Friday, May 31, 2013

A beautiful facsimile

I've been trying to post this blog for days now. It's settled: May has been the busiest month this year. What with a beach trip and two classes and physical therapy and editing and naps, I simply didn't get inspired to blog very often. But before May ends (in a few hours), I wanted to give you a suggestion for some reading best done while sitting outside on a late spring day watching birds busy about from branch to ground to fence post. If yours is like ours, the back yard is half shade and half sun since the leaves have come in, with the screened porch, thankfully, being under the shady half. Harvey the beagle is curled on the rug beside me, snoring. The cats are together on the end of the bed inside. And I'm kicked back in a soft chair enjoying a warm day before the thick Georgia summer sets in.

The book I want to tell you about has hand-lettered text and soft illustrations throughout that make it as much a book of artwork as anything. Now that so much is available to read electronically, it's difficult to know which books to buy hardcopies of. But this is one I'll always hold on to. As the next best thing to the original, the hardcopy facsimile will always be better in person than it would be on screen. Plus, it's a classic and bestseller, for what that's worth, though I'd never heard of it when I bought it. It's called The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, and was written and illustrated by Edith Holden.

In what is basically a journal (the title page calls it a "naturalist's diary"), you'll find pages and pages of quoted poetry, comments about the weather, notes on what was blooming and what sorts of animals were showing themselves in each season, all done with a subdued, pretty penmanship during Edith's stay in Warwickshire. Best of all, it's filled with lovely, anatomically correct illustrations of the natural things she saw in the world around her. Never intended for publication, over fifty years after her death (which, according to the book, came when she "died tragically by drowning in the Thames, while gathering buds from chestnut trees"), her journal, used by her as a text for her students, was published, and it sold like crazy. Lots of other marketing stuff followed, but the book is undoubtedly the real magic. Another, Nature Notes, was published later, but I've yet to add it to my collection.

I don't know what the appeal for everyone else has been, but for me, it's the personal touch, the advanced skill, the observations, the fact that it took time to create and that that time is represented so literally, but most of all, it reminds me that every day, every month, every season is worth stopping to notice.

Here are a few pages so you can see for yourself, but it's nothing like sitting back on the porch with birds singing around you as you flip through what is, in the end, a very personal work by a teacher and children's book illustrator. (For more information about Edith and lots more pictures, click here.)


"While Earth herself is adorning
     This sweet May morning,
And the children are culling
     On every side
In a thousand valleys far and wide,
Fresh flowers; while the sun shines warm
And the Babe leaps up on its mother's arm--

Then sing ye Birds, sing, sing a joyous song
And let the young lambs bound as to the tabor's sound
We in thought will join your throng
     Ye that pipe and ye that play
     Ye that through your hearts today
     Feel the gladness of the May."

From Ode, by Wordsworth, as quoted in The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady

Monday, May 20, 2013

Springtime Update

We're just back from the first beach I've been to where the water was blue and the sand was white. Jonathan said it looked like a Corona commercial, and that pretty much captures it, minus the Corona. In my last blog post, I listed 10 things that inspire me to write. I managed to do 6 of those in one week at the beach and have now decided that (relatively) local travel is something easy to come by and should be taken advantage of as often as I need a refreshing point of view and can get away. Since I haven't got the ocean in my back yard, there's always something wild and inspiring about it. I suspect there are other wild and inspiring things to be experienced all around me.

But home has its inspiration too, like the critique group I recently joined that's made up of grad school friends who are brilliant at knowing and expressing what's working and not working in a story. After getting and giving critiques, however, I've been reminded how random and stupid the creative process can be. For example, I've been working on one particular story for going on seven years now. It's the story that got me to dedicate a chunk of my life to children's literature, the story I used as my thesis project, and the story I've shopped around and gotten rejected so many times I've lost count. After the last rejection, I shelved it as "the one that didn't work out." But I love this story, so I sent it to my brilliant critique group who fortunately had the same reaction as everyone else, which led me to make a last sad attempt at getting the to story work by switching it from third to first person. To my surprise, things started clicking. The readers made the connections they were supposed to. The characters and plot made (more) sense. The story was officially brought off the shelf! That's why I now fully believe the creative process is often dumb luck, because I didn't really change things thinking it would make a difference--I changed them out of desperation. Maybe that just means I'm not a very good storyteller, but lots of beautiful stuff has been created out of desperation, so I suspect it means creation is partly on purpose and partly on accident and that the accidents are where the magic happens.

The other inspiration here at home is my first official and paid editing job of a complete novel. It gives me the chance to edit a story all the way through on multiple levels (grammar as well as style and storytelling). This not only helps the writer, it helps the editor who's a wanna-be writer, like me! It's true what they say: seeing what works and doesn't work in a story is easier when you're reading someone else's words instead of your own. That's why critiquing is one of the most practical, hands-on things a writer can do to get better at writing, aside from reading good books.

The thing I'm not doing lately is working on the story I should have been working on for the past two months in preparation for the writing course I was supposed to do two years ago but am only just getting around to this coming September, which, in spite of my being a slacker, I'm getting really excited about. With three months or so to get the September project through at least a first draft, I should probably be doing that instead of blogging. Alas, I like to blog. Blogging clears my brain and sorts my mess and helps me figure out what I need to do next. For now, that's preparing two classes for this week, grading a pile of stuff I ignored during my time at the beach, and pretending calories don't matter as I eat tacos for dinner and buttered popcorn for dessert and sit on the porch with my husband and my dog and let the sun distract me for just a minute more. After all, they won't all be sunny days.