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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Book Down Her Pants

  Provocative title, yes?   It's the working title for my memoir of life with my sister.  Marianne died 12 years ago from breast cancer and my brother-in-law Brock asked me a few months ago to consider writing about growing up together for his boys.  A few weeks later, I was in Foster City with my cousin and told her about a favorite 4th of July there with Marianne.  Driving home, I realized I'd started the memoir and since my friend Judith was also writing one and starting it at a retreat in Tahoe in Sept, I might consider joining her.  Judith heard about it from a friend of mine who knows Jennifer, the retreat leader.   Her site says she'll pamper us with wine and food and all we have to do is write.  I emailed Jennifer and got myself on her list of 3 people, the max she takes.     I got inspired because that morning, before I left the house, I talked to Brock and mentioned one thing on my list--"Who him name?"   and where that phrase originated in our family.  Brock said it came from his boys, that they used to say it.  So I told him, no it came from the day Dad brought home our first boxer.  He had no idea it started with Marianne as a little girl asking the name of the new dog (many times during the first few days) and not one of his sons. She had used it with them, not the reverse.  It's all about family history.
  I drove to Judith's in Oakland, left my car and got to knit all the way to Tahoe, which was great since I have a possible trunk show next month and open studios the following, so need work time.  We stopped at for lunch using my AroundMe app which led us to Zinfandel Grille in Sacramento.  Jennifer called to see where we were in our drive at that point, saying Doreen was stuck in traffic and she was waiting for her to arrive so they could head to the house.  Timing was perfect--we would all arrive close to each other, but after they did.  She needed time to make sure the house was ready.
  After a great lunch, we headed to Tahoe.   I guess I should have seen the handwriting on the wall when Jennifer's email about the weekend said, first the most important question, red or white?  I'm not much of a drinker, so picked a color and went from there.  When we arrived, we were greeted with wine glasses, but I opted for water and switched to wine awhile later.  Doreen opened the door for us--she's very thin and wiry with lots of brown curly hair.  As we all sat to introduce ourselves and get to know each other, Doreen texted and went outside to make or take a call.   Jennifer suggested we put our phones aside for the weekend and indicated she'd mention it to Doreen, but she returned only to text more and make or take another call.   It was off-putting, to say the least.  I asked and learned that Jennifer had published a cookbook Doreen had edited, but they hadn't met till now.
  Judith and I had donned our fleece because the house was chilly, and when it was Doreen's turn to talk about herself, I noticed how often she played with her hair and otherwise showed off her muscular arms in her tank top.  I got the distinct impression I was supposed to notice, which was much clearer than anything she actually said.  She tended to mumble or swallow the ends of her sentences while expounding on the "hundreds of stories" on her laptop that she wanted to work on or finish.  I was really unclear what she was saying and thought the road trip had taken its toll on my brain, so maybe it was time to switch to wine.
  We had a choice of two rooms, one upstairs and one down.  No bathroom upstairs.  Because Judith has bad knees and a weaker bladder than I, I chose the upstairs room across from Doreen.  I was surprised to find I did not have my own bathroom, and Judith and I agreed to share hers, which was the only en suite one.   I hoped I didn't have to use it in the middle of the night because those stairs were formidable.
  Jennifer presented us each with a folder of writing prompts, much like I had used in my middle school English classes (oh, I didn't mention I'd taught English for 35 years, including memoir writing--I thought it might be off-putting or that expectations would be different for me), some information about recent books that were being published from a site she uses often, and goal-setting pages for us to fill out.   We did the first goal-setting page for the weekend, and my goal was to create vignettes from the list I'd started about Marianne while adding to the list as I went.  I wasn't concerned with making it cohesive yet--just start and get the words onto paper.
  I really thought I'd lost it because every time Doreen talked, I got lost and confused.  A bit later when I used her bathroom, Judith gave me a look and brief comment, and I knew it wasn't just me.   We spent the rest of the night making eye contact and rolling our eyes as Doreen talked about living in Italy at one time and being in the wine industry....she dropped names of wine families we didn't know, though acted like we should, and touting her accomplishments with words I only half understood, definitely used to intimidate or confuse...mission accomplished.
  Dinner was spaghetti, salad, and bread.  Jennifer apologized that she usually makes no-knead bread but is moving and didn't have the time.  Dinner was good and of course, the wine flowed.  I stuck to one glass since I'd already had a glass before dinner and was already over my usual.  I would normally have preferred dessert, but we weren't offered any.
  We said good night fairly early which was fine with me.  I love reading in bed, which is a luxury I rarely get.  Jennifer then blew the bed up for her night in the living room...all the bedrooms were taken, so she sleeps there on these writers' weekends.  Her house is cozy and comfortable in a nice neighborhood in walking distance to the lake.
   The following morning started earlier than I'm used to, but I was up, showered and ready with everyone.   Jennifer apologized for not remembering to buy cereal, but no one objected.  We had fresh fruit and yogurt and she toasted some of the bread from the night before for Judith and me.  Fortunately, someone had left creamer from a few months before and it hadn't yet expired, so I was happy with my coffee.
  After breakfast, we all met in the living room to discuss our writing for the day.  Doreen had her laptop with her and she clicked away as if taking notes on what was being said, though I'm not all that sure she was even paying attention.  Jennifer then asked if we wanted to start by writing a prompt, but I said no, I wanted to start the memoir.  We each wrote in our respective rooms and the only breaks I took were up and down the stairs to the bathroom several times.  Onions cooking for soup permeated the air to the point our eyes actually burned, but since I was suffering with allergies, I couldn't be sure which was the culprit.  Judith and I decided to get a breath of air and discovered it was raining!  The onion soup was perfect for the rainy Tahoe day followed by a walk to the lake with our umbrellas.  Judith and I walked together behind Jennifer and Doreen, which was fine with us.
  We agreed to continue writing a couple more hours, then meet in the living room and read some of what we'd written.  We all brought down our laptops from which to read and Judith went first.  She read some excerpts and we all commented.  I loved hearing about how she and Larry met, and asked if it was okay if I explained one thing about his personality to the other women so they'd understand the poignancy behind the writing.  The other women commented on her writing--Jennifer exclaiming how Judith hadn't thought she could write without it sounding like a narrative from the probation dept. and how descriptive and well she wrote.  Doreen only asked about ages of people in the story to clarify.
  Then it was my turn to read.  Just as I started, Jennifer leaped up saying she had to get the chicken in the oven, so I should continue without her.   Meanwhile, Doreen continued to click away on her keyboard, mumbling to herself periodically.  Judith gave me feedback about my writing, but nothing from the other two.  I brought the picture book I'd made for the boys after Mar died, so showed Judith and Doreen some photos I'd referred to.  Judith made comments, not much from Doreen or Jennifer when she returned briefly for something in her bag.  I felt slighted from getting nothing back after being asked to read, but soldiered on.  Doreen seemed like she didn't want to read, said she didn't know which story to read, finally chose one, but said it was a long short story, so after suggesting she read the beginning, tell the middle, then read the end, she did so.  She fills her stories with much imagery and verbiage, much like her dialogue so I found parts hard to follow. She expected feedback, which she got from all of us, though I only said I liked her imagery and the same part Judith commented on to keep from getting detailed about things that only confused me.  Jennifer told her she used too much imagery and could lighten it.
   The look on Judith's face after Doreen read was interesting.  When we had a moment alone, she told me she had read this story before and it wasn't written by her!
   A friend in Jennifer's literary circles had been invited to join us for cocktails, so the 5 of us talked or mostly listened to her stories of trying to get published.  I found it interesting she'd been invited into our space when the leader of our group could have used the time to discuss the writing process and how it was working for us.  She didn't really check in with us while we were working during the day, then wasn't present when we read and discussed our work.  She seemed to hear Doreen's writing from the other room, then returned to hear and listen to the end of it.  With me, she definitely was not present, nor did she seem interested in what I wrote.  I thought Kate was interesting to a point, but since two of the three of us who paid for the retreat (and we think the third person might not have had to pay) were not interested in being published, it was more a buffer and filler than useful.
  Throughout dinner, whenever either Judith or I tried to talk, Doreen talked over us or interrupted.  Neither of us felt the other two were particularly interested in what we had to say, so I mostly kept quiet and ate.   Listening felt like watching a tennis match of name-dropping, most of which were unfamiliar to me.  I grew bored.  Jennifer suggested a few ideas for the evening, either looking at pictures of a famous woman she won at a Sotheby's auction (yes, we all have heard of Sotheby's and that name was mentioned many times) or watching a movie.  I asked what DVD's she had, so she started reading them.  I detoured upstairs thinking I wanted to do neither, and by the time I returned, Judith has slipped off and the other two were looking at the photos.  I joined them, then we all retired early.  My head felt full between the day spent writing about childhood memories and listening to much hot air being blown through the house.
  Jennifer suggested we walk to a bagel shop for breakfast where Doreen paid for her own coffee, but had no food, so Judith pulled out her wallet to buy her own coffee and let Jennifer pay for our bagels.   I just stood there thinking, wait, I just wrote a check for $345 for this weekend, and I am not buying anything!   Last night's chicken carcass was being boiled for today's lunch, no breakfast was served....food was good, but certainly not gourmet.  "Fabulous" and "wonderful" were words on her website describing the food.  My husband was home making red chile mole sauce from scratch for his own dinner and I was eating roasted chicken and salad.   I guess I am spoiled...if I still lived alone, this might have been considered wonderful.
  We each wrote from the prompt Jennifer had given us about our mothers, then walked to the lake and back to the  house.  We took bets (not really) on whether or not Doreen would read hers because by now, we were feeling like she was more bluster and less reality.  We suggested she go first, but she said her mother left a voicemail to call her right then, so she had to do that and couldn't read what she'd written about her, then call.  She never did read it and I watched her stand outside with her phone in her hand not talking.  Good avoidance technique.
  I read mine after Doreen returned and Judith made several comments.  The other women agreed by  saying, oh, me too, but then nothing.  I stopped and stared at both Jennifer and Doreen waiting for more feedback and they just looked back at me.  Then Jennifer suggested Judith read and laughed at appropriate moments and commented on it at the end.
 I'm glad I went with the expectation of getting words onto paper, which I achieved, and not of having someone critique my work, which I certainly did not get.  Judith came upstairs to see how I was doing later that morning because I was writing nonstop without coming downstairs.  I read her some of what I'd written and said I was done with any reading aloud in front of those two.   We agreed to stay until just after lunch, then leave by 1:30 or 2.  Originally we were told she would leave around 3, but she was also talking about being out earlier.....fine with us.
   We had a great time together, but next time we want a couple of days of writing, we'll rent our own house, buy our own food, and read to each other.