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May 2024

Write, Memory

By A Spider's Thread

A month ago, I solicited opinions from visitors to this site, asking for ideas on changes and improvements. I promised a galley of By a Spider's Thread to the best idea.

That book is now winging its way to Jayne Ritchie of Australia. (Sending it by boat rate was way too chintzy.) Jayne sent a beautiful e-mail with several terrific ideas. My favorite, however, was the suggestion that this site provide a biography of Tess Monaghan. Done! And thank you, Jayne. Thank you, everyone. In a just world, I would send a galley to all those who responded, but I had only one to spare. (However, a copy will be auctioned as part of a full set of signed first editions at a ticketed fundraiser for the Parks & People Ella Thompson Fund on June. 12th.)

Keith Snyder, a friend and favorite writer, sent an e-mail that I should have saved so I could quote it in its entire, terse brilliance. The upshot was: Write more, write short, write quickly. Hmmmm, that sounded dangerously like a blog, which I am determined to avoid.

However, inspired by Journalscape sites maintained by Keith, S.J. Rozan and Eric Mayer, among others, I started a beta version of what I call the Memory Project. I sent out e-mails and a password to people I trust to tell me when I've lost my way, and most seemed to endorse the idea. At least, no one advised me to turn back.

So here goes. The point of the Memory Project is two-fold. First, it functions as a memory and writing exercise for me. I start with something I do remember -- the cost of a candy bar in my childhood, for example -- and see how many more memories it can summon back.

But the Memory Project is also meant to be the interactive piece of this web site, a place where my frequent correspondents, or not-so-frequent correspondents, can play the same game with their own pasts. Since this website was launched in the fall of 2024, I have received so many beautiful stories -- some about Baltimore, some about childhood. I'd love it if those stories could become part of an ongoing dialogue at the Memory Project. (And I wouldn't mind if this relieved a little of the pressure on my e-mail inbox, which has become formidable in recent months, causing me to be a much less reliable correspondent.)

The Memory Project is a variation of an exercise I have long recommended to my writing students. I tell them to keep a journal in which they observe only the facts of their lives, in the tiniest detail. Focus on the tangible, I tell them -- colors, smell, tastes, weather, empirical facts. I've done this on and off over the years and I have found such journal entries end up evoking emotion more powerfully than those detailing actual moods, which don't seem to change that much.

More than twenty years later, for example, I still remember how optimistic I felt on a March afternoon I sat on my front porch in Waco, Texas, eating a Stoned Wheat Thin and looking at a cloudless blue sky. I had just come home from a rattlesnake round-up, something of a rite of passage for Yankee reporters in Texas. I had driven into the country with a man named Butch. I had promised to keep our locations secret -- he didn't want other people to know his best hunting grounds -- but it occurs to me now that we were southwest of Waco, near the future ranch of the future president of the United States. "We" caught 17 snakes that day. That is, Butch and his friend picked up 17. My contribution was pointing out the snakes I saw as I stood on a rock, in a pair of cowboy boots purchased at a famous Western wear store in Lott, Texas, one of two I was able to get with my birthday gift certificate. That day, I wore what I called my "farmer" pair -- two-toned, brown and white, calf's leather. The other pair was dove gray, with off-white inserts.

My original journal entry doesn't have the boots, but they came back to me just then. And the memory of the boots brings with it memories of Lott and nearby Rosebud, where I bought for $75 the antique dining room table that I own to this day, a piece I refinished in the living room of my Waco duplex. (And it's a wonder I'm here to tell the tale, as I now realize I stripped its old finish quite near an old-fashioned gas space heater.) With my mind back in the duplex on West Twenty-Third Street, I recall its huge bathroom, whose very design is key to the story of the night my cat caught fire -- don't worry, he came out of it just fine -- and my friend/neighbor/co-worker Mary Ann, who was part of that adventure. Which reminds me of Brenda, and our nightly jogs through the trailer park as we prepared for a 10-k, and the mushroom burger at Kim's on Waco Drive, and the barbecue sandwiches at Vitek's. Oh, and the night we when to the home of our assistant city editor, David, and beheld the twin wonders of a machine called a VCR and a channel called MTV.

Which leads to -- but I could go one forever. The point is for you to try this yourself, either at the Memory Project, or in the privacy of your own journal, online or in the truly secure confines of a Roaring Springs composition book, the brand that Tess Monaghan prefers.

I Librarians

A few months ago, a librarian asked me to name my favorite book for National Library Week. I procrastinated (not unusual for me), but the librarian -- politely, gently -- reminded me of her request before the deadline. At the last minute, I finally complied.

This past month, Suzanne Balaban, Wm. Morrow publicist extraordinaire, sent me this link. It marks the first time - and probably the last -- that Jonathan Franzen and I have appeared in the same paragraph.

Now I wish I could thank that librarian by name, but her address was lost to me when I upgraded AOL last month.

Dates of Interest, Maybe

May 6th: Maryland Library Association, Ocean City, Md
May 11th An interview with Julie Smith, Johns Hopkins University
May 14th: Mystery Lovers Bookshop, Oakmont, Pa., with Karin Slaughter.
May 25th, MWA Mid-Atlantic chapter meeting, guest speaker.
June 4th-6th, BEA in Chicago.
June 29th: Official publication date of By a Spider's Thread

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