The Fine Art of Visiting

Sharing points of view politely, just like Grandma taught me. Now that we're visiting, join in the conversation!

Tag: Kathryn Craft

5 Reasons Great Stories Don’t Age

When is the best time to discover a novel? It depends on who you are.

Those who consider themselves influencers of public taste scramble to read new novels before they are released. Such readers enjoy the thrill ride of early discovery, and we authors count on them to create buzz around the novel through social media posts, reviews on Goodreads, and posts on book blogs.

Publishers want their new releases discovered in the first three months, before they are replaced by newer titles on the shelves of brick and mortar stores. Books that underperform in this time frame will not likely see further promotion.

Those who discover books-by-library are often at the mercy of wait lists.

Book club discovery is often a lengthier process. From a constantly replenishing tide of new titles that promote rich discussion, clubs can only choose 6–12 titles per year, and often schedule those titles a year in advance. Word-of-mouth recommendations, offered after other clubs have read the book, are key. This can introduce a significant lag time in discoverability.

Outside of these specialized groups, though, readers continue to find great stories in a timeless fashion. Just today I heard from Caroline Eliasson, who created a wiki titled “10 Fantastic Novels About Different Kinds of Families”—and placed THE FAR END OF HAPPY, my 4-1/2-year-old novel, on that list. Check it out!

This got me thinking about why so many novels never lose their relevance.

  1. The snail’s pace of social change. Racism is a still an issue today, almost 60 years after the publication of Harper Lee’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which is currently experiencing a revival on Broadway. Women have yet to come into full equality, which is why Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel, THE HANDMAID’S TALE, published in 1985, still rings disturbingly true in the #metoo era, where it has gained new life through the Hulu television series.
  2. Persistent problems. Many great historical novels have addressed the horrors of insane asylums (Ellen Marie Wiseman’s WHAT SHE LEFT BEHIND, for instance), and the questionable reasons for committal. We are lucky to be rid of them. But one need only check the daily headlines to know that our country has not developed the resources to protect the public—or family members, even—from the potential violence of the mentally ill. Exacerbated by America’s love affair with guns, this problem is at the heart of THE FAR END OF HAPPY.
  3. Our common humanity. Themes of love, death, coming of age, corruption, survival, and heroism were just as riveting to William Shakespeare in the 16th century as they are to today’s novelists. The window dressing may change, but throughout the ages we’ve all been framing the same big ideas.
  4. Society’s building blocks. Simple adobe and modern high-tensile steel do not create the building blocks of society—families do. The fact that humans cannot thrive on their own is such a basic truth that those who are separated or outcast find a way to create new family, like Billie Letts’ wonderful character Novalee Nation did after giving birth in a Wal-Mart in the 2001 novel WHERE THE HEART IS. Such stories are at the heart of some of my favorite novels.
  5. We still seek hope. That TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD was recently voted America’s best-loved novel says that racism is a knot in our society’s fabric that we still care to iron out. Novels may not give us all the answers, but they raise all the right questions. They place us inside perspectives we may not have previously considered, and by doing so, they make us bigger, more empathetic people.

Novels won’t cure all of society’s ills. Suicide is always a tragedy. THE FAR END OF HAPPY will not change the end of that story. But if by shining a light on the rugged terrain of such a loss I can show a family who has emerged to carry on in hope, it will have done its part.

And that will be true whenever it is discovered.

A visit from the fire company

What a difference two hours can make.

At 10:30 last night—after scant sleep the night before and a couple of glasses of wine with good friends at dinner—I shut down the house for the night and thankfully climbed into bed.

At 12:30 I woke up to a smell like burning plastic. (If you want to know how I know what burning plastic smells like, let’s just say it has something to do with my son, a stovetop burner, and a Rubbermaid pitcher.)

No detectors or monitors were beeping, but I flipped on a few lights to check for smoke. When I got to the stairwell the smell was truly sickening, and I did venture down one floor to look around.

But then, like any self-respecting, intelligent, independent-minded, problem-solving women’s libber would do: I went to wake my husband.

I do feel kind of  bad about that. He’s had a bad cold for a month and is now on antibiotics for a sinus infection, and while I’d only gotten three hours sleep the night before from his persistent cough, he hasn’t had more than three hours straight for more than a week. And I wasn’t even so sure he could help, even without his nose so compromised—I’m often sensitive to smells he never perceives. So when I woke him, and he immediately said, “What’s that awful smell,” I knew we had a problem.

We spent the next hour looking everywhere. But the smell was so pervasive by that point, and our respiratory tracts so raw, we could no longer tell where it was strongest. Dave, a retired safety man for a gas utility, suggested we call 911. I, who have not surrendered my preference for denial in the absence of empirical proof , argued against it.

We sat with our non-emergency, dumb with lack of sleep, propped up by adrenaline, afraid to go to bed for fear we would never wake. At 1:30 a.m. Dave finally made the call. The operator told us to wait outside our home.

responders

Within ten minutes a bunch of first responder SUVs arrived, lights flashing, along with the fire chief and assistant fire chief. Two big fire trucks we’d heard scream through town had parked outside our address and lit up our row of town homes like it was daytime. Eventually we entertained almost a dozen fully outfitted firefighters with oxygen tanks on their backs—roughly the same number of writers who had attended my afternoon workshop just twelve hours before.

Their procedure is to set an orange cone at the bottom of the steps and hook it onto the railing—each firefighter wears two tags on their gear, and when they enter a building they clip one of them to the cone so if someone doesn’t make it out, the others can figure out who’s missing.

firemen

As each of the firefighters tried in vain to wipe the snow from their boots before entering the house, I thought of the writers who had arrived that day in the snowstorm and asked if they should remove their shoes to save our pale carpets. Now, I just wanted to save our house.

The firemen searched the whole house, as we had. Using thermal imaging devices to look for hot spots behind walls and in other spaces unavailable to the naked eye, they double-checked their work inside and out, including the outsides of our neighbor’s houses. They tested the air inside for toxins. Every now and then they came outside so they could return to their search with a fresh olfactory perspective. But one thing impressed me: All of them took this quite seriously. Better safe than sorry, they said.

I recalled seeing a piece on TV where Gavin de Becker, the author of The Gift of Fear, said that most of us know when danger is present—then talk ourselves out of it. In his book he urges us to trust our gut instincts, and I’m glad we (ultimately) did. One of the firefighters told us how detrimental such denial can be: one homeowner called 911 only after their carbon monoxide monitor had been going off for five hours. The purpose of their call was to see how on earth to turn it off.

The cause of the harsh scent, the firefighters finally came to believe: our refrigerator. They unplugged it and pulled off a back panel to look for fire, which they did not find, but once it had been unplugged for a half hour the smell started to dissipate. Their theory was that something inside of it has burned out. In the first photo above, sitting at the top of the stairs, is a fan they’d brought along, but when the air tested safe they packed it back up and left without using it.

Sleep cycle now hopelessly skewed, Dave was wide awake by this point so stayed up to watch on TV a live Grand Prix race he had planned to watch taped today. I couldn’t get to sleep because my feet were so icy from standing out in the snow for an hour so I microwaved a sock full of rice and tucked it into the bottom of the bed to warm them. Then, after cracking the bedroom window for good measure, I eventually was able to catch a few hours of sleep.

As for our stainless steel side-by-side, it’s one of the few aspects of our home we never liked anyway. It doesn’t work wedged into a corner as it is, because we can’t open the door wide enough to get into it without a fair bit of contortion. We’ve chosen to fridge shop rather than see about repairing it. Anyone interested in the old fridge let me know within a couple of days—but consider yourself forewarned!

Have you ever chosen denial over gut instinct—and regretted it? I’d love to hear your story.

How Collecting can Change the World

Do you believe your child can change the world?

Do you believe you can change the world?

My stepdaughter, Silver, recently sent me the link to this wonderful, upbeat Sesame Street video, “Change The World.” She wrote, “If only parents, teachers, and society continued this message to all kids. Even if they believed it at five, I suspect if you polled a bunch of thirteen-year-olds many would no longer believe this.”

She has a great point, so I wanted to extend the conversation here. The incoming messages during our teen years do tend to signal a disturbing change from “Anything’s possible!” to “Who do you think you are?”

One way our children gain in personal power is through encouraging participation in activities that capitalize on natural talents. It occurs to me that there’s another way that doesn’t require quite so much running around.

I allowed my children to be collectors.

Collecting doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. When I was young I collected postcards my relatives found on their world travels; butterflies I caught, identified and preserved; and sea shells my parents brought back from various trips (I had never even been to the ocean). I then became obsessed with “anything little”—the tinier the better—and collected anything from worry dolls to miniature bottles to tiny Sunmaid raisin boxes.

Surrounding myself with items that struck my fancy, I learned that my interests and passions could change my little corner of the world and reflect my presence in it. I was the magnet that brought these items together.

My children funded their collections with their allowance. Since our move a few years ago, these collections found a new home in our basement. The minerals my older son bought languish in their plastic drawers; my younger son’s Beanie Babies slowly smother in a plastic trash bag. Not usually one to want anything to go to waste, this doesn’t bother me at all. They’ve fulfilled their function and earned the rest: my older son is pursuing a career in opera, and my younger son works part-time as a traffic engineer between gigs with his hardcore band that have allowed him to travel the U.S. and abroad. They are connecting with audiences and living what is important to them and, in their own small way, changing the world.

I can provide a longer case study. These days I collect books. And one year from now I will add one to my shelves—The Art of Falling—that carries my name on the front. The book will reflect a decade of consistent work on my part, and more than a year of work on the part of the publishing team. And it will reflect my chance to change not only my little corner of the world, but the little corners in which my potential readers sit—and it will be my honor to do so. Check out the cover, revealed today at The Blood-Red Pencil!

Then pop back here and tell me: what did you collect? Did you ever think about the fact that you were the magnet that drew these items, experiences, or people together?

Inner conflict and the self-employed

Might we not say to the confused voices which sometimes arise from the depths of our being, Ladies, be so kind as to speak only four at a time?

~Anne-Sophie Swetchine

The above quote, prominently displayed on the bulletin board beside my computer, suggests that I constantly suffer from the very thing I seek out in my characters: inner conflict.

I suppose it’s a right brain-left brain thing. As it so happens, both sides of my brain fight for prominence. Left-brained me—lets call her “L”— is constantly putting new programs in place to re-organize, compartmentalize, and otherwise tame my unruly life so that I can make good use of my time. L is the boss. She scribbles all over my planner. She is an unflagging optimist with a get ‘er done bent.

Card sharp

Card sharp (Photo credit: totallyfred)

Right-brained me is innately improvisational and her antics are most entertaining. When L dictates that we go to the gym every morning, alternating upper and lower body workouts with an all-aerobics day thrown in for good measure, R says, “But you can’t make me.” Some days L gets a workout just chasing R around the room. She isn’t evil—she may go along with L for a couple of days to make nice—but then she’s madly reshuffling the schedule and saying, “Pick a card, any card.”

Problem is, R is a real charmer. She’ll say something like, “I’ll just write this blog first thing while I’m fresh and work out later.” Why do we believe her? We have never yet convinced her to make good on her suggestion to go to the gym once her head is inside a project.

If you’ve thought such tugs of war between employer and employee are only staged on the corporate campus, welcome to my head.

I wish I could report that after thirty years of practice I have trumped “The Man” by creating for myself an anxiety-free work environment, but that would be a lie. L schedules meetings, R gets lost in the flow of writing and misses them. L decides I’ve consumed enough calories for the day, R celebrates another two thousand words with a beer and buttered popcorn. L says to record my life before forgetting its rich detail and R demands time away from the computer to go out and live it. L says turn around editing clients faster so you can make more money, R says she. Can’t. Rush. And performance reviews? Pfft. The IRS deals the cards on that one. Tax time is sobering for the self-employed. Yes, valid deductions are great, but it does nothing for L or R to see all their tussles add up to so little on the bottom line.

On my bulletin board, pinned beside the opening quote, is a full-page photograph from O Magazine, April 2003, titled “The Idea is Balance.” It offers a profile view of an empty wooden chair—and improbably perched upon its back is a peacock, its long feathers hanging on a heavy diagonal toward the ground. The chair may tip, the peacock may fall, but in this moment the pair is caught in a moment of calm. Finding the quiet, while knowing the stakes—that seems to be my greatest ongoing challenge.

The neat thing about this photo, though, is that both the chair and the peacock are facing the same way. I never realized that until I wrote this post. That’s the same way with L and R. They may have different strengths, and different ways of going about things, but they have no doubt that they’re playing for team Kathryn, and that they’re both desperately needed.

K: Well done, team.

R: Let’s go celebrate with an ice cream sundae!

L: But it’s only 8 a.m. and I have you scheduled for another 2,000 words…

(Okay, ’fess up—I can’t be the only one. In what ways does the struggle for balance manifest in your life?)

A fun test to see if you are more right- or left-brained. Can you see the dancer turning to her left? I can’t.

Yes to Banksy, No to Ku Klux Klan

Because I enjoy learning from others’ perspectives, I visit with all kinds of people, including complete strangers. This made me wonder: Is there anyone I wouldn’t like to visit with?

As a lifelong student of the human body, I check for all sorts of body signals to give me information on how people really feel. “You look great,” for instance, just isn’t as meaningful with an eye roll. “I have a better vision for our country” does not inspire confidence when the speaker is covered in a sheet from head to toe. So for me, the most off-putting scenario I can think of would be to try to visit with someone who is purposefully masking his identity.

That brings me to the pairing in this title. Banksy is a British street artist and activist my son introduced to me by sharing Banksy’s movie, Exit Through the Gift Shop, nominated for a 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary. As you can see in the clip at the bottom of this post, Banksy scrambles his voice and hides his identity throughout the film. He had to. His work, often executed under the cover of night, walks the line between public art and vandalism. It isn’t exactly legal. But because his work is creative and masterful and thought-provoking and entertaining, I’d love to sit down and chat with him even if I was denied access to his face.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan, on the other hand, whose free expression is protected under our constitution? I have to admit, I’d have trouble with that one. Here’s what Banksy had to say about the Klan:

banksy-kkk-in-birmingham

This image, painted at an abandoned gas station in Birmingham, Alabama in 2008 then quickly defaced, is credited to Banksy.

Before moving to Bucks County, PA in 2009 I lived in Berks County, a neo-Nazi stronghold. Because I lived on a small farm we avoided most confrontation. So I remember well the first time my son and I encountered the Klan standing in the busiest intersection of Boyertown. We were leaving his Tae Kwon Do class; they were handing out literature.

“Why are they in costume, Mommy? It’s not Halloween.”

“They fear being known for their opinions,” is all I could think of to say. “In America we are free to live here no matter what we believe. Unfortunately, these people don’t think the same way.”

As a writer I suppose it’s possible that if I were ever to visit with a Klansman, I’d find the evolution of his perspective fascinating. But it threatens everything I hold dear. I don’t think I’d want to do it, and don’t think I could stomach it if he wouldn’t remove his hood.

In the arts we often hear that we should do the thing we don’t want to do because it will have power. Maybe. But my unconditional love isn’t perfect. I might need a few more decades of convincing on this one.

It occurs to me that, like Banksy, the Klan has historically crossed legal limits under the cover of darkness to express itself (although as recently as 2004, in a racially motivated Boyertown area cross-burning). Yet I’m drawn to the former, and repulsed by the latter.

Maybe the two halves of the above photo provide a clue as to why.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (entire movie).

*Does empathy always make you stronger, or does it sometimes feel too dangerous? Who is it you would never want to sit down and visit with?