Browsing Category



Do you ever wonder if established writers, even those teaching at universities, go to writing workshops themselves? The answer: whenever we get the chance!
I am delighted to be taking part in a poetry workshop this Sunday with the internationally acclaimed poet, Hilda Sheehan, as part of the Wantage Poetry Workshop.


Once in awhile, it is a relief to give “story” a rest, and just look at what comprises a phrase. It is important for any writer to occasionally look closely at language, experiment with the compression of language, pay attention to the rhythms and connections.


Anyway, a few of my friends will be there, and while I am mostly hermetic and self-contained here in what could be called Little Library On The Prairie, it is nice to get out one in awhile…




Why I Am Defending Pornography

Yesterday the governor of Utah, Gary Herbert, signed a resolution to make pornography illegal. If the law is passed, those in Utah who possess pornographic material such as magazines or films, or watch pornography on-line, will face penalties and potential imprisonment for repeat offenses.


There is nothing worse than finding that you oppose a law that bans something you hate, but here I am, looking at this news from Utah and feeling despair. While it is true that pornography has grown astronomically since the advent of the internet, and while the material itself has become notably more violent and more physically risky for the “actors” involved, I do not agree with making it illegal.


It makes me sick to see that hardcore pornography has become mainstream pornography, that to be successful, makers of pornography have to put women through increasingly physically painful and emotional hurtful situations.  Pornography often shows women enduring anal and vaginal penetration simultaneously with larger and larger objects or penises thrust inside them, being gagged with oral sex , being shown as rape victims or gang-rape victims (I could go on).


I don’t even like the soft porn options–not that they are so “soft” anymore. Anyone who knows me or reads my blog knows I hate pornography, yet here I am defending it. Am I not the same person who while researching the topic became unbearably angry at the sidebar on pornhub in which a drunk eighteen year old lies comatose and naked with the invitation to see what you could do to this drunk virgin?


Do I not detest the dreadful language used by all such sites, talking about the “bitches” and “whores” who need to be fucked? All that violence and hatred toward women concentrated into short segments thick with disdain. Why would I defend those? And the websites, making fortunes off people who want to see women as detestable, worthless objects good for nothing but sex, don’t I want to see those gone forever?


Yes, but I don’t want them made illegal.


Why not?  The average age of children first watching internet pornography is 11.5 years old–don’t I want to protect those young minds? And the profiteering from an industry that does not care who it hurts–don’t I want participation in that industry through paying for and watching its chilling videos made illegal?


No, I don’t.


Not because I like pornography or find it excusable in any circumstances,  but because everything we’ve learned about prohibition in the twentieth century or the “war on drugs” demonstrates the unintended fall-out from such laws. What happens? We make criminals out of people who aren’t really criminals, but misguided and suggestible and often very lonely. We break up families, incarcerate ordinary citizens, tear apart communities, and waste a great deal of money destroying the very people the government purports to protect. Don’t believe me? Look at the history of the war on drugs.


I just wonder how many peoples’ teenage sons will be fined or incarcerated for looking at images their fathers looked at with impunity. I wonder how a wife will feel as she watches her husband, who is at-heart a good man and father and provider, being taken away to prison.


Who will profit from this law that punishes the end-user and not the makers of the pornography itself?  If we look at the lessons learned from the war on drugs we see that making illegal the use of pornography will bring financial gain to gangsters who can use the prohibition to make money, run gangs, and create a whole underground market that puts everyone at risk.


And what about the pornography, itself? What happens to it when we make illegal “the new drug?” In an Op-Ed piece, Johann Hari, whose three year research on drugs in the United States resulted in his New York Times bestseller,  Chasing The Scream, The First and Last Days Of The War On Drugs, writes that “as crackdowns on a drug become more harsh the milder form of that drug disappears and the more extreme strains become widely available.”


Why might that be? In the case of alcohol during America’s prohibition it was because if you are going to serve up a whole lot of alcohol, you get more intoxication from hard booze than beer. As for drugs, the same things applies. The kick is what is important and you get a lot bigger kick from stronger drugs than weak ones.


What does that mean for pornography? It may mean harder porn will be what is seen in states like Utah that prohibit it altogether. Who would bother risking jail time for soft-porn? The real criminals will become more sophisticated in their delivery of pornography and make sure that the “stuff is good”, by which I mean it is very bad, indeed. And if a man who once liked to look at non-violent images of pornography can no longer do so legally, but he’s really quite hooked on the stuff as any addict can be, he’s going to have to take what is available from the black market. He’s going to have to watch the most violent and debasing of pornography, which will become his new norm.


Life is so complicated, is it not? I hate pornography but here I am defending it. Will the government of Utah see the damage they will do to the people of their state through this legislation? Will the children of Utah be brought up in fear their parents and relatives and friends will face arrest for the crime of resisting censorship laws? Will they build a wall around Utah the way Trump proposes against the Mexicans and keep all those “bad people” out?


Or will they pay attention to the lessons of history and see that their good intentions will only hurt people, and hurt them very badly?


At this moment  we embark on a debate in which pornography will be defended even by those, like me, who oppose it. I defend pornography with gritted teeth, not because I think it is good but because the people who watch it are not bad people and do not deserve to be criminalised.


Will the government in Utah understand this, or will they insist on their own righteousness and course of action even it means jailing ordinary citizens? We need to educate people away from wanting to watch pornography, not punish them for viewing what society has groomed them to find erotic. I am not excusing pornography as an industry, but forgiving people for being people.


Just listen to the Russian novelist and thinker, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in a labour camp for eight years, whose suffering was beyond anything most of us can imagine. His crime?  He violated censorship laws (he wrote ungenerous remarks about Joseph Stalin). What we see in Solzhenitsyn is not bitterness but humanity. His 1973 title, The Gulag Archipelago,  he writes, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”


Utah needs to understand what Solzhenistsyn understood. There are no good and no bad among us, only inside us. As bad as pornography may be, the proposed law in Utah against its use is even worse.



A Question of Privilege

My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill.  I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.


Nonetheless, this whole notion of  “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.


Let’s start with my father, who was illegitimate, rejected by his own family and adopted by someone named “Leimbach” whom I never met. He was complicated in every way, moody and depressive and dissatisfied with life. He’d already left one marriage and child before marrying my mother. He paid no attention to me unless I threw up or hurt myself, perhaps because he was so unhappy.  When I was about four years old, he took one of the many guns he kept in the basement and shot himself in the head.  We were all in the house, ten o’clock in the morning. My sister and I were told to go to our room and stay there. Then, we were moved to the neighbour’s house, where I was given an egg salad sandwich and told not to look out the windows.


He left my mother with three tiny children and no life insurance payout. This was the 1960’s when women working was unusual and they were badly paid. My mother had to arrange for someone to look after us for the months she sought work wherever she could find it. “Wherever” turned out to be Holyoke, Massachusetts, hundreds of miles from our home in Maryland. She drove us all there—kids and dogs and parakeets—in a car with a dodgy axle and no idea what she would do if it collapsed. We arrived to a house in the middle of nowhere on a street where we knew nobody. My mother went to work. The “housekeeper” sent us outside to play—all day. We were not allowed inside unless it snowed or rained.  I wasn’t allowed to go to school because there was no kindergarten available. So, I played by myself or with my brother or with whomever I could find.


My mother didn’t “raise a family” because she wasn’t there to raise us.  She was too busy working as a reporter and a medical freelancer.  I understood— kids always do—and I fell asleep every night to the sound of her typewriter.  Sometimes she told us how difficult her life was. Once, while we we so small we could all fit in the bath tub together, she threatened to drown us. But often she did her best to bring laughter and not worry into the household. We had enough money for the things we needed. We were doing okay, in fact, and returned to Maryland where my mother got a better job, now with the Washington Daily News.  Finally, at age six, I was able to go to school. I was put in the lowest groups because I did not know how to read, or so they thought. In fact, I’d taught myself how to read years earlier at a house we rented in which there were children’s books, but had then had little access to books and so forgot what I’d learned. I did try to explain this to the teachers at the outset, but nobody believed me. They were correct that I did not know how to count. Nobody had taught me.


My mother developed a brain tumor when I was twelve, then an endocrine problem that made it difficult for her to work. She was preoccupied, unwell, but carried on at her job. It was a “good job”, too. She was now a desk editor at US News and World Report. A really good job, except for some reason she hated it. She told me this all the time, those exact words, “I hate my job. I hate my job…”


I was sexually abused when I was aged thirteen to fourteen. This happens even when parents are around, let alone when they are not.  It wasn’t the worst case of sexual abuse, but there it was. Not good for me. I ran away for a year too dismal to describe and about which I have no interest in writing. Suffice it to say that every bad thing happened that year.


I returned to discover my mother had given up her job without telling us. Maybe she’d been fired, who knows? She was depressed; we lost our house.  My mother, now bankrupt, went to live with her own elderly parents in another state in America. I finished high school while living in the basement of someone else’s house, looking after their young son. At school, I had to pretend that everything was “normal.” You aren’t allowed access to a state school if you aren’t resident, you see, and residency is established by where your parents lived. My parent lived in Illinois. I didn’t see her for months on end. When my wisdom teeth impacted, I convinced the dental school at Georgetown to let the students take them out (under supervision). When I had strep throat, I begged for a lift to a doctor from the woman whose child I babysat for.


I had no money. None. When I saw that it cost $50 for an application fee for college, I nearly decided not to go. Harvard didn’t make you pay if you were poor enough, so I applied there. I had a sister in Boston and the idea of somehow reuniting with her was a goal greater than a college education. By a stroke of luck, Harvard accepted me.  When I opened the envelope, I saw there was a whole other world from which I’d been, until now, excluded. I’d been a busgirl, a waitress, a McDonald’s worker, and now I was a Harvard undergraduate with a scholarship, financial aid and a small loan.


But even so, there were difficulties.  My mother began to die of cancer, slowly, painfully, in her fifties. Where do you go during term breaks when you have no home?  I would scrape together plane fare to go see her at my grandparents home. They were dying, too. Then they were dead, all of them.


But there is another story and it is one of remarkable privilege. Let me tell you this one, which I prefer telling and in which I overcome no great hardships. Let’s start with what I looked like: I was born white, healthy, and clever. In fact, even better, I was a pretty child. I grew up in a household in which women were seen as strong, independent, capable people who worked in the “real” world alongside men. I never saw my mother defer to my father or any other man. There was no man to defer to, which I found absolutely wonderful. It made my mother sad that my father had died, and it forced her to work, too. But there were books all over the house, and three or four dogs lying around at any one time. Anyway, it turned out she liked working, at least at first.


We had the animals, we had the books, but we didn’t have a great deal of money (my mother was dreadful with money). Even so, there was all sorts of non-monetary capital around. I had ponies—my mother became something of a collector, in fact—and each morning I threw hay into the small paddock behind our house. I rode bareback through woods. Nobody kept track of where I was going, so I disappeared for hours. Sometimes, my mother warned us we were low on cash, but it always felt temporary to me. Even the way she said it, “We may have to decrease our expenditures or else we’ll find ourselves in the poorhouse,” was wonderfully articulate. She had a college education, herself, and wanted something out of life. Other mothers seemed dutiful and kind, but she was more fun, if a little frightening.

I found a yellowing collection of poetry in the shelves. “Do you absolutely love T.S. Eliot?” I asked my mother.

“Ah,” she said, as though she’d always known this moment would arrive. “So you have found him.”


People would tell me it was sad my father had died, and I nodded because I knew that it was sad, though not for me. I liked being the child of a single parent. When I came across the fathers of my friends, I saw disgruntled, tired, large individuals impatient for me to go home. Fathers interrupted our games, making us do chores instead. They made demands on the much nicer people (the mothers) and never seemed very nice to them. They were seen sitting on lawn mowers or in cars. They were seen doing nothing (presumably because they were tired from work?) while the women scurried around them. I saw no attraction in these fathers. They were a liability, as far as I could tell. They wanted a tidy house, no noise, dinner on the table. Specifically, they did not like pets or wild artwork or late games or sleepovers. They sat and they read papers and if they were the one driving the car you said nothing. Not. A. Thing. I was glad I grew up without a father. They were full of “Otherness” to me, horrible, demanding and lazy. I never even saw a man do the dishes until I married.


Away from the menace of men, I was raised to believe women could do anything, that I could do anything, and I was given the independence to do so. I got a job at aged fourteen, bussing tables at a restaurant. I hitched lifts, rode the night bus, punched time clocks, figured out how to open a bank account and file tax returns.  The schools were good, the libraries well stocked. I spent whole afternoons at libraries when I wasn’t working. And when I was working, I found it thrilling to learn how to stock a walk-in freezer or slice through enormous, catering trays of Jell-O.  The freedom was delicious.


I was lucky—smart, resourceful, unfettered by adults. School wasn’t difficult. Having experienced real work it seemed easy, in fact, and because my mother demonstrated to me the power of words, I started writing early in my life. I was pretty; boys liked me (or were deathly afraid of me, or both) and while there was one horrendous experience with a man who took a shine to me, I was mostly okay. I wanted good grades and I got them. I was mouthy and exhausted and sometimes I worried about what was going to happen to my mother, who had been ill, but mostly I bloomed into young adulthood with ease. In fact, I got into Harvard and became part of the class of 1986. Why? Because I was enterprising and nobody had ever told me no, because nobody had been there at all, which turned out to be a good thing.


Is that privilege? I’m not sure. It sounds like it to me. And now, as a middle-aged white woman with plenty of advantages, I am certainly privileged.


But while some people have told me my childhood was a disaster, that I was the victim not only of sex abuse, but also neglect, I don’t feel like a victim. I think my husband, with his private schooling and music lessons, had a far less privileged background than I did. Let me say now that he is white and beautifully spoken. He plays the requisite games of the British elite: golf and tennis and cricket. He is polite and correct and entirely presentable at all times. Indeed, he is “privileged” in the way one can easily discern upon meeting him.


But he grew up with ultra-religious parents who were anti-intellectual, sexist, racist, conservative, and disapproving of everything that went outside their idiosyncratic notion of “godliness.” His mother had been an excellent musician but gave up any serious practice once she married. She gave some lessons at a nearby school and was paid in what his father described to me once as “pin money” as though it weren’t real money at all.


My father-in-law felt men were “head of the household” and voiced this openly. Had I been born into that family, a girl living with people who mirrored society’s notion of women as inferior to men, I would never have achieved the things I have. I would have had hot dinners and ironed clothes and heaps of security, but what would have been the result? A very boring life in which I wrote nothing at all for fear of upsetting people, or upsetting my parents or being un-ladylike. Give me the bloodshed and high stakes of my own childhood over the suffocating, dispiriting mediocrity of a 1960’s and 70’s  “privileged” middle class English family any day.


As for childhood sex abuse, my husband’s family didn’t fare any better there. I don’t even know how many of the siblings were abused, but my husband was used for sex at by a man who taught at the prestigious, elite boarding school his parents paid a small fortune for. He was desperately homesick and begged his parents to let him return home but that was met with a resounding no. By the age of eleven he was being regularly abused by the teacher. He was too scared to tell anyone and certainly not his religious, dogmatic, judgemental parents. Nor could he have appealed to the headmaster, as the headmaster was also having sex with boys (and is currently serving an eight-year sentence).


Does that sound like privilege? Do you think that we should judge the amount of “privilege” my husband enjoys because of what he looks like or sounds like or his background? Should we dismiss his thoughts as those of privileged people who could not possibly understand what it is like to be disenfranchised and powerless, at the mercy of those in authority? I don’t think so.


But I do see that he is privileged. I don’t deny it. He is a mature white man, an educated man, a man of a certain “class”. But if you think he doesn’t understand powerlessness and voicelessness, I can promise you he does. Imagine living inside an institution in which you are an object, a sex toy, and having nobody you feel you can turn to for help.


I do not write this to dismiss the pain of others but to embrace it. I can’t know what it is like to be black in a country that seems determined to see black skin as inferior. I am a feminist–of course, this is obvious–and we need feminism now more than ever. I was “helped up” through Harvard, that outrageously moneyed, privileged university that occasionally pays for lucky people like myself. We need to help up others, in all sorts of places. I am not exceptional.


But I do think I’m lucky that I grew up the way I did. From what I can tell, girls who lived lives of “privilege” in Britain during my childhood era didn’t stand a chance.



Do We Defend Pornography As Freedom Of Speech?

So…Stephen Fry. He’s made a regrettable set of remarks about “growing up” and not feeling sorry for oneself after abuse, which I can imagine he doesn’t even believe (or does he? Good god…). However, I can’t help but think his real issue isn’t with the longterm effects of abuse, which I bet he would be willing to concede, but the importance of freedom of speech.
I have a similar issue with regard to pornography. We have amassed study after study indicating that pornography leads to greater violence against women. In a Washington Post article, Gail Dynes writes, “A recent meta-analysis of 22 studies between 1978 and 2014 from seven different countries concluded that pornography consumption is associated with an increased likelihood of committing acts of verbal or physical sexual aggression, regardless of age. A 2010 meta-analysis of several studies found ‘an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women.’”
You may want to dismiss the studies but I suspect that the porn industry will be busy trying to do that, so let’s let them take the trouble first.
Meanwhile I find it easy to accept that pornography is bad for us. It certainly upsets me–all the damned time. But does that mean we should make it illegal? Refuse to allow it expression at all? I can’t see that working at a practical level. And I don’t think that is the right route.
Pornography has grown enormously since the internet. A Huffington Post headline announced in 2013 that “Porn Sites Get More Visitors Each Month Than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter Combined,” and one of the largest free porn sites in the world, YouPorn, streamed six times the bandwidth of Hulu in 2013.” (Gail Dines, 2016)
It seems that availability of pornography has only created a bigger market for it. A bigger and younger market. Would banning it make that market larger or smaller? And is it right to ban a form of expression?
Stephen Fry is worried that the sensitivities of those who have been abused will whittle away at freedom of speech. Well, it’s a legitimate concern if someone is talking about banning Macbeth (which nobody is). But the real issue about freedom of speech is not Stephen Fry or his nineteenth century remarks about sex abuse being nothing more than “your uncle touching you in that nasty place”. It is the one in which pornography is central. If we now know through meta-analyses that porngraphy harms both the person watching and women generally and that it insides hatred, are we obligated to stop it? Does pornography constitute an abuse of freedom of speech?
My suspicion is that while it is an abuse of freedom of speech, making it illegal isn’t going to help us. We somehow have to evolve to such a level that the idea of engaging in pornography does not interest us. Like the way I feel about bullfighting. Or dog fighting. It’s not just “No thank you” but “NO! Are you out of your mind?”
The trouble is that the stuff is addictive, and this is what I mean when I saw that watching pornography harms the viewer. It appears to be the  American Psychiastric Associations’s conviction that anything between consenting adults is absolutely fine and therefore pornography is fine.  There can be no problem with it because everyone is consenting.They believe this so strongly that you’d think it was a religious tenet of being a psychologist. At the same time, there is increasing evidence that pornography is as addictive as a drug, and here I am not quoting “Fight The New Drug” campaigners, but medical journals.
An article in states that changes in the brains of viewers of pornography are “similar to those seen in cocaine addicts, who develop abnormalities in areas, such as the nucleus accumbens and striatum, which are responsible for learning, memory, pleasure, and reward” the long arm of the APA seems almost visible. Weirdly, the article also defends pornography as being important for couples (really? for couples?)  to “explore their erotic desires” as though pornography defines sex, itself.
The article ignores the truth here, which is that every year freshman boys have to be informed that not only is the pornography they watched during their high school years not something they try should emulate in real life, but that it might land them in jail should try try to do so. In other words, pornography isn’t sex at all, but a highly stylized, often violent representation of sex that does distorts human sexuality while attempting to define it. And it is this defining quality that worries me most. When did all this violence become part of normal sex? I regularly get junk Twitter followers and email with pornographic images and come-ons like  “What would you like to do to my 18-year old body?” Do you think that came from pornogrpahy? I’m guessing it did because there’s a link…
The same article that cites tests proving pornography is addictive claims that pornography increases libido. Increasing libido seems wholly unnecessary in the vast number of watchers (pornography is watched most often by men between 18-24, though I suspect they are just saying they are eighteen). And I notice the article ignores one eventual result of watching pornography, which is erectile dysfunction and “sexual anorexia”, which is a complicated intimacy disorder.
So. What are we left with? Clearly, I am anti-porn. But I am not anti-freedom of speech. I see the potential harm in leaving the free market at work in the world of pornography and I see the harm in interfering with it. There will be more harms I could not have anticipated no matter what direction we go (and of course, nobody is talking about interfering with the availability of pornography, as far as I can tell, though I could understand that as a defensible undertaking).
I have seen the awful result of the US government’s “war on drugs” and have read the history of the rise of underground crime as a result of banning alcohol, then drugs. Do I think we can ban pornography? No. Even though it has been proven to damage women. Even though it is nothing more than prostitution that has been filmed. Even though it is anything but a turn-on to me, personally, and I find it incredibly upsetting. The stuff traumatizes me, but I still wouldn’t want it banned.
If Stephen Fry had taken the time to explain why he didn’t want a media ban on certain words (“rape” was one of them, apparently) instead of insulting every person who has ever suffered child sex abuse, he might have suffered a little less backlash. He might have said, “Look, I know people suffer from this stuff, but we have to protect freedom of speech.” Or perhaps he would have listened to the very good Radio 4 discussion on “no-platforming” and free speech and learned how one argues the subject more effectively.
I’m not even sure pornography is “speech” or “expression.” It’s nothing that I like, but I am more worried about interfering with its expression than enduring its consequences. For now, anyway.

Just a reminder not to be sidetracked by romanticised notions about writing, by long discourses on process, by all sorts of fascinating, seductive notions about what it is to be a writer.


Writing makes the writer. I do it curled up at one end of a sofa as I am right now, watching the fire that never did take off die in the stove in clumps of soot and ash. Or at my kitchen table as my kids spill juice on the countertops, or at a noisy cafe in some charmless mall. Or in the car if needs must…


Three More Traits of Successful Writers


In the past twenty five years of publishing, I’ve seen a lot of people drop out even though they are truly talented, capable, even world-class writers.  It wasn’t because they didn’t have success (some did, some did not). I don’t think it was even a matter of luck. I think that there are traits one can acquire, or remember, or emphasize that will help keep you in the game, as a working writer. The first three are explained in a previous blog. What follows here are the next few that you might keep in mind:

Get people to help you

You are never going to write a perfect novel on the first draft, but if you are lucky, you’ll have a strong manuscript that will be easy to pass onto a select group of readers. Some of these readers will be friends who love books; others will be writers. The former may give you nothing but compliments on your new novel. Excellent. Take the compliments. Let your nice friends say all the things you long to hear so during those unbearable times when you are considering giving up writing for knitting, you have some reason to resist.

As for other writers who read your work, be very grateful to them.  They may not “get” your novel; they may not like your novel, but they took time away from their own work for yours. Reward them by being gracious about their comments – no matter what they say.

Also, remember that you now owe them one. They may come to you with a manuscript in years to come. Read it.

Find the value in every comment, no matter how cryptic

Some writers will give you only impressions of the work, but if you read into what they say, you’ll find value. Stuff like, “I didn’t feel the urgency in the opening few chapters” may not seem useful at first. You might disregard the comment, justifying doing so with reasoning like, Does there have to be “urgency”? Isn’t intrigue enough? I can’t think there was much “urgency” in the classics…

Stop. Find the value. What this reader is telling you is that the story has no reason to ignite just where it does. You’ve opened the novel too soon, or at a boring place. Or maybe you are withholding too much action, saving it for later in the novel when it gets “really good.”

Save nothing. “Really good” has to start from page 1. So, the reader has given you a very worthwhile impression.

A of these vague comments will be complimentary. “It’s all so fresh…” is another amorphous comment with enormous importance, for example. Being “fresh” is about as a difficult a task as you can have in storytelling and makes up for all the “I didn’t understand…” comments that may come after it. You can fix understanding; anyone can tell you can be more clear. But how to be “fresh”? Not easy. For some, not possible.

So be patient with comments. Think about each one.

Find the value in every comment, no matter how bitchy

“I feel like I’ve met these characters before” is the sort of bitchy comment that makes you understand why so few critics of writing are people one can ever regard as true friends. However, you better check to see if such a remark is correct in its assessment of your characters.  Either the remark is result of the reader not taking time to really read the book — and yet wanting to appear as though he has – or your characters are stale.

Some readers (who are also writers) will give you specific craft advise. Still others, will insist you completely rewrite the novel in some other construction that is closer to their own style than to yours. Take it all, thank them for their hard work, and give some consideration to their ideas.  You need these people more than you realize, especially if you are successful. Successful writers are seldom schooled by others – who would dare – and yet all of us need it.


We Interrupt this Program To Bring You Your Regularly Scheduled Depression


I wake up, remembering my father-in law turning my first novel over in his hands and saying, “This is pornography” while I sat on the hideous blue sofa wondering how a man can judge me so wrongly, my work and everything about me.


His own daughter would arrive an hour later. He would put his arm around her shoulders as she sat primly in her Laura Ashley summer dress, replete with flowers and ankle-covering length, as though she embodied everything holy in a woman. What he didn’t know was that his daughter’s husband was a drug addict and a bully. What he didn’t know what that her marriage was dissolving. What he didn’t know was that his daughter was miserable. What he didn’t know was everything.


Until she arrived, however, it was only me in the room and the novel he so hated and which he held tightly as evidence against me. Where was my husband at the time, that young man I loved so much? Distracted, in another room, helping with the tea tray, reaching a top shelf for his mother. Doing someone a kindness, anyway.


I wanted him to return and save me from his father, who stared at me through his reading glasses and spoke as though in curses, “I found myself aroused reading it because of its pornographic content.”


Because I am a writer, and because it is time for my regularly scheduled depression, I am remembering, too, a boyfriend who yelled at me (not in public but later, privately). He was cross that I’d confessed a shameful fact about myself to a friend of his whose fiancée shared the same secret. My crime was over-sharing. Even worse, I wouldn’t apologise or give any space to the shame he endured on my behalf. No, I wouldn’t.


Another image. My husband no longer the sweet young man I looked for to save me from his father’s unkind judgments and humiliations, but a presence that disrupts my creativity. In his greatcoat and tie, holding his gloves, pointing a finger, he is looming above me. Why did you have to write that? he insists upon knowing. He is referring to something he didn’t like, or thought improper, or that broke the security system he held in place with the muscle of his disapproval.


Because…I don’t know… why does it matter? I say, and I cannot explain. He’s rattled me. I cannot think. I ought to have said, Because I am a writer. This is what we do. If I were a photographer, I’d set up my lenses. If I were a painter, I’d paint. If I were a marksman, I’d shoot a paper full of holes.


And later, in his fifties, with all the gravitas his age grants him, another awful moment that plays in my mind today, along with all the others (because it is time for my regularly scheduled depression). We are in the living room, in front of the wood burning stove that in previous days he’d swept clean and filled with wood he’d freshly chopped. We are surrounded by canvases our daughter has painted, sitting next to a coffee table on which every game, from My Little Pony to Texas Hold ‘Em, has been played.


He’s yelling, Why HIM anyway?  


This moment is shorthand to every ironic wrongness suffered by me in my marriage. The man he is talking about came months after my husband had moved out due to his own infidelity, not mine. I hadn’t done anything wrong, unless you take the line that once-married-always-married. In what is the safest of locations, my home with all its memories and messiness and marks upon its walls, he misshaped and transformed me. Here is what he saw: his sexed-up ex-wife who’d had a man in her life rather than live as a nun for a year.


And what provoked all that yelling? Nothing I was doing at the time. I’d dispatched the man elsewhere.; we’d repaired the marriage. He was angry about something he’d read a blog on my site, a blog about hammams. That had driven him into the tantrum.  I didn’t hear the words so much as the disgust. I didn’t want him to even look at me, not because I’d done anything wrong, but because it felt like he wanted me dead.  Isn’t that the great history of women in Britain? To die because some man thinks you’re a whore or a witch?


Maybe I am a little nuts. In a 1996 piece in the New York Times called, How Crazy Was Zelda?, Peter Kramer asks, “What is normal excitation and what is mania? What is individual and what is familial? When does literary aspiration become ’a complex about writing’’? This puzzlement is still with us — about an ailment that can appear all but indistinguishable from self.”


I’ve not been hospitalized, nor ever felt myself in the least bit mentally ill, but when I read (as I have done in the Kramer piece and elsewhere) about the relationship between a sparkling, provocative personality and psychosis, it does make me wonder. And reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters to the doctors looking after Zelda in hospital, this line brought me to attention: Against her writing, there is the nervous strain of the work itself, the nervous strain of recapitulating old agonies best forgotten…


Do any writers manage to avoid those old agonies? It seems to me that I’ve virtually made a living off old agonies. I think there is a certain genius in taking the lemons that life throws at you, then squeezing. And F. Scott’s letters, themselves, make for hearty reading, managing at once to convey a wish to help his wife and to enquire as to what would be the best treatment, while also clearly allowing him his own literary and intellectual indulgences in expressing these concerns.


How do I recognize these two traits (authentic caring mixed with a little showing off) rolled into a single missive? Because I do it all the time.


Maybe it is a faulty precuneous— the precuneous being a part of the brain that lights up seldomly in normal people but is apparently over-active in “creatives”. There is an article called Creativity and Schizotypy from The Neuroscience Perspective by Dr. Andreas Fink et al. which concludes “that originality and schizotypy show similar functional brain activity patterns during creative ideation (i.e., reduced deactivation of the right precuneus) strongly supports the contention that similar mental processes may be implicated in creativity and in psychosis proneness.”


In the article, The Distressing Downside of Creative Genius, Cody Delistrasy explains that “Fink’s hypothesis is that the most creative people are continually making associations between the external world and their internal experiences and memories. They cannot focus on one thing quite like the average person. Essentially, their stream of ideas is always running — the tap does not shut off — and, as a result, creative people show schizophrenic, borderline manic-depressive tendencies.”


Shall I conclude, therefore, that I am insane (or borderline so)? Is that even useful?  I am not so far gone that I will fail to interrupt my own work right now in order to both shop for groceries and then collect my son from school. I think such self-control in tandem with practical concerns puts me firmly into the sane category for the moment.


However, there is something odd about the way I think that I cannot deny. I am already wondering if my husband (with whom I reconciled, with whom I live quite peaceably at present), will decide this blog requires yet another display of his disapproval. I can almost imagine him shaking his head at his misfortune to be married to such a woman who, when she types at a keyboard, produces words that are not part of dinner recipes.


I can hear him already, (not actually hear him, you understand, I do not hear voices), even as I type out this draft: why did you write it in your blog, Marti? What did you want out of that?  (Are you truly asking? I will tell you then. Listen.) I wrote it because writing is an antidote. Writing is a cure and corrective. I wrote it because I need my fingers to move over letters in order to think straight after yesterday’s argument about money. I wrote it because I have a head full of poisonous thoughts that unstick themselves from my mind as they take form on the page.


But did I need to write it publicly? Yes and no.  I wrote it publicly because the cyber world contains within it both the privacy of my own thoughts and the public arena I need in order to share those thoughts and break their power. Also, I’m trying to save my friends some agony. To lean so heavily on a few, strong friends may over-burden them. By writing publicly, I avoid doing so. And if I don’t write, I might truly get depressed, not in this vague and transitory manner that only serves to concentrate my thoughts, but in a dangerous and more permanent one.


Maybe the cure for the overactive precuneous, is to allow it freedom to light up the brain. Maybe the best way to consider old agonies is to rob their of their power by embedding them in alternative narratives, ones that enhance a writer’s life rather than destroy it.


Virginia Woolf wrote that the perfect wife was “…intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed daily. If there was a chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it … Above all, she was pure.” (Woolf, 1966: 2, 285).


Woolf is of course speaking of Patmore’s The Angel In The House. I am no angel in my house.  I stand up for myself. I fight. I write. I love who I wish and I am honest, too, even as it costs me. But sometimes I can understand how previous incarnations of women like me might have filled their pockets with rocks. Zelda, in your sanctuary, how I would have liked to visit you.


Better Than Sex…

The marble table is heated and wet so when you lie on it there is almost no friction. To move a limb, you slip right, left, up, down, as though you are skating on hot ice. The young Spaniard, my masseur, has a heavy beard and a red tank top loose across his shoulders. He tells me to lie on my back, then gently rolls me, his hand on my hip, until I am in the right position.


This is a traditional Moroccan massage, done with special soap and exfoliating gloves and so much water you might be in a warm sea. He pours the water from copper bowls above me, bowl after bowl, onto my chest, my belly, my thighs, my calves. The swells of water, the warm marble, the Arabic music, is more pleasure than I have had in years.


The man is invisible, yet everywhere. He swings a wet cloth into a pot of bubbles and then over my belly so that it feels like a hot cloud has settled upon me, the surface of warm bubbles shivering against my skin in a sensation I have never felt, nor ever imagined. To think that there was such a pleasure of which I knew nothing. That out in the world was this sensation to which I have, until now, been oblivious.


I have been reckless in the pursuit of love, never afraid to ask or describe to a man how I want to be touched, but I have never been touched like this. In the glowing light from candles set against the terracotta walls, a man whose name I don’t know, shows me what I ought to have been looking for all along.


His blousy red pantaloons are rolled to the knee. His arms are bare, his muscles flexed. He swing towels up into the air as though throwing dough.  The air makes the bubbles swell and multiply until at last he casts the thin hot towel replete with bubbles onto my shoulders, my back, my thighs,.  Once I am thoroughly soaped he uses an exfoliating glove to scrub my skin – back, shoulders, thighs, feet – with enough pressure that every nerve is animated. I can feel the edges of my body, the membrane between myself and the pleasant air. It is painless, invigorating. He shakes the cloth over my calves. He blows against my skin as though putting out a match.  Now begin again the bowls of warm water. I welcome each one.


Minutes pass. I am in a dream. The masseur is the intoxicator and the comforter in one . “Are you all right?” he whispers. At first, I am not sure he is even speaking to me. I’m in a place so far away it seems impossible that I can be reached. He asks again, this time putting his hand on my shoulder.


“Yes,” I manage, a he helps me to my feet. “Tan bueno.”


Above me, the ceiling has been carved so that windows of stars and diamonds cast beams of light onto the glassy water.  Below me, the tiled floor is warm.  My skin tingles. My head is gauzy. The masseur (is his name Henrico?) helps me to a new table, this one covered in a towel, and I lie on my belly while he sprinkles warm oil on my back and begins something new.


Now, the messaje relajante, the relaxing massage. He rolls his thumbs down my back, kneads the muscles on either side of my spine. He stands in front of me, pushes against the hollows of my shoulders, working his fingers into my neck before at last letting his arms go, pressing lightly as they glide down my slick arms until his palms rest in my open hands and we stay like that for a moment, palm in palm, amid the red tiles and delicate curtains, under the spell of the hammam. Then, just as suddenly, his hands glide back, reeled in as though on a fishing line, and he begins the process again.


If I lived in Granada, I would come to the hammam weekly, my skin growing rosy in the heat of a Spanish summer. Under the amber glow of candlelight against adobe, I might look for Henrico, or perhaps I would purposely not look for him or anyone, the anonymity being part of the experience.


His touch cost me nothing – only money. All my life I’ve been touched by men who have cost me so much more.  A professional with a skill that seems too personal to be a profession, the hammam masseur is doing a job all the same. I didn’t even have to talk. Is it too dreadful a confession to say I have never before been in such circumstances with a man, where it was all so easy?


It occurs to me that I have spent my life entertaining men.  Listening, nodding, telling them stories, making them laugh. Sex has been a balancing act, sometimes awful, sometimes okay, occasionally brilliant. But sex is so demanding these days, the bar set so high by the makers of pornography and their parade of imitators. Sometimes, I wonder if sex education for girls should include a course on how to please a man without being injured, for surely it is coming to that.


What did it feel like to receive everything that day in Granada and to give nothing? To be entirely absorbed by my own body and by the sounds and shadows and water and oil? It engaged a part of me that was about not about sex, nor appetite, but a place that has yet to be named, cannot be imagined, must be experienced. It was an education in my own body, long overdue.



One Is Never Alone In The Hammam….


I had a massage twenty-five years ago at an aromatherapy centre in London. I went because some girlfriends wanted to go and because aromatherapy was relatively new then and I was curious.


I hated it. Inside the freshly painted walls of a Kensington clinic, a girl with a white smock and dainty hands rubbed ylang ylang oil over me as I counted backwards from a thousand, wishing at the outset that this forty minutes of pampering would end.


Given my early experience with massage, I was wary of getting one at the hammam in the beautiful city of Granada, where my son was taking a week of language classes during spring break. It was a weird time in my life. I was getting over a love affair that had taken place during the 15-month separation from my husband, and frankly I wasn’t over that either.


A hammam in Spain is not quite the experience one might have in Morocco, where they use black soap and exfoliating gloves and give no thought to anything so prudish as a bathing suit. But for someone as squeamish as I am at being seen in a bikini, and who had been almost incapable of lying on a table years ago in that white room in London, letting a stranger touch my back, it was a daring move.


I am used to English changing rooms where you constantly feel a draft through your towel, where one freezes in cold showers amid the cries of half-dressed children, and where the only steam comes from your own body in the chilly space beneath tubes of cold light.


But the changing room at the hammam—good god, I could almost have stayed there for the duration of our visit—there is no texture or temperature or sound that does not give pleasure. One enters through gauzy curtains, eyes adjusting to candlelight in the gracious, tiled room filled with lanterns and burning scented oils. Everything is lush: the smell of sandlewood and cinnamon, of burning wax from candles set in recessed ledges along the walls, the stone shower cubicles with shower heads wide as dinner plates, the mirrors that glow in lamplight and reflect only vaguely your dewy skin.  The room is so beautiful, you wonder how it can house toilets, but there they are behind dark, carved wooden doors. The lockers are the same smoke-coloured wood, the floor warm beneath your feet, is marble. Nowhere could you could be cold or uncomfortable — steam and candlelight and Arabic music waft through the air and you float on a cloud of pleasure all the way to the vaulted rooms that house the bath waters.


And now, you are in bigger rooms, a warm mist softening every angle, green sugared tea on silver platters waiting for you in each of the rooms: the one with a cold rectangular pool beneath a rough plastered ceiling, the one with the marble columns that  divide the warm pool, a rectangle almost large enough to swim in, and the hot pool – hotter than a bath and far nicer – in which you can lean into the tiled edges and look up to the stars carved into the ceiling above you, or admire the latticework through the glow of lanterns.


At some point a woman in a blousy red suit that flowed to her knees tapped me on the shoulder. It was time for my massage.  I walked down a short flight of marble steps lit up by floor lanterns to greet a man so beautiful he might have been sculpted. He held a towel up like a flag, a shield for me to undress by. “Your bikini top,” he said in a heavy accent, and I pulled it quickly over my head rather than fuss with the laces.


Few things are better than food, but his hands were richer and more filling. I did not want him to stop touching me, nor the seconds to pass by as he did so. I concentrated hard on staying in the moment, not allowing myself to think about how my boyfriend used to knead my shoulders or how my husband, before him, knew the place in the very middle of my back that always wanted scratching.


I felt the pads of the masseur’s fingers against the muscles of my back, his knuckles on the recesses above my shoulder blades, his palms against the base of my spine. He rolled his hands against my flesh. He stood with his belly near my head and pushed against the tops of my arms. When finally he was finished, he lay the towel gently over me and I was drunk with pleasure. It took all I had just to sit up.


To imagine this had been taking place for decades without me. That these rooms had filled and emptied, that the ceilings carved in their sacred geometry had shown stars and sun without me. I could go every day and not make up for all the years the candles burned until they were level with the floor their wicks scorched, their bases sooty with ash.


I bathed for an hour, my thoughts in slow waves. Amid the quiet stones, the glowing waters, the steamy changing rooms, I thought how you can feed your body, care for your body, ask less of it for a few hours, ask less of yourself.