The Myth of the Perfect Start

log-frozen-smallThe log was 30 feet up in the air, a sort of telephone pole of a balance beam. I was supposed to walk from one end to the other, holding onto nothing. The rest of the group had done it. Ten minutes had passed, and I was still frozen on the business end.

Thirty feet was not a height that would kill me, especially in a safety harness. But from the way I stood paralyzed after a series of false starts, you’d think I was walking a tightrope over a rift in the earth down to its fiery magma core.

“Just take the first three steps,” the guide called up. “You just have to make yourself start. It’s like writing the first three words of a novel.”

“No. It really isn’t,” I called down, trying to be darkly funny, but the bitter was seeping through. So were the tears.

My two younger sisters, with whom I’d traveled to this Tucson resort to celebrate a Big Birthday, had both just done it successfully. And when they reached the end, they’d each tagged the far pole and walked back, backwards. That was the victory lap, a victory I’d assumed would be mine, too. After all, I like physical challenges, I like being out of my comfort zone. What I hadn’t figured on was how much I wouldn’t like it when I couldn’t use my hands (which our guide explained later was the ultimate bugbear of those who have an issue with being in control).

The group members down below had been calling out encouragement and advice — momentum was key, they said, just get that first step going and then another, and don’t stop. But 10 minutes was an uncomfortably long time to watch someone short circuiting, and they had put away the cameras and fallen silent.

I’d like to blame it on  Continue reading

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Sochi, My Worrisome Valentine

Previews - Winter Olympics Day -4I first heard about the stray dogs of Sochi via my twitter stream, when a sweet homeless Shepherd (https://twitter was posted by ABC journalist Matt Gutman. Several days later, U.S. skier Gus Kenworthy posted a photo of the litter (https://twitter he plans to adopt.

Sochi, the world learned, had a dog problem, and had contracted with sharpshooter exterminators to make sure the vermin wouldn’t be an embarrassment during the Olympics.

Amid the oddities and malfunctions in the lead-up to the opening ceremonies (yellow hotel water, and bobsledder Johnny Quinn having to break down his hotel’s bathroom door (https://twitter, the strays of Sochi became big news, fast. This was no fun and games. Until a local billionaire stepped in with funds for a shelter complex, thousands of strays were targeted for death. More evidence, it seemed, of Russia’s authoritarian response to virtually everything — from building contracts and overspending to censorship and human rights.

The dog shootings were eerily timely for me because they paralleled research for my second novel, set in 1980s USSR. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl/Pripyat evacuation, I learned, clean-up crews called “liquidators” went in to shoot the house pets that had to be left behind. The idea was to catch them before they could wander, radioactive, through the buffer zone toward other villages. Cats were wary and hard to shoot, according to interviews in Voices From Chernobyl (http://www NULL.npr NULL.php?storyId=5355810). But dogs were easy targets, as they naturally approached people in search of food and affection.

It’s been awful research, but riveting. So much of the tragedy was caused bythe government’s delay in helping its people — a mind-boggling 36 hours passed before an official explanation, and then finally evacuation from under the radioactive cloud. The Soviet Union was loathe to admit incompetence on the world stage or create panic in its citizens, and wanted to take care of things quietly, superficially. So, families picnicked in the contaminated grass while their government kept up appearances.

But long before that, the disaster was was set in motion when inferior materials were purchased to build the reactor, in inadequate supply. Then in the rush to make deadlines, the reactor opened before all its safety tests had been done. So proud the Russians were, done on schedule. So good they looked internationally, all that complicated construction finished and facilities humming.

Sound familiar?

I visited the USSR in 1989 as part of an Intourist group — the primary way to visit then, officially chaperoned by the government in its bugged hotels. And what we saw were elaborate facades hiding chaos, corruption and deprivation. We ate in restaurants that no longer bothered with menus, because they were 86 not just certain ingredients, but entire food groups. One of our scheduled side-trips flew us to war-torn Uzbekistan instead of Kiev because lo, there was a cease fire in the civil war, and that’s where Intourist wanted us to spend our hard currency. We drank champagne for breakfast, because the shipment of fruit juice hadn’t come in from Cuba. We ignored the broken hotel smoke detectors, clearly dismantled and rigged instead to bug the rooms.

2014 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony (http://beyondthemargins NULL.jpg)When you care above all else to contain the impression of chaos, chaos has a way of catching up. Sometimes it’s a missing doorknob and an oddly constructed toilet, a snowflake that doesn’t blossom into a ring. But sometimes it’s a lot worse.

I found myself squirming as I watched the Olympic opening ceremonies, physically uncomfortable as the camera panned the enormous new stadium. It seemed unnervingly ambitious for contractors who had also produced the likes of a bathroom with two toilets in a single stall. There were high wires, and elaborate soaring props. A young girl suspended Peter Pan-style in the air. Pyrotechnics everywhere. The margin for error felt very, very slim.

Then a photo of a stealthy stray appeared on my Twitter feed, a dog inside the stadium standing on a loge balcony, hanging out and watching the spectacle along with the rest of the spectators.

It was a nice spark of levity and defiance in an atmosphere of discipline and obedience.

But when it comes to Russia, I’m leery of sparks.


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First You Crawl


I went to a dance pageant recently, a holiday performance of ballet, modern and jazz with local girls age 6-16.

Actually, I have no idea how old the dancers were. Some were clearly 25, which is amazing, since I know for a fact they were in 5th grade with my son just two years ago.

What a range of emotion watching these elegant not-quite-women, the pixies with flying limbs. Some were stunning, graceful and acrobatic in their unsettlingly mature bikini bodysuits. Others were still in the throes of growing pains, coltish and vulnerable. And they knew it; you could see it in the frozen smile of a girl trying to hold her quivery leg overhead, and struggling not to drop it a half-beat too soon.

God, I felt for them. All of them: the ones flailing awkward jazz hands at the outer edge of their ability. The ones so gorgeously at ease in their skin that I couldn’t help wincing, knowing the world would treat those bodies as commodities in a few short years. And the ones somewhere in the middle, hoping their smidge of talent would blossom into something like the big girls.

Artistic growing pains. It’s so true of so many expressive arts — and yes, of writing too, only it’s the young heart and mind that are quivery and vulnerable instead of the body. There are flying limbs to rein in. Oh, the big words and emotions! Themelodramatic poems, the handwritten middle-school novel hidden under a mattress. Sentences with such inappropriate metaphors they’re like heaving bosoms in the middle of an engineering textbook. The need to SAY THE THING IN THE MOST UNIQUE WAY IT’S EVER BEEN SAID IN THE HISTORY OF THE WRITTEN WORD. So much to trip over in order to get out of your own way.

I remember my first great assignment working on staff at a travel magazine you’ve never heard of. At 22, I was sent to write about Continue reading

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Personalized holiday copies — FREESHIPME


Care to give someone a personalized copy of THE UNFINISHED WORK OF ELIZABETH D?

Let me be your Amazon prime:

If you order it this week through my local bookstore, Wellesley Books (http://www NULL.wellesleybooksmith-shop, I’ll go down and sign it however you’d like, and they’ll wrap it.

Then I’LL SHIP IT FOR FREE myself (well, within the U.S…we do have 5 kids to put through college).

Yes, you read that right, I’ll hoof it to the post office with my kids and oversized puppy, and send it to you.

It’s my holiday gratitude for supporting indies, and my book. Thanks! 

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The priest asked, “What’s your field?”

Virgin+Mary+We have a new priest at our church. Great priests aren’t a dime a dozen, and we’d been lucky with our last one, so I’d spent the fall curious about who the replacement would be.

After I met him once or twice, someone told me he’d been a lobbyist in the Boston State House before going to seminary. Yesterday morning I asked him about it during after-Mass donuts in the parish hall.

I was a lobbyist, he said. In healthcare.

So I asked him what he thought of Obamacare. He laughed — “okay, this is my political side talking, not my theological side” — and offered his opinion that it was important to build a broad base of support on an issue so large.

“For example, it’s important because….well, what’s your field?” He asked this looking for Continue reading

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A Tribute, A Grumble, A Novel in the Drawer


Lee Thornton, journalist

In 2007, when I was pregnant with our fourth child and our family was preparing for a move from Washington DC to Boston, I sneaked away from the chaos for a three-day publishing conference in New York. 

I was assigned to a group of about 15 people, all of whom had finished their first novels and were there to pitch them to editors. (In hindsight, I’m confused about why this was encouraged, skipping the literary-agent step.)  In between our meetings, we gathered as a group to hone our style on the infamous elevator pitch. 

I hit it off particularly well with one group member, Lee. She’d retired as a television reporter and had become a journalism professor a the University of Maryland, and she was whipsmart and worldly and funny as all get-out. Throughout the weekend, Continue reading

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Blind Date

u-haulsplash-truck-Earlier this year I wrote this essay for Redbook…My husband and I celebrated our 15th anniversary this week, which got me thinking about the spirit of serendipity and risk-taking that  got it all started. 

*        *        *        *

THE SUMMER I TURNED 30 I took a gamble on a road trip, picking up and moving to a new city with I guy I barely knew in a car I could barely drive. This was more than a little out of character for me. I don’t make aggressive investments. I don’t even wear two patterns at a time, or buy a novel unless it’s been recommended by someone I trust. 

It started with a blind date orchestrated by mutual friends. I was a magazine editor living in New York; he was a Bostonian working at the State House. He drove down one Friday night to take me to dinner 

and one long-distance date led to another, until after three months of  high phone bills and even higher mileage, we agreed someone needed to move. I flipped a coin — mostly for the humor value of saying we had, because Continue reading

Topics: On Faith, Hope & Love, On Relationships | 1 Comment

The Demise of Private Writing?

public_privateShortly after my novel came out, I got an interesting email from a reader.

She said she hadn’t been sure she would like a book half written in the form of journals, but had been grabbed by the point of view: the private side of a woman that made her public self look like a facade, and the surprise of the friend who inherits them.

“No one hears about journals anymore, now that everything is about blogs,” the reader wrote. “Were you afraid it would seem dated?”

To be honest, that never occurred to me. Certainly blogs have become enormously popular: personal and professional blogs, hobbyist blogs, blogs about illness, health and parenting. But have they taken the place of writing people used to keep privately? In this age of everyone trying to have their platform, are blogs to journals as banks are to money hidden in mattresses?

They can’t be. Blogs are simply a different beast than journals. No matter how candid and self-effacing a blog might be, in the end, it’s always written with the consciousness of someone else reading. With the most sincere of intentions, there’s a certain amount of posturing because they are crafted to be seen by others. It’s the difference between a candid photo and a portrait.

In my novel, journals show the unexpected portrait of a young mother as she really was, including the mystery of where she was really going when she died. The bestseller GONE GIRL, which came out the same day, uses journals to the opposite effect, reimagined for public consumption (I won’t say any more than that, no spoiling here) — which to me felt emblematic of the modern changes to private writing.

The evolution of blogging has been fascinating to watch. Blogs, with their comments boxes and links to one another’s sites, are looking for community, sometimes even  Continue reading

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Own Your Opinions, Kids


One of my children told me recently that he couldn’t ever be a reviewer — of books, art, restaurants, or a sports columnist — because he didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. (Never mind that just a few weeks before, he gave a dramatic reading of my book’s one-star reviews while I cooked dinner. Ha. Oh yes, ha.)

Of course empathy is a good thing to encourage in kids. But the more I thought about my son’s aversion to critiquing, the more I wondered what it said about his comfort expressing opinion. Sometimes Continue reading

Topics: On Learning, On Parenting, On Writing | 2 Comments

I Dream of Genus With A Light Brown Flair

berryvines1Last night I dreamed I was in the grocery store looking for taco toppings, and wandered into the “New Produce” aisle — the place, of course, where new species are kept.

Nestled next to an orange lettuce  was a bouquet of  vegetable berries, clusters of vines dripping with different colored berries, translucent with liquid inside like a snow globe.

Each colored berry held an intense extract of vegetable: crimson for red pepper, pale green cucumber, orange for carrot, light brown for butternut squash. They were rich and beautiful and I knew how each one would taste, how it would explode in my mouth like a gel capsule of vitamin E.

I imagined sprinkling them fresh on top of tacos, as we do shredded lettuce or diced tomatoes, and it struck me as the most brilliant discovery in the agricultural world. 

I actually woke up disappointed they don’t exist.

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