Monday, December 27, 2004

After-Christmas - A Time to Burp and Fail to Finish Poems

They tell you there will be a day after, you grow up and realize on your own that there will be a day after, but when it comes, you are unprepared for it. The day after Christmas, the day after your book is published, the day after you graduate, the day after you're married.

It's not the day you planned.

Nor is it the poem you planned. This is the first step in any creative endeavor - to acknowledge that reality stinks and you better write/live/fantasize your way into something better. Ribbons strewn beneath the table, wedding cake stashed in the freezer, review copies in the mail, gifts stacked neatly on top of the list of thankyou cards to write and/or people to put on your gift list next year - it's all now detritus of the midnight Santa vigil, that sweet rush of anticipation that heralds any birth. Now, you sit amid the after-birth wondering why you got so excited. And how long it will take you to take down the Christmas tree.

A good time to create unfinished drafts, blog, read blogs. I just discovered one by an anonymous member of the publishing profession, which will presumably dish enough dirt to justify the anon status of its author. It's only a month old, but already looks quite promising for those bitchy moments after you get your annual rejection letter from Poetry magazine, etc.

My advice: belch, then write. Don't send anything out. Don't open the mail. Let the tree molder until that poem's done.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Christmas – A time to memoir or just watch "A Christmas Story" on TV

Here's a Christmas excerpt from one of my favorite memoirists, Dylan Thomas. A Child's Christmas in Wales is on my top-ten-to-take-to-a-desert-isle reading list, along with Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, and Annie Dillard's An American Childhood.

Here's a smidge from Dylan Thomas to cheer your wassail, or whatever:

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find. In goes my hand into that wool-white bell-tongued ball of holidays resting at the rim of the carol-singing sea, and out come Mrs. Prothero and the firemen.

It was on the afternoon of the Christmas Eve, and I was in Mrs. Prothero's garden, waiting for cats, with her son Jim. It was snowing. It was always snowing at Christmas. December, in my memory, is white as Lapland, though there were no reindeers. But there were cats. Patient, cold and callous, our hands wrapped in socks, we waited to snowball the cats. Sleek and long as jaguars and horrible-whiskered, spitting and snarling, they would slink and sidle over the white back-garden walls, and the lynx-eyed hunters, Jim and I, fur-capped and moccasined trappers from Hudson Bay, off Mumbles Road, would hurl our deadly snowballs at the green of their eyes. The wise cats never appeared.

(Read the whole text here. More information about Dylan Thomas and a link to his marvelous reading of this at


And Christmas season excerpt from Rocket Lessons:

There was something wrong with my family. I was certain of it. If we were a normal family, why were we on a bumpy road, heading for a week of Christmas vacation on a remote Mexican beach? Had we been bad children? That could not be it; Santa had left plenty of presents. But there was no telling about a father who blew up rockets for a living, and I knew he had it in for Christmas. Our new Hanukkah menorah was huge, while the Christmas tree was reduced to a table-top twig.

My brother Danny and I took turns pinching each other in the back of the station wagon as it wound along a dirt road through Baja, California. We pinched and poked as we passed three-story high cactuses that looked like octopuses with thorns. We needled each other, inhaling sand, riding into oblivion. I wondered if I were in a book about a girl kidnapped by space invaders from her new house in San Pedro and taken to this desert planet. How would I get away and find my real parents? This rocket engineer father could be an alien. We had been in this car since Christmas, 1956 – maybe since the dawn of time, before the dinosaurs sank into the La Brea tar pits. By the time we stopped, I would be a saber tooth tiger, melting in my own bones. That is, if my little brother had not already pinched off all my flesh.

Every time I twisted a pinch of his skin to let him know how much it hurt, he wailed, "Ow! I'm telling. Mom!" – as if she were not sitting right there in the front seat.

And of course she turned each time, her face streaked with flying grit, her burning blue eyes grim. She no longer even had to say it: "I'm warning you ... Stop teasing your brother."

I was by now exquisitely aware of the disadvantages of being an older sibling in this family: no one ever believed me or took my side. They took you to the ends of the earth instead. Anything could happen with Dad driving. We could even be going to Pluto, where Dad sent his rockets to capture space men and experiment on them, as I had seen at the movies. Maybe I was really a little green space girl, or Danny was. We had been in this automobile so long my sweet little five-year-old brother had reached the age of snotty. He pinched me again, a routine he found hysterically funny. Pinch, get pinched, yelp, get Mom on your side. Pause. Start again.

"Mom!" was all I could say to express the general injustice, and then: "Do we have to go to San Felipe?" I had forgotten, with an eight-year-old's erasable memory, that I had asked the same question every half-hour for the last seven hours.

Mom chose not to again try to convince me that everything would soon be Fine. "Let's all sing," said the Queen of The Land of Fine.

She launched into her favorite ditty, one that only added to my general incomprehension of our family: "Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree, down went McGinty to the bottom of the sea – come on, SING!"

Danny and I chorused, "She's my Annie and I'm her Joe, so listen to my tale of – WHOA! Any ice today, lady? No? Gitty up."

We sang it over and over, having no idea who Jeff Davis might be or why ice was needed. Dust billowed into our rolled-down windows. We wished to be at the bottom of the sea with McGinty, anywhere but bumping along and shouting into the desert, "Hang Jeff Davis on a sour apple tree!"

What did it all mean? No one ever explained anything. The purpose of life was as vast and empty as these stretches of sand. I wanted to cry, but it was too hot. The air singed my eyeballs. A Santa Ana wind had blown all week, severe punishment for a girl transplanted from New Jersey's snow-dolloped woods and still missing her Red Flyer sled. We had endured Christmas in shorts, with talk of a beach barbecue after opening presents. Now we were going to vacation in a wasteland.

"How soon till we get there?" I whined, aiming my plaint at the curly brown hair sneaking out from my mother's blue bandanna, as if to burn a hole in her neck. I could see her profile, face turned to the window. Her peachy cheeks dropped their burden of smile. Slowly she turned, and each word was chipped off a block of ice.

"Soon. Pretty damn soon."

"You said 'pretty soon' an hour ago," I persisted, despite our new mantra, Don't upset your father.

"Be patient! You just have to trust me. Why don't you ever believe what I tell you?"

"Because you never tell me anything true!"

Danny, my eternal imitator, assumed it was a game and picked up the whine. "I'm thirsty. Can we stop? I want a Coke. When are we going to be there?"

"Betts!" The explosion from the driver's seat startled us, despite its inevitability. Dad's voice was supernaturally loud for his size.

"Mitch, can't you see I'm trying? You'll ALL just have to be patient." She turned around to us again. "Why don't you count cactuses? Look, there's one with arms. Doesn’t it look like a dancer? You get a point for each one. Whoever gets the most points can help me blow up air mattresses."


Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Grants for Writers (Yes, I'm an Optimist)

Nothing quite like a discussion of money during the holidays to perk up the conversation! In case any of you are considering the option of getting a writer's grant, I found a useful resource on grants available to writers here:

Grants for Individual Writers

Among the many links, The Foundation Center's is very useful, providing not only further links to grantmaking organizations, but also a bibliography and periodicals list. I especially like the Funds for Writers web site, which offers updated items on grants with upcoming deadlines, and also has sectionson markets and contests too:

Funds for Writers

I haven't yet cranked up the nerve to try, but I'm considering it. What's the magic formula? A combination of publications and academic credentials, I suspect, though I've seen non-prof types win some of these things. I'm working on the pub credits before approaching these sources. I figure publishing is such a crapshoot that grants might be too. My pub average is about 1 in 17: for every 17 subs I send out, I get one yes. Imagine if actual dollars were attached!

On another note, I just discovered that Blogger allows me to change font colors. Okay, this won't be happening often. I also can insert photos, using a handy little tool in the upper right corner of the toolbar. Here goes:

[Okay, that didn't work at all ...]

Friday, December 17, 2004

Small Press Publishers - Memoir

A list you might like if you are writing or have written a memoir. These small press publishers are interested in publishing memoirs:

Cavan Kerry Press
Unbridled Books
The Permanent Press
Soft Skull Press
The Lighthouse Press
University of Nevada Books

California presses:
Macadam Cage Books
North Atlantic Books
Heyday Books

Story Hour

In the 1950s, most family homes had their evening story hour. In our house, it usually took the form of the patio cocktail hour, where I heard more outlandish tales than most children heard from Dr. Seuss.

This will give you an idea. It's an excerpt from my book Rocket Lessons (forthcoming from an as-yet-to-be-named publisher – see my literary agent Laurie Abkemeier):


Life had acquired new complications. My parents were fighting with each other all the time, but if I fought with them and scored points, I invariably wound up in my room. If I tried to make something to impress them, I wound up in my room. If Mom was feeling bad, I wound up in my room. I was feeling like a prisoner under house arrest, let out only for school and a few games of dodge ball.

I did not realize it, but my father was feeling as thwarted as I was. Dad was assigned to a team from his company, in collaboration with the Air Force ballistic missile division, to provide NASA with technical direction. The way Dad saw it, he was a sub-contractor to "know-nothings," as he politely called the new civilian agency heads. Dad was frazzled enough to consider looking for a new job. He even entertained entrepreneurial ideas one night during a visit from a guy Dad called with great affection "that screwball Truax."

In 1958, Bob Truax was one of rocketry's originals. He would one day become famous for inventing a rocket-propelled motorcycle that almost got Evel Knievel across the Snake River Canyon. Truax was renowned for his invention of low-cost rocket engines and innovative vehicles. He had worked with my father on a defense project for more than a decade. Now he saw in Mitch a possible partner for a new venture, one that would take them into the stratosphere of rocketry.

We did not know how famous "Uncle Bob" was. We only know him as the guy with the hyena laugh.

Uncle Bob made his proposal to Dad when they were on the patio having drinks before dinner. I was trying to figure out what they were talking about. They talked about something called an Iron Curtain, but not the one in Russia, one here in America. It was also called "NASA."

"The trouble is, Mitch, the people with imagination don't have any money, and the people with the money don't have any imagination."

Dad grinned. "You can say that again. Most of them couldn't find a good trajectory if it came with diagrams and a set of written instructions – which it usually does. But I'm not sure they can read."

Truax uncorked one of his laughs. From the kitchen, my mother and Bob's wife Roz looked out to see what was going on.

"Mitch, it's all heading in one direction," Bob said.

"Yeah? What direction is that?"

Bob popped an olive into his mouth and swigged his drink with gusto. "Personal rockets. That's where it's going. You should be there when it happens."

"Oh, yeah?" Dad was tickled to be included in anything Bob was planning. "And how do I get there?"

Another wild laugh echoed away into the canyon, followed by Bob's earnest, high-pitched voice. "By teaming up with me. Listen, we don't need those guys. We can go off on our own and invent the next big industry. Personal rockets. Claim your own piece of space. It's the next Westward Movement."

Dad seriously considered it, then the numbers started whizzing in his brain and failed to add up. "Yeah," he said, but the syllable lacked conviction. "I just don't see the profit in it."

"Mitch, not everything is about profit."

"To me, it is. Otherwise I can just go down to my studio and paint."

Truax continued to describe his theory of circumventing bureaucracy by putting mini-missiles in the hands of citizens. I did not understand the pressure they were under, nor that it caused a rise in Dad's volatility to the point that he wheezed and twitched like a fuel tank steaming with liquid oxygen.


Thursday, December 09, 2004

This Just In

The legacy of rockets in southern California continues in many ways, not the least of which is the pollution of the Western landscape. For the effects of rocket fuel stored and used in 1950s rockets on today's families who drink water from the Colorado River (pretty much all of us in California, read this CNN article about how the chemical perchlorate pollutes much of the lower Colorado River -- the main water source for 20 million people across the Southwest -- and has forced the shutdown of hundreds of wells in California.

Rockets scarred land and sky in our race to space. Thousands of nuts, bolts, gloves and other debris from space missions form an orbiting garbage dump around Earth, presenting a hazard to spacecraft. Some of the bits and pieces scream along at 17,500 mph. There are 8,927 officially tracked man-made objects up there, or an estimated 4 million pounds of stuff. One of those pieces has my name written on it, and my brother's, the handiwork of our father, who took us to the hangar to see the nose cone they were going to blast off on one of his Atlas rockets. He had our names written on the nose cone and said it would orbit nearly forevever -- or at least, a long, long time.

People now, however, worry that it isn't long enough. Objects of only one centimeter can hurt you if they fall out of orbit and back to earth and, say, on your head. Of course, my dad once hit Cuba with some space junk from a rocket's first stage, and he thought nothing of it. Castro thought otherwise, but that story is in my book ROCKET LESSONS, and I'll save it for another post.

For a full list of garbage in space and who put it there, as well as a little space junk game you can play while waiting to get hit on the head, visit this link.

Will you get hit on the head? Write and tell me if you do. And be careful about your tap water.

Have a meteoric day!

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Truth vs. Fact: To Memoir

It should be a verb: to memoir. We all do it in one way or another, but those of us who try to make art of it are particularly vulnerable to the above distinction between truth and fact. Which is which, and does it matter?

Memoir books are famous for having in their few decades of faddishness completely worn out the word "fact" to a degree that its dull metal shows under the thin silver sheen, revealing an old base spoon that just keeps dipping back into the sugar. How much fact is actually embodied in these books? Does the author herself even know? Recent scientific studies indicate that, contrary to previous theories, a strong emotional component to a memory does not necessarily ensure its accuracy.

In writing a childhood memoir, I found myself trying to accomplish Herculean feats of recall. No one can do this, I thought many times. No one can remember enough of their childhood to fill a book and flesh out the characters. Memory is full of images (mine is at least), and even tones of voice, but rarely whole conversations. How can I write a whole book without any conversation?

Then a friend of mind who knows the writer Annie Dillard reported a phone conversation with Annie in which she referred to her childhood memoir, An American Childhood, as "that tissue of lies." And I was freed to make the book I had to make.

The writing of memoir – whether a whole book or a single essay or poem – requires a re-evaluation of Truth, capital letter included. It requires thinking carefully about how fact can lie its way toward veracity. "Tell the truth, but tell it slant," Emily Dickinson advised, probably for the good reason that she, too, could not recall all the specific details.

On a poetry listserv I belong to, I recently heard a vigorous and intelligent discussion of honesty in writing. Among the many though-provoking comments about truthfulness and art, self-censorship with respect to the feelings of others, and veracity in writing from personal experience, I came across this gem:

"Art ideally can transmute anything in its crucible and make it able to brave the gaze – not that art disguises anything but that it digests it, just as we digest things in life that are painful and come to have a more complex perspective on them that takes them out of the specifically personal realm."

That, I believe, is the goal of memoir: to digest the raw truth and turn it into the complex, many-sided truth of art, the truth that can see things from all sides of the question, all points of view at the same time, as though we had eyes all over our heads and could time-travel. Artful memoir lifts the reader out of the experience at the same time as it plunges her into the experience, giving a touch of omniscience to the process of feeling and experience.

Have an omniscient childhood as you write about it! And for artful childhood memoirs that probably were half-invented because of their exquisite detail and fictional liveliness, take look at:

An American Childhood – Annie Dillard
Lost in Place – Mark Salzman
Angela's Ashes – Frank McCourt

More memoir-writing resources:

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Ten, Nine, Eight ...


DAY ONE. When the rocket is moved on the mobile transporter from its vertical hangar to the launch pad, the second so-called Wet Dress Rehearsal begins – the countdown timeline. Super-cold liquid oxygen will be loaded into the first and second stages, and the liquid hydrogen propellant will be loaded for the rocket's inaugural flight. Everything was nearly ready when the problem happened. A valve setting had been changed following the first dress rehearsal, and that caused a rise in pressure that tripped up the monitoring software and forced a hold.

Here in the Control Room, everything stopped. We were trying to figure out how to get this bird off the ground – inaugurate the first Blog about the forthcoming (well, sooner or later) book ROCKET LESSONS, a memoir of growing up a rocket kid in the fifties – when we realized we had not actually finished the flight plan.

DING-DING-DING! Malarkey alert. What is the purpose of this Blog, anyway?

Okay, let's stand down from dress rehearsal and begin in a simpler way, talking about a simpler time. America's kids in the 1950s and 1960s were launched much in the same way my father launched the first Atlas and Nike missiles: by the seat of our parents' pants, with little more than a slide rule and a copy of Dr. Spock. That's DR. SPOCK, not Mr. Spock, for you Gen-Xers and other children.

hy are many of us so nostalgic about a time when technology consisted of a black-and-white television and a dishwasher that rolled out from beside the sink and was hooked up with hoses to the faucet, to rattle its load of dishes so loud you had to leave the house to have a conversation?

Why are many of us, in short, writing about our childhoods in similar suburbs, places filled with post-War optimism and brand new Chevies? I think of it as the Great Boomer Blog, the migration across decades of rapid change that is the span of our adult lives. What happened back there? How did we get here?

The Boomer generation began life with a record number of questions, and it looks as though we may end the same way. I believe it's the fault of the Space Age, which instilled in ours and succeeding generations just a little too much confidence in our gadgets and a scientific future, as opposed to remaining more comfortable, as previous generations had done, with a few of life's mysteries. We had too much of a sense of inbuilt command from being raised as the first kids to watch humans ride rocket ships. Dad made sure to instill in us a high sense of this kind of entitlement. To quote from ROCKET LESSONS (which will be a regular feature of this blog):


My father had no interest in religion. He did not believe a Creator lived up there beyond the blue and might be controlling things Dad should be controlling. Dad was one of the brash young men in the 1950s who fired missiles into the ozone layer, a slide-rule god making thunder over the Mojave Desert. They had just split the sound barrier. No one yet knew how to reach outer space – no one had even been to the stratosphere. Where Dad worked, scientists and engineers were working on a way to give a rocket a big enough kick on the apogee to get a big payload into orbit. Anyone could try an idea, if he had a photo badge, a crew cut and working knowledge of calculus. My father had them all.

His first assignment at Space Technology Laboratories was to work on the development of the Atlas, America's bid to lift top-secret payloads into orbit and intimidate the Reds. I did not know why we did not like red people, but I heard we also did not like the blacks and browns. Dad went away every few months for launches that often turned out disasters. One rocket after another fizzled, exploded, or did both, some toppling over on the blockhouse. He would leave with a suitcase and a jaunty nod and return a week later in the same gray suit, now rumpled. His gray tie was loosened and the first button of his shirt was open. His black glasses slid down his nose as he sank into the couch.

About a year after our San Felipe trip, Dad was on his fourth launch and first prescription for tranquilizers. Mom always made it an occasion when Dad came home from a trip. She gathered us in the living room and tried to restrain us from jumping on the couch next to him, a greeting rarely with good result. She served the first of his martinis and Dad, who could not talk about the details of his project, still found creative ways to complain.

"Bitch of a trip! I was surrounded by incompetents." He pushed his glasses back up; they slid down again on his perpetually sweat-beaded face. His large, green eyes looked watery and bloodshot, as though something in the air irritated him. Something was always irritating him. His nerves were so frayed he carped at anything or anyone: child, cat, chair, newspaper.

"Watch where you're going!" he said to the lamp, when he switched it on and it tipped over. "What's the matter with you?"

Mom reacted as if he had the measles. She offered nibbles and drew the curtains. She admonished us to cocoon him in tiptoe silence. He sat slack, unknotted tie ends splayed on his shirt. Even his crew cut seemed wilted. Holding the martini, he wove expletives into stories with no beginning or end, much of which we could not understand.

"You know what Dolph says to me? He says, 'Mitch, you got six inches lift-off on that last Atlas?' 'Yeah,' I says, 'before it exploded, we did.' Then you know what he says?"

What was an Atlas? Who was Dolph? We did not know, but we pretended. "What?"

"He says, 'You didn't get much altitude.' 'At least it got off the stand.' Jeez, that guy bitches me off."

Then Dad remembered how much he could not say. He drank for awhile without speaking, head twitching in that over-the-shoulder jerk we had come to identify as "Don't go near Dad." Even though it was not messed, my mother smoothed her wavy brown hair as she stood in the kitchen, looking over the pass-through bar into the living room. She smoothed her hair again. Her blue eyes blinked rapidly, as though smoothing and blinking would clear the picture and restore Dad to civility.


If you're just interested in rockets, here's a site you should check out: And if you're interested in rocket history, NASA has some good stuff at:

When were you first aware that Americans were entitled to control space and everything downward from there? Do you have the secret urge to memoir? Stay tuned for more on these and other themes. Write your own blog on related topics and let me know so I can link to your blog. Let's network, all you backward-looking Boomer bloggers. I know you're out there, reading. And probably writing.

Write to me about all this and more. Rockets Kids away!