Must-Read Novella in the Trump Era

I will always remember the circumstances:  I read Jerzy Kosinski‘s Being There at the Tides Bookstore in Sausalito, CA.   (I am sorry to report that the Tides is closed now. )

Sausalito, CA
Sausalito, CA

This would have been Being There1971, when I was nineteen and living on my own in northern California. I didn’t have the money to purchase the book.  (I was working as a live-in babysitter.)  If I couldn’t walk to my destination,  I hitchhiked.  (Once, in Marin County, I got a lift from none other than Jerry Garcia.)

One Saturday, I hitchhiked to Sausalito  for the express purpose of reading Being There, a 140-page novella that someone must have told me about.

I recall  simply standing at the shelf and turning page after page.  No one objected or complained.  (In those days, bookstores didn’t provide chairs for customers.) When I reached the last page, I returned the book to the shelf and left the store, task completed.

By 1979, when the movie version starring Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine premiered, I was newly married and living in Austin.  Teddy and I were paying customers at the film, a brilliant adaptation of this prescient book.

Being There Film

The protagonist of Being There is Chauncey Gardener, a simpleton who stumbles out of the garden and into the White House.  He can’t read, but he is an avid television viewer.  His vocabulary is limited, and his truisms, culled from television and his work as a gardener, are heard by the public as nuggets of wisdom.

Those who are astonished by the current state of affairs in Washington will find this story illuminating.  Chauncey Gardener is something of an empty vessel, ready to be remade in the image of whoever he meets.   Because he doesn’t have facts or explanations, he simply repeats the few things he’s learned from his work as a gardener: “As long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden.”

Listening to Trump, I often think of Chauncey Gardener.


Teaching the Young the Value of the Past

At the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives, we are working to impart the value and importance of the property we serve, not only to potential donors, University staff and faculty — but also to future generations.Anasi 6

On Friday, SepteAnasi 8mber 8th, 2017, a few days before Lawrence’s September 11th birthday, Ranch caretaker Ricardo Medina welcomed  a group of first and second graders from Anasi Charter School in El Prado, NM.

The children and their teacAnasi 7her, Emily Ross, enjoyed an afternoon of sketching and poetry under the branches of the Lawrence Tree.

Lawrence began his career as a teacher, and though he gave up the classroom to regain his health and to pursue a writing career, he never forgot the importance of teaching.  In the last months of his life, Lawrence mused in letters about returning to the Ranch to “make a bit of a thing with the young.”  Maybe it’s time, he said to not worry so much about his own work and instead put his energies into teaching.

Perhaps Lawrence was thinking along these lines:

For children to understand the significance of a painting like O’Keeffe’s “The Lawrence Tree,” they need to experience the joy of creation.  For children to value a structure that’s stood for hundreds of years, they need to stand in the doorway of a place like the Homesteader’s Cabin.

Anasi 10

On Dreams & Death — D. H. Lawrence & The Taos Summer Writers’ Conference

This summer is the first in nearly twenty that I haven’t devoted to directing a large writers’ conference in northern New Mexico. Nothing lasts forever, neither writers’ conferences nor the writers who attend and inspire them. This one ended for several reasons, but certainly not for lack of interest.

From its first year to its last, the Conference was well attended: in 1999, sixty-five writers made the trip to Taos.  Last year, more than two hundred attended.  On any given year, about a third of the attendees were New Mexico residents.  But the lion’s share came from outside the state, outside the region, and even outside the country.  Writers often made the trip from Australia and New Zealand, but they also traveled from Ireland, Denmark, Spain, Zimbabwe, Canada, and Great Britain.

The muse for the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference was the great British novelist, D. H. Lawrence, who owned only one piece of property in his life, a 160-acre ranch outside of Taos, New Mexico.

Lawrence Milks Susan at the Ranch
Lawrence Milks Susan at the Ranch

Founding and directing that Conference was certainly the high point of my career in the English Department at the University of New Mexico.

This year finds me on the verge of retirement, in Austin, Texas, contemplating my next writing project and reading a fascinating book by David Ellis entitled, How D. H. Lawrence Died and was Remembered. download

The book was published in 2008 by Oxford University Press and it is considerably more engaging than the title might suggest.  Ellis is both compassionate and honest in his assessment of the writer and those who were drawn to his side.

Throughout his life, Lawrence craved the company of fellow writers and artists.  Off and on for maybe twenty years, Lawrence dreamed of an artistic utopia he called Rananim, named for a Hebrew word which means rejoice.  Lawrence dreamed of creating a refuge where artists could create and collaborate, as well as inspire and support one another.  Even in his last months, when he was fighting for breath from a sanatorium in France, Lawrence still longed for his Rananim.

Thus, I am sure he would have approved of and appreciated the Conference, this annual convening of writerly sorts.  Some of the attendees made it a yearly event, and the same was true of the faculty.  They described it as a summer camp of sorts, one with homework and evening cocktails.  Many books were begun at the Conference.  Many were published as a result of lessons learned there. On more than one occasion, attendees returned to the Conference as instructors.

Two  such writers, Summer Wood and Laura Brodie, will be teaching this fall for the Rananim Online Writing Community, a project Eva Lipton and I started to bring more attention and funding to the D. H. Lawrence Ranch.

Laura Brodie
Laura Brodie
Summer Wood
Summer Wood

To learn more about Rananim or to enroll in classes click HERE.


Video for D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives

As Co-Chair for the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives, I am tasked with bringing positive change to the property.  

If you haven’t been to the Ranch, this video is an excellent introduction.  If you have been there, please take a few minutes to learn more about the history of the property.

Like what you see?  Believe in the cause?  Share this video with the world!

My thanks to Robin Rupe of Volti Subito Productions, Eva Lipton, Geraint Smith, and N. Scott Momaday!

Tips for Getting Your Common Application Essay down on Paper

For the past three years, I have served as a mentor in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Mentor 2.0 Program at South Valley Academy in Albuquerque.   The young woman I mentor is now a senior preparing her college applications, and these are the tips I offered to her and her classmates:

Tips for Getting Your Common Application Essay down on Paper

The 2016-2017 Common Application Essay Prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (According to the Common Application Essay Prompts, roughly half of the applicants so far—more than 800,000—have responded to this prompt. Keep reading.  College admissions officers are bound to be sick of reading essays on this topic.)
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (Note that this prompt asks for narrative and reflection—an incident in your life and what you learned from it.)
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (This prompt also invites you to tell a story from your life and explain what you learned.)
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. (Twenty-two percent of applicants responded to this prompt.)

Begin by Brainstorming

  • I recommend that you write in response to  #2 or #3, which invite you to write a narrative (story) and then reflect on the story’s meaning. Most narratives are written in chronological order.  It’s easier to structure a narrative than an expository essay, and readers enjoy a good story.
  • We’ve all failed many times, and we all appreciate hearing about the failures of others, so for the purposes of this exercise, let’s brainstorm on the subject of personal failures. Make a list, or, better yet, create a cluster like so: clustering
  • Come up with at least five instances of failure. Focus on your recent failures because these are the ones that will be of most interest to the college admissions officer whose job it is to read your essay.  Additionally, the specifics of the story will be fresher in your memory.
  • It may help to share ideas with your mentor—and for your mentor to share a story or two with you.
  • Next, take a few minutes to make some notes. How did the situation start? When did it end?  Who else was involved? What did you learn?  Would you do things differently now or not?  If not, why not?  Write it all down.  Don’t begin writing the essay until you’ve taken a good set of notes.
  • If you can do so, ask others who were involved—Mom or Dad, say—to share their thoughts about the situation. Or, try talking through the situation with a friend or your mentor.  Use others as a sounding board to get insight into your story.
  • Now, you are ready to write your essay. Don’t worry about length or correctness in the first draft.
  • Find a half hour and a quiet spot; sit down with your cell phone and activate the timer for 25 minutes. Put your phone away and write your heart out until you hear the buzzer.  Don’t reread; don’t hesitate or cross out; don’t get out of the chair.  You can do it.  Spend the five remaining minutes patting yourself on the back.

Tips for Editing a Draft of Your College Application Essay

If possible, complete your editing and proofreading in several short blocks of time.

  • Give your draft a little breathing room. If at all possible, let it rest for at least a day.
  • Print out a copy and read it out loud, to yourself.   Read slowly. Stop every sentence or two to take notes. Write in the margins.
  • What do you write in the margins? Whatever you left out: details, description, dialogue.  Have you told the whole story?  Are you sure?
  • Have you focused on the most important part of the story? Slow down and share the specifics.
  • Take another twenty-five minutes to revise your essay to include the margin notes and any other additions. Don’t worry about length.  Get the story on the page.  You can cut later.
  • Try to give your second draft a little more breathing room. Even an hour or two will help.
  • When you return to the essay, sit down and pretend you’re the intended reader, the bored college admissions officer. Read it from his or her point of view.   Have you left out information the college admissions officer needs to understand the situation?  Conversely, have you included information that isn’t really relevant or useful?

Tips for Proofreading a Draft of Your College Application Essay

Ask others to read through your essay, checking to make sure

  • each sentence is complete.
  • the punctuation is correct.
  • the dialogue (if there is any) is correctly punctuated.
  • no words are misspelled.
  • your sentences have variety.
  • your essay is broken up into reasonably unified paragraphs.
  • the length is acceptable.

FYI:  The required minimum length for a Common Application Essay is 250 words.  The maximum length is 650 words.

Additional Online Resources



Georgia O’Keeffe and Fear

“I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”
Georgia O’Keeffe

This week, the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center is sponsoring a forum on “Balancing Authenticity, Idealism, and Expectations at a Single-Focus Institutions.”  This three-day event (Sept. 14-16) has drawn a number of museum directors, archivists, and independent scholars.  As well as one English professor and novelist.  That would be me.  I am taking part on behalf of the D. H. Lawrence Ranch Initiatives.

Foreground: The National Landmark Marker Background: Barbara, our wonderful docent.

Like Georgia O’Keeffe, I have often been frightened.  Also like her, I have pushed myself to act in spite of my fear.  Yes,  I was a wee bit scared to attend the forum because, after all,  what do I know about museums?  (Shrug) I’ve wandered through quite a few of them.

Believing in yourself can be difficult, but believing in your cause, in this case the D. H. Lawrence Ranch, well, that’s not hard at all.  The Ranch could be and should be a museum and it could be and should be a residency center for the arts.

(BTW: I don’t believe Georgia O’Keeffe was frightened every moment.  That’s the sort of hyperbole that the Misfit indulged in at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Do you remember the concluding line of the story?  The misfit has just shot the grandmother, and he speaks this line over her body:

“She would have been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

But, as a result of my tour, I do know that Georgia O’Keeffe was certainly frightened during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Would you believe she had a bomb shelter built outside the bedroom of her Abiquiu home?   The docent told us about the bomb shelter, which is built into the side of a hill, as well as all the supplies O’Keeffe ordered to be stored in the shelter.  Once she was prepared for disaster,  she went right on making art.

View from the Ghost Ranch home

Seeing O’Keeffe’s home at Abiquiu is something I’ve dreamed of doing for years, and I am grateful to the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center for the fascinating tour of both the Abiquiu and the Ghost Ranch homes.

Back of the Ghost Ranch home

In recent years, the caretakers for the Abiquiu house have restored the gardens where O’Keeffe grew most of her vegetables and fruit.  History brought to life, quite literally.

While it’s true that Lawrence didn’t raise vegetables at the Ranch, he did have a cow named Susan, and he milked her whenever he could catch her.

In recent years, the Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch homes have been carefully preserved and lovingly tended, but such was not always the case.  It’s up to those of us who care about an artist’s legacy to preserve it.


How Nice Is This?

This morning, I consulted Google images to find a cover shot of my first novel, Deep in the Heart.  One of the images in the display caught my attention:

from the blog, "Our Little Piece of Heaven"
from the blog, “Our Little Piece of Heaven”

When I clicked on the photo, I discovered the blog, “Our Little Piece of Heaven.”

The blogger’s name is Anke, and her posts appear in both German and English.  Here’s what she had to say about Deep in the Heart:  

This hitchhiker scarf will be a present for our neighbor and I’m knitting it with Knit Picks hand painted yarn in the colorway “looking glass”.

My current reading material was picked up at the library sale for 25 cents. “Deep in the heart” by Sharon Oard Warner is a very captivating read and I would highly recommend it!

Author. Teacher. Founder: Taos Summer Writers' Conference.