Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Writerly holiday highlights: Oxford

I've just returned home from ten Decembery days in England! Pub food was eaten, Christmas lights shone, friends were made, and snow followed me everywhere I went. And though this wasn't a literary trip, books, as always, found their way into the mix. From Oxford to Cambridge to London and Ramsgate, literature was there. But then you can't really step foot in England without that happening, especially in Oxford where some of the greats (Lewis, Tolkien, Cooper, Grahame, Wilde, Carroll, Pullman, etc.) have lived, worked, and studied.

In touring the grounds of some of the colleges, my friend Ellen and I often found ourselves walking the pathways of those before us (I know, there are lots of people on this planet and we're always walking in someone's pathway no matter if we're in Oxford or not, but these were very specifically writerly pathways, and if anything leaves behind a ghostly trace, it's the footstep of a storyteller who has connected us all in an imaginary realm and then disappeared leaving only words and worlds behind).

One of those pathways was the beautiful (especially under a dusting of snow) Magdalen College where C. S. Lewis taught and Oscar Wilde studied. I was freezing that day. Absolutely freezing. It had been cold the entire time, but that morning the snow started, and we'd spent the greater part of it walking around the icy Botanic Gardens...

...and I was so chilly I'd decided not to visit the school at all even though it promised a deer park and even though Ellen was going without me. But as we discussed plans to meet later, the sun came out, and suddenly I felt warmer. I think this was meant to be because a mostly empty Magdalen College campus is perfectly inspiring for that grand picture I need in my mind of a location for a confrontation between two characters who . . . I'm so glad the sun came out.

We also had a walk around Merton College where Clive's old buddy Tolkien was a language and literature professor. It wasn't as inspiring to me as Magdalen, but it was very pretty, especially with the Christmas tree decorating the square, and as I'm probably never going to write an epic genre changing fantasy, I didn't really mind either way.

The Bird & Baby, celebrated haunt of the Inklings, was about 400 feet from the hall where we stayed, so Ellen and I honored the worlds of Narnia and Middle-earth like so many before us have done (and like someone is probably doing right now) by having a meal there.

The food was good. Really good, actually. I had some kind of pasta thing with green leafy stuff on top and a yummy sauce. Ellen went with a bangers and mash concoction with onion rings and gravy. We probably should have written something while we were there, or discussed the stories we have in our heads and may someday develop, or at the very least described our favorite aspects of the worlds the authors who smoked and drank and ate in that very pub created--but then our food would have gotten cold, and we'd have had to order dessert and probably slept the rest of the day, and then where would we have been?

Exeter College is another we visited. It had a beautiful chapel with a youngish guy inside playing piano and a bright Christmas tree and a Moravian star hanging from the ceiling. And though he's not one of my favorite favorites (even though he seems to have perfect ease at world building which is never true and actually means he works really hard at it to beautiful [because believable] results), Exeter is where Pullman went and taught. The school (according to wikipedia) is the place Lyra's Oxford is based on.

Somehow I thought more about Lyra and her rooftops while overlooking Oxford at sunset with all the windows glowing and the mysteries of the college squares revealed than I did in the tight courtyard of Exeter's campus. Perhaps if I'd gone inside...

Speaking of fictional little girls with an unspoken ownership of Oxford, Alice seems to be hiding around every corner. One of the places we visited (though very briefly as most of the grounds were closed to visitors) was Christ Church where Carroll studied and lectured. My previous visit there was much more informative about the connections of the school and Carroll's mathematical mind to Alice and her wonderland, but it was nice to visit again, even if it wasn't a very welcoming campus.

Last summer we were able to see the great hall from the Harry Potter movies (as pictured below), a room which is also home to stained glass Alice characters, but it was closed for a reception on this visit.

Our other bookish Oxford excursions included a tour of the Bodleian and at least a couple of trips to its shop:

Plenty of time in bookstores, resulting in the following treasures:

A morning in the Museum of Natural History where a nice Alice display can be found:

And a walk around the Pitt Rivers Collection where seemingly endless cases and display drawers are packed with history, including that of the writerly and readerly type:

After four days of colleges and cold, Ellen and I left Oxford for a day in Cambridge before parting ways and there found many more adventures like bongs and paperbacks and fresh baked bread at the open market, like the unexpected snow that fell through the night and caused train delays the next day, like the ghost who turned others from gazing on a book that was meant to be mine for over a year, and like the drunk guy I accidentally let into the b&b and had to run from up three flights of stairs only to hear him arguing with someone outside our door before Ellen wisely put a chair under the handle.

But that's for next time. For now, I'm still wondering at the literary cloud that seems to hover over Oxford and hoping some of the snow that fell from it and melted on my face and hair and hands and coat sunk deeply enough to make a difference.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A day in the life of an unpublished author: Part 1

But first, a brief explanation of the title.

Someone once told me the difference between a writer and an author and explained why, in her opinion, I'm the latter. I don't quite believe her, but I do trust her judgment, and I certainly believe that if you tell yourself something is true for long enough, eventually it will be, at least with matters of perspective and matters of the heart. For example, let's say you find yourself worrying daily that something horrible will suddenly happen to someone you love. A heart attack, a car accident, spontaneous combustion. If, when the thought comes to your mind, every single time (and you must do it every single time) you immediately think to yourself, "No. Nothing will happen. And worrying won't help either way," even if you don't believe it's true at first, in time, you will begin to. That's because you're replacing one habit--worrying--with another habit--reasoning. One day, after a good while, I promise you, you'll stop having to tell yourself everything's okay because you'll know it is. Then the day something bad does happen (and that day will come), you'll just have that one day to survive and won't have also wasted all the years before it by dreading its coming, and you'll be less likely to waste all the days after it saying, "See there. I knew that would happen" because you'll have trained yourself to see reason even before you believed it...But beware, this game of tricking yourself until you believe a thing also works in the negative. If, for example, a husband tells his wife she is worth very little over and over every day, she'll begin to believe it. And that kind of conditioning could be very hard to overcome.

Now, about being an author. No, I don't really believe I'm an author. I think I'm trying to learn to write and picking up tricks here and there and doing my best to cultivate my particular voice. But someone I trust says I am, and she should know, and she doesn't say such things lightly, so I'll keep telling myself (and you, as it were) that I'm an author until both of us believe me. This is very important to do before I'm published because my published friends tell me there's nothing more daunting than having a book in print and wondering if it was just a one-off and hoping and praying to be able to come up with another story and get it on the shelves to prove writerly worth. I say it's best to know your writerly worth before getting published to avoid the temptation of basing worth on sales and critics and silly things like marketability.

Which brings me back to the title of the post. I thought it'd be interesting to describe a day in my life because at this point in my journey, I'm in transition: I'm thirty years old. I'm still a student. I'm married. I don't have a job. And I spend most every day alone reading or working on my writing. This time next year, I hope to be teaching, ideally creative writing, but most likely freshman lit and composition. Either way, life is getting ready to drastically change. For now, while all is calm and the future is bright, while I'm coasting along the edge of what's coming, the best I can do is live, record life, share it, hope it connects with someone, and try to remember these moments when they've all gone by. So, here goes--a moment in the life of an unpublished author.


Today began with a visit to a gastroenterologist. My family has a history of tummy problems which have caught up to me in this my thirtieth year. As a result of getting up at six in the morning and driving half an hour to the doctor and sitting around for over an hour, I was given a prescription for the lovely boxed present you'll see below and told to come back two days after Christmas for a colonoscopy and an endoscopy.

Apparently the stuff in that box is one of the worst things I'll ever taste and will make my insides clean and completely completely empty.

The doctor visit and pharmacy were followed by a quick trip to the post office, after which I drowned my gastric sorrows in an early lunch of homemade crusty bread drenched in butter. Jonathan, bless him, has taken up baking and I'm reaping all of the benefits. The bread below is like an English muffin loaf. It's moist, dense, and has a hint of sourdough flavor. Amazing.

It was so good I had another piece, this time smothered in spicy pimento cheese. It's no wonder I have stomach problems. (I now confess to following these decadences with black bean tortilla chips dipped in sour cream. I deserve that colonoscopy, don't I?)

After lunch, I let my dog stare up at me with his beagle eyes to confirm my godlike status to him, then crawled into bed with my kitties to make up for waking so early.

I got lucky and ended up getting the chance to have a nice long talk with a dear friend before falling into a deep sleep, induced by the curled cats around me and the gas heat in our house which, if you have gas heat, you'll know is a lot like that friend you have who's a bit overwhelming while she's around but sorely missed when she's gone.

When I woke, I'm sorry to say, it was already four in the afternoon and the only thing I'd accomplished was going to the doctor and eating. Like always, I regretted my slovenly ways and immediately began to make up for them by cramming in useful activities. First, I walked Harvey. He was very pleased to get on the trail of something at the end of the yard, probably another dog, even though, as usual, he never found the prize at the end of the hunt. He was also very pleased when I let him explore the barn so I could take a picture of our Christmas wreath. Red barns are so festive when they wear Christmas wreaths.

Once he'd sniffed the tractor, I shoveled his poo from the yard and we went back inside for his regular post-walk-spaz-fest. For some reason, after Harvey has had a good cold walk and sniffed the yard and marked his territory, he feels the need to exert his nonexistent dominance over the cats by running up and down the hall making pig noises. He's the blur in the picture below.

Though we'd had a good walk, I still felt I'd accomplished near nothing, so I began to clean the house with gusto. Well, maybe not gusto. I don't really do anything with gusto. Let's just say, I cleaned in earnest.

Feeling much better about myself and life in general (a clean house does that for me), I sat down for a cup of yogurt just like the doctor ordered, despite its awful texture.

With only about an hour before the hubby was supposed to come home, I decided to do a tiny bit of trip preparation by picking a book to take on the plane with me next week. To my joy and excitement, the independent study I'll be doing in the spring will focus on the following books, so I figured I'd take one of them along for company:

Anne of Green Gables
Little House on the Prairie
Mary Poppins
The Phantom Tollbooth
James and the Giant Peach
A Wrinkle in Time
The Boxcar Children
Treasure Island

Isn't that an awesome list? After just a little thought, and with the image of myself sitting in an airport for hours and hours stuck in my head, I decided the best traveling companion of those in the list would definitely be Anne.

With that task done and no daylight left, it was time to light the tree...

...and light the garland...

...and start the present making. I decided this year to copy an idea I learned this past summer from the wonderfully creative Candice Ransom. She taught us to make journals from Little Golden Books, so I'm making some for friends and family. This one is for my mom. Hopefully she doesn't read my blog so it'll still be a surprise:

After some book making (confession: I don't think I'll finish by Christmas), Jonathan came home and we had day two of one of his homemade stews. This one had carrots, red potatoes, onions, cream of mushroom, and special spices. We paired it with his yummy bread, but this time fried it in a pan with tons of butter. The outcome was delicious.

Sourdough toast + butter + honey + jelly = one more reason to live.

We ended our evening the way we often do, sitting on the couch watching Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations on Netflix Instant with our kitties snuggled up to us, bellies full, and chocolate and tea on hand. Just kicked back. The end of another day.

For an author, I didn't do much writing, did I? Well, there is this. But does it count? Does blogging about my day really count as writing, or more specifically, authoring? Absolutely. Here's why: because the best and most immediate way to find my voice is by writing whatever comes most naturally--whatever I can stream without having to think too hard--whatever I really know, no research required. That gives me the freedom to play with words and sentence structure and metaphor. It puts me in touch with what I believe is the foundation (no matter the genre) of truly universal literary writing: creative nonfiction.

And since I hear voice is what separates writers from authors, I'll keep doing what I can to cultivate that mysterious something that will set me apart. Besides, there's only one thing that will work better than telling myself I'm an author, and that's being one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Bookish Christmas List: Part 2

Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
~Dr. Seuss~

I appreciate the sentiment Mr. Geisel and agree wholeheartedly. But, if we must get presents, they may as well be bookish!

It's nice to find just a few words in black and white that wrap up a universal complexity. Life is suddenly neat and understandable. There is calm in the chaos. And Montgomery is good at this. I could happily read a quote by her every day for a year. (Picture below from shopatsullivan.com)

Jane Eyre is in my top-five-favorite-stories list. The book has everything--tension, love, mystery, drama, regret, wit, and honesty. And it's got Jane. A strong, independent female with a brain and a heart and a will all her own. To call this a love story would be unfair. It's much more. It's childhood to adulthood to motherhood and all that happens in-between. Brontë took a big chance with the themes in this story. Good for you, Charlotte. And even better for us. It's a love story, yes, but in that it's a life story, and life, in essence, is the sum of love in all its manifestations.

Peter Pan Giclee Print
I know my last list had a Peter Pan item, but as it's my favorite book in the universe, it seems reasonable to have another bookish gift related to it. There are tons more prints of children's book art by classic illustrators at the linked site, like Tenniel's White Rabbit below, so browse away. (Photo below from wikipedia.org)

Pewter Narnia Vial Pendant
I didn't read The Chronicles of Narnia till my early twenties. Of course I loved it. I just wish I'd read the series as a kid. It would have been one of those reads. One of the Alice's. I'm not a huge fan of the new movies, but they've given rise to Narnia merchandise like the pretty necklace below, designed by Bob Siemon and representative of Lucy's gift from Father Christmas. (Picture below from amazon.com) Here's another Narnia inspired design, but it's a bit expensive for me: wardrobe jewelry chest.

Mr. Darcy Proposal T-Shirt
I know. I know. But I really adore that scene and all the tension that's led up to it and the response and the following action. Plus the four sentences printed on the shirt are perfectly poetically timed. I'm a romantic and proud of it. Nothing to hide. I love Darcy. There. I've said it. I'd much rather have tickets to this than have the shirt, but with roundtrip airfare and a bus ticket to Bath and a room and food, that would be a lot to ask for for Christmas. And anyway, I couldn't wear the t-shirt. I'd have to get regency garb which would cost even more money, plus I'd just look weird with short hair, so the shirt it will have to be! Oh, and check this out: P&P Graphic Novel (Picture below from giftshop.janeausten.co.uk)

Enesco Classic Pooh and Piglet
Pooh was also on the last list, but he deserves to be on all Christmas lists. Enesco makes pretty patchwork figurines and this Pooh one is very distinctly Christmasy and friendly. (Picture below from enescousa.com) Also, though it's only really (probably) loosely based on the original story (wherever and whatever that is--oral, eventually written, adapted, simplified, softened, etc), Disney's Beauty and the Beast is sweetly represented by Enesco. I'm not really a Disney fan, but I do like everything about that movie: Belle

The Giving Tree Necklace
I didn't realize until I started an academic study of children's literature that Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree was at all controversial. I had read it as a story of the beauty, sacrifice, selfishness, and regret of love. Apparently many readers are disturbed about other things the story seems to be saying about motherhood and abuse, but I just didn't see it. Goes to show literature, once freed from the cage of the author's mind, takes on a life of its own. I still think of the book the way I did upon my first read. No offense academia, but I'll keep my interpretation and you can keep yours.

If you ever get the chance to visit Wordsworth's final home, you may have the pleasure of enjoying Grasmere gingerbread as well. If you've walked a long way to get there and you're holding a glass of wine in one hand and hot gingerbread in the other, you may never want to leave. I wouldn't blame you. But if you do manage to pull yourself away from the gardens and the view of the lake and the tidy rooms full of books, you can always have gingerbread and Wordsworth at home. You can even share this book with early readers. But if you buy yourself a copy of some of Wordsworth's works, for heaven's sake don't go to Barnes and Noble. Get something used. Something with character. Something that smells. Like this or this or this. Anything but new and crisp. This is Wordsworth we're talking about.
The minstrels played their Christmas tune
To-night beneath my cottage eaves;
While smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.

Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze
Nor check the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

And who but listened?--till was paid
Respect to every inmate's claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honor of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And a merry Christmas wished to all."

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Some books with pictures

I highly suggest buying these. For Christmas, I mean. Instead of socks or prepackaged meat & cheese or gift cards or chocolate. No wait, buy chocolate. But also, buy...

Something classic with beautiful illustrations:

Something dark and literary:

Something whimsical and touching:

Something magical and quiet:

Something funny and smart:

Something poetic and unexpected:

Something real and imagined:

Whatever it is you spend your hard-earned money on, may it be something meaningful and worth buying. In spite of the gaudiness brought to the season by commercialism, if you wish to, make it yours. There can be a sweetness and a magic to it...and I suspect it has to do with tradition and family and thoughtfulness and love.
"Well, my dears, I hope you will like the things I am bringing: nearly all you asked for and lots of other little things you didn't, and which I thought of at the last minute. I hope you will share the railway things and farm and animals often, and not think they are absolutely only for the one whose stocking they were in. Take care of them, for they are some of my very best things.

Love to Chris: love to Michael: love to John who must be getting very big as he doesn't write to me any more (so I simply had to guess paints--I hope they were all right: Polar Bear chose them; he says he knows what John likes because John likes bears).

Your loving Father Christmas
And my love, Polar Bear"

~ J.R.R. Tolkien in Letters From Father Christmas