by Wendy Burden, April 1, 2011 1:05 PM
April Fool's Day is sort of fun, until you have children. Then it becomes a day when you don't answer the phone. Ring... ring... Hello? Mom! Mom! I broke my leg! I'm pregnant! I got pulled over with an open half-gallon of Jack Daniels and a smoky bong! I quit college and I'm moving back in with you!
In my family, one tends to believe statements like these.
However, April 1 is special to me because a year ago today, my memoir Dead End Gene Pool was published. Enough promotion; the timing of guest-anything is fairly obvious, and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity this week to do the dog and pony show through the courtesy of Powell's, which, by the way, has been far more enjoyable than I imagined — and WAY more work! (Are you supposed to do 12 rewrites on a blog entry?) So, enough about my book and my writing; I'm so tired of me I could melt, and I'm sure many others are, too. I want to blog about flying. No, not metaphorically: the physical flying of airplanes.
I was always a white-knuckle flier. Seriously, how many people do you know who have attended Fear of Flying School? Well, I did, though I cheated on the final exam, a round-trip flight from La Guardia to Logan, by taking 10 milligrams of Valium on the outbound and taking the train back. It was snowing, for God's sake.
Twenty years later I fell in love with a pilot. This is what unparalleled love is about: faith. Despite my Goliath-sized phobia, when I flew with him, commercially or in this bucket of bolts Cessna, I felt safe. Neurosis is different from phobia, however, so I decided to take one flying lesson — one — so that if my husband had a heart attack at the yoke, I could save the day and land the plane.
First of all, I can't believe I thought a single hour and a half of instruction would teach me how to land a plane, and survive. More perplexing is the idea that I would be able to stop after one lesson.
Sitting in the left seat and taking over the controls was like tasting snow for the first time. And when you finally solo — well, it's better than the best sex you've ever had, or will even go on to have. The flight instructors know this, because they always take a picture of their students after the first solo.
Do I look satiated or what.
When I passed my private pilot exam, my husband, prouder than a prize tomato, presented me with a martini shaker inscribed with the laudatory title: Aviatrix.
The irony is that my grandfather, who was an aviation consultant to the government all of his life, and responsible for talking Nixon into funding the National Air and Space Museum, couldn't get any of his progeny to take up flying. What's left of him must have been vaporizing in his casket, pissed as hell that it wasn't one of my brothers waving a martini in one hand and a government-sanctioned "okay to fly" in the other. Nasty old misogynist that he was, I toasted him anyway. Genes and all that.
More awful, awful irony: after my husband and his sons were killed in a plane crash, I didn't fly planes for a very long time. It wasn't because I thought the same would happen to me; I couldn't do it to my own children, especially after the nightmare they'd gone through losing their new family. Last summer, dreading their reaction, I admitted to my daughters that I'd started flying again. Instead of wailing in protest, they were like, "Great! What took you so long?"
Flying exposes you to such unexpected things, from the mystery of clouds, to the functional morphology of birds. On a more fundamental level, it challenges me, personally, to examine my fears and to conquer them. Plus, most of the time it's still more fun than sex.
by Wendy Burden, March 31, 2011 11:30 AM
Last night I dreamt I was convicted of mass murder (from igniting an oil refinery — totally not my fault) and thrown into prison. At first the officials were polite, but then there followed a rapid decline in manners as they handcuffed me, and forced me into prison garb. I fleetingly perceived the latter to be a sort of Joan of Arc outfit, white with a rope belt, but in retrospect it was more of a retro madhouse number. Still, they let me keep my diamond stud earrings on, which, WASP that I am, made me foolishly think everything was going to be alright. Enter the prison warden, a Colonel Klebb doppelganger who proceeded to hack off my hair, and then plunge a massive hypo full of truth serum in my jugular, SPECTRE style. I took this all in dream stride; I was even sort of relieved they cut my hair because honestly, at my age I’m kind of pushing it wearing it so Marianne Faithful long. And the truth serum made me woozy, but I knew I was still going to lie to the authorities about blowing up the refinery, because I was only doing research.
Only a painter or a writer would use that line.
Accordingly, the lifeline cogitation that permeated the dream was that because I was a writer they were going to have to be nice to me, otherwise I would write terrible things about them.
I’m asked all the time what my mother, who has been dead for twelve years, and who features heavily in Dead End Gene Pool, and not always in a flattering way, would have thought about her starring role. There’s a reason I wrote it after she was dead. After a public show of being horrified, I know she would have been beside herself over the notoriety. People love being written about. Really, they thrill to see their names in the printed word, even if the text that follows goes on to describe their scurrilous behavior.
Actually, my mother is a fan of Dead End Gene Pool. It says so on her Facebook page. It makes me scratch my head so hard, I even wrote a piece about it called "Dead Mom Talks Through Facebook."
So I’m working on my next book now — another memoir, because according to my agent, who is supremely wise, if your first book was a memoir, then your second one has to be a memoir as well, only it cannot be a sequel to the first one because if someone didn’t like the first one they sure as hell aren’t going to buy the second one. It’s called Machinery of Love and Death, and it’s based here in Portland, which seems to have a few people squirming; mostly my in laws. My mother in law, who never used to care much that I painted, not always being fond of the subject matter is now practically ready to open a gallery for me.
"Wendy, dear, you’re such a nice painter; I don’t understand why you don’t pursue it fulltime and give up this writing thing."
I tell her the same thing every time she says that: listen, the book is not about YOU, it’s about Portland, and you are in it a little, but honestly, if anyone reads it at all — hey, if it even gets published — you’ll be ninety-nine and no one will care. YOU won’t care! You’ll be in a crib, with hot and cold running nurses in attendance, watching the Catholic Channel.
I adore my mother-in-law because at 87 she still has a massively healthy ego, as well as a ruthlessly sharp brain, and she knows how to work me over with both of them. Her son, my dead husband, has a starring role in the next book. Pied Piper flaneur that he was, he is going to love, love, love it.
And the apple rarely falls far from the tree, especially here in the
by Wendy Burden, March 30, 2011 12:43 PM
There seem to be as many books about the writing process as there are memoirs. When I started writing I read a couple: Annie Lamott's Bird by Bird
, Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead
— not that I could relate to them at that point. What works for those authors, or what worked for Dickens
(writing while standing as if) doesn't necessarily work for me.
I mostly write at public libraries. The New York City main branch on 42nd and Fifth, the Community Library in Ketchum, Idaho; it doesn't matter where. The bulk of my first book was written at the library in Lake Oswego, near where I live in Portland. I'm working on my second book there, now. Little known fact: LO is Oregon's top-ranked library, probably due to the fact that it has the largest lending DVD collection. It also has the highest volume of screaming children, but noise-cancelling headphones playing a Mahler loop help enormously. There are a bunch of writers who use the second-floor reference section as their offices. I've never said a word to any of them, but we know each other's favorite desks and respectfully adhere to that. Librarians are sages in my opinion; and if they don't know where to find something online or in the library, they will procure it for you come hell or high water. Even if it's something of an overtly questionable nature, like the three issues of Video X I art directed in the late seventies and needed for reference in a story I was writing about working in the porn industry. That sweet little old librarian didn't bat an eye.
The other place I write is in my car while I'm driving. Oh stop; it's not like I'm typing on a keyboard, I have a big pad of paper in my lap and I write as I drive WITHOUT LOOKING. Scared you. I write without looking at the paper, not the road. I won't tell you what kind of a car I drive because you will report me, but as far as I know it's not illegal. I do my best writing this way. Other than when I'm blackout drunk. (I'm lying about the last part one glass of wine and I'm brilliant. But only for half an hour.)
My work routine starts with a triple Americano to go from Peet's, and then I hit the library just as the doors open at 10:00. After screwing around on the internet for an hour, checking favorite sites like the Sartorialist, or looking at The Daily Squee (link NOT provided, too embarrassing), I get down to work and stay at it until about four. On my way home, I stop at Tryon Creek, which is one of the loveliest of the Portland parks, and go for a run. Tryon has the verdancy of a Mesozoic forest; it's all ferns and sculptural stumps and primordial firs patterned with the curlicued branches of mossy, half-dead cedars. If you close your eyes you can practically smell the dinosaurs.
I usually run on the North Horse Loop and rehash the day's writing, stopping every hundred yards or so to scribble on index cards so I don't forget things, most of which are forgettable. I am not unaware that I look like an idiot doing this; I can read it on the expressions of the other runners, who collide with me and recoil like they think I've been sniffing my Sharpie or something. Maybe the Sharpie does have something to do with it, because I definitely get my best ideas out running.
Along with a lot of runners, Tryon also has a lot of Trillium Trillium ovatum, to be specific, which is a moderately attractive flower native to the Northwest. Right now it's Trillium season. People here take their Trillium very seriously. So seriously, that on every vertical man-made surface in the park there are signs that tell you in no uncertain terms to NOT TOUCH THE TRILLIUM.
I thought the woman who came upon me on the trail while I was taking that photo yesterday was going to stone me. I told her I was just staging a photograph, and that I was a writer and it was part of this blog I was doing about my writing process... But she would have none of that. Reaching for her cell phone she hissed, "And would you pretend to strangle a baby for... for... whatever you called that kind of story you're
by Wendy Burden, March 29, 2011 12:13 PM
When the manuscript for my book was doing time in slush piles, an editor suggested I read some other memoirs. Actually, she said "autobiographies," because that was what editors still called them way back then five years ago, especially if they had published successful ones.
I was so clueless it didn't dawn on me that she hadn't the slightest intention of publishing my stuff, and I let my manuscript languish there for a couple of years ? YEARS ? while I honed it to her annual suggestions. (Note to self: a "friend" in the publishing world is probably not worth much unless you can have sex with them; then, the opportunities broaden accordingly.)
But said editor had her stature for a reason. She asked me if I'd ever read My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell. Uh, yeah, I said, only about a hundred times. Because once I was done with my adolescent Addams Family obsession, I shone my love light on the animal kingdom. At 14 I could rattle off all the members of the subfamily Lorinae.
Gerald Durrell was hugely popular in England, where I lived as a teenager. His books sold like crazy, and everyone loved his BBC specials. I paid homage by attempting to pattern my career after his, installing a small bestiary of animals in the bathroom and working summers at the Chessington Zoo as a junior keeper. Enthusiastically inspired by Durrell's fieldwork, I had an image of myself (humanely) bagging (live) specimens in the jungles of Mauritius and New Guinea. I drew animals constantly, from life or from the library of photography books my mother, a sculptor, kept in her studio. In adulthood, I even covered the walls of my kitchen with a Smithsonian-like creation of the animal world.
Anyone who has read my own family memoir, Dead End Gene Pool, will recall my desire to replace my immediate family with that of Charles Addams's; however, when the hormones kicked in, I had to leave Wednesday behind, she not able to develop even an inkling of breast buds, and I switched my familial fantasy to that of the Durrell family. (Affable mother, zero Nazi stepfathers.) When I was 15, I made my mother take me to Durrell's zoo on the island of Jersey. (Okay, "made" is perhaps the wrong word; my mother, far more at ease in the company non-humans, was only too happy to go canoodle with primates and reptiles in the Channel Islands, despite the lack of a tan-bestowing sun.)
I even got to meet Durrell, though it wasn't exactly planned. As we were trawling the main thoroughfare of the zoo, zigzagging between the outside enclosures, there was a commotion, and suddenly a large spotted cat, as in jaguar or cheetah, I can't remember, came streaking towards us. I wasn't concerned; I mean, we were in an alternative zoo after all. But other visitors were screaming like the animal had a fork and knife in its paws. They should be so lucky; it was a gorgeous, gorgeous thing. Behind it ran keepers and whatnot, plus Durrell himself, who apologized once the cat had been sequestered. I was starstruck. He may have been old, but to me he was completely cool ? wonderfully erudite and boozy looking, just the way a world famous naturalist and writer should look.
A year ago, an older friend who knows my love for the natural world suggested I read David McCullough's book of portraits, Brave Companions. In particular, the profile of the extraordinary naturalist, Miriam Rothschild, a brilliant, to-the-manor-born woman who began breeding ladybugs at the age of four and went on to achieve the highest honor in British science ? without any sort of academic degree.
As a rule, I don't read memoirs. I don't want to be influenced, and I'm insecure enough as a writer without having to wince from the word-beauty of authors like Karr or Walls. Life is sad and hard enough off the written page. So, unless you are going to be funny and candidly enlightening about your bulimia, I'd rather read science. Science makes sense. When a naturalist writes about their life, it resonates with me like church bells to a
by Wendy Burden, March 28, 2011 12:24 PM
Up front guilty admission: I have a blog on my website
that I never blog on.
That being said, I am seriously bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about being this week's guest blogger for Powell's. It's a new day. And short of a natural disaster, so horrifically rife these days, and oft on the minds of we inhabitants of seismically active Portland, I will be regaling whomsoever cares to be regaled for the next five days. With pictures, too.
A few weeks ago, the paperback edition of my memoir, Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir, came out. (New and improved! Also with pictures!). For the vast majority of the world that has not read it, it's a somewhat irreverent account of my inbred, overfunded, and perpetually thirsty family. And, in a virtual repeat of last year's thrill at the publication of the hardcover, I'm an unlovely mottled blue from pinching myself.
The basis of my continuing disbelief stems from the fact that I was not trained as a writer, rather as a painter, and a chef. In fact, Dead End Gene Pool started its life as a cookbook.
In 1994 I moved from Greenwich Village to Portland, Oregon. Reason: a man, of course. I set up my painting studio in the North Coast Seed building down by the railroad tracks along the Willamette River and had every intention of becoming the next John James Audubon. However, I hadn't factored in potential environmental constraints on my well-being and productivity... like the shitty weather or the ex-wife from Hell, and my creativity curdled like cream strafed with lemon juice.
I was beyond miserable. And homesick.
Right up with all the things I missed about New York was the limitless food scene, Portland at the time not being quite up to the hyper speed it is today. I also mourned the restaurant I had given up — the chaos and urgency, and the unique satiation you get from feeding people you don't have to dine with. To combat my self-pity, I decided to write a cookbook based on my bistro and launched into researching and calibrating the recipes I had used, many of which had been culled from the abundant files left over from French chefs employed by my family for generations.
Research begets research. Which leads to many forks in the road, and, in my case, much anecdotal revision. Which was sadly abetted by the dropping like flies of my family Back East. Within the first two years of my transplantation to Portland, it was like a plague had set in. The scion of the family, my cousin, died abruptly first. Then, it was my grandmother — and the end of an era. Then it was my mother.
On the adopted home front, funerals became equally frequent. My husband's father succumbed, rather magnificently, to heart disease; but then, in turn, so did my husband's two closest friends — for sadder, darker reasons.
Over the two year course of these tragedies, my "cookbook" continued to build upon its mounting narrative trajectory, the title changing from Butter, Cream, Red Meat and Alcohol, to Dead End Gene Pool, the food diminishing in importance and my wacko family's history and eccentricities and misdoings taking precedence.
Then my husband and his three sons died in a plane crash on the Columbia River. Enough said. I didn't write anything for a couple of years. When I picked up the verbal threads again, I started laying down a full-blown memoir.
Dead End Gene Pool took 10 years to write. The book ended up being an expansion of the first third of my original manuscript, and, honestly, the reason it took me a decade to do it is, aside from having to live through all the real time stuff that was happening, and process it, and exhaustively and exhaustingly research all that earlier Vanderbilt and Twombly and Burden family history, well, as idiotic as it sounds, I had to teach myself how to write.
William Zinsser is GOD, and On Writing Well is the Bible.
by Wendy Burden, April 5, 2010 11:16 PM
When a writer is born into a family, you can forget family.
This is the line I got from literary-minded friends when they learned I'd written a memoir about my overfunded, over-served, morally and financially declining, hugely dysfunctional, and dipsomaniacal family. When the same friends asked if I cared what my family thought of me, I answered, of course. But then I wasn't anticipating any negative reaction to my book — mostly because the central characters in Dead End Gene Pool were all safely tucked away, six feet under. And I was naïve.
Shortly after my manuscript was sold, I came across an article by the memoirist Sean Wisley in which he related how he dealt with the people he wrote about. I thought the title of the piece, "Publish, Then Flee," was hilarious — until the advance copies of my own book came out. Then I was scouring his words for advice on what to do when flight is not an option and there's a silent lynch mob, with your DNA, lighting torches and gathering in the dark.
The irony is that I never set out to write a memoir in the first place. I am not a reader of them, so I did not hear the clarion call. Actually, I was writing a cookbook.
A little background: In a past life I was chef/owner of a seasonal French bistro on an island in Maine, where the average income of the summer residents is somewhere between a hundred billion and a hundred trillion dollars. My restaurant was there for a reason. I may have initially been clueless, but one thing I knew was that even the kitchen staff of the wealthy get a night off a week, and you can eat lobster just so many times a summer.
We'll skip the details as to why, but in the mid-90s I, a die-hard New Yorker of the first degree, moved to Portland, Oregon, to marry the love of my life, a man with a silly name, a faltering string of Mexican restaurants, four children, and the proverbial ex-wife from You-Know-Where. Cheever's suburbia would have been a better fit for me. I sought refuge from the strain of carpools, endemic sports, and lack of take-out Chinese, in a painting studio down by the train tracks on an industrial stretch along the Willamette River. I set up the easel I'd used since art school, along with all my oil paints and brushes, and set about writing a cookbook.
It's a given that writing projects rarely go as planned. Seemingly overnight, my family back East started dropping like flies in a hard frost: first my grandmother, then my cousin, then my mother; they all bought the farm. Then, horrifically, the grim reaper headed north-northwest, and orchestrated the deaths of my husband and three of his children in an airplane crash. When I took up writing again, I was not at the controls and the cookbook turned into an I-need-to-make-sense-of-my-life memoir.
Now, after a 10-year pregnancy, the baby is finally about to be born. And it's a lucky thing I live out here in Portland and that there's a whole lot of country between me and my blood relatives. Most of them knew I was writing a book — after all, I'd only been doing it forever — and it was no secret that it was about our family, nor that I am not exactly an historian, more a ranteuse, so I dumbly assumed everyone was up to the task of being my subjects or they would have said something. In good faith, I even tried interviewing a few kin still aboveground on my side of the tree, but they were either too skittish or too steeped in alcohol or other worldly conditions (including actual other worlds) to offer much.
There was really only one person whose reaction I dreaded, and that was my mother's best friend Greta, whom she'd known practically since childhood. I fretted over this gentle woman's reaction to my less than flattering depiction because she seemed blind to my mother's glaring character defects — and in my book I pretty much force my mother to stand trial. (And although she's not proven guilty, she's sure as shit not innocent.) A couple of times a year, ever since my mother died, Greta sends me a memorial souvenir — a poem my mother once wrote in a moment of accidental sensitivity, a photograph of her in her teens, another of her jumping her favorite horse bareback — and I wince in a combination of guilt, physical pain, and regret for the sides of her I didn't see or managed to ignore.
When I did finally screw up the courage to write to Greta and explain to her the nature of the beast, instead of stoning me, she wrote back that she knew her friend was "brutal" to her children, and that she was incredibly proud of what I had done. I was, and remain, undone by her kindness.
Early on, my publisher's legal counsel had advised me that a shouldering of arms amongst family members immortalized by one's personal narrative is not uncommon following the publication of advance copies. However, we Burdens (except for me of course) are nothing if not discreet. So hardly a direct peep did I hear, despite familial upheaval akin to the shifting of tectonic plates, except for the one from my younger brother, Edward. And he was pissed. As he should have been; his name is practically in lights in the last quarter of the book. In spite of my being an atheist and Edward a confirmed straddler of more than one universe, he and I are very similar — so it wounded me more deeply than I let on that I had wounded him so deeply. After a flurry of over-excited and unrepeatable transmissions, there has for months been a stony incommunicado silence.
But here's the deal: if my book were a novel, maybe I'd have exhibited more sympathy; but it's not, it's a memoir, and neither sympathy nor objectivity is the point. And like I said, I'm not a memoir buff, but if I'd had the sense to read some, I might have heeded those famous second thoughts of Dave Eggers, or added corrective chapters à la Mary McCarthy. But I didn't. So instead, I repeat my new mantra of I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry. Even though I'm not.
Perhaps you find it as anachronistic as I do that generations of gently bred WASPs are still homeschooled to believe one's name appears in the papers three times only: at birth, marriage, and death. With the exception of ambassadorial postings or the donation of a museum building, that's basically it.
And as upper middle class endeavors go, it's also a little iffy to write, not to mention sell, an autobiography. (Note the word.) Far better to self-publish your life story and public achievements and distribute the project amongst friends and business associates. Better yet, wait until you are dead and have your spouse create and share a beautifully printed, exquisitely bound tribute, including the eulogy from your funeral, tasteful condolence letters, a flattering chronology of your life and deeds, and a photograph of you from a younger day.
So imagine the horror when the phone rings and it's the New York Times calling to do a little fact checking about a feature they plan to run on your sister and her memoir, and is it true you believe you've come back as your reincarnated father, and would you like to comment on whether you stole your mother's hospice morphine patches and wore one on each arm?
I'm sorry... I'm sorry... I'm sorry. (But it is kind of