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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Savoring a good read

It's quite possible I will keep coming back to and quoting from Hermione Lee's excellent biography of Edith Wharton. It's simply a terrific mix of research, smart writing, compelling subject and synthesis of material.

That sounds so academic, but what I really mean is that I dig this book.

In the chapter, "Republic of Letters," there are number of fabulous stories about her publishing, including a letter to Scribner's after the publication of her book, The Greater Inclination:
"Gentlemen, Am I not to receive any copies of my book? I have had no notice of its publication, but I see from the New York papers that it appeared last week, and I supposed that by this time the usual allowances of copies would have been sent me. Yours truly, Edith Wharton."

Well-documented throughout is her philosophy on writing novels.
"My last page is always latent in my first." A work of art must make you feel that "it could not have been otherwise." These qualities had to be produced though "a perpetual process of rejection and elision."

Sort of reminds of of the great writing teacher William Zinsser's admonition to select, focus, reduce. Her writing is never gratuitous. She has a point to make.
"No novel worth anything can be anything but a novel 'with a purpose,' & if anyone who cared for the moral issue did not see in my work that I care for it, I should have no one to blame but myself."

There are sections of the book in which Lee demonstrates Wharton's editing style, demonstrating the development of scenes and dialogue to which she paid such careful note.
"In the conversation between Ellen Olenska and Newland Archer in the carriage in The Age of Innocence, for instance, the manuscript develops like this:
1. 'Is it your idea, then, that I should be your'
2. 'Is it your idea, then, that we should go off together'
3. 'Is it your idea, then, that I should be your mistress'
4. 'Is it your idea, then, that I should live with you as your mistress since I can't be your wife?' she asked abruptly.
(This, but without 'abruptly,' was the final printed version.)"

Isn't that cool? Maybe you just have to be a writing freak like me to appreciate such process. But it gives me a glimpse into her head and a chance to learn from her as if she were standing before me.
"In the scene at the end of The House of Mirth when Lily slips out of consciousness, imagining that she is holding Nettie Struther's baby, the manuscript changes read:

1. She settled herself into a position
2. She settled herself into an easier position, pressing the little
3. into an easier position, hollowing her arm to receive the little head, and holding her breath lest a sound should disturb the child's sleep
4. should disturb the sleeping child

"The final version is: 'She settled herself into an easier position, hollowing her arm to pillow the round downy head, and holding her breath lest a sound should disturb the sleeping child.' "

Wharton's stories are often of "a man who has failed to love a remarkable woman." What I found and keep finding as I make my way through her life (again) are the many deliberate things she did as a writer that draw me to her work, whether that is depth of subject matter or snappy dialogue or conflicted, struggling characters. Often it's what she leaves out of the story, the blanks I must fill in, that strike me most deeply.

She rarely wrote happy endings. And she never insulted her readers' intelligence. That is why were are still reading her books and still reading about her.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Today's horoscope

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sept. 22) ***** Knowing that all good things have to come to an end sooner or later will help you maximize the moment. Don't try to break down a door, rather walk through open and accessible areas. Maximize your energy. Tonight: Time to kick back and play great music.

Is writing an inherently deviant act?

4. Several of the writers discuss the act of writing as their “bad” behavior. Is writing inherently a deviant act?

"Interestingly, both Joyce Maynard and Erica Jong talk about breaking silences as a way of being bad. So yes, they write to be heard in a world that wants to keep them quiet."

Amen to that, sister!

From Jewess interview with Ellen Sussman, author of "Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave."

Hat tip to Jill, who always seems to know what I need when I need it. A thousand thank yous!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Latest UB story: Mr. Wonderful and Betty Crocker

Here's my latest UB story out today. It's not available online, so I've copied it here.

Sharing their faith and the heritage for 50 years
By Wendy A. Hoke

Geraldine Semproch learned of her husband Ray’s marriage proposal when a sportswriter published it in a newspaper.

Ray was a pitcher in baseball’s minor leagues. When the writer asked him about his success in pitching in an interview after a game, Ray responded that he thought it was because he was getting married to Geraldine.

“The guy asked, ‘When’s the wedding?’ and I just threw out the first date after the playoffs, which was Nov. 16,” he said.

And so it appeared in print the following day. Geraldine learned of the proposal when Ray mailed her the clipping. “I showed it to my father and he said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll be having a baseball player in the family.’ I was an only child, but my father thought he was a good fit for me,” she said.

Geraldine and Ray Semproch met on a blind date. They will celebrate their golden anniversary on Nov. 16, 2007, with a Mass at Corpus Christi Church and a celebration to follow on Nov. 17.

The two, who grew up near Cleveland’s Slavic neighborhood, said they shared many things in common including their Polish ethnicity and the closeness of their family. Their strongest bond, however, is their Catholic faith.

Ray, who was the youngest of eight children, lost his mother at an early age and was taught and influenced by his older sister, his father and the nuns at Sacred Heart School. Geraldine was an only child and the daughter of Bohemian and Polish parents.

Together the Semprochs share the traditions of faith and ethnicity with their three grown children (Debbie, Karen and Raymond, who were all born on Aug. 10 in different years) and their seven grandchildren ages 13 to 19. They celebrate all the holidays together and are proud that their children and grandchildren also are strong in their faith.

“We always go to their parish events, too,” said Geraldine. “We’re a very close-knit family.”

For 46 years they have lived on the same tree-lined, red brick street in Old Brooklyn. Their home is filled with photos and mementos of their life together.

Ray played two years with the Philadelphia Phillies and one year with the Detroit Tigers. Most of his career was spent as bar manager of Broglio’s, a fine Italian restaurant that used to be located in Independence and was owned by Ray’s brother. Geraldine also worked in the family business as an office clerk and later a banquet manager.

Some of their fondest memories were of patrons who used to egg on the “Singing Bartender of Broglio’s” to serenade them with “Jingle Bell’s” in Polish. What most didn’t know, until recently, was that Ray also doubled as the Singing Polish Santa Claus on the “Big Chuck and Little John Show.”

“Big Chuck lived down the street and I grew up playing basketball with him,” explained Ray. “We did this shtick and it was funny. He tried to pay me royalties or something, but I told him to just use it. So every first Saturday in December, my kids would watch. They couldn’t understand how dad could be sitting in the living room with them and be on TV at the same time,” recalled Ray, laughing.

Laughter is one of the qualities that Geraldine and Ray still have in common. They laugh easily together and still enjoy a bit of good-natured teasing.

“We went to a hockey game on our third date and the announcer said, ‘Cleveland icing the puck.’ When she asked what that meant, I told her there was a little refrigerator where they kept the puck…”

“And I believed him!” said Geraldine. “I repeated the story to a couple who came to a hockey game with us 15 years later!”

Both laugh at the memory.

Friends know him as Mr. Wonderful, prone to impersonating Don Ho singing, “Tiny Bubbles” at weddings and parties. She is known as Betty Crocker and makes gift baskets filled with home-baked goodies for First Communions.

Together they share a life that has grown through faith, love and tradition.

Hoke is a freelance writer.

The more things change...

...the more they stay the same.

She had immersed herself in ground-plans, guide-books, architectural treatises, diaries and travellers' accounts, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, in four languages, and she was bitterly disappointed that the publishers would not let her use as illustrations the historical garden-plans she had laboured to track down (rightly so, as reviewers complained of their absence). And she wanted more money ($2,000 for six articles instead of $1,500), since she was writing "with some sort of system & comprehensiveness on a subject which, hitherto, has been treated in English only in the most amateurish fashion" and "it is sure to have a popular success." ("I receive $500 for a short story, which is much less hard work.")

Hermione Lee writing about Edith Wharton and her experience in publishing Italian Villas and Their Gardens in the giant biography, Edith Wharton.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blackballed from the playground

This week has been consumed with one issue that has caused me to question the ethics of a professional organization to which I have belonged off and on for 20 years. Suffice it to say that I have been banned from a certain set of playmates for calling the decision making of our leading body into question. No wait, check that. I've actually been castrated and castigated.

How dare I? I mean, really, what would a person working 20 hours a week on membership—who had spent the previous three years as head of a national committee of this organization, who has attended its leadership training for five years, who led a large chapter for two years and planned two regional conferences—what could this person possibly know about the ethics and values of a decision that harms a significant and growing segment of its membership?

I just can't figure out what would ever make me think I had something valuable to add to that discussion. (Note the dripping sarcasm.)

Remarkably, this is an organization dedicated to strengthening the First Amendment. You know that one about free speech and freedom of the press. Yeah, that. It's also one that is concerned about the free flow of information -- just not when the flow is heading upstream in their direction.

So while the leaders try to circle the wagons and make excuses, I'll hope that my playmates (from whom I'm banned) keep widening the circle.

I'll post more of the fun and mayhem when time permits.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Reporting on religion

This column made my heart ache for many reasons. Take the time to read through spiritual highs and lows of one reporter who tried to hear God's call and share how faith is present in people's lives. William Lobdell probably didn't envision covering clergy sex-abuse and financial/spiritual exploitation as a religion reporter. That isn't God's work.

Unfortunately, it's the nature of news that we never know what atrocities human nature will contrive. The religion beat of the past 10 years was rife with atrocities. While some who left comments would excoriate Lobdell for reporting the bad news, I find it hard to believe that anyone—church-going or otherwise—would believe the Roman Catholic clergy sex-abuse scandal was NOT news.

One point of this commentary is that he thought in lobbying for creation of this job that he would share the good news of religion. Alas, religious institutions are comprised of human beings, capable of many failings. Unfortunately, those failings were not only a problem for his job, but were also too much to sustain his faith.
"I sought solace in another belief: that a church's heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God's house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.

On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff's deputy, spoke out for the victim.

On Good Friday 2002, I decided I couldn't belong to the Catholic Church. Though I had spent a year preparing for it, I didn't go through with the rite of conversion.

I understood that I was witnessing the failure of humans, not God. But in a way, that was the point. I didn't see these institutions drenched in God's spirit. Shouldn't religious organizations, if they were God-inspired and -driven, reflect higher standards than government, corporations and other groups in society?"

Lobdell shares a number of stories, not all involving the Catholic church. He looked at the financial exploitation of the Trinity Broadcasting Network and the ostracism of former Mormons. But he reported from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where just last week, it was announced that the archdiocese will pay a whopping $660 million to more than 500 victims of the priest sex-abuse scandal.

Here he painfully details his tipping point, which did not stem from the child molestation:
"In the summer of 2005, I reported from a Multnomah County, Ore., courtroom on the story of an unemployed mother — impregnated by a seminary student 13 years earlier — who was trying to get increased child support for her sickly 12-year-old son.

The boy's father, Father Arturo Uribe, took the witness stand. The priest had never seen or talked with his son. He even had trouble properly pronouncing the kid's name. Uribe confidently offered the court a simple reason as to why he couldn't pay more than $323 a month in child support.

"The only thing I own are my clothes," he told the judge.

His defense — orchestrated by a razor-sharp attorney paid for by his religious order — boiled down to this: I'm a Roman Catholic priest, I've taken a vow of poverty, and child-support laws can't touch me.

The boy's mother, Stephanie Collopy, couldn't afford a lawyer. She stumbled badly acting as her own attorney. It went on for three hours.

"It didn't look that great," Stephanie said afterward, wiping tears from her eyes. "It didn't sound that great … but at least I stood up for myself."

The judge ruled in the favor of Uribe, then pastor of a large parish in Whittier. After the hearing, when the priest's attorney discovered I had been there, she ran back into the courtroom and unsuccessfully tried to get the judge to seal the case. I could see why the priest's lawyer would try to cover it up. People would be shocked at how callously the church dealt with a priest's illegitimate son who needed money for food and medicine.

My problem was that none of that surprised me anymore.

As I walked into the long twilight of a Portland summer evening, I felt used up and numb.

My soul, for lack of a better term, had lost faith long ago — probably around the time I stopped going to church. My brain, which had been in denial, had finally caught up.

Clearly, I saw now that belief in God, no matter how grounded, requires at some point a leap of faith. Either you have the gift of faith or you don't. It's not a choice. It can't be willed into existence. And there's no faking it if you're honest about the state of your soul.

Sitting in a park across the street from the courthouse, I called my wife on a cellphone. I told her I was putting in for a new beat at the paper.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Colorful turn of phrase

"What we're going to do with them when my parents pop their clogs, I don't know," she said.

From Sacramento Bee article on why people keep National Geographic magazines for decades.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I wasn't gonna comment, but...

I think it's fair to say that objectively speaking country singer Faith Hill is a beautiful woman. That she's 39 (about to turn 40 in September, much like yours truly) and has three children only adds to her beauty. So I wonder how she feels, especially given that she has three daughters, about her likeness being altered so dramatically on the cover of Redbook?

Gawker's Jezebel uncovered this "Photoshop of Horrors" and uses animation and a second numerically annotated version to show us how Faith was airbrushed into being on its July cover.

Of course the editors defend the alterations, and of course she's in an image-conscious industry. But don't you think it's the responsibility of celebrity women to push for a true likeness of themselves (ala Kate Winslet and GQ) and of smart editors to oblige?

Are we that horrified by crow's feet?

A kindred spirit

"The tensions finally took their toll. I consistently put in extra hours; the office consistently scheduled meetings outside my allotted time. Then, one week, I realized that it was taking a full-time mental effort to make the part-time job work, and that I would rather put in longer hours at something I loved — my writing — than shorter hours at something I only liked.

So, I’m leaving the office and returning to a 40-hour-week of self-employment. Because, just like Jack Bauer, I’d really like to save my family and the world — and, at least for me, that’s a full-time gig."

From Christine B. Larson's essay "The Anguish of a Part-Timer" in Sunday's New York Times.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Redesigning The New Yorker

I've long been a huge fan of The New Yorker and so I read with great interest this article in AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts) about redesigning The New Yorker.

Designer KT Meany does a great job of respecting its tradition while acknowledging its need to match design with exactitude of its content. She references Bruce McCall's illustrated guide to The New Yorker from the Feb. 19 & 27, 2007 issue and asks:
But where is the Design Department? How about the “No Two Hyphens in a Row Department”? Or the “Avoid Mixing a Caslon Italic with an Irvin Department”? Not to forget the “Adopt the Orphan, Marry the Widow Department.” The lack of a prominent in-house design department could lead to outhouse design. When asked to describe the commonality among all New Yorker writers, Joseph Mitchell divulged: “None of ’em could spell... and really none of us, including Ross, really knew anything about grammar. But each one of them... each one had a kind of wild exactitude of his own.” 12 Editing to a “very high degree of fussiness” 13 is what The New Yorker does best. But it fails to set the same standard for design, which needs some of that wild exactitude. And that’s the key.

Meany goes on to share her design thoughts, most of which sound like tremendous—yet respectful—improvements. One of her best is an inspired redesign mock-up of the TOC (that's table of contents for the non-publishing person), a vast improvement over its current state.

Along the way she points out some of the sloppy design details that, once called to your attention, are impossible to ignore. Having spent eight years as a magazine editor and having worked with some wonderful art directors and graphic designers, it's these little details, executed perfectly, that contribute to a magazine's overall excellence.

The question is: Can The New Yorker break enough from its past to make such improvements?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Summer's luxury of reading time

I did something yesterday that I haven't done for pleasure since I was a teenager. When I was actively reviewing books for The Plain Dealer on a weekly basis, I used to read books in a day or two. But that was work. I was being paid to do so and I found the best way for me to critique a book in 250 words was to read it from start to finish and write about my initial impressions.

Yesterday, however, was different. My friend had given me Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle: A Memoir on Saturday night. As my coffee was brewing, I opened the book and read through the acknowledgments and then turned to the first chapter. It opens with Walls in a taxi on her way to a swanky Manhattan party. As she looks out the window, she sees a homeless woman rooting through a garbage dumpster. When she realizes it is her mother, she slinks down in the backseat of the cab and asks to be taken home to her Park Avenue apartment.

How her mother came to be homeless in New York and her feelings toward her mother's state are just one piece of this complicated and surprisingly inspiring story about family, alcoholism, dreams and survival. I just couldn't put it down. I drifted from room to room in our house, checked in on laundry throughout the day, dropped kids off here and there. Eventually, I wound up in the shade of our giant maple and read as the sun was setting, the sprinkler was watering my tomatoes and a breeze cooled the hot evening air.

When I was a kid, this was one of my favorite summer activities. I would go about it in much the same way as I did yesterday -- moving from my bedroom, to the sofa and outside to the hammock. Reading was perfectly paired with the chore of laundry and it gave me an excuse to indulge in my most treasured activity while still doing something productive in my mother's eyes.

After fighting off the initial guilt of whiling away the day, I sank into the rhythm of the story and the laziness that a hot summer day imbibes. It was decadent and I'm glad to have spent the day in such a way.

As a result, I didn't read any papers yesterday and was doing a little catch-up early this morning. I found an interesting essay in the New York Times Book Review by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. He credits his writing style to his love of jazz music and wrote this about notes on the piano:
One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

The same, of course, can be said of words.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Thursday miscellany

What day is it? This mid-week holiday has thrown off my internal calendar.

Tony and Eva got nothing on Big Mike and Steph
That's right, our good friend Big Mike is finally tying the knot this weekend. Most of our friends married the summer of 1994 (when I was pregnant with Patrick) and we had 10 weddings between May 15 and Labor Day weekend. So we've waited a LONG time for this one.

And so has Big Mike. He's found a wonderful woman and we're looking forward to celebrating with them all weekend. My hubby is in the wedding, so we're fumbling around trying to figure out logistics for the day, forgetting all that goes into weddings.

DANNY: "After the church, we'll take the boys home, chill and then head the reception."

ME: "No, you are in the wedding party. You'll have to go for pictures. I'll take the kids home and chill, grab a ride from someone else and meet you at the reception."

MIKEY: "Does this mean Hunter and me will be cousins?"

Hunter is Steph's son from her first marriage who is the same age as Mikey. Mikey seems to think Big Mike is his uncle. I had to explain that while he and dad are close friends, they are not related. Although I believe somewhere down the line, they are like fourth cousins by marriage or something. It's all very confusing, very West Side Irish Catholic. They're all related somehow.

Anyone having Road Runner problems?
Saw a post on a writer's forum recently about problems with Road Runner e-mail service. Is anyone in Northeast Ohio having problems? I've been pitching right and left and I'm concerned that maybe I should resend from Gmail account. For the record, Road Runner service stinks.

Still looking for Web designers
Got a few names, but I'm still looking for possible Web designer for my site. Please send me an e-mail with "Web designer" in subject line if you've got a suggestion.

Small world
SPJ launched another marketing push to editors and freelancers to promote our Freelancer Directory. As the contact person on the release, I had the pleasure of hearing from a few folks I haven't seen or heard from in a dozen or more years.

Great "works" display
Bay Village isn't exactly known for its fireworks display, but last night's show was better than in recent years, lasting 20 minutes from test to finale. But there were some new works, including one that looks like a waterfall in the sky. Very cool.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Roots of writer's block

"Of course, had I been trying for a debilitating case of writers' block, the conditions above Louie the Greek's couldn't have been better—hot, loud, the walls vibrating with every train pulling into and out of the station, the air vibrating with the aroma of pickles, bacon fat, fried potatoes and cheese. But I wouldn't have fared any better at a secluded writer's colony in the woods, because I was the ideal candidate for writer's block. All the classic defects converged in me—inexperience, impatience, perfectionism, confusion, fear. Above all I suffered from a naive view that writing should be easy. I thought words were supposed to come unbidden. The idea that errors were steppingstones to truth never once occurred to me, because I'd absorbed the ethos of the Times, that errors were nasty little things to be avoided, and misapplied that ethos to the novel I was attempting. When I wrote something wrong I always took it to mean that something was wrong with me, and when something was wrong with me I lost my nerve, my focus, and my will."

— from J.R. Moehringer's memoir, "The Tender Bar"