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


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