My Editor

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I remember sitting in front of my computer, hands poised, confronting the blank screen. The cursor winked. Nothing else. Not a word.

I was at a Writers Retreat on Hatteras Island, NC, where everyone was suppose to produce 2000 words per day.

Frustrated, I looked through the window seeking inspiration from the stormy Atlantic Ocean. Its waves muffled through the closed window, but I felt its unrelenting power to give and take away.

With my eyes closed, I saw a small gray-haired woman rubbing moisturizer on her wrinkled face, her eyes sad and teary in the mirrored reflection. In my mind I follow her into the living room where she faces an empty chair and says, “Good morning, Jules.”

I ask my new character, that I name Marisa, “Why are you talking to an empty chair?” That question cracks open the seed of a novel. A novel that will keep me occupied for the next three years when I'm not taking care of my husband. Whenever he sniffles, or has an open wound, or says he’s tired and lies down, or complains of stomach pains, I go on high alert. I have to. He has a compromised immune system and a simple cold could become pneumonia and then, with no defenses, death.

Fortunately for me, he knows how to survive. He wears gloves when he goes outside. He never touches the subway railing where other hands have been, other hands that might carry a virus or bacteria. So even though it had been five years that he's been in remission from two stem cell transplants, I remain on high alert.

Our summers are spent in southern France. Jim, a jazz drummer like my character Jules, practices in an ancient sheepherder’s bergerie on an isolated mountaintop; his only companions are the sheep grazing nearby who don’t care how loud he plays his music as long as he doesn’t eat their clover. 

It was in France last summer that I finished the final chapter of Marisa’s story and asked Jim to copyedit it. That’s asking a lot because he has his own projects to complete. But he’s a good guy and he took the first chapter I handed to him and headed off for his workday on the mountaintop.

That evening we were seated on the terrace. The mid-summer sun was still shining and the sky was still blue. But at that moment Jim couldn’t enjoy the sunlight or feel its warmth. His depression was my fault. Rather than talking to him about my fear of grief and loneliness, I had written it into Marisa’s story, where he found it, and it deeply upset him.

When he had been in the hospital fighting for his life, I had saved my tears for the shower where he wouldn’t hear my premature wails of sorrow. How could I tell him about my own fears when he was fighting so hard to stay alive?

On the terrace that evening, I flipped through the twenty corrected pages he’d marked in the columns and between the lines in irreversible red ink. I told him I was sorry. I meant the novel to be a tribute to his life and hadn’t realized he would see it as a death rattle.

The next morning he made his lunch, a baguette spread with duck paté, Camembert cheese, and a neighbor’s heirloom tomato. He thinly sliced the tomato and placed it  in the middle of the paté then wrapped the baguette in paper and slipped it into his backpack. He frowned when I handed him the second chapter, but he took it.

Alone at my desk I looked disparagingly at the edits he’d made with the same diligent and exacting care when he slices tomatoes for his sandwiches. He knew better than I did what my novel needed—a fat cut. And he saw where I scrambled the words and, knowing what I wanted to say, made it clearer. I ws thrilled. All these years I’d been living with a brilliant editor and hadn’t known it.

While the late summer light still lingered, we would sit each evening on the terrace and move forward together as Marisa moved forward out of grief and into a new life without Jules. We discussed plot flaws and character weaknesses. He offered suggestions. I countered with my own.

I’d laugh when I read a line he’d added to Jules’s dialogue as if he was Jules. Other times, tears welled up when I read his encouraging comments. I was feeling Marisa’s pain when she realized the sound of Jules’s voice was fading from her memory and soon she’d have to find the courage to go on without hearing him.

When we returned to our home in Monterey, California, Jim was diagnosed with a second cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It was at the same time as my book release. I had to ask myself if I’d done something rash and unsavory entitling my book “The Drummer’s Widow.” I asked Jim what he thought.

“No,” he said. “It’s a good title. Don’t change it because of my relapse.”

Family and friends who are familiar with my husband’s battle against cancer are squeamish (giggles, gasps, lips shaped into O’s) when I tell them the title of my new novel is “The Drummer’s Widow.” If Jim is standing nearby, he laughs and says, “Yes it’s true, she imagined my death and we got over it.”

Fall harvest in la Drôme - With Enthusiasm!

"The Greeks understood the mysterious power of the hidden side of things," wrote Louis Pasteur. "They bequeathed to us one of the most beautiful words in our language––the word 'enthusiasm'--en theos--a god within. The grandeur of human actions is measured by the inspiration from which they spring. Happy is he who bears a god within, and obeys it."

I chose "harvest" as the ending title for “Summer in la Drôme,” because, during my stay there, I lived in the fields of my imagination, where I planted and nurtured what grew into 116,297 words of my new novel THE DRUMMER'S WIDOW. I’ve brought the results, my harvest, back to America to sell in the publishers marketplace.

I chose Louis Pasteur's quote on enthusiasm because I would never have finished MELISSA if I hadn't obeyed my “en theos” who supported me through the days when no words budded or worse they died on the vine, and who celebrated with me on the days when words burst forth into colorful and loquacious blooms.

I chose the butterfly and poppy images because the enthusiasm of nature is the source of our own and it's contagious. In a sliver of Brazilian forest only a few miles square, scientists have counted more than 1,500 species of butterfly. And the poppy when coupled with another poppy and given seven years and the right conditions will produce 820 thousand million million million descendants. That’s enthusiasm!!!

News to follow on Marisa's publication date. First I must complete the third draft come Spring. So from now on my blog will be about the writing life. Well, not entirely. I am pulling up my Manhattan roots, deeply grown down under for thirty years. It isn’t easy to get out of New York, it takes a lot of enthusiasm, but it’s something I’ve wanted to do for some time.

If you would like to learn more about enthusiasm I recommend "Exuberance: The Passion for Life" by Kay Redfield Jamison from whom I cite in the above text.

A Summer in la Drôme - La Saison des Tournesols

"Exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague."  Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890)
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And as the summer wanes these sun worshippers, which van Gogh painted, turn their heads toward the sun to catch the last of summer's light.

Outside my writing studio, in the fields, the lavender has been cut down by the local farmers and taken to the distillery to be condensed down into its essential oil.  The distillery is down the road and the balmy warm wind from Provence brings the essence of lavender to me in the early morning air.

I'm in the middle of my manuscript's second draft and, taking van Gogh's advice to heart, I am exaggerating the essential and leaving the obvious vague as I revise chapters and cut, cut, cut!

I expect my manuscript to be harvested by the autumnal equinox but time is going by damn fast!  And that is why I've had less and less time to blog.  My inconsistent blogs are accessible by e-mail if you click the RSS button found on the right column.

By the way if you ever want to read an awe-inspiring book on the life of an artist check out "Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh."  Not only was van Gogh an exceptional artist he was a really good writer.

Bicycle Lesson #6 - Rhône Alpes, France

Get Going!  Marcel Proust called it exercising the authority of his inner self.

I woke up this morning knowing it's Tuesday and I've committed to riding my bike though I'm really not into it. This early in the morning I'd rather be in bed reading.  But once on my bike, I take off down the hill and immediately start feeling really good.  And now I'm on my way home with the results of my work; a baguette, a good workout, and several new ideas I want to put to paper. 

I realize I do the same with my writing. I go to work at my desk saying I have to do it as if it is a terrible chore. When actually once I get going it is the most fun thing in my life. 

"No Day Without A Line" - said Apelles, Beethoven and van Gogh

There is no bike lesson today.  As I am a practicing writer I also like to discuss writing. And today I was inspired by this quote and looked it up to find out its history:

The original quote came from Apelles, an ancient Greek painter in 4th Century B.C.:  "Nulla dies sine linea."

Then Beethoven (1770-1827) said, "No day without a line" in answer to how he accomplished so much work as a composer.

Then along comes van Gogh (1853-1890) who wrote in "Letters to Theo" (an extraordinary, intimate, and uplifting correspondence about the work of one of our greatest painters):

"Not a day without a line.  By writing, reading, working and practicing daily, perseverance will lead me to a good end."

That's it!  That's what you gotta do, whatever your creative expression is.  Now if I can just apply it to my own daily work I'll finish this mansucript before the end of summer in la Drôme and turn it into a novel!!!

Bicycle Lesson #1 - Rhône Alpes, France

Yes, I'm back on my BLOG and want to thank my sixteen loyal followers for not deserting me.  I'm really gonna get the hang of blogging this time around.  That is when I'm not working on the first draft of my new manuscript, a contemporary novel entitled MELISSA. For my blog content, besides continuing my articles on self-publishing and the writing life, I'm going to write about my life in La Drôme and am starting with the lesson I learned pedaling my bike today.

I have promised myself to ride a bicycle on Tuesday, Thursdays and Sunday mornings and BLOG on the same days.  It takes around 10 minutes to pedal on a one-lane road to the boulangerie, 2 minutes to buy the local newspaper, Le Dauphiné, and a still-warm-from-the-oven baguette, then 30 minutes to return home.  Why the difference?  Because I live in a canyon and it is downhill going and uphill coming back. 

This morning as I was pedaling up one of the many steep hills, I found it almost impossible to continue and I consider myself in good shape - elliptical three times a week in my Manhattan gym plus up and down subway stairs daily.  I remembered my daughter Amie, who is a physical trainer, telling me that I must "Push!" myself.  So I did.  I stood up off my bike seat and pushed as hard as I could.  But I hardly moved.  And then 'I got it!'.  I had accidentally down shifted into first gear.  Once I realized my error and shifted into fifth, I moved forward.  It takes a while to get the hang of riding a bike again.

My ride today reminded me so much of my writing life that I thought I'd share it with you:  It's thrilling to go downhill with the wind in your face and not a care, but it takes great effort to climb back up the hill later.  There are days when words come easy and it's lots of fun but there are those uphill days when no words show up on the blank page.  I just have to stay with it, knowing that if I practice writing everyday I'll push myself through those uphill days and finish my new manuscript by the end of the summer.

I'd like to share also that while I'm riding my bike past fields of just-harvested hay and fields of brilliant orange poppies and purple lavender (I'll take a picture on Thursday so you can see too) I am writing a thousand explosive words in my head.  That is the impetus to hurry home and write them down before I forget!

That's it for now as Melissa's story is waiting to enfold and I have to write a chapter before I can give myself permission to take an early evening walk.