Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Anathema of "Angel at the Fence" (Jillian)

I am sure that by now the story has circulated to your attention of another case of untrue "true stories", this time in the form of "Angel at the Fence" a Holocaust memoir that would have been released in February had it not been revealed that it was essentially a lie. For decades, Herman and Roma Rosenblat have projected their story to the world... that they may on opposite sides of the fence of a concentration camp (he a prisoner, and she a girl who slipped him food through the fence) and were later reunited years later. This was yet another story that tugged longingly at Oprah Winfrey's heart-strings, only to launch her (and the rest of us) into profound shock and betrayal.

Basically, as the story has been reviewed, historically challenged and the Rosenblats forced to repent, I wonder - and have wondered for months - why their touching story, fiction though it was, "had" to be published as non-fiction, a true story, an actual experience... instead of a novel. Mr. Rosenblat has said (in the Today Show article): "I wanted to bring happiness to people... to make good in this world." But, apparently, the only way to truly bring that happiness was to make people believe it had actually happened.

What if it had been published as a novel? Does that mean that a message of hope of overcoming certain agony and oppression would not render the "right" degree of happiness for readers? It utterly perplexes me that Mr. and Mrs. Rosenblat considered lying necessary! And that so many others (also mentioned in the msnbc article) have resorted to dishonesty in a wayward attempt to legitimize their art! And in the end it renders sadness and an endless wave of suspicion on other writers.

The story of the "Angel at the Fence" may be fiction, but it was inspired by real experiences - that need to spread a message of hope and joy to the world. It simply cannot be real, but as a work of fiction it would still have a geniune place in the halls of Holocaust literature. And, as fiction, it would not be an attempt to be something it is not.

It makes me sad that the world wants "true" stories when the stories that come from our souls and the deepest, unfathomable depths our creative cores are "true" too.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Caroling, Caroling (Jillian)

Officially Christmas lasts until 6 January, Epiphany... so I do not believe it is too late to spill some Christmas whimsy here for all to enjoy.

In recent years, I have wondered at the history of carols - those familar, special hymns that have become ingrained into our culture for hundreds of years - particularly the ones that I was least "exposed" to as a child. Mysteries in general are interesting to me, so here I dig. (In retrospect, it might have been thoroughly festive to have posted interesting facts on lesser known carols the entire length of the "Twelve Days", but, alas, that might have to wait till next year!) I have always marveled at "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", and "What Child is This?" but I wondered at obscurities like "In the Bleak Midwinter," and its more pensive melody that takes it farther down the spectrum from "Joy to the World" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!" I discovered, thanks to the sometimes-helpful source of Ye Olde Wikipedia, that it was a poem written by Christina Rossetti in 1872... and only published after her death.

Check out the first two verses of the poem:

In the Bleak Midwinter

In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter,
Long ago.

Our God, heaven cannot hold him,
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign;
In the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God incarnate,
Jesus Christ.

"See? This is what Christmas is all about!" If you have ever heard the melody, you'll know that the music matches the words - pensive and quiet... and maybe a little "bleak". But it is absolutely perfect... more so because I imagine this as a poem from a writer not intending her words to be put to music, just writing... and pondering... and praying... true to herself.

Another carol added to the ultimate Christmas playlist!

For your reference: wiki article.

Monday, December 22, 2008

History, Nuisances, Et Cetera: Part 3 (Michelle)

History just became that much less of a nuisance.

I found this wonderful website on medieval and Renaissance material culture yesterday. It's not an academic site, so like all internet sources it should be treated with caution; it seems to be run by a reenactor, as far as I can tell. But it chiefly consists of details from manuscripts and paintings containing particular examples of material culture (carriages; clothing; furniture; boxes; etc etc etc). It takes you directly to the contemporary sources, so you can at least get a sense of how people viewed these elements of their own culture.

As I find them, I will continue add links for similar websites on the Victorian Age, the Roman Empire, the Ming Dynasty, and whatever else I can find that might be of use to writers of historical fiction.

God bless the Society for Creative Anachronism, truly!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Twilight: On Ice? (Michelle)

A friend sent me this link --- suggesting that Twilight would work best as a figure skating pairs routine --- to make me laugh. Which I did. I hope you do too.

BUT. Maybe it's just all the Nutcracker I've been watching lately (my niece and nephew not being satisfied to watch it just once or even 300 times) but I'm starting to think this is a good idea. It would make a good skating routine or even ballet.

Ballet and ice skating, after all, rely heavily on the fiction that the woman weighs nothing more than a feather, while the man is stronger than a thousand suns...it would be fun to have that be an actual tenet of the plot of a ballet. And look at this picture: he looks like he's about to bite her neck anyway, and this ballet has nothing to do with vampires at all.

There's also something about Twilight that belongs firmly in the age of Tchaikovsky, Victoriana, and the damsel in distress. Vampires, after all, do feel most at home in the 19th-century Gothic novel. Doubtful? Check out this horribly disturbing Fuseli painting.

But all those weird Gothic accoutrements in very poor taste aside: there's something profoundly non-verbal about Meyer's novels. The strength of them, as has been observed a hundred times, isn't in the writing style so much as the story. They addict because they tell a good, classic beauty-and-the-beast tale, really. So, why not cut out the words altogether and embrace the theatrical, quasi-operatic proportions of the whole thing? (The dark side of all this is that we're much more likely to end up with Twilight: The Musical a la The Phantom of the Opera in a couple of years than we are to end up with a decent ballet...shudder.)

I wasn't going to post on this, because I'm not sure exactly how it relates to writing per se (should I really be recommending the excision of words on a blog devoted to writing???)...but I keep thinking about it, for some reason, and I think it's feeding some thoughts about the problematic "damsels in distress" in our culture that I may blog on in the future.

As long as we're talking Victoriana: only 4 more days until the Doctor Who Christmas special, when Cybermen meet A Christmas Carol!!! Cannot wait. (Couldn't resist, either, apparently.)

Friday, December 19, 2008

Endlessly Winter (Michelle)

It's sleeting like mad where I am today, so perhaps that's why the following quote struck a chord with me. Thanks to my friend Rachel for posting it as her gmail status today! :)

"Antisthenes says that in a certain faraway land the cold is so intense that words freeze as soon as they are uttered, and after some time then thaw and become audible, so that words spoken in winter go unheard until the next summer."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Salamanders (Michelle)

A distressing dearth of whimsy on the blog of late. Without the random firing of neurons, where would creativity be?

I am trying to rectify this with a completely random article on an ancient and huge salamander-like creature that took bites by lifting its upper jaw instead of dropping its lower jaw. I still remember the first time I realized I couldn't move my upper jaw --- I felt utterly paralyzed.

More salamander/amphibian facts:
  • In the Renaissance it was believed that salamanders lived in fire. Cool, no? I'll try to dig up the Thomas Browne reference to this for a future post.
  • At the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in D.C., there is a much-neglected room in the dinosaur section devoted to ancient amphibians, petrified wood, eggs, and seeds. (I'm not exactly sure what all of these have in common.) They have a little display in the floor of dozens of fossilized amphibian heads in situ. It's surreal.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nut-Whacker! (Michelle)

Tis the season when I start rereading The Nutcracker and watching the Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet that used to air every year on PBS when I was a kid. My little niece calls it "Nut-whacker" which somehow seems to remind a world awash in sentimental sugarplum fairies that this is in fact a weird, edgy story. What else would you expect from E.T.A. Hoffman?

So, this is a seasonal suggestion for an artist date --- explore this story. Whether you're a sentimentalist or a scifi lover with a taste for the macabre, you will probably find something to intrigue.

The above picture is from Maurice Sendak's unsettling illustration of the tale, in which Godfather Drosselmeier (the creator of the Nutcracker doll) appears as a very, very ambiguous sort of figure. As with Shakespeare's Prospero or Hawthorne's Matthew Maule, it's sometimes unclear whether this magician is a force for good or evil. Imagine waking up in your living room finding that face looking down at you from the top of the grandfather clock!

I also rewatched the ballet a couple of days ago and found it unexpectedly heartbreaking. Obviously, it's imbued with a strong sense of wonder and fantasy, as harlequins come to life, Christmas trees grow huge, and snow and spun sugar suddenly seem indistinguishable. But as all this is going on, Marie/Clara is growing up, becoming ever longer, more graceful, able to match her magically transformed prince...but every growth also leads her closer to waking from the dream.

Baryshnikov's version of the ballet culminates in a gorgeous pas de deux, the part of a ballet traditionally between the male and female principal dancers, but this time Godfather Drosselmeier is constantly interposing his black form between the dancers, both guiding and separating them. He's creating the dream, but he's also ending it.

I am reminded of what Ursula LeGuin wrote about Sleeping Beauty:

"The story is, itself a spell. Why would we want to break it?"

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Monsters Under the Bed (Michelle)

Interesting reflections from Robert Owen Hood at Road to Faerie on the subject of monsters.

Monsters are very flexible symbols. That is all I really have to say at the moment. :)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Death Grip (Michelle)

I just rewatched the end of Series 2 of Doctor Who ("Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday"). I don't know how many times I've seen this now, but it's still just as fresh. I'm laughing at the 3D glasses, pumping my fist at Cybermen v. Daleks, and crying at the end.

And it's not just "Ohhh, it makes me cry every time, the Doctor and Rose are sooooo cuuuuute." It feels like Russell T Davies has turned me inside out; David Tennant is magnificent, Billie Piper is understated, and I'm hearing Rilke in my head. It's practically a transcendent experience for me, and my brother-in-law on the couch next to me is looking at me like I've gone slightly insane. He's right; it shouldn't be this amazing, should it? It's not exactly Shakespeare!

Some stories just don't let me go. Doctor Who has a death grip. It feels utterly pathetic to be so involved in a story,and I'm trying to remind myself that it's the same thing that makes it possible for me to make my own stories. It just has an annoying way of making me look a fool at the same time.

Why am I advertising my foolishness on the blog? I guess I'm croaking Russell T Davies and David Tennant again to the admiring bog.

Keep ahead of all parting, as if it were behind
you, like the winter that is just now passed.
In winters you are so endlessly winter, you find
that, getting through the winter, your heart
on the whole will last.

(Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus II.13, trns. C.F. MacIntyre)

Part 2 - Why History is Such a Nuisance (Jillian)

Ah, I considered simply responding to Michelle's post in a normal reply, but then I got to thinking: this has been on my mind lately, so I will just add to her marvelous post. She is totally right - the focus of historical fiction is a bear to smooth out and find the right balance between history and fiction... but above all, no matter where a novel is set, it must be about the story. Other wise, pages will be filled with complicated, and essentially inhuman, words.

As a writer of historical fiction (medieval) I often find myself incensed at the mountains upon mountains of worthless historical fiction. I am not certain this is an occurrence of me being a snob or what. But honestly... *plaintive sigh*

I just finished The Illuminator and thoroughly wished I had not been tempted to buy it. It is exactly what Michelle describes below - an overly unkind attitude toward the past. It takes place in the late 1300s when John Wycliffe is spreading "heretical" ideas about the Medieval church - its corruption and a "big" push for equality among the gentry and the peasantry. However, the characters talk like they're lobbyists fully involved in the struggle... and not surprisingly, there is no attempt to show the Middle Ages as anything but bleak. According to writer Brenda Rickman Vantrease, love was non-existent except in lustful, physical consummation; there were no righteous and good holy men (they all seem to be either dangerous radicals or greedy, wealthy yes-men of useless popes... and during this time there were actually two), nor righteous and good laymen; women were always regarded as little more than sexual property; and all conflicts with evil royal regents and the Church ended in bloodshed... the list goes on.

But the Middle Ages is not so different from the the Dark Ages... or the Renaissance... or Victorian England... or World War Two... in the fact people were still human, feeling human emotions and making human mistakes. The world was no more black and white and bleak than it is now. The citizens of 2008 (almost 2009) live in the same world that citizens of 1390 did - it is simply a little older. Regardless of what ideals or religious fervor ordered their lives, they still have a story. The post-modern age revels self-indulgently in the thought that with our technology and increasing knowledge of our universe, we are somehow above the views and stories of the past... when in fact, it isn't true. The stories have color. They never were black and white.

When writing historical fiction for myself, I have been swept away in the knowledge that it is a profound balancing act. That history is more than just a backdrop for a story, but often the life-blood, and the characters cannot be mouthpieces for current ideas. I, too, worry over the technicalities - wondering if a monk would really enter a bedchamber to tend to a sick young woman... whether or not there would have been some gender-barrier preventing him from giving her solace. Or what of the reverse? Could a woman tend to a man?

It is a beautiful challenge... but one I take personally for the sake of the stories of the past.

(Thanks, Michelle, for writing about this!)

Why History Is Just a Nuisance (Michelle)

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.P. Hartley)

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." (Voltaire)

Writing historical fiction convinces me of one immutable fact: history is a total nuisance. Mind you, it's a good nuisance, like the presence of other people in the world, or children clamoring for attention, or the need to eat. There are some things that "bug" us that actually make us fuller, better, or less selfish people.

The foreignness of the past, the presence of certain historical facts that cannot be changed, and the stubborn refusal of historical people to see the world as we do all force us to admit that our own experiences and culture are not immutable, inevitable or superior to others'. Still, the initial irritation caused by such stumbling blocks in the creative process cannot be denied. Hence, the "nuisance." In any case, here, as promised, are a few initial reflections on the problems of writing historical fiction.

My own novel is set in 1513 (Is that the Middle Ages? The Renaissance? Ask six scholars, you'll probably get six different answers.), and while it contains more than a heavy dollop of fantastical events, I do want it to possess a measure of historical authenticity. In fact, that authenticity is pretty important to its main themes.

This means that I get frequent, frequent headaches about that authenticity --- in terms of dialogue, events, character reactions, settings, and on and on ad infinitum. Would friends of different genders, not sexually involved, have embraced after long separation? What finger would that woman's wedding ring be on? What did royalty travel in --- were there carriages yet? What would she be wearing? It's so hard to be personally authentic to my own vision and yet not to be modern!

It helps that I believe that there is a basic core of human nature, however shaped by culture and historical circumstance individuals might be. I'm not of the school, for example, that believes that no one fell in love until Chretien de Troyes invented it in the 12th century. Chretien gave us a language to talk about it that still influences us today, but affection existed.

But in some ways that makes my task harder, because it means that so many modern novels set in the Middle Ages and Renaissance offer very little guidance to me, as they take for their premise that life was simply nasty, brutish, and short. In fact, the only modern novels set roughly in my period that have been any help are Ellis Peters' marvelous Cadfael mysteries. Her characters seem authentically medieval (whatever that means) while displaying some of the humane qualities I am attempting to use in my own writing.

Then there is the question of dialogue. The article about M.T. Anderson, author of Octavian Nothing, that I posted last week, offers this interesting perspective:

He was so obsessed with getting Octavian's voice right that for the better part of six years, he restricted his reading to books written in or relating to the 18th century. He started speaking in "much longer sentences with a lot of semicolons," with the unintended consequence that his girlfriend mocked him for sounding like "some 18th-century [expletive]."

I admire this approach immensely, and I was actually doing something similar before I even read this article (she said smugly) by rereading a lot of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and historical non-fiction, as well as listening to audiobooks in the car of the same. These days, I often hear the cadences of Lord Peter Wimsey or the characters on Doctor Who in my head...so I'm trying to clear out some of those modern cadences.

However, no matter what I do, I will always be writing by analogy. Unlike M.T. Anderson, I cannot perfectly imitate the speech and writing of the period, because then my characters would be speaking some form of late Middle English. (D'oh!) Rather, I have to figure out a way to evoke pre-modern speech patterns without sacrificing the immediacy that modern idioms will have for readers.

And this seems to be the heart of the matter in general, probably even for M.T. Anderson ---historical fiction is always an exercise in analogy, in making the past imaginatively accessible to modern readers. If you recreate the past absolutely perfectly, then you're just a Chaucer imitator, and there's nothing fresh about what you're doing.

To paraphrase a rather brilliant friend of mine, a modern reader's interest in an imaginary country depends, among other things, on its immigration policy. That policy must allow easy passage --- you can't demand that your immigrants memorize the whole Constitution verbatim, for example. That means, for me, that I can't demand of my readers utter historical authenticity or the ability to read Middle English. I am allowed a few anachronisms in the name of accessibility.

This, unfortunately, is anathema to my perfectionist spirit --- that part of me that is the consummate scholar. It's really hard to be both a scholar and an artist, but for some reason I persist in believing that it's possible. As somebody not all that wise once said (I think it was Voltaire, you see) --- "The perfect is the enemy of the good." If I get too hung up on authentic speech cadences or historical exactitude, the story itself will never be told. And there's the difference between a novel and a dissertation: the point of the novel is the story, not the historical accuracy.

I need to remain constantly limited by the strictures of history --- to feel the thorn in my side of that "nuisance" --- but I also need to know when to let go and allow the story to tell itself. Must everything in life be a balancing act?

p.s. If you get these posts via RSS feed and have gotten this one about sixty times, I can only apologize. The glitchiness of Blogger is driving me insane today!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Hurrah for Stephenie Meyer! (Michelle)

I am getting increasingly unapologetic about my love for Stephenie Meyer and the Twilight series. So there.

I just spent a very happy 45 minutes on Ms. Meyer's website, reading her "unofficial bio" and her account of how Twilight was published, and it gave me so much darn hope! Not hope that my writing will become wildly, insanely popular, of course --- who dares to hope that?

But her down-to-earth voice, her humor, her quite ordinary life story gave me a lot of hope that that people get published who don't necessarily know about the publishing world beforehand, who haven't spent every waking minute of their young lives writing, who go to church and love their families and maybe spend as much time chasing toddlers as they do writing...because if a story decides it wants you, wants you to write it and decides to seize you, then it happens. It does. Or so I can almost believe.

Do yourself a favor and check it out: here for a start.

And she affirms me in the fact that I write with music in the background. I often feel vaguely guilty about that.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Octavian Nothing, Et Alia (Michelle)

I welcome myself back after a very hectic Thanksgiving week! Welcome back, Michelle. So nice to see you here.

On to business: here is a great article that ran in the Washington Post this past weekend on M.T. Anderson, another young adult writer of quality. (At least, I think he is; I have not yet read his book.) He is the author of Octavian Nothing, an epic set in the Revolutionary War documenting the experience of a slave in very unusual but historically accurate circumstances. I noticed it in Borders a couple of days before the article ran, and now it's certainly on my list to read.

I was particularly interested in what Anderson had to say about trying to absorb 18th-century sentence structure, as I have been wallowing in Chaucer lately in an attempt to clean out some modern cadences from my ears, for the purposes of my novel. More on that in a future post probably.

In other news, here is What I Did With My Summer (or Thanksgiving) Vacation:
  • Read a lot of Chaucer (see above)

  • Saw (twice) and loved (twice) the Twilight movie. Ate my words from months previous about how it looked imbecilic and came away with a hearty respect for Robert Pattinson (channeling James Dean and Max Schreck simultaneously?!), Catherine Hardwicke (making it beautiful), and the general power of not being too cynical for your own good.

  • Finished a chapter! Yay! I successfully narrated a medieval journey without mentioning seedcakes once. Victory is mine.

  • Actually did research for my novel, which felt very virtuous.

  • Went to the library and checked out a whole pile of books I knew I wouldn't be able to finish but enjoyed myself anyway.

  • Fretted about historical accuracy in fiction. (More to come on this issue.)

  • Formed a resolution to read some E.T.A. Hoffman, after I finish the Canterbury Tales (ha!), The Faerie Queene (bigger ha!), and this random book I picked up at Borders about medievalists...

And, last of all, Coming Soon: Why History Is Just a Nuisance

Monday, November 24, 2008

Words of Wisdom on Narrative (Jillian)

Hello. I return, having read another article from the Daily Telegraph... discussing the timeless power of stories, despite the sad occurrence of library-closings and the increase of use of the internet... and the overflow of "junk" that is messing with the English language. It is a hopeful article written by Sam Leith, called "Grand Theft Auto, Twitter and Beowulf all demonstrate that stories never die."

Some wonderful tidbits I must share:

"...reading fiction is not a trivial activity. Not only does narrative pleasure sugar the pill of learning in all sorts of areas, it is a good in and of itself."

It is goodness! It really does bash that notion that stories are "just" stories, those fringes of the human experience when they are really far more that!

"Reading a full-length novel on a screen is next to impossible. Your back aches. Your mouth parches. Your eyes fall out. For portability, browsability and ease of annotation the book is the best form of technology we have; and has been since its invention."

I think to how books first began to be assembled... way before the printing press came into use via vellum and inks, and sewn together by diligent monks in monasteries. Over a thousand years later, the book really hasn't changed much at all. They are so timeless... and human!

Stories are central to how we think about the world: from the individual to the wide sweep of history. The ability to put yourself in another's shoes is the foundation-stone of all morality...
And what is that but an imaginative process? Where do we learn it but in stories? ... "In dreams begins responsibility," said W B Yeats. He wasn't kidding."

I love that quote! Can you see the story-threads binding together all humanity? I can!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Daisies Pushed Back Down (Jillian)

It is time to officially mourn Brian Fuller's Pushing Daisies. This gloriously magical little show about a pie-maker named Ned (played by the wonderful Lee Pace) who can bring people back to life with one touch, has been cancelled by ABC. Considering it originally aired during last season's devestating but necessary writer's strike (which could be the subject of another post, I felt so passionately about it), it's chances of survival were drastically reduced. Apparently, "ratings" are the only thing that matters when it comes to keeping shows on the air. It has nothing to do with the quality, with the whimsy, or, least of all, that lovely warm feeling I got every time I watched an episode and was swept away by Jim Dale's magical narration and the no-touch passion between Ned and once-dead girlfriend Charlotte, AKA "Chuck". Not to mention the hilarious interactions of Emerson Cod, the caustic private investigator who loves to knit, and Olive Snook, who is nursing an unrequited love with the pie-maker... I could go on...

Pushing Daisies will be allowed to finish out its existing episodes, apparently ending on a cliffhanger. Plans are cooking to either finish out the story lines in comic book form and/or make a feature film. All of these things still make me want to cry... initially. As a writer, I have to mourn the fact that a wonderful show is now forced into secondary means. And I am still getting used to the rage I feel that ABC thinks continuing this show isn't worth it. It all comes down to money and the shows that truck it in... shows of lesser quality and imagination. I could name off a whole list of those loathed "stories" but I will refrain. I'm sure you, reader, could name several yourself!!

But the idea that Pushing Daisies is a story powerful enough to survive outside of television, actually made me feel better after a time, sparks a certain hope in the power of stories rather than the greed-driven "power" of the television networks. Apparently, that's what happened with Buffy the Vampire Slayer... and its final seasons continued on in comic books. Pushing Daisies, with its quirks and its colorful characters and zany murder-mysteries, would actually be perfect for that sort of genre.

I'd hope for that same kind of strength for my stories... to be able to defy the "authority" of the world and be utterly unique on their own. Hope! Hope that stories like this one can still appeal to an audience, even if they seeming have failed to keep it airing. One thing will never go away: Pushing Daisies' power to show me the value of magic in a seemingly ordinary world... and to embrace what it can do to change that world!

The wonderful, magical Ned. His story will continue to push daisies!

Monday, November 17, 2008

In the City of Cinnamon Sticks (Michelle)

More whimsy to fuel a free-write:

I took these pictures the Christmas before last in D.C. The Botanical Gardens had an exhibit of Washingtonian monuments constructed out of autumnal edibles, like cinnamon sticks and varnished pears and great brown nuts. I wish all our national affairs really were conducted in buildings more like these, which seemed to be culled from Act IV of The Nutcracker.

I also wish I had taken pictures of more of the monuments, but I'm afraid I'm not very good at having an experience and taking pictures of it at the same time.

The Capitol:

The Jefferson Memorial:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In Praise of the "Lowbrow" (Michelle)

I'm still reading Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, a collection of women writers' responses to fairy tales.

In the introduction, the Kate Bernheimer makes a much-needed defense of writers who work in less-respected genres, like children's literature, young adult literature, fantasy, mystery, and sci-fi. She says that not only "literary" like Margaret Atwood or A. S. Byatt writers deserve respect, but also the likes of Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman...She points out many of the original transcribers of fairy tales were women working in the French courts to collect the derisively named "old wives' tales."

Bernheimer says:

Highbrow readers quick to dismiss these tales because of genre labels might consider that these writers are also following in the footsteps of the salon writers of Paris, working subversively in fields often dismissed by the literary establishment, and staking out territory in books that have wide appeal. These authors often acknowledge their debt to a range of influences from Madame D’Aulnoy to Angela Carter.

I feel that this is an important point to make, because in current literary culture there often a deep divide between "good books" and "good reads." The books that continually win the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer, the Snerdly McSnoggall Prize for Great Literature are often horribly depressing, leaden reads that I occasionally force myself to read out of some misguided sense of virtue. I don't mean to suggest that all Booker Prize-winning books are dead ends, but that there is a culture which suggests that if a book is depressing and written in a certain style, it must be a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

Meanwhile, it's books like Twilight and Harry Potter which people are apparently dying to read. I know many many people, too, who humbly submit to preferring "escapism" over "literature" - but I can't help feeling that they shouldn't be made to denigrate their own tastes, simply because they enjoy the occasional happy ending or adventurous romp. Perhaps Harry Potter isn't the most well-crafted book (then again, maybe it is, given its addictive qualities), but it shouldn't be automatically dismissed just because of its genre and popularity. And there are certainly other representatives of its genre that are extremely artful, profound, and yes, beautiful.

The question is: Does the gap between quality and pleasure have to exist? My own opinion is ABSOLUTELY NOT, and I will fight to the death to prove it. The immense pleasure and edification I get from Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, John Le Carre, Connie Willis, Dorothy Sayers, and Doctor Who tell me that it is possible to be intelligent and fun. Certainly, the writers listed above all contain different mixtures of fun and weight, but the point is that the rip-roaring good yarn can also be excellent, excellent art.

And it's immense fun to trawl through the less exalted genres and find the gems. Much more fun than struggling through The God of Small Things, I guarantee that.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beware Not Writing (Michelle)

I have been much occupied, in the past week and a half, with things other than writing. Madly turning in graduate school applications, making lots of free-lance dinero, that sort of thing.

And I discovered that NOT writing (writing for myself, that is) apparently makes me very angry. It's odd, because I went for years in college when I hardly wrote anything besides papers --- I was lucky if I crafted a poem once a month. And yet here I was, just a couple of days without free-write pages or novel diddling, and I was becoming incredibly irritable.

Julia Cameron, whom I quote far too often, talks (in a way rather likely to make the unsentimental reader snort) about the "artist child." Simply put, she thinks that everyone's artist is a not-very-rational little kid who needs attention and love and grows bratty without it. This, according to her, is why so many artists are self-centered or dysfunctional --- because they are not kind to their "artist-child." I don't know if I would put it exactly that way, but there does seem to be something here.

I've been spending the last two years resurrecting myself as writer --- and that part of myself had been pretty thoroughly buried ("mostly dead all day") because it was too risky. Now, it would seem, the writer is back with a vengeance, and determined not to be buried again.

This is great, really, because it means that I really am quite likely to keep writing, no matter what. As Gillian Welch puts it in her beautiful song "Everything Is Free": "I'm gonna do it anyway / Even if it doesn't pay." But it's also extremely inconvenient, because it means that at the times of my life when other responsibilities are pushing hard, I'm going to find myself defiantly staying up late, as I did the past two nights, to write mediocre and sleepy prose.

So, I had never particularly cared for the Hulk as a character before. I find it hard to empathize with extremely green superheroes with very fake looking muscles. But now I'm not so sure. I was definitely feeling a little green rage when I wasn't writing. Maybe the Hulk just needs a good free-write.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Words to Images (Jillian)

One thing I've noticed that drives me crazy about my own writing process is the unbelievably silly propensity to plan everything out in my head. Granted, that can be a good thing. Getting a sense for how a scene could unfold, brainstorming, etc. But that is all it is: a sense. I have to remind myself of this several times a week!

Something that has helped me get passed the difficult translation of images to words is to remember that the brainstorm - all those images of characters interacting in the depths of your imagination - is only the beginning. Words will eventually tell the story, so... why not start with words... and from words form the images?

This makes sense to me. But for those of you I have confused with my ridiculousness, think of it this way: weaving a picture with words and leaving the ultimate mystery of what you are actually creating to the moment you sit down with pen or keyboard and begin. A story is carried in the womb of our imagination, but it must be birthed... that doesn't mean it has to look good or whole when it first emerges in front of you.

After all, writing - no matter what it is intended to be - is a journey of patience and self-discovery, not a product of x number of pages fitting exactly into a pre-planned formula. Organic, real.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Between Shelves of Books (Jillian)

I took a long awaited venture to Barnes and Noble Sunday. It felt right. There was a certain energy pulling me there, secondary to the "mission" to spend the gift card my co-workers so generously gave me for my birthday. Sometimes I am overwhelmed when I peruse the shelves, hunting for a diamond in the rough. But Sunday was a day to reach out and feel energy in that place. Odd, isn't it?

And it wasn't even any solid inspiration... just creative energy that inspired me to go home and continue with my own projects... a calming, soothing reassurance that my novel is just as worthy (don't know how it convinced me), just as different and fantastic as that store full of books.

Someone told me recently, "There is such thing as a library, you know." And while libraries are wonderful, there is something about having my own pantheon of books waiting for me at home in an overcrowded bookcase. It is undefinable... but it is just one other little thing that keeps me writing.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I'm Nobody (Michelle)

Ernest Hemingway's friend Evan Shipman was known to say, during the years when they were both expatriate writers in Paris, that what culture lacked was the truly anonymous and unambitious poet. At least, that's what Hemingway claims in A Moveable Feast, a lovely if not entirely reliable memoir.

I admire the sentiment, but I can't admit to such profound detachment that I don't actually desire to be published sometime. (And Hemingway couldn't either, as you might notice!) I still think, though, that it's important to remember that we don't (or shouldn't) write for the sole purpose of becoming known. Writing for me is a contemplative act, and one that grows in privacy. Ideally I should have the attitude of medieval craftsmen, putting elaborate carvings high up on the cornices and ceilings where no one but God could see them. I say ideally, because I am nowhere near such heights of serenity at the moment.

My sister and I have been discussing anonymity, having spent a rough 24 hours dealing with some opinionated folk who very stridently make their views heard. (I'm not opinionated, of course. If I were opinionated, I'd do something like start a blog where I could air my opinions...oh wait...) Anyway, it makes us want to curl up inside a shell a bit, and do things just for the sake of doing them. Emily Dickinson puts it so alluringly:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there 's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They 'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

She does make the rat race seem very small and petty, doesn't she? Perhaps it is far better and more fruitful to have your art be a wonderful secret that you share with the other nobodies. And its true, I think, that fame would be a very tedious experience. It's odd, because while I don't have any desire for fame, I do wish sometimes to be part of the communities of the respected - you know, to be in a position to chat with Russell T Davies about his creative choices and whatnot.

But is the price of that to become a "public frog?" I suppose it's mostly a matter of luck, whether to find (conventionally defined) success you have to croak your own name so loud that your throat gets raspy and you forget what it was all for to begin with. I want to croak other people's names: my characters', my artistic heroes', my friends' and my enemies' and God's.

I have a feeling that Emily Dickinson is going to become much more important to me in the coming months. And she was the truly, enthusiastically anonymous poet --- and look at how she's still touching hearts.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Halloween Read - A Day Late (Michelle)

Last night, in honor of the occasion of All Hallow's Eve, I read Christina Rossetti's poem "The Goblin Market" for the first time, and I found it great fun. It draws on the tradition of fairies as dangerous, otherworldly creatures found in Sir Orfeo, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Little Big, Stardust, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Also, I think it's quoted in the Doctor Who episode "Midnight," to great creepy effect, so that's fun too. It has a nice eerie rhythm to it.

It only took about 20 minutes to read, and it was worth the time. Good old Victoriana. You can find a full text here at the wondrous, wondrous Gutenberg collection of public-domain works.

'We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?'

Sorry my posts are all a bit goblinny these days - the fairy tale reading kick has reasserted itself!

Margaret Atwood and "The Juniper Tree" (Michelle)

I recently ran across this quote from Margaret Atwood in an essay called "Of Souls as Birds." It's in a collection of essays by women writers about their responses to fairy tales called Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales (ed. Kate Bernheimer). I'm very much enjoying the collection, but this quote particularly amused me. She's responding to the lyrical and brutal Grimm tale, "The Juniper Tree," in which a little boy's head gets chopped off by his stepmother. He is ultimately resurrected, in part through his stepsister's love.

In the early sixties I published a poem based on this story [“The Juniper Tree”], which began ‘I keep my brother’s head among the apples.’ My friend Beverley, who worked for the same market-research company as I did, has recently confessed to me tat she came across this poem and was badly frightened by it. She didn’t know about the original story; she thought I might just be too weird for words. Such are the hazards of mythopoetry.

I had to laugh, because (a) it's funny; and (b) I can identify.

At the moment, I am nourishing a secret and not entirely explainable wish to go to the grocery store and take photos of the bins of fantastical gourds and squash that are currently populating the produce section. I just think they look really cool, and they are tickling some part of my creative brain - it's no wonder that squash play such a crucial role in Cinderella. They're also traditional symbols of resurrection, apparently! I can't quite work up the nerve to do it, though, because I will look utterly insane, and I think that there's even an outside possibility that I will be asked to leave.

Such are the hazards, indeed.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Journey's End (Jillian)

For months now, ever since the gut-wrenching, tear-jerking conclusion to Doctor Who Series 4, we Whovians have held our breaths in wait over one question: how much longer will David Tennant play the Doctor? That question was answered yesterday... and is all over the net now (such as this article). Doctor Ten will last through the 2009 specials before handing the keys to the TARDIS and his sonic screwdriver to Doctor Eleven... whoever it may be.

I have to admit I cried when I learned of this, but it wasn't a surprise. I will miss him terribly, as he is the Doctor who has made the biggest impact on my life. The sadness is mixed with the realization that the show does not revolve around David but the Doctor himself and what a unique character he is for being, essentially, flexible, existing in different physical facets for different eras. David knows it is time to leave before "I wear out my welcome" and I admire that greatly. He's an actor who wants to further his career by dabbling in new things... and must recognize that if he stayed in the Doctor's shoes for much longer, it might become stale... cliched and unable to find peace with the heart-breaking events of the last four series. The story moves on around the Doctor. And I think David will be watching with great interest as he passes off the screwdriver.

This points to several good possibilities, despite the fact that it will be really strange to have the show without his wonderfully familiar face. But I have been thinking on this for a few hours:

1. Russell T Davies gets to decide how Doctor Ten leaves the show before he himself leaves. Which means the regeneration - which will be hard to stomach - will be in good hands.
2. The loathed River Song might not have an opportunity to reemerge as Ten's future spouse. The might mean that her connection might be to Eleven... if at all.
3. I am hoping that when the Doctor regenerates, it will be with the peace that his struggles as Ten are over, and he starts over fresh.

As a writer, I am always looking for the positive in a scenario like this. Things must end this way. But good can still blossom out of it, and protestations maybe proven useless. We won't know how it ends... until it ends. The possibilities are endless in this universe, and that continues to make me grateful for it!


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Unusual Love Lyrics (Michelle)

I recently downloaded the Juno soundtrack, and I've been enjoying it immensely because it's lyrics are often so interesting and surprising. The simplicity of the soundtrack really forces you to listen to the words as well as to appreciate the beauty of the unvarnished, unpolished human voice.

But I've been thinking of it also in relation to Jillian's post about the difficulties involved in writing love stories. It is so hard not to feel hackneyed, particularly if you are terrified of being accused of sentimentality.

But there are some excellent love songs out there with surprising lyrics that make me, at least, think that it is possible to talk about love in original yet still tender ways. Some of these lyrics from the Juno soundtrack have me imagining possible stories that could lie behind them. You could almost grab one of these lines as a writing prompt and try to craft the story to explain them.

Elope with me, Miss Private, and we'll sail around the world
I will be your Ferdinand and you my wayward girl
I love you I’ve a drowning grip on your adoring face
I love you my responsibility has found a place
Beside you and strong warnings in the guise of gentle words
Come wave upon me from the wider family net absurd
“You’ll take care of her, I know it, you will do a better job”
Maybe, but not what she deserves
("Piazza New York Catcher," Belle & Sebastian)

I kiss you on the brain in the shadow of a train
I kiss you all starry eyed my body swinging from side to side
I can't see what anyone can see in anyone else.

You're always trying to keep it real
I'm in love with how you feel
("Anyone Else But You," the Moldy Peaches)

Or take any line from "All I Want Is You," an old-style bluegrass song that's a series of pairings:

If you were a river in the mountains tall
The rumble of your water would be my call
If you were the winter, I know I'd be the snow
Just as long as you were with me when the cold winds blow
If you were a castle I'd wanna be the moat
And if you were the ocean I'd learn to float.

I find it intriguing to imagine the relationship for each pairing - what is it like if she's the castle and he's the moat, or if she's the winter and he's the snow? A good prompt for a writing exercise.

Have fun!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stephenie Meyer's Character Thoughts (Michelle)

Continuing with my endless quest for character:

Last night, while idly searching around for information about the Twilight books (Who doesn't love a good romance? Except some people.), I came across Stephenie Meyer's website. Like many authors who have websites, she has some advice for aspiring writers. Her FAQ is worth looking at in full, but I especially appreciated her advice on character. I think one of her greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to create real, believable human moments for her characters - it's what makes her series worth reading, in my opinion...even if Edward's eyes do "smolder" a little too often for my personal tastes. She has this to say:

My focus is the characters--that's the part of the story that is most important to me. I feel the best way to write believable characters is to really believe in them yourself. When you hear a song on the radio, you should know how your character feels about it--which songs your character would relate to, which songs she hates. Hear the conversations that your characters would have when they're not doing anything exciting; let them talk in your head, get to know them. Know their favorite colors and their opinions on current events, their birthdays and their flaws. None of this goes in the book, it's just to help you get a rounded feel to them.

This is what Jillian always advises as well. I find it difficult to talk with my characters about unimportant things. When you're dealing with medieval people, it gets frustrating that you have never tasted their favorite foods or seen the world exactly as they see it. Still, when I do try, I find it worth doing.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Reading Rainbow (Michelle)

I got the gift of another unexpected artist date this week. I was baby-sitting, actually, for my niece and nephew, and we were watching Reading Rainbow together. It's no secret that I love this show and really have not grown out of it --- I truly buy all that stuff about being able to go anywhere and do anything when you read.

Anyway, this was a great episode, about travel. It was "based" on the premise of LeVar showing off his "travel room," which is full of maps and souvenirs from the places he's visited. The segments, though, basically amounted to a really neat collection of interesting people doing interesting
things that emphasized the richness of life, the variety available even within the United States. There were segments on:
  • a woman with a rooftop garden in New York City
  • a Brooklyn man who raises pigeons on his roof (He was extremely cool; he had so much pure enthusiasm, took such joy in the beauty of the birds and the feeling of freedom he gets from watching them fly.)
  • a potter in Hawaii inspired by volcanoes
  • a family who lives on a schooner in the summer months

There are so many different lives in this world; there is so much richness in being human. It's amazing that we take refuge in fantasy at all. And I say this as a writer of fantastical fiction.

So, I am an advocate of exploring children's literature and television when imagination runs dry. Children have a sense of wonder that we for some strange reason expect ourselves to leave behind as we become adults. But there was as much for an adult to savor in the potter explaining how thinks about his art as there would be for a child.

If you're curious, you don't have to take my word for it. I've checked, and the DVD is available on Netflix --- the one called Let's Go. The book of the episode was called Someplace Else.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Horror? How Grimm! (Michelle)

So, my horror-reading jag continues, sort of - I don't exactly get a lot of time to read these days.

But it's got me thinking about other reading jags of mine. I spent almost two months last year reading nothing but fairy tales, retellings of fairy tales, and critical essays on fairy tales. And it occurred to me that perhaps these two reading jags are not unrelated. It's fairly common knowledge, at this point, that Disney pretty much eviscerated the raw power of the original tales collected by people like the Brothers Grimm and Straparola -- if you spend time with the original tales, there's plenty of horror to go around, and yet it doesn't quite qualify as horror fiction. There are important differences that I'm exploring imaginatively at the moment.

The following is typed pretty much verbatim from a free-write I did, and in it I'm working out the delicate balance between dark and light in my own aesthetic. I imagine that balance is different for everybody, but at the moment I feel like a tuning fork, striking some clear, precise note between horror and happy endings:

Horror is always lurking in the darker corners of fairy tale -- cutting out a young princess' heart, cooking children for dinner, killing wives and keeping them in a bloody chamber...ugh. But what I like about fairy tales is that those dark corners are offset by brighter shades, by the glittering gold of happiness and beauty.

Horror, true horror, is in actual fact a bit too dark for my aesthetic. Though I read Swamp Thing to the end of Alan Moore's run and feel that I got a lot out of it, it was too grim for me. I like a hint of the macabre, but too often in horror it takes over and the darkness is unrelieved.

I like the way fairy tales gesture at horror, at chaos, at darkness, without dwelling there for too long. It does seem rather as though, if you chase the horror too much, if you deliberately linger in the bloody chamber, you can just keep going into ever-deepening dark corners that just grow narrower and narrower but never actually end, as though the actual corner were some kind of asymptote or event horizon which you never reach. From the horror of the threat of incest in "Donkeyskin," you find yourself with the actual presence of a dead uncle reanimating the dead body of your husband in Swamp Thing...and the images are horrible, crawling bugs and rotting zombies...it can always, always get darker. You never actually reach the heart of darkness, but really, do you want to? Aren't you more interested, really, in the light that escapes from it?

Being focused on bottoms, on the roots and limits of evil, leaves you like Gollum, like Matt Cable with his disgusting fantasies. It turns you into Kurtz from The Heart of Darkness; master of your own horrible empire of death. A little bit of the macabre is great, is a good reminder of the speckled, spare, and strange that is truth, but it's too easy to be like some Gothic heroine, edging towards darkness with perverse fascination.

Better by far to explore the mysteries of the light, as though we were all versions of Stephanie Meyer's vampires, who glitter with a thousand colors in sunlight, with so much to see.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Creative Energy (Jillian)

I have rediscovered my profound love for Enya, thanks to an article I just finished reading on the Daily Telegraph. It is a rare glimpse into her life and history, the reasons for being so reclusive and what continues to inspire her. Please read this article and enjoy the posted song!

I think the thing that strikes me about this article was how her creation has become her. Raised in a large family who formed the band Clannad, she was rigorously taught music from a young age... and would later follow the call of her own craft rather than fight them in the realm of "traditional" Irish music. The music she creates with Nicky and Roma Ryan is so personal... exploring the power of songs and lyrics that do not necessarily make sense. It is entirely a visceral, personal and human experience... one that was more reflective of her spirit. In following her call and experiencing a rift with her family, she created a new family with the Ryans. And while she remains elusive, almost a ghost in this world, she is still creating beautiful sounds... sounds that inspire a lot more people that you think!! She's almost otherworldly!

Says Enya: 'I like to sit with the blank canvas. I'm not one of these people inspired suddenly by a beautiful landscape or a story or an emotional moment... I like to curate different ideas and put them all in one song, and see the journey of what it will become.'

Ah, the journey! I cannot wait to listen to And Winter Came!

Terrors of the Bookstore (Michelle)

I went to a talk on Tuesday night at the library. An author was talking about "where inspiration comes from." It mostly amounted to her talking about her poems, but I liked her poems, so that was OK. :)

But alarmingly, she said that she feels very pressed all the time, afraid that someone else is going to write her book before she does. She's working on a cycle of poems about a topic that has suddenly become trendy, and she's afraid someone will beat her to the punch.

This was distressing as I thought I was the only one who got anxious at the bookstore. I used to be excited when I saw a book that looked like it might speak to my interests; now I get really afraid that it's my book, already written! Apparently, being an experienced and published author does not rid one of these jitters. Darn.

There was some division amongst the company during the Q&A session about whether these jitters are justified or not.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Character: Contains Perishable Goods (Michelle)

Yesterday, I sat down at Starbuck's (ugh) to work on the novel for the first time in about a week and a half, and I made an interesting discovery: characters are perishable. They can go stale.

I was working with a character I hadn't touched in about two weeks, and I discovered that I had completely lost the feel of her. There was something completely undefinable that was missing.

I could explain her, obviously. I could list her physical features and her emotional tendencies and her personal history. But all those things didn't amount to a character. She had become - the horror! the horror! - a collection of quirks, exactly as I had criticized in the characters in Heroes and Lorna Doone. Such amalgamations result, at least in cinema, in this sort a thing:
Do creations go wrong because they receive insufficient attention and love from their creators? Mary Shelley might say so. Frankenstein is supposed to be one of those dark-side-of-art kind of novels, isn't it?

Anyway, since my character was insufficiently human but rather seemed to be a mere amalgamation of traits, all the dialogue I wrote felt like it belonged in the sequel to the Fantastic Four movie. I can think of no greater way to describe its deficiencies.

It was fascinating to realize that this could happen not though some active mistake on my part but through the simple failure to keep giving her life by writing about her. I left her alone too long, and like a plant unwatered, she died.

I feel fairly confident that I can resurrect her - that decrepit house plant you forgot about while on vacation is rarely actually dead - but it's going to take some time and reinvestment of energy, and it took me months to get her "living" and "rounded" the first time around.

It's made me realize that I need to be spending at least a little time with the novel every day, lest something like this happen to its other hapless denizens! Consider this reason #692 that writing is never just a hobby. Hobbies don't require daily attention.

A New Beginning... of sorts (Jillian)

Last week, I recieved a rejection of sorts on my writing. Briefly, I spent pretty much half of my life constructing my own epic for a certain franchise that I absolutely loved. I've mentioned it here once or twice... but, granted, it does NOT involve a TARDIS. After three serious drafts, I finally completed this monster (1,000 pgs long!) so as to graduate from college with High Distiction. On advice of my advisor I sent it to the company who basically owns the story, proposing that maybe they could look at it. Take note: I had no sincere hopes to publish this thing... whilst turning my full attention to a novel that is more "me", etc. That was June.

Now it is October and last week I recieved my letter and sample chapters back unread with a note attached. They will not read unsolicited advice, etc, etc, but thank you for having an interesting in us. Surprisingly this garnered up something new in me. Finally, I was free of this novel... free of the story that inspired me all those years ago. Not that I hate it. I am just finally able to move on... constructing plans to place all of the new nuances and characters in a novel that has absolutely nothing to do with... urgh... let's say Star Wars. The novel had emerged monstrously huge and mishapen due to its attachment to a story that wasn't mine. And I can see where the possibilities are endless if, finally, the Force is done away with.

So out of the ashes of an old story I vowed never to return to... there is hope. I've grown up. And I am taking this rejection as freedom to run with what I have created... and see what it can become on its own. Just thought I'd share!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dream Advice (Michelle)

My subconscious has the rather hilarious habit, when it's figured something out about what I'm writing, of telling me in my dreams using writers I really respect. Often, I don't realize that what I'm remembering is a dream until several days later. It's extremely funny.

Hence, Jillian appeared once in a dream to explain to me that what made Star Wars work as an epic is that it's is a series of self-sufficient episodes that are nevertheless linked by a larger purpose. These episodes aren't just the divisions between films but also between scenes in the movie. Actually, Howard Hawkes, director of The Big Sleep, used to say something similar - he tried to film great scenes, not great movies. Reading that quote from him is probably what got the idea into my dream in the first place, but apparently my subconscious decided I wouldn't believe it until I heard Jillian say it.

Anyway, last night I dreamed that J.K. Rowling was explaining her writing process to me, and she said that when she writes a book, she knows how she expects it to end, like a person predicting what will happen next in any story, but she has to be open for the story to surprise her. I have no idea if this is how J.K. Rowling actually works; but apparently this is what my subconscious thinks is a good idea.

Have a good laugh at my expense today. :)

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Other People's Prose (Michelle)

The quote of the week last week was from Philip Pullman: "Read like a butterfly; write like a bee." I've always liked this quote, probably because it affirms what I already do (and isn't it nice to be affirmed?): read everything that crosses my path and then make it my own. I also like the image of the bee's sting - particularly apt for what Pullman does with Milton, I'm afraid - mixed with the nectar of its honey. It makes me feel powerful as a writer, which is a rare feeling!

Some writers, though, have a horror of reading while they're writing. I can sympthize - just like your annoying third cousin's sister's husband's voice gets stuck in your head, some writers' voices get stuck in your head. Even if they're good writers, this is a problem. For example, after I read I Capture the Castle, for months every single one of my characters sounded like Cassandra - i.e., always about to ask for a cup of tea.

And though reading is oxygen for my pen, every now and then I'm seized by paranoia that this is bad or dangerous. This happens most often when I'm reading something I feel slightly guilty about (say, Doctor Who fan-fiction, or a junky mystery novel) - then I hear a voice in my head going, "You're going to absorb that voice and then you'll never write anything good again, and it'll serve you right for not reading more Virginia Woolf." Or words to that effect. And sure, it's true that reading quality writing is the best way to teach yourself, unconsciously, about good craft. So fan-fiction, like junk food, should be kept at a minimum, I suppose.

There's also the fear that reading so much will choke originality. Every now and then I'll be writing, and I'll realize, "Well, shoot, this scene came right out of Our Mutual Friend. Now I have to figure out something else!" I've come to feel, though, that these moments aren't reasons to stop "reading like a butterfly" - a very manly butterfly, for my male readers.

We accept that other artists need materials, for instance that painters need models and paint and canvas...but we often expect writers to create from nothing, I think. But everyone needs materials. I've started to think of the imagination as a great big compost heap, as unromantic as that sounds, in which we throw all our experiences and all the books we read and all the films we watch and all the songs we hear, to break down into something new from which we can grow our own garden. (Just look at the way I kept control of that metaphor! ShaZAM!)

Every now and then, something pops out of that compost heap that hasn't broken down sufficiently - a character too much like Andrew Foyle, a phrase too much like something Fitzgerald would write, a setting that just is a little too much like Hogwarts - but that's not a reason to stop reading. The solution is not insulation but inundation. We ought to read more when that happens, find something else that touches our hearts and stirs out imaginations, because then the still-fresh images and prose of other books will break down and mix a little more, into a new color, a new soil, a new story.

Writing about Writers (Jillian)

I was advised many times as a beginning and then an undergraduate writer to not write stories about struggling writers and authors. Because this advice came from an instructor who is the published author of several novels, I remember being a little disquieted. In the novel I am currently writing, there are three writers working through kinks, living out their own stories and pursuing the ones that are burning in their hearts.

Is this wrong? I have no plans to change this, but I cannot help but wonder if there is some truth to the warning. Should I really not write about writers... or is it just a silly thing?

More importantly, I am merely glad I know where my story is.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

October: Images (Jillian)

I am reliving October to the fullest. I went walking at 6:30 tonight, which means I didn't not get back until 7:45. Just a typical walk, a little strip of peace inside our town I always enjoy. But tonight felt like October to me. I didn't return until dark was pretty much settled… which added to my autumn bliss. I was gone a little over an hour, but it felt timeless.

I have always loved this month - and not simply because my birthday is smack in the middle or because of Halloween, although the two do play a role in my enjoyment of the season. It is the time of transition that amazes me every time - the feeling of being precisely between summer and winter, and having the best of both. The mosquitoes are dying. The air is turning brisk, the leaves are turning colors, but a freeze has not killed off the growing plants… nor is it quite cold enough for a coat. The heavy humidity of summer is lifting. I can feel the days growing shorter… in a cozy sort of way.

As a writer, there are so many things that spark my imagination this time of year. So much beauty in the leaves, and the smell of them as they drop… the only dying thing that actually smells nice. The goldenness of the light. Sweaters and scarves. Candlelight - not in a pyromania sense but in a light-in-the-darkness sense. Cider. Chocolate and marzipan in the forefront of my memory from an Oxford October two years ago. Bonfires and secret identities. Really pretty gourds and squashes. The image pool runneth over.

Halloween is a tiny fraction of it. As a child, I appreciated it for the make-believe aspects - the idea that I literally transformed into a witch, or a nurse, or a dead Spanish dancer, or a fairy, or Luke Skywalker, or a summer nymph. The haunted-house monsters running with chainsaws, the display of severed body-parts and the ode to serial killers - the dark hints of the rotting, and the evil, and the macabre only scared me. Pumpkins in the night did not conjure images of Sleepy Hollow visits from the Headless Horseman - but faces smiling out into the dark. Glowing. It took me to other worlds… imagining that I truly was a new person riding into the unknown in the darkness. Candy seemed to be small consolation for it coming to an end, when the grease paint washed off and the fantasy drifted to November's calmness.

The fact that it is so historically rich grabs me nowadays. Neo-pagans may dance and conjure up a ritual to commemorate the passing of ancient Celtic Samhain… which involved human sacrifice, go fig. But I think back to the medieval fears of fairies and witches… the actual shaking belief that the dead did return. Halloween is a way to step back in their shoes, hear their stories and feel the chill come on after harvest. In a way, we are taken time-traveling this month, not to digress… but to open the possibilities… even if we get scared along the way.

Writer's Block (Jillian)

I am dropping a fairly quick line this morning, as I am supposed to be getting ready for work. Here goes nothing.

I made a discovery a few days ago. Not long ago, I was a college student - an English and History major. Now that I am graduated, I think those college habits have stuck with me. When writing in the midst of an undergrad English class, allowed to write pretty much whatever I want - in my case chapters of the novel I have been working on and that has pretty much taken over my life - I got caught into an unsuspecting pattern: being so task oriented and chapter-oriented that I have been more obsessed with a novel's overall structure (i.e. how many chapters will it have; how many pages should I be writing; how much dialogue, etc). That's good, really, but not for someone who is no longer awaiting feedback from classmate or a grade from a professor. Those days are over. And writing has been given back its power. At least, that is what should be occurring.

I've been hit in the brain with writer's block simply because I wasn't letting the story write itself. Strange, huh? We're so engrossed with the idea that "I'm the writer! I'm in charge!" when that isn't entirely true. You cannot plan, schedule or completely outline a novel. That will stifle it. Strange how old habits die hard - this perfectionism to create each section as I go along in concise order. That's bad. If the story living inside wants to veer off in a different direction or linger on a seemingly insignificant piece of character development listen to it! It will prove you wrong and it will make you think in different ways about those characters. That they are more than tools... but creations!

This is a good river to cross - learning that my story is not a matter of getting things done or presenting a piece to a committee of classmates, but that it is a living creature buried in the heart, trying to show me something... and that the tugging of my heart strings are more important than scheduling events (i.e. character A will talk to character B and C about X event and they will go to lunch to meet character D).

Instead... let a story run wild, unleashed, unorganized... free! It will not fail to surprise!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ode to a Victim of Limited Brain Space (Michelle)

I am trying out a new writers' support group tomorrow night, and I'm horribly afraid I'm going to forget to go. I'm applying to grad school, and the stress and paperwork are sucking up every available brain cell. I hardly notice what's going on around me, I was a disaster at keeping count of how many spaces I'd moved in Eurorails last night, and all I can think about is how on earth I'm going to get X form in by Y date. I'm amazed I got a chapter done last week - I'll probably go back and read it and find that I haven't written a chapter of my novel at all but a postmodern cross between a personal statement and a horror comic.

I wish I were a better multi-tasker! It seems like multi-tasking is a vital skill for a writer to have, and yet I just don't have it. Suggestions for developing an ability to multi-task???

In other news, I added a new gadget (oh horrors! she's discovering all the gadgets!) that's supposed to generate random images to help break down writer's block. I know nothing about it, but I figured it sounded better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Let me know if you find it helpful; alternatively, let me know if it generates anything obscene or offensive, and I'll take it down.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Swamp Thing (Michelle)

Continuing me on my horror-reading jag, my brother-in-law has recommended the comic books of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing to me. It's been a mind-expanding experience in a lot of ways, especially since I've never been a comic book reader before, outside of Calvin and Hobbes, and it's opened a whole new genre of art to me.

The jury is still out for me on what I think of the medium, and sometimes I definitely find Swamp Thing too overwhelmingly horrible for my sensibilities - the story with the Monkey King (if you're familiar) terrified me, and some of the images are viscerally terrible, disgusting beyond my ability to assimilate.

Yet I keep returning to the stories, because I feel like I'm learning something, about the fate of medieval romance in modern culture (how can you resist a comic book that makes use of the medieval folk motif of the Green Man?!), about the interplay between text and words, about how to write compelling stories and characters...anyway, watch this space. I'm sure I'll have more to say.

I have also been very impressed with Alan Moore's prose. It's dramatic and reminiscent of Lovecraft's excesses, perfectly pitched for comic books, but it has a strong poetic sense as well that really makes the stories as much about words as images. I am impressed.

A sampling, from "Down Amongst the Dead Men":

There are people. There are stories. The people think they shape the stories, but the reverse is often closer to the truth. Stories shape the world. They exist independently of people, and in places quite devoid of man, there may yet be mythologies. The glaciers have their legends. The ocean bed entertains its own romances. Even here. Even here, within these chill and perished thickets that know no witness save the sleeping toads, each curled like a gorgeous alien fetus beneath its stone. There are stories even here. Stories that grow, as blighted trees, into a tormented puzzle. Frictions that become over-ripe and fester on the vine. The stories here have blossomed into deformities, nurtured by a curious soil. There are heroes, there are wicked uncles and princesses, but the drama is askew, the fairy tales contorts into a tragedy…The hero, slow and massive, comes too late…the wicked uncle’s passing achieves nothing…and the princess finds no cliché in the fate that’s worse than death.

There are also some wonderfully imaginative stories. I loved the dream sequence "Abandoned Houses," in which Abby Arcane visits the collective unconscious, which turns out to be two decrepit houses, the House of Mysteries and the House of Secrets, where all the stories in the world are guarded by Cain and Abel respectively. Cain is being punished for being the first killer, Abel for being the first victim, and every night the crime is repeated. This fusion of Jung and medieval allegory is just bursting with poetic energy and possibilities. Love it.

Likewise, another story includes a journey through the afterlife a la Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante, or, most recently, Philip Pullman's Lyra. I was a little disappointed with the execution, but any modern story that attempts to assimilate those ancient, primal themes of Western literature gets my stamp of approval! I still remember how excited I felt, reading The Amber Spyglass, when I realized I was getting a reworking of the Inferno. Nevermind that I completely disagreed with the worldview fuelling it; it was so exciting to read another modern author engaging the ideas that fuel my own imagination.

So...Swamp Thing. Scary and stimulating. Not exactly my cup of tea, but I have a feeling it's the cup of chai that helps me understand why I like Earl Grey...if I may extend the metaphor to the point of absurdity.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Blue Sugar and Silver Shoes (Michelle)

In The Artist's Way, Julia Cameron recommends the "discipline" of taking a weekly "artist's date," to allow yourself to play, recharge, collect images for future work. "Restock the pond" is a phrase she uses. It never quite works for me, in that if I try to plan an artist date, I get stressed out and feel burdened, which kind of defeats the whole purpose of the enterprise. I do take a lot of impromptu artist dates though: sudden decisions to poke through an antique store, spur-of-the moment doodle sessions, unexpected trips to the children's section of a used bookstore...

I had a lovely one yesterday when I was making cookies with two toddlers of my acquaintance, and one of them spilled an entire bottle of blue sugar crystals (you know, decorating sugars) all over the floor. Now, I got in huge trouble as a ten-year-old (and rightly so) for sprinkling glitter all over the basement floor one afternoon and dancing around in it. And I have always nourished a secret (or not-so-secret) wish to be Ginger Rogers, gliding around in a fantastical world of art-deco satin and sparkles. (In college, I wrote a paper for a philosophy course trying to justify this. No joke.)

So, instead of being upset that there were blue sugar crystals all over the kitchen floor, glittering in the afternoon sun, I found myself incredibly pleased. I was wearing silver flats, too, so as I shuffled around, broom in hand, gathering up the sugar, I felt like I'd been given a huge present. It was spring cleaning day in Candyland; an explosion in Mr. Wonka's factory; perhaps it was the most serious problem Ginger Rogers would face after her sparkly, tap-dancey marriage to one of Fred Astaire's many smooth-faced characters.

I would highly recommend that, if you think you can be free enough of your social training that teaches you not to make deliberate messes, you immediately buy a bottle of decorating sugar (or glitter, I suppose) and dump it all over the floor to shuffle around in.

This is artist date suggestion #1. I have no doubt that more will follow!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Language of Birds (Michelle)

A friend sent me this fun little squib about a hawk at Penn State. This qualifies as the "something interesting," if not explicitly related to writing, that I promised to post occasionally.

An interest in birds has crept up on me in the past few months, and I find them very helpful for my writing. It's interesting, for example, thinking about a highly landscaped, highly humanized college campus being the hunting-ground for a bird of prey. I like it when I see hawks perched along the highway, too, or on top of skyscrapers in big cities. The contrast between the life "red in tooth and claw" that they lead and the plastic civilization of the 21st century always interests me.

In traditional literature, too, birds are often symbols of chaos - check out the stormcrows in Anglo-Saxon poems, for example, who always show up before the battle has started. Artists continue to make use of this, too - Hitchcock among them in Psycho and, you guessed it, The Birds.

They are incredibly rich symbols, in my opinion, in part because they are so thoroughly other. Look in a bird's eyes sometime - there is nothing human there, nothing to empathize with. And for me, that sparks the imagination.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Weekly Quotes Archive

Expect updates on this one as the Quote of the Week changes!

Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.
--- Scott Adams

There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.
--- Ernest Hemingway

“Art," the third-grader said with a knowing sigh, "takes time."
--- Washington Post article on “The Big Draw," a Maryland event designed to encourage support for arts education

"To a large degree my life is my art, and when it gets dull, so does my work. As an artist, I may poke into what other people think of as dead ends: a punk band that I mysteriously fall for, a piece of gospel music that hooks my inner ear, a piece of red silk I just like and add to a nice outfit, thereby 'ruining it.'As an artist, I may frizz my hair or wear weird clothes. I may spend too much money on perfume in a pretty blue bottle even though the perfume stinks because the bottle lets me write about Paris in the thirties.As an artist, I write whether I think it's any good or not. I shoot movies other people may hate. I sketch bad sketches to say, 'I was in this room. I was happy. It was May and I was meeting somebody I wanted to meet.'"
--- Julia Cameron
The Artist's Way

"Read like a butterfly; write like a bee."
--- Philip Pullman

"Words are powerful. They can make pictures in your head."
--- Patricia Polacco

"The world will be saved by beauty."
--- Fyodor Dostoevsky

"The hardest thing for a writer of fiction to do is to make the truth sound convincing."
--- Dorothy L. Sayers
Have His Carcase

"Laughter's good for you. And that's the best of arguments, since few advantages come from the grief and sorrow that harrass you. Writing should laugh, not weep, since laughter is of man the very marrow. LIVE IN JOY."
--- Rabelais

“One cannot get the news from poems, but men die daily for lack of what is found there.”
--- William Carlos Williams

"The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - that you'd thought special, particular to you. And here it is, set down by someone else, a person you've never met, maybe even someone long dead. And it's as if a hand has come out, and taken yours."
--- Alan Bennett
The History Boys

"One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries."
--- A. A. Milne

"Everything is made of stories."
--- Alan Moore
Swamp Thing
"Abandoned Houses"

“We may well run out of oil. We are in no danger whatever of running out of narrative.”
--- Sam Leith

“If the right twist would not come of itself, it was useless to manufacture it. She had her image—the world sleeping like a great top on its everlasting spindle—and anything added to that would be mere verse-making. Something might come of it some day. In the meanwhile she had got her mood on to paper—and this is the release that all writers, even the feeblest, seek for as men seek for love; and having found it, they doze off happily into dreams and trouble their hearts no further.”
--- Dorothy L. Sayers
Gaudy Night

“Poems are imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
--- Marianne Moore.

“[Like Scheherazade] I wanted to change those looks of hate and mistrust, to transform the sultan’s face into the beautiful face of the reclining prince on the cover of my childhood storybook. Where did I get the idea that stories could do that? That I could do that?”
--- Julia Alvarez
“An Autobiography of Scheherazade”
Mirror, Mirror On the Wall

"The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne."
--- Chaucer

"I write because I have secrets that no one else knows."
--- Tony Jordan

“Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
---Terry Pratchett
Hogfather (Death makes this observation, in capital letters.)

"Q. What do you most enjoy about writing books?
A. Just about everything. Of course it's wonderful to be able to work with the imagination, to explore language and narrative, to turn a few notions and images into a full-length story, but it's also lovely just to be able to play with paper, pens, notebooks, paper clips, computers, et cetera, et cetera. And it's wonderful to be able to make my living now from doing something that's so engrossing.
--- "A Conversation with David Almond"
(in the back of the Laurel-Leaf paperback edition of Skellig)

"One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, not by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind; out of all that has been thought or seen or read, that has long been forgotten, descending into the deeps."
--- J.R.R. Tolkien
quoted in Norman F. Cantor, Inventing the Middle Ages

"There ought to be in everything you write some sign that you come from almost anywhere."
--- Robert Frost

"A writer is, every waking hour, constantly pondering scenes or structural problems . . . That's the terrible part, because you can't get away from it."
--- George Lucas
The Making of Star Wars, p. 15

"Don't try to be a writer. Try to be writing."
--- William Faulkner

"You see, the work of a storyteller doesn't get any easier the more experienced you get, because once we've learned how to do something, we can't get excited about doing exactly the same thing again --- or at least most of us can't. We keep wanting to reach for the story that is too hard for us to tell --- and then make ourselves learn how to tell it. If we succeed, then maybe we can write better and better books, or at least more challenging ones, or at the very least we won't bore ourselves."
--- Orson Scott Card
Introduction to Speaker for the Dead (TOR edition)

“What you describe happens to everyone: magic does slide through you, and disappear, and come back later looking like something else. And I’m sorry to tell you this, but where your magic lives will always be a great dark space with scraps you fumble for. You must learn to sniff them out in the dark.”
--- Robin McKinley
Spindle's End

"In good writing, words become one with things."
--- Ralph Waldo Emerson

"And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt."
--- Sylvia Plath

"A man will turn over half a library to make one book."--- Samuel Johnson

"Hail to the speaker and him who listens! May whoever learns these words prosper because fo them! Hail to those who listen!"
--- Havamal (Old Norse poem)
translated by Kevin Crossley-Holland

"Character is fate."
--- Heraclitus

"I like the fact that in ancient Chinese art the great painters always included a deliberate flaw in their work: human creation is never perfect."
--- Madeleine L'Engle

"I have made my world, and it is a far better world than any I ever saw outside."
--- Louise Nevelson
(with thanks to Kelsey for bringing it to our attention!)

"I've been making up my world / I've been painting it with gold."
--- Yael Naim, "Too Long"

"Q. How do you balance writing with your busy career as a forensic anthropologist?

A. First I do one. Then I do the other."
--- Bones

"We are waiters, too. We're like yoga students, trying to perfect the art of 'alert passivity'. As Kipling said, our task is to 'drift, wait and obey.'"

--Rose Tremain, on the task of a writer (Daily Telegraph)

"This person, whoever is the centre of the world in your book, they are very close to you psychologically. There is an invisible exchange all the time, a kind of transfer of energy. A bit of them flowing into you, a bit of you flowing into them."

-- Hilary Mantel on writing about Thomas Cromwell, interviewed by Anna Murphy, the Daily Telegraph

"Reading is not simply an intellectual pursuit but an emotional and spiritual one. It lights the candle in the hurricane lamp of self; that's why it survives."

--Anna Quindlen, "Reading Has a Strong Future", Newsweek

There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry,
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll:
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul.

-- Emily Dickinson, Poems, Third Series

"You are a poem – and that is to be the best part of a poet – what makes up a poet’s consciousness in his best moods,” said Will, showing such originality as we all share with the morning and the spring-time and other endless renewals.

-- Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch (George Eliot)

"... Add all of the dry ingredients in a large bowl and mix very well. Pour all of the buttermilk into the bowl at once and stir, using a wooden spoon, just until a soft dough is formed. Do not try to make it smooth at this point. Pour the contents of the bowl out into a plastic counter and knead for a minute or so until everything comes together."

-- from Jeff Smith's recipe for Irish Soda Bread.

"Why don't you write? That always used to make you happy," said her mother once, when the desponding fit overshadowed Jo.

"I've no heart to write, and if I had, nobody cares for my things."

"We do. Write something for us, and never mind the rest of the world. Try it, dear, I'm sure it would do you good, and please us very much."

"Don't believe I can." But Jo got out her desk and began to overhaul her half-finished manuscripts.

-Little Women, Chapter 42

"Making new art doesn't happen in isolation; it's more of a shared activity."
-- Richard Dorment on the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists, the Daily Telegraph.

"Poets are those who know how to give shape to my dreams."
-- Comtesse Diane

"Words are a form of action, capable of influencing change."
-- Ingrid Bengis

"...the true novel, if you understand what I mean by that term, must also make use of facts, but above all it must be concerned with the truth that lies behind them - the wild mountains that are the source of the "tame" cobblestones of the pavement or the artistically hewn stones in a work of sculpture..."
--Sigrid Unset

"We are the instrument more than the author of our work."-- Julia Cameron, The Artist's Way, p. 118.

"A play is fiction - and fiction is fact instilled into truth."-- Edward Albee

"I have a mess in my head sometimes, and there's something very satisfying about putting it into words. Certainly, it's not something that you're in charge of, necessarily, but writing about it... can be a very powerful experience. And putting it well, God, there's no pleasure better than that."
-- Carrie Fisher

"Words are intended, if anything is, to be played with."
-- Christopher Howse, of the Daily Telegraph

A biography is considered complete if it merely accounts for six or seven selves, whereas a person may well have as many thousand.
-- Virginia Woolf

"All of us who have ever written, composed music [or] painted know that when we performed these acts, we are not in touch with the world.  We are completely withdrawn from it, and in our own world.  We are re-creating an inner-world."
--Anita Desai

"There is no greater agony than carrying an untold story inside you." -- Maya Angelou

"Writing's a lot like cooking.  Sometimes the cake won't rise, not matter what you do, and every now and again the cake tastes better than you ever could have dreamed it would."
--Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things.

"We are a species that needs to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, which is one reason why they write so little."
-- Anne Lamott

"Writers should be read, but neither seen nor heard." 
--Daphne du Maurier.

"Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."
-- Stephen King

"Simplify, simplify, simplify."
--Henry David Thoreau

"First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him."

--Ray Bradbury

"All the stories I would like to write persecute me.  When I am in my chamber, it seems as if they are around me like little devils, and while one tugs at my ear, another tweaks my nose, and each says to me, 'Sir, write me, I am beautiful.'"

--Umberto Eco

"The road to hell is paved with adverbs."

--Stephen King

"It absolutely never occurred to me that it wouldn't happen eventually. I never for a moment doubted it. You know, I thought, 'Ok, I'm not good enough yet, I'm not there yet, but I'll get there.'"

--Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont's Life In Pictures tells NPR why she continued to write even after her previous four novels were rejected. 

"Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts."

--Winston Churchill

"I want to be useful or bring enjoyment to all people, even those I've never met.  I want to go on living even after my death!  And that is why I am so grateful to God for having given me this gift."

-- Anne Frank, 5 April 1944

"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and a tea cozy... I found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring - I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen house."

-- Dodie Smith, I Capture The Castle, p. 1 - Cassandra begins her journal.

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world."

--Albert Einstein

"A writer who waits for ideal conditions in which to work will die without putting a word on paper."

--E. B. White

"If you've ever looked at your writing and seen nothing but problems, I'm here to tell you it's a good thing: you're on the right track. To be a writer is to be a dissatisfied reader of your own prose."

--Daniel Griffin, Canadian author

"Writing is an honest-to-god muscle. If you don't flex it enough, the heavy-lifting becomes much harder."

--Allison Winn Scotch, author of The Song Remains the Same

Writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.
--Pico Iyer

Dreams are answers to questions we haven't figured out how to ask.
--Agent Mulder, The X-Files, Season 1, "Aubrey"

"We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in introspection."
--Anais Nin

"If the weak hand that has recorded this tale has by its scenes beguiled the mourner of one hour of sorrow, or by its moral taught him to sustain it - the effort, however humble, has not been in vain, nor is the writer unrewarded."

--Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1764

"Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you're writing."

-- Gene Wolfe

 "Language is the mother, not the handmaiden, of thoughts; words will tell you things you never thought or felt before."

-- W.H. Auden

"Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice itself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you."

--Oscar Wilde

 "Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."

-- Barbara Kingsolver

 "In any case, the bottom line is that if you want to write, you get to, but you probably won't be able to get very far if you don't start trying to get over your perfectionism."

--Anne Lamott

 "I learned to write by writing. I tended to anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work."

-- Neil Gaiman, his "Make Good Art" speech at Philadelphia's University of the Arts.

I'm trying to write the best books I can write. The pressure I feel is from the voice in my head that reminds me: You're not there yet. Keep working.

-- Lydia Netzer, author of Shine Shine Shine, as she embarks on publishing her second novel. From Martha Woodruff's NPR blog post. 


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