where the writers are
On the Brink

My confession: I've been experimenting with form. Five memoirs into my career as a writer, I had despaired of digging deeper, I felt trapped by my own smallness, I felt ungraced by me. I wanted to write something new, something that I'd need new words for, need another kind of courage for, and so I began to write about a river, began to write the river as me. This was liberating. This was logic. I called this book FLOW, and I shared it with editors, and the word was: There is too much risk all about the edges of this book, and by the way: Who could care about a river as a she?

Temple University Press cared, thank goodness. And after that, Philadelphians cared—unexpected numbers of them daring to ride back of a river who sulked and prowled and boasted and fought and could not decide, after a century of flogging, whether or not to hope again.

After FLOW there was a novel for young adults—another risk—and after that a corporate fable, ZENOBIA, that is part Calvino, part Phantom Tollbooth, a little bit of Alice in Wonderland. There are more books now, made, and more coming. Each takes me somewhere new. Each feels dangerous. That's where I want to be right now. That is, I'm starting to conclude, what the act of writing is for.

I believe in the memoirs I wrote, and in all the essays in between things, and in the short stories, and in all that led to here—there is no shame there, no second guessing. But here is my now, and here is my confession: I am writing on the brink.

9 Comment count
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From the perspective of a River

I think it's amazing you wrote a novel from the point of view of a River!!! That seems like a real challenge..I couldn't even imagine how someone goes about that.

Will ZENOBIA be part of a series? It sounds like it would make a great series of novels.

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I can't seem to stay away from nibbling on the author blogs. I"ve been known to eat 2 orders of big combo sushi at one sitting, horrifying my date.  Red Room is like a big bento box full of every kind of nigiri, maki and sashimi.

It is 1 A.M. and I've come to graze on your web log.

I don't understand why a publishers would balk at the subject of a river as a she . . . just your description, it made my heart flutter with recognition.

When I was very sick in the hospital some eight years back, I had recurrent vision of my life as a slow, green, weighty river cutting through a iridescent meadow.  The river was the color of peridot..

 I will read FLOW.

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Dear Belle, What an

Dear Belle,

What an extraordinary image you had of yourself! And peridot—such a color. I think the question for publishers was, Who would care? And what has amazed me is the nature of those who have, in the end, cared. Not poets necessarily, or those whose lives are entirely wrapped around books—but people who walk beside rivers, row on them, watch them meander. Somehow a river's autobiography has not struck them as strange or off-putting.

I can't even express how grateful I am for the unexpected reader.

Thank you for telling me your story.


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Belle, I love that image of Red Room as a bento box. I'm a new member, but I'm finding that metaphor to be deliciously true!

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It turns out that writing

It turns out that writing FLOW became impossible not to do. But the truth is, everything turned around tone. Until I had shaped the sound of the river's voice, I could know nothing of her emotional story (her historical story was deeply researched and full of surprises).

No plans for ZENOBIA as a series so far. But you never know.

Thank you so much for writing.

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Is it really so strange?

To me, hearing that you conceived of the river as a she was what made me want to read the book. To what to you attribute the editors' ambivalence at what seems to me like a completely natural and exciting idea?

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I never thought it was strange...

Nor is writing a book from the perspective of anything non-human so terribly unexpected. There is a turtle out there who talks, thanks to Verlyn Klinkenborg (his book came out just as I was finishing mine). And don't clouds talk in children's books, aren't there words inside the howling of the wind? Pigs talk on Animal Farms and dogs talk, and really, the old oak tree is filled up to its highest branches with some kind of something.

I found it interesting, the publishing reaction, but not upsetting. For in the end, our books find the right homes, and FLOW found Temple, a Philadelphia press that was happy to tell a Philadelphia story.

And I agree with you about the bento box! A fabulous comparison.


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Interesting. I have a young woman in one of my novels name Zenobia, much to the consternation of her extremely conservative southern father who will only refer to her as "Z" throughout the story.

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The Zenobia namesake

Zenobia the name turns heads, it really doess. Each of us brings our own understanding of the word, its origins. Of course there is the heroic Zenobia warrior.... But there is also (and here is where our story takes root) the famous Italo Calvino tale called Zenobia, which was a broken, uneven, askew place.

It was the askew-ness of the Calvino vision that gave me a first idea....

I like the idea of your novel!