Catch an Expeditious App and Put It In Your Pocket!

Geolocation is integrated into Fodor's City Guide apps.

Six cities have updated wanderlusting apps from Fodor’s Travel, who has announced the re-launch of their City Guide apps for iPhone and iPad (Nook and Android versions are in the works). The free apps now integrate partner functionality from Expedia, OpenTable and Ticketmaster, and are available for New York City, Paris, London, Rome, Barcelona and San Francisco. They offer geolocation features and interactive offline maps, which are powered by developer Red Foundry’s new Fusion Platform, the world’s first network uniting app developers and publishers with service providers.

Travelers can book hotels through the Expedia Affiliate Network, make dinner plans with OpenTable, and buy show and concert tickets through TicketsNow, Ticketmaster’s resale marketplace. The geolocation features allow sojourners to see what is nearby by interest—categories include what to see, what to eat, shopping, nightlife/arts, and where to stay.

Arthur Avenue in the Bronx is a trendsetter's alternative to Little Italy in Manhattan. Photo by Paul Clemence.

I decided to take the New York City app for a test drive on my iPad, and it nailed my location quickly. I agreed with many of the “what to see” listings it put up, several of which I would recommend for tourists visiting NYC who want more than the usual suspects of places to see. One of which was Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, which my pal and architectural photographer Paul Clemence has photographed so eloquently, as the above photo proves.

Fodor's City Guide Apps Offer OpenTable Reservations.

The “what to eat” suggestions were a bit all over the place but I did ask for the best recommendations in New York City without determining a culinary style, and the fact that they could narrow it down as tightly as they did impressed me! Shopping brought up everything from Betsey Johnson in SoHo to Beads of Paradise in the Flatiron District and the Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn, which I have frequented (and give the app a high five for referencing).

The oh-so-edgy tiki bar Painkiller wasn’t listed under “Nightlife & the Arts” (though I’ll admit, it would probably cause anyone who is less than an intrepid traveler to freak out when standing on the street in front of the bar’s address and see no discernable sign of a party until someone entering or exiting opened the graffiti panel serving as the venue’s door)-steamy! Pegu Club is there—excellent sourcing by featuring this mixology-driven venue, Fodor’s.

The Lower East Side has its own version of a hip, Parisian cafe for writers and filmmakers to hang.

Kudos to the travel experts for listing the Pink Pony on the Lower East Side. Any café with a mural of Arthur Rimbaud on the wall and a tagline like “Café Littéraire & Ciné Club” is high on my “kicky and quirky venues” list, which we locals pride ourselves in compiling for those times we want something out-of-the-ordinary. The Field Notes section is great—the perfect place for accumulating the lists you’d like to share with friends who will be visitng the same city or for resourcing your highlights the next time Hērmēs, the god of travel, wings you to the same town.

Sax in the City has only one request of the developers: I would like to have seen an easier search function for places by name. Those of us who travel frequently, especially travel journalists who are writing about cities, often go armed with recommendations for venues to experience. This app only allows search by previously determined categories unless it’s not obvious and if it’s not obvious to me someone using this level of technology for the first time wouldn’t likely find it. That said, these apps are definitely well worth the time it takes to download them. Off I go to Paris (if only)!


Make It Personal!

The Tomb of Heloise & Abelard

The tomb of Heloise & Abelard at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

I’ve been blazing around Paris soaking in a schizophrenic mix of historically significant writerly inspiration and modern-day Parisian glitz: it’s quite a paradoxical melange! Even the eye candy cuts its own broad swath, from beautifully dressed men and women to a luscious piece of iconic architecture at every turn (I will admit to being a sucker for the Neoclassical French style–the ubiquitous mansard roofs alone are enough to make me swoon)!

I generally shy away from overtly touristy experiences when I travel but I’ve put them in the mix during this pilgrimage to the City of Light. They’ve been important points of inspiration sprinkled amongst the hours spent journaling in the cafes that once drew some of the most dedicated writers of all time. What I’ve done with each exploit is to dig deeper; to make each overtly obvious tourist escapade my own in some way.

Oscar Wilde's Tomb at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

Oscar Wilde’s tomb at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

At the Pere Lachaise cemetery, seeing the tomb of Heloise & Abelard was as exciting as I thought it would be. I’ve been inspired by their story for ages. But seeing Oscar Wilde’s tomb was a surprise, as it taught me something important as an avid reader. Words in a book, regardless how well crafted they are, do not always do the thing they are describing justice if there is significant emotionality attached.

I’d read in a number of books, including one of my favorites that I recommend to anyone before they travel to Paris, Metrostop Paris, that Wilde’s grave was one of the most popular in the massive cemetery, and that it had to be cleaned regularly because fans of his literature could not help but write on or kiss the slabs surrounding the writer’s remains. It was a sight to behold and one of the most moving outpourings of emotion I’ve ever seen–in as many different languages as you can imagine.

Kisses gone Wilde on Oscar Wilde's tomb at Pere Lachaise.

Kisses gone Wilde!

This limitation of description was brought home to me again as I stood in the study of La Maison de Balzac, the museum dedicated to the famous French novelist and playwright Honore de Balzac. His petite writing table and roomy upholstered chair were placed in the center of the intimately-scaled room where the writer spent hours creating his novels and plays, nearly 100 of which make up La Comedie Humaine.

He retreated to the tiny home that was an outbuilding of a larger residence, or a folly, to escape creditors during a low point in his life. He lived in the one-story dwelling nestled into a lush garden between 1840 to 1847. “Working means getting up at midnight every evening, writing until eight o’clock, having lunch in a quarter of an hour, working till five o’clock, having dinner, going to bed, and starting all over again the next day,” Balzac wrote.

The writing table, which remains exactly where he had placed it, is where he proofread the entire La Comedie. He said that the desk was “the witness of my worries, my miseries, my distress, my joys, everything. My arm has almost worn it out with rubbing as I write.”

As I stood trying to imagine the mammoth creative energy that must have been unleashed in that room (before I had read this quote, mind you), the thing that struck me was how the table top had been worn down to the point that it had a significant indention in it where the writer had repeatedly run his arms over the wood as he drew wildly flailing lines to the margins of the pages he edited then scribbled in the updated text he wanted to include in the pages he had written.

He had done so time and time again as the exhaustive display of edited pages proved. I stood in awe of this tiny table with sturdy turned legs, which had acted as the foundation of such great literary works. It is a memory I will treasure forever.

The door to Honore de Balzac's study in Passy, a suburb of Paris.

The door to Honore de Balzac’s study in Passy, a suburb of Paris.

Forgive me if I seem overly sentimental in this post: I really do dig this type of exploration so much! It’s like manna from heaven for this writer, who has been making a living as a journalist and author for the past 15 years, to let some of the chaos go and drop down into a deeper place. I hope that if you are roaming somewhere soon, you’ll be sure to find a way to make your experiences heartfelt. There’s nothing like it no matter where you are in the world! And, it just so happens to be #TravelTuesday so we should all be roaming where we want to!


Love and #LetsBlogOff

The tomb of Heloise and Abelard at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

The tomb of Heloise and Abelard at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

I’m in Paris at last and I’m heading to Pere Lechaise, the famed cemetery, in a few minutes to visit the tomb of Heloise and Abelard, the doomed lovers whose story has stood the test of time because nothing could stop them from their longing to be together, even though they spent years apart and lonely in that vast devastation. What signifies love more than two people who never give up on their feelings for each other, even when everything in the physical realm is conspiring against them? I give you a poem today by my poetry professor at Vermont College, Tom Absher.

It’s from his book Forms of Praise, which holds a series of poems written in their voices–missives to and about each other–that meld into one heartbreaking litany of unrequited passion.

II Living Alone


After working all day in the fields

helping prepare the earth for seed,

I return to my room and wait for sleep.

I have almost given up on reading.

Watching the fading light soften the edges of things

I begin to let go of my loneliness.

A chair sends forth its thin shadow

like a thinker thinking of himself.

The sky runs through its last hues

and miraculously the chair, the room,

we vanish together.

Gradually I hear the monks talking in sleep—

they speak of their fathers, of women, of miracles.

I make the cross in the darkness

and may God forgive me I think only of you.

                             Tom Absher (from Forms of Praise)

Behind Every Curtain

The Actor Artaud in "The Passion of Joan of Arc" in 1928

The Actor Artaud in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” in 1928.

If you’ve been following me on Twitter or Facebook, or subscribed to my blogs, you’ve likely been bombarded by my gushing about the fact that I’m writing a memoir, which I post weekly on The Road to Promise to coincide with #WriterWednesday on Twitter! Wednesday has come around yet again and I put my 60th post online today, one that finds me reading an article by Bruce Weber about Richard Ford’s ability to create unique characters.

It was 1988 and the novelist was one of the hottest rising stars in American literature at the time. Weber quotes Raymond Carver in the piece. He was a close friend of Ford’s, and he says about his work, “Sentence for sentence…Richard is the best writer at work in this country today.” I have a love/hate relationship with Ford’s fiction, but I’m a solid fan of Carver’s work, especially his poetry. If I’m ever stymied in my own work, I often pull Carver’s A New Path to the Waterfall off my bookshelf and read a few poems. There’s something about his voice that has a way of kick-starting me when I need a good push.

Today, I thought I’d share this poem from his book because its subject figures significantly in my history as a writer, a history that is being plotted on The Road to Promise as I continue to follow the material along.


Among the hieroglyphs, the masks, the unfinished poems,

the spectacle unfolds: Antonin et son double.

They are at work now, calling up the old demons.

The enchantments, etc. The tall, scarred-looking

one at the desk, the one with the cigarette and

no teeth to speak of, is prone to

boldness, to a certain excess

in speech, in gesture. The other is cautious,

watches carefully his opportunity, is effacing even. But

at certain moments still hints broadly, impatiently

of his necessarily arrogant existence.


Antonin, sure enough, there are no more masterpieces.

But your hands trembled as you said it,

and behind every curtain there is always, as you

knew, a rustling.

Raymond Carver (from A New Path to the Waterfall)

Carver’s poem references the theories put forth in Antonin Artaud’s book The Theater and Its Double, one that I read during graduate studies at NYU when I had the great fortune of having William Packard lead me through a semester devoted to the aesthetics of writing. In Artaud’s chapter “No More Masterpieces,” he writes, “Masterpieces of the past are good for the past: they are not good for us. We have the right to say what has been said and even what has not been said in a way that belongs to us, a way that is immediate and direct, corresponding to present modes of feeling, and understandable to everyone.”

I’m heading to Paris next week so France is on my mind. I’m going to have more time to explore my deeper creative work during this trip as I hang out in the cafes where some of the greatest writers of all time have sat and scribbled their ideas, Artaud among them. I’ll be working on a book of poems and a play, and I hope my work will be infused with the level of immediacy and directness that he champions. I also hope to achieve something akin to Artaud’s brand of revitalization, even if it’s in the tiniest way.

He proposes that literature and the dramatic arts induce a trance just as the dances of Dervishes induce trance: “There is a risk involved, but in the present circumstances I believe it is a risk worth running. I do not believe we have managed to revitalize the world we live in, and I do not believe it is worth the trouble of clinging to; but I do propose something to get us out of our marasmus, instead of continuing to complain about it, and about the boredom, inertia, and stupidity of everything.”

I will feel him looking over my shoulder as I write (say) what has been written (said) in a way that belongs to me, ever hopeful that some aspect of my work might someday have an impact even while I realize that it will by then be “of the past” and therefore only good for the past. As to whether I’ll ever produce masterpieces, that’s for a future generation to decide, I suppose. I’ll be long gone but may the work live on! Happy roaming everyone! I’ll be posting from the City of Lights next week: stay tuned!



Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras

Is there a reason to be optimistic? No. There isn’t just one. There are many. The sun scaled my scrap of sky this morning; I am writing this, the open books on the smooth surface of my desk cupping each other like clam shells filled with briny juice and delicate pearls; I have a splendid legacy of authors who came before me, daring to break new ground with their pens, typewriters and keyboards; last and most exciting of all, I am about to make a pilgrimage to France to visit the town where one of my favorite writers, Marguerite Duras, penned some of her most dynamic works. I’ll be staying in the very building (which is now a hotel) in which she had an apartment in Trouville, a town in Normandy sluiced by brisk ocean waters and buffeted by maritime winds.

The beach at Trouville

The beach at Trouville

Largely locked in her apartment at Les Roches Noires for days on end, Duras wrote The Malady of Death among other books. The prolific author penned plays, screenplays and novels; and directed films and theater, culled largely from her own material. One of her biographers, Laure Adler, wrote of her, “She became an excellent administrator of her own talent, constantly recycling Duras.” Le Monde called The Malady of Death “…an extended haiku on the meaning of love…” Duras’ writing was enigmatic in many cases: the film India Song, for example, holds dialogue that rolls along with a hypnotic repletion of the word “yes” spoken by a voice detached from human form. The word continually answers questions spoken by another voice sans body.

Claude Monet painted the Les Roches Noires

Claude Monet painted the Les Roches Noires

One of her best-known works outside of France is The Lover, which is said to be semi-autobiographical and based upon her childhood in Vietnam. In the book she wrote, “The story of my life doesn’t exist. Does not exist. There’s never any center to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend there used to be someone, but it’s not true, there was no one.”

It has taken me years to make this trip happen, the seed of which was planted when I saw the film Cet Amour-Lá by Josée Dayan. The movie is based upon Duras’ years in Trouville when a young man named Yann Andréa Steiner came into her life. The film is a moving tribute to Duras’ appetite for the written word and her drive to get it on the page even when alcohol and cigarettes took their toll on her health. I share this determination to make a mark as a writer and this trip will be my heartfelt homage to her lust for language and determination to make her writing wholly unique.

At the end of The War: A Memoir, Duras wrote, “It’s dark. I can’t see the words I’ve written any more. I can’t see anything except my motionless hand which has stopped writing to you.” She’s one of the brave writers who inspire me to continue working even when self-doubt and feelings of arrogance that what I have to say matters creep in. She’s one of the reasons I have been able to continue posting The Road to Promise, even when I wondered why I would. I can’t wait to breathe in the salty air from that swath of shoreline at the edge of the English Channel. “There are reasons to be optimistic?” “Yes.”


At this lone hour…

Villa Roccabruna (back in the day)

Villa Roccabruna (back in the day)

I’m taking a tour of Italian properties, one of which is CastaDiva in Lake Como. I arrived this afternoon to crisp air and a faint haze hovering around the undulant slopes that ring the beautiful body of water. I’ve been reading Percy Bysshe Shelley, who spent some time with Lord Byron in Lake Como one summer. The idea that two such great poetic minds would have come together in such a delicious setting has always fascinated me and I feel blessed as a writer to get to soak in the atmosphere, thinking for a moment that I’m channeling the energy that feeds the future of the poetic arts.

Shelley, who left England with his second wife Mary in 1818, was mesmerized by Italy and toured many of the country’s greatest cities. He wrote “Adonais” and “Prometheus Unbound” while traipsing from town to town before he drowned in the Bay of Spezia on July 8, 1822, aboard his boat “Don Juan” during a storm.  As I was flying into Milan today, skimming above the Alps in a plane, I began a poem, a work in progress, that felt incredibly good to write.

I’ll be penning more practical reports of my time here, of course, but for tonight (it is evening here), I’m sending you these heartfelt lines that soothed me after a non-stop filled-to-the-brim-with-activity trip to London to see Johnny Grey’s launch of his new kitchen furniture line at Decorex. Shelley made the same trek I made this morning, though he didn’t fly from London, of course. During his first spring in Italy, remarks John Lehmann, who wrote Shelley in Italy, “each step he took seemed to increase his enthusiasm, and also his power of description…He began by thinking of staying in Como, the first Italian scene to be celebrated in his poetry (in Rosalind and Helen).” In the poem, Shelley’s protagonist warns, “Remember, this is Italy,/ And we are exiles.” Oh, but to be exiled here!

Ode to the Alps

Mountains heave themselves

toward haze-capped shelves of azure,

the highest peaks aglow

as the sun effervesces the snow.


Green valleys lumber through gorges

punctuated by grids of sienna

as the edge of the range gives way

to a concerto of crags—

white billowing down the slopes

and heaped inside the tallest pockets,

mouths gaping to the sky.


Roadways are sliced into mountainsides—

snail-like wanderings as they zig and zag

toward the high terrain.

The sculpted fringe of the highest peaks

are stiff, fluted cuffs

on an ancient poet’s sleeves—

the frozen fabric deftly starched taut.


The plane of crops square-dance up to

the hulking walls of stone, some of which loom

above the horizon and into a dowsing of blue

holding in its grasp a ghostly moon.

In Lake Como the mountains hunker down,

their backs hunched against the beauty

of a gemmed lake they cannot take.

-Saxon Henry

If you want a rather contemporary take on the subject of Byron’s and Shelley’s days in Lake Como, Haunted Summer is a fun flick to watch for imagining what the two bad boys in their age might have been up to!


The Pillow Book of Saxon Henry

One of my favorite movies is “The Pillow Book,” a film by Peter Greenaway based upon The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a collection of anecdotes and memories of an eighteenth-century courtier at the height of Japan’s Heian culture. Shonagon’s chronicling of Japan’s high society of her time was as varied as her interests. There were politics, of course, flirtations galore (“sex and the writing table” comes to mind), and a fair number of explorations of nature.

In entry number 137, entitled “Clouds,” she wrote: “I love white, purple, and black clouds, and rain clouds when they are driven by the wind. It is charming at dawn to see the dark clouds gradually turn white. I believe this has been described in a Chinese poem that says something about ‘the tints that leave at dawn.’ It is moving to see a thin wisp of cloud across a very bright moon.”

The Pillow Book Sei Shonagon by Hisashi Otsuka

The Pillow Book Sei Shonagon by Hisashi Otsuka

I thought it would be fun to come up with my own pillow book entry to get this week off to a lyrical start. Here’s my nod to Shonagon’s artful idea: “I love a soft, many-pillowed bed overlooking a wide sky of cerulean; lavender scents wafting on balmy breezes. It is charming to see the heavens steal the sun’s power and toss it to the horizon when it is dusk it desires.

I do not know if this has been described in a Chinese poem, but I believe it would be recounted ‘the hues that arrive as day leaks away.’ “It is moving to see the golden orb burn the canopy of trees shielding the earth from its incessant invasion.” Makes me want to hop on a plane to Japan! Shonagon left her book as a sort of memoir.

I am now recording My Pillow Book entries on my Improvateur blog; I hope you’ll stop by and take a peek! Oh, and happy roaming everyone, even if you are merely a mental traveler on this fine day…

You can see the beautiful art of Hisashi Otsuka on his web site!


Get Lit: Let’s Get Graphic!

John Hogan

John Hogan

During a long, heady dinner with John Hogan and Patty Otis Abel—two of my favorite literary pals—the subject of graphic novels arose. We were ensconced in an eatery in Brooklyn while John, the editorial director of GraphicNovelReporter.com, tried to explain to us why these books are not considered a genre by the publishing world, but are deemed a format. He said graphic novels are not a genre because the titles span an array of genres, including memoir, fiction, general non-fiction and some great YA fiction.

I had noticed the ever-growing section of graphic novels at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square so I asked John to meet me there and to show me around the shelves of artful titles. Turns out he was the perfect person to interview because not only do graphic novels hold his focus during business hours, he was reading comic books at eight years old and segued into graphic novels as soon as they hit the scene.

As we toured the section of the bookstore, I was blown away by the range of material intermingled there: Charlie Brown, Batman and Superman were shelved next to Maus, which won a Pulitzer Prize. This book by Art Spiegelman is the author’s take on his family’s story during the Holocaust—a controversial book because some people took issue with the fact that he depicted Jews as mice and Germans as cats, and put pig masks on the mice when they were trying to hide the fact that they were Jews. Joe Sacco, a journalist who publishes books, was well represented, and R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis was there.

John also pointed out Eddie Campbell’s book Alec: The Years Have Pants, which drives home the point that if you find yourself being jealous of someone else’s success, you’re on the wrong path. I asked him to share a simplified history of the graphic novel with Roaming By Design readers and he generously obliged: During the 1940’s and 50’s, comic books, the precursors to graphic novels, sold millions of copies every month. Then during the 1960’s and 70’s, a split took place in the industry between mainstream comics and indie comics, many  of which were self-published and had an underground following, a good example being R. Crumb’s books. During the 1980’s, the major comics publishers noticed that after about the age of 14, when kids went into high school, comics were no longer cool and readership was dropping off. They wanted to maintain an older audience so they began to produce titles that were a bit more sophisticated.

A surge in popularity took place during the British invasion in the mid 1980’s, but the 1990’s brought a decline in readership when an explosion of super heroes hit the shelves and the major players in the industry stooped to gimmicky tricks, like multiple covers and glow in the dark covers, which turned many readers off, myself included. In the early 2000’s, independent publishers drew on the grunge music movement and Gen X to find a new audience. From that point on, people began using graphic novels to tell their stories, making memoirs and fiction more commonplace. Even reporters used graphic novels to tell stories, and it was at this point that the gay and lesbian niche developed. Memoirs—from stories about sexual abuse and coming out to tales about relationships with abusive parents—popped up with greater frequency.

An example is Fun Home: A Family Tragicomi by Alison Bechdel, which is her coming out story as well as her memoir about her abusive father. She had a popular syndicated comic strip called “Dykes to Watch Our For” through which she had already built an audience. In 2005 and 2006, graphic novels took off because some major publishers—Random House being one of the first—got into the act. This has expanded the reach of distribution and brought a broader audience to graphic novels. The name (graphic novels) was coined to convey respect and to move the format from a youth-oriented segment of publishing to something more stimulating and adult-like. The Contract with God trilogy, by Will Eisner, is often described as the first graphic novel, though the debate as to the first one will sometimes bring up some pretty raucous discussions. Initially, graphic novels were thought of as a voice for the marginalized but with each passing year they become more mainstream, though there is still an element of escapism to them.

For fans of graphic novels, there is often a notion of some greater destiny being bestowed. Reading a graphic novel is a different experience because you get a combination of a literal story and the graphics. When the writer is a great writer and artist or a great writer and artist are paired, it really brings a cohesive element to the format. Some people who’ve never read graphic novels think there is something about them that makes them “easier” to read because images are presented along with text, but the visual element is not a substitute for a person’s creative faculties so there’s still an imaginative exercise involved. The thing that appeals to me about the evolution of graphic novels is that I can now read across genres within the format.

Manga, books that are read backwards because they are Japanese, has steadily developed a larger devoted following in the United States during the past 20 to 30 years. There are many different categories and I would suggest looking at the Manga Glossary on Graphic Reporter as a primer. Among the sub-categories is Yaoi, which is explicit gay literature. An example of this is Kakashi Gaiden’s A Boy’s Life on the Battlefield. There have been some surprises that have developed with the format, such as the fact that non-explicit gay literature has a huge following with teen girls. Anime Fanservice is an example. Taking a look at the different categories will help someone decide what they would want to read. Readers can find it all on Graphic Novel Reporter, which is chock full of great reviews, features and news.


A Notebook Of One’s Own

Saxon Henry's Favorite Notebooks are Moleskines

My Favorite Notebooks are Moleskines

I had an amazing day at the annual conference of American Society of Journalists and Authors this past Friday—speaking with agents in the hopes that one of them would be interested in helping me to try to publish my memoir, The Road to Promise. I’ve been posting it online, bit-by-bit, since December, and I mention it here because the post I put up today describes the inspiration for my first (of many) writer’s notebooks—the ultimate roaming tool for anyone who wants to record ideas, perceptions and details while moving through life.

My first writer’s notebook was a steno pad, and I “graduated” to a loose-leaf binder in 1986. It was made by Boorum & Pease, and I filled seven of these notebooks with ramblings about whatever caught my eye during a seventeen-year stretch that took me from Belize and Costa Rica to a handful of Native American reservations. Since 2003, I’ve been using a Moleskine notebook—preferred by authors like Ernest Hemingway and André Breton. I love the creaminess of the paper in these books over any others I’ve ever found. My pen just seems to glide along the surface effortlessly. (I just found out there’s a Moleskine community here!)

It’s amazing how personal the preferences for notebooks can be. I remember a conversation with the poet Tom Absher, one of my professors when I attended Vermont College, during which he said that he’d routinely spend hours pouring over notebooks and pens in the stationary store (I have my own pen obsession!). I thought about Tom as I read the book Writers and Their Notebooks, edited by Diana M. Raab. In it, she presents essays by writers working in a diverse mix of genres—from Sue Grafton and James Brown to Tony Trigilio and Kathryn Wilkens—about their relationships to their notebooks.

In the foreword, Phillip Lopate cites Sei Shonagon, a tenth-century courtier from Japan, as keeping one of the earliest writer’s notebooks, which she called The Pillow Book. Peter Greenaway made Shonagon’s entries into a moving movie of the same name in 1996, and it remains among my favorite titles all these years later. Lopate writes, “Now considered an indispensable classic, Shonagon’s The Pillow Book was also, if you will, an early blog.” I’d never thought about it as such, but he’s right! In her notebook, Shonagon wrote about her experiences in the court and visits from her lovers. She also recorded random notes about things she’d seen. One of her entries is “Elegant Things”: “A white coat worn over a violet waistcoat. Duck eggs. Shaved ice mixed with liana syrup and put in a new silver bowl. A rosary of rock crystal. Wistaria blossoms. Plum blossoms covered with snow. A pretty child eating strawberries.”

Lopate compares writers’ notebooks to the finger exercises done by pianists, and he declares, “No one can expect to write well who would not first take the risk of writing badly. The writer’s notebook is a safe place for such experiments to be undertaken. In her preface, Raab likens a writer’s notebook to an artist’s sketchbook, calling it a writer’s studio and workshop. I agree with James Brown, who wrote in his essay: “I believe you discover what it is you want to say during the writing process. In fact, what you originally thought you wanted to say, and what you actually end up writing, aren’t always the same thing.”

That was certainly the case with The Road to Promise, which I thought would constitute a conversation about the cultural impacts of organized religion and actually turned out to be the odyssey of a young woman determined to become a writer at all costs.

A new book by Nobel laureate José Saramago, titled The Notebook, records a year of his ruminations, which began on the eve of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. On page seven, the entry dated September 18 and titled “George W. Bush, or the Age of Lies,” reads: “I wonder why it is that the United States, a country so great in all things, has so often had such small presidents. George W. Bush is perhaps the smallest of them all. This man, with his mediocre intelligence, abysmal ignorance, confused communication skills, and constant succumbing to the irresistible temptation of pure nonsense, has presented himself to humanity in the grotesque pose of a cowboy who has inherited the world and mistaken it for a herd of cattle…”

Writing this post has brought me a great deal of satisfaction because it has helped me see ways I can broaden and deepen the use of my notebooks. Like Shonagon, I have many entries that represent vignettes of beautiful things that have caught my attention. Like Saramago, I have a fair amount of president bashing in my book, though no entries as eloquent as his. Quite simply, I’ve seen by reading what other writes have written that it’s time for me to up the ante in my own journaling!

While I was bumping around online, looking to see if the Boorum & Pease notebooks I used to love are still made, I came across this blog. I thought it would be a good companion to this post and provide a little “roaming” around the World Wide Web! Happy gallivanting, and don’t forget to take notes!


A Nobel Undertaking

Siza Viera pen created for Jose Saramago.

Siza Viera pen created for Jose Saramago.

The Pulitzer Prizes are being announced today at 3 p.m. and as a writer, I am anxious to learn which names will be added to the list of history’s literary luminaries. Beyond my love of words, I’m a writer who values aesthetics greatly—it’s likely why my path led me to a career as a design and architecture journalist. When my latest book, Four Florida Moderns, debuted recently, I was given an incredible gift by a dear friend—a beautiful writing instrument that I was to wield at my book signings. It was designed by Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira for Cleto Munari’s tribute to five Nobel laureates—another award that distinguishes the world’s greatest writers from the rest of us. When I pulled it from its artful box, I looked at its architectonic beauty in awe. Munari asked Vieira to create the pen in honor of Portuguese author Jose Saramago, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1998.

In his book Blindness, the author tells the story of a fictitious country whose entire population was suddenly treated to a loss of sight. Rather than describe the lack of vision suffered by the masses as a plunge into darkness, as is commonplace in literature, Saramago’s characters suffered “white” blindness—his protagonist describing it as being “caught in a mist”; as having “fallen into a milky sea.” It may seem like a small distinction of originality but I believe it is subtleties like this that signal the mark of a great talent. If my pen brings me a smidgen of the creative genius I find in Saramago’s work, I will feel blessed indeed! The other four pairings that brought the pens to life are Japanese architect Toyo Ito and Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz; Italian architect Alessandro Mendini and American author Toni Morrison; Spanish architect Oscar Tusquets Blanca and Canadian author Saul Bellow; and Munari himself, who designed the pen inspired by Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka.

Alvaro Siza Vieira

Alvaro Siza Vieira

In order to preserve the process that resulted from the collaborations, Munari published The Book of Five Pens, which holds biographies of the architects and authors, renderings of each pen, excerpts of prose by the authors and a replica of the letters written to Munari that describe each author’s personal relationship to the act of writing. I feel humbled to have been given such a heartfelt gift and I have to admit that each time I use the instrument it feels like a celebration of a fine literary lineage, which I aspire to deserve. The pen is also so architecturally substantial that it makes the act of writing feel like a bold declaration, even when—or perhaps because—I’m most often signing my name.

Munari—a designer, patron and curator from Vicenza, Italy—has launched so many careers and made design celebrities of so many talented people throughout history that I will go so far as to say we will someday be awarding the Munari Prize to some of the most distinguished names in design. To see one of the visionary’s latest projects, visit my Examiner page. There you’ll find the Magnificent 7, a set of limited edition tables designed by Munari, Alessandro Mendini, Mario Botta, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Sandro Chia, Mimmo Paladino and Mark Strand. Asking poets to design tables: now that’s what I call A Movable Feast!