Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Leaving Ireland; Choosing a Bride In India

The work produced in Lary Bloom's and Suzanne Levine's Class in Memoir, our Writing at the Mark Twain House offering over the past three springs, has been extraordinary, and members of the classes have been invited to post their work here. Today we post two pieces: "Roscommon 1841," a fictionalized memoir of student Audrey Eckert's ancestors about to leave Ireland for America; and "Time to Marry Off George," by Karen Devassy, about the ritual of bride-choosing in India.


by Audrey Eckert

They’ll not find a speck of dirt when they come nosin’ around after we’re gone, Mary muttered. She folded dried lavender into her best woolen blankets to keep the bugs out and placed them into her dowry chest with a sigh. Twenty-five years ago she came to this house as a bride and the work of decades made it a comfortable home. She finally had a rhythm to her days, an ease to her house-keeping and now Shamus said they had to leave, go to America. You can only take what will fit into your two dowry chests, he told her

At first, she fought him. He was a pinch penny who saved bits and scraps of money while it was clear that they needed to buy another cow. No cow, she said, and now this?  You want me to leave my friends?  Nora?  Kathleen?  They’ve stood by me through births and deaths. I’ll never leave, she stormed, NEVER. Why do you want to tear my heart from my chest?

Don’t you see, woman? Without restraint of proper government, the Brits will strip this land and gnaw on our bones.  You’ve seen crops fail eight of the last ten years, have you not? Did you not notice the winter of the big wind? You make me weary. I’ll walk myself to the village and fetch a copy of the Dublin Evening Post while you compose yourself. He slammed the door as he left.

Again and again they fought. Again and again they left the whole thing simmering on the back burner.

She’d always been proud that an educated man had chosen her for his wife. She placed his favorite chair near the fire and stacked his books on a table nearby. But his constant talk of taxes, political instability and British oppression made her smile. The man was book smart but what did he know about day to day living? There’s always some invader or other. Just take care of your own and don’t bother the authorities. Life goes on, she said, offer it up.

Then, last month, she saw the Reilly girl lurking near the shed. Come in the house, she called. The girl drew back into the shadows. Mary rolled up her sleeves and strode out into the yard. Nan Reilly, I said get in here this minute. Slowly, Nan obeyed.  Sweet Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what happened to you, child? Mary put her arms around the girl and half carried her to the warm kitchen. When did you last eat? Never mind. I just took a quick bread out of the oven and there’s milk left over from breakfast. Sit yourself down.

 After a fury of eating, Mary filled a basin with warm water and washed grime from the girl’s face and hands. Where are your parents, she asked. Oh Missus, since the landlord turned us out we’ve been livin’ up in the woods. We found a cave with a running brook nearby and Da goes out with the boys every day looking for food. They haven’t come back for a long time and I think they were killed in the Galway riots. There’s a whole tribe of us up there. I’m ashamed to say we’ve been eating moss and boiling tree bark for tea this whole week. I thank you for your kindness, Ma’am, but I must be going back.

You’ll not leave without a little basket for your Mother, Mary said. It isn’t much -- some potatoes, an egg and a shawl -- it’s old, but it’s still got some warmth to it. I’ll remember you in my prayers.

You do what you think is best, Missus, but I think God has forgotten Ireland.

James seldom raised his voice to Mary, but it felt grand to slam the door shut. Silent anger stiffened his joints as he rushed along the road to town. Then, Father John quietly fell in step beside him. You’ve had words with the woman of the house, have you?

Sometimes she’s the devil’s own invention, Father. I don’t understand her.

There’s three kinds of men who don’t understand the fair sex, Lad. There’s the young men, the old men and the middle aged. You’re not alone in your confusion. She’s a good woman when you think about it. She’s given you five strong children.  In this parish she’s loved and respected; I see her at Mass every day.

But Father, she never hears my words. She has to see it with her own eyes or touch it with her own hands before she knows it’s real. She’s always on the move; she’s dusting, wiping scrubbing and never listening. NEVER. I try to teach her that she’ll learn more by listening than by talking. She doesn’t even hear THAT.

Man’s head is for learning and for God. Woman’s head is for man alone. That’s why they must cover their heads when they’re in the house of The Lord. You know that. Let me buy you a pint. We’ll talk for a while and you’ll go home to the earthly comforts of your woman. Take my advice. Don’t try to make her into something she’ll never be. Remember the saying “Is foulamh fual e teach gan bean.” It’s a cold house without a woman.

Between the roaring fire in the stove and a crowd of people, the pub was boiling hot. The two men took their drinks to a quiet corner, far from the fiddler. James leaned across the table. You understand what I’m saying, Father. When the Brits were fighting Napoleon, they bought everything our farms could produce. Since the end of the war, you can’t give away grain, cattle or pork, much less sell it; then, they mustered out 100,000 Irish soldiers without so much as a penny or a thank you. Now, we’ve got landless beggars prowling about. I fear for my family.

That’s not the whole of it, James. For generations, there was a need for spinners and weavers to work at home turning flax into good linen then came the wet-spinning machines. They built textile factories up north for the Protestants while our Catholic cottage workers starve.

Do you remember my friend Edmond Father? He’s gone to Boston. I got this letter from him last week. See this paragraph right here? “This delightful country gives me satisfaction”, he says.” All have more than enough to spare. If a man is willing to work, he will live happy.” I want to live happy, Father, any fool can see what is coming in this sorry land. We must leave.

Mary believed that poverty was a shameful thing, not to be shared in gossip. She never told a soul about her encounter with the Reilly girl. But the following day she made a fine evening meal for Himself.  As she predicted, a full belly set him free to rage against the world. Do you know what those sanctimonious Brits said, he yelled. If we give food to the poor, it will damage moral character. The Irish must learn to stand on their own, they said, not become dependent on charity. First they strip the land clean and then they preach morality? We have to leave this damnable place.

You are right, James Dolan, she said softly. Whither thou goest, I will go.


By Karen Devassy
In 1973, shortly after my husband Davis, our three children and I arrived for our second visit to India, discussion among his Indian family members turned to the fact that Davis had not been present for any weddings of the four out of five of his siblings who had married. The cost of travel halfway around the world for a family of five had precluded frequent visits to Kerala, his home state. Everyone in his family quickly agreed that now was the time to marry off George, Davis’ youngest brother. Not only was George -- at twenty-seven years old -- well into the marrying age but our visit made the timing ideal.
 So Davis, a couple of his brothers and a few cousins and uncles drove together to consult the local marriage broker.  His job was to inform families in surrounding towns whose daughters were in her late teens or early twenties that George, the youngest son of the Thattil family in Peringottukara, was ready to marry. Only families in our socioeconomic group who could provide a decent sum of money for a dowry -- and, of course, were Catholic -- would be notified and if interested would send proposals through the broker. Too high a dowry could signal a problem with the young woman. For instance, since our Indian family members had comparatively light skin, it would be important for the bride not to be too dark. 
I wasn’t privy to how many proposals arrived. but I do know that five or six were taken seriously. Families with any scandal, such as business failures, mental illness or “love marriages” such as Davis’ and mine, were given extra scrutiny, perhaps even denied consideration. Since George had completed college our family would want a bride with at least a high school degree or some college work.
Once the initial culling process had taken place the same male relatives who had contacted the marriage broker undertook visits to homes of potential brides. My husband’s older brother, Paul, who like most men in Davis’ family spoke English, took me aside and said, “Even though you are a woman we would like you to join us. It will be a new experience for you and the families we visit will enjoy meeting an American.”  Neither George nor his parents were included in this part of the process, though my father-in-law and mother-in-law certainly participated in the vibrant discussions following each trip.
We would all cram ourselves into a couple of small cars and the driver would whiz along the single lane roads as if he were “playing chicken” with oncoming vehicles.  Horns were used constantly to challenge the truck or car hurtling toward us or just to scare pedestrians off the tarmac. The homes we visited, like our family’s, were large with lovely gardens. A few men and a few women from the bride’s family hastened out to meet us. Their men were dressed like ours in long, clean, starched white wraparounds and Western-style shirts. The older women wore all white wraparounds and blouses with gold embroidered scarves and the middle-aged or younger women wore colored dressy saris. After mutual bowing and greetings of, “Namaste” we moved into the parlor for some small talk. About fifteen minutes later we were taken into the dining room where   a feast of sweet delicacies was set. Tea or coffee, already dosed with milk and sugar, were offered.
 After an hour of conversation between the families to assess if they were compatible,  the young bride-applicant, always shy and nervous, would appear from behind a curtain dressed in a brightly colored gold-embossed sari with exquisite makeup on her face  and gold  jewelry around her wrists, ankles and neck.  The gold displayed would become part of her dowry. She would be asked a few questions to assure she was acceptable in presentation and without physical limitations.
“How far did you study in school?”
“What activities do you enjoy?”
            Upon arriving home the men, over coconut toddy, a strong alcoholic drink, would discuss the pros and cons of the aspirant. My mother-in-law and sisters-in-law would join the conversation from the sidelines. Dark complexion, excessive height or noticeable communication problems would decrease her eligibility. George was allowed a short visit with three women whom the family had declared acceptable and his input was valued. After one of the visits George, whose English was not as good as his brothers’, said to me, “I talk to girl but she is too thin.” I answered, “Oh, George, don’t worry about that. After she had has had a child or two she will gain some weight.”
            “But I don’t like her face.”
            “My goodness, now that’s more important, George. If you don’t like her face you must tell your brothers you don’t want to marry her.” And he did tell them.
            After a lovely young woman named Theresa was chosen, several  older female relatives  who had overheard that Theresa was about George’s height expressed concerns that she might be too tall. To sort out this dilemma a kinsman was sent to Theresa’s home to measure her. Although she was a tad taller than George it was decided that her positive qualities outweighed this disadvantage.
            Because Davis and I and our family would be there for just three more weeks wedding preparations began immediately and in earnest. A huge pavilion was constructed in the front of the house with bamboo and reeds. Locally famous cooks appeared on the compound, squatting beside boiling cauldrons of sweets -- such as halwa, burrfi and laddu -- and, as the date for the wedding drew near, meat and vegetable curries. At that time my Indian family, despite being well off, did not have refrigeration. Extra servants were hired to clean the home and property. The family women, including me, went shopping in the nearby town of Trichur for saris with the same gold embroidery design but differing colors.  Mine was a royal blue. The children of the family got matching outfits.
 Day by day the hallways of the family home became inhabited with elderly widowed “aunties” who had come from distant towns for the celebration. They all wore white shirts and wraparounds as other older women but their earlobes had huge holes — two to three inches -- held open with large gold rings. They each had a straw mat on the floor for sitting and sleeping.  A number of them lined up in the corridor outside our bedroom and I had to step around them to go to the bathroom or shower room. They eagerly awaited my every appearance and lavished me with toothless grins and “Namaste” bows.
The wedding Mass itself was held across the street in a simple Catholic church which my father-in-law had donated years before (along with a girls’ school). I don’t remember exactly how many people attended the wedding; there was not a huge number and my mother-in-law, as was the custom, was not among them.  Her job was to coordinate the festivities under the canopy.  Five hundred people including family, friends and townspeople enjoyed food, music and chatter for many hours at our home.  After an hour or two the bride and groom and wedding party drove to Theresa’s home for a similar spree with people important to her family.
            George and Theresa fell in love after their wedding and produced three sons, Vinish, Ronish and Surish.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Memorial Day Memory, and a Surprise at the End of a Dance

The work produced in Lary Bloom's and Suzanne Levine's Class in Memoir over the past three springs has been extraordinary, and members of the classes have been invited to post their work here. Today we post two pieces: "Long Time Coming," a short memoir by Jim Masso (of the Bloom-Levine Class of 2011) and "A Dance," the response to an assignment to provide a story in the form of dialogue, by Ann Keating (of the Class of 2012).

Long Time Coming

 By Jim Masso

 I stood in front of Gary’s headstone for the first time.  Forty-one years had past since his death. I knew the general location of the grave.  In fact, I’d seen the family marker from the road, yet I never went to visit.  Gary was my best friend.

  We met in high school.  I was a senior, he a junior.  We’d hang out all the time.  Girls, dating, music and the Yankees were our constant subjects.  On Sunday mornings I’d meet him in front of church, but instead of Mass, we’d go eat breakfast at a restaurant. With a grin, he’d flirt with our waitress.  After she left, he’d sing a few bars from his favorite song of the week: “A little bit o’ soul will see you through, yeah.”    

  In September of 1968, in order to sidestep the draft, I enlisted in the Army. After basic and advanced training in April of 1969, I shipped out for Vietnam as a 71N20, transportation movement specialist. Gary knew about my overseas orders. Mom and Dad didn’t. Mom would have cried all the time.  I told Dad in the morning before he drove me to the airport. He told Mom afterwards.   While I was home, Gary and I caroused as usual. The night before I left, we made plans to attend a ball game in New York when I returned.  It was the last time I saw or heard from Gary.  We weren’t letter writers.

  I spent my first six months in Vietnam in a hotel converted into a military barracks in downtown Saigon. Mama-sans cleaned the room and took care of the laundry.  I was attached to 3rd Transportation Unit, Movement Control Center (MCC). Our duty:  make sure the ships in dock had enough flatbed trailers to unload their cargo, make sure the paperwork was correct and the convoys loaded with supplies left on time. At night, we hung out in the bars near the waterfront and drank.  Young Asian girls worked in the bars. They sat in the booths with us as long as we continued to drink and buy them watered down drinks called Saigon Tea. I learned quickly it wasn’t good to think about war all the time.

  In mid-July, Gary developed lumps in his lymph glands.   The doctor diagnosed mononucleosis and prescribed bed rest, but the lumps multiplied and became larger.  The doctor performed a biopsy. This time the diagnosis was Hodgkins disease.  The doctor referred Gary to a specialist in Hartford who informed his parents the disease was only in his lymph glands and stoppable with radium treatments.  Gary started the treatments and later told he could start classes in September at the Morse Business School in Hartford.  

  After six months, I had orders to report about 25 miles north to Lai Khe. Three of us from MCC handled the daily supply convoys. We made sure the flatbed trailers were unloaded, reloaded, and headed back south to the large military complex at Long Binh before dark. The PX used many trailers. We kept them supplied with trailers. They kept us supplied with beer and steaks.  At night, we drank the beer, ate the steaks and watched outdoor movies.  Sometimes we got high. There weren’t any mortar or ground attacks during my 3-month stay.  

  Back in the world, Gary commuted every day to Hartford for school and then treatments.  The treatments hurt more than helped as the disease continued to spread.  In November, Gary dropped out of school and entered Hartford Hospital.  The Hodgkins spread into his bone marrow, but the doctor was confident he could stop it though not necessarily cure him.  His brother, Alan, brought him home for Thanksgiving.  The day was painful for Gary.  That night he was glad to be back in the hospital.

  The Bob Hope Christmas Show came to Lai Khe.  Thousands of troops descended on the base for the show.  We laughed at the jokes and applauded the songs. For a couple of hours we were part of a uniquely American tradition as the entertainers shared their Christmas spirit and helped us forget where we were for this family holiday.    
 By the middle of December, the end was in sight.  The disease spread to his liver.  Around 3 PM on New Year’s Eve Gary told his brother he had a pain in his stomach. Alan called a nurse who administered a sedative.  Gary fell asleep. His brother went home.  Later that night the family received the doctor’s call. They pronounced Gary dead at 10:20 PM.

  At midnight on New Year’s Eve, the guards fired their weapons in the air to celebrate.  I was almost a short timer:  less than 100 days left in-country.

    In mid-January, the letter from Gary’s brother arrived. Why was he writing to me?  I read the letter and was shocked, then angered.  In it were the events of the last 6 months. Why didn’t he let me know? What could I have done if I knew? Nothing, I was stuck in this goddamn war, 18,000 miles away and wasn’t there to help my best friend battle for his life. I was frustrated and felt useless.  That night I read the letter over and over.             
  Being home on furlough was difficult. I didn’t want the thirty days leave to end, yet I did. I was glad to see my parents and girlfriend, but I was anxious to get back to my buddies. For an early Army discharge, I had agreed to another 6 months in Vietnam. I didn’t contact Gary’s family or girlfriend. What could we say?

  The next year I finished active duty. Four years later, I received my BA and married my college sweetheart. Several months after the wedding, I met Gary’s mother in church. 
“He would have been your best man”, she said.

I nodded.

  For almost 4 decades, I never talked about Vietnam.  When asked about my military service I’d say, “Vietnam for 18 months”.  No other questions followed. They imagined the rest. Would they have believed the truth about drinking, eating, smoking and girls?

  I hadn’t been in firefights, patrolled the jungle, crawled through tunnels, or killed anyone.  My war was a day at the office, except it was Vietnam.  I moved paper instead of bullets.  Could I tell anyone I had an easy and sometimes fun tour in Vietnam?  There were thousands of war casualties, which in my universe included Gary.  There wasn’t a scratch on my body.  I never fired my weapon.  I felt guilty about my Vietnam service.
   Recently, through movies and books I’ve gotten a glimpse into the other side of the war. The part I missed. I’m one of the lucky soldiers.

   Memorial Day was in less than a week. I drove to my parent’s gravesite to bring the two flowerpots home for replanting. As I placed the second one in the car, a warm shiver ran through me.  I looked around the cemetery and knew it was time.  I knew the general vicinity of Gary’s grave. When I found it, tears rolled down my cheeks. I sighed.  It felt right. 

 ‘It’s been a long time,’ I said.
 We had a nice visit.

The Dance

by Ann M. Keating

     “My wife told me to ask you to dance, “ he said.

    “She did? How lovely,” I replied.

    “I guess she thought you might want to."

     “I’d be delighted.”

     Taking my hand, he said, “ It’s so nice to see you after all these years.”

     “Yes it is good to be back in the old home town. Many things are different and some are the same.”

    “Just how many has it been? You still look like you did at twenty one.”

    “You flatter me.”

     “Let me think,” he said.  “It was twenty years ago and we were all here at the club.”

    “Yes, it was at the end of the summer party.”

    “Well, here we are right back where we started,” he said as he twirled me around the floor.

    “You always did dance better than anyone else,” I sighed.

    “You’re more relaxed than you used to be. I was never sure if you’d follow.”

    “Sorry about that…I always wanted to but was never sure where you were going to lead.”

    “I remember the first time I saw you. You were standing in the sunlight in Betty’s dining room.”

    “I remember too. You said, ‘Not bad, not bad but you’ll have to do something with that hair.”

    “I said that?”

    “You said that.”

    “That’s not like me at all,” he laughed.

    “ Isn’t it?”

    “You know I’ve never been able to figure it out. You were never what I’d call sexy.”

    “Thanks a lot…not even in a black dress?”

    “Not even in a black dress…but you sure are now.”

    “You haven’t changed a bit…not a bit, “ I laughed.

    “About you…no I guess I haven’t.  What did we do on our first date?” he mused.

   “We went to dinner and a play. Then I seem to remember…"

   “Dancing”, he said. “ We always danced but we didn’t see the play. There were only two seats left and…"

    “That’s right and they were not together. You said, ‘I want to see you and not some old play.’”
     “And what did you say?”

     “It was a long while ago. I don’t remember.”

      He said, “You married fast, you know.”

     “I know.”


     “Because you didn’t ask me, and the music stopped.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Actually, right now the music has stopped. We’re the only ones on the dance floor.”

    “So we are. But I still don’t know what you mean…I didn’t ask you…"

    “We really should return to the table,” I said.

    “Will you dance the next dance?” he asked.


I came out onto the sunny Mark Twain Museum Center patio mid-day Saturday, April 21, when the First Annual Mark Twain House Writers’ Weekend was breaking for lunch, and saw a sight like something out of the Bible. A short, dark-haired, impassioned woman was standing at the head of a table, reading aloud, while eighteen or twenty crowded around her, rapt, like the crowd around a prophet on some dusty mountain. This was Bessy Reyna, a rare and eloquent poet from Bolton, who had let it be known that her seven morning poetry participants hadn’t wanted to stop at an hour – they wanted to work though lunch. As they did, others joined them; the blue polo shirts of our hardworking UConn interns could be seen in the growing multitude. “I didn’t even like poetry,” said Audrey Eckert of Thomaston, who came upon the group and stayed. “But I heard the most wonderful poet.”

I could see then that the miracle of the Writers’ Weekend had come off. There were loftier celebrities, from the eloquent editor Lewis Lapham and the powerful novelist Jon Clinch to the brilliant playwrights Alfred Uhry, A.R. Gurney, and Donald Margulies. All of them had generously given of their time to make this a success. So had fourteen other writers in sessions small and large on a range of subjects. There were dozens of moments of discovery like Audrey’s, all compressed in an evening and a good long day. When it was all over, the evaluations of the Weekend came in – 22 excellent, 19 good, plenty of praise. “Every moment was terrific!” wrote a woman who went on to lecture us gently on our food choices.  “Addressed issues and areas I needed resolved as a writer,” wrote another attendee. And more: “Well organized, balanced; great presenters and accessible.” “Respectful of the novice.” Some commented on the non-academic atmosphere as being a boon. There were suggestions: a two-day weekend with longer sessions and more breaks; children’s literature; a humor-writing session – and tea! tea! tea! in the morning, not just coffee.
We think we can find the tea for next year. Let me add my thanks to Julia’s more timely ones earlier this week to everybody who took part in this, in preparation and aftermath, as well as those who, on the days of,  gave so much to this effort. The Mark Twain Memorial said in 1955 it would do something like this. Things in Connecticut take a little while. Now it’s getting done. Thanks to you.
-- Steve Courtney  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

APRIL 20-21: The Mark Twain House Writers' Weekend Update

"The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning." -- Mark Twain

At a great author's home, immerse yourself in the craft!

The Mark Twain House & Museum is announcing new details of its Writers' Weekend, which celebrates and extends the Writing at the Mark Twain House program that has helped dozens of adult participants progress in the arts of memoir, general non-fiction and fiction.

The event, which includes a reception and keynote speech on Friday, April 20, and a full day of events on Saturday, April 21, brings together a broad range of authors, editors, and teachers in a number of disciplines.

The event is headlined by its renowned keynote speaker, Lewis Lapham, editor emeritus of Harper's and editor of Lapham's Quarterly. Saturday kickoff speaker is novelist Jon Clinch, author of Finn and Kings of the Earth. A star-studded panel of playwrights winds up the day : Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), A. R. Gurney (Love Letters), and Donald Margulies (Dinner with Friends).

Fifteen sessions over the course of the day Saturday will explore many aspects of writing, all of which Mark Twain practiced: memoir, fiction, travel writing, and even playwriting and poetry -- and though yes, he didn't blog, he kept a journal which in its breadth and brilliance has a kinship with the best blogs online today.

Topics include the art of memoir, the pleasure of poetry, the craft of mystery writing, writing synopses for agents or publishers, new ways of storytelling in the Internet age, finding voice in fiction -- and finding a way to get your work published. (See list of sessions at right.)

The event will run from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Friday, April 20, and 9:00 am to 7:00 p.m.on Saturday, April 21. A box lunch will be provided on Saturday, and the Weekend winds up Saturday evening with a closing reception.

Books by faculty members and others will be available in the Mark Twain Museum Store.

The cost of the Writers' Weekend for participants is $100. This includes the Friday night reception and lecture, all Saturday sessions, lunch and the Saturday night closing reception. Participants will also receive a voucher good for a tour of the Mark Twain House at any time. Space is limited to 100 participants, so advance registration and payment is a must: Call 860-280-3130 to register.

There are a limited number of tickets available for the Lewis Lapham keynote on Friday night and the Playwrights' Panel on Saturday afternoon. Tickets for each of these events are $30 ($25 for Mark Twain House & Museum members). Call 860-280-3130.

The Keynote Speaker

Lewis Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly, a distinguished literary journal, and was Editor of Harper's magazine for 27 years. He is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H. L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. A native of San Francisco, Mr. Lapham was educated at Yale and Cambridge.

The Kickoff Speaker

Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn, was called "a triumph of imagination and graceful writing" by USA Today; his second, Kings of the Earth, is "blunt and brutal yet beautifully told," says Julia Glass. Finn's take on the story of Huckleberry Finn's brutal father brought Clinch in touch with the Mark Twain House just around the time when it needed friends, during a 2008 fiscal crisis. He pitched in, organizing a major event for writers that year, and helped the museum survive and get back on the upswing. Born and raised in the remote heart of upstate New York, Clinch has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive. He lives in Vermont with his wife, the author and blogger Wendy Clinch. Both are taking part in our sessions, Jon on "Voice in Fiction, its Varieties and Control"; Wendy on "The Art of Blogging" (see listing at right).

The Saturday Panels
Uhry, Gurney, Margulies on Playwriting

Three of America's foremost playwrights convene for a one-time-only conversation on writing, creativity and the business of theater.
--Alfre d Uhry is the only playwright to receive the Pulitzer Prize (for D riving Miss Daisy), the Oscar (for its screen adaptation) and the Tony Award (The Last Night of Ballyhoo and Parade).

--A.R. Gurney is a Drama Desk Award-winner and one of the most produced playwrights in the country. His famed titles include Love Letters, Sylvia, The Dining Room, and The Cocktail Hour.

--Donald Margulies is a Pulitzer Prize-winner (Dinner with Friends). He was recently represented on Broadway with his Tony-nominated drama, Time Stands Still.
The panel discussion will be moderated by Howard Sherman, theater consultant and former head of the American Theater Wing, which hands out the Tonys.

Can Writing Be Taught?

Is knowing how to write something innate? Is it something you can pick up when you've really done other things most of your life? What are the steps that take you from neophyte to accomplished practitioner? Participants in the Writing at the Mark Twain House program -- teachers Lary Bloom, Suzanne Levine, and Susan Campbell and students Barbara Wysocki and Carmen English -- try to answer these and other questions in a panel moderated by Steve Courtney, Publicist and Publications Editor at The Mark Twain House & Museum and a founder of Writing at the Mark Twain House.

The Faculty

On Saturday, 50-minute sessions (three at a time) will be held – talks, discussions, workshops -- led by the following:

Cindy Brown Austin, a novelist (By the Rivers of Babylon) who also excels at searing non-fiction portraits of urban life, on "Truth-telling in Fiction and Non-Fiction"

Lary Bloom (The Writer Within), author and a founder of Writing at the Mark Twain House, who brought along a generation of writers as editor of Northeast magazine for two decades, on "The Art of Memoir"

Susan Campbell, whose Hartford Courant work and award-winning memoir Dating Jesus speak truth to power, on "Telling Your Story Without Embellishment"

Wendy Clinch (Fade to White), the author of mysteries set in the world of skiing -- who also runs the largest blog for women who ski, www.theskidiva.com, on "The Art of Blogging"

David Handler (The Blood Red Indian Summer), whose 18 mysteries (including an Edgar winner) charm and mystify, on "The Anatomy of a Mystery"

Denis Horgan, newspaper columnist, novelist and short story writer (Ninety-Eight Point Six) -- deeply humane with a Twainian edge -- on "Old Wine, New Bottles: Storytelling in the Internet Age"

Suzanne Levine, a founder of the Writing in the Mark Twain House program, acclaimed and much-published poet (The Haberdasher's Daughter) with a deft, quiet and retrospective touch, on "Poetry as Memoir"

Bessy Reyna, (Memoirs of the Unfaithful Lover/ Memorias de la amante infiela) Latina poet who writes in Spanish and English with extraordinary grace and passion on "Love, Longing and Laughter: The Gift of Poetry."

Kate Rothwell (Seducing Miss Dunaway), the author of many successful romance novels, under her own name and as Summer Devon, on "Writing a Synopsis That Sells"

Susan Schoenberger, author of the moving, deft and Faulkner award-winning novel A Watershed Year, and a Writing at the Mark Twain House workshop leader, on "Finding an Agent"

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Writers' Weekend at the Mark Twain House Provides Immersion in the Skills of the Craft

"The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter--it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning," Mark Twain wrote in 1888.

Writers in many genres, and all levels of experience, who want to end up on the right side of this distinction can immerse themselves in the craft at The Mark Twain House & Museum Friday evening, April 20, and all day Saturday, April 21, as the museum launches its first Writers' Weekend.
Within a few hundred yards of America's iconic author's beloved home, participants will hear legendary Harper's editor Lewis Lapham keynote the conference and then follow it up the next day with a range of activities -- from honing a novel they're working on to hearing about the joys and pitfalls of blogging to attending a panel with Alfred Uhry and A.R. Gurney, two distinguished playwrights whose works have influenced millions.

The Friday-Saturday event begins with an April 20 early-evening reception followed by the keynote speech by Lapham, a witty and prolific commentator on wealth and politics and the social scene, who as editor of Harper's and now Lapham's Quarterly has influenced a whole generation of writers and editors.

Fifteen panels, talks and workshop sessions will follow on Saturday, including a kickoff talk by novelist Jon Clinch (Finn, Kings of the Earth) and a panel including playwrights Gurney (The Dining Room) and Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy). A panel of faculty and students in the Writing at the Mark Twain House program, which has offered evening courses in fiction, non-fiction and memoir over the past few years, will discuss the ins and outs of teaching the writer's art.

No fewer than two winners of the Connecticut Book Award Lifetime Achievement Award will be participating in sessions during the Writers' Weekend: Lary Bloom, longtime editor of Northeast magazine, columnist, author of many books (including The Writer Within), and sage teacher of writing at the Mark Twain House and many other places; and Bessy Reyna (Memoirs of the Unfaithful Lover), the beloved Cuban-born poet who has been called "a clear-eyed guide to the world we see but don't see" by Martin Espada.

Among other authors slated to lead 50-minute sessions on Saturday are Susan Campbell (Dating Jesus), Susan Schoenberger (A Watershed Year) Suzanne Levine (The Haberdasher's Daughter), Denis Horgan (Ninety-Eight Point Six), Cindy Brown Austin (By the Waters of Babylon) and Wendy Clinch (www.theskidiva.com). There will be sessions on fiction, non-fiction , memoir, poetry, travel writing, blogging, the business of getting published, and new forms of storytelling unleashed by the existence of the Internet.

The event will run from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Friday, April 20, and 8:00 am to 7:00 p.m.on Saturday, April 21. A box lunch will be provided on Saturday, and the Weekend winds up Saturday evening with a closing reception.

The cost of the Writers' Weekend for participants is $100. This includes the Friday night reception and lecture, all Saturday sessions, a box lunch and the Saturday night closing reception. Participants will also receive a voucher good for a tour of the Mark Twain House at any time. Space is limited to 100 participants, so advance registration and payment is a must: Call 860-280-3130 to register.

The Writers' Weekend builds on the success of Writing at the Mark Twain House, the writing program that bears out The Mark Twain House & Museum's explicitly stated mission, promulgated in 1955, to develop a literary center. The program has offered fall and spring evening courses in memoir, non-fiction, and fiction over the past few years.

Selected students in the Department of English at the University of Connecticut's Greater Hartford Campus will be serving as interns during the Writers' Weekend. The partnership between The Mark Twain House & Museum and UConn has been arranged through the university's Office of Service-Learning.

More details on participants and sessions will be posted on the Mark Twain House & Museum website, http://www.marktwainhouse.org/; the Writing at the Mark Twain House blog, http://writingatthemarktwainhouse.blogspot.com/ ; and the museum's Facebook Page, http://www.facebook.com/MarkTwainHouse.

About the Keynote and Kickoff speakers:

Lewis Lapham: In her brilliant first-hand account of life at the lowest rungs of the American social ladder, Nickle and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich describes Lewis Lapham's editorial style. Discussing issues of poverty with Lapham, her editor, she writes, "I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret. 'Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism -- you know, go out and try it for themselves.'" She meant some young, hungry reporter. "But Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretches at least, with the single word 'You.'" Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly, a distinguished literary journal, and was Editor of Harper's magazine for a total of 27 years. He is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H. L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. A native of San Francisco, Mr. Lapham was educated at Yale and Cambridge.

Jon Clinch: Jon Clinch's first novel, Finn, was called "a triumph of imagination and graceful writing" by USA Today; his second, Kings of the Earth, is "blunt and brutal yet beautifully told," said Julia Glass. Finn's take on the story of Huckleberry Finn's brutal father brought Clinch in touch with the Mark Twain House just around the time when it needed friends, during a 2008 fiscal crisis. He pitched in, organizing a major event for writers that year, and helped the museum survive and get back on the upswing. Born and raised in the remote heart of upstate New York, Clinch has been an English teacher, a metalworker, a folksinger, an illustrator, a typeface designer, a housepainter, a copywriter, and an advertising executive. He lives in Vermont; his wife, Wendy Clinch, a blogger and author of ski-themed mysteries, is leading a blogging session at the Writers' Weekend.

About Alfred Uhry and A.R. Gurney

Alfred Uhry is the only American playwright to have won a Pulitzer Prize, an Academy Award and two Tony Awards. His first play, Driving Miss Daisy, opened in New York in 1987 and won the Pulitzer in 1988; the film version with Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1990 -- as well as the Best Picture Award. It was recently revived on Broadway and the West End with James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave. He is the author of The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play. His book for the musical Parade won the Tony Award in 1999. Other plays incluide Without Walls, Edgardo Mine and the book for the musical Lovemusik. Most recently he co-created the dance-theater piece Angel Reapers with Martha Clark.

A.R. Gurney is one of the most prolific and most produced playwrights in America. He has written more than 32 plays and three novels over more than 30 years. His breakthrough success came in 1982 with The Dining Room. Love Letters (1989), has enjoyed tremendous popularity for many years with its two-character cast. Gurney adapted his novel, The Snow Ball, for the stage; other novels include The Gospel According to Joe and Entertaining Strangers. In 1999, Gurney wrote the libretto for Strawberry Fields as part of a trilogy presented by the New York City Opera. Gurney is the recipient of many awards, notably a Drama Desk Award in 1971, a Rockefeller Award in 1977 and Lucille Lortel Awards in 1989 and 1994.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Author of A Watershed Year Will Focus on 'Getting Started' and 'Finding the Big Idea' at March 3 Event

Susan Schoenberger's first novel had not even been published when it was awarded the prestigious Gold Medal in the 2006 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition.

A Watershed Year, published by Guideposts last year to critical acclaim, treats issues of friendship lost through death -- yet not lost; and the heartbreak and redemption that arise from a woman's quest to adopt a four-year-old boy in Russia.

Schoenberger, a longtime editor at the Hartford Courant and the Baltimore Sun, as well as a published essayist and short story writer, writes "with subtle humor and grace," in the words of bestselling author Julia Fay (Shelter Me). Patti Callahan Henry (Driftwood Summer) writes: "Susan Schoenberger takes us to the softer places of the heart where love -- in all its forms and glory -- transforms grief into grace."

But there is the day when even an acclaimed novelist has to take that first step toward her achievement -- the day she has to get started. On Saturday, March 3, from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m., Schoenberger will lead a special three-hour workshop with a small group in just that subject: "The Novel: Getting Started." And its corollary, finding the new novel's core: "Writing the Novel: The Big Idea".

The special three-hour Fiction Workshop, a special event in our Writing at the Mark Twain House program, comes with a special price -- only $20, thanks to Schoenberger's generosity.

Included in the "getting started" portion of the afternoon will be exercises in "free-writing" and discussion of some of the practicalities -- such as what literary agents and editors say about the importance of the first pages. And, Schoenberger says, she will provide "advice about listening to your gut on the best place to start," in which she will relay her own experience with A Watershed Year.

"I want to focus on getting the importance of the first pages and help participants get over the hump of getting started," Schoenberger says.

The second part of the session will focus on the challenge of crafting an idea weighty enough to sustain a full-length novel. The afternoon will not be a one-way experience: There will be opportunities for participants to share their ideas and workshop with Schoenberger and each other.

Register early, as enrollment is limited for this special event. Tickets are $20 and can be obtained at 860-280-3130.

Susan Schoenberger has been a writer, editor and copy editor at the News and Observer, the Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant. She now works as an editor for Patch.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including the Courant's Northeast magazine and Reader's Digest, and one of her essays was included in the anthology Stories for a Woman's Heart. Her short stories have appeared in Inkwell and the Village Rambler and one was a finalist in the New Millennium Writings contest.

A Watershed Year received the Gold Medal in the 2006 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing competition, presented at the 2006 Words and Music Festival in New Orleans. The novel was also one of seven finalists for the Peter Taylor Prize given by the Knoxville Writers Guild, and received an Artist Fellowship Grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism.

Schoenberger lives in Connecticut with her husband and three children. She is working on a second novel.

Writing at the Mark Twain House has offered spring and fall writing classes over the past three years, including A Class in Memoir with Lary Bloom and Suzanne Levine, which runs from March 7-April 25. And for the first time this year, Writing at the Mark Twain House will hold a Writers' Weekend (April 20-21) keynoted by Lewis Lapham and including sessions with Jon Clinch, Alfred Uhry, Bessy Reyna, Lary Bloom, Susan Campbell and A.R. Gurney. For information on these programs, contact Steve Courtney at 860-247-0998, Ext. 243, or steve.courtney@marktwainhouse.org.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Class in Memoir with Lary Bloom and Suzanne Levine


Acclaimed Writing Course for Novices and Veterans Will Be Held For Third Year March 7-April 25; Registration Deadline February 15

Watching Lary Bloom and Suzanne Levine teach their extraordinary joint class in memoir writing is a study in complementary creativity -- each teacher's style is so different, yet each builds on the other's work with grace and precision.

First there's Bloom -- eloquent, reminiscent, funny, surprising, with a real skill at drawing out the stories that the members of the class have often kept within themselves. Then there's Levine, who will gently rein in her co-teacher and partner with a quiet reminder that puts the class back on track. She, it's clear, revels in his ebullience; he revels in her skill at keeping to the rails.

And both teachers apply themselves with diligence and generosity to the work of their students, whether novices or Connecticut Book Award winners. Participants make real progress. "My first drafts usually seemed to please people, so I didn't need to go any further," said one student after taking the class. "Now I have your voices in my head and they won't go away."

Bloom and Levine will offer their famed eight-week Class in Memoir once again this spring at The Mark Twain House & Museum, the third time around for this much-waited-for event.

In 2010 the memoir class started the museum toward the fulfillment of its long-held goal of being a center for writing. This effort -- Writing at the Mark Twain House -- has blossomed since, with classes in fiction and non-fiction, individual talks and workshops by a range of writers, and a Writers' Weekend planned for April 20-21 this year.

A Class in Memoir offers writing instruction and workshops at the home of one of the American masters of the craft. The class will include intensive, hands-on work on the craft, with the goal of producing a short work by the end of the session to be published on the Writing at the Mark Twain House Blog. It will explore such aspects of the memoir craft as scene-setting, dialogue, character development and narrative.

It's a particularly appropriate genre for the home of Mark Twain, whose Autobiography, released recently after a century under wraps, became a surprise bestseller.

Twain's ideas about memoir reflect Bloom's and Levine's: "An autobiography that leaves out the little things and enumerates only the big ones is no proper picture of the man's life at all," Twain wrote; "his life consists of his feelings and his interests, with here and there an incident apparently big or little to hang the feelings on."

Compare reviewer Carolyn Alvfin's comments on Bloom's style: "Seasoned editor Lary Bloom knows what any good screenwriter knows -- people love stories. Stories that include honest detail, true emotion, conflict, a point of view, and that show ordinary people's struggles and journeys. ...He encourages journalists and non-fiction writers to take the time to explore the human drama behind the obvious bullet points of their works-in-progress."

"Writing programs at The Mark Twain House & Museum provide an exciting and appropriate development for our mission of preserving Mark Twain's legacy," says Jeffrey L. Nichols, Executive Director of the Mark Twain House & Museum. "Twain, of course, was a memoirist - he wrote about his youth on the Mississippi, his days in the west, his life in Hartford - and I think he would be tickled by this."

Bloom and Levine will offer A Class in Memoir starting Wednesday, March 7, through Wednesday, April 25. There is a fee of $600 for the eight-week course. The registration deadline is Wednesday, February 15.

The class runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Mark Twain Museum Center, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford. One session will be held in Mark Twain's library in the historic house.

To participate, a serious interest in the memoir form is the only requirement; beginners are welcome. To register, please send a brief letter or email of interest to Steve Courtney at steve.courtney@marktwainhouse.org or call 860-247-0998, Ext. 243. Registrants will be limited to fourteen. The tuition fee must be paid in full by the registration deadline, February 15.

Lary Bloom is a legendary figure in the Connecticut literary world, known nationally as a pioneer of the New Journalism. For 20 years, he edited Northeast magazine at The Hartford Courant, fostering a new kind of work that used the tools of fiction to tell the stories of ordinary people -- while maintaining strict truthtelling. He nurtured writers from Wally Lamb to Cindy Brown Austin (both of whom first pubished in Northeast), and turned the magazine into a Connecticut literary incubator for nurturing creativity of all types. His much-read weekly column -- unusual and unpredictable takes on unsung Connecticut characters and their achievements -- today find a home in the pages of Connecticut magazine.

During his two decades at Northeast he wrote essay collections and The Writer Within, which provides lessons in nonfiction writing learned from his years as a Sunday magazine editor. He produced the Twain's World series, essays on Hartford's cultural heritage that were collected in a book of that name. But many achievements took the magazine outside its traditional boundaries of its cover.

He was a founder of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, which featured many of America's greatest poets, including Stanley Kunitz, Sharon Olds, James Merrill and Lucille Clifton; Art For All, a public art project featuring work by Katharine Hepburn, Dave Brubeck, and many visual artists; and Mark Twain Days, a citywide celebration that featured the music of Ray Charles and the Kingston Trio, and the comedy of the Smothers Brothers, as well as activities such as jousts and Gilded Age baseball games. Another major public project was Connecticut Voices, during which 50 distinguished state authors (including Arthur Miller, William Styron, and Annie Dillard) were profiled, and then read from their books on public radio.

Since leaving Northeast, he has collaborated with former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge on his controversial memoir, The Test of Our Times, and wrote, with Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Letters from Nuremberg. The teaching he did as an editor has continued in tandem with Levine: classes at The Mark Twain House & Museum, at the Florence Griswold Museum, and the renowned literary bookstore R.J. Julia in Madison, Connecticut. He is on the faculty of Fairfield University's MFA writing program.

Suzanne Levine, a noted poet, may seem an odd choice for a teacher of memoir, but a closer look -- particularly at her acclaimed Haberdasher's Daughter, a work of "razor-sharp observations, crystal-clear imagery and quietly startling observations," in the words of Wally Lamb. The book makes clear the connections between the worlds of poetry and memoir. There is the matter of defining one's life through memory, which the reminiscent style of poetry she excels in provides generously. And there is the ability to make music with words, which can be applied to any kind of prose, when in the hands of a master.

Haberdasher's Daughter was published by Antrim House Books in 2010 and was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in California Quarterly, Passages North, Interpoesia, Permafrost Quiddity International Literary Journal, Southern California Review, The Chaffin Journal, Stand Magazine UK and Whiskey Island Magazine among others. A Pushcart nominee, she was a finalist in the 2009 Midnight Sun Chapbook Competition and a contributor to the anthology Forty Fathers (2009). She holds an MFA from Vermont College.