Monthly Archives: March 2010

“Drive-Thru Easter Pageant”

Whenever I go home to Walkerton, one of the first things I do is read old and new issues of The Country Courier, a free biweekly paper serving King William and King & Queen counties. A while back, I mentioned that our family dog, Griffin, used to publish editorials there. This isn’t true, exactly–they were written by Danny Clark, the editor, but we thought that sometimes the messages seemed to suit Griffin’s lust for life and the way we thought he would talk if he could, so we edited them a little and pasted his photograph over Mr. Clark’s.

Anyway, The Country Courier is a good place to get news of weddings, births, the use and misuse of firearms, squabbles, gossip, and local events. Recently I discovered that they have a website where you can read the more prominent stories. Browsing the site, I learned that this weekend, if you happen to be on the Middle Peninsula, you can go to a drive-through Easter Pageant at Colosse Baptist Church. Apparently you can see eleven scenes from the life of Christ, all with live actors, without getting out of your car. The performance is tonight from 7-9.

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An Appreciation

Two years ago Malcolm Gladwell published an article in The New Yorker about prodigies and late bloomers, comparing the artistic careers of painters Picasso and Cezanne, and writers Jonathan Safran Foer and Ben Fountain. Ben Fountain’s story interested me particularly, because it took him many years to write and publish his first (excellent) book, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, and because he was so acutely aware that he would not have been able to write the book at all without the financial and emotional support of his wife, Sharie, who encouraged him to leave his promising legal career to become a writer.

On my wedding day, my mother was very busy putting the finishing touches on the wedding cake top, which she’d sculpted herself. In the sculpture, Richard and I are seated at a picnic. He is playing his guitar and a little book (my MFA thesis, a novel) lies on the grass beside us. In creating the cake top, my mother understood that because Richard and I are both artists (he’s a poet and musician), it would be important for us to support each other, to make room in our marriage for writing and music and art.

Today is Richard’s birthday, and he is absolutely as important to my work as Sharie is to Ben Fountain’s. Without Richard, I don’t think Mattaponi Queen would be a book on its way to print. He’s the one who encouraged me, after we moved to North Carolina, to work part time for a while so that I could write. He’s also the one who sent the manuscript to the Bakeless contest. I was teaching at a KIPP school in D.C. at the time, working many more than forty hours a week and feeling generally overwhelmed–too overwhelmed to worry about a manuscript and its slim chances in the publishing world. But Richard, who was also working a lot, believed in me and in my work. He said, “I think contests are the way to go with this book.” I said, “Okay”–or maybe I didn’t even say that. I was busy writing lesson plans or grading papers. It must have been fall. I didn’t think anything more about it.

In the winter–January or February–I came home from work and it was dark. There was a light blinking on the answering machine, and a message that I was a finalist for the Bakeless Prize, along with eleven others, and was the book still available? I didn’t even know Richard had submitted it! Of course it was available!

I was thrilled but had no expectation that I would win. If you’re a writer who sends things to contests, you probably have had the experience of being runner-up. Or finalist. Many times! Some of us list this on our resumes. I always put everything on my resume even if it has little to do with teaching middle school, which is usually what I do for a living.

So then, on March 27, two days after Richard’s birthday, Michael Collier called at 8:00 in the morning; Richard answered and handed me the phone with a significant look. I honestly thought he was calling to tell me I was runner-up (which would have itself been a thrill). I’d met Michael years ago during a snowstorm in Maryland, when I was looking at MFA programs, and he was as kind on the phone as I remembered he’d been in person. He had to assure me a couple of times that it was true–the book had won, and it would be published in a little more than a year. I could not thank Richard enough that day. I still can’t. When I tell people this story, especially other writers, they always tell me how lucky I am, and I always say, “I know.”

The photo above is one I took of Richard from earlier that same week of his birthday and the Bakeless news–we were in Florida for a short spring break trip, kayaking through the mangroves.

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New Work in storySouth

I’m excited to be included in storySouth‘s spring issue, just out this week. To read “Opportunity,” a story about an elementary school principal who pines for a Patti LaBelle tour musician, click here. For more about storySouth, click here.

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How to Make an Accordion Book

If you’re looking for a present for someone who has everything, why not make an accordion book? It’s great for birthdays, baby shower presents, and memorializing beloved pets.

This past summer our family dog, Griffin, died. He was kind of a bad dog–he bit children and old people, barked his head off at every opportunity, and had many disruptive enthusiasms. But people really loved Griffin. He had an especially expressive face (some people said he looked a lot like Rod Stewart) and was very loyal. He was really into sports, like golf and swimming. He hated to see a good time end.  Maybe you have someone in your family like this.

My mom was really close to Griffin, and she took his death hard. To cheer her up, we made this accordion book:

An accordion book is simple to make, but it looks fancy and unusual, and it displays artwork really well. It’s basically a long piece of paper, folded like an accordion, attached to a cover at each end. I learned how to make one at the Center for Book Arts, in New York, which offers classes in bookbinding, letterpress printing, and typography.

You’ll need:

– some matboard (you can usually get this for free at a framing shop, or improvise with stiff cardboard like you find at the back of a pad of paper).

-decorative paper, newspaper, or wrapping paper. It just needs to be fairly thin.

-glue (I prefer the large-size glue sticks for this project).

-as large a sheet of fairly thick white paper as you can find, or several pieces of thick paper. At the art store, you can usually find very large white drawing paper by the sheet for about a dollar.

-a paper cutter is helpful, but not necessary.

1. Make the cover: Cut two pieces of matboard, with your paper cutter or an X-Acto knife, to the same size.

2. Cut two pieces of decorative paper to a slightly larger (by about an inch all around) size. Coat the matboard and paper lightly with glue, then fold the paper around (try to make sharp corners; it’s like wrapping a present).

I like the thin, handmade paper you can get at the art store. I found a paper for my mom’s book that looked a lot like Griffin’s fur:

3. Make the guts: fold your very big piece of paper accordion style, into even folds. Think about the size of the cover; you want each page to be about a half inch shorter than the width of your cover (or you can make it exactly the same size; I usually leave a little room to protect the pages inside). It might take a few practice folds. There are good instructions for folding the paper here.

4. Cut the guts of the book (this is very easy using a paper cutter) to a size that will fit inside your book, also aiming for about a half inch difference. For example, if your cover is five inches tall, you probably want four-and-a-half-inch-tall book pages.

5. If your paper is too short for the book you envision, take two lengths and glue them together, overlapping the ends so that the center page is doubled.

6. Coat the first page of the book with glue, and, centering it carefully, glue the front cover. Repeat for the back side.

7. Fill your book with illustrations, or whatever you like:

We illustrated memorable scenes from Griffin’s life:

Here’s a tip: if you are not great at drawing, write your name and your age prominently on your artwork. It’s disarming.

The great thing about an accordion book is that you have a whole other side (the reverse) to work with. My mom filled the back pages of Griffin’s book with his frequent Country Courier editorials, which were mostly about living life to the fullest:

My mom really loves this book. She displays it proudly on the mantel next to portraits of me and Sky (and Griffin’s ashes):

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Hydrangeas

in a cool oyster tin given to me by my relic-hunting friend, Temple

embroidered by my mom

in Mattaponi Queen, in a typographical ornament chosen by the book designer

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