Remembering Marguerite McGlinn

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We received some sad news over the weekend. Our dear friend and essay editor, Marguerite McGlinn passed away, much too young.

I first met Marguerite back in my early days at the Rittenhouse Writers Group. Marguerite possessed a certain subtle intensity that comes from being very, very smart and very determined, and she shared that intensity with the group. If anyone ever had a question regarding Shakespeare or the Classics, Marguerite was the resident expert. When I first met her, she was still teaching high school English at Mount St. Joseph Academy for girls in Flourtown, and while she enjoyed teaching, I believe she longed for more intellectual stimulation. She left her job to give over to that determination, completing two mystery novels, both set in Ireland with literary themes, and many short stories.

When Christine and I decided to start Philadelphia Stories, Marguerite was one of the first people we invited on to our fiction board. Although she was an accomplished travel writer and grammar editor (she edited the Trivium for Paul Dry Books), we knew her real passion was fiction. She served in that capacity until we came to the realization that we needed a full-time essay editor. We turned to Marguerite who we felt was the perfect choice. She knew that we wanted essays that read like stories; essays that spoke to some kind of emotional truth and that were not just glorified journal entries or a litany of someone’s daily activities. Many quarters nothing fit our stringent criteria, but there was never a temptation on Marguerite’s part, or ours, to print the best of what came in, or something that was close, but just not right for us. She believed in the quality of Philadelphia Stories, and we trusted her opinion implicitly.

As a writer, I’m happy and proud to say that we had the good fortune to publish Marguerite’s story The Sphinx http://www.philadelphiastories.org/stories/mcglinn_sphinx.html in the Fall 2007 issue. In this story, Marguerite gently captures the subtleties of what it means to be a friend and how the attention of the right boy can overcome even the strongest Catholic guilt. Much like the great short-story writer J.F. Powers, Marguerite frequently wrote stories that incorporated both her deep-felt Catholicism and her Irish roots. The conflicts in her stories were usually buried deep within the characters themselves–there was no need for flashy displays of histrionics or car chases. I don’t know if she would agree with me, but her work (especially her short stories) definitely have a modernist bent, not unlike another Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor or Carson McCullers.

As a friend, I’m not sure what to say that will accurately do justice to how much I respected Marguerite. When I was working on my MFA at Rosemont, I would stop by Marguerite’s house (she lived very close to the college) for a quick pasta supper or a cup of tea. She was teaching at St. Joe’s by then and was invigorated by her classroom experiences. I was jazzed too, particularly that first semester, having been out of a formal classroom setting for almost 20 years, and was on fire for Shakespeare, and appalled at the grammatical ineptitude of some of my fellow students. (And if you knew me better, you would realize just how ironical that really is!) But what Marguerite and I did most during those visits was commiserate about writing, specifically, how tough it is to spend time marketing oneself, particularly if you’re not naturally the kind of person who is comfortable extolling your own virtues. I think I can say that Marguerite was frustrated to a certain extent, like many of us. She could write–of that there is no question. She had skill and control and it was clear that she knew what she was doing. The good things that happened in her stories were not by accident. She made them happen. But she did not receive the type of recognition she deserved. Publishers were mildly interested in her novels, telling her that they were well written, but ultimately there were no takers. This was a disappointment for her as it is for any of us in that situation.

This is how it goes for most writers, if we’re lucky we get some kind of positive feedback, but a pat on the back can never take the place of seeing our words in print. But ultimately we have to write to satisfy ourselves, if we don’t we may never have the opportunity to satisfy anyone else. Marguerite knew this and she kept pushing herself to be better and to work harder. She was always very encouraging to me, but also very honest. I always knew I could trust her and a person can’t ask for more than that in a friend.

I also was lucky enough to get to know Marguerite’s husband Tom. She often remarked to me that he was, “a good man,” and when he was home they always made time to spend time together. I always respected them both for that continued commitment to each other. Most people should be so lucky to want to spend time with their spouse after 30 plus years of marriage.

I’m not sure what else to say. I will miss her. We will all miss her. She had a lot left to accomplish and that makes me sad, mostly for Marguerite, but for all of us, really. As much as we want to leave our little piece of a cultural legacy behind, in the end it’s the individuals that we connect with as human beings that really matter, and Marguerite will long be remembered, not only as having been a wonderful teacher, writer, mother, wife and friend, but an extraordinary human being.

–cjs

Wacko Wednesdays: Prosopagnosia by Christine Cavalier

Writing Tips
For three years, I lived in a third floor walkup apartment in a lovely 7-unit brownstone building at 18th and Pine.  Most of us renters were in our twenties and early thirties except “Ellen”, a woman in her late 50’s.  Ellen seemed a bit strange but she was friendly and a good neighbor.  We all knew each other pretty well.   
Ellen, like me and half of Philadelphia, worked at the University of Pennsylvania.  One night we both had worked late and ended up on the same Center City shuttle.  I sat down with her and began chatting away.  Ellen was more shy and reserved than normal.  
Our stop came and Ellen hustled to get out of the shuttle (which, I understood perfectly – those shuttle drivers think South Street is the Autobahn).  After tugging my bag free from the overstuffed masses on the shuttle, I had to jog a bit to catch up with paunchy, middle-aged Ellen, who was booking it and clutching her purse the same way I hold Peeps at Easter.   Just quirky Ellen being Ellen, I thought.  It was pretty dark.  To help her feel more comfortable on the 2 block walk home, I continued chatting in lower tones.  Ellen would nod nervously.
We arrived at the front door.  Ellen’s knuckles were white around her keys.  I could feel her anxiety skyrocket when I stepped up behind her, readying myself to hold the very heavy door for her.  That’s when she said it.
“It was nice talking with you, but I don’t know  you and you can’t come in with me.”

  

Obviously, I was blown away.  I had known this woman for over 2 years!  While I stood dumbstruck for a moment, Ellen continued.  “My neighbors will hear me and I will have them call the police.”
“Ellen,” I said, “It’s me, Christine!  I live on the third floor.  Look, here is my key.  Let me open the door.”  She stepped aside, her face wrought with fear.  I opened the door and went into the vestibule.  “See?  It’s me!  I live on the 3rd floor.” I repeated.
Ellen slowly came in.   “Oh it’s you!” she said, the color returning to her face.  “Oh, I didn’t recognize you.”
After a 30 minute conversation? I thought.
After some awkward chitchat, we both went to our apartments.  I would have dismissed Ellen’s quirkiness as just that if I didn’t get the same exact reaction twice, a few weeks later.  Once I ran into her at a Rittenhouse Square coffee shop and another time in a local market.  Both times she reacted as if I were a stalker who knew her cat’s name and too many intimate details about her life.
Asking around, I discovered that Ellen probably suffers from Prosopagnosia, which is also called ‘face blindness.’  Congenital damage or brain injury disables a person’s ability to recognize faces, while the ability to recognize other aspects or physical features remains in tact.  Ellen used familiar surroundings of the brownstone as well as the sound of my voice in the vestibule to finally recognize me.  
Cecelia Burman runs Prosopagnosia.com.  One the site, she tries to explain the condition.  “Some individuals we expect to see in certain places. When we suddenly see them in another place we may fail to recognize them altogether.”  Without the familiar surroundings, Ellen could not recognize me or any of the other 5 renters in the Brownstone, despite talking with us and seeing us daily for over two years.   Ms. Burman constructs an exercise with pictures of stones to help us understand what Prosopagnosia is like.  Check out her pages as a start to your research.
In the right hands, an author can touch on some profound personal and social truths by examining those among us who struggle with assumed human abilities.  Face Blindness could be used as an interesting twist to the tired amnesia story, or as a major barrier to overcome in a coming-of-age plot.   Perhaps this condition is what keeps your story’s shut-in character shut in.  Forget the cliched agoraphobia (fear of social embarrassment) – go with a perfectly balanced character with some very acute brain damage; it would be so much more interesting.  How would a person like this feel at a family wedding?  How would they use Facebook?  Would they friend people with very distinct characteristics, like albinos?  Would they prefer to be blind altogether?  What would happen if you woke up one day with this condition?  Would you think you were timetraveling or in a twilight zone?  Do a little research, and you can dive deep into the psyche of a character who is living with this mysterious and debilitating disorder.   You might find some answers to your own life’s questions in the process.
I still see Ellen around Rittenhouse Square sometimes.  If she looks at me, I flash a polite smile.  She does the same, and we keep going on our separate ways.

Wacko Wednesdays, by Christine Cavalier

Writing Tips
Do your characters need a little spice to make the jump off the page?  
Join us for ‘Wacko Wednesdays!’  Each Wednesday, Christine Cavalier, a Philadelphia area writer with a Masters degree in Educational Psychology, outlines a different personality quirk for you to consider.   Infuse these personality aspects into your characters and bring your writing to a whole new level. Make your characters memorable by adding a little wacky flavor!
This week:  Narcissism
It’s been a long day.  After carting the kids around town on errands, you hope to do a quick return at the department store.  You are about to pull into a prime parking space when you are cut off by a man in a Mercedes. You finally get into the store and are standing in line for 15 minutes when the same man cuts in front of you in line.  This is Mr. N.  You protest to Mr. N, firmly, but he ignores you.  Trailing behind Mr. N is a frazzled store clerk, pleading with him that he is going in the wrong direction.  Mr. N loudly insists that the customer service return desk is where he needs to be.   Mr. N acts like his is the King of the Store.  In fact, he is so utterly rude that you wonder if he isn’t a regional manager of some sort.  Upon listening to his totally random and unrelated request, you realize Mr. N is not a manager of anything.  In fact, he’s just a self-centered jerk.  You have no choice but to sit and wait for Mr. N to leave.
Mr. N has what Sigmund Freud termed “Narcissism.”  Based on the mythology character Narcissus who was said to fall in love with his own reflection, Freud characterized narcissism by extreme conceit and self-centered behavior.  Narcissists also relentlessly seek admiration and are prone to a dramatics.  
If you are creating a narcissistic character, make sure to add those qualities.  They can be very evident, or they can subtly leak in over time.  Here are some examples.
Write a picnic scene:  Mr. N will put a chair in the center of the blanket and expect to be handed food.  
Write a boardroom scene:  Mr. N will be late and will enter the room already speaking loudly.  
Write a marriage:  Mr. N will constantly be asking his wife if he is handsome when he already knows he is.  
Write a conversation: Mr. N will steer the subject toward himself, in all matters.  Talking about feminine-specific issues?  Mr. N will one-up you with grand stories of how well he takes care of his mother when she is feeling crampy (at first Mr. N will seem sweet, but if you write in these situations consistently, your readers will recognize the self-centered behavior).
You may have come across Mr. or Ms. N in your non-fiction life.  Ms. N would be the friend that leaves you drained of energy and you can’t exactly put your finger on why.  Mr. N is the one who routinely cancels at the last minute, citing a sick pet or simply a changed mood.  You may have labeled Mr. or Ms. N with the popular term “Toxic Friend.”  Everyone knows the type.  Narcissism is a great ‘bad guy’ quality and will help your antagonist sear her or his overblown ego into the memories of your readers.

All Eyes on Me no. 1

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So we (Christine and I) have been talking about this whole blog deal for quite some time. I have mixed emotions about the whole thing, to be honest. Will this just be another way for me to waste time and separate myself from what I really want to do? Will anyone read this? Or better still, will anyone care? Maybe, maybe not. But it does seem like this might be a good way to reach out even further into the community, and let’s face it, if you’ve spent more than five minutes talking to me, you know that I loves me a good rant! So, I guess that’s what you can expect from me. Ideally, my ranting will be both informative and entertaining and no one will take me too seriously.

My goal is to write about writing (which can be so boring)! I’d also like to write about some personal stuff (my ongoing weight-loss), maybe share some recipes, extol the virtues of yoga, and of course, talk about Philadelphia Stories. So to that end..

I never really understood the whole idea of writer’s block. I think that this is something that was invented by Hollywood. Picture the scene: cigarette smoke curls upward from a stub burning in an ashtray, a half-empty bottle of whiskey stands next to the old-fashioned type writer. The writer sits, rubbing his unshaven face, stares at the meager words he’s typed, then violently rips the paper from the machine, crumples it into a ball and hurls it toward the over-flowing wastebasket.

Do real writers get blocked? I don’t know. For me the issue is never not having anything to write about. I actually find the opposite to be true more than not. There are so many ideas banging around inside my dome that I don’t really know where to begin sometimes. Is this a form of writer’s block? Hmmm… Recently I’ve been re-examining a novel that I started almost 10 years ago and thought I had finished three years ago. Chalk it up to ego, or hubris maybe, but for some reason I feel like I need to have one more go at this thing. So here I am, workshopping it again, trying to figure out ways to fix, what I had convinced myself, wasn’t broken. It’s a challenge going back and revising work. Sometimes you get lucky, and all the thing needs is a little line editing, a little shaping. But most of the time, my work at least, needs developing. The minor characters always want to take over the story, make the major characters look bad, or worse yet, uninteresting. What’s an author to do? Kill them off, write them out–start over? Or figure out a way to make those main characters shine, make them flawed but heroic, quirky but believable. Oh, yeah, and then there’s the whole issue of plot. It would be nice if these fantastic characters didn’t just stand around and look at each other all day, it would be nice if something actually happened. But not too much of course, don’t want to run the risk of having your work thought of as plot driven–especially after you’ve earned an MFA!

I belonged to a writer’s group for a long time where plot was really the only forbidden four-letter word. I now know this is ridiculous. Nothing makes me crazier (as an editor at least) than to read something that is so skillfully crafted, where all the emphasis is on language and character development, and then nothing happens! Of course there are exceptions to this, but the movement is there, although it maybe subtle, toward some kind of change. These tiny movements can be so satisfying in a short story, but difficult to sustain in a novel.

If you were looking for an answer to this question, about being blocked, I’m afraid I don’t have one. Well, I do have one, sort of, it’s this: write. Then write some more, and then keep going. Don’t be afraid. That’s what I think real writer’s block is: fear. Usually its the fear that your work is going to stink. And guess what, it will–and then sometimes you’ll get lucky and it won’t. So now that I’ve procrastinated the appropriate amount of time, I think I’ll go take another look at those characters…

–cjs

Rainy Book Festival

Magazine News

Darth still held his own today, but the sun goddess was not smiling upon us at the Book Festival. The skies split about 3:00, so we packed it up early. I wish I had more time to walk around and see/schmooze with the other exhibitors (especially McSweeneys — who funds those gorgeous publications??). I didn’t mind too much wrapping up early since I had a buttload of work to do anyway. I hope some folks showed up for Barbara. — cw