I’m in the middle of two books, The Street, by Ann Petry, and Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. Not by design but by happy accident, both novels are set in World War II era New York City and both have female protagonists struggling to live their best lives.
In The Street, Lutie Johnson, is a single black woman, raising her son in Harlem. Lutie’s world is rife with the unrelenting problems of racism, sexism, and classism. Striving to make a better life for herself and her boy, she’s confronted by predatory men, white female employers who refuse to see her as anything but a sexual threat, and few opportunities to move up from the tenement. Scratch the surface and Lutie is full of rage with no #metoo social movement to support her. I fear for her.
Manhattan Beach is also about a woman, Anna, who becomes a diver working on battleship repairs in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During the war women were able to work in the shipyards, but they were never allowed on ships as it would be “too much” for the men to be in such close quarters, and women were certainly not allowed to dive. And yet Anna–who is white–through pluck, perseverance, and the good luck of being born at a time when women’s roles were rapidly evolving by necessity as men were scarce on the homefront, manages to define her own destiny. I’m only halfway through the novels, but I’m reading back and forth with great interest, seeing how the world unfolds for these two smart and driven women, each confronting obstacles. Lutie’s far more insurmountable.
I brought along a stack of Writer’s Chronicle’s to read on the beach. Combing through articles, I found these two particularly smart. In the December 2018 issue, Tony Hoagland (a favorite poet of mine) writes about, “The Poet as Wounded Citizen.” (You must have a subscription to read, sorry.) Which of course we can extrapolate to the wounded writer, yes? We’re miners’ canaries, revealing when the air is sick. Hoagland posits, “Poets are wounded in the same way as everyone else, but with one particular distinction—they are not wounded to the point of speechlessness. Instead, they are wounded into speech.” And, a little further in, “What empowers poetry is the need of the wounded to talk about his or her inconvenient and irritating wound, which is by proxy everyone’s.” Check out Hoagland’s poem, “America.”
The other article that sparked thought for me is from Brenda Miller, a playful writer and teacher. “The Fine Art of Containment in Creative Nonfiction,” in the March/April 2019 issue (again, you need a subscription to read, I’m guessing some of you have one) discusses suspension in crucial moments in CNF, and the use of ‘container scenes.’ That is, the constriction of time, space, and action to create a through line in an essay, to hold together the sections of a braided essay, and to apply temporal pressure, the drive in the reader to keep turning pages. Miller references some beautiful essays to illustrate her point, here and here. Also, read her wonderful personal essay in the form of rejection letters, “We Regret to Inform You.“
I’ve rekindled my pancake love. When my children were small I flipped pancakes several times a week—buttermilk, blueberry, lemon ricotta, chocolate chip, buckwheat—we ate them all the time. By the Gladwellian measure of 10,000 hours, I am a pancake expert. So much so that I don’t even have to toss out the first one (just had to toss out my first novel, wah-wah). I can tell by the smell of the hot butter when to pour a scant ¼ cup of batter into the pan, how long to watch the bubbles rise and pop, then flip with my favorite spatula to reveal a perfect toasty brown underside. The pancake makes a little protest hiss, sinks a smidge with shock, and then pillows up.
When my children went off to college, I begged a friend to lend me his girls so I could make pancakes for them. I mean, come on, pancakes for two? That just seems sad. And then we had multiple snowy mornings this month and I pulled out my spatula to make both sweet and savory pancakes. I’ve made these, these, and these in the past 3 weeks. And, it seems I’ve plugged into the current pancake zeitgeist, because check this out.