“High Tide in Tucson,” by Barbara Kingsolver

February 4, 2010 1 comment

Essays by Barbara Kingsolver

 If you want to write a personal essay, you’d do well to study “High Tide in Tucson” by Barbara Kingsolver. It is at once light-hearted yet filled with weighty matters, simplistic yet philosophically-complex; and introspective yet, in the same breath, hilarious. The author navigates these polar positions with ease and fluidity, while musing over the shifting tides of life.  Read more…


A Very Brief Treatise on Happiness

January 28, 2010 2 comments


A safety pin holds a slip of paper to the tack board above my desk. On it is a quote by the 14th Dalia Lama.  Here’s what it says:

A very brief treatise on happiness

 “We are visitors on this planet.  We are here for ninety or one hundred years at the very most.  During that period, we must try to do something good, something useful with our lives. If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true goal, the true meaning of life.”

 Consider this post a gift. You’re welcome.

Categories: On Living

A Memoir Writing Tip (or Two)

January 20, 2010 5 comments

There’s an art to putting a painful past on paper. Part of the art is detaching from the hurt to write clearly. Who said, “You need to write cold in order to get hot?” I can’t recall but it is useful advice.  So that’s the first tip of memoir writing:

1. Write cold to get hot.

The second and equally important part of writing a past worth reading is this: be an enormously talented writer. I can’t stress tip number two enough for helping would-be memoir writers make good on a publishing goal:

2. Be talented.

As intimidating as tip number two might seem, stay with me here. By talent I don’t mean you have an innate gift of putting out perfect prose that seeps on the page effortlessly and without need of revision. By talent I mean you have a dogged determination—a compelling drive—to hold a mirror to your life that reflects your truth.

Let me illustrate these tips by giving you something to read. Well, two things, actually. First, read Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah.  Her memoir, published in 1997, took the better part of forty years to write. Not that she toiled at her manuscript for forty years.  Mah just needed to put some serious distance between the events of her young life and her adult self so she could tell the story clearly. This need for space between events—part of the write cold, get hot process–is detailed in the other thing to read, an essay by George Orwell called “Such, Such Were the Joys…” Read more…

Sarah Palin is Fit and Runs Fast.

November 20, 2009 2 comments

Don’t look for the subtext in this post.  I’m not implying Palin runs from responsibility or runs from Katie Couric questions.  This is not a political rant at all.  And I haven’t read her book so it is also not a review of Going Rogue.  All I really want to say about Sarah Palin is this: we’re sisters in fitness.  Brava for your prowess on the running path—you go, girl.

But Sarah, what’s with your Newsweek beef? The magazine featured you in fine fit form, yet you decried the photo as irrelevant and fumed at Barbara Walters that you felt degraded by it.  Sarah, no offense, but you missed the high road here. See, we’re a nation of fatties, and rising obesity rates are crippling our health care system.  If you really want to “go rogue” then be the Jillian Michaels of politics and whip this lard ass nation into shape.  Read more…

Stalk Your Calling

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment


stonefor-the-time-being Who says writing is lonely work?

Today I feel the gaze of three stalwart knights looking down on me from a shelf over my desk.  Three books by Annie Dillard stand as paragons of courage beckoning me to bravery. Dillard’s rank as a master essayist is certain in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being, and Teaching a Stone to Talk— three of her books that inspire and daunt me at once.

They say that writers are sometimes lonely. 

I say maybe we’re not lonely enough.  Today I wrested sentences that jerked from my grip as I fought to bring clear thoughts to the surface. Write. Wrest. Write. Wrest. Well. It was a tough topic. Viktor Frankel-ish.  Existential.  The kind of stuff that’s way too deep to expose with succinct and poignant clarity.  I went for a run instead. 

Plodding around the reservoir  I stopped in mid-stride: Dillard could write  it.  She already has. At home I pulled down Teaching a Stone to Talk and there it was, human conflict resolved by her so simply. In the book’s opening essay, “Living Like Weasels,” with poignant and sometimes pungent prose Dillard sums up our human dilemma: we have too many choices.  We’d do better to live like a weasel and “stalk (our) calling in a certain skilled and supple way.”  Such terse and sure observations fill Dillard’s pages.   She uses words to unearth meaning the way an excavator uses a power shovel to crack open a creek bed.  Compared to Dillard most of us are merely kicking at the dirt. My instinct in that moment was to shut the book and forget I ever knew her genius.

Who says writing is lonely work?

Today I followed a Twitter about Dillard that led me to a beautifully written homage.  Alexander Chee’s personal essay, “Annie Dillard and The Writing Life” reminded me whyI kept company with Dillard in the first place–she helps me aim higher.  As is true with all great writers.  Listen to Chee on Dillard’s advice to her class:

If I’ve done my job, she said in the last class, you won’t be happy with anything you write for the next 10 years. It’s not because you won’t be writing well, but because I’ve raised your standards for yourself. Don’t compare yourselves to each other. Compare yourself to Colette, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Compare yourselves to the classics. Shoot there.

That’s when it struck me that the work of a writer is anything but lonely.  Indeed.

© Shelly Roberts and Rekindledreader.com, 2009


An Ayn Rand Revival

October 28, 2009 1 comment


A decade ago readers chose four Ayn Rand novels and, more inexplicably, an armful of L. Ron Hubbard books to top the century’s best fiction list.  Compared to the Modern Library’s list of the best English-language novels of the 20th century, culled by the board’s erudite scholars a year earlier, their online poll results seem suspect. 

Not that I’m suggesting any tampering took place by publishing houses but it’s hard to imagine choosing Rand over Faulkner or Fitzgerald. Yet the popular picks remain fixed in history: readers declared Ayn Rand the reigning fiction queen of the 20th century.

Living in the shadow of the Ayn Rand Institute , I’ll still see a faded “Who is John Galt?” bumper sticker on the back of an old Volvo on occasion—a symbol of the legacy left by the author.  Today,  Rand is more renown for creating archetypal embodiments of fervent capitalists than for any claim to literary prowess.

It’s no big surprise that in this age of tea parties and totalitarian talk an Ayn Rand revival is in full swing. Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead are showcased selections at the local Borders books. A newly-released edition of We The Living is garnering reviews.  And right on cue Knopf Doubleday just today released The Goddess That Failed, an Ayn Rand biography by Anne C. Heller.

Despite her growing resurgence, I have no plans to re-read Rand.  My close encounter with Howard Roark and his fellow protagonists left me with little desire to slog through more pages of heavy-handed drubbings disguised as fiction. I’m thinking the better read might be Heller’s biography, especially as many of this century’s readers will no doubt ask, “Who was Ayn Rand?” 

Hey, that gives me an idea:  I think I’ll make some bumper stickers and start a movement.

© Shelly Roberts and Rekindledreader.com, 2009

Push, by Sapphire

October 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Push by SapphireI read Sapphire’s novel in 1996 during a break from graduate school.  The writing so effectively wrenched my mind from the tomes of the dead white English men I’d been mired in for a semester that I recoiled from its pages.  I pushed myself to finish the book, a mere 142-page novel, but in contrast to, say, John Locke, the text seemed much too potent and raw.  So it was with astonishment that I sat in a theater last week watching a trailer for the upcoming Hollywood production of Push (marketed as Precious.)    

In a mere two weeks the Oprah Winfrey/Tyler Perry promoted film will descend on movie screens across America. Oprah will no doubt hype the movie to a billion fans through her eponymous tv show and magazine. And if they’ve done Sapphire’s novel justice the film will ignite discussions of not just the tragedy of rape and incest, but also of the lingering atrocities perpetrated on a race and the redemptive power of healing.

Push is the story of Precious Jones, a barely literate, grossly obese, incest ravaged, HIV-infected teen with a meteor-sized chip on her shoulder. Through Precious, Sapphire delivers an honest portrayal of a discarded life.  Giving birth to two babies from her own father and stunted by third-grade level literacy, sixteen year-old Precious is finally rescued by an improbably empathetic and patient woman named Blue Rain.  Ms Rain teaches her to write as a means of healing: “If you just sit there the river gonna rise up drown you!  Writing could be the boat carry you to the other side.”      

Clearly, writing is Sapphire’s salvation, too. Her voice pokes through the text sometimes awkwardly, as in this glaringly lucid and out of character piece of prose from Precious: 

She say forget about the numbers and just keep working.  The author has a message and the reader’s job is to decode that message as thoroughly as possible.  A good reader is like a detective, she say, looking for clues in the text.

The message in Push is easily decoded: Myriad descriptions of the relentless molestation and abuse endured by Precious are both redemptive and radical; the slamfest poet-author uses graphic rape scenes as a metaphor for the abuses of a race–same as in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, much invoked in Push.  Unlike Walker’s novel, Sapphire pushes too far to reach mainstream masses.  It’s not surprising that, while Oprah backs the film, the novel is nowhere found on the talk show host’s much touted book club list.  And public school libraries are about as likely to catalog Push as they are to carry William Burroughs. 

While Sapphire’s text alienates some readers with its rawness, Push did manage gaining attention from  Hollywood heavy-hitters.  With luck the movie version will soon have millions of Americans rooting for Precious Jones and opening the dialogue on incest and rape–that’s what Elaina Kroll, founder of The Innocence Mission deems so critical to ending the cycle of child sexual abuse.  If Precious the movie manages that where the book may have failed,  then it’s worth the price of admission. 

 © Shelly Roberts and Rekindledreader.com, 2009