The Trial Before Christmas – Watch Out for Flying Books!

 

Trial Before Christmas posterThe fine line between fact and fiction blurred last night at a festive holiday reception when a man threw a hardcover book at a woman’s head – in a library, no less. She was seated at a table signing copies of a new edition of A Visit from St. Nicholas. As an author, I’ve never much liked hawking my books at signings, but this represents a new low that’s even more troubling than the usual scenario where no one buys your books.

What precipitated the attack? The woman, Pamela McColl, had just given “expert testimony” in a mock trial concerning the true authorship of  ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. Widely attributed to Clement Clarke Moore, the work may in fact have been written by Major Henry Livingston, Jr.  The trial took place in the John T. Casey Ceremonial Courtroom in the Rensselaer County Courthouse in Troy, New York, with prominent local attorneys arguing for the plaintiff and the defendant.

The event was part of Troy’s Victorian Stroll, and it was free and first-come first-serve, so I arrived Victorian Stroll balloon manearly. In the lobby, real cops were on duty, and there was a genuine security check, complete with the walk-through entrance and the conveyor belt to detect contraband items. The courtroom was packed, and I grabbed one of the few remaining seats. In the back row, I couldn’t hear everyone clearly, but I picked up bits and pieces of Ms. McColl’s testimony. In period costume, she argued against the portrayal of St. Nicholas as a smoker:

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath. 

After colorful testimony from the ghosts of Livingston and Moore and closing arguments from the lawyers, the jury, comprised of randomly selected audience members, decided in favor of Major Livingston. Then everyone was invited to attend the reception next door at the Troy Library, which had no security checks in place. I was savoring a glass of wine and a fillet mignon sandwich when I heard a shout and a crash. Turning in the direction of the commotion, I saw a man tightly flanked by two others who held him by both arms and propelled him out the door of the Victorian reading room.

Molly and Jack Casey, counsels for the plaintiff Livingston, and E. Stewart Jones, Counsel for the defendant Moore

Molly and Jack Casey, counsels for the plaintiff Livingston, and E. Stewart Jones, Counsel for the defendant Moore

It’s all right, don’t worry,” said one of them as they did their perp walk. But was it? What had happened? Ever curious, I questioned him later. It turned out that the man had been so incensed by Ms. McColl’s anti-smoking testimony that he started an argument that culminated in his throwing one of her books at her head. When she signed a book for me later, she was uninjured and surprisingly calm and collected. (Fortunately, though hard-cover, the book was light-weight.)

Her version of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, published by Grafton and Scratch, was listed in the program as a “Non-smoking edition.” I’m not sure if the book thrower was enraged by her testimony, by the book itself, or by both, but any way you look at it, it’s distressing – maybe yet another reason to forget about book signings and focus on selling books online.

So what happened to the guy? One of the two young men who escorted him out – both lawyers – said they didn’t call the cops, just told him to leave. “We know him,” he said, so perhaps he’s a neighborhood character. Perhaps, too, it helped that he was white, of smallish stature, and that there were no cops on the premises.

Victorian Stroll protest 2014Meanwhile, outside the library as darkness fell on the Victorian Stroll, protestors lay down in the street at Monument Square to protest the grand jury verdicts in Ferguson and Staten Island. Try as we may to escape into nostalgia, the twenty-first century and all its inequities remind us we can’t escape reality.

 

 

 

 

My NaNoWriMo win: I may be a cheater, but I’m not a liar

Trying my best at my own table

Trying my best at my own table

I made it! Last night I validated my National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) score of over 50,000 words, and the site declared me an official winner. They provided a link to an online certificate I can download, with lines to fill in my name and book title, and links to order merchandise, including a black tee shirt with this year’s emblem – a knight slaying a dragon.

There’s just one problem: I cheated. Yesterday afternoon I reached 30,747 words in the document I’d titled “NaNo total word count,” and there was no way I could legitimately come up with another 20,000 words in the last few hours of the contest. Illegitimately, it was easy, with just a few simple commands: Select all, copy and paste. Eureka! All at once, I had a document of 61,494 words. I uploaded it into the correct line in the NaNo form, hit the button marked “Validate,” and voila! I was a winner.

True confession time: this isn’t the first year I’ve done this. I’ve entered NaNo several times. A couple of times I dropped out, butDennys Nano 11-30-14 the other times I used the nefarious means I’ve described above. But this was the first time I solicited other people’s opinions – on Facebook, no less – before taking this sinister turn to the left. Those who replied, including my husband, felt I should take the high road and refrain from cheating. I’d be demeaning the efforts of those who won legitimately, they said. Heaven forbid I break the rules! Those rules are set by genuine human beings, true, but they’re enforced by a computer program. It counts words; it doesn’t read or judge content. Theoretically I could type the same word 50,000 times.

Our fearless leader, Shannon Kauderer

Our fearless leader, Shannon Kauderer

At last night’s final November NaNo write-in at Denny’s, the Albany group’s Sunday night hangout for the past month, I confessed my transgression and asked if anyone else had cheated. No one fessed up. I wasn’t tarred and feathered, but no one told me it was okay, and I didn’t win the plastic diamond our leader passed out to those who had won legitimately.

So am I ashamed? Embarrassed? Yes, to some extent. In the hard light of the morning after, I considered not blogging about this at all, but then I’d feel even more cowardly. Besides, in many ways I consider myself a genuine winner, with some bona fide accomplishments. For example:

  • I’m off to a good start on Sunlight and Shadow, the sequel to Hope Dawns Eternal, and I know where the plot is going from here.
  • I’ve learned the basics of the Scrivener program, which offers new ways of organizing my novel in a more flexible, less linear fashion.
  • I’ve found I can write at night as well as I can in the daytime.
  • My wine consumption has dropped dramatically because of the aforementioned night writing, because my writing suffers when I’m under the influence. Even a single glass makes me noticeably more slow and stupid.
  • I’ve gotten better at just jumping in and tackling a scene rather than procrastinating and waiting for inspiration to strike.
  • I’ve gotten better at banishing my inner critic.

I still prefer writing in solitude to writing in groups. And I’ll never be as speedy as those folks who can crank out thousands of words a day, but then I’ve never read anything they’ve written. For all I know, it’s total gibberish, but in NaNoWriMo, aside from counting words,  there’s no comparing and no critiquing. That’s why I’ll probably do it again. Who knows, next year I might even win without cheating.

Dennys NaNo Robb

 

The accompanying photos are from last night’s write-in at the Denny’s in Latham. A shout-out to the wonderful staff there, who let us hang out for hours in our very own room, overdosing on coffee and scrumptious desserts.

November: The Most Depressing Month?

November road fallen leavesNovember’s probably my least favorite month. This year I’m feeling great, in part because I’ve begun work on the sequel to my vampire soap opera thriller Hope Dawns Eternal. But in November of 2010, I was mired in a deep depression. I wrote this poem in Julie Gutman’s class at the Arts Center of the Capital Region. The assignment was to write a poem modeled after Wallace Stevens’ Twelve Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

I write my strongest poetry when I’m depressed. It’s a wonderful form of therapy. Lots of the imagery I used still applies, but the way I’m looking at it now is much sunnier. Still, I dedicate this poem to those readers who are prone to doom and gloom at this time of year. Trust in the sunny days to come!

Eleven Ways of Looking at November

I.

Rusty crimson leavesNovember smoke tree

Cling to my smoke tree

Breathing in pale November sunlight.

 

II

The dead oak’s gray-brown branches

Hollowed by woodpeckers

Past Halloween

Sway outside my window

Waiting for November’s winds

To tear them down at last.

 

III

My mother died in late November.

I crafted a comforting casserole

From the dregs of Thanksgiving dinner.

 

IV

I savor the cold November breezeNovember crooked tree

Wafting across my body from the open window.

Swaddled in Polar Fleece to save on oil,

I’ve learned to welcome the encroaching cold.

 

V

Election Day’s finally over. News is bad

This chill November morning.

A hard freeze frosts the fallen autumn leaves

Ushering in years of deadlock and decline.

 

VI

The slanting sun casts shadows on the siding

Of the house across the way, silhouetting

A scrawny maple shedding yellow leaves.

Its roots snake unseen beneath our basement.

November’s high time to take it down but even so

We’ll probably let it be.

 

VII

A friend my age is failing. A housebound invalid,

She measures out these cold November days

In solitude, refuses visitors.

She longs for death, having a valid reason

To succumb.

 

VIII

Weeds have repossessedNovember dead thistles

My withering November garden.

Only stonecrop thrives

Among the shriveled thistles, chicory

And Queen Anne’s Lace. In my depression,

I let them go to seed.

 

IX

Daylight savings’s over in November.

Fall back and gain an extra hour

To while away in bed

Dreading another day

Of uninspired ordinary options.

 

X

November rain falls hard and cold

Grave of my golden retriever Lucky

Grave of my golden retriever Lucky

On my neglected garden

Nourishing buried bulbs of daffodil and crocus.

In spring they’ll bloom again around the graves

Of late beloved pets.

 

XI

People are prone to seasonal affective sadness

In this the eleventh month, so says my shrink.

But still I hold firm to nearly barren branches,

Stubborn as rusty crimson smoke tree leaves

In the November rain.

 

©Julie Lomoe

November 4, 2010

 

 

The NaNoWriMo Challenge – Do you play well with others?

Baldacci Total Control coverWarming up the car this morning before taking off for my Nia class, tardy as usual, I caught the tail end of an interview with the best-selling novelist David Baldacci on WAMC Northeast Public Radio. Joe Donahue, the interviewer on The Roundtable, asked him if he’d ever consider collaborating with another writer. “No,” he said. “I don’t play well with others.” 

Donahue was referring to writers like James Patterson and Janet Evanovich, who have published novels with a co-author listed in smaller type below their names. “Why would I do that?” asked Baldacci. “It would spoil all the fun.” 

I’m with him – I don’t write well in groups. Case in point: National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo. I signed up again this month, though it’s been an exercise in frustration when I participated in past Novembers. Writing 50,000 words in a month is a daunting task. It comes out to an average of 1,617 words a day. You post your daily word count on a jazzy bar graph on the NaNo website. The graph and its accompanying chart track your progress and the date you can be expected to finish if you proceed at your current pace. Last night the site told me I’d finish on Christmas eve if I churned out about 2,500 words a day. In other words, I’d lose. 

The Albany area has a large and dedicated group of NaNo participants. There are multiple write-ins at various locations in the Capital Region. For the most part they’re at cafes and coffee houses, and for good reason – the caffeine tends to inspire jacked-up bouts of creativity, and people can hang out for hours nursing a single cup of coffee. Personally, I feel it’s only fair to order some food as well. This usually takes the form of high-calorie, high-fat, high-sugar concoctions. One of my favorites is warm apple pie a la mode drenched in caramel sauce. Denny's French toast ad

That particular diet destroyer is on the dessert menu at Denny’s, where write-ins take place every Sunday night. Writers with laptops descend on the place like locusts at the Latham location, where they’ve taken to saving a separate side room for us. The Municipal Liaison, aka chief cheerleader, is Shannon Kauderer, a young woman with blond hair shading to green, who’s a chemist by day and science fiction writer by night. 

These Sunday night write-ins have an unusual format: folks write silently for 20 minutes, then socialize for 20 minutes, then write, then socialize. And so it goes, usually till midnight, sometimes as late as 2:00 a.m. (The fact that Denny’s is open 24/7 is a major inducement to patronize the place.) 

My husband thrives on this format. He can flail away at his laptop, then get up and stroll around the room, chatting with the other participants, most of whom are several decades our juniors. Then when Shannon sounds the timer, he can sit back down and resume writing right where he left off. Others can apparently write this way, although I have no clue as to the quality of what they’re churning out. Still others ignore the chit chat and write straight through the social breaks. 

Woman Writing, Picasso 1934

Woman Writing, Picasso 1934

I can do neither – at least not well. I work best in absolute solitude, with only my dog or cat for occasional company. No background music, no interruptions except for full-blown emergencies. I’ve learned to write during those 20-minute sprints, but I hate turning my creative process on and off at will. And I never talk about what I’m writing in the midst of writing it. For me, it dissipates my energy and scares away my ever-elusive muse. Huddling silently over my laptop while my spouse enjoys the company of younger women, I may come across as curmudgeonly, but I truly don’t care. Like David Baldacci, I don’t play well with others. 

Still, despite my reservations, I’ll probably show up for another Denny’s write-in. The positive energy is infectious, and I’m getting better at jumping right into my writing without procrastinating. I may make my 50,000 word count after all. Besides, there are lots of scrumptious desserts I haven’t tried yet. 

What about you? Can you write with others around, or do you require solitude? I’d love to hear your comments.

 

 

 

 

 

Drifting downstream in search of inspiration

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888

The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, 1888

In search of illustrations for this blog post about NaNoWriMo and my writing process, I Googled “Woman Writing Painting.” Hundreds of images popped up, and as I scrolled through them, this painting of the Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse* caught my eye. The woman is drifting on a river, face tilted skyward, eyes downcast, in an exotic black boat. What is she doing amidst all the images of women sitting demurely in gardens or cozy interiors?

Through still more Googling, I learned that the work is inspired by a poem by Tennyson, in which the reclusive Lady of Shalott is lured by the sight of Sir Lancelot to leave her island and drift downstream in a boat to Camelot. As she floats, she sings until she dies.* But to me she’s a striking image for creativity, drifting downstream, open to whatever comes her way. It’s an image reminiscent of John Lennon’s lyrics too – “Picture yourself in a boat on a river” and “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream.”

But I digress. Still, that’s the beautiful thing about sitting down at the computer in front of a blankJohn Lennon Imagine illustration screen – you never know where it will take you. In part, this image, labelled as being in the public domain, inspired me to look for other nineteenth-century paintings that might serve as cover illustrations for Hope Dawns Eternal. I’ve launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to hire an illustrator, designer and webmaster to maximize the impact of the book when I launch it, but maybe the illustrator won’t be necessary. So far, the results have been underwhelming, but I’m determined to persevere. One way or another, I’ll launch the book before the end of the year.

I’m so convinced of the potential of Hope Dawns Eternal that I’ve created a brand-new blog at www.hopedawnseternal.net. That site will focus exclusively on my vampire soap opera thriller and my route to publication, as well as on the sequel, Sunlight and Shadow. (I’ll be keeping up this site as well, and sometimes you may see me cross-posting on both. If you do, please pardon the repetition, but please subscribe to both.)

I’ve been working on Sunlight and Shadow during this month’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) challenge. I’m woefully behind,

Another Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott, titled "I am half sick of shadows"

Another Waterhouse painting of the Lady of Shalott, titled “I am half sick of shadows”

because I’ve devoted the first third of this month to grandmothering duties and to the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, of which I’m President. (You can learn more about this important community ministry, which helps folks learn more about affordable funerals, by visiting www.hudsonmohawkfca.wordpress.org. )

I’m aiming for 33,333*** words by November 30th, the equivalent of two/thirds of the NaNoWriMo goal of 50,000 words. I know I can reach the 50K goal with the aid of some creative copying and pasting, and by counting blogging and journaling as part of the word count. Strictly speaking, that’s cheating, but who knows – I might even reach the word count legitimately if I can barrel through the doubts and insecurities that are entangling my creative process as I relax and float downstream.

*John William Waterhouse, a British artist born in 1849, the period when the Pre-Raphaelite style was at its height; he adopted the style decades later.

Alfred Lord Tennyson**Tennyson’s poem is beautifully evocative, and I was inspired to learn more about him. The biography at www.poetryfoundation.org describes how he suffered from deep depressions and was fearful of succumbing to the mental illness that ran in his family.

***$3,333 is the amount I’m hoping to raise on GoFundMe. Please help me by visiting www.gofundme.com/gep8ts. Every little bit helps. You can win prizes, too, including signed first editions of my books.

The Luxury of Late Summer Lassitude

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

Woman Reading by Richard Emil Miller

For the past few days, I’ve had every intention of writing something meaningful about Labor Day, but I was too busy being lazy. I told myself I had every right to wallow in sloth over the holiday weekend, but it’s three days later and I’m still wallowing. As a long-retired senior citizen, I’ve earned the right to indolence. Doing nothing used to make me anxious and guilt-ridden, but the older I get, the more those negative emotions fade away.

More and more, I find deep contentment in simply being in the moment, and isn’t that what countless self-help gurus say is the ideal state of being? I’m especially happy outside in my garden. Lying on my chaise in dappled shade on a perfect late summer afternoon, reading a book and sipping Pinot Grigio, my dog and my cat lounging in close proximity – life doesn’t get much better than that. I can gaze at a shrub or a single flower for minutes on end. And occasionally I actually get a little gardening done.

Then there’s the lake a few hundred feet from my house. I can walk down the public-access boat ramp and wade right into the water. I’m a slow, lazy swimmer, and I love floating on my back soaking up the sun. Or if I’m feeling especially ambitious, I can take out my spiffy little red kayak.

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Sirius, my chow/Aussie mix

Walking my dog Sirius is high on my list of humble pleasures too. He’s so fascinated by the world around him, especially its olfactory aspects, and so polite and friendly to the people we meet, that his positivity is contagious. Unfortunately, when we meet another dog walking its owner on leash, he goes ballistic, becoming instantly airborne, whirling in circles and barking wildly. At just forty pounds, he’s fairly easy to control, unlike some of my former dogs, so his fleeting mania doesn’t pose a major problem. I don’t believe he wants to attack the other dogs; he simply wants to get more intimately acquainted. And when we pass other dogs chained in their yards and barking furiously, he passes them by in quiet dignity with eyes averted, every inch the gentleman.

This immersion in the natural world that surrounds me is probably my most meaningful spiritual practice. Yet when I was in the depths of depression, the kind of despair I described in my post about Robin Williams, I was oblivious to these pleasures. For two years I ignored my garden, letting it go to seed and weed. I didn’t swim in the lake or launch my kayak. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that we didn’t have a dog in residence at the time; dogs make marvelous antidepressants.

“Somewhere sunny and seventy-five” – that’s how country singer Joe Nichols describes the

Joe Nichols

Joe Nichols

perfect day and the woman who evokes those summertime feelings in him. Here in upstate New York, we’ve been blessed with an abundance of days like this. I’ve taken full advantage, here at home and with excursions to a few of this area’s many attractions: Tanglewood for classical music, Hunter Mountain for country, Saratoga for Steely Dan and the races, Lake George for the Americade motorcycle rally. I’ve been to two women’s retreats – one at a cabin at a Vermont lake, another for writers in Connecticut.

Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

I’m deeply grateful for my good fortune. Measuring my existence in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I’m well above the midpoint. All my basic needs are comfortably met, I have a loving family, my self-esteem gets better with age, and I’m somewhere in the lower reaches of the top triangle of self-actualization. I have the luxury of contemplating a variety of choices. Some will bring me present-time pleasure and others will bring me closer to realizing my creative dreams. Should I go out to a movie with my husband or confront the last chapter of my novel? Should I do some gardening or finish this blog post? Maybe I can do a little of everything – but only after I watch this afternoon’s General Hospital. After all, I need to keep my priorities straight.

I’m well aware that billions of people around the world don’t enjoy my level of luxury. I began this blog post intending to discuss the growing division between the haves and the have-nots in this country. Not counting the 1%, there are millions like me who have paid our dues for decades in the educational system and the workplace and can afford to kick back and reap the rewards of our labor. Then there are the millions of others – and their numbers are steadily growing – who are desperately clinging to the bottom rungs of the ladder of Maslow’s pyramid. Those millions will never enjoy the luxury of mulling over the many pleasurable paths to self-actualization.

But forget about gloomy ruminations. Right now it’s time to turn on ABC and see how that kidnapping is coming along, and whether Silas’s evil wife will win out over his true love. After that, I’ll take my dog outside and play in the dirt. Today, while it’s still sunny and seventy-five.

 

Robin Williams and the Dangers of Depression

Robin Williams

Robin Williams

As one of the millions of people who have suffered from severe clinical depression, I can readily imagine why Robin Williams committed suicide. When you’re in the depths of depression, it sometimes seems as though the darkness will never end, and suicide is the only way out. And when life pelts you with lemons, you can’t muster the strength to turn them into lemonade.

His widow has disclosed that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, although he had not yet gone public with the fact. The diagnosis must have been devastating to a man who built his public persona upon his genius for rapid-fire, manic improvisation. Sooner or later, Parkinson’s would inevitably have eroded those gifts and slowed him down, and perhaps that prospect was more than he could stand.

Michael J. Fox has taken a courageous stand in going public about this devastating illness and appearing on camera with his tics and

Michael J. Fox

Michael J. Fox

tremors on display. But he’s always been a star with a certain sweetness and vulnerability, so his role as a crusader against Parkinson’s is a perfect fit for his personality. Perhaps in time, Robin Williams could have faced the diagnosis with similar grace, but alas, we’ll never know.

His career may have peaked. His CBS sitcom The Crazy Ones was cancelled this year after one season, and he worried about his finances, especially the alimony to two former wives. His California ranch was on the market, and he felt pressured to take roles he wasn’t enthusiastic about purely for the money. In his final days he spent most of his time lying in a room with blackout curtains, too exhausted to get out of bed.

I know that feeling well. I’m diagnosed bipolar, and within the past decade, I suffered two debilitating depressions, both of them after I had completed and published novels that failed to set the world on fire. Both times I was convinced life was no longer worth living, and I contemplated suicide, but like Dorothy Parker in her famous poem, I found something objectionable about all the possible methods and decided I might as well live.

With help from a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and above all my husband, I eventually climbed back out of depression, although I live with the fear that it may recur. For now, medications keep me on an even keel – Zoloft and Seroquel, to be specific, and Lunesta as needed for sleep. All three are now available in generic versions, so I spend under $20.00 a month for meds – a small price to pay for happiness.

But I may be paying a much higher price. I was diagnosed as bipolar twenty years ago, and I’ve been on psychotropic medications ever since. I’ve accomplished a lot in the past couple of decades, including publishing two novels, but I no longer have the overriding drive and energy that powered me through my earlier years as an artist. Laziness and complacency are ever-present dangers. I’m content just being in the present moment – gardening, walking my dog, reading – though I suffer pangs of guilt over my lessened productivity. Is this a normal product of aging, or a side effect of my medications? Maybe it’s both, but I’ll never know for sure.

When I learned of Robin Williams’s suicide, my first thought, after the shock and grief, was that he too was bipolar. If so, he had never publically disclosed it, but certainly his public persona was over-the-top manic. But as I read more about him and listened to old interviews, it became apparent that his personality when out of the camera’s eye was calmer and more reflective. He readily admitted to substance abuse and periods of deep depression and discussed them candidly, so if he’d been diagnosed as bipolar, he probably would have disclosed that too.

Still, I can’t help thinking he may have been in denial about the nature of his illness. The rapid-fire imagination and creativity so striking to those who knew him well may not have been full-blown mania, but it teetered close to the edge. Perhaps he was afraid that the powerful mood stabilizers and antidepressants of modern medicine would dumb him down intolerably, and perhaps he would have been right.

I don’t know what meds Robin was on or what therapy he was receiving. But it’s extremely common for people diagnosed with a mental illness to refuse or discontinue medication because they don’t want to become comfortably numb. And the inexorable progress of Parkinson’s disease, with its many physical and mental symptoms, including depression, would have taken a terrible toll over time.

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

Doubtless more details will emerge and more people will conduct psychological post-mortems. But in the meantime, although Robin Williams’s death is a tragic loss, I believe I understand at least part of the rationale for his decision.

 

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