I’ve been busy doing readings of The Big Marsh, so I haven’t kept my blog up-to-date, nor do I want to feel the pressure to do so. One reader, however, told me that he couldn’t find any information about the new book on my website, so I’ll use this space briefly as a navigational guide. Check the menu that runs along the top of the page. Click “Books” for information about any of my books, including how to buy them if they are still available. Click “Public Appearances” to see if I have any readings scheduled or to listen to an interview archived online. If you’ve come to my website to read the blog, please be patient. I’ll write when the impulse strikes. Thank you for your interest.
Once I was discharged from St. Eriks Sjukhus, I continued my journey through the Swedish women’s movement. Karin Westman Berg, who might be called the Mother of Women’s Studies in Scandinavia, welcomed me into her labyrinthine Uppsala apartment, where I would stay many times throughout the 1970s, and invited me to a symposium on the novelist Fredrika Bremer attended by literary scholars from around the world. In Örebro, I slept on silk sheets for the only time in my life–at the home of a Swedish communist. In Göteborg (aka Gothenburg), I read documents at the Women’s History Archives and stayed in a commune where two guys waiting to ship out as crew on a cruise popped popcorn every night–a rare delicacy in Sweden. My favorite memory from that time is waking up to the clomp-clomp of wooden clogs as little kids hurried off to school. I ate blood pudding in Lund, smothered in lingonberry sauce to make it palatable. There I was hosted by the Radical Women’s Group, several of whom were named Birgitta–the Swedish equivalent of the Kathy and Linda and Judy of my generation.
Although it was an exciting, productive, stimulating trip, the fear that I might get sick again at any time never left me. It turned into a stomach-churning anxiety the day I boarded the Malmö to Copenhagen ferry to begin the trip home. In those days, there was one clear option for a graduate student living on a fellowship to afford a trip to Europe: the 21- to 45-day excursion fare on Loftlei∂ir, the Icelandic airline, from New York to Luxembourg. After the ferry crossing, my trip home would include a 19-hour train trip from Copenhagen to Luxembourg, with transfers or layovers in Hamburg, Köln (Cologne), Koblenz, and Trier, followed by an 8-hour flight from Luxembourg to New York, and a 3- or 4-hour flight to Minneapolis. There was simply no allowance for pain, fatigue, or worse, systemic infection.
I sketched out my travel schedule in a letter home, so I know that I bought a sleeping car ticket for the 11:40 p.m. departure from Hamburg–a luxury I generally avoided. Next to my anticipated arrival in Koblenz at 7:48 a.m. I had written “breakfast.” I would board the train again by 8:29. After a restless, breathless night in the sleeping car, that breakfast in Koblenz became one of my most vivid memories, one I like to revisit.
The restaurant at Koblenz was not an intimate room tucked in a corner. It consisted of tables placed out in the open, under the high dome of the railway station. Even though it was prime breakfast time for the passengers on my train, few of them claimed the tables. I took a seat at one toward the center while the tables around me remained empty. I ordered a Tee Komplett, uncertain whether my stomach could handle the bread and pastry that accompanied the tea. I knew I needed to eat in order to have enough energy to lug my suitcases from place to place, but I had grown afraid of my own digestive system.
And then . . . I don’t know how else to say this . . . a middle-aged woman in a neat blue suit appeared at my table. She simply smiled at me and sat down in the chair across from me without a word. The other tables were still empty, yet she chose mine. When the waitress came by, she ordered a Kaffee Komplett. We sat there together, in silence, eating our breakfasts. Whenever I looked up, she was watching me intently, with a kindly smile and a gentle look of concern in her eyes. I could only smile back.
When it was time to board my train, I stood up, smiled a farewell, and walked away. All that quivering anxiety that had troubled me through the night had miraculously washed out the ends of my fingers and toes. I felt calm and confident for the rest of the trip. So who was she? Where did she come from? What did she know or perceive about me? It doesn’t really matter. For those 41 minutes, she served as my guardian angel. And she’s been with me since, not in the flesh, but recalled in memory when I think I can use her help.
I have been sick with a respiratory virus for the last week or so, and as a result, I had to postpone a trip to San Francisco. Lying in bed with a headache, as well, has given me pause to recall other times when illness coincided with, or impeded, travel. The time I have chosen to write about yields two subjects for blog posts. This is the first.
I flew to Sweden in the spring of 1972 to do research for my dissertation on the American and Swedish women’s movement’s uses of literature by and about women. I took many solo trips to Sweden before and after that, always hoping that my chronic liver disease wouldn’t suddenly upend my plans or even put my life at risk. One evening I was interviewing the author Gun-Britt Sundström at her Stockholm apartment when the familiar dizziness and pressing abdominal pain began diverting my attention. I finally had to tell her what was going on, and she kindly called a taxi and directed it to the nearest hospital, St. Eriks Sjukhus.
I arrived during obekväm arbetstid (uncomfortable–or inconvenient–worktime) so no doctor was currently staffing the ER. After a painful, anxious wait in near isolation, I was finally admitted to a ward overseen by two doctors, whom the nurses referred to as den mörke (the dark one) and den ljuse (the blond). The dark one was simply a white guy with brunette hair. I had been asked by people whom I had arranged by phone to meet whether I was ljus or mörk, and I had found the question puzzling. I hedged my answer with mitt emellan (in between). Now I figured I was dark by Swedish measures. I learned lots of new vocabulary in the hospital. The technical, Latinate “nasal-gastric suction” becomes, in Swedish, the plain, unvarnished magsugare (stomach sucker).
The most compelling lesson I learned was not linguistic, however. When I began feeling better and was allowed out of bed, I would toddle down to the patients’ lounge to watch TV. One evening I arrived just in time for the news. Another woman was already seated on the couch, so I sat in a chair. We did not speak. Our silence and mutual disregard were not unusual in Sweden, but polite. We sat there together through extensive footage from the Vietnam War. Grenades exploded. Soldiers in jungle camouflage ran for cover. Helicopters settled down and loaded bloody bodies. We said not a word. Swedish TV showed far more graphic images than were permitted on the American networks, but I had gotten used to them. The other woman and I sat passively and took it in, as calmly as if we were each watching the daily news at home.
Then, a breaking news item caused us both to gasp. Someone had stolen into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and taken a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pietà. The woman and I exchanged looks of horror: Indeed, nothing was sacred, not if an immortal work of art could be so recklessly damaged.
All that night in my hospital bed I wondered how we had come to such a pass. How could we watch the news from Vietnam evening after evening and not gasp at each assault on a human body. Why was a 19-year-old American boy or a Vietnam villager of any age of less value to us than a nearly 500-year-old work of art? The Pietà is sublimely beautiful, beyond belief. But each of those wounded bodies was more deeply loved, by someone, somewhere waiting anxiously for news.
With time, expertise, and cautious restoration, the Pietà‘s wounds were healed. My niece, a psychiatrist at a Veteran’s Administration hospital and clinic, is still tending to the damage left from the Vietnam War and those since, which no longer play out on TV.
Yesterday I returned page proofs to the managing editor at the Minnesota Historical Society Press. Today the press’s spring catalog arrived in the mail. It’s time for the official announcement of my forthcoming book: The Big Marsh.
Click on the link for all the information about it. Here, in the meantime, is the cover:
My worklife in 2015 has been measured out in deadlines and delivery dates. First came the submission deadline for my book manuscript, March 15. That was followed by a long wait for the developmental edit, the editor’s comments on storyline, structure, flow, narrative voice, and other “macro” issues. It arrived July 8 with another deadline, September 1, for my revision. The revised version of the manuscript was then passed on from the executive editor to the managing editor, who sent it out for copy editing. I got the result November 5. For most of November I put off both fun and obligations “until the copy-edit is done.” Only after turning in my responses to the copy-edit just before Thanksgiving did I realize that people probably thought I was copy editing my own manuscript. What is “the copy-edit,” anyway?
The copy-edit is done by a professional copy editor, a meticulous reader trained to see the minutiae of writing: placement of commas, the need for a semi-colon, consistency in spelling and capitalization, precise use of vocabulary, etc. Because rules about such minutiae are not always absolute, this indispensable person has either memorized a certain style, an established set of guidelines, or has the skill to find answers quickly in a style book. Styles differ, but consistency always matters. The copy editor on my book Beyond Good Intentions removed the extraneous commas after adverbs and prepositional phrases that opened sentences such as “Recently,” (see my first paragraph) or “After the snow had stopped falling, we went out to shovel the sidewalk.” In deference to her judgment I got into the habit of skipping those commas, as I just did in the opening of this sentence. That made extra work for the copy editor of The Big Marsh, who put them all back in. Neither is right or wrong. It’s a matter of style.
My job was to look over the freshly copy-edited manuscript and either accept or reject each of the changes the copy editor made. The author does get the final word, unless the managing editor has good reason to overrule either author or copy editor. I generally accepted the changes in punctuation. I tend to punctuate for breath, as though I’m reading the manuscript aloud. That makes for an excess of commas, which my copy editor dutifully deleted. I am grateful to copy editors for bearing the burden of punctuating correctly and for suggestions that save me from embarrassment. I still remember, fondly, the copy editor who cured me of a tic, the overuse of “very” to intensify adjectives.
Meticulous as they are, copy editors inspire authors, too, to take greater care in writing and revising. By daring to rewrite our precious prose, they make us more deliberate in our word choices. Before we reject their changes, we stop and think about why our choices matter. Here, for readers whose eyes have not yet glazed over, are some examples from my recent experience.
The copy editor’s take on “may” and “might” was different from mine. He chose “may” for present tense and “might” for past tense, a simple rule that makes consistency easy to achieve. My search through several usage guides showed that the distinction between the two words can be more subtle than that. I opted for subtlety. Since the history I am writing is not thoroughly documented, I sometimes had to speculate or conjecture about what “may” have happened. What “might” have happened sounded either conditional (what might have happened if such-and-such were the case) or more certain than I felt, as though just a bit more evidence would show that what might have happened did happen.
Sometimes my decision about the copy editor’s correction was meant to preserve historical accuracy. For example, he broke the compound word “buttermaker” into “butter maker,” in accordance with his style book’s general rules. I use the word to denote an occupation that arose after the invention of the cream separator, when farmers in Freeborn County, Minnesota, began organizing cooperative creameries. The word that shows up in newspaper accounts of dairying at the turn of the last century is the compound “buttermaker.”
Some quibbles are about word quality. The copy editor questioned my use of the word “spinster,” which is often used pejoratively. I enjoy reclaiming old words for women that originally had positive or neutral connotations. A “spinster” was not an abject, unloved “old maid,” but an unmarried adult woman, a maiden aunt, with significant responsibility for her family’s well-being. As the word for her indicates, she could often be found at the spinning wheel, doing essential, productive work. She had dignity, and so should the language used about her.
Sometimes justice moves us to break the rules. The proper way to name people that the Canadians call First Nations is disputed here in the U.S. Some prefer Indian or American Indian, others Native American, and others specific tribal names. Because I was referring to such people before Europeans arrived and imposed names on them, I chose to use “Native people.” (When I knew the tribal names, I used them.) The rule is to leave “native” lower-case, but I wanted their status in my book to be equivalent to that of the European settlers, whether Yankees and Yorkers born in the U.S. or Norwegian and Danish immigrants, all of whom get capital letters. I capitalized Midwestern throughout for a similar reason.
Copy editing is no easy, sure-fire undertaking, for either editor or author. Perils abound. No matter how carefully we choose words and construct sentences, readers may still misinterpret or even misread. An Amazon.com reviewer who didn’t like Beyond Good Intentions wrote that I said I was “weery” of the growing popularity of international adoption. I think the reviewer meant “weary.” What I had written, however, was “wary.” We can’t be too wary or too careful.
So that’s what a copy-edit is. ( This post could use some copy editing.) I passed yet another milestone this past Tuesday, December 15: I met the marketing team to begin planning the distribution of The Big Marsh, which will be published May 1, 2016. And now I’ll sit tight and wait for page proofs in January.
I am almost finished with the final revision of my book, which is now titled, for certain, The Big Marsh: The Story of a Lost Landscape. Minnesota Historical Society Press is publishing it in spring of 2016. When it is out of my hands and safely in production–soon!–I will blog again, and I look forward to it.
I’m still around, living for the moment in Writer’s Limbo. I’ve sent in a book manuscript and signed a contract for its publication. The book, tentatively titled For the Birds: The Life and Drainage of a Minnesota Wetland, is due out in Spring 2016. Any day now I should be getting the editor’s comments. Soon, or when the work on the book is done, I’ll be back to blog. Once again, I’ll write on whim, when something strikes me as worthy of commentary. It might even be tomorrow. Thanks for checking in from time to time.
We are enjoying the peak of the fall season here in Minneapolis, amid flaming red and rich gold maple trees, bronze oaks, and hues of rust and wine. Last Thursday Bob Herbert, formerly an op-ed writer with the New York Times and now affiliated with Demos, came to speak to the Westminster Town Hall Forum. He started out by lauding the beautiful day. It reminded him of learning about autumn in grammar school, he said, because the pictures in the books looked just like our trees. Now Herbert was born in Brooklyn, so he probably knew autumn first hand. Yet he made me think of the many children in warmer climates for whom trees turning red and gold are otherworldly. I remembered, too, how I used to puzzle over books that dated the coming of spring to March.
Recently I heard about an acquaintance who had gone to Maine earlier this year and, he said, “fulfilled a lifelong dream.” What might that be? He had walked on a frozen lake! When I tell this story to Minnesotans, they double over laughing. A couple I used to know moved to Minnesota from Maryland for graduate school and decided to use their sojourn here to try out winter wilderness camping. They pored over the map and chose a big lake north of the Twin Cities that would be just the place. When they pulled up with their camping gear, they found it covered with ice fishing houses. Cars and pickups drove back and forth on plowed, named streets. Yes, it was Mille Lacs.
Where this all leads me is to another memory that has greatly benefited my writing and teaching. An essay I was working on about cornfields had gotten a strangely befuddled and negative response from a New York City critic. In need of a second opinion, I turned to Paul Gruchow, the late Minnesota writer. He gave me a piece of advice I have lived by ever since: “Remember that you live in an exotic landscape. You need to interpret it to readers who haven’t been there.” It’s sound advice for all writers, wherever they live–even New York City.
I feel as though I’ve sliced off a chunk of my life and let it fall away. In the midst of a serious basement cleaning, I came across a cardboard box taped shut and marked “Scandinavian Stuff to Store.” I doubt that the box was opened on its move from a former home to this one, where I’ve lived for 28 years. I imagine one of the friends who helped me through that difficult move transported it from its attic lodging to the old coal room of this basement. The coal room turned out to be a poor place to store precious things; its walls wept whenever the ground around the house was soaked. But how precious could “Scandinavian Stuff” be?
The tape peeled off easily, having lost its adhesive. Inside were spiral notebooks with the University of Chicago seal on the cover, along with the price, 60¢. Each corresponded to a class I took on my way to three degrees in Scandinavian Languages and Literatures. (Yes, I’m a bird as rare as the Chicago phoenix.)
One notebook was a literary history on pages of graph paper, with titles of works charted alongside public events of the same year. I remember how refreshing it was to read Scandinavian novels in their historical context after my encounter, during my first year of general courses, with New Criticism, which insisted that nothing but the text is of interest. Another notebook recorded all that I was learning about sound changes from Proto Germanic to Old Norse and through all its phases and geographical divisions down to present day Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian. I had once even known the patterns that distinguish Færoese from Icelandic. The notebooks affirmed my sense that I was a thorough and meticulous notetaker, as I read under the vaulted ceilings of my favorite Neogothic reading rooms, and as I followed discussion in class. Lectures were not the standard mode of a UC education.
The box of Scandinavian stuff reminded me how much I loved all that learning, how pleasurable it was to record new, amazing bits of information and then let them merge into place in a synthesis that made me feel as though I understood some facet of human experience, esoteric though it might be. For a moment I imagined myself reading through the notebooks again to recover all that knowledge I no longer retain. But they were too musty and smelly. Turning the pages made me cough. Instead I recycled the best of the bunch and dumped the rest in the garbage. With that reasonable, practical decision went some of the joy.
Years ago I found a shoebox of notecards for my Master’s thesis in the garage and felt great relief at clearing them out. This time, the residue is more like grief. I suspect the “stuff” I accumulated for my Ph.D. dissertation still lurks somewhere in this house, but finding it will not cheer me up. Tossing away the tangible evidence of my schooling leaves nothing to protect me from losing the sensory memory of it. I also realize that my daughters know little about who I was in my twenties and how passionate a learner I was. They know that I went to the University of Chicago and that it’s probably the reason I enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” so much. I knew those guys in the place where, as the t-shirt reads, “the odds are good, but the goods are odd.” I relished the Life of the Mind we odd ones came there to live.
If I’m going to be true to the spirit of my education, I should take up some new subject and fill new notebooks as joyfully as I filled the ones the city’s trucks hauled away this morning. I may be less thorough, less meticulous. The adhesive in my brain is nearly as worn as the adhesive on the tape around that precious, waterlogged box. And I probably ought to send in my end-of-the-year donation to the University of Chicago so that some other small town Midwesterner from a working-class family can enjoy the privilege of mental immersion in thrilling “stuff.”