Monday, March 28, 2011

California Lilacs

We've had Ceanothus, California's lilacs, in both front and back yard for some time.  This year, with all the water, they've outdone themselves.  And this year, I discovered that they have a lilac scent.  I always loved the way lilacs smell, and I used to go to the international day at Claremont McKenna and buy a big armful of the back-East type lilacs.  But today, I was out in the front yard, standing next to the big Ceanothus, and I smelled that distinctive lilac smell.  I thought my nose was making it up at first, but when I walked right up to a bunch of blooms and sniffed it, there it was.  Clean, light, subtle, but unmistakeably lilac.  It's a pleasure to discover a new way to enjoy these blue flowers, which cheer me up as the camelias are almost finished blooming.  The smaller bushes grow wild all along the 15 coming up from San Diego to LA.  At first, I thought the gray-blue patches were shrubs that had not leafed out yet, but I looked more carefully when I got stuck in a traffic jam, and sure enough, blue of lilacs, not gray of bare woody stems.  These lilacs seem to sneak up on me in various ways, but the surprise is always a good one.  I hope you have some lilacs to breathe in or look at near you.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Book Review for Spiral Ceiling

Libby Grandy's very insightful and gracious review for Spiral Ceiling has just been posted on The New Book Review ( and I'm excited.  Getting closer to the May 2 release date, and a lot of the pieces are falling into place.  I have uploaded the contents of the book on Amazon so they will be able to let people look inside the book if they want a preview, but it's not visible yet.  And I need to figure out how to get Amazon to list it in a more detailed category than biographies and memoirs (of which there are about 200,000 currently available to compete with) if I can.  I think bios of scientists or of educators would be a lot more likely to be searched for anyway.  No one can read a list of 200 thousand entries looking for something.  They're bound to narrow it down, and then my entry will be lost.
If any of you are gearing up for a book release, I highly recommend that you check into the ideas of Carolyn Howard-Johnson (I've added her site to my favorite sites along the left side).  She has a free newsletter that's great.  However her Frugal Book Promotion book on Kindle is not very expensive, and it's a mother-lode of good ideas for someone who wants to make a book more visible.  And they are free or at least frugal!  That's the best part for me, as I near retirement.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Fun with Twitter

Two or three weeks ago, a writer friends and I both had Twitter accounts with perhaps 20-30 people following us, maybe following about the same number of people.  The other day, I clicked on her name and she was being followed by about 300 people.  I was amazed.  I don't know if that's good, but probably it is, especially when both of us have new books out we hope people will read.  So, I asked her how she did it.  She told me she picked two categories she wanted to emphasize and followed lots of people in those categories.  Then, she used hashtags to recommend these people to each other for following purposes.  I had no idea about hashtags, but I've spent about a week playing with them on Twitter, and found out some interesting things.  If you see a tweet with #something in it, you can click on that (it's a hashtag) and get a list of messages about that.  So since I wanted to find memoir writers, I clicked on #memoir and read the tweets looking for ones not YA, not over the top, not boring.

 I followed a lot of those people.  I also tried other categories, and some of the people Twitter recommended on the special tab at the top of my home page.  I soon was following 100 people, with 30 following me.  Then, I picked out a few really good ones and listed them after this hashtag, #WW  or #FF.  They thanked me for recommending them, and some followed me back.  I retweeted some of their special comments.  More followed me.  I'm creeping up, now at sixty, which is twice where I started.  It's a bit addictive, though, you can lose an hour if you're not careful.  But I suspect just a few tweets a day will keep things going once I've ratchetted up a few rounds.  It's very interesting to read the tweets about writing and see all the energy that goes into writing and reading in these days when we keep hearing that books are dying.  I think they won't, but ebooks are growing more and more important.  Anyway, in case you need to have a Twitter presence, I thought I'd pass on the glory of hashtags.  Have fun!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Tia Obreht's Novel, The Tiger's Wife, Breaks Out

The New York Times on Tuesday, March 15 ran an article on a new, beautifully writen novel that is creating a big stir. In The Tiger's Wife, young Tia Obreht, originally from Bulgaria, wrote about war in an un-specified Balkan country, interweaving it with folk tales about a tiger and a mysterious character called the Deathless Man.  I was very taken by this quote from her, "The other evening I gave a reading, and someone came up to me afterwards and said, ' The Deathless Man is my favorite character!' My immediate reaction was, how do you know about the Deathless Man?  When you're writing, you're working on this private world that becomes more and more real to you, but it's still your own.  And then to discover that other people can access it--in a way that really shocks me."

What resonates with me is how this relates to writing memoir. In Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling, I've told the events of my entering the world of science, come what may, and making a life for myself balancing family and career, still allowing me to uncover the secrets of aging.  But those intimate events and details are shocking to me on the lips of those who read my book and want to ask, "Did Lyle ever write again after that awful challenge of his essay in fifth grade?" or "Do you often think about your student Jo who committed suicide?"  I feel like my own mind has just been x-rayed.  But of course, I said to myself that I was ready for this when I decided to write the memoir.  When the questions come, I still feel shocked, just like Tia Obreht.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Talking About My Life

When you write a memoir, you're deciding privacy is not so important to you.  Instead, you have a message you want to share with others, and you're willing to take the risk of revealing your secret life to achieve that goal.  Open secrets, things you never really wanted to tell anyone.  Suddenly, you find that people you don't know ask you why you did things you're ashamed of.  You have no answers, really, but you try to talk about what you think might have changed in you, so that now you would never do such things.  You can't be sure that's true.

Writing is a dangerous craft, and there is no way to do it without letting cats out of bags, taking the cover off the bed, letting the hidden be revealed.  Well, there is another way.  It's called boring.  If you want to compel your readers to live it with you, so they'll arrive in the place you are and understand your message, you must let go of your desire to remain safe.

So, when I went recently to Emory University's Oxford College to talk about my memoir, Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling, I hoped it would be easy and safe. Of course, it was not, at least not altogether.  But I liked the way the students, especially women and students of color, felt it showed them a path worth considering.  I became a woman in science with a family, married and with kids, but still finding out the hidden ways the molecules of the universe work, why aging happens at the scale of molecules.  I talked with them about my student who committed suicide, my daughter who once asked, "Are you going to step on me, Mommy?" And my son, whose seventh grade teacher completely gave up on him, although his English aptitude scores were above 90%, because, as she said, "I know these black kids struggle with English."
They kept asking, "Didn't your family get in the way of your career?"  Of course it did.  But I kept both going because both were supremely important to me.  It was a struggle, no denying that.  And there were days when I had no idea if it would all fall apart.  But it didn't and I have the nerve to hope it would not for them either, if they decide they would love to be biologists with families.