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.


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