A Writing Residency at Rensing Center in Pickens, South Carolina

This morning I woke to a voice in my head:

“They were the best and the brightest, you might say, and I looked up to them. They were seniors and I was only a sophomore but a couple of us were in the NAACP Youth group together at Sterling. One day in March–this was in 1960–when we were having burgers at the Huddle across the street from school, Ben Downs told how he’d gone to Greenville Senior High to take the college entrance exam. He was a brain for sure, and later we’d learn that he had scored in the top 10% of the exam. All he could talk about that day was how he couldn’t believe the difference between their library at the white high school and our little hole-in-the-wall colored library on McBee Avenue, which had mostly donated books and only a few reference books.  I could tell it was a harsh awakening for him.”

If I had been at home, it wouldn’t have been my character Priscilla (Pretty) Stone’s voice I would have awakened to. It would have been my own internal monologue, running through the things I had to do that day, then my husband’s voice, the voices on the radio or TV in the kitchen telling me the (bad) news in the world, then my dog telling me he needed to go for a walk  . . .

2015-09-10 09.36.29
Rensing Guest House

But here at the Rensing Center this morning it was perfectly quiet except for a few bird calls out in the pasture or woods. I lay in bed in the one-room Guest House and looked at how the early light came through the white curtains across the sliding glass doors that front the cottage. I listened to Pretty begin to tell her me part of my novel.  I got up and began to write.

It meant everything that I had nothing to do all day, no one to see, nowhere to go, until our weekly potluck dinner this evening. Pretty was telling me how her friends, Ben, Dorothy, Hattie . . . had gone to the all-white Greenville Public Library later that March, been turned away, how they returned and were arrested, how the library board voted to close all the libraries, and how, under threat of federal action, reopened them in September on a non-discriminatory basis. Facts I had researched and interviewed participants about, and which I was now trying to bring to life in a novel via Pretty.

I spread out in the Guest House
I spread out in the Guest House

I drove to Rensing from Minneapolis two weeks ago for a three-week stay here. I had been amazed to find a place in Pickens County, South Carolina that provided residencies for writers, artists, musicians, photographers, and environmentalists . . .  I had grown up in Greenville, 30 miles away. The novel I’m writing begins at the Pickens jail in 1947 when a mob of white taxi drivers from Greenville took a young black man, Willie Earle, from the jail where he was being held on suspicion of killing one of their own,  tortured a confession out of him, stabbed and beat him, and finished him off with a shotgun blast. The trial that took place in Greenville resulted in the acquittal of all 28 defendants by a white jury. I began writing about the impact the lynching and trial had on four fictional characters. At some point it seemed to me the logical extension of the Willie Earle story  was to take the novel up to 1963, when the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Peterson v. City of Greenville that segregation in public facilities–like lunch counters–was unconstitutional.

Table Rock where I grew up in the summers
Table Rock where I grew up in the summers

You might say that Rensing was calling my name. Not only was my novel set in Pickens County and Greenville, I had deep roots in this area. When I catch glimpses of blue mountains when I drive these country roads, I feel I’ve come home.

Rensing screen porch
Rensing screen porch






To me this is Rensing:  quiet and solitude; the Guest House with its screen porch; a palpable sense from Ellen and her mother Evelyn, who own and run the place, of nurturing the residents, promoting creativity, and fostering connection out into the wider world; the four Herefords and eight white Saanen goats whom I visit every evening in the pasture; the trail through the woods and along the creek overgrown with mountain laurel, the same kind of creek trail I knew at Table Rock Mountain where we had a cabin when I was growing up; three precious, rare weeks to immerse myself deeply in my novel in a way I can’t do at home. I’m so grateful!

Rensing is not for everyone. If you’re a party animal, don’t come here. If you’re freaked out by deep country, go elsewhere. If you need good restaurants, or even a pretty good one, Pickens won’t do. If you want luxury accommodations, check into a hotel. If you need Trader Joe’s or Whole Foods, they aren’t here (and never will be).

But if you crave buckets of time; quiet like you’ve never heard before; compatible people both local and in residence who are interesting and enjoyable to be with;  a director who has spent her life as an artist and who has a vision of how to create a vibrant, creative, engaged community; four Herefords and a bunch of white goats–then Rensing is for you.

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Amazon, Hachette, The New York Times, and Me

I wish she'd stop writing all those stupid emails and play bally with me
I wish she’d stop writing all those stupid emails and play bally with me

I’ve been following the power struggle between Amazon and Hachette with great interest. It’s so complex, with so many issues, and involves so many positions, voices, opinions and high stakes that I can’t take sides nor do I want to. I don’t have a dog in that fight. But I did have a thought about it. I sent my two bits to the New York Times, and my letter to the editor appeared in the August 14th paper:

To the Editor:

I’m one of the bit players in the drama of the Amazon versus Hachette epic battle. I’m what is known as an “indie author.” When publishers turned down my recent novel, Amazon provided a platform for me to self-publish it, find readers and even make a little money. For that I am grateful.

Hachette and company are battling for their authors (and themselves). Their authors are on the whole beloved, successful and financially profitable (and deservedly so). But those same publishers are the gatekeepers for books like mine (rightly so or not).

Admittedly, self-published books run the gamut from if not the sublime then certainly the worthy to the ridiculous. But Amazon, for all its faults and problems, has democratized publishing in a way that has changed the game, and that is for the good.

Minneapolis, Aug. 9, 2014

I wonder if Jeff Bezos will read it.

I’d been looking forward to reading the full-page ad from a group called Authors United re: its anti-Amazon position, signed by 900 writers, which the Times said would appear in the paper this past Sunday [Plot Thickens as 900 Writers Battle Amazon].

It wasn’t there. I was flummoxed.

I emailed the Times to ask Whaddup: Maybe the ad signers hadn’t bought space in the Midwest edition? Maybe we received an early edition and the ad didn’t make it, like late sports scores?

The Times responded that the DISTRIBUTION CENTER had the sole discretion about whether to include the ad in the papers they delivered, and they hadn’t included it. WTF!

I was not happy. I emailed back that the ad was more than an ad, it was news, part of a story the Times itself was reporting on extensively. The Authors United letter was something a lot of people (like me) were quite eager to see. Someone at the distribution center had made what I considered an editorial decision not to include it.

I was wobbed! Continue reading “Amazon, Hachette, The New York Times, and Me”

My Apologies for Shooting a Blank Yesterday!

Dear Blog subscribers:

I apologize for the errant email that Mailchimp sent you yesterday. I’m having my website transferred to GoDaddy, and a new version of WordPress installed. According to my guy Cory, an old plug-in (don’t ask me–I don’t know a plug-in from a bathtub stopper) triggered Mailchimp to post the notice that the new WordPress sent–not just to me, but to all of you. Hello World indeed! Sorry!

Cory is Cory Laux at OverdogArt.com and he’s swell. If you need a website or help with WordPress, I recommend him. He knows a widget from a washer and communicates in English clearly.

2014-06-18 10.28.06I haven’t posted lately because I’ve been running around a lot. First there was Bemidji, where I gave a reading and workshop at the Literary Festival. I wanted to be photographed hugging the giant leg of Paul Bunyan, but I was embarrassed to ask a tourist to shoot me in such a compromising position. My workshop was entitled (by me) “From the Sublime to the Ridiculous: Everything I know about Creative Writing.” I told the participants that I had covered the ridiculous in the title, and that in a two hour workshop there wouldn’t be enough time to get to the sublime. Then I tried to tell them some of what I’ve learned the hard way about writing. Mainly that ultimately you have to teach yourself. In the process it helps to read a lot, not just as a consumer but as a writer. Hopefully you learn how to read your own stuff as a reader would read it, not just as the author. There’s a big difference.

The last two weekends we’ve been running up and down the road to Madeline Island, Wisconsin, to the house my mother-in-law rented. The first weekend was for her big 90th b-day celebration. Catered dinner for 30: fresh Lake Superior whitefish rollades with artichoke-chevre-lemon-parsley filling; warm potato salad; and there was supposed to be a green vegetable, beans or sugar snap peas, only the caterer forgot them. In case you’re wondering, a “rollade” is not something you take for indigestion; it’s a little pile of whitefish-artichoke-chevre-lemon-parsley stuffed in a puff-pastry pouch. Let’s just say that the food on the plates looked a little . . . white . . . and a bit spare. Jeff and I went out at 10:00 that night to try to find a hamburger, but Tom’s Burned Down Bar only served drinks, and the other two restaurants on the island had stopped serving food. Nonetheless, the birthday was a big success, and quite the occasion. Continue reading “My Apologies for Shooting a Blank Yesterday!”

Unplugged: A Writing Retreat at Clare’s Well

Clare's Well
Clare’s Well 

I just spent four nights at Clare’s Well, a Franciscan Sisters’ Spirituality Farm in Annandale, MN, about sixty miles from the Twin Cities. For the time I was there, I was unplugged, in more ways than one. There was no Internet in my “hermitage,” though there is in the main farmhouse, where the nuns who run the place live. I went to get away from email and Internet, from TV, newspapers, news, music, airplanes passing overhead, traffic, city life, cooking and cleaning, my husband and dog, and most of all my distracted, busy self. I went there to write.

The novel I’m writing is based on the 1947 lynching of a young black man, Willie Earle, in my hometown of Greenville, S.C., by a mob of white taxi cab drivers the night after he was arrested on suspicion of killing another driver. The murder and trial are brilliantly documented in piece by Rebecca West, called “Opera in Greenville,” which appeared in June 14, 1947 issue of The New Yorker.  I’m writing the stories of four fictional characters who were impacted spiritually, emotionally, and psychologically by the incident. I wanted to finish the section I was working on about Alma, a black maid in Greenville who, in my fictional world, had known Willie Earle when he was a child.

My hermitage: St. Francis house
My hermitage: St. Francis House 

Sitting on the floor on a prayer cushion in the “House of Francis,” my one-room cottage, I cried like a baby as I wrote the final pages of Alma’s story. I forgot even that I was writing, and only came to when I realized I was crying. The story unfolding quite apart from my conscious mind was so real and alive to me, and so sad.

I doubt I could have entered into the writing that deeply at home. It took the solitude and freedom from my regular life that Clare’s Well provided. What a gift!

God had a sense of humor when he made me
God had a sense of humor when he made me 

The 40-acre retreat center is run by three Sisters who make such respite possible. People stay in one of three hermitages for spiritual retreats or simply to read, to pray, to renew, to be alone, and to enjoy the beauty of nature and the farm.  It is a beautiful place, so quiet, with only the sounds of nature, and the squawking of the silly Guinea hens, whose appearance reminds one that God has a sense of humor.

Every day, the nuns, Carol, Jan, and Paula, feed the retreatants lunch and dinner. Can you imagine? It’s like having three to five guests for two meals every single day—argggh.  But it was incredible to be fed without having to think up what to have, buy it, fix it, and clean it up.  All domestic responsibilities fell by the wayside for the five days I was there.  I was a bit in shock at all the time that opened up–time to be by myself, to think only of my novel or nothing at all, to wander around farm and fields, get a Trager massage Continue reading “Unplugged: A Writing Retreat at Clare’s Well”

Unforgettable Gets a Thumbs Up in St. Paul Pioneer Press

unforgettablecover153Mary Ann Grossmann, Books Editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, gave Unforgettable: Short Stories a nice boost in her “Readers and Writers” column in the Sunday, May 25, 2014 issue of the newspaper:

“Unforgettable” by Paulette Alden (Radiator Press, $4.99 ebook, $13.99 paperback, free at Amazon Prime)

Minnesotan Alden jokes that she went from “The Reluctant Self-Publisher” to “The Obnoxious Self-Promoter” when she self-published her book “The Answer to Your Question.” Now she’s hoping readers will look for her new — and wonderful — story collection.

These nine stories feature Miriam Batson, the author’s persona from her collection “Feeding the Eagles” (Graywolf Press). The first four stories, Alden says, are about experiences that had important emotional impacts for her. The last five, some of which are heartbreaking, are to be read in sequence because they follow Miriam’s journey as her mother ages.

Miriam is a middle-age college professor when the book begins. In the first story “The Student,” she has feelings for a young man but she isn’t sure what they are. Is he like a son? Is it a little sexual? The most riveting is “Enormously Valuable,” in which Miriam is passed over for a tenured position that’s given to a man, even though she has published as much as he has and has more teaching experience. A male faculty member she’s considered a sort-of friend tells her she’s “enormously valuable” to the department but the new guy is fresh and exciting. Miriam, who was raised in South Carolina, goes through many emotions as she tries to decide whether to sue for sex discrimination. This wasn’t supposed to happen to her, she thinks in her shock: WHY NOT? because, because, because. … Because she was nice! She didn’t ask for too much (only a temporary job), she was an excellent, overly conscientious worker, cheerful, gracious, modest, supportive, a team player, reasonable, didn’t make waves. … She knew how to be nice. Her whole upbringing had been about being nice.

Even after Miriam decides to sue, she asks her lawyer whether she’s being “ridiculous.” Her woman lawyer replies: You know, it’s sad that you have to ask that. Women get screwed all the time, and then they think that somehow it’s their fault. So no, you’re not crazy.

This reader cheered for Miriam when she realizes that she might have started out as a quivering mass of female insecurity but over the years something inside had solidified, gotten a grip. She could feel this mysterious part of herself as if it were a rod inside her, holding her up.

The stories about Miriam’s mother’s decline move from Miriam and her sister realizing their mom can no longer live alone in the big house in South Carolina to Miriam caring for her mother in Minnesota. At first their strong-minded mother is in assisted living, where she constantly calls Miriam to come and find her purse. There are times when exhausted Miriam hates what her mother has become. But there is laughter too when they are together. Slowly, Miriam begins to realize she must put her mother, who keeps falling, into a nursing home.

The small touches Alden writes about will resonate with everyone who’s cared for a parent: Miriam bending down to help her mother pull up her underpants and confronting her mom’s “big, white butt,” navigating her mother’s transition to the nursing home while putting on a good face and wanting to weep, a disastrous weekend at a resort where her mom is confused, doesn’t sleep and only wants to go back to her room.

Some fiction is so “real” you stop reading when a scene knocks you out with familiarity. “Yes,” you’ll say to yourself, “that’s exactly the way it was for my family.”

A Writer Learns about Creative Process from Two Artists: Hopper and O’Keeffe

“So much of every art is an expression of the subconscious, that it seems to me most of all the important qualities are put there unconsciously, and little of importance by the conscious intellect. But these are things for the psychologist to untangle.” —Edward Hopper

hopper night office sketch
Hopper study for Office at Night

Whenever I’m trying to write something, it helps to remember that most works go through stages of a creative process.  Even something like this blog post—and I’m not saying I’m penning War and Peace here—follows a somewhat predictable series of steps. I never get what I’m after the first time through, as much as I’d like to. With a long, complex project like a novel, I especially have to keep in mind that I’m going to go through a lot of process. It helps to remember this, and to recognize what stage I’m in. I’ve posted about Louise DeSalvo’s excellent “Stages of the Writing Process,” but many other people have described how a creative work proceeds from the initial impulse through the finished form.

The basic progression goes something like this: A project starts with some intimation, idea, image, hunch, object, experience or desire to bring something into being; it then evolves through a germination period as the writer or artist gets to work, going through drafts, sketches, and approximations in an effort to get closer to whatever the vision is. Perhaps he or she encounters technical problems or simply isn’t satisfied, without knowing what to do or how to “fix” the piece. The person may ask for feedback from others at some point. Often time must pass as the subconscious wrestles with the problem, and the artist simply has to wait. Eventually (God help us) the artist or writer comes to know what the piece wants to do and be, and is able to complete it. I find it helpful to keep this process in mind as I try to create something, be it a blog or a book. Doing so allows me to be more patient and accept that the time it takes to move through various stages is often necessary to bring a creative piece to fruition.

The Walker Art Center’s current exhibit, “Hopper Drawings: A Painter’s Process,” on loan from

Hopper Study for Office at Night
Hopper study for Office at Night

the Whitney Museum of American Art, provided me not only an opportunity to view some of Hopper’s paintings and drawings, but also the opportunity to learn something about his creative process. It’s always interesting and valuable for me to see how the creative process works in another medium. The Hopper exhibit also reinforced the notion that in art the real or concrete is transformed by the artist’s (or writer’s) imagination—and process— into something new and different.  That brought to mind something similar I had read about Georgia O’Keeffe’s creative process, which I’ll tell you about in a moment.

According to the Walker’s exhibit notes, “More than anything else, Hopper’s drawings reveal the continually evolving relationship between observation and invention in the artist’s work . . . The show surveys Hopper’s significant and underappreciated achievements as a draftsman, and pairs many of his greatest oil paintings—including Office at Night (1940), an important piece from the Walker Art Center’s collection—with their preparatory drawings and related works.”  It’s this connection between observation and invention that interests me the most.  As Carter Foster, the curator of the drawings for the Whitney Museum said in an interview, “Hopper had to have real details.  He had to go out and look for it in the world. He was walking the streets of New York constantly, absorbing the world and putting it into his paintings. So the real was very important. But to turn it into something poetic, he had to do something to it.”

Because Office at Night is one of Hopper’s most iconic paintings, I’ll focus on that particular piece here.

According to Gail Levin in Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, diary entries kept by his wife Jo describe a “creative dry spell” that Hopper had in December, 1939 and early January, 1940. At her insistence they attended an exhibition of Italian masters at the Museum of Modern Art, paying particular attention to Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. She enthused about the painting, but Hopper dismissed it as “only another pretty girl picture” [!]. Levin comments that perhaps this dismissive characterization betrayed “some deeper stir.” Continue reading “A Writer Learns about Creative Process from Two Artists: Hopper and O’Keeffe”

Would You Like a Free Copy of Unforgettable: Short Stories?

unforgettablecover153I’d like to send you a copy of my new book of short stories–either the paperback or a Mobi or epub file which you can “sideload” to your Kindle or Ipad.  Free. No strings attached.

Well, there is one small string.

I’m looking for readers and reviews.  So the catch is if you like the stories, you give me a review on Amazon, and maybe Goodreads. Why reviews? Because reviews–good ones, that is–bring more readers, who write more reviews, which bring more readers . . .

I published Unforgettable: Short Stories in February. Unlike The Answer to Your Question, it’s hard to promote.  I reached lots of readers and reviewers for Answer by giving away thousands of free eBooks via ads and promotions on places like Bookbub and Kindle Nation Daily.  That worked well because Answer was pegged as a “suspense” book, and a lot of the subscribers to the free giveaway sites go for genre books–mysteries, thrillers, suspense, romance, fantasy. Unforgettable is the opposite of a genre book.

Nor is Unforgettable a single narrative, like a novel, which would make it a little easier to synopsize and describe. Nor does it have a specific subject, such as a memoir does.

Unforgettable is nine autobiographical short stories, all built around a single protagonist, Miriam Batson. There’s one story about a college student of Miriam’s who tries to commit suicide, which mixes erotic and maternal feelings with teacherly concern; there’s another about a job rejection that possibly resulted from sex discrimination, or perhaps adjunct discrimination, “the galley slave problem,” as Miriam’s husband puts it; there another about the death of a beloved maid from Miriam’s Southern girlhood; and another about her father’s sudden death from a heart attack.

The final five stories track Miriam’s efforts to keep her mother afloat as she is pulled under by Alzheimer’s. I’ve tried to take what were nine difficult years and shape the experiences into what art does: specifying the particular while capturing the universal.

I think Unforgettable is a good book, worthwhile reading for some readers–if only I can reach them. The way I found readers for Answer won’t work for Unforgettable. So I’ve decided to try giving it away myself via my blog and FB.

Don’t be shy about asking! Don’t feel embarrassed by thinking you really should buy the book! I don’t care! My goal is to get the book into more hands, including yours.

If Unforgettable sounds like something you might like to try (or if you know of someone else who might), email me at pbalden@aol.com or on my website contact form. Tell me if you’d like the Mobi, epub file or the paperback. For the paperback, give me your mailing address. (Sorry, I can only send in the US because of mailing costs.)  It costs me about $7.00 per paperback, so I figure I can give away up to about 50 copies. I’d rather spend my promotion money this way than by buying ads directed to the wrong audience.

What are you waiting for?  The price is right!



 Unforgettable: Short Story Quotes from Amazon Readers’ Reviews (They’re unforgettable to me):

“Each one of these stories is a gem, drawn from the author’s own experiences. They are written with such clarity, such marvelous dialogue, and such sensibility that you feel you’re right in there with her struggles: her concern over a deeply troubled student,
her anger at being passed over for a teaching position, and finally – and most especially – the awful frustrations of caring for an ailing mother whom she loves with all her heart even as she wrestles with the often overwhelming burden this kind of care involves. Despite the many sorrows in these stories, there is much joy, much humor, and the lucky decision to write it all down for our reading pleasure.”

“Finally, a collection of short stories beautifully rendered and filled with universal truths about the human experience. I am enthralled with this collection. It is the first short fiction collection I have read in a long, long time where I felt transported, consumed and moved by each story.”

“Having just gone through three excruciating years dealing with my mother-in-law’s decline into dementia, I found Paulette Alden’s UNFORGETTABLE to be a guidebook of how to comprehend grief and loss, how to understand transitions, how to make meaning and sense of our human condition. Deft and direct, this is a book that sneaks up on you. On the surface, everything seems so simple, so ordinary–dare I say it?–so human. You know the feeling: “this could be my story. How does she know my life so well?” But beneath the surface is great depth and dimension and ultimately the deep wisdom that comes with self acceptance.”

“This collection reflects the periods of certainty, vulnerability, compassion, and wonderment that have passed through the lives of so many baby boomer woman. The prose is never cloying or predictable. A collection that will stay on my shelf for rereading through the years.”

“I read this book almost in one sitting. This author has a way of immediately engaging the reader. These stories come from the heart, and I was totally absorbed by each one.”

“I once heard an editor say he most admired writers “with no hands showing.” He meant, of course, writers whose prose was so lucid, direct, and powerful that it didn’t call attention to the great skill of the writer but simply pulled you irresistibly into the story itself. That is how I felt about these stories.”

“Painful – beautiful – and an uplifting testament to family loyalty and the human spirit. If you have a parent facing the ravages of old age, do yourself a favor: read Unforgettable.”

Writers, ARISE! Sitting is the New Smoking!

Desk from Ikea parts (dog not included)
Desk from Ikea parts (dog not included)

I’m writing you standing up.  My husband Jeff constructed a new stand-up desk for me with $38.58 (including tax!) worth of Ikea parts.  This because—in case you haven’t heard—sitting is the new smoking. No kidding. The more you sit, the poorer your health and the earlier you die.  And if anyone has sat on her derriere forever, c’est moi. It’s an occupational hazard for writers, not to mention just about everyone else who works in an office and/or at a computer.

I read a couple of articles about “the new smoking” which alarmed me enough to spring into action—by sitting on my duff and researching stand-up desks online. If you Google “How to Build a Stand-up Desk” you will be overwhelmed with plans, a lot of which boil down to buying some Ikea parts. So simple, cheap and easy.

We have an old desk in our guest room that we moved to Minneapolis when we sold my parents’ house in South Carolina many years ago. We decided we could just build a stand on top of that. I didn’t want to give up the “smoking” desk in my study.  But the old desk top was a half inch too narrow to hold the Ikea side table on which I’d put my laptop. So we decided we had to buy a 22″ table top to go on top of the old desk. We could have been engineers!

Off we went to Ikea with a list I had compiled from an online “how to” article. Results: a Linnmon table top for $10.99; 2 Ekby Valter brackets for $8.00; a Lack side table for $9.99;  a Ekby Viktor Shelf for $5.99;  and a package of non-skid pads for the table legs for $.99. At the hardware store we picked up 4 sets of 3″ bolts, washers and screws to attach the brackets which would hold the keyboard shelf to the table, which would sit on top of the desk.

Lugged the stuff home. Jeff set to screwing the legs on the Lack table and bolting the brackets on two of the legs for the shelf. It all involved a certain amount of drilling and cussing. I lay on the guest room bed murmuring praise and reading my Kindle.

When “we” had the whole thing assembled—parents’ old desk as base, topped by Linnmon table top, topped by Lack table on which I put my laptop, with brackets bolted to two of the Lack table legs to hold the shelf for my ergonomic key board and mouse, we had a glorious sense of accomplishment. For about two minutes. The desk was too high for me. Ergonomically, my arms and hands should be about level with my waist for typing. Adding the Linnmon table top to the desk had made the whole shebang too high for me. Continue reading “Writers, ARISE! Sitting is the New Smoking!”

Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch
The Goldfinch 

I posted earlier on the brilliant, beautiful novel The Goldfinch.  I had to do so in broad swaths, given how dense in character and plot the novel is, just to give you a taste of it. But now I want to go back and drill down on just one passage, to analyze what makes the writing—to me, at least—so marvelous. There are so many paragraphs I could choose, but I was particularly taken with the following description of how Hobie, the furniture restorer who takes in the young, homeless Theo, trains him in the art and craft of fine furniture repair.

As you read the passage, make a mental note of how you respond to it, and what you notice in particular (There will be a test . . .).

Auction houses all over the city called him, as well as private clients; he restored furniture for Sotheby’s, for Christie’s, for Tepper, for Doyle. After school, amidst the drowsy tick of the tall-case clocks, he taught me the pore and luster of different woods, their colors, the ripple and gloss of tiger maple and the frothed grain of burled walnut, their weights in my hand and even their different scents—”sometimes, when you’re not sure what you have, it’s easiest just to take a sniff”—spicy mahogany, dusty-smelling oak, black cherry with its characteristic tang and the flowery, amber-resin smell of rosewood. Saws and counter-sinks, rasps and rifflers, bent blades and spoon blades, braces and mitre-blocks. I learned about veneers and gilding, what a mortise and tenon was, the difference between ebonized wood and true ebony, between Newport and Connecticut and Philadelphia crest rails, how the blocky design and close-cropped top of one Chippendale bureau rendered it inferior to another bracket-foot of the same vintage with its fluted quarter columns and what he liked to call the “exalted” proportions of the drawer ratio.

Okay, Students! How did you respond to this passage? What was the first thing that struck you?  Did you like it, dislike it, love it, indifferent, irritated, what?

I wish we were sitting around a circle and I could hear your answers, which I’m sure will be much more interesting than mine!  And different.  You’ll just have to let me know.

Meanwhile, I’ll give you my take.

The first thing that strikes me is how much Donna Tartt knows about furniture restoration! She’s done her homework, boys and girls. She’s the smartest girl in the class. And it pays off. What authority this passage contains! It absolutely convinces us that the world she’s creating is real, solid, and authentic. We trust that she knows of which she speaks, so we can give ourselves over to the story completely. Surely she researched these esoteric details with someone extraordinarily versed in furniture restoration. Did she takes notes? No doubt. But I’ll wager the best note-taker in the world couldn’t transform mere research into this sterling passage of prose.

Beyond authority, what strikes me the most here is how sensitive and skillful she is in terms of language itself: words, the sounds they make, how they join together into sentences that create rhythm and meaning.  Most of all, her words awaken our senses. Here, words give us the deep pleasure that only our senses can provide. It’s quite a paradox. Most of the time in our so-called real lives, our senses are on pause, slumbering, acclimated to the quotidian. But when we read a passage like this, loaded with extraordinarily precise, sensory detail, our senses wake up and really pay attention, pulling our whole mind into the act. Continue reading “Examining a Passage from The Goldfinch”