Monday, October 24, 2011


When I was 13, I looked to girls of 16 for examples of what I did and didn't want to become. Now, in my 70s, I look to people who've survived successfully into the late 80s and beyond, people like the late Stanley Kunitz, who published his first book of poetry when he was 25, won the Pulitzer Prize at 54, was named Poet Laureate at 90, and continued writing and publishing until his death five years ago at 100. His early poems, although admired by critics, were too abstract to be popular. His style grew simpler as he aged and learned to write words, as one critic said, "that cat and dogs can understand."

In the poems of his late maturity, Kunitz aimed for "spareness and rigor and a world of compassion." He believed that to survive both as a person and a poet one must be able to tap into the richness of an entire life. "One doesn't live in the moment, one lives in the whole history of your being, from the moment you become conscious." Click here and here.

Kunitz loved writing poems and growing plants, two passions that endured into an enviable old age. Although he and his wife spent every summer in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a town I love and often visit, I never had the chance to meet or even see him. Nor did I ever see his beautiful terraced bayside garden or even know its exact location. His last book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, partly makes up for this lack. It contains reminiscences and reflections on Kunitz's life, art, and garden; a selection of some of his best poems; and full-color photos of him at work among his plants. Body bent with age and arthritis, he looks like a benevolent garden gnome.

This fall I'm co-leading a poetry-writing workshop. Although many excellent poetry-writing manuals exist, I've suggested my students read The Wild Braid. In it, Kuniz says little or nothing about scansion, sonnet form, or the difference between simile and metaphor, but he says a lot about what a poem fundamentally is. As a bonus, he provides advice on horticulture. To Kunitz, writing a poem and growing a garden are pretty much alike. For example:

  • From its inception, Kunitz conceived of his terraced garden "as a poem in stanzas," each stanza, like each garden tier, having "its own life yet forming part of the whole." No single word or phrase in a poem, no single plant in a garden should call attention to itself. He didn't plant cannas, for example, because those tropical beauties were mere show-offs in the sandy soil and muted tones of Cape Cod. A garden, after all, is not only "an ornamental place, but a habitat and a civilization."
a show-off

  • A poem's words and phrases, like a garden's flowers and plants, form patterns within a harmonious whole. Recurring sounds and images knit a poem's disparate elements together, just as plants of varying colors, sizes, and shapes did in Kunitz's garden. The complementary blues of the thalictrum on one tier and the platycodon below linked the plants as words are linked by rhyme.
rhyming plants: thalictrum
  • Like a plant, a poem is alive and develops according to its own inner rules. He didn't try to preordain its form. "I try to give the poem its head. . . . I want the poem to grow out of its own materials, to develop organically." For this reason, "my method of writing a poem is to say it. The pitch and tempo and tonalities of a poem are elements of its organic life. A poem is as much a voice as it is a system of verbal signs."
  • Just as a flower is at its most beautiful just before it fully blooms, its secrets still folded inside it, so too a poem's energy comes from the secrets that remain folded within. Too much explanation muddies it. "So much of the power of a poem is in what it doesn't say as much as in what it does say."
Kunitz, whose mind shifted easily between the literal and metaphoric, called the dead end of the garden, "The Gate to Hell," picking up the latent metaphor in dead end to imagine the spot as a gate to the underworld. "After I started calling it that, it became that in my imagination, and then"--in an abrupt return from the literal to the metaphoric--"it became a burial spot. Our cat Celia is buried there." The inextricable bond between death and life is Kunitz's most pervasive poetic theme. Gardening, especially in spring, was for him like participating in some ritual celebration of death and resurrection. "I am never closer to the miraculous than when I am grubbing in the soil."

The connection between cultivating a garden, writing a poem, and living a life is beautifully summed up in this, one of my favorite Kunitz poems:

The Round
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me.

So I have shut the doors of my house,
so I have trudged downstairs to my cell,
so I am sitting in semi-dark
hunched over my desk
with nothing for a view
to tempt me
but a bloated compost heap,
steamy old stinkpile,
under my window;
and I pick my notebook up
and I start to read aloud
the still-wet words I scribbled
on the blotted page:
"Light splashed. . ."

I can scarcely wait till tomorrow
when a new life begins for me,
as it does each day,
as it does each day.
     from The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz. C.W. Norton, 2000.

Quotations from The Wild Braid:

“One of the great delights of poetry is that when you’re really functioning, you’re tapping the unconscious in a way that is distinct from the ordinary, the customary use of the mind in daily life. You’re somehow cracking the shell separating you from the unknown.” 

“The unconscious is very much akin to what, in other frameworks, I call wilderness. And it’s very much like the wilderness in that its beasts are not within our control.” 

“When I’m reading Hopkins aloud, I feel I am actually occupying his selfhood and speaking out of it, not simply reciting the words, but somehow merging into his bloodstream and nervous system.” 

“Every time we read a poem from the past we resurrect the poet, so that he or she is a presence just as much as anyone living and that’s miraculous in itself.” 

“Every artist I’ve know has been distinguished, almost from birth, by knowledge of that need to become a self, not just a living body.” 

A Tribute to Stanley Kunitz

Each baby born,
life's filter squeezes
to the dregs. Most drip
a dank and watery brew.

Now and then,
a sweet fragrance rises
from one
or two.
     by Joan Kane Nichols

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Young Adult Literature--YA, as we say in the lit biz--is a hot commodity nowadays. It's aimed at kids from about 12 to 20. Although most teenagers who read at all read regular adult books as well, it's nice to read books aimed at your age group, books that confront the interests and problems, joys and sorrows of your particular time of life.

Most so-called adult literature features 20-50-somethings mating and splitting up, striving for power and success, rearing children, having mid-life crises, enduring their misguided older relatives. Been there, done that. As an adult over 55, I enjoy literature that depicts the world I know, that dance with death that constitutes the final third of life.

Some appropriate candidates for the Old Adult, or OA, category jump to mind.

Old Adult Novel
Memento Mori. Muriel Spark was only 41 when she published this satiric jab at the elderly, which raises the question, does the author of an OA have to be old herself? I think it depends on the writer. If the depiction of old people rings true and lacks sentimental gush, I'm willing to accept a youngish author.

Old Adult Play

King Lear. "How sharpter than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child." A foolish old man and his three daughters. No one under fifty should read or see Shakespeare's greatest tragedy. Too grim. Too true. Too disheartening.

Old Adult Poem
"Sailing to Byzantium." William Butler Yeats was in his early 60s when he wrote the poem that begins:

     That is no country for old men. The young
     In one another's arms, birds in the trees
     --Those dying generations--at their song,
     The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
     Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
     Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
     Caught in that sensual music all neglect
     Monuments of unageing intellect.

You said it, brother.

Old Adult Short Story
I found John Barth's "Toga Party," with its wonderfully exuberant downbeat ending, in The Best American Short Stories, 2007, edited by Stephen King. King did an excellent job ferreting out good stories in all sorts of places. This, my favorite volume in the series, also contains Beverly Jensen's "Wake." It's hard not to like a story that begins, "Good God Almighty. We've lost the damned body."

Old Adult Nonfiction

 Reflection, journal, memoir. A trio of wonderful books by three wonderful women writers, all over 55 at the time of writing.

The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty by Carolyn G. Heilbrun
Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton
Coming Into the End Zone by Doris Grumbach

Listing these works has made me hungry to reread them and see if they're as good as I remember.

I plan to add more OAs to this list as I come across them. Please feel free to suggest some of your own favorites.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


Not Marvell’s chariot, but these guys look inexorable. You won’t stop them!

Andrew Marvell’s  “To His Coy Mistress” is one of my favorite poems, especially the line, “For at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot drawing near.” Those wingbeats thrum louder in my ears everyday.

By the end of June, after six weeks work, I’d achieved my goal to abolish fear of the blank page and establish a daily writing habit. I now had an additional 25,000 words to join the hundreds of thousands of words, crammed into my paper and computer files—novels, stories, children’s books, et al. in various stages of completion/revision. Few have seen the light of day. Some of my feeble and sporadic attempts at getting published have succeeded. But too often I’ve given up on my babies before they’ve had a fair chance.

Time to drag the kids out of the drawer, wipe their noses, wash their faces, send them out to make their way in the world. Early in July Project: Publish Before I Perish began.

For the first two months, I decided, I’d go easy on myself. My goal would be to revise and publish, in one form or another, the 25,000 words I’d recently produced. (In the fall, I’d start on all the other stuff I’ve written over the years.) Dividing 25,000 words by 50 working days, 25 each for July and August, worked out to 500 words a day, about two double-spaced pages, which is what Kate Di Camillo’s working stint is.

This didn’t mean I’d end up with 100 publishable pages. Some of the 25,000 words were mere meandering, of no interest to anyone but myself. The rest would need a lot of cutting and tightening. I wasn’t sure how many publishable pages to aim for. Fifty seemed like setting the bar too low; 60 might be more realistic, roughly one a day.

The other question was what constituted publishing. For the summer at least, I decided I’d count posts to the blog, as well as submissions of the Millay proposal to agents and editors—a bit of a problem, perhaps, since it would mean completing the research and writing of two sample chapters, but I thought I could pull it off. Also among those 25,000 words was other stuff I might be able to turn into a query, story, or nonfiction article.

So, no more kidding around. Sixty pages, 15,000 words, sent out to the world by Labor Day. If I planned to be a professional writer—consistently published and paid—before those winged horses start trampling on my head, the time to start was NOW.

Monday, July 25, 2011


It was June 26, and I was coming into the end zone of my six-week Facing-the-Blank-Page project.

Sunday through Tuesday were spent in Connecticut visiting Daughter #3 and her family. Lots of catching up to do. Two adorable grandchildren, whom I don’t see often enough. My seven-year-old grandson’s martial arts graduation ceremony to view. An overnighter to Mystic to tour submarines, eat lobster, and watch my ten-year-old granddaughter shop for her birthday present.

My word count for those three days? Nada. But that was okay.

This vacation from writing and concentrating on my project must have shifted something in my unconscious. As I was falling asleep Tuesday evening, I found myself reflecting on another project of mine, one I hadn’t thought of in months. As I wrote on the train heading home from Connecticut the next day:

I had an epiphany yesterday, thinking about Required Reading.

Little off track here, Joan, aren’t we?

Required Reading is either (take your pick) a YA novel in need of revision OR one section of an adult novel in need of completion. The idea that came to me was a good one, involving some restructuring of plot and deepening of character in ways that would really improve the novel. I wrote 520 words sketching out the new idea—and this on a commuter train, where it’s difficult for me to write.

Was this epiphany a gift from my unconscious for all the hard work I’d put in over the past six weeks? Or was it a sly trick, an attempt to seduce me into dropping the Millay biography for now and get right to work implementing my revelation?

In either case . . . No, no, no. Focus, focus, focus.  File the idea away (not too far away) and get back to it when I finish the Millay bio.

Technically, the Facing-the-Blank-Page project was due to conclude on Saturday, July 2, but I decided to end it two days early, on the last day of June, before the July 4th weekend, when I’d be going away again and so wouldn’t get much, if anything, done. I could now think of my project as 40 Days in the Wilderness of the Blank Page.

So Thursday, June 30, became the day to look back and sum up what I had and hadn’t accomplished. Since May 22, 40 days ago, I’d managed to write at least something on 32, or 4/5 of those days, for a grand total of 25,000 words. This works out to an average of 625 words per day, easily meeting my goal. Even better, on actual writing days, my average word count was 781. Good-O and kudos to me!

One important thing I noticed was that in May, when I’d set myself a goal of 1000 words  a day, I’d averaged 995 on every day I actually worked. In June, when I still aimed for 1000 but decided to accept a minimum of 600, my word-count average dropped to 781 on my working days. Memo to self: don’t be afraid to set your goals high.

Now that I had those 25,000 words, what was I going to do with them? The remaining 760 words I wrote that day comprised my plans for Publish Before I Perish, my project for the next two months.

Friday, July 22, 2011


This week I finally started hitting my stride, at least in terms of word count. On Sunday, the 19th of June, I wrote the 1350-word entry that became the basis of this series of “Facing the Blank Page” blogs. From this point on on I focused on A Girl Named Vincent exclusively.

But I hit a snag here too. Monday’s writing stint began with these words:

The problem now with keeping to my 1000-word-a-day schedule and focusing on the Millay biography is that I’m at the point where I need to do research and take notes in order to have anything to write. But note-taking doesn’t count as writing. Also, I need to start doing some revising. Di Camillo halves her page quota for revision, but I think I’m going to keep my quota the same 600 to 1000 words, since it’s still rough revision and will include lots of new writing as well. 

I may be doing some restructuring as well. Maybe I will call the opening pages the preface, instead of Chapter 1. And leave Millay out of it.

This rethinking of approach morphed into an actual re-writing of the first part of the preface for a total word count of 1300.

Tuesday: 1100 words of good stuff for the preface (or Chapter 1), presenting Millay’s backstory up until the age of 20—who she was, what her life was like, what her motivations were.

Wednesday: a little cheating here. Six hundred words which are really note-taking (but rephrased in my own words) describing Millay’s hometown.

Thursday: real cheating now. One thousand words, but all notes on one of the earlier adult biographies of Millay, mostly on her family and early life.

Friday: researching the turn-of-the century era when Millay was a young girl—650 words of notes on various books about the period. The hell with calling note-taking cheating, I decided. It was what I needed to do now, so it would count.

Saturday: Only 100 words today, a vivid rewrite of the opening of Chapter 1 (or Chapter 2, if I decide to call the preface, Chapter 1) in the interests of heightening the drama, plus four lines of a poem I was working on.

Saturday’s output was small because I had to rush to catch a bus, the first leg of my trek to Connecticut for a five-day visit with Daughter #3 and her family. My granddaughter, who would be turning 10 on Tuesday and whose parents were taking her and her little brother on an overnighter to Mystic for a birthday treat, said she wanted her grandma to come along too. Couldn’t resist an appeal like that. So off I went.

Would I get much writing done? I suspected not. Wisely, I introduced an Orwellian modification to the rules: I would write at least 600 words every day, except when I had or was an overnight guest.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


On Sunday, June 12, with Big D still a visitor, I wrote nothing.

Monday, once more back in my “room of one’s own,” I wrote a 600-word account of our pleasant weekend, which we’d spent mostly walking—and eating. Wong Wong in Chinatown Friday afternoon, so D could have the Peking duck he fondly remembers from his years in Philly. Then after dinner that evening, we'd gone to Smokey Joe’s in West Philly for drinks. Nice place with a circular bar, a good mix of patrons, and a white-haired guy banging away at a piano, singing old show tunes and cracking bad jokes. All of which, naturally, I enjoyed. Saturday had been a trolley ride and a nostalgia walk around Lansdowne so D could show me where he used to live. After a nine-mile trek home along Baltimore Avenue and a much-needed nap, D put up the air conditioner and I made a salmon and salad supper. Afterwards, an outside table at Cocobanana for one of their cold and yummy margaritas. Sunday, we'd watched tourists run up the Philadelphia Museum of Art's famous steps for an a-la-Rocky victory salute, then strolled along the river, where men were teaching their kids to fish, then into Fairmount for pizza in an Italian restaurant called Illuminare, silken flags of every nation fluttering high overhead. Walked home, another nine-mile round trip, and flopped on the couch. Then D had to pack up and start the long trip home.

So, no additions to my word count but, as I wrote:

There’s something to be said for long-distance relationships, as I’ve always suspected. I focused on D all weekend, now it’s back to focusing on work. Two of the major parts of my life satisfied without conflicting with each other.

If Big D and I do ever get to share a home together, however, the famous “room of one’s own” is a definite requirement.

Monday’s 600 words comprised an account of my weekend plus more thoughts on The Social Animal, which I was still reading. I began Tuesday’s stint like this:

I’ve established that I can write 600 plus words first thing every morning except when visiting/being visited. The next challenge is to write words that will coalesce into something ongoing—specifically my writing project, A Girl Named Vincent. I want to start racking up the pages and chapters. It now feels like I’m sloughing that off. 

My mental and emotional focus right now is on two things: reading and thinking about Brooks’ book The Social Animal and my relationship with D. The book is raising all sorts of questions and giving me lots to think about, some of which have to do with how D and I are getting along, but also about the evasions, the slippery slopes and lurking dangers of one’s unconscious mind, along with its green valleys and pleasant streams.

Rereading this I see that books, as well as people, are distractions. Focus is difficult for me. It was hard to write about Millay when I was thinking about Brooks’ book, which means, I guess, that when writing a book I should read only what pertains to it or is too mindless to think about.

The remaining 821 words I wrote on Tuesday were about Millay. I was determined to complete a proposal to send out to agents and editors within two weeks. Wednesday’s entry contained one of my typical, setting-myself-up-for-failure plans. To wit:

In order to send out a proposal by Thursday, June 30, I need to follow these steps:
1. Finish researching/writing first sample chapter.
2. Finish researching/writing second sample chapter.
3. Revise proposal’s chapter outline.
4. Revise proposal’s cover letter.
5. Revise/compile agent/editor list.
6. Revise/send query letter.

Other things I need/want to do in the next two weeks:
1. Poetry class, Wednesday, 15
2. New York for Teresa’s reading Saturday, 18
3. Poetry class, Wednesday, 22
4. Trip to family in Connecticut, Sunday, 26 to Wednesday, 29

1. Post blog entries
2. Weekly records/ pay bills, etc.
3. Email
4. Food shopping

Say what? Luckily I came to my senses as soon as I read this over:

Who am I kidding? It’s that first chapter that needs attention right now and it probably won’t get done in one or two days.

By the end of the week, I hadn’t completed the biography’s first chapter, but I did devote all my writing time to it. Thursday I wrote 1000 words setting out the sort of young adult biography I’m trying to write (one that’s such a good read it can be sold in bookstores, will tempt kids with all the devices that fiction uses to tempt them, and yet at the same time will have the accuracy that teachers and librarians look for)—all good material for my query and/or proposal. Friday I wrote 600 words that approach the first chapter from a different angle: Millay’s mother’s POV. And Saturday I wrote a 300-word character sketch of Millay as a young girl—“a swan among ducklings.”  All grist for the mill.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Sunday, June 5, began Week 3 of Facing the Blank Page. Three weeks is what it takes, I’d heard, to set any habit. I decided to aim for six weeks, just to make sure.

So far, so good. I was in the groove. Sunday, I finished my personal experience piece about my first encounter with black people--1000 words, no sweat.  Monday, I began a personal experience piece on being a non-driver—600 words. Tuesday, I ruminated on my plans for the Millay biography for 760 words, and Wednesday began a personal experience piece on the first time I met Big D, some 28 years ago, for 615.

On Thursday, June 9, I ran into trouble.

The day began badly. My cell phone woke me at 5AM with a taped message from some bank, supposedly, saying my account had been closed: “Press 1 to re-activate it.” Wasn’t I less likely to participate in a scam when I was angry about being woken out of a deep sleep? Or didn’t the scammers, in whatever part of the world they were calling from, not take account of the time difference? Or did they think someone only half awake was more likely to fall in with their scheme?

Whatever. I was now awake, though bleary-eyed, so I got up, grabbed my coffee, and sat at my desk. My euphoria of the past few days was gone. I didn’t feel like writing.

Blame it on the scammers. Or blame it on the New York Times column that sat open on my laptop. I’d planned to write about the pleasures and difficulties of re-adjusting to coupledom after being single for 14 years, with a view to perhaps submitting the piece to the “Modern Love” column in the Times Sunday Styles section. Re-reading one of these columns had seemed like a good idea.

From their archives, I chose the one the Times claimed had garnered the most interest—the famous training-your-husband-a-la-Shamu article. Bad move. I found the article irritating, a large part of its popularity due I’m sure to the way it plays to an underlying hostility toward husbands in the female readership. To me, that eye-rolling view of men as at heart only little boys or animals in need of training is distasteful. But because the author is so skillfully lighthearted in the telling of her tale, my own feelings seemed prudish, which made me uncomfortable.

More to the point, I hadn’t quite finished reading the article the night before, so this morning my eyes couldn’t help but scan down the page. Reading something written in someone else’s voice just before attempting to write in my own was a killer, undermining the whole concept of coming to the blank page fresh from sleep, especially when I planned to write about something personal. I began, but stopped after about 300 words.

Only one way to make up my daily quota: I reaped another 400 words by writing a detailed analysis of what had gone wrong.

Friday, my enthusiasm was still flagging, though I managed to churn out 650 words of journal writing, including an assessment of the book I’d begun, David Brooks’ The Social Animal, which was both intriguing and puzzling me. My listlessness may have been due to the heat, way up in the 90s. Big D, who was due to arrive for the weekend, had promised to put up the air conditioner for me. Cooler air might help, but his presence would be a challenge. Could I continue to write with him here? An important concern, since we were planning to move in together at some time in the future.

I was right to be concerned. Here’s my complete entry for Saturday, all 46 words:

Not much time to write today. D is here for the weekend. This is a good chance, however, to see whether I can keep this up even with distractions.  Even more important, if I can return to the usual when the distraction has gone home. 

Thursday, July 14, 2011


Snag number 2 in my daily writing program occurred on Memorial Day Weekend, the beginning of Week 2. Early Sunday morning I took Megabus from Philly to New York to spend the day with my friend, Big D—too early to have time for my morning writing stint. For Sunday I chalked up a zero on the chart.

A holiday, I told myself. And I did have a good time, getting a tour of D’s childhood neighborhood, a picnic in Riverside Park, a stroll through a street fair on Broadway, a walk around Chelsea—we walk a lot, D and I—topped off with a sushi dinner—we eat a lot too—before grabbing the bus back to Philly. It was worth it.

Monday I was back with the program, writing 700 words of biography plans. But nothing on Tuesday, and, because I didn’t write it down, I don't remember why. But I do remember a feeling of drudgery setting in, a sense of nothing worth writing. Had my day off Sunday been a dangerous interruption in the pattern I was trying to establish? Was this writing program going to end in a fiasco, as others had in the past?

I pulled myself together, recollecting that the point was to write something, anything. Just write. It worked. On Wednesday and Thursday I wrote journal entries of 750 and 1220 words each. On Friday and Saturday, inspiration still flagging, I was reduced to writing several lengthy emails I’d been putting off, 800 and 650 words each.

Nothing much, but I was writing. One thing I noticed was that I still felt my power drain and a concomitant urge to stop at around 500 words. I once had a regime of long, early-morning bicycle rides. Just as with writing, I’d start out strong, but feel resistance around the five-mile mark and want to quit. Once I pushed past that point, however, my muscles loosened up. I got into the rhythm of the ride and rode effortlessly for many miles more. So with writing. Once I wrote 600 words or so, the ideas seemed to come more quickly and the words to flow with ease.

I’d gotten myself back on track. I was writing, though I wasn’t writing publishable stuff.

Saturday, July 9, 2011


I began Operation: Blank Page on Sunday, May 22, as I’d planned. Having just returned from a biography conference in Washington, I wrote about that—more journal than report. Resistance was strong at first. Reaching my goal of 1000 words was hard; 500 seemed like a natural stopping point. But I managed to push through, hoping that once my subconscious realized how serious I was, it would buckle down and get to work.

The first snag came the next day. I had an overnight guest Sunday and Monday nights. Naively, I’d thought I could continue with the program anyway. But I live in a small apartment. No way to ignore the presence of another person. For two days I wrote nothing. Determined not to let this derail me, I got back in the saddle Wednesday morning and again wrote just over 1000 words, most of it a combination of memoir, plans for future projects, especially my Millay biography, and a paragraph on Millay’s character that would come in useful later. Another couple of paragraphs, on a friend’s book, became a blog post later that week.

I sailed through the next three days, easily exceeding 1000 words a day. I wrote the beginning of a second chapter for a short story I was thinking of turning into a novel. I wrote the beginning of a piece on my first childhood encounter with black people—material I hope to someday use in a book and/or post to my blog. I wrote about my tastes in biography, my aims for the one I’m writing, and further reflections on Millay’s character, all useful material.

I kept a progress chart (numbers in boldface represent meeting my minimum daily goal):

Date              5/22     23     24       25         26       27       28
# words         1057     0        0      1033     1008    1128    1037
Total             1057    1057   1057  2090     3098    4226    5263
Average         1057     529   352      523       620    704      752

All was going along swimmingly. Then I hit snag number two.

[to be continued]

Friday, July 8, 2011


In my poetry-writing class, it was suggested we write our own epitaph. Here’s mine.

Joan Kane Nichols

In a thin pine box beneath this tree
here I lie as you can see
feeding Nature as it fed me.

I found the photograph on Tom McLaughlin’s blog post of May 19, 2007 (scroll down the post). The grave shown is on top of a hill on a long-abandoned farm in Stoneham, Maine. The oak tree shading it, probably planted at the same time as the burial, is dying now, its share of sunlight blocked by the surrounding white pines.

The epitaph inscribed on the slate reads:

wife of Jacob Stiles
died August, 1848
AE 51 yrs 7m

Olive was Jacob’s second wife and stepmother to his eleven children. She loved to walk out to the hilltop to enjoy the view of pasture, woods, and pond. Here, she told her family, was where she wanted to be buried. I envy her choice. Beats the bland, featureless, suburban grave lots on Long Island by a long shot.

Monday, July 4, 2011


The writer’s block thing had gone on long enough. Supposedly I was developing a proposal for a YA bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay. But the two half-finished chapters I planned to include had been half-finished for a year. I live alone and work at home. My time is my own. I’d returned to this project in April. Yet here it was almost the end of May, and I was getting nothing done.

I was writing, I told myself. But I wasn’t. I was researching, jotting down notes, attempting some revision. That was on the good days. Other days, I read books on writing. Or I scoured my email for hints and chat from online writing groups. I was doing everything a writer should do—except write. And although I started this blog, which does require actual writing, it was a hit-or-miss affair. I wrote for it when the spirit moved me. Otherwise not. Obviously some bootstraps needed pulling up.

Then, on the Cath in the Hat blog, I saw an interview with children’s writer Kate Di Camillo (see it here), who was asked about her writing habits. Quite simple. Every morning she gets up at 5AM and, cup of coffee in hand, goes into her office and writes. She sets herself a modest goal, one she knows she can meet:  write two manuscript pages, single-spaced, or revise two pages, double-spaced. Every day. Two single-spaced pages can add up to over 1000 words. Not bad for a couple of hours work.

If Kate DiCamillo can do it, I told myself, so can I. After all, a few years ago, when I had a full-time job, I’d completed a 500-page novel by writing every morning before work. I’d done it once. I could do it again. To insure success I decided to begin with a goal even lighter than Di Camillo’s. I’d aim for 1000 words a day, but would be satisfied with 600.

I gave myself a few simple rules:
I would get to work first thing in the morning, when my mind was most open to the subconscious and its creative power. No checking the weather. No peeking at email.  Grab my coffee and get to work.
This would be first-draft raw material. No worrying about grammar, punctuation, or even style (a difficult rule for a former editor to follow).
Whatever I wrote should have the potential to be revised into something useful—preferably for my Millay proposal. I didn’t have to work on the two sample chapters, not at first. Instead, I could write about structuring the biography, ruminate on Millay’s character, pose questions, devise ways to find out what I needed to know. Or I could write blog entries or scenes for other fiction and nonfiction I’d been working on. Or, if all else failed, I could respond to email or write entries in my journal.

Having heard that it takes three weeks to establish a habit, my first goal was to face the blank page every morning for three weeks before taking stock. Today was Thursday, May 26. I was due to attend a Biographers International Organization Conference in Washington the next day. On Sunday, May 22, the day I returned, I’d begin.

Clearing my computer desktop of all but a few essential file folders tucked away in a corner, I set up a new folder, THE BLANK PAGE, centered so it would jump out at me as soon as I opened my laptop. Inside was a blank document titled, 5/22/11.

Did my scheme work? I’ll be reporting on the outcome in subsequent posts.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I’ve been thinking about race and racism lately, especially as they relate to something playwright David Mamet once said: “Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth."

Last week, Supermodel Naomi Campbell was ready to sue Cadbury in the U.K. for its ad comparing her to a bar of chocolate. (Actually, comparing a bar of chocolate to her.) “Insulting and hurtful,” she said. Now the firm has officially apologized and removed the ad from circulation. Campbell has accepted the apology.

Was she right to feel insulted or overreacting? Black people themselves use the names of foods and spices to refer to their varying shades of color—ginger, cinnamon, café au lait—and chocolate. But what members of a group say about themselves and what they’re willing to let others say about them are, of course, two different things.

It’s all in the context. One summer day in the early 60s I was in a delicatessen in the all-white, working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York, where I then lived. Four or five black men who’d been repairing the nearby el came in to buy their lunch. They were tall and broad-shouldered, their skin glistening from heat and hard work. Laughing and joking, they seemed to fill up the narrow store. Daughter #1, who was about three at the time and had probably never seen an African-American up close before, gazed at the men towering above her and cried out with absolute joy, “Oh, look at all the chocolate people!”

No offense meant, none taken.

For some whites in that same neighborhood, however, the fear of black people moving in was so great that when a homeowner had the temerity to put a House For Sale sign in his window, thus circumventing the redlining practices that real estate brokers employed to keep blacks out, a few of my neighbors banded together to burn a cross in his front yard. I overheard one man say, “We don’t want any chocolate puddings around here,” the venom in his voice so palpable, I felt physically sick.

I’m pretty sure that, unlike that man, no one at Cadbury—probably an all-white firm—intended to offend. But neither can any of them claim the innocence of a chocolate-loving three-year-old. Campbell says that more diversity on company boards is needed to prevent this kind of insensitivity, and of course she’s right. More awareness and empathy among the whites on the board would go a long way too. In my opinion, saying, “It was not our intention that this campaign should offend Naomi, her family or anybody else and we are sincerely sorry that it has done so” is not enough. They should have known better and they should take steps to ensure that in the future they do.

So, “Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth." Agree? Or not?

I’d like to attempt an honest dialogue on the subject and invite anyone with the same aim to join in.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Waiting for me when I returned from Washington last week was a UPS package  containing a copy of a brand-new picture book—Summer Jackson: Grown Up by Teresa E. Harris. Twenty years ago, when D and I were living in New Orleans, we drove to Disney World to meet up with his family—including his sister and her two little girls, Tania and Teresa. When Teresa discovered I was a writer, she told me she was going to be a writer too when she grew up. And so she is. When D and I reunited recently after 14 years apart, I found out that his niece was eagerly awaiting the publication of her first book. Of course I couldn’t wait to read it, and it’s a stunner.

Seven-year-old Summer Jackson (love the name) is tired of being a child and doing childish things. So she dons a blazer and heels, writes to-do lists, and generally behaves like an up-and-coming young professional. But when she starts collecting cash payments from her fellow students for her consulting work, her parents feel the need to step in. They gently try to dissuade her, but Summer stands firm. Only when Mom and Dad demonstrate the pleasures of childhood by swinging, sliding, and dancing in the backyard does Summer relent—a bit.

Some of the story’s charm lies in what it doesn’t say. No husbands and babies in Summer’s vision of adulthood. This girl want a career!  And I love the sly poke the story takes at today’s busy, two-career parents. Letting out one’s inner child, it suggests, provides a good tonic for hard-working professionals of any age and is lots more fun when the whole family joins in.

Summer Jackson: Grown Up by Teresa E. Harris. Illustrated by AG Ford. A Katherine Tegen Book. HarperCollins, 2011.

Friday, May 13, 2011


I’m heading to Washington, DC, next week for the International Biographers Conference. It’s on May 21, the same day as the Rapture. In some cities this could be dangerous. Traffic accidents, for example, as the elect, the saved, the true Christians are suddenly wafted into the blue. But near Congress? I’ll probably be pretty safe. I’ll keep you posted.

A big name for such a little girl. Note the baby pug. 
I’ve written several biographies for young people, and now I’m working on a proposal for one about poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, tentatively titled A Girl Named Vincent.

Why did such a sweet little girl get a boy's name?

Millay’s mother had an adventurous young brother named Charles Buzzell, who was making his way around the world. On January 31, 1892, he got himself accidentally locked into the hold of a cotton freighter in New Orleans. Ten days later, when the ship arrived in New York, Charles was discovered, nearly dead from lack of food and water, and rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where doctors managed to pull him through.

St. Vincent’s in 1900. The hospital closed in 2010.
According to Nancy Milford’s Savage Beauty, Charles later admitted he’d been drunk, fallen asleep on some hay bales, and hadn’t heard the hatches close and lock. Accounts of his ordeal appeared in newspapers all over the country, but his nine-months-pregnant sister, who lived in Rockland, Maine, didn’t hear about the near tragedy and its happy outcome until February 15. A week later she went into labor, and, on Washington’s Birthday, February 22, to the sound of pealing bells, gave birth to the baby girl she named for the hospital that saved her brother’s life.

Charles quickly made hay of his mishap among the hay bales, appearing at the Bowery’s Globe Museum in New York to relate his “Awful Experiences.”

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Forty-something years ago I was visiting my mother with my kids. My 20-year-old brother came home from Queens College with a copy of a new Beatles album under his arm—Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He was thrilled, ecstatic. I was puzzled. I listened to the lyrics. Of course, I’d heard the Beatles before. But these lyrics, they didn’t make sense. They were like poetry. I knew poetry. I was an English major after all. But poetry didn’t belong in popular songs. Popular music was “Maybelline” and “She’ll have fun, fun, fun till her Daddy takes her T-bird away.” You loved it, danced to it in high school, but once you graduated, you moved on to classical music or jazz or Broadway show tunes. Didn’t my kid brother know that? Was he stupid? No. He was a boomer.

Genuine hippie boomer

Monday, May 9, 2011

Saturday, May 7, 2011


Today's my youngest daughter's birthday. Tomorrow is Mother's Day. Hence this poem.

Triolet for Four Daughters

since that rough passage past my bones

awash in pain  swathed delight

dearest daughters known/misknown

since that rough passage past my bones

rivers surging over stones

whose darkest patches flash with light

since that rough passage past my bones

washed from pain  subdued delight

                                      Joan Kane Nichols

For you poetry buffs out there, a triolet is a one-stanza poem of eight lines, rhyming abaaabab. The fourth and seventh lines are the same as the first, and the eighth line is the same as the second. As you can see, I've taken some liberties with the form.

Friday, May 6, 2011


Growing up, I had little pride in the Irish-Catholic culture I was born into. In my harsh adolescent judgment, Irish-Catholics were bigoted stick-in-the-muds. Many of my friends were red-diaper babies or at least came from radical, rabble-rousing, union-loving families. Now that was something to be proud of! 

Last week my cousin, Pat, who’s been doing a terrific amount of research into the Kane family background, sent me a newspaper clipping from the Brooklyn Eagle of July 25, 1867.  Under the headline THE LABOR MOVEMENT, the subhead reads: 
Meeting of Plasterers—Reports from the National Convention--The Eight Hour System, Strikes, etc.

It seems the 120 members of the Operative Plasterer’s Society of Brooklyn held a special meeting at 22 Court Street that evening to hear from the delegates they’d sent to the union’s National Convention. The delegate chosen to report was my great-grandfather, Andrew Kane.

Plastering is an ancient trade and plasterers’ unions have a long history, as far back as medieval Irish craft unions. Local unions formed in the United States as early as the 1830s. By the time of the Civil War, these locals were eager to join forces and form an organization that could standardize rules and regulations—including wages and working conditions. Hence the national convention. 

Delegates from 14 eastern cities (Brooklyn was a separate city in those days)—from Portland to Chicago to Washington, DC—traveled to Baltimore to attend. They represented 2077 journeyman plasterers, who earned from $3.50 to $4.50 for a six-day workweek. The various locals had staged numerous strikes the previous year, some more successful than others. Great Grandpa was able to report that the Convention had praised the Brooklyn local for being the only one that managed to obtain an eight-hour workday for all six days, not just Saturdays. He was also able to report that during the election of the convention’s officers, Andrew Kane was elected Treasurer. Way to go, Great-Grandpa!

Additional tidbits from that day’s Brooklyn Eagle:
Under “Miscellaneous Items”
A lady in Hungerford, England, was frightened to death by a cow.

From “Man as an Article of Food”
It was formerly supposed that the relish with which certain savage tribes ate their enemies arose from the gratification of the passion of revenge. Within the last few years, however, it has been clearly shown that some of the barbarian man-eaters are really fond of human flesh for its own sake. . . .  your Fejee Islander, now, thinks the greatest praise he can bestow upon any edible is to say “that it is as tender as a man.” The Feejeans have plenty of provisions, but they consider “long pig”—their pleasant name for human flesh—much finer than pork, beef, or mutton.
Who knew?

Note on my Edgar predictions of last week. Once again a perfect score: 0

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Almost every year I attend an Oscar party thrown by Daughter #3 and her husband, where I fill out ballots predicting the winners. I never come close because I vote for those I think should win, not those who probably will. Tonight, April 28, the Mystery Writers of America, of which I'm a member, will announce the winners of the Edgar Awards for the best mysteries of 2010. I don't know who's judging or what their criteria are. But since I’m writing a mystery, I read the nominees in four categories to see what’s considered the year's best. Here are my predictions, based not on which mysteries are likely to win (I have no idea) but those I liked best.

Caught by Harlan Coben (Penguin Group USA - Dutton)

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin (HarperCollins – William Morrow)

Faithful Place by Tana French (Penguin Group USA - Viking)

The Queen of Patpong by Timothy Hallinan (HarperCollins – William Morrow)

The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton (Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books)

I’d Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman (HarperCollins – William Morrow)

My Choice: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Opening sentence(s):

The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.

The finest mysteries written today combine the best qualities of literary writing—authentic characters, evocative settings, and wonderful language—combined with heart-pounding violence and nail-biting suspense. Franklin’s novel is a prime example from the first chapter on. That socko first sentence is followed by a detailed, leisurely account of Larry’s ordinary afternoon. The Mississippi countryside is lovingly presented and so is Larry, a lonely-guy who's kind to his chickens. But the horror promised by that first sentence is dramatically fulfilled by chapter's end.

This tragic story delves into the past friendship of two men, one a constable who’s just returned to his hometown after 20 years, the other a suspected pedophile. Their past history and the events of the present are surprising and sad. I especially like how Franklin has created a black man, one of the two main characters, who is far from a stereotype. Neither saint nor sinner, but a believably flawed human being.


Rogue Island by Bruce DeSilva (Tom Doherty Associates – Forge Books)

The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron (Minotaur Books)

The Serialist: A Novel by David Gordon (Simon & Schuster)

Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto (Simon & Schuster - Scribner)

Snow Angels by James Thompson (Penguin Group USA – G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

My Choice: Galveston

Opening sentence(s):

A doctor took pictures of my lungs. They were full of snow flurries.
When I walked out the office all the people in the waiting room looked grateful they weren’t me. Certain things you can see in a person’s face.

I’m not usually a fan of  hardboiled mysteries, but I loved this example of Texas noir, mainly because of its first-person protagonist, a warm-hearted hit man who’s dying of cancer.


Long Time Coming by Robert Goddard (Random House - Bantam)

The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn (Henry Holt)

Expiration Date by Duane Swierczynski (Minotaur Books)

Vienna Secrets by Frank Tallis (Random House Trade Paperbacks)

Ten Little Herrings by L.C. Tyler (Felony & Mayhem Press)

My Choice: The News Where You Are

Opening sentence(s): 

Frank’s daughter sat in the front passenger seat humming the same tune over and over. The notes spiraled upwards and then abruptly plummeted, before starting the ascent again. Frank drove toward the city.
“What’s the tune,Mo?” asked Frank.
“It’s a song by the Beatles. It’s a man asking questions about when he gets old.”

I suspect O’Flynn’s book was even considered only because a clever publicity person convinced someone it’s a mystery. Actually it's a literary novel in which the mystery element takes a decided second place. Although the main character is a bit passive, I was engaged by his sly humor, his young daughter’s quirky character, and the book’s theme of how we as a society deal with the past and with aging. And it's British, always a plus with me.  

I also liked Vienna Secrets and its depiction of pre-Holocaust Vienna. But, even though I'm no longer a believer myself, I was put off by the author's lack of respect for Catholic doctrine. Denying someone the Last Rites is not a trivial matter when you believe it means dooming him to an eternity in hell.


(This award was presented last night at MWA’s Agents & Editors Party, but I don’t yet know who the official 

winner is.)

Wild Penance by Sandi Ault (Penguin Group – Berkley Prime Crime)

Blood Harvest by S.J. Bolton (Minotaur Books)

Down River by Karen Harper (MIRA Books)

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Live to Tell by Wendy Corsi Staub (HarperCollins - Avon)

My Choice: Blood Harvest

Opening sentence(s): 

The Fletcher family built their big, shiny new house on the crest of the moor, in a town that time seemed to have left to mind its own business. They built on a modest-sized plot that the diocese, desperate for cash, needed to get rid of. They built so close to the two churches--one old, the other very old--that they could almost lean out from the bedroom windows and touch the shell of the ancient tower. and on three sides of their garden they had the quietest neighbours they could hope for, which was ten-year-old Tom Fletcher's favourite joke in those days; because the Fletchers built their new house in the midst of a graveyard. They should have known better, really.  

This is not really my category. I believe they're supposed to be the sort of books written by Mary Higgins Clark. Two of them I couldn’t even finish. But Bolton’s book was a stand-out, mainly for the wonderful characters, especially the handsome, self-deprecating, and  whimsical new vicar, Harry Laycock. Plus, it’s British.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


My little sister, Gail, and me in our Easter finery.

Here we see the sad lingering influence of Dior’s post-war New Look. The dress was chartreuse cotton pique, ugly enough in itself but atrocious when its flared skirt was paired with a straight-line tan wool topper and a sporty leather bag. Not to mention the round hat enhancing the round face’s roundness. Also note the white gloves, which were de rigueur for dress-up. In honor of my incipient adolescence I’m wearing two-inch heels, stockings—probably cotton, certainly seamed—a garter belt to hold up the stockings, and my first bra.

This was the first year I was allowed to choose my Easter outfit by myself. I selected each item with exquisite care. But on Easter morning, when I donned the complete ensemble for the first time, I sensed that the whole was considerably less than the sum of its parts. But what could I do? I decided to put a good face on it and soldier on.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Goodbye Miss Ellie

In November 2001 Elliot Castillo, a 70-year-old, four-times-married, father, grandfather, and former Baptist minister, moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts, donned a blonde wig, mini-skirt, and heels, picked up a microphone, and became a showgirl. Miss Ellie, as she now called herself, died last week, after almost ten years as the town’s quintessential icon, an inspiration of a sort for all pre-Boomers yearning to reinvent themselves.

Eventually, Ellie gave up the wig. Although she took hormones and grew small breasts, she never had a sex-change operation. Her elderly male body clad in sexy little outfits, her handsome bony face framed in flowing bleached blonde hair, was a familiar sight outside Town Hall, winter and summer. The expressions on the faces of tourists encountering her for the first time ranged from horror, dismay, and disdain to curiosity, amusement, and, perhaps, envy.  Propped beside a small red wagon holding her karaoke machine, was a hand-lettered sign, updated each year: “79 Years Old and Living My Dream.” She sang the standards, like Sinatra’s, “I Did It My Way.” She sang at clubs, special events, made a video.  She even had her own YouTube channel.

All his life Elliot Castillo had struggled to suppress the feeling that he was meant to be a woman. Married four times, he left his first wife and four children to take up with another woman. None of the marriages lasted, partly because he was such a philanderer. He loved beautiful women. If he couldn’t be one, he could at least marry them. The feeling grew until one day Jesus said, “It’s okay. Be a woman.”

Some of Miss Ellie’s children didn’t take kindly to her lifestyle change. A daughter turned her back; a son refused access to grandchildren. But others came around. Several winters ago, I saw her in a pew of the Unitarian Universalist Church, companionably sharing a hymnal with a middle-aged, conservatively dressed son. When she lay in a Cape Cod hospital dying of pancreatic cancer, all but one of her children were there.

I’d also seen her,  dressed in a knee-length skirt and a subdued page boy, singing in the church’s choir. When I went to the after-service coffee hour, she was the first to greet me and make me feel at home. Among Miss Ellie’s other lavishly praised qualities—her courage, her cheerfulness—she was above all an extremely nice person.

Asked what she considered herself—transvestite, transgendered person, homosexual, etc.—she’d say, “a human being.” For the record, under sex on her Facebook profile she wrote male. Under About Ellie she wrote: "Life or love is the one reality. Death or hate is the one unreality. Therefore, it's only common sense to choose life. Why die? Death is so unnecessary! Be like Ellie—sexy, gorgeous—25 forever! It's more fun that way!”

Asked in a writing class to write a poem about a butterfly, I came up with the following:

                    Painted Lady
In Provincetown on summer Saturdays
before benches bearing tired tourists
resting their fluid-filled legs, she performs;
her gaunt legs, bowed like a butterfly’s wings,
blond wig, hands too wide, jaw too big to be
what something deep inside her says she is.
Sundays, sans wig, legs covered to the knee,
she’s often found—drab bird in a sad skirt—
in the choir of the Unitarian church.
Seeking surcease from quiddity within
the sanctum of this motley flock, she lifts
her throat in commonality and sings. 
What are any of us—
pale larks warbling within the fold 
or butterflies with gaudy wings?

Goodbye, Miss Ellie. Rest in peace.

A public "Celebration of Life for Ellie" will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Provincetown on Saturday, May 14 at 11 a.m., and Ellie’s children are hosting an "Ellie-palooza" tribute party on Father’s Day, June 19, at 1 p.m. at the Crown & Anchor.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Silent, or Unheard?

Gloria Steinem
They called us the Silent Generation. We weren’t silent. We just couldn’t be heard above the din of the generations on either side. Mine was the smallest generation in America. Fewer than 40 million babies were born during the fifteen years from 1931 through 1945, roughly the years of the Great Depression and World War II, when would-be parents lacked jobs or were forced apart by war. (Boundaries are porous. Some say my generation begins in 1921, or’25, and ends in 1941, ‘42 or ’45. I identify with those born from 1932 to 1945, people who today are anywhere from 65 to 79.) 

Almost 43 million children were born in the 15 years preceding my generation and a whopping near 60 million in the 14 following. Sandwiched between the Greatest Generation and the Boomers, we’re the ignored middle child overshadowed by the lavishly praised, heroic older brother, who fought a war to finally make the world safe for democracy and the indulged, noisy kid who, (with unacknowledged help from us) sparked the social and cultural revolution we’re still living with today. We middle kids are ignored or called bad names—conformist, anxious, wishy-washy, wimpy. 

But unnoticed middle children are free to invent themselves, as many of us did. A 1951 Time magazine essay popularized the term “Silent Generation,” calling it “a still, small flame” that does not “does not issue manifestos, make speeches or carry posters.” Tell that to Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Gloria Steinem, and Eldridge Cleaver. A lot of us were unconventional in one way or another: Jane Goodall studied chimps in Africa; Ram Dass studied LSD at Harvard. And many of us—Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin come to mind—made plenty of noise. Now our generation is dying off, shrinking more and more every day. But we’re still making noise and want to be heard. I’ll be speaking out as one member of the generation that can’t seem to shut up.