Friday, December 14, 2012

80th Blog Post: A Dedication

On September 21, 2010, I published the first Robin Has An Idea blog post. Now, just over two years later, I'm writing this, my 80th post.

Sometimes people ask why I don't post more often. Other times they ask why I post at all.

The answer to the first question is that I only post when I have something to say. And writing takes time. Each word is carefully considered. In my mind, each post is a small piece of literature, representative of me.

The answer to the second question is simple: I'm a writer. I write.

Last week, this bookish life came full circle when I met the writer of the one book I've carried from elementary school into my thirties. I told him how much I'd cherished it. He signed it. And having, for the first time, just experienced an author speak to a room full of children instead of a room full of writers, I left remembering why I pursued a degree in children's literature in the first place.

So this 80th post is dedicated to you, Louis Sachar. Thanks for writing so many great stories. And it's dedicated to you, reader. Thanks for spending a moment of your life with me.




Friday, December 7, 2012

Christmas: A Series of Short Stories

Apples and Oranges

It was Christmas Eve, as I recall Dad saying. His family were the remnants of mountain folk; they knew how to get by on a little. Granny and Papaw insisted they'd never seen the man before. Never knew where he came from. He knocked that evening, which may sound unlike him, since he's supposed to come down chimneys, but he knocked because these were a people who liked to be met face to face or not at all. I can see them sitting around the room, stoic, no one saying a word. A nod from the men and boys, the hint of a smile from the girls--all bathed in a silent moment of wonder and wild guesswork and chance and magic and doubt as he gave them presents: apples and oranges. I wasn't there, but it's like I was. The reddest apples, the most orange oranges, the nicest, juiciest fruit you've ever seen.

Visions of Sugarplums

When you're a kid, and you see a ghost or an angel or a monster or any magical wisp of anything in the air, the adults tell you you're mistaken. Just goes to show how stupid adults can be. Christmas Eve night, I slept with my parents. Their bedroom door opened to the living room, so I fell asleep squinting my eyes at the tree like Dad had taught me so each individual light would spread into a star. Next thing I knew, my eyes were open again. The room was dark, so I couldn't make out the red suit as he moved here and there amongst the presents. I stayed absolutely still and silent, knowing who he was. But I must have blinked. Why would I, in such a moment? But I must have. He was gone. The adults probably told me I'd dreamt him, but I believe in him still. It's the least I can do for a girl who saw a grand picnic where only a blank piece of cardboard lay months later in the springtime sun, its brown edges curling in the dewy morning grass.

Resurrection, or Growing Up

There were no teachers to decorate bulletin boards in the hall or put on holiday parties. The parents weren't around to buy a tree and spray it with fake snow. No longer would someone put a pretty dress on me and take me to church and give me a candle and a hymnal full of carols about Jesus. I didn't even have to go to Granny's on Christmas Eve if I didn't want to. We were married and all grown up, and Christmas was up to us now.


And so, we evaluated the old traditions. We questioned consumerism. We tried to determine value versus cost. We asked what mattered and what didn't, how to be conscientious, whether or not to decorate the front door, whether a real tree or a fake one would be better, whether or not we should do anything for Christmas at all, till we'd boiled the holiday in a can of processed pudding and buried Santa with a sprig of plastic holly through his heart.

But after a few longing, nostalgic years, a magic has started to return. Personal traditions take the place of those gone--traditions that drive nails into life for me, that keep me steady when everything's spinning. They're markers. They remind me where life gets its meaning. I grab and hold on to things as we spin. Lights on the house. Catnip in the stockings. A squeaky toy for the dog. The nativity on the piano. Ornaments on the tree. Bing Crosby on the radio and Jimmy Stewart on the t.v.

Resurrection is a process. You get yourself upright, take off the wrappings of the dead, and fold them neatly on the bench before catching your breath, which all sounds like a miracle but isn't really anything compared to getting the big rock out of the way of the door, which is practically nothing at all compared to convincing everyone on the other side that you're still you. At least in spirit.



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Bookish Christmas List: 2012

Dear Santa,

Here's the expensive bookish stuff only you could magic up for me this year. Besides peace on earth, I'll look for these under the tree:

Oliver Jeffers' Heart in a Bottle necklace
A Christmas Carol signed by illustrator Arthur Rackham
Ingleside to use as a writing retreat and museum
Tickets to see Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night (if not that, then this: Peter and Alice)
A steampunk laptop for writing things
And a degree from here

Thanks for everything, Santa. You're a good guy, and whatever you can work out will be great. Forget about cookies and milk. Only the best for you. Pumpkin brรปlรฉe on the bar with a glass of whisky to wash it down and warm you up.

All my best to the North Polar Bear and the rest.

Love,
Robin

p.s. I can't find a link for it, but there's a small space for rent in our downtown, and I could make the sweetest little bookshop...



Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Writing necessities

Georgia isn't exactly freezing in November, but I've spent some chilly, gray autumn days writing what has become an epic account of a young girl's quest to become the leader of what used to be a peaceful valley but is now preparing for war. She's traveled through time, seen people die for her cause, met and fought the devil (she left him with a bad limp, and that's saying something), translated and read the entire book of the valley's secrets, and just yesterday, had her first kiss.

For me, writing so many adventures in so little time requires one thing: a deadline. But lots of other smaller things have encouraged me along the way. Here's my recipe for a successful National Novel Writing Month (or any other writing month), should you ever take on the challenge of quickly writing a story.

Ingredients for Writing a Delicious First Draft Novel in Just 30 Days:

1 (at least) fellow writer to email and chat with for encouragement

1 cozy blanket, preferably with a history (this quilt made by my great-aunt in a cabin in the Christmas tree mountains of North Carolina works perfectly)


5 minutes per day staring into the nothingness that is the mystery of the universe (my nothingness spot is the fireplace, but feel free to look at the ceiling or a closed door or your big toe or whatever works for you)

1 large bucket of willingness to ignore everyone and everything in order to get caught up after you find yourself 5000 or so words behind target

30 minutes per day (at least) in the kitchen (because you must get out of your head and do something on your feet that requires all five physical senses)

2 friendly cats (for keeping your feet warm)


1 hot shower a day followed by 1 cushy bathrobe (these two together have magical properties on any difficult day)

1 open mindset for adventurous writing like you'd never normally attempt (the speed of the thing makes you write strangely, but don't stop; enjoy ignored inhibitions)

1 large container of gingerbread biscotti and a jug of almond milk (for dipping)


1 or more conversations per day with a family member (nothing grounds you like family)

1 nap per day (unless naps make you grumpy)

1 (at least) critical thing that needs doing much more urgently than your novel needs writing (such as preparing for a lecture, traveling for a holiday, or cleaning your house before your sweet mother-in-law comes for a visit)

Directions:

1. Mix everything together in one big bowl
2. Enjoy!

~*~

"We have to learn to appreciate what astonishingly hard work it is to produce a book . . . They have gone through the problems of throwing away the first chapter seventeen times, starting again and starting again, and they have labored through it. Even if the work is not great, they deserve applause for that. Anybody who can do that has started off." ~ Stephen Fry

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On chewing one's food

Picture a girl. She's gotten out of bed at a reasonable hour, taken care of the animals, and seen her husband off to work. The day is before her. But first: breakfast.

Though she doesn't look anything like what I'm about to say, just picture her for the metaphor, if you don't mind. The girl is messy, her socks and pajamas twisted and her shirt on inside out. Her eyes are pretty, but with gray shadows underneath. Alone often, the eyes are distant, inward, but not lost. If they land on you, they immediately know you. Her hair is red. Much deeper than mine, and pulled back with little wisps falling around her face. She smiles to herself in one moment and frowns in the next. She raises every shade on every window and puts on Christmas music a month too early. The bright autumn sun and blue sky spill into the house. Along with the music and her ups and downs and her beautiful mess, the place is a living poem.

But she runs through poems like she runs through the night--from something she doesn't know toward something she knows even less, on an unseen treadmill built by a deep longing for the answer to the question, What do I do in this world?

Sausage, eggs, and waffles cooking; butter, salt, and syrup on the table; plate warming in the oven; music coming through the speakers; sun and blue sky tumbling in; dog snoring on his bed...music playing, sky tumbling, syrup waiting, butter melting, eggs cooking, sausage frying, waffles toasting, dog snoring--then it hits her:

Stop. Don't let this go. This is everything.

In the fearful excitement that comes with revelation, she carefully folds her napkin and rests her fork as prettily and perfectly in its center as possible. With a deliberately relaxed pace, she fills the plate that's almost too hot to hold. Her computer remains closed where it sits instead of acting her usual companion. The phone is neglected somewhere out of sight. Looking out at the sun and the blue, the girl sits, breathes, then forces herself to chew slowly. The music washes over her, its notes separating in the air and dancing in front of her before forming one song again. The spices gather into groups on her plate before scattering again in one burst. The leaves on the ground outside her window float back into the places they held all summer before floating down again in a rain of spinning autumn yellow to the frosty ground below.

This moment, the world whispers, is what you do in this world.

~*~

"Find ecstasy in life; the mere sense of living is joy enough." ~ Emily Dickinson

NaNo Progress

We're nearly halfway through November now, and I've broken the 20,000 word mark, an accomplishment that suggests I could win this year. Though maybe I shouldn't speak so soon. Thanksgiving, travels, guitar lessons, teaching, tutoring, work training, procrastination, and frequent naps and chocolate breaks will seriously threaten my word count goals in the coming two weeks. That said, I could stop now and be proud of what I've accomplished. Coming into the challenge, I had a decent start on the story. Now I'm a solid 20 chapters in. By the end of NaNo, if I succeed, I'll have at least a 60,000 word novel completed (and what's looking like the start of a series).


Writing away from home at Barnes & Noble with my favorite autumn
treat. More eating than writing done, but with pumpkin
cheesecake, the trip is never a complete loss.

As far as the writing community goes, most of my involvement has been in the chatrooms doing word wars to get my word count up quickly. When motivated, I can get a solid 750 words in twenty minutes without trying. I'm nearly done for the day after a couple wars. The problem, as always, is focus. Even though I'm taking my vitamins like a good girl now, I still get distracted easily and sometimes take all day to get the 1,667 words I need in order to stay on target. I even got distracted at my first Atlanta-area write-in, though to be fair, it was mostly by my yummy potatoes and eggs breakfast. I met a nice group of people, one of the NaNoLanta (as the Atlanta chapter is known) mascots (see pic below), and had a good time, which is what matters most (aside from the words--come on people, we can be friends later, this is serious). Okay, fine. Friendship is better than racking up words. A few of the friends I've made through NaNo over the past few years have even become friends in real life, and that's probably the reason I keep coming back.


The NaNoLanta Panda who greeted me at my first Georgia write-in.
He (she?) is fed and nurtured the other eleven months of the
year by write-in host and new NaNo pal Naty.

As for the story, it's still keeping me interested, surprising me at least once a chapter, and progressing terrifyingly smoothly. This never happens when I write. Something must be wrong. Cool moments keep plopping into each scene as if they were always meant to be there and have simply been waiting for me to put them into words, and when my characters don't like something that's happening, I can feel them getting frustrated with me. I've had to force very little (there's always gonna be a bit of forcing with the time crunch), and because of that, this has probably been the most enjoyable fiction writing experience I've ever had. So, yay for NaNo. More once I've hit another milestone.


Lunch at Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party for a writing date with a writerly friend.
Didn't get any writing done, but had great conversation and a big fat pimento
cheese sandwich. Hmm...my writing life seems to revolve around food...

~*~

"Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up."
~ Stephen King, On Writing

Monday, November 5, 2012

NaNoWriMo 2012

It's that time again: National Novel Writing Month. This year, I'm working on a story I'm really into. It's an adventure/fantasy piece and is more plot driven than anything I've written before. I'm staying interested and writing quickly even though I got three days behind due to illness. My other NaNo stories have been ridiculous, so I'm glad to have something this year I feel proud of and excited to work on. Sure, it's fun just going for the word count, but it's a much less painful process round about November 15th if I'm not writing gibberish.

More as the month progresses. For now, a tiny passage from my (unedited!) story:

To Lacy, special abilities, like seeing clearly in the dark, were as natural as being a fast runner is to us, or being able to balance so well you can walk a tightrope without a safety net below. But she had never known of a real magic like this existing outside of stories, like this ability of one person's touch to transport another to a mountaintop. For that matter, she’d never known of someone being taken over by the dark. She did, however, have the presence of mind to believe and accept what she saw for what it was—something she simply didn’t understand yet but that was, in the end, always understandable, if only she had the right information.

There it is, folks. Nothing brilliant, but brilliant ain't what NaNo's about!

Since I don't have any NaNo pictures (me staring with wrinkled brow at my computer screen), here are a few from Halloween. Candy was given away, potato soup and rum cake were enjoyed, Thriller was poorly danced to, and I got to dress up like a Hogwarts professor. Fun.






Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book vs Film: A Christmas Carol

I've seen at least one film version of A Christmas Carol every year since birth, but it's taken me 32 years to read the story for myself. In so doing, discovered things. That's what happens when you read most any book after watching a movie based on the story, because words on the page can hold much more than images on the screen, for better or worse. Some of the following scenes and lines are probably in adaptations I've not seen, while others simply don't translate from the page.

(Note: Most anyone who's read the story has probably already thought of everything I'm about to say. These aren't meant to come across as new discoveries. They're regular old discoveries anyone might find by opening the book.)

1.) I've heard the words A Christmas Carol strung together so often, I never questioned their significance as a title. A quick googling tells me everyone knows a carol is a joyful song, particularly a Christmasy one, so on a basic level, the title is about Scrooge's life becoming something to sing about. The following scene, as it happens and when it happens, is critical to the title being what it is, because first epiphanies are hugely important (a tiny crack and the integrity of the entire structure is threatened). Scrooge has just started his journey to the past and has been crying at the sight of his pitiful, lonely boyhood self, when he says this:

"I wish," Scrooge muttered, putting his hand in his pocket, and looking about him, after drying his eyes with his cuff: "but it's too late now."
"What is the matter?" asked the Spirit.
"Nothing," said Scrooge. "Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something; that's all."

The reason this matters is because it's the first time Scrooge regrets one of the actions of his current self, and it's very early in the process of the hauntings. This tells me he wasn't terribly far from hope after all, which continues to be evident throughout (in fact, a bit more resistance would have been more consistent with the character setup). It also tells me he's not yet regretting being an ass to the rest of the people he saw before the haunting (regrets for them will come as the story goes on, encouraging the theory of the whole thing being an Oz-like, drunken dream).
 Scrooge's first big let down in life was childhood loneliness and neglect. Both experiences make one learn to cope without the help of others. So it's no surprise when a personal connection to another lone creature is the first crack in the ice of his personality. In fact, the only time the words 'Christmas' and 'carol' are used together in the story are in reference to this boy. So as far as title significance goes, this scene is revealing. It's the first major chord in a long string of minors.

2.) Another thing is the narrator's voice, which makes me love my favorite adaptation, The Muppet Christmas Carol, even more for having Gonzo narrate as Dickens. The introduction (by Katharine Wiley) in the front of my copy says this tale is one in a long line of Christmasy ghost stories, a tradition in Dickens' day. Like any good ghost story, it's perfect for telling aloud. I'm guessing that's why Dickens made the narrator's voice like a live storyteller. Third person point of view implies a storyteller tone, but the live storyteller feel comes in when the narrator gets personally involved, in a first person kind of way. Most striking is this instance, where the narrator not only acts as storyteller, but plays with the ghostly theme as well:

"The curtains of his bed were drawn aside; and Scrooge, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with the unearthly visitor who drew them: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow."

3.) I'd forgotten Scrooge saw his ex with the family she ended up with. The fantastic thing about this scene is the layering; Scrooge not only sees the past, but what his future might have been. He sees how the past affected the present, and therefore how the present affects the future. In a scene requiring the spirit to physically hold Scrooge to make him watch, Scrooge sees his lost love with her kids and husband. He doesn't really cry about the loss of her, or isn't said to be crying for her. What hits him hardest is the loss of a chance at fatherhood.

"And now Scrooge looked on more attentively than ever, when the master of the house, having his daughter leaning fondly on him, sat down with her and her mother at his own fireside; and when he thought that such another creature, quite as graceful and as full of promise, might have called him father, and been a spring-time in the haggard winter of his life, his sight grew very dim indeed."

Another curious detail is the ex's response to something her husband says, then Scrooge's response to both of them:

"I saw an old friend of yours this afternoon."
"Who was it?"
"Guess!"
"How can I? Tut, don't I know," she added, in the same breath, laughing as he laughed. "Mr. Scrooge."
"Mr. Scrooge it was. I passed his office-window; and as it was not shut up, and he had a candle inside, I could scarcely help seeing him. His partner lies upon the point of death, I hear; and there he sat alone. Quite alone in the world, I do believe."

It's bad enough to have lost the girl, lost the family, lost the comfort that companionship might have brought him in old age. But to see the two of them aware and discussing the little bit he did have (self, pride, livelihood and position) was too much. Now Scrooge was seeing his past, what his future could have been, and what his present was, which wasn't much. Scrooge becomes so upset, he attempts to put the candle-like ghost out with the candle-snuffer hat it's carrying.

It's a beautifully subtle and suggestive scene between man and wife. Why, after all those years, is her husband looking in on Scrooge (and making sure to note he couldn't help seeing him for the candle)? Why is he even a part of their conversation, their lives? Sure, she laughs along, but laughter comes in many forms. If you've ever been in love, even with a shortsighted idiot, you know there's always something remaining, or at least a little piece forever gone. Think about it: when she dumped Scrooge, she was "in a mourning-dress." A mourning-dress! She was grieving as if the man had died. This wasn't a quick facebook relationship status change. It was a broken heart, a severed contract, and in her mind, a death to be mourned.

4.) When Scrooge is haunting his nephew's Christmas party, his nephew's wife starts playing a song on the harp. Scrooge connects the song to the sister he was so fond of. Then there's this:

"When this strain of music sounded, all the things [the Ghost of Christmas Past] had shown him came upon his mind; he softened more and more; and thought that if he could have listened to it often, years ago, he might have cultivated the kindnesses of life for his own happiness with his own hands, without resorting to the sexton's spade that buried Jacob Marley."

There's a lot in the passage about what could have happened to change the course of things and stuff about his profession and probably something about why the title is the title. What never occurred to me while watching the movies was that at this point in his transformation, Scrooge was making a connection as deep as this, and by way of music. Still applying a strong logic (alongside his emotions), he begins to reshape his ideas of worth in response to "a mere nothing: you might learn to whistle it in two minutes," a nothing mixed with perspectives on life and love and what matters. It's a beautiful moment. It shows him evolving from self-pity and the beginnings of empathy to an appreciation of existential worth and beauty which will, in the end, take the vital step further into action and atonement, both made urgent in light of time (or the lack thereof).


5.) "The kind hand trembled."

Scrooge has just walked through the future like an idiot, not realizing the whole time he's hearing/seeing the world's response to him dying. (A bit contrived, but who am I to question Dickens.) The line above comes from the graveyard scene at the end when Scrooge has finally realized he's the dead one. The whole time the narrator has been describing the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come as the embodiment of cold reality. Yet here, as the haunting is about to come to an end, instead of seeming to actually be the Ghost of Cold Dark and Unavoidable Death and Torment, the shrouded spirit is revealed to be Just One Dark Possibility. The thing to note is that what you can't see in a film is whether or not the hand is kind. You can see it shake, give, begin to disappear. But you can't know it's kind. It's one word in the text, a single detail, and it carries all sorts of wonderful implications. Maybe it's just part of a drunken dream crumbling away into a bed post. Maybe it's part of what happens when a possibly dark future (or dark man) transforms into a possibly bright one. Or maybe there is some little kindness even in a dark Death that carries a dark soul to a dark, lonely grave.

6.) There's got to be more irony and wordplay in the story than I'm picking up on, but the last line of the last paragraph didn't get past me. In fact, it almost convinces me that Scrooge did more than just eat at the tavern before going home to such a strange night of nights, on the anniversary of his partner's death, to sleep in his dead partner's chambers...

"He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards..."

~*~

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Writing Retreat: Day - The Last

This is the most I've written in a long time. A story that had a little over one chapter when I arrived has six as I pack to leave. I can't describe how glad I am to be working on something new and something I'm interested in again. For that reason, I'm declaring this writing retreat a massive success.

But not only were there all those brand new lines and paragraphs and chapters today. There were wooly worms too.


They came out with the sun. And so did Cat and Mouse. Mouse lives in a really posh house (rock wall with lots of holes for entryways and tons of hallways for putting tiny mouse furniture and hanging miniature paintings), which he apparently likes to run in and out of to torture Cat.


Then there was more delicious food, and I know you're probably wondering why I always mention it, but until you come to a Highlights thing, you won't understand what a major part of the day food is. First off, it's yummy. Second, the table's where the socializing happens. And third, the chefs are fantastic and funny and nice. And they like their food healthy and pretty and catered to any diet. I appreciate the attention and the aesthetics.



But the very best part of the day was after dinner when we all sat around the table discussing the stuff we've been hard at work on holed up in our little cabins, on our computers, away from the world. It was great to get feedback, to hear their struggles, to give encouragement. It's so easy to feel isolated during the writing process, but the tiniest bit of encouragement, for me at least, can go a long way.


Tomorrow afternoon, I'm on a plane and back to the real world. I think I've got a start on something good. And we've certainly begun what I hope will be lasting friendships. Here's to meeting somewhere down the road and to all of our projects. May they be seen by the right people, bought by the right houses, and read by -- Everyone!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Writing Retreat: Day 2

What a nice day. I got into my writing zone! Woke early, had breakfast, and immediately started on a fantasy piece I've put little time into before now. I almost never write fantasy, which means when I do write it, it's fresh and interesting for me. Plus, I got that rare, amazing feeling that comes with knowing I'm creating something I like a lot. Instead of being realistic and heavy like the piece I've worked on for the last several years, this was new worlds, new realities, and new rules. Fun. So fun in fact, I got 3,784 words written! Very proud of myself.

Besides writing, I ate lots more good food (I'm talking pumpkin spinach soup, mashed sweet potatoes, baked tilapia with some magical homemade creamy lemony dipping sauce), met a garter snake warming itself in the sun, played with the rocks in the word garden, took a nap, and had the nicest talk with a new friend (the kind of conversation that makes you surprised so much time has gone by once it's over).

A good day. A great day. Most definitely.



Friday, October 12, 2012

Writing Retreat: Day 1

Here I sit on a bed in a cabin in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, bundled under two blankets with the heat on. The weather was changeable today. First dark and chilly, then windy and sunny, then stormy and dangerous, then windy and sunny again, and now just plain cold.

Four old stories of mine had my writing attention for the afternoon. If I keep switching between them, I'll have plenty to occupy me for the next few days. Maybe by Monday one will have won out and will get the attention it needs once I'm home.

My cabin is (now here's a word I never use) darling (it really is though). It's small and rustic, with just the necessities, in a soft, simple country decor. There are two beds, but I haven't got a roommate. There's a small bathroom. And there's a writing desk and some odd furniture. Very comfortable but much too quiet for writing. When I first arrived, I sat on my bed with pen and paper (I suppose the rusticity inspired me to be old-fashioned) and tried to write. Soon, I fell asleep. I'd gotten up early and I simply couldn't think what to say (curse of the blank page).


When I woke up and went to The Barn (the main location for conference activities) for lunch, I realized the problem. I needed noise. Not lots of noise, just a little. I needed to know there were humans around doing things. I needed to feel I was in the world, not hidden away. So, lesson learned and well worth taking home. Tomorrow, I'll do my writing in The Barn, as I did today, at this desk with a view of the woods and the sounds of people coming and going.


By late afternoon, the sun beckoned in spite of the cold. I quit writing, bundled up, and went for a walk around the grounds and down the trail behind the cabins. Lots of trees have already lost their leaves while many remain green. It's not the brilliant autumn scene I was hoping for. It's beautiful though. And I walked far enough to get that pleasant sensation of needing to take one's hood off to cool down.


I also found a nice surprise while exploring. A word garden! Fantastic. Must create something tomorrow when my fingers aren't so numb.


Soon after that was dinner and chatting with a group of lovely women who are seriously committed to their writing, some published some not, all intimately aware of the struggles and rewards of making a story. So it's good. It's a nice place to be for the next few days. And though it'd be wonderful to finish a draft, I'm not setting goals. It just feels good to be here, good to be writing, good to be cold. There are nice people around. There's delicious food. And the falling leaves make it all the nicer. Can't ask for more than that.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Writing adages I've misinterpreted

Writing has been my thing for the last five years. I like it so much I got a degree, started going to conferences, started writing lots of stories and blogs, and started teaching other people to write. But I recently hit such a formidable block, I almost gave up on writing. That's what having a narrow point of view gets you. It makes a block look like a wall, when all a block actually is, is a step.

The obstacle forced a re-evaluation of most everything I've come to believe about my skills and goals. It forced me to deconstruct my personal writing doctrine, to rethink the popular writing adages I've made a part of my writerly belief system, to step back and take a long look at what I'd built. I do that--I gather neat rules together to give myself a nice firm place to stand, only to find out later that rules are sort of silly when it comes to creation.

1. Write at least a little every day. This is a common writing rule that misses the point. Let's say I bake a cake every day, but it always goes flat, tastes like poop, and gets hard before it's cool. Now let's say you bake a cake every day too, but it's a beautiful cheesecake with strawberries layered in the middle and blueberries prettily placed on top and fancy chocolate drizzle designs around the platter. I'm an awful cook and you're a one-trick pony. But we're similar. In both cases, we're stagnant. We've learned nothing from our mistakes or strengths and added nothing to our knowledge bases. Writing every day isn't getting us anywhere. But practicing every day will. Recognizing something doesn't work, figuring out why, and fixing it will. Reading exceptional literature will. Living life, meeting people, loving people, leaving people, seeing sandstorms, hearing rainfall, smelling turned earth, feeling a warm hand in yours for a brief moment you'll never get back--doing those things will.

2. Write what you know. I heard this early on and assumed it meant that to write well, I'd need to write about my own experiences and the places and people I knew. Firstly, it annoys people when you write about them, especially people who are still living. Secondly, there's tons of stuff I don't know, but that doesn't mean I can't learn it. There are infinite places that don't exist. Doesn't mean I can't imagine them into existence. There are countless feelings I've never felt. That doesn't mean I can't daydream my way into a situation, learn how others have felt in the same situation, and go on to write in such depths you'd think the story was my own. Did Lewis really ride a lion? Did Barrie actually fly to Neverland? Did Rowling ever catch the snitch? No. But did Lewis ever seek a savior? Did Barrie ever wish for escape? Did Rowling ever want to be the hero? Oh, yes. Haven't we all? Don't write what you know. Live, learn, imagine, and feel; make what you know; then write about that.

3. Write what you like to read. This has been the most harmful for me and the hardest to overcome. It leads to doubt, discouragement, and giving up. The fact is, I can't just write anything, at least not for long. I can try anything, sure. But I can't sustain what doesn't fit my talents or passions. Most writers have a niche or two. They're good at writing certain kinds of things, sometimes over a broad area. Rarely is someone good at everything. I've tried, for instance, to write critical articles on children's literature. Unfortunately, though I teach people to write critical essays, I simply suck at doing them myself. I'm not being modest. I'm not being lazy. I really and truly suck. I can correct and advise essays all day long. But writing critical articles for journals on the academic scale I'm talking about--it's just not happening. Any idea how long I've beaten myself up about this? Too long.

(It's possible you expected point 3 to be about trying to write just like someone, in their voice I mean. That's fan fiction and can be lots of fun (I assume). It can also be like when you're in the car with a friend or family member, and your favorite song comes on the radio, and that friend starts singing along, genuinely trying to sound exactly like the artist even though she doesn't have an Irish accent at all, and she ruins your song, and you find yourself thinking, I could easily drive off the road and end this.)

4. Good writers are naturally good storytellers. Not true. Simply not true. The ability to write well and the ability to tell a story well are not the same skills and aren't cultivated in the same way. I'd love to tell you what good storytelling is and how it's learned. Unfortunately I have no idea. Good writing, on the other hand, I can say a few things about. Good writing has no extraneous words, no extraneous points. Every word, every thought is on purpose. Good drama and poetry and prose accomplish what they set out to accomplish, whether it's describing the fall of a leaf or recounting the fall of man. One piece of good writing looks different from another. And good writing may be different to you than it is to me. (Note: Being a snob about popular fiction just makes you look like a jerk, even if that popular fiction is essentially poop cake. Some people love that kind of crap.) The point is, just because I can write a good sentence doesn't mean I can write a good story. But just because I can't write a good story doesn't mean I can't write a good something.

~*~

"If you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway." Stephen King

Monday, October 8, 2012

Autumnal writerly getaway

Adjunct teaching takes up about 20-25 hours of my week. That includes lecturing, grading, preparing for class, and tutoring. It's great. Teaching is challenging enough, rewarding, and always changing--three things that keep me motivated. And now that I'm not brand new, I feel reasonably confident doing my job. So it's good.

But that leaves lots of empty hours in the week, and this little bird needs a bit more space to fly. So I'm setting off on an adventure, or perhaps many mini adventures. First stop: the Highlights Foundation Unworkshop, Unguided, Nonevent. Highlights is known by most for its children's magazines, but they also run highly regarded children's literature writing and illustrating workshops. This year, between the regularly planned workshops, they're letting writers and illustrators use the campus as a creative getaway. With no formal plans, we're left to focus on creating, without having to cook or run errands or clean house or feed the dog or do anything. My Unworkshop retreat begins Friday and ends Monday. The goals: experience the fall time Pennsylvania mountains, give my creative writing some much needed attention, and meet others who are doing the same. I'll be blogging each day, if wifi permits, so pictures and hopefully an insight or two to come.



~*~

"Why this craving for change? Why not stay on quietly here, like us, and be jolly? You don't know this hotel out of the season, and what fun we have among ourselves, we fellows who remain and see the whole interesting year out. All very true, no doubt, the others always reply; we quite envy you—and some other year perhaps—but just now we have engagements—and there's the bus at the door—our time is up!" ~ Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows

Friday, September 28, 2012

A lovely contradiction

"There's such a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I'm such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn't be half so interesting." Anne of Green Gables, by L M Montgomery

~*~

I don't know how many times they had us watch the Megan Follows Anne of Green Gables movies in school, but I know why: they were wholesome, entertaining, and based on classic literature. What's even better is that Green Gables may look like all the rest (it is a school story about an orphan hero, after all) but is in many ways altogether different.

For one thing, the first book is quite sad, which I admit may be partly due to my reading it in adulthood. The quick change of circumstance, protagonist age, and tone toward the end forces the age of knowing into the story. Anne grows up, loses someone close to her, and changes her plans for the future in just a few pages. Add to that a fuzzy climax, which requires a more patient, less expectant reader and an ending that's more a compromise than a triumph, and you've got yourself something pretty unique and realistic, if a little depressing.

For another thing, you've got Anne. As the reader, you're set up to cheer for Anne as best student, as cleverest and most interesting child, as unique and special and wonderful, as surely the biggest success of a human you could imagine. She's the brightest, most genuine, most affecting person in the story, yet she ends up staying at Green Gables to help aging and ailing Marilla and to teach at the local school. I can easily imagine an editor suggesting a change to some of that were the book submitted today (not to mention suggesting Montgomery spice up the slow beginning).

There are interesting characters peppered throughout children's literature, and lots of them are more memorable and even more well-rounded than Anne, but she definitely deserves a place amongst the unique. She's highly imaginative and dramatic, but she's been made to grow up fast, a blending that gives her the ability to adapt, in her way, to any situation that arises, but also ends in awkward moments and frequent catastrophes. She's a deeply feeling, thinking, hoping child (the aspects of her character that I feel set her apart from almost all the other female children's literature characters I've read), yet she's vain and proud and judgmental and bold. She wants to fit in with her peers, but her high language, strange behaviors, and interesting looks set her apart from everyone in the story. Anne is essentially a ball of contradictions. And in a rare case, especially for a story often found in the chapter books section, the reader gets to see her grow up and develop an unexpected but not too surprising grace and a deep consideration for others, a trait that found its way past her earlier vanity. Do I even need to mention that she doesn't have to fall in love for the book to successfully come to an end?

Besides all of that, the story is filled with almost suffocatingly detailed landscape, and the time span and language of the book keep it in limbo as to audience (for those who want audience clearly defined). Then there's the fact that Anne spends so much time interacting with adult characters (many of whom go through a change right along with the protagonist!--my, this sure is creeping into adult novel territory, but then so many of the greats do...) And there's the author's use of Anne's meandering dialog to sometimes take up the majority of a chapter, even toward the end becoming aware of itself and almost apologizing for going missing. And don't forget that, besides Matthew's sparse but undeniably strong presence, the book is heavily feminine and focused on female characters and their interactions, experiences, and challenges (and let's face it, Matthew isn't the stereotypical male character either). Though similar to many stories in many ways, Green Gables is, like a good classic, set apart from the piles and piles of predictable nothingness available in libraries and bookstores and online by being well-written, moving, and unique. And that's why I like it. Here, it's a perfect autumn read: Anne of Green Gables.

(Below, my most recent attempt at another children's literature recipe, Anne's Liniment Layer Cake, from Jane Brockett's Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts. Though my cake wasn't near the disaster Anne's was, and though the picture makes it look delicious, the truth is, it was pretty awful. Dry and chewy as an old cookie after just a day. Seemed fitting somehow.)


~*~
"I'm not a bit changed--not really. I'm only just pruned down and branched out. The real me--back here--is just the same. It won't make a bit of difference where I go or how much I change outwardly; at heart I shall always be your little Anne, who will love you and Matthew and dear Green Gables more and better every day of her life." Anne of Green Gables, by L M Montgomery

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Robin in a Wren's Nest

A few weeks ago, I learned a bit about Atlanta's literary history at the Wren's Nest, former home of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus. Remus is a fictional (compilation) character who narrates African-American folktales, often featuring the folktale trickster character (who is likely the most famous character in Harris's retold stories) in the form of Br'er Rabbit.


The Wren's Nest is like many other house museums--frozen in time and kept mostly as it was when the family lived there.


Old furniture, family portraits, and beloved personal items sit long unused. Rare and expensive books and memorabilia live in glass cases. Couches and chairs are off limits.


And like other museums, this one has a tour. In the dark front room, I sat with other curious visitors in front of a large set of movie props from a now controversial Disney film called Song of the South. We were soon given a short talk about who Harris was, how he came to create the character of Uncle Remus, how popular he and his characters became, what his personality quirks were, what his family was like, and how Disney took the stories to a larger public. We were then given a tour of the house and learned who Harris's famous friends were and how he, along with the illustrator he worked with, helped change children's literature forever.


Though the man himself and the history behind his work were fascinating, the best part was easily listening to one of their live storytellers, called Ramblers. At the end of the tour, our Rambler, 
Akbar Imhotep, brought the gloomy front room to life with his energy and humor in an interactive performance of tale after tale with historical information sprinkled in-between.



It was all very informative and entertaining, but one thing seemed to be missing--a discussion about the political and social issues surrounding the stories. There's a reason Song of the South isn't easily available for purchase. There's a reason Harris had such a strong negative reaction to the now classic illustration of the Uncle Remus character. But there's also a reason the stories are kept alive even though they're often attached to negative stereotypes. I'd have liked to hear a discussion about those things, but maybe that shows I've been a student too long, expecting a house tour for the public (children included) to be a critical discussion of the texts!

Wren's Nest staff did hand out the paper below, available in bulk for classroom use, and told me to call if I needed more copies, which they'd gladly mail. Or even better (for the trees), the article can be read online here: Everything You've Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong. That's where the critical aspect of the issues came into the tour, but I'd still love to go to a discussion there sometime about the stickier issues that flow beneath the smiling storyteller character. I'll talk more about the critical aspects of the Remus tales and how my class responded to the stories in Part 2. Till then, if you're interested, here's a good place to start learning more: Uncle Remus.

~*~
“[I]t’s not just the books under fire now that worry me. It is the books that will never be written. The books that will never be read. And all due to the fear of censorship. As always, young readers will be the real losers.” ~ Judy Blume

Friday, July 27, 2012

Summer break

Hello, writerly, readerly, and/or teacherly friend. I'm taking a break until September in order to pursue things out in the wide world and bring back more experiences and insights! That means no posts in August, but here's what's to come in September:

~ A post on literary Atlanta
~ More attempts from - Turkish Delight & Treasure Hunts, by Jane Brocket

Till then, happy reading and writing and doing summery things (or making the most of whatever season it is wherever you are)!


~*~

Calvin: It's July already! Oh no! Oh no! What happened to June?! Summer vacation is slipping through our fingers like grains of sand! It's going too fast! We've got to hoard our freedom and have more fun! Time rushes on! Help! Help!

Hobbes: I don't think I want to be here at the end of August.

Calvin: Aaugh! It's a half-hour later than it was half an hour ago! Run! Run!

~ Bill Watterson

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Potter Party

This weekend, we've been celebrating a well-known Potter. Nope, not Harry. Beatrix! All in honor of Peter Rabbit's 110th anniversary.

The first time I ever paid close attention to Beatrix Potter's work was during the summer of 2009 on my study abroad semester with Hollins. We were to read her stories, examine her illustrations, and visit her old place at Hill Top. Here's the home she died in, Castle Cottage (furthest right) across from Hill Top:


After reading her complete tales, the following characters and images stood out from the rest, and they remain my favorites. First, the amiable guinea-pig, and second, the Christmas bunnies (photos are mine, but illustration rights belong to F. Warne & Co., a subsidiary of Penguin):



Though there's tons of Potter merchandise for celebrations of any kind, I thought her work would be best honored by keeping with her homely and natural themes, Lake District style. There are plenty of lakes north of us, but I knew of a very English seeming place, due to its monastery and chapel and grounds reminding me of many a cathedral in England. We packed a relatively elaborate picnic (not a full-on English basket, but one I was proud of!) and drove to the countryside just south of the city. There, we found a quiet place to have salad, fruit, goat cheese/triple berry/walnut sandwiches, and yogurt with honey, along with a few of our closest avian friends. And we even had a chance to buy vegetables from Fr. Anthony's garden.






The quiet celebration continued back home where, after a shower and a nap (it got very hot while we walked the grounds), I tried my hand at leaf stamping, an idea I got from the teacher's resources at peterrabbit.com. With leaves gathered from the picnic site, I used acrylic paint to stamp out a bookmark to keep in memory of the nice day, and to stamp some notes to mail to a few friends.



The weekend was interrupted today by housecleaning, so we couldn't spend the entire day Pottering around. But we did find time to drive to a nearby park that's home to a farm (restored to its 1930s form, which may not seem like very long ago, but when you live in an area that's mostly shops and roads and neighborhoods, it's amazing to find an old farm surrounded by a nature preserve right in the middle of the madness). We took a hike in the hot sun and came across lots of creatures I think Beatrix would have been inspired by. The garden was closed today, but as sturdy as its fence looked, I can't help thinking a little bunny could get in if he really wanted to. (Getting back out again is the hard part. Just ask Peter.)




The celebrating finally ended with a spin through The Tale of Peter Rabbit interactive ebook (beautifully done), a dinner of Fr. Anthony's vegetables grilled alongside Jonathan's steak, and a just-sweet-enough dessert: Benjamin Bunny Banana Muffins, which are very banana-y and best warm with butter:



What a nice weekend. Lots of naturey things, lots of good food, and all thanks to dear Beatrix. Happy anniversary to Peter Rabbit and to mischief in general. Now until I can see those lakes again...
~*~
“Thank God I have the seeing eye, that is to say, as I lie in bed I can walk step by step on the fells and rough land seeing every stone and flower and patch of bog and cotton pass where my old legs will never take me again.” ~ Beatrix Potter