Review: Dancing on the Head of a Pen

I love to learn about the craft of writing from other writers. A well-written story can seem like a bit of alchemy at times, a true mystery– how do these words come together to evoke these feelings? Seeing a writer break down his chosen method inspires confidence, the feeling that “yeah, I can totally do this,” without any accompanying delusions that it’ll be easy. In fact, no good writer would ever say that writing is easy and that is a relief to me. 


I am slowly but surely building a collection of books about writing by writers. Though I’ve never read anything by Robert Benson, I felt drawn to this book, which describes the craft of writing in small snapshots, theme by theme. In the same way that good writing emerges over time, the advice in this book unfolds one by one, each building on the one before it. 
I found it very useful in thinking about creating the conditions in our lives that compel us to make time to write. Though I have an ebook copy, I will buy a hard copy, to annotate and  to place on my bookshelf alongside my other About Writing books. 

{I received a copy of this book for free, for review purposes. This post contains affiliate links. }

This is The Story of a Happy Marriage (or How a Book Club Was Born).

Way back in May, which seems like forever ago now, back when the kids were still in school, back when days were warm and nights were cool, you get my drift… Way back in May, I was in the library with my friend Rachel and our kids. I spied a book on a bookcase across the room and decided I wanted to read it. I’d heard of the book before, and I was definitely judging this book by its cover, knowing nothing about it. I decided on the spot to have a summer book club for us moms who were staring down a long summer with the kids in town. That evening, I sent out an email to a group of friends who I thought would be down with a book club and who would be in town most of the summer.  Every single lady said yes, god bless ’em. This book club would be on!

The book: This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. I had no idea what the book was about but I trusted my instincts. It turned out to be a collection of personal essays, wonderful personal essays, maybe the best I’ve ever read. Before the book was even done, I knew I’d re-read it. I did have some pangs of worry though because these personal essays were also essays about writing, and I wasn’t sure if the ladies in my group would be down that. I guess I had thought the essays would be about marriage and parenting and being a woman, and all that good stuff. First of all, Patchett has no children so there are no essays about motherhood, though she does write about her consternation towards people who assume that she is using her dog as sublimation for a baby.

Being a childless woman of childbearing age, I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador retriever and says. “Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog? Now there’s a guy who wants to have a son.” A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a pal. But give a dog to a woman and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, “You just wait.” For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor when calling to her do I say, “Come to Mama.” 

Her derision and annoyance come through so well, and with humor, too. I fell in love with this voice throughout the book. Each and every essay was a pleasure to read, and as someone who is still trying to master the art of the personal essay, the lessons were bountiful. In fact, if I were still teaching, these essays would form the cornerstone of a curriculum on the personal essay (along with the other master,  Philip Lopate, of course.)

Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama We must get all of them out of system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath. 

Besides the wonderful, writerly advice, Patchett’s essays give us an glimpse into worlds we don’t see, sometimes risking an unpopular viewpoint. In The Wall, Patchett writes about trying out for the Los Angeles Police Academy, in the aftermath of the Rodney King riots. Patchett’s father was a captain in the LAPD, and retired before the riots. Her experience with the officers of the LAPD stands in stark contrast with the media portrayal of the force following the beating of Rodney King, his trial and the riots. In this essay, she strives to put a face on an oft-villanized group. While she does not attempt to excuse or apologize for the officers that beat Rodney King, she does want to reclaim her hard-working father’s honor and who can fault a daughter for that?

I am proud of my father. I am proud of his life’s work. For a brief time I saw how difficult it would be to be a police officer in the city of Los Angeles, how easy it would be to fail at the job, as so many have failed. My father succeeded. He served his city well. I wanted to make a note of that.  

One of my favorite essays in the collection comes at the end. The Mercies is a story about the nuns that taught Patchett as a child. First of all, as a non-Catholic, I was fascinated by this personal peek into the lives of nuns! I was also thoroughly heartwarmed by the evolving nature of the lifelong relationship between teacher and student.  I am still close with a few of my own students (a student I had as a freshman just finished grad school! Holy heck…) and I felt the story deeply, knowingly, appreciatively. And it is in this story that Patchett reveals a surprising secret that she only alludes to in an earlier essay. But I’m not going to tell you. Sorry! No spoilers here…

I also want to add that I finished this book in under a week. That’s rare these days, and I attribute that to the fact that I read it while on a week-long camping trip in Maine. With no house to clean or laundry to fold, and no social media distraction, there was not much left to do but read, which was my intention, of course, when I decided to leave my phone, dead, in the car for most of the week.  (Let’s not discuss the fact that I really should just try harder to resist the temptation, regardless of the state of my phone or the location of my various devices. Thanks.)

Out of respect for Patchett, I am not including my Amazon affiliate link here. I bought my copy at my local independent bookseller and I urge you to do the same. Full disclosure: Though I have an Amazon affiliate account, I do usually buy my books at my local bookstore. Now you know my dirty secret. 

Slice of Life #4

I call my sister’s house the abyss. Lovingly, of course! Alternatively, it’s a time warp. I don’t know why or how but I seem to lose all sense of time when I’m at Kate’s house. I walk in the door at 9:30 and before I know it, it’s past dinner time and I’m hollering at my kids to find their shoes and to please pee, for god’s sake, before we get in the car and I’m joining a long line of cars in rush hour traffic, which in theory, I should be able to avoid, by a long shot.
It happened again today! I got sucked into a project that I’m working on with Kate. I picked her up before ten so we could do a Community Plates run together. We came back to her house to work on the project, and she ended making me lunch. And there I was, leaving Micah with her so I could run and pick up Stella from school. And of course, Stella wanted to play with her cousin, Laila and I was still working on this thing with Kate. Then, I finally became determined to leave when it was time to go meet Alice’s bus. I got the kids all ready to go. Shoes, coats, everything. About to walk out the door. Nope. Not happening. Somehow, I ended up leaving both kids to go meet Alice’s bus and bring her back to Kate’s house. Before I knew it, Kate was making all the kids dinner while I bounced a drooly baby gnawing on my thumb and tried to figure out how to lift a text off a background (tear-my-hair-out-frustrating, okay, seriously!). And I still haven’t figured it out. (I don’t want to talk about it anymore, okay?)
I always like to be home before Henry so I can do a little housekeeping and get dinner ready, so I can at least PRETEND I got something done during all those hours he’s been gone… because, I admit it, I don’t want Henry coming home to a messy, chaotic scene though he often does and I totally blame Kate. I do.  I’m easily plied with coffee and lunch. I’m a total sucker. That’s totally on me. But it’s still Kate’s fault.

(Do you hear me, Kate? Are you reading this?!…. Coffee tomorrow?)

But on a more serious note, I’m doing kind of a sucky job with my word of the year, FOCUS. I’ve been collecting inspirational quotes and things to a board on Pinterest but I clearly need to pin it to my brain because it ain’t sticking…

Follow Nancy Cavillones’s board Focus (Word of the Year) on Pinterest.

Slice of Life #1

{I used to write these Slice of Life posts way back in the day when Two Writing Teachers first started it but then I stopped teaching and sort of dropped out of everything teacher-related. But since I’ve recommitted myself to a regular writing practice as one of my goals for 2014, I’m coming back to an oldie but a goodie. }

I vowed to replace my driver’s license after two years of putting it off. I put it on the calendar: “Tuesday, January 7, 2014 – Go to DMV.” I threw the completed application in my bag last night. This morning, Stella, Micah and I headed out into the freezing cold — 6 degrees, to be exact, to the car that had been warming up for thirty minutes. Still couldn’t get the passenger side doors open, so I opened the hatch and ushered Stella in before climbing in with Micah and plopping him into his seat, reaching over the seat back to buckle him in. I twisted myself sideways to get Stella strapped into her car seat and clambered out backwards, and awkwardly so. It was so sunny and I remember thinking, how deceptive. My car is nice and warm, and the sun is shining. You’d never guess that it was 20 below out there, with the windchill.

I dropped Micah off with my sister on my way to Stella’s school. I’d offered to bring a classmate inside with Stella so his mom could wait in the car with her younger son, so I walked them both inside, said my goodbyes and dashed back to the car. As I sat in the lot, waiting for a car behind to back out, it dawned on me that I’d forgotten another form of ID and proof of residency. Crap! I texted my sister to tell her that I was coming to hang out with her instead but she told me to just go home and get the stuff. I really did want to get this over and done with! So, I went all the way back home, a twenty minute drive, grabbed the passport and my lease, then drove back in the direction I’d come from, a thirty minute drive, since it was well past the school.

I walked inside the DMV, confident I was prepared–my application was filled out, I had two forms of ID, I had proof of address. Let’s get this done! I got my number, waited my turn and approached the window. Everything was going well until the clerk realized that my passport had my maiden name on it. I literally felt my face fall as I realized that this was going to be a no-go. I needed my marriage certificate and my social security card! Ugh. Why had I not thought of that? The clerk, the very nice and sympathetic clerk, told me to come straight back to her window if I came back the same day.
I really wanted to give up! It was freezing out, I wanted to be cozied up in my sister’s house drinking coffee and playing with my niece while Stella was at school.

But I decided I was determined to get this done. I drove ALLLLL the way back home, grabbed the folder that contained all our important documents like social security cards, marriage certificate and birth certificates while trying not to beat myself up for being such a dumbass.

After checking in with my sister to see if Micah was still sleeping, I went back to the DMV, reported again to the same window and got the ball rolling. Everything was in order this time! I paid one fee, waited for my eye test, took the test, waited some more, paid another fee, had my picture taken, waited some more and finally walked out with my driver’s license–nearly THREE HOURS after I’d started. Gah. To top it all off, my annoyance is quite apparent in my picture, which looks like a mugshot!

But never mind. It’s done. A resolution to check off my list!

Learning from Reading

Do you ever read something and say to yourself, “Shit. That’s what I was trying to say”? Remember my last blog post, which I wrote for From Left to Write, about The Expats? If you recall, I wrote:

A recurring theme in this season of my life, the season of small children and endless keeping of the home, is the lamentation that my life was once more than doling out snacks and wiping snotty noses.

And now check out this passage that I copied into my notebook, taken from Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman:

Most of the women I know feel an underlying and corrosive sense of disappointment and anxiety. The women I know are, on some level, unfulfilled. And the women I know spend a lot of time, trying to avoid wondering whether the sacrifice was worth it. (p 13)

I am taking a writing class, and with some encouragement from the teacher, I am reworking an essay that I wrote about my deafness and my marriage, spun off from an earlier essay that I wrote about being a deaf mother.  There are a lot of kinks I’m trying to work out in the essay but one of them is a section about how no matter how independent I was before I got married, I’ve become increasingly reliant on my husband for a lot of things, post-wedding day. Turns out I’m not the only one that has noticed this. Check out another passage from the same book:

When I was single and lived alone, I was perfectly capable of getting the ladder out and changing bulbs on my own. So what is it about marriage that has made me so dependent, and why, even witnessing the warning of Ariel’s example, do I continue to allow myself to behave like some helpless 1950s sitcom wife? (p 82)

Boom.  Right there. Now, I need to figure out what to do with that. And I need to read more. Get out of my bubble and widen my frame of reference. I’ve always resisted reading parenting books and books about relationships but I realize that they are not all created equal. Reading Bruno Bettleheim, for example, has been helpful in helping to articulate the ideas behind the kind of parent that I want to be, and thinking more about the psychology behind raising children. Like this, for example:

Striving thus to comprehend one’s own behavior and of one’s child around a well-known and now also well-understood situation leads to parental behavior which most benefits parent and child. In fact, it such self-exploration which often provides the best clues for understanding and helping one’s child. 

When I think about how my deafness affects my parenting, this is what I think about– how reflecting on my own behavior is even more important in my case because I do things of which I’m not even aware but of which my children feel the effect.

Okay, time to stop expositing. I just can’t help myself… you can take me out of school, but you can’t take the school out of me. Even if no one reads this blog, writing for an (imaginary) audience is incredibly useful in my attempts to work out my ideas. But of course, the comments down there are open, should you care to weigh in…

A Finisher.

Heather and I, post-race and pre-pancakes

Saturday night, before the Danskin Triathlon out in Sandy Hook, was a veritable carb-fest at my friend Heather’s house. I shoved penne down, in between bites of chicken francaise. All week, I’d been scheming ways to avoid this tri while saving face. I was tired and not feeling it, plus I wasn’t training as hard as I could. I thought I’d “accidentally” leave my tri suit behind or some other important item for the race. Or maybe it would get rained out. Maybe I’d get sick! Maybe Heather would get sick! Still, I remembered to pack everything I needed. I took the train down to Yonkers, with the bike. Heather picked me up. We settled in for a rainy evening at her house.
After dinner, we both headed up to bed. I tried to watch TV. I couldn’t get sleepy. Finally, I took a book out. That would do the trick. I finally got drowsy enough to turn out the light and close my eyes, super conscious of the fact that Heather promised me to wake me up at 4:30 in the morning.
At 3am, I woke up, unbearably hot. I turned the fan and unable to fall back asleep, I made the mistake of looking at my phone. I did my usual check-up of the social networks, predictably dead at that hour. I finally put my phone down and dozed back to sleep. I found myself in a very vivid dream in which Heather came to wake me up, so I got up and attempted to make the bed, only to fall back asleep. I awoke with a start, realizing that it might not have been a dream! I looked at my phone and saw that it was 4:30. I wondered if Heather really had woken me or not. I stumbled around, getting my tri suit ready, brushing my teeth, getting dressed. I put my sneakers on the floor, willing myself to leave them behind. I even shoved them up under the bed, out of sight but unfortunately, not out of mind.
I made the bed, packed my bag and with a sigh, reached under the bed to pull out my sneakers. How lame would it be to tell people that I didn’t do the tri because I forgot my sneakers? Very lame.
I met Heather in the kitchen, where we ate a light snack, filled our water bottles and headed out into the chilly pre-dawn to load our bikes onto the car. I had some choice words, regarding the early hour as we got into the car but I won’t repeat them here (thought my Facebook friends know just what I said!).
The closer we got to Sandy Hook, the more glad I was that I didn’t bail, on the tri or on Heather. I’m not the fastest at anything but I’m a dogged finisher. (Just ask my dad…) It was a beautiful almost-Fall day. The water was perfect, temperature-wise but a little rough. Those waves helped propel me along, though! The bike course follows the shoreline, a great view while zipping along the course. I challenged myself to pick up speed and pass a few people, to my (inner) satisfaction. Getting off the bike, my strategy for the run was to go for a negative split–run the first part of the course at a slow, easy pace, saving my energy for a faster pace during the last part of the 5K. I picked up speed as I approached the finish, sprinting the last few yards and high-fiving the peppy clown that awaited me across the line, where Heather, having finished earlier,  greeted me with a hug.
It was a great race, I was happy that I followed through and noticed that while I didn’t necessarily feel faster, I did feel like it took less effort. It turns out that I did do much better than last year! As usual, my main goal was to not come in last. I like to set the bar appropriately, you know. Not too high, not too low.


I lay awake in bed this morning, woken up by a toddler with a very wet diaper. I clean her up and she climbs into bed with us, next to her father and sister. She finds a comfortable position and goes back to sleep. I, on the other hand, am not so lucky. It is 5:20 am. The night before, I said to my husband, “I’m going to try to swim in the morning.” In the dark room this morning, with very little light encroaching, I say to myself, “Why don’t you get up and go swimming?” I ignore the voice and feel vindicated a short while later, when my husband reports that it is pouring rain outside, which I didn’t know. But soon enough, a bolt of lightning illuminates the room briefly. Decision made, I still can’t go back to sleep. I hold my phone, playing Draw Something instead,  obsessively shuttling back and forth between email and Facebook. At that early hour, action is slow. I ask myself another question: “Why don’t you get up and write something?” Mmh… that is not a bad idea. I slither out of bed, hoping to let sleeping children lay. I close the door softly behind me and tip-toe to the kitchen to start the kettle. As I turn around to go to the bathroom, I am met with arms stretched upward and a toddler mewling, “uppie, mommy.” I pat her head and take her by the hand. A two year old knows no boundaries and will rest her sleepy head upon your lap even as you sit on the toilet to pee. I gently nudge her away and carry her out of the bathroom. “I’m hungry, mommy.” “You want yogurt?” “Yogurt! I want yogurt!” I set her up at the table with her yogurt and a spoon, heading back to the kitchen to tend to that kettle. Following right behind is a pre-schooler demanding “uppie mommy.” I pick her up and give her a big morning hug before suggesting yogurt. She obliges and slithers out of my arms to fetch her yogurt. She joins her sister at the table, who is now asking for a peanut butter sandwich, yogurt barely touched. I’m determined not to give up on the kettle, now no longer hot. I turn it on again and begin making the sandwich. I’m interrupted by the sandwich-requester who has decided she wants american cheese. She opens the fridge and yanks the cheese drawer off its track in her zealous quest. I set the cheese drawer back on track, and turn around to see her furiously ripping open the cheese. She takes one slice and lets the rest fall on the kitchen floor. I pick up the cheese, and decide, upon inspection, that it must be thrown out. As I close the garbage, my husband ambles into the kitchen, commandeering the kettle for his coffee.

Moral of the story: Sit down and write before turning on the kettle and peeing.