A Writer Walks Into A Drawing Studio …

Sounds like the start of a bad joke. Instead, it turned into a fascinating very short three-hour experience.

After, that is, I got over the naked man posing on a bed of cushions in front of three or four other artists. One generously gave me charcoal because I haven’t been able to find a sharpener for my collection of #2 pencils. Guess I need to upgrade my art supplies. Oh, and get large paper.

Five minutes flies by when you’re trying to capture the line of a figure. And in those minutes, the man before me was no longer a blush-producing naked person but became form and line and contour. Light and shadow.

Over the three-hour time period, he posed for a variety of times – 2 minutes, 5 minutes, and once even 25 minutes. Each length of pose brought out a different response in me. In two minutes, you’re hard pressed to capture much more than the basic line of the pose. Five minutes gives you a little more.

I soon found myself trying to first capture his basic line with my charcoal. Slant of the head and shoulders, bend of the knee. As the length of his poses increased, I slowed down and looked harder, trying to capture more of the depth of his form. Refining my lines. Discovered the smudge of charcoal that added depth to the drawing. Ignored filthy fingers.

Since this morning’s experience, I’ve started processing my time in the Drawing Studio. What happened to my drawing when I had to get the form down quickly, or when I slowed down, had more time to refine the line and add detail. Drawing became a metaphor for my writing.

I have a tendency to write my first thoughts out quickly and all at once, trying to capture the line of my story. Then I have to go back and pick out the real line, blur my mistakes like I did in the drawing studio with my charcoal. Add the details, try to capture the eyes, the face, the fingers and toes, the shadowing and the drape and contour of his flesh. The metaphor comes in the refinement of line and addition of details. A writer has to pick out the best line for a story, making sure it rises and falls in an arc of action, that characters gain contour and detail, so that they command a presence on the page.

The model’s longest pose gave me the luxury of time to perfect the contour of my sketch in surer lines. And I connected the drawing process to what I am now doing with the draft of my second novel. I sketched the story line out last January while in residence at the Vermont Studio Center, but realized a two-week residency was not enough time to allow me to delve deeper into the story. I took that draft home and off and on over the course of the year added more detail to my characters, more contours and light and dark to my story. Now in my second residency at VSC – this time for four full weeks – I am taking the time that a longer model’s pose allows so that I can hone and perfect the original sketch of my novel into a finished work.

Another thing I learned in the Drawing Studio – look beyond the model. When he struck one of his last poses, also a longer one, I noticed that the floodlights cast his shadow on the wall. And that his shadow took on a distinctly feminine line. So that drawing, which I’ve used with this post, shows more than one dimension of a man I hardly know. We need to do the same thing with the characters in our novels. Look beyond the surface. Find the shadows. See what surprises lurk there that add depth to our characters and to our story. Draw their shadows, not just their form.

And not worry about our dirty fingers and smudged cheeks. They are also part of the process.

The Power of Women

1-hAehtnnWPggmh-2WQmludgI’m writing this post in celebration of #InternationalWomen’sDay and the #Women’sStrike. And today comes on the heels of  seeing “Hidden Figures” yesterday.

In case you don’t know, this movie has two extremely powerful messages both about racism and women. As the movie starts, we see the young Katherine demonstrating her extraordinary mathematical powers. Her prodigious abilities made her someone with at least two strikes against her in life – her skin color and the fact that she was (is! she is still alive at almost 100) over the top smart.

These women prevailed as human computers in the almost all male enclave of the space program. They had undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics and science. But they were considered third rate citizens. Even their white female counterparts were not considered equal to the men, in spite of the fact that they routinely out performed them. One of them, Mary Jackson, overcame the odds to become the first black, female aeronautical engineer.

Katherine Johnson, whose story is pivotal to the film, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015 in recognition of her role in making the U.S.’s first manned space flight with John Glenn possible by solving the problem of how to get an object back to earth after entering it into an orbit. She was also called upon by Glenn to double check the numbers crunched by the new IBM computer. “Have the girl check the numbers,” he said. No mean task. It took her a day and a half, but her calculations confirmed those of the computer, putting risk more or less to rest.

And Dorothy Vaughan became the first female computer programmer after teaching herself, and her staff of human computers, Fortran so they would not become obsolete.

The movie shows the inequality these women faced in everyday life. Especially bathrooms. While the movie takes liberties over the book’s account, it gets the point across strong and clear. For instance, in a scene after NASA makes the bathrooms color blind, the white supervisor, Vivian, reaches out to Dorothy in the women’s bathroom. She says, “Despite what you think, I don’t have anything against y’all.” Dorothy smiles and answers, “I know YOU probably believe that,” and turns to leave.

The film also reminded me of an April day in 1961 when, as a fifth grader, I remember looking up into a sunny sky on the school playground and wondering what John Glenn was seeing in space. I relate to these women. While nowhere near as smart, I faced similar odds as a young woman. Yes, I’m white. But I am female. Early in my education, I found myself repeatedly put in my place by male classmates. Not only was I pudgy and taller than everyone else, I was (am!) smart. In sixth grade, one boy turned to me and said, “You know, if you keep acting so smart no boy will ever like you.” Fortunately, I realized he was wrong. And one of my sisters faced discrimination head-on as one of only three women in the engineering school at the University of Pennsylvania.

girl statueAnd today, I only hope we can continue to support our girls as they explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. And management. I am heartened by the statue of a girl confronting the Wall Street bull that was installed today to bring awareness to the lack of women in corporate board rooms. This is a first step. But we cannot falter. We must value the gifts of all of us, male, female, black or white. We must learn from the scientists at NASA who realized that if they overlooked Katherine’s gifts, they would not make it to the moon.

So today, International Women’s Day, I salute all the young girls, and women, who are working to reach the stars and make our world a better place. In spite of our leadership in Washington.

Pinocchio President


“Pinocchio, I have reason to believe you’re telling me fake news.’ From The Spectator.

In the old fairy tale, when the puppet Pinocchio lies,  his nose grows. In Collodi’s original tale (not the Disney version) Pinocchio is described as an imp, confirmed rogue, and disgrace with even his father/creator Geppetto calling him a wretched boy.

“Pinocchio’s bad behavior, rather than being charming or endearing, is meant to serve as a warning. Collodi originally intended the story, which was first published in 1881, to be a tragedy. It concluded with the puppet’s execution. Pinocchio’s enemies, the Fox and the Cat, bind his arms, pass a noose around his throat, and hang him from the branch of an oak tree.” (Nathaniel Rich, slate.com, “Bad Things Happen to Bad Children”)

Collodi also had a far different end for the cricket in his tale. In the Disney version, Jiminy Cricket is the puppet’s conscience. Not so in the original. Pinocchio smashes the cricket with a hammer.

Pinocchio was meant as a cautionary tale to teach children  the sometimes dire consequences (“A lie keeps growing until it is as clear as the nose on your face”) of lying and bad behavior. And it is relevant today. We have a President who routinely lies. Excuse me, uses “alternative facts.” And who has surrounded himself with cabinet members who routinely stretch the truth or ignore it completely. This list includes DeVos’ statements about the value of vouchers, Pruitt and his lies about email accounts, Mnuchin who lied to Congress about his firm’s use of “robo-signing” of foreclosure documents that enabled his firm to seize homes, and most recently, Sessions’ lying about his conversations before the Inauguration with the Russian ambassador.

But back to Trump, or Pinocchio President. Once off script, the man tosses fictional information out as truth on almost every subject, from the number of people at his Inauguration compared to Obama’s (or the Women’s March) to the size of his hands, which are clearly visible. He also has reversed his version of his relationship with Russia (where he hosted Miss Universe three years ago) saying he hasn’t called Russia “in ten years.” His arithmetic is suspect when he claims the 2015 murder rate was the worst “in 45 years,” when in fact it is still half of the 1990 rate (which was 25 years prior to the 2015 statistics).

The problem with these lies is multi-faceted. They present our country as the laughing stock of the free world. No one believes anything he says. How can we have true diplomacy if our leader is not to be believed? The lies also put Trump in a similar bucket with dictators. For instance, Kim Jong Il claiming it is a lie that his half brother was murdered, in spite of damning evidence from film and forensics.

At the same time as Trump lies, he also rejects the entire Fourth Estate (the press) as promoting “fake news.” Is this his way of controlling information given to the public? Why do I think of TASS, the old Soviet press that only printed what the government wanted them to? Or even back to Nazi Germany, which also used similar tactics to manipulate the public?

There have been feeble calls of impeachment, or worse, for Trump and his entire administration. Is he headed for a Collodi ending, swinging from a rope? Or is there any chance that he could have the same ending as the Disney version, where he stops lying and becomes a real President?


Forty Days of #RESIST

The January Women’s March inspired me to action. But I’ve been wondering what I can do. The other day, a writer friend introduced me to the “Op Ed Project.” While I can’t dive head long into one of their workshops, I can use my greatest strength — my writing — to make a difference.

This coincides with Lent, that famous religious time for discipline and fasting. In the past I’ve made halfhearted attempts to give up chocolate or ice cream, hoping to lose weight. This year, my discipline is to make myself heard, if only in this meager blog. I hope you will follow my journey.

I don’t want to scare away potential readers with the thought that they might be sucked into a religious fanatic’s blog.  Yes, I go to church regularly. But I also believe that the holiest people are not always those in robes or those who Christ actually chastises, the most pious, who pray the loudest. The holiest people are the people who effect change in big, and little, ways. They are people from all countries and all beliefs (or unbelief) who have the courage to speak up, and act their beliefs. Who live a life of holiness, no matter what their beliefs – or non-beliefs.

Over the next six weeks, I want to share my version of “alternative facts” through blog posts. I already know that I want to talk about South Sudan. Education. Immigrants. Women’s Rights. The value of science. The value of the arts and humanities and why they need federal funding. And I invite you, my readers, to suggest topics and to join in the discourse.

So hold your pink hats as I get ready to move out of my comfort zone of fiction and share my view of the world.


How Far We’ve Come

321fa9ea59445e2I’d promised myself NOT to write anything about the candidate I will not mention, but with all the outrageous comments about women, “it’s just locker room talk,” I need to speak out. That, and a push from a recent Facebook post with the dates of significant landmarks in women’s rights within my lifetime.

We have come on an amazing journey. But with presidential candidates spouting such poisonous rhetoric, we are nowhere near our destination.

Not until:

  • no one refers to someone over 16 as a “girl.” If she’s old enough to marry someone, she is no longer a girl. And definitely not if she’s old enough to vote and to run for public office.
  • men don’t excuse their insulting talk as “just a joke.” Sexual harrassment, physical or verbal, is real. It is jokes like this that keep women from stepping up and speaking out.
  • And any number of other goals we still have to achieve.

I started thinking about this post after a visit to Seneca Falls, NY and the Women’s History Museum. One powerful exhibit after another left me breathless. We have “come a long way baby,” to use a dated and sexist adage. But it also reminds me of what an old friend once asked — in the early 1970’s. When will we cease to marvel at the “first woman to …”

The Centenarian

Daddy young man

George Senior, about 21.

On July 31, 2016, George A. Senior, my father, would have been 100 years old. But he died three weeks shy of his 64th birthday.

On that day, July 12, 1980, I was a 30 year old mother of a two year old and lost. My boss at Swarthmore College sent me home, told me to take as much time as I needed. I used the stolen moments a toddler provides you with and started to write. After all, it was my father who gave me my first typewriter.

I kept writing for several years, with no clue of craft or dialogue or plot. I still have those early pages banged out on an ancient typewriter. Maybe someday they will be part of something.

When life caught up with me again, my writing paused. Then started. Then stopped. Now, almost 15 years from the first tentative scenes, I am on the definite downstretch of polishing a novel to present to two agents. Those of you who knew my father might glimpse him in the character of Gregory, Grace’s dead husband. Something about his tendency to lecture, his bottomless supply of information and conviction that science can cure all ills … and his sense of humor and deep love of his family.

Except, just as it did for my father, science couldn’t cure Gregory.

Dad, this book is for you. And for Mom. Yeah, Grace has an awful lot of Mae Ann’s characteristics, but as my kids will tell you, I make up stories. It is fiction.


The Search Revigorated

Two years, one new knee, and several family crises later, I once again found myself in a frigid hotel conference center decked out in makeup and smiles at the League of Vermont Writers biennial “Writers Meet Agents” conference.

And success! I came with what I thought would be my pitch with two agent pitch sessions already booked. And learned a lot.

A pitch should start with a one sentence distillation of your book – who what where. Some elaboration was needed to fill out my 10 minute slot and my revised pitch plus the longer version on my phone did the trick.

I am now fine tuning the entire manuscript, with help from my Champlain Writers Group long-time associates. As soon as I feel it is truly ready for prime time (and over the years this manuscript has morphed so many times it no longer feels like a first novel!).

In a few weeks, if all goes as planned, I hope to send off my full manuscript to two agents, Jan Kardys of Black Hawk Literacy Agency, and Heather Flaherty of The Bent Agency. Sorche Fairbank of Fairbank Literary Representation, has asked to see a query with 30 pages attached. This is progress and exciting. Exactly the fire I needed to get me back on track and writing everyday.

It was a day full on information and wonder. Several other panelists, whose bios lead me to believe my novel(s) wouldn’t be their type, turned out to be potentially great fits. I’m looking forward to getting back in the query game and starting with this crew.

One of my favorite takeaways was from Janet Reid, of Fine Print Literary. She said, “You (authors) are how I make my living.” A great way to remove that barrier of the unapproachable agent who only wants to reject. That agent is only looking for the next great book because they love books and, well, like to get paid!