different too: she was unusually quiet, sticking to her nest – rather than instantly flushing – when I slowly approached, and then after the young were born freezing in place, worm in her mouth, when I happened to pass by.
Her behavior struck me as deliberate: she was doing everything she could to maintain a low profile; to keep the crows from finding her young, and doing what crows do best.
I don’t know if this is the same robin who has come each year, but it seems it must be, as the nest is in the same little cranny, not varying by even two inches. I want to believe she is older and wiser, and has learned a few things about protecting her young ones, and if so, she has earned this compliment.