A World Book Day Reflection: The Summer an Arsonist Burnt All My Books


A detail from the Ballantine Books edition of Ray Bradbury’s cautionary classic Fahrenheit 451

Books are my Precious.

Books are my treasures, my precious, my greatest love in life perhaps. I wish I still had my beloved books from childhood. But I don’t. Someone set them on fire. Deliberately. This post is an impromptu one: inspired by World Book Day, I have been sharing on Twitter images of my favorite childhood books. The fact that I must resort to Google for pictures leaves me very sad.

From the Great Society to the Bluegrass State

My older sister attended the University of Dayton in Ohio, where she was a member of the Campus Ministry’s UD Community Action Group, otherwise known as UDCAG. As a member of UDCAG she participated in their Summer Kennedy Appalachia Program, an initiative inspired by LBJ’s Great Society that aimed to eradicate poverty and promote education in rural Kentucky. It was in the 1980s that my sister served with UDCAG and one year she convinced me to lend her all my old children’s books for their makeshift library. This was a considerable haul for I was an avid reader as soon as I could make out “an” and “the” and it took a ton of convincing for me to agree to the loan-out. Going by the timeline on the UDCAG website I figured out this would have been the summer I was 10, which meant I had outgrown most of these books but being a hybrid between a bookworm and a packrat (as well as the baby in the family) I was disinclined to part ways with my juvenile library. Negotiations commenced, bargains struck. It was agreed that I would get the books back at the end of the summer. And thus the tomes were packed in the ubiquitous plastic milk crates that made up my sister’s collegiate world. Off they went to the Bluegrass State. I blithely waved, now proud that I would be helping the less fortunate. Goodbye Say Hello Vanessa! So long Richard Scarry! See you in the fall! It was not to be.

“1988—the barn burnt down and a new barn was built”

The above heading is an entry from the Appalachia Program website (link in last section). It wasn’t the only fire they suffered. The timeline reveals a history checkered with acts of vandalism and specifically arson. According to my sister, there were folks around there that didn’t care for UDCAG’s interfering and made it known via gasoline and match. It amazes me to think all my books are gone because people felt so threatened by these college students, these “outside agitators”. My Richard Scarry set was never a threat to them, but books often do seem scary to people, don’t they? Books are targeted when people are scared of people and things and ideas they don’t understand.

Today I Honor Lost Books

On World Book Day I take a moment to stop and remember all the books tossed on the flames –books burned for heresy, books burned by the Nazis and the KKK, books burned and banned during the Red Scare. Maybe somewhere in the world there’s a book burning now.

I take a moment to remember….

books, childrens books

Say Hello, Vanessa by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, Illustrations by Lillian Hoban

books, childrens books

The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord and Janet Burroway

books, childrens books

The King’s Tea by Trinka Hakes Noble

And I remember and rejoice in the memory of all the other beautiful books that burned in the fire that summer –especially my Richard Scarry set! I couldn’t find a picture online of the exact boxed collection I had but I can see it in my mind still.

An UDCAG Epilogue

Recently my sister confessed that she had lied to me that summer. While my books had indeed been lost in that fire, she never had any intention of returning them to me in the first place. Being a mature adult now I don’t hesitate in saying to her, “You are evil. You must be destroyed. And furthermore I am glad I tore up your homework assignment that time you wouldn’t let me use your super cool multi-colored crayon pen!”

But between you and me, readers, I really do wish she’d been able to leave those books in Kentucky, safe and sound.

Happy World Book Day!

Narration and the Gender-fluid Writer

gender-fluid half man half woman performer

Standing in Two Worlds: Collage by Mary Bowen, using vintage photo from Tumblr.

What I mean by Gender-fluid

Today I’d like to talk a little about gender-fluid writers but right off the bat I have to say that I’m borrowing the term gender-fluid to make a point about writing: I do not refer to writers who identify IRL as gender-fluid, but rather I mean writers fluid enough in their emotional and intellectual skill-set to effectively and believably write from the POV of someone with a gender not their own. I realize I could be opening up a can of worms here, as some folks bristle at the very notion of male and female voices, or any kind of gendered categorizing or stereotyping for that matter. In response I can only say that as a writer, and as someone who has taught writing in both co-ed and uni-gender settings, I recognize a difference in communication styles between men and women by and large that is reflected both consciously and unconsciously in one’s writing. There are of course exceptions to the rule –some writers are more androgynous or gender-fluid than others, but I would argue that the cisgender male writer who really excels at giving voice to a cisgender female character, and vice versa, is rare.  Note that I specified “cisgender” because I really cannot say if the ideas I’m mulling over can apply to writers who are trans or otherwise gender non-conformative/non-binary, but that is definitely an interesting topic worth pondering and writing about. I recently read the FANTASTIC memoir I’m Looking Through You: Growing Up Haunted by literature professor and trans-activist Jennifer Finney Boylan and in Ms. Boylan’s narrative nonfiction I definitely detect a blend of the classic male and female voices. To me it makes sense that as a writer she would unwittingly master a dual-voice; it reflects her experience as a woman who for years lived with a male body at odds with her inner self and the pains she took to conform to society’s expectations of masculinity. I encourage anyone with an interest to seek out trans writers to judge for themselves.

She By He

I’ve enjoyed legions of female characters penned by men, but only twice in my reading life have I been so impressed with the authenticity of a female narrator that I found it hard to believe the author behind her was male. Those books were She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb and How to be Good by Nick Hornby. I read She’s Come Undone in my late teens, an age when I was especially ripe to pick up on the angst of the young female narrator. I was blown away by how emotionally raw and true-to-life the main character adolescent Dolores Price is –who told him our secrets? Wally Lamb somehow managed to look inside the heart of female experience at its most confusing and fragile and I will forever take my hat off to him. Lamb’s She’s Come Undone remains for me the gold standard of gender-fluid writing. According to Lamb’s Wikipedia page, “He credits his ability to write in female voices, as well as male, with having grown up with older sisters in a neighborhood largely populated by girls.” In short, I can only surmise that Lamb’s achievement can be chocked up to these two essentials: keen powers of observation and sincere empathy.

Hornby likewise has the beat on people and what makes them tick –the narrator of How to be Good Katie is a complex, conflicted, wholly realized and very funny woman. I must confess, however, that my praise for Hornby’s skill with female protagonists is born out of surprise that he has this skill at all. Nick Hornby has so successfully trafficked in the roundabouts of male romantic angst (most notably in High Fidelity and About a Boy) that it was a shock to discover his deep insight extended to the other side of the relationship coin. I can only say that like any good writer Hornby is always listening and observing.

He By She

No way have I mastered the art of male narration/characterization. I struggle with making my males authentic and I suspect a lot of women do –largely because writing demands you get to the emotional guts of a character and in our society men are largely defined by the absence of emotion. I don’t think it is happenstance that many of the most successful and celebrated female crafters of male characters are writers of fantasy fiction and children/young adult fiction. From Anne Rice’s Lestat to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter to S.E. Hinton’s Pony Boy, fantasy and youth both provide gateways to worlds where it is permissible to explore the emotional lives of boys and men. I think the pitfall many female writers succumb to when writing males is to avoid any sort of emotional adornment, removing the proverbial skirt and hair bow from the stick figure as it were, and thus rendering the character too neutral. I’m still trying to muddle it all out but I suspect one should just keep returning to square one: OBSERVE!

He & She: What say you?

In conclusion, I hope I’ve introduced you to some new thoughts and some new books. I’d love to hear from folks in the comments section about what books you’ve read that are skillful examples of gender-fluid writing. What men have written really outstanding female characters? What women have mastered the masculine voice? I also welcome fellow writers to share how they approach writing as/about the opposite gender.

As always, happy writing & reading!

Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth: Film, Fonda, and Faux Fellinis


Michael Caine in Youth (Photo: Gianni Fiorito and Fox Searchlight, © 2015 All Rights Reserved)

Some of the Best Books are in Technicolor

Inspiration for the writer dwells all around us, not just in books, and I was reminded of that very fact this past weekend when I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s new film Youth at the famed Coolidge Corner Theatre. Youth is one of the best films I’ve seen in years and its humor, beauty, and intelligence make for a particularly gratifying viewer experience.

Felliniesque? Fonda’s right.

I had the treat of seeing the film introduced by one of its stars, Jane Fonda, who afterwards participated in a thoughtful audience Q&A session. In her opening remarks Fonda described the film as Felliniesque and, damn, she was right. If you detect a note of astonishment in my words it is because this was the first time I ever heard anyone describe a work of art as Felliniesque where said work actually lived up to the appellation. Felliniesque is one of those words a lot of people like to say to sound smart and in the know about film. More often than not, however, when someone calls a film Felliniesque what they’re really saying is that at some point on screen a very eccentric obese person will appear or a circus performer will appear (or an eccentric obese circus performer for that matter). Does that make the movie truly Felliniesque? Not a jot! That’s just the trappings of a work, not the ideas. Many filmmakers try too hard to be Felliniesque –most fail because they can’t see past the circus-like world Federico Fellini‘s films so often depict. They get fixated on the optics and in the end produce nothing more than a faux Fellini, the cinematic equivalent of a baroque, beautifully decorated gift box with nothing inside.  But Fellini is never really about the circus. Giulietta Masina‘s heartbreak or Marcello Mastroianni‘s neurosis amidst the circus  –Ah! now that’s Fellini. In other words, for something to be truly Felliniesque it must be about humanity, and all its pains, fragile hopes, and fearful longings. Youth excels on all counts.

From the Faux Fellini to the Real McCoy

That’s not to say Youth never presents the viewer with obesity and circus performers. It does in fact. The film is very much an aesthetic homage to Fellini throughout –but it is never indulgently so because Sorrentino has created a world that allows us to actively engage with and explore the feelings, thoughts, and sensory realities of his characters. Also it is extremely funny. You won’t sit there for two hours feeling like you’re in a class you don’t want to take. As for the plot, I am keeping mum. All I knew going into the screening was that the story centered on two older gentleman (played by Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) who are on vacation at an opulent Swiss hotel and spa. What’s it really about? Wow, let’s just say life, death, sex, betrayal, compromises, regrets, film, music, sound, writing, nature, beauty, ugliness, desire, touch, love… in short, EVERYTHING.

Now get your tuckus to the movies and be surprised. It really is a film worth seeing on the big screen.

Reads for Writers: Characterization in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help

characterization, books, Dickens, writing

Characters come alive both in the mind and on the page! Few images capture the magic of characterization as well as Robert William Buss’s Dickens’ Dream (Public Domain).

Characterization Observations of a Writing Reader

I’ve been reading a great deal of fiction lately, perhaps because I’ve been feeling it is high time I write more of it after so many years of focusing on blogging and journalistic pieces. Leisure reading for the writer isn’t just fun –it is also instructive. We read to absorb, to learn the writer’s craft. While I don’t suggest looking at something too analytically (we want to enjoy ourselves after all) it is good to keep an eye out for what things are happening in a piece of fiction that ring true to you or that you find are especially effective and enjoyable.  Characterization, or the crafting of a character (and the myriad ways a writer goes about crafting a character), is something that’s been uppermost in my mind as I’ve been reading lately. I first became aware of my covert characterization suss-out last week while I was finishing up the bestselling 2009 novel The Help.

Confessions of a Book Snob: Kathryn Stockett’s The Help

characterization, book snobI must admit that this was a book I initially resisted reading because I am a shameless book snob. Specifically, I am snobbish about those books that become such commercial hits they are embraced en masse by those people who are most certainly not readers but like to think they are. There are lots of those people. Especially in Boston. I think you know who I mean –and I think you know which books I mean. I’m talking about the titles you see everyone struggling to read on the subway during the morning commute, their recognizable dust jackets pounding your eyes in tsunami waves. These are the tomes young women who generally read little else but gossip mags and Twitter feeds cart around for a few weeks with the best of intentions. All too soon, these texts are abandoned: first finding sanctuary on the main shelves of the used book cellar then, having multiplied like tribbles, are deported to the dollar bin. A little while back the hot title was The Girl on the Train. Other past literary plums include The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Life of Pi, and of course The Help. And while I am sure they are all worthy reads it is their very ubiquity that turns me off them. Call me a lit hipster if you will; I’ll wear the title proudly. But I digress…

The Help, book

One day a few weeks back I saw The Help at the library and got a sudden yen to read it, despite its past annoying popularity. The premise is intriguing: a young white woman in the Jim Crowe South secretly collaborates with a group of black maids on a tell-all book about what working in domestic service for white families is really like. I’d seen the film adaptation and thought it was okay in an overly feel-good, faux-progressive Hollywood sorta way (but that Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer were fantastic, far better than the film as a whole in fact) and I was curious to see how the book was different. Specifically, I wanted to see if Stockett, a white woman, had managed to write something deeper than an arrogant celebration of a white liberal savior (I think she did) and if the justified feelings of resentment, anger and mistrust the black characters feel towards the white establishment are explored more candidly in the book than the film (I think they are). That’s not to say the book isn’t free of racial problems; The Help (both book and film) has ruffled feathers as well as garnered praise. I can also concede that readers of color have a legitimate beef with any white writer attempting to narrate black experience (thought provoking piece on that here), but I still maintain Stockett pulled off something very difficult for a white writer: she crafted two characters of color that never get conflated in the reader’s mind.


Shared Circumstances, Separate Spirits

About 3/4 in I found myself contemplating how distinct from each other the two black maids who co-narrate the book (along with a white character) are and that’s rather impressive. I don’t think I could pull it off if I tried to write characters that were so culturally different from me, even with people in real life to base them on as Stockett had. The two women share highly specific life circumstances, ethnicity/cluture, and a dialect yet at no time did I say, “Wait, is this Abilene talking or is this Minny?” The third narrator Skeeter, a white woman of a higher socio-economic class who speaks with a different dialect (Yes, Stockett does indeed write the white characters in US Southern dialect as well. It is just different and perhaps less perceptible.) easily contrasts with both but that’s the point: it’s no big whoop for Stockett to build a strong contrast between a character she can relate to well (the white, middle class Skeeter) and someone very different from her. In other words, she could have gotten lucky writing one good, complex, believable maid character –but two who are  so distinct from one another? Nah! So if you’re looking for an example of strong multi-narrator characterization, that dodges a very real risk of conflation, then take a look at Abilene and Minny from The Help.

Tools of Characterization: Description & Dialogue

I would have to re-read the book to pinpoint exactly what technical devices helped achieve this but off the top of my head I’d say Stockett’s use of descriptive detail in regards to the women’s physicality, mannerisms, dress, etc. and dialogue choices are key. Note I said dialogue –not dialect. She assigns the characters a dialect but does not fall in the trap of letting that choice “cookie cutter” their speech.  The women each have their own particular vocabularies and vocal rhythms which allow their personality to come through despite the grammatical and syntactical status quo dictated by the author.

Anyway, that’s just my quick take… what are some books that you think have effective characterization? What do you struggle with the most when building a character? I’d love to know in the comments.

David Bowie: Holding On to Odd

David Bowie mugshot

David Bowie proved he could even rock a mugshot, shown here during his 1976 arrest for marijuana possession in Rochester, NY. Image: Internet Archive/New York Police Department, Public Domain.

Like so many people today I feel the need to talk about David Bowie…

I had another post planned but sometimes life intervenes in the form of death, ripping up our carefully recorded itineraries and when that happens you have no choice but to go where the shreds of paper take you. Like so many people today I feel the need to talk about David Bowie and what he meant to me. I didn’t learn about his death until this morning, but the first words I heard today was my boyfriend’s voice saying, “David Bowie died.” What? I was not about to believe this nonsense. “David Bowie died.” Indignant, I snort and shake my head and demand to know what happened. Does my boyfriend mumble something about cancer or do I read that later… I can’t recall.

Changes: Turn and Face the Strange

Then in the afternoon I was talking with a friend about it and my friend said that the first thought he had upon hearing the news was, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that we’re going to be in a world without David Bowie. There’s always been David Bowie.” And I realized that was my first thought that morning, only it wasn’t like words in my head but rather a wave of feeling striking me down. I was shocked. I was rattled, confused. And so very heartbroken. Everything felt strange and I didn’t want to face it. I hadn’t been up long and it seemed as if I were still dreaming. I stomped away from my boyfriend. I got the coffee going. I drew a bath. For a good twenty minutes or more I sat in that tub and wept.

Thank You, David Bowie

Dazed, I got out of the bath and sought out Facebook. I needed to see others process the news for it to become real. I also held the vain, fragile hope that I’d discover this news was just another tacky celeb death hoax. The first thing I saw on my newsfeed, however, was a link to comedian and author Sara Benincasa‘s blog post Thank You, David Bowie, From The Weird Kids –a moving testament to how Bowie has made generations of misfits feel that it’s okay not to jive with the status quo. Her post was validating to say the least. Benincasa articulated everything I was feeling this morning and her words were an echo to the angry weird kid inside me now howling over the loss of its king. I had the great pleasure of attending a panel discussion Benincasa participated in at the 2011 National Conference for Media Reform in Boston where she really stole the show imo, so when I saw the byline I knew her take on Bowie’s passing would be worth a read. So I demand everyone click on the above link and read Benincasa’s piece in full, but the part that speaks to  me the most is this:

He was the patron saint of all my favorite fellow travelers: the freaks, the fags, the dykes, the queers, the weirdos of all stripes, and that most dangerous creature of all: the artist. He was the crown prince(ss) of the unusual. He was so marvelously, spectacularly weird, and he gave so many oddballs, including this one, hope. (Sara Benincasa, 2016)

Thank you, David Bowie, for being there for all of us oddballs and thank you, Benincasa, for so poetically and candidly expressing our gratitude.

From Facing the Strange to Holding On to Odd

So what else do I have to say about David Bowie? What else do I want you to hear about? In a word, DELIVER. Don’t hold yourself back. Doesn’t his death scare you that you might be? I know I am. I’m afraid I am becoming too normal, too complacent, and too damned timid with my dreams and creative aspirations. I want to be encouraging to my fellow writers and writers-to-be who find my blog. I want people to find their path in their own time, and relish the baby steps and yet… NOT TODAY. TODAY I SAY FUCK THE BABY STEPS. SNEER AT NORMAL. THE ONLY TIME IS NOW. Get out there and hustle. Do something that terrifies you artistically: toss aside that tired journal and start your novel already, send out that manuscript that’s been gathering dust, heck, go to a spoken word night and shout your soul into the mic. Be loud and weird and paint your face if you want to, hold on to that weird kid you are inside, that space oddity darling. Bowie spent a lifetime facing the strange for us. The least we can do is meet him halfway.

oxox RIP, Mr. Jones xoxo

Invite Yourself to the Table of Creation

Invite yourself to the table.

Invite yourself to the table! Image: John Tenniel, The Nursery Alice edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Public Domain.

Beginning is an Invitation –Add Yourself to the Guest List!

In my last post Writing, Rule One: Just Begin I discuss how hard it can be for the aspiring writer to get started because it is so easy to doubt oneself. Now let’s dig a little deeper into that concept. Writers, and other artists for that matter, are extending an invitation to themselves every time they attempt to make something. They are inviting themselves to the table of creation!  That can be terrifying because, firstly, you need to believe you deserve to have a spot at that table, and secondly, you need the courage to assert yourself once you’re there.

No Room? No Way! You Stay Put.

Sometimes that table is just you at your writing desk, but when you’re actively promoting your work and interacting with other creatives that table can get mighty crowded and feel anything but supportive or inviting. It can get downright nasty and at its worst feel like the Mad Hatter’s tea party with everyone shouting at you, “No room!” But when you feel something or someone push you from that table that’s when you got to push right back and re-invite yourself to the tea party all over again: that invitation is the nucleus of beginning, and the perpetual reminder that YES! YOU BELONG HERE.

One of the things that really got me thinking about this struggle was reading Arielle Bernstein‘s recent Rumpus interview with writer & yogi Jen Pastiloff. It’s an inspiring, lively piece that I encourage everyone to check out, but I was particularly struck by Pastiloff’s description of her empowerment workshops for young girls that combine writing exercises with yoga/movement. Pastiloff states, “One of the things that comes up most frequently at my workshops is the prevailing belief of ‘I am not enough.’ ” How many of us first sidle up to the table of creation with such limiting beliefs? Probably all of us! But with creation can come strength and a renewed confidence. Trust that your impulse to create something, and to express what is inside of you, is a sign of your worthiness to participate in the process.

Invite Flight and the Power of Putting Yourself First

Other times you may find it’s your own baggage you’re bringing to the table that is undermining your work (or even luring you away from the table altogether). Maybe you don’t have anyone in your life who supports your writing, or maybe you’re just finding it a struggle to keep up a creative routine alongside work, school, family, etc. I have a few tips on how to deal with the unsupportive beasties that I’ll be sharing with you down the road but as for the balancing act …well, it is hard, I won’t kid you, and there is NO one answer to that problem. All I can say is be mindful of your creative truth, why writing is important to you and what you are trying to achieve, and watch out for those times when you decline that invite to the table. What’s your RSVP? Oh I’m not really a writer, who am I kidding? I’m taking time away from my family working on this and that’s not right. Watch out for such limiting thoughts! Sure, there will be days when you will just not get to your writing, but hey it happens. Just don’t let those crumpled, discarded invites pile up! Your time at the table of creation is time that you deserve.

Coming up soon on Bowen Blogs: I kibbitz about characterization, ponder the power of the gender fluid writer, dish about the books I’m digging du jour, plus I answer the question, “What’s the deal with the word playwright?”

Writing, Rule One: Just Begin

Just Begin

A new year is almost here…set your intentions!

To begin writing, just begin!

Just begin. Not a very novel way to begin, I grant you. It’s not exactly what I’d call a stellar hook (more on hooks later), but you can’t deny it gets the job done. My goal today was to get things started and I have. I have begun this blog series after much, much procrastinating. You know the old saying 90% of writing is rewriting? Well let’s just call BS on that right now because it gives rather short shrift to that oft-dismissed writing tool: Procrastination. I’d give procrastination a solid 30% when quantifying the writing process and throw in naps, despair, and caffeination breaks …but don’t hold me to firm figures. Hey I’m a writer. Math was never my strong suit.

Beginning is hard.

Really, the worst. Admittedly, finishing is pretty hard too. I mean there are a lot of unfinished novels out there, and all too much blogus interruptus clutters the web. But still I say beginning is harder. Beginning requires intention and intention requires belief that what you are setting out to create is something worthwhile. That takes guts. That takes chutzpah. That takes not letting Fear win. I had to wrestle with that big beast Fear twenty times to get in front of this keyboard today because everywhere around us are voices saying, “Why bother? You aren’t any good.” And maybe you’re not. Maybe I’m not (Psst! I really am good but roll with my self-deprecating hypothetical for a sec). Even if we stink, we’ll never get better if we don’t try. So think of me as that voice that is saying, “Go ahead. Bother.” True you might just end up bothering me and we may hate ourselves in the morning but, come on, did you really have anything else planned?

No one reads blogs anymore.

Yeah, I know. Trust me I know. I have a lifestyle blog and my traffic isn’t anything rock star ninja spectacular. I have a small group of hardcore fans and occasionally my reach stretches farther. But I’m no Goop or HuffPost. I’m a small fry. But I think I have something to say worth saying and I want to use this portfolio site to do more than just screech, “Look at Me!” So I began. Just began. And soon, darn it, I’ll have to begin again. Can I do this? Gonna try!

So what’s in it for you?

Beats me! That is on you. But a few of the things I hope to offer here are (in no particular order): writing tips, musings on the writer’s life, support, rants on grammar, rants on anything really, book reviews, and just general smart prose on art, creativity, life, you-name-it and a cherry on top, plus a million dollars for the first 10 readers who comment on this post. Ok, that last one about the million dollars was a lie. Rule One of Writing: Just Begin. Rule Two of Writing: All Writers Lie.

Your assignment, Class, is to practice Rule One.

It doesn’t have to be a novel or even a postcard. It could be a single word. Write it down and guess what? You just began! Now do it again. And again. And again. And yes, again. Beginning never ends. I told you it was hard. Farewell until next time, when I begin again.