Monday, August 24, 2009

Thoughts on Agatha (Jillian)

I have been hiding from the internet lately, in case somebody noticed. I've been languishing in creative silence for a while - to give my craft some room amidst a very noisy, self-important world. But something has caught my eye this fine day in August, and it again involves Agatha Christie... and the Daily Telegraph.

Today, in the DT, Laura Thompson makes the point that the publication of Agatha's private notebooks "will do nothing to reveal what made her tick." She does make an interesting point. Her novels were so clever it is no wonder that readers (or is it really the publishers?) are still dying to know how she was able to pull it off... believing that there must be some sort of magic embedded in her stories to make them work. The notebooks, apparently, reveal the scribblings and the notes she made that eventually gave way to her books... perhaps offering a glimpse into her own special writing process. But thinking as a writer, myself, I wonder: would I want my random, often-disorganized mess of proto-novel writings to be put on public display? After all, writing is such an intimate, highly personal art...

Thompson says:

She [Agatha] would have rued the publication of the notebooks, that is for sure. She gave away nothing; and that was how she liked it. Only in the six straight novels that she wrote between 1930 and 1956 did she reveal anything of herself, within the protection of a pseudonym. She was devastated when her secret identity, "Mary Westmacott", was exposed in 1949, even though the novels received reviews that most authors would have been glad to claim. The pseudonym, like the facade of "Agatha Christie" that she wrapped around herself, was a means to keep the world at bay.

She is herself a mystery - such that became the centre of the Doctor Who episode "The Unicorn and the Wasp". But when one attempts to open up her life and spread it out so that others can have a part of the mystery... it ceases to become sacred, respectful of how she preferred her legend (if it can be called such) to be carried on into history. Of course, very rarely does one have the choice to write one's legacy.

My thoughts about this article are mainly in regards to preserving Agatha as she is: a writer who chose to keep her writing protected under a mask, her secrets remaining secrets... and finding contentment in that.

I must return to work now. Trying to blog and answering the annoying phone is a daring feat all its own.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What's at Stake (Michelle)

Pardon the pun; but everyone's talking about vampires these days. Good ol' Twilight and that.

Here Neil Gaiman very thoughtfully and respectfully points out that our friendly bloodsucking fiends may be suffering from overexposure, recommending that if they "go back into the coffin" for another 25 years, they might reemerge as something new and interesting. I don't get the sense he's attacking any particular story (except maybe Anne Rice which he finds "mopey"), just that he's suggesting that it might be okay to stop now. Of course, everyone freaks out.

Here one blogger at the Guardian's books blog agrees, and scores of commentators weigh in. (Gaiman himself seems highly bemused that his little remark has become news --- see his blog.)

But here is a great commentary, very much worth reading, from Guillermo del Toro, director of Pan's Labyrinth and the upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit, exploring where our fascination with fangs comes from and what folkloric, primeval, and philosophical strains it speaks to.

I'm going to keep my two cents on the subject, since I'm saving up to buy a collector's edition of the Twilight saga. Ho ho.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wolf II (Michelle)

Here is a picture of a wolf, perhaps more appropriate to the one Billy Collins is describing. Not a cartoon wolf, that is.

Wolf (Michelle)

I'm getting back into fairy tales --- I'm honestly never that far away anyway --- having just bought an anthology of essays by male writers on their favorite tales. This is a counterpart to Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall by women, which I read back in the fall.

And today I ran across a lovely poem by Billy Collins in my niece and nephew's poetry anthology (Poetry Speaks to Children) which got me thinking in fresh ways about the tales. No matter how much I think about fairy tales, there always seem to be new angles.


A wolf is reading a book of fairy tales.
The moon hangs over the forest, a lamp.

He is not assuming a human position,
say, cross-legged against a tree,
as he would in a cartoon.

This is a real wolf, standing on all fours,
his rich fur bristling in the night air,
his head bent over the book open on the ground.

He does not sit down for the words
would be too far away to be legible,
and it is with difficulty that he turns
each page with his nose and forepaws.

When he finishes the last tale
he lies down in pine needles.
He thinks about what he has read,
the stories passing over his mind
like the clouds crossing the moon.

A zigzag of wind shakes down hazelnuts.
The eyes of owls yellow in the branches.

By the way, if anyone knows where I can find a good computer wallpaper of classic fairy tale illustrations (Rackham, Dulac, etc.) please tell.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Writing = Toasting Fork? (Michelle)

"Are you writing again? I can always tell when you're writing. You get this stunned look like you've stuck a fork in a toaster."
--- Bones, Season 1, "The Boy in the Bush"

Friday, July 24, 2009

Pace of Writing (Michelle)

Hey, it's okay. Got this one from The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, which will probably get a full post of its own one of these days. I have very mixed feelings about it. But not about this gem of wisdom:

To comfort friends discouraged by their writing pace, you could offer them this:

It takes years to write a book --- between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. One American writer has written a dozen major books over six decades. He wrote one of those books, a perfect novel, in three months. He speaks of it, still, with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books?

Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks; he claimed he knocked if off in his spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job performing manual labor. There are other examples from other continents and centuries, just as albinos, assassins, saints, big people, and little people show up from time to time in large populations. Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion, perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.

(pp. 13-14)

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre (Michelle)

I've been getting a lot of delight lately out of a wonderful shoestring (ho ho ho) theater company known as the Scottish Falsetto Sock Puppet Theatre. Here is their highly moving King Lear:

Basically, mainly, they're funny. Let us never lose sight of this basic fact.

But, they are also very witty, very well-informed parodies based closely on the actual texts they parody. The Socks are also a wonderful example of the truth that you don't need tons of fancy equipment to be witty, sly, wise . . . to be art. These socks would never have gotten out of their wellies (so to speak) if their creator (Kev Sutherland) hadn't had the confidence to start making campy, witty, well-rehearsed satires with the materials at hand.

Also, if you watch enough of the sublime Socks, you start to notice that they play off one another --- which is remarkable because as I understand it, they are played by one man. But I feel that he must be an extremely talented artist --- you can almost imagine him projecting his characters up his arms.

But mostly they're funny. Enjoy. I'm off to the beach. :)

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Beauty (Michelle)

As Jillian so rightly pointed out, the blog has been quiet for awhile now. And that is fine; sometimes, writers need quiet, and this writer, at least, did and still does. The Internet, with its manifold blessings, can be quite a source of unnecessary chatter, and I have been fleeing its many voices. I am in a stage where signing onto Facebook makes my skin crawl, where "going invisible" on Gmail gives me express pleasure...and where airing my views on the blog seems a highly unattractive prospect. Even if I do really only have 3-5 readers, give or take 0.7, who are really friends whom I don't mind confiding in at all!

But here's the thing...I didn't decide to start writing in this space because I wanted lots of people to hear me, but on the off chance that something I had to say, or something I stumbled across and passed along, might be worth being heard by someone, some day, because the barometric pressure was right, because it was raining, because there was a beetle crawling on the window, or for some other equally arbitrary reason. It was the idea of Whitman's spider, flinging "filament, filament, filament, out of itself / Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them...Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul."

And that purpose has not gone stale --- in fact, it is the fresher because I feel a certain dread of all the blanched fields of information and opinion and banal fact available on the internet. Because I am more certain that I'm offering what I'm about to offer because it is a good, a beautiful thing, and I don't offer it because I need someone to know that I offered it.
Perhaps this sounds insufferable, but I don't mean to be. I just figure, if I find something nice, why not pass it along?

So, reader, I just read a fantastic book: On Beauty and Being Just, by Elaine Scarry. It's one of those rare books that is quiet to read, that shuts out other voices with its still, careful reasoning. It's philosophy, or literary criticism, but either way, I found it incredibly refreshing and moving in many places. Scarry treats issues such as the implications of beauty that fades (and feelings brought about by it); the connection between beauty and justice; the way beauty is a pact between object and beholder which imparts life to both.

Here is a sample from the beginning of the monograph:

Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable. A beautiful face drawn by Verrocchio suddenly glides into the perceptual field of a young boy named Leonardo. The boy copies the face, then copies the face again. Then again and again and again. He does the same thing when a beautiful living plant --- a violet, a wild rose --- glides into his field of vision, or a living face: he makes a first copy, a second copy, a third, a fourth, a fifth. He draws it over and over, just as Pater (who tells us about Leonardo) replicates --- now in sentences --- Leonardo's acts, so that the essay reenacts its subject, becoming a sequence of faces: an angel, a Medusa, a woman and child, a Madonna, John the Baptist, St. Anne, La Gioconda. Before long the means are found to replicate, thousands of times over, both the sentences and the faces, so that traces of Pater's paragraphs and Leonardo's drawings inhabit all the pockets of hte world (as pieces of them float in the paragraph now before you).

Even the physical book is quite beautiful as it's currently published --- on lovely thick acid-free paper, with a smooth cover bearing a painting of various birds' eggs. Because a book on beauty ought to be materially beautiful if at all possible --- I don't think that's too shallow and worldly to say.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

At Long Last (Jillian)

Things have been pretty quiet on this blog for quite some time now. So, I thought I'd begin again. Today's item of notice: according to the Daily Telegraph, the one millionth word is about to be added (officially, I assume) to the English language. The candidates include: "noob", "defriend", and "greenwashing." Huh. Interesting how language evolves and, apparently, expands like the universe.

I love words, don't you?

Friday, May 15, 2009

Skellig the Opera (Michelle)

David Almond's Skellig is a wonderful, lyrical book. And now, apparently, it's an opera --- which I actually think makes complete sense.

Here at the Guardian's Books Blog you'll find Almond's reflections on the process of adaptation. It's fascinating and rich, whether you're interested in adaptation or not. I'm always intrigued by the ways in which a single story can exist in multiple media; but I'm also intrigued by the analogy that Almond draws between his own writing and music before he ever dreamed that Skellig could be an opera. In writing like Hemingway or Flannery O'Conner, he was also writing like Purcell or Monteverdi. An amazing act of analogy.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Bit of Card on Character (Michelle)

I have just spent a (frankly unpleasant) day held captive to Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. I just couldn't put the darn thing down, which meant that in the course of one day, I have witnessed quite a few horrors. I don't usually resent being drawn into a novel as though it were a black hole --- quite the contrary --- but today I did. I still don't know if I liked it or not, retaining the prisoner's dull hatred for her captor that prevents me from making a clear judgment.

Some interesting reflections on character, though, from the novel's preface. (I'm working with a 1991 TOR paperback.)

Most novels get by with showing the relationship between two or, at most, three characters. This is because the difficulty of creating a character increases with each new major character that is added to the tale. Characters, as most writers understand, are truly developed through their relationships with others. If there are only two significant characters, then there is only one relationship to be explored. If there are three characters, however, there are four relationships: Between A and B, between B and C, between C and A, and finally the relationsihp when all three are together.

Even this does not begin to explain the complexity---for in real life, at least, most people change, at least subtly when they are with different people...Our whole demeanor changes, our mannerisms, our figures of speech, when we move from one context to another. Listen to someone you know when they pick up the telephone. We have special voices for different people; our attitudes, our moods change depending on whom we are with.

So when a storyteller has to create three characters, each different relationship requires that each character in it must be transformed, however subtly, depending on how the relationship is shaping his or her present identity. Thus, in a three-character story, a storyteller who wishes to convince us of the reality of these characters really has to come up with a dozen different personas, four for each of them.

Something to think about. Something sobering, because as I try to count my main characters, I am seized with fear that I have at least four. I try to comfort myself with remembering that Dickens certainly doesn't follow the three-character rule. Then I remember that I'm not Dickens.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Comfort Reading (Michelle)

I've figured out why Stephenie Meyer feels like my big sister: she loves all the same books.

Here's her list of favorites on Amazon. It's legit --- the link to this Amazon list comes from her website.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Believing (Michelle)

In Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night, the detective Lord Peter Wimsey urges Harriet Vane, a writer of mysteries, to stop writing clockwork whodunits and explore real characters and real emotions in her mysteries. She responds that she could do it, but it would "hurt like hell." He answers: "What difference would that make, if it made a better book?"

You can, of course, as a writer, hide from personal and universal realities as easily as you can as a non-writer. But it's a dangerous business, putting your pen to paper (to paraphrase Bilbo) --- if you're really trying to do it well, there's no knowing where it might lead to.

I'm discovering at the moment, for example, that writing does not allow you to get away with only saying you believe something. Without giving away the interminably dull details of my novel, it's supposed to have an unlikely happy ending driven by, let's say sloppily, love.

Trouble is, I can't envision it; and I have finally figured out that this is because I don't believe sufficiently in the incredible redeeming power of a single act of love. Oh, I want to believe it, which is probably why the novel exists at all, but I don't believe it enough yet to write about it.

But I kind of hope that by writing about it, I'll believe it.

So apparently, writing can demand rigorous integrity of you, force you to admit your failings. It can utterly change you. And yes, it can hurt like hell.

p.s. I really, really wanted to use the tag "Agatha Christie's writing desk" again. Soo...I figured since I was talking about mystery sort of counts...?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Birds (Michelle)

Pennsylvania has finally surrendered to spring, and the yard is full of dandelions, greenery, and birds. I watched six goldfinches jockeying for position in a flowering tree the other day, and I am trying to learn a few birdsongs. My sister and her children are embarrassingly good at identifying birdsongs --- while I'm still not entirely convinced that kildeer is even a bird, really.

So, spring is sprung, and it's appropriate to return to the subject of birds.

Here, Adam O'Riordan at the Guardian's books blog wonders why birds remain such powerful, fertile images.

Here, there are recordings of birdsongs. As a novelist, at least, I find that I am constantly in need of expanding my concrete knowledge of the world --- to describe not a tree, but an oak, a maple, an ash. Likewise, with birds --- who croaks, who warbles, who screams.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Guerilla Theater (Michelle)

My lovely and talented friend Kelsey posted this video on her Facebook profile. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of "guerilla theater," basically it involves organizing some kind of performance that appears to happen spontaneously in a public place with a highly unsuspecting audience. The wonderful occurrence in this video happened in a train station in Antwerp.

Mostly, I just deeply deeply wish I could have been there. Life should be like this more often. We live in limbo between the artificial and the mundane anyway, so why not enjoy it?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Elizabeth Gilbert on Creativity

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the recent best-seller Eat, Pray, Love, discusses modern ideas of creativity and possible alternatives to the soul-crushing pressure of trying to be a Genius or Artist-Hero. She talks about the subject with a lot of warmth and humor, and I at least was very moved by it. One of those hand-comes-out-and-takes-yours moments.

This is a rather lovely video from, a collection of interesting talks by interesting people distributed under the Creative Commons copyright.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why NOT combine jewel thieves, flying buses, wormholes, and man-eating aliens? (Michelle)

So, a few days ago I watched an interview with Russell T Davies in which he discussed the (then) upcoming (now past) Doctor Who Easter special, "Planet of the Dead." This is (more or less) how he summarized it:

So, the Doctor gets on a bus which, by coincidence, has also been boarded by an international jewel thief. They're actually in the middle of a police chase when the bus is transported through a wormhole to an alien planet, and they have to somehow get this bus moving when it's buried in sand, and the Swarm is on the way, so it's a race against time...really, a cautionary tale about the sort of thing that could happen to anyone.

Perhaps this sounds like drivel to you, but plots like this are the reason I doubt that I will ever get tired of Doctor Who --- it is composed of sheer narrative exuberance. This is how Doctor Who "saved my writing": at a time when I was very, very tired, and very, very sad, it helped me remember that story-telling is, above all, tremendous fun.

Russell T Davies' creations constantly remind me to enjoy my writing and my imagination, because the stories seem to start from this place of, "Hmm, what would I like to write about? Oh! I know! Jewel thieves! That's fun...and...wormholes! That's fun too! And desert planets! We could even film in Dubai, maybe..." And yet, from this place of ludicrous, larger-than-life, over-the-top, incredibly hyphenated narrative exuberance, comes what Julie Gardner calls "full-blooded emotion." It's possible to enjoy a rip-roaring good yarn and at the same time think about really important things like, say, the transience of the created universe.

Er...I'm trying to think of some clever way to end this post, but all my ideas are sort of trite. Another "All hail the BBC?" Another apology for posting on Doctor Who again? Mostly, I'm just wondering why I feel the need to start so many posts with "So." I think it's some leftover Anglo-Saxon impulse. Perhaps I should switch to "Hwaet" whenever I want to say "So."

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Eating Words (Michelle)

A small point, but one that can't escape the perfectionist:

I discover on revisiting The Sun Also Rises that the main character's name is not Nick but Jake. Whoops; embarrassing error. And the "selfish, thoughtless whatsername" is Brett, in case anyone was wondering. And Brett's not so bad...she's just lost like everybody else in that book.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I Shall Not Live in Vain (Michelle)

Just because we're all about redefining "success," here at Daedalus Notes...

Here's one from Emily Dickinson:

If I can stop one heart from breaking (#919)

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in vain.

(c. 1864)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just a Story? (Michelle)

A friend sent me this article by Alexander McCall Smith, author of (among other things) The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency. Smith discusses the deep connections that readers can feel to fictional characters.

My friend sent this to me with a note saying that she thought of me. This is ignominious proof of my tendency to become over-involved with fiction, and while I do continue to insist that I am not in love with Doctor Who, no one ever believes me. (It's terribly insulting.) I know I'm not the only one who knows the difference between fiction and fact but doesn't necessarily feel that difference. I knew someone in college who with every fiber of her being wanted to stand between Nick and the thoughtless, selfish whatsername in The Sun Also Rises.

In any case, Smith's basic basic point is that we respond to stories as if they're real. This is simply how they're made. He writes:

The truth is that for many of us fiction is in some sense real, and that what happens to fictional people is, in a curious way, happening in the real world.

It's trompe l'oeil again. We cry or laugh because we accept, however momentarily, that it's real. Smith teases out some of the interesting ways in which detective fiction specifically relies on this as a genre.

Writing is a moral act: What you write has a real effect on others, often to a rather surprising extent.

Write responsibly, I guess.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Moments of Clarity in Battlestar Galactica (Jillian)

I have a confession to make.

For months now, I have been exploring the re-vamped sci-fi series, on recommendation from my roommate's family who have had a score of brilliant things to say about the show. It has been an experiment for me, a case study to view another corner of the realm of science fiction. After Star Wars and Doctor Who, I have to say, Battlestar Galactica has been a challenge to get close to. Get too close and you might actually pull back a bloody stump… or end up with piercing headache.

Humans, Cylons and Survivors in Battlestar Galactica, Season 3
(Click on the picture to appreciate its full glory!)

Yet somehow, I've stuck with it. And despite the brutality, often-gratuitous sexuality, and the general dark side of the human race, I think I have been won over… cautiously so. It has been a struggle, especially since many/most of the characters in this wide dramatis personae have moved up and down on my scale of respect for a whole slew of reasons. I could go into a great detail about the self-destruction and horrible wrongness I see leak out of every character, but that would make for a very long blog entry, and I doubt anyone would want to continue reading.

In a nutshell, Battlestar is a scenario about the last of the human race struggling to survive after their homeworlds have been destroyed by human-looking, vendetta-bent Cylon robots ("toasters" as the humans call them). Unlike Doctor Who, it generally tells a story of despair, where characters are more inclined to attack one another than look toward self-unifying hope. In this sense it is brutally honest, at the end of your rope, constantly running from the barrage of Cylon attacks, the world has already crumbled around you. People are broken. People hurt each other. People have little else to turn to rather than their own sorrow, their own losses, their own entitlements. Fathers and sons bash heads (that would be Admiral Adama and his son Lee, in charge of the pilots); women are men with female parts - brutalizing each other, smoking cigars (Starbuck), throwing punches (also Starbuck); we can't tell what the Cylons are "planning" and we really don't want to know; marriages crumble; the young and untested die; motives fluctuate and only serve to hurt others (Gaius Baltar); and the list goes on and on. On the edge, the humans are allowed to stick to their personal vendettas, racisms, vices, etc. There has been far too much sex, betrayal, violence, murder, torture, rape, suicide, mistrust and hopelessness.

And yet, surprisingly enough, I did not set out to write about Battlestar's flaws. I have just finished the third season, and I have to say I am beginning to see some light shining through all of that darkness. Light that I can use. Light that keeps me interested in the unfolding mystery and the pilgrimage of the humans to their mythical Earth.

1. There are 12 Cylon models (each a different person, of course), of which there are infinite copies. When one is killed, the consciousness is downloaded into another body. These resurrections, taking place in a human-sized tank, are not pleasant. The Cylons carry with them their experiences and their agony into the next life. The battle is never over, and easy it is not. They are far from perfect creatures, and their contempt of human kind is overwhelmingly dark, and the idea that they are one side of the struggle, questioning their own existence makes them more interesting.

2. There is a bigger story at work, even if several characters like to scoff about it. Worshipping a pantheon of Greek/Roman gods, these 12 colonies are making way to Earth. The president of the Colonies, Laura Roslin, fulfills the prophecy of a leader dying of cancer who will bring them to Earth. Miracles abound which neither purpose-seeking Cylons nor the thick-headed humans understand: the mysterious cosmic road signs in nebulas and temples waiting for them on random planets; dreams and visions; the fate of the one half-human, half-Cylon child named Hera; the question regarding the identities of the last five Cylons. This story cannot fit into a box. It is written out, preordained, and while it may seem like the human race is dwindling, it is actually meant to survive.

3. In addition to that idea, the idea that the Cylons (particularly the models played by none other than Lucy Lawless called Three) question the purpose of their existence is deeply interesting to me. Three is searching for answers. She begins to commit suicide on a regular basis in order to revisit the dreams she's had: "There is something miraculous between life and death."

4. Finding purpose in death. Despite the destruction, there are a few characters over the course of three seasons who have stepped up to sacrifice themselves for the survival of humanity, and to meet death not as a way to end their own suffering and confusion but to carry it to the next level. And to that end, seeing that the crumbling roots of one's past is actually a part of the future. In this season, Kara Thrace ("Starbuck"), the cigar-smoking, mistake-driven, hard-edged woman, with a failing marriage and life-long bitterness is lost in a battle… pretty much allows herself to die. She returns to lead the way to Earth. She, who spent her life running from her gifts and hurting people before she got hurt herself, is one of the saviors of humanity. To take that step, to make the sacrifice, and stare cosmic truth in the face is not the end of her story, but the beginning.

5. The revelation of the final five Cylons. Not even the Cylons know who they are. They are a sacred mystery. "Humans" must come to grips with the fact that once that "switch" goes off, their lives have changed… and were woven into the fabric of humanity for a specific (albeit elusive) purpose. The mystery of who keeps us going. Who are they turning into? What will they bring about? And what is going to happen for the future of humanity?

I could go on, but I find these themes to be compelling… even if they appear against the backdrop of a very dark reality. But that is the nature of a space drama, isn't it? Where space surrounds, there always seems to be war and suffering. The specks of light against the black. There is light out there! Even if this Battlestar reality doesn't have a Time Lord appearing in the middle of things to talk sense into their lives. (But wouldn't that be just brilliant?!) It is still a story with a purpose, even if it is buried in the shock-value. All it requires is patience and the willingness to dig a little deep and cling to those specks of light wherever they appear!

And, by all means, temper it with the musings and wanderings of a Time Lord, his TARDIS and companions!

The Doctor (center) and his companions, Doctor Who Series 4
(Click on the pic to appreciate its full glory!)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Neil Gaiman on Colbert (Michelle)

If you scroll past the pictures of Neil Gaiman's daughter with and without braces, you will find here on his blog a video of his recent appearance on the Colbert Report. It's pretty fantastic, of course, especially if it's true that the Tom Bombadil thing was utterly unrehearsed.

Gaiman recently won the Newbery for The Graveyard Book, and is also the author of Stardust, Coraline, Neverwhere, and the Sandman series, among other things.

Colbert himself is of course poised to take over the world.

Quotes Not of the Week (Michelle)

So, if you read this blog assiduously [crickets chirping], you may notice that the Quote of the Week has been the same for almost two weeks now. This is due to all kinds of unfortunate situations beyond my control, including mad busy-ness and touring of various and sundry university campuses, but the main reason is that I haven't found anything that has made my heart sing. Can you imagine? Surely the universe is required to furnish me with at least one quote about writing that makes my heart sing per week!

So, I am stuck, but my stuck-ness is of an unusual variety. You see, I find lots of candidates. I have heard and read many interesting things about writing in the past two weeks, but they have all inspired me by requiring me to disagree with them. And therefore I feel some compunction about posting them as the Quote of the Week.

And yet, who am I to judge? Perhaps you may find some of them helpful, or maybe you'll be spurred to work by the sheer force of your disagreement. So, here I present some of the Failed Candidates for Quote of the Week. Consider it the Anti-Quote of the Week Post.

In no particular order:
  • "The 'true' story is not the one that exists in my mind; it is certainly not the written words on the bound paper that you hold in your hands. The story in my mind is nothing but a hope; the text of the story is the tool I created in order to try to make that hope a reality. The story itself, the true story, is the one that the audience members create in their minds, guided and shaped by my text, bu tthen transformed, elucidated, expanded, edited, and clarified by their own experience, their own desires, their own hopes and fears."
    --- Orson Scott Card, Introduction to Ender's Game
    This one almost made it into Quote of the Week, actually. But it occurred to me that this can't be the whole story, since many of us write first of all for ourselves, in a room with a closed door, and have no audience (YET!). And surely we aren't suggesting that those stories aren't real, just because there's nobody out there who has yet been touched or moved by them. Think of the details on the ceilings of medieval cathedrals so far away that nobody but the angels in the rafters can appreciate it; even invisible art is art.
  • "I learned to separate the story from the writing, probably the most important thing that any storyteller can learn --- that there are a thousand right ways to tell as tory, and ten million wrong ones, and you're a lot more likely to find one of the latter than the former your first time through the tale."
    --- Orson Scott Card, Introduction to Ender's Game
    Well, obviously I just finished reading
    Ender's Game. I was intrigued by this quote, and there's probably a good portion of truth in it, but frankly I just found it horribly stressful. You could go crazy wondering whether you've stumbled onto the "right" or "wrong" way to tell the story in your early drafts. Just write it, and if you need to revise it, you'll figure it out. Or just write it, and let others be judgmental. Are "right" and "wrong" really helpful questions to bring to the early stages of creation? This blog seems really to be about those early stages, after all. So, thank you, Mr. Card, you sound awesome, but I ultimately am trying not to think too much about this quote.
  • "There just can't be that many novels in the world."
    I heard this one, believe it or not, from a creative writing professor! In fairness, she was half-joking, talking about how she tried to keep every short story from growing into a novel. But, being fresh-faced, naive, and foolish, I was still shocked. Of COURSE there can be an INFINITE number of novels in the world! Whether they'll all be published is an economic question, of course, but the endless fertility of stories is a good thing, right?
  • "An artist has 'wasted his heart' on the artist's life."
    This was loosely quoted by somebody else from the poet Charles Wright. I was pretty moved by it, but also fairly depressed.
  • "Fine writing is, next to fine doing, the best thing in the world."
    --- Keats
    Obviously, there's nothing wrong with this quote. But I got it off a Page-a-Day Schott's Miscellany Calendar, and it's SO vague! It would be such a cop-out Quote of the Week. It would be filler. I detest filler. I'd rather have the sincerely, personally chosen Robin McKinley quote up indefinitely than fill the blog with bland bilge-water that nobody could possibly disagree with.

So, there you are. The Quotes Not of the Week.

Er...if you have any favorite, insightful quotes about writing and/or art, do send them my way...!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Remnants (Jillian)

I have come to learn that Agatha Christie's writing desk is currently up for auction. It's made me think of our connections to historical figures (in Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch or Henry VIII's suit of armor... and practically anyone you can name alive or dead under the sun) but most especially writers and artists - how we strive to collect their works and the tools they used to create those works. There is this overwhelming sense of reaching outwards for remnants of those that inspire us... not necessarily to be a part of that creation, but to feel it up close, under the finger tips.

It's also unmistakably creepy. This was the writing desk that launched many of Agatha's novels. The novels remain. The desk is here. But Agatha is gone. And yet, it goes to prove Time is not as impenetrable as we think it is. She is right there... in the dust and the pen markings. Not so far away.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Duck or Dog? (Jillian)

Not meaning to totally steal the scene today, but the Telegraph has an article about a pet duck that thinks she is one of the dogs - likes to be walked on a leash and competes with her fellow pets for food, etc. Isn't this world amazingly hilarious?

More Monsters (Michelle)

Nothing deep today, I'm afraid, just a collection of whimsies.

First of all, a big thank you to Yahoo for continuing to keep us informed of which automotive vehicles, specifically, would be endangered by various prehistoric creatures. This time we've got a pliosaur from Svalbard called Predator X. I'm not making this up. What a marvelous beginning to a short story this would make: "On the snowy plains of Svalbard, the men are restless. They fear the predator..."

For those of you less into EXTREME dinosaurs, Yahoo has also been kind enough to supply us with information on the iddlest biddlest wittle dinosaur that would nevertheless bite your ankles off here.

I'm a bit frustrated with my own writing at the moment and am somewhat convinced that David Bowie's "Heroes," if written by me, would begin: "I...I wish I could swim. Like a person, who's learned how to swim." I'm sure I'll be posting whatever wisdom I manage to grub out of these difficult days in the near future, but meanwhile, pliosaurs from Svalbard will have to keep us happy.

Note from a Celt (Jillian)

For a week now, I've tried to conjure up a poignant subject in honor of St. Patrick's Day. What I have however is just an amalgam of whimsy. And I think that is perfect in itself!

I have Celtic and Saxon ancestors - primarily English, Scottish and Irish. Who knows - perhaps there is a little Welsh in there, too. I have always been fascinated with this aspect of my heritage, regardless of how little I actually knew. My father used to listen to NPR's Thistle and Shamrock on Sunday afternoons, and that was the start to my undying passion for Celtic music - reels and melancholy songs in the "old language." I remember watching the embarrassingly campy NBC movie Leprechauns (not to be confused with the horror film) in 1999 (starring Whoopie Goldberg, Zoe Wanamaker and Randy Quaid of all people), but somehow making it a tradition to watch our video-taped version of it every year. In high school, I began a story in which an American teenager goes to Ireland to meet his mother's side of the family. The novel I completed for my undergraduate thesis involved characters born out of my conception of Irish rural culture - their fierce devotion to each other, the song-like wonder of their names. Even now, I feel the urge to "go back" to Ireland, dig deeper in my studies to somehow be a part of such a mysterious and yet beautiful place.

A few items that build up the fires of imagination (at least for me):

1. The Celts in Ireland were the first in the Isles to be Christianized (by St. Patrick). It was the faithfulness of Irish monks that eventually brought Christianity to England.

2. Ireland was never conquered by the Romans or by the Saxons; hence a culture that evolved separately and distinctly.
3. There is nothing like a Celtic band playing a rousing, joyous reel to turn the tide of a bad day!

4. I love making Irish Soda bread and kneading the dough with my hands. Is it strange to think lumps of baked dough completely beautiful?

5. One day I hope to learn Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Until then, I am content to be swept away in the beauty of the language(s) anyway! ("tighin air m'huir am fear phosas mi..." - Capercaillie)

6. One day I hope to visit Ireland.

7. The hauntingly beautiful Book of Kells:

8. If you've never seen The Quiet Man (starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara) please do! An American finding his identity in his Irish roots. Lovely and human!

9. The film Once. Bittersweetness!

10. Celtic knots and crosses. I have them everywhere!

The list goes on! By all means it shouldn't stop here!

Slainte Mhath!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tasty Nomenclature (Michelle)

What’s in a name? I loved Jillian’s post on the subject and couldn’t resist writing one of my own. I’ve been thinking lately about how much I love elaborate, baroque names. They stick in the mind, and there’s no danger of a character or a place or an event with a nice tasty name drifting off and becoming non-descript, bland, or unreal.

I made a very incomplete list of some good names.

Dickens is the king of them, of course:
  • Teachers: Mr. Machoakumchild, Mr. Headstone, Mr. Wackford Squeers
  • Lawyers (shady and otherwise): Mortimer Lightwood, Tulkinghorn and his assistant Clamb, Mr. Jaggers, Mr. Vholes
  • Men of business (shady and otherwise): Wilkins Macawber, Uriah Heep, Harold Skimpole, Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Guppy, Mr. Smallweed, Mr. Bucket, Mr. Krook, Mr. Ryderhood, Mr Venus and Silas Wegg
  • Ladies and gentlemen: Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet; Miss Havishem; Mr. Twemlow
  • Poor souls: Miss Flite, Jo, Charlie Neckett, Oliver Twist, and, naturally, Little Nell

Russell T Davies can be quite Dickensian about his epithets too, as they range from silly to histrionic, tongue-twisting to beautifully, contrastingly simple. I love the way he blends in scientific terms with the lexicon of fantasy as well. Who says television dulls our sensitivity to language?
  • Tandocca Radiation
  • Jaws of the Nightmare Child
  • Shadow Proclamation (which in my opinion was much cooler just as a suggestive name—see picture, when the mystery became an old lady with a rhino…)
  • Human-Timelord Biological Metacrisis
  • Chameleon Arch
  • Slitheen
  • Toclafane
  • And the counterweights to such vivid tongue-twisters: Time War, Reality Bomb, Void Ship. It also makes a nice contrast that his characters frequently have very simple names: John Smith; Martha Jones; Rose Tyler; Harriet Jones; Donna Noble.

Reading Terry Pratchett has also given me an occasional grin over the names:
  • The Counterweight Continent
  • Ankh-Morpork
  • Susan Sto-Helit
  • Mr. Teatime (pronounced TAY-uh-TEE-meh)
  • Agnes Nitt and her alter-ego Perdita
  • Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick
  • Hogfather and Hogswatch
  • Twoflower the Tourist (who becomes, for a few seconds in The Colour of Magic, Zweiblumen)
Most of my own characters and places, I’m sorry to report, have very bland names. But occasionally I come up with a corker. I won’t be listing them here, though!

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Brush Up Your Shakespeare (Michelle)

More on the image now being called Definitely the Real Shakespeare Portrait No Seriously It Is.

Charlotte Higgins over at the Guardian (again) is unconvinced. Meander on over there and immerse yourself in questions of varnish, restoration, and whether it matters at all.

But, it must be admitted, this picture is so pretty:

I have saved it on my PC as shakespeare_maybe.jpg

Twittertastic (Michelle)

I've found out from the Guardian's addictive and prolific books blog that a number of agents and editors have gotten together and begun twittering (tweeting??) the worst query letters they've ever received from aspiring authors. This is exactly the kind of disheartening stuff I don't post about, so that's all you'll hear about it from me. If you want to learn more, you can read more about it at JacketFlap here. I'm still trying to figure out what twitter actually is.

But the ripple "QueryFail" has caused "downtown" in the City of Books sent a little shiver of worry to even a verbal vagrant like me. It reminded me of a favorite poem, written by the New England poet Anne Bradstreet in the 17th century when a collection of her poems was taken by well-meaning friends and published without her consent.


Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th'press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
Thy visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could:
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run'st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i'th'house I find.
In this array 'mongst vulgars may'st thou roam.
In critics hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou had'st none:
And for thy mother, she also is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

I'll be sending out some query letters in the next couple of months for work I completed in the fall. I can only hope I won't end up twittered; and I already knew that I'd have this poem in mind as I sent my stories off to try to flog our wares at the market.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Shakespeare Portrait

I've been reading Bill Bryson's book about Shakespeare, and he spent several pages talking about what Shakespeare might have looked like. So, it was interesting to find this link about a newly discovered portrait of the Bard.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Speaking of Quotes... (Maren)

. . . here's another one from Orson Scott Card.
"I hope that. . . you will find stories worth holding in your memory, perhaps even in your heart. That's the transaction that counts more than bestseller lists, royalty statements, awards, or reviews. Because in the pages of this book, you and I will meet one-on-one, my mind and yours, and you will enter a world of my making and dwell there, not as a character that I control, but as a person with a mind of your own. You will make of my story what you need it to be, if you can. I hope my tale is true enough and flexible enough that you can make it into a world worth living in." (Introduction to Speaker for the Dead)

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Book Love (Michelle)

I have a friend who consistently has fascinating quotes for her gmail status...which is nice for me! Here's one of her latest.

"Make books your companions; let your bookshelves be your gardens: bask in their beauty, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh. And when your soul be weary change from garden to garden, and from prospect to prospect."

--- Judah ibn Tibbon, 1120-c. 1190

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Why Read? Why Write? (Maren)

In a previous life, not so very long ago, I was not so into writing and reading. I confess I had a brief period of time when I couldn't remember why I even bothered reading. There seemed to be so many more practical concerns to worry about. Now, happily, I've outgrown that way of thinking, and I'm back into reading. I'm re-reading books and reading new ones and discovering the value of taking a chance on a book that you really aren't sure you'll like.

But the question has remained with me - why do I read? And, similarly, why do I write? Why is writing suddenly important to me? For every person, this answer may be a little different. For some people, the answer may be obvious, or even irrelevant (Rilke would probably be appalled). For me, however, the answer has been elusive. For this reason, I was thrilled when I finally articulated the following for myself:

I read to get out of my own head. I read to stop hearing my own voice for a time, to really listen and immerse myself in another's voice and in their thoughts. I read to immerse myself in the life of another person, not for escapism, but to grow, and to expand beyond myself.

I write for the same reason, which is, of course, a little comical, since what I write comes from myself. Somehow, however, writing gives voice to things in me that would normally be silent. I no longer hear my own voice, but instead hear a voice that I learn to recognize as myself. Parts of me that I'm not even aware of suddenly shout and express themselves, and I discover that I have am actually more than (or less than!) the person I thought I was.

Stephenie Meyer in Vogue (Michelle)

Another article on Stephenie Meyer, from March's Vogue.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Update (Michelle)

The OED tells me that "normativeness" is indeed a word, as is "normativity" which sounds a little more graceful, don't you think?

One can also be a normativist, i.e., one who gives lots of norms.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

I'm Not a Writer, I'm Writing (Michelle)

Normativeness. I’m not sure if it’s a word and am frankly too lazy to check in the dictionary, but I’ve been thinking about it. The human bean (as distinguished by Mr. Wonka from the cacao bean, the jelly bean, and the baked bean) is terribly fond of rules. And writers are no exception: they make up all sorts of “rules” for themselves that really ought to be more like guidelines.

A quick scroll through our Quotes of the Week archive will show you how often writers pontificate about what Writers Should Do and What Writing Should Be. Usually, it’s wise, helpful advice, but it is always good to bear in mind that the opposite of any maxim could be true for you as a writer. Alan Bennett says that when you come across a sentiment from another a writer that you thought unique to you, it's like being taken by the hand --- but don't let that proferred hand yank your arm out of the socket and lead you down a road you don't want to travel.

Because in fact, all a writer is is someone who writes stuff. Anything more specific is going to be personal, idiosyncratic, and discovered by you yourself.

Point for discussion: One of my biggest quarrels with Letters to a Young Poet was Rilke’s tendency to make up rules for young writers, who are already have enough challenges. Take this one, from the First Letter:

Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write?...It is possible that even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is indication that, in fact, one should not.
(pp. 11-13 of the New World Library edition)
I take it that Rilke means that if one could live without writing, one should not write. To which I say: Piffle. Poppycock. Tripe and other expressions of increasing vulgarity and anatomic specificity. Certainly there are people who feel that writing is lifeblood—but if you don’t feel that way, or don’t feel that way every second of every day, that doesn’t mean you aren’t a Proper Writer.

What’s really criminal about dicta like Rilke’s is the way they undermine the tentative soul. Who is really confident enough to declare: "Yes! I know exactly what my inner soul is saying and I would die if I couldn't write!" Frankly, such a person sounds insufferable. (Further, I often think that the more unselfish love is the one that can live without the beloved but does not wish to. Then we are looking at the gift of self rather than selfish, acquisitive love.)

I think that for every one reason I have to write, there are about ten insecurities waiting to gobble it up. Writers are geniuses at explaining why their work doesn’t really count, why they are hacks, why they are not even proper writers at all.

Any of these sound familiar?

"Writers are supposed to scribble constantly, seized by inspiration like Jo in Little Women or Cassandra in I Capture the Castle or Jamal in Finding Forrester. I don’t do that. In fact, I hardly ever feel like writing."
"Writers are also supposed to have heads brimming with stories and characters. I don’t."
"I never played make-believe as a child, so clearly I don’t have a vivid imagination."
"I can’t write a novel. Ernest Hemingway wrote short stories for years before he wrote novels, and I haven’t written a single short story, so I have no business writing a novel."
"Stephenie Meyer had a dream that grew into Twilight while her kids were little. I never dreamed when my kids were small because I was too tired! I must not really have a creative mind."
"J.K. Rowling started Harry Potter while she was a down-and-out single mom, but all I can think about is where my next meal is coming from. I must not really be driven to write."
"I’m too normal to be a writer. Aren’t I supposed to be a total mess or something? Isn't this where material comes from? I'm too boring."
"I’ve never even been in love. How can anything I write be credible?"
"I don’t dress interestingly enough to be a writer."
And the worst: "I’ve never finished anything, not even a journal, so I’m not a writer."
There are plenty of responses to the doubts I’ve just listed. For one thing, wanting to write comes from making a habit of writing. There's a lot of habit-forming that goes into being able to finish something. For another, for me at least, it takes continual practice to crystallize vague emotions and interior colors into characters and plots. They don’t come ready-made, however the movies make it look. It is also ridiculous to compare ourselves to such a rubbish writer as Ernest Hemingway (and everyone has their own genre gifts anyway). Most importantly, if you’re worried about how you dress, just buy some fingerless gloves at Hot Topic. Insta-funky, and your hands will be warm while you type as an added bonus.

Forgive the tongue-in-cheek, but I am writing from a place very close to my heart, as someone who has wasted a lot time enumerating the reasons why I don't "count" as a writer. The point is that we all have different stories. We all have different artistic needs, different ideas to express, different roads that led us to the page. Comparing ourselves to our heroes, fictional or real, is natural, but they can’t be allowed to make rules for us.
The relationship between every writer and his or her pen is as unique as every relationship between one human and another. People are all different; writers are all different. Though you may benefit from the example or advice of Hemingway or Shakespeare, Stephen King or Francine Pascal for all I care, what you write, why you write, and how you write are all up to you.

I really am convinced that there are many more potential writers out there than dare to declare themselves. Many, many people would be happier and more alive if they would allow themselves to be writers or artists of other casts. Please: take a piece of paper, and a pen, and write something. String a few words together to describe what you are seeing right now if you can't think of anything else. It'll probably stink; so revise it. Welcome to the guild.

As Faulkner says: "Try not to be a writer. Try to be writing." If you give up on being Jo March, you might just become yourself.

A writer is someone who writes stuff. End of story.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Leonardo da Vinci and Productivity (Michelle)

Madame Mental Multivitamin has once again posted a very thought-provoking article, this time about the stultifying way in which our culture views procrastination. If you've ever wondered why the novel isn't proceeding faster, what your "useless" work really contributes to society, why other people seem to be able to churn out work at prodigious rate . . . please read it.

This quote, for example, resonates all too well with me:

The rhetoric of anti-procrastination — constructed by imperialists, religious zealots, and industrial capitalists [Isn't it great how these our are out post-modern vampires? Bring them into an argument and, ZING, you've won! Not that I feel much sympathy for any of these categories, but still...] — had become internalized. We no longer need to be told that to procrastinate is wrong. We know we are sinners and are ashamed. What can we do but work harder?

Like the English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, we live our lives with regret for what we have not done — or have done imperfectly — instead of taking satisfaction with what we have done, such as, in Coleridge's case, founding English Romanticism in his youth and producing, throughout his life, some of the best poetry and literary criticism ever composed, including his unfinished poem "Kubla Khan." But that was not enough; always, there was some magnum opus that Coleridge should have been writing, that made every smaller project seem like failure, and that led him to seek refuge from procrastinator's guilt in opium.

W.A. Pannapacker (fantastic name!) tries to poke some holes in the traditional view of Leonardo da Vinci as a "procrastinator" and "underachiever" to show how important "procrastination" --- call it rather incubation, or contemplation --- is to the pursuit of good work, not to mention truth, beauty, and all those other embarrassing transcendentals. He has some particularly interesting comments on Leonardo's notebooks and the value of keeping commonplace books in general.

Probably the only wise thing my senior-year English teacher ever said to me was: "A mystic is someone who wastes time before God." The idea is not unrelated.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sandy: A Recantation (Jillian)

I spend a fair amount of time at UNL, despite the fact that I graduated in May. There is something about it that spells home to me, and its hidden nooks and woody areas provide a retreat from my not-so-quiet job. If you've ever been to UNL, you've probably walked through the "Sculpture Garden", the area of which is merely sprinkled with a collection of modern statuary. One of these is Richard McDermott Miller's "Sandy: in Defined Space", or as I often dismissed it: "Girl in a Box." When Michelle visited me last week, I have to say what came out of my mouth was an arbitrary "I hate it." And yet, in almost five years, I'd never really looked at her. And for a writer to have never looked deep on a piece of art… well… it's silly.

The statue, as you can see, is a naked girl perched in one of two little boxes. On campus it is located in front of a boxy-looking Art building (Woods Hall) - not exactly in the middle of campus foot traffic. And yet, she's always made me uncomfortable… for obvious reasons. When I see nude sculptures - particularly modern ones - I tend to be nervous. At first glance, "Sandy" is trapped in the box. I always detected a thread of womanizing sentiment from it, especially since, not twenty feet away to the north there is another sculpture of a woman's backside, as if the rest of her is buried just below the soil. I recoil. I cannot abide the objectification of women.

After my dismissive comment about hating "Sandy", I started thinking and really looking at her… and the silly fears I had about her began to fade. First of all - yes, she's nude, but why is she nude? Is it any worse than Michaelangelo's David? The nudity, I decided is only a small part of it. In this case, it is to measure an unhindered spirit, protected inside the little space and concealing nothing. Further, she isn't trapped. There is no look of terror or despair on her face - nor is she looking out at me or any passersby with a silent plea for help. In fact, she is glancing off into space, at the foot she has planted up on one of the panels. It is a deep, pensive look - neither smiling nor frowning. Inside herself. She lets one hand dangle free. She does not grasp for an invisible door because she is free. She has made a choice between this box and the box beside it. She has made this space "defined". She is not, I am confident to say, associated with the one submerged in the soil a few feet away.

It is amazing how much I am still learning… by seeing and thinking about the possibilities… imagining her to be a character with feelings and choices and a name instead of an object made of metal! Meanings inside meanings… the perpetual nesting doll! That is art!

Sandy - with the Sheldon Art Museum to the south of her

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Botanical Inspiration (Maren)

As Spring approaches (oh, please say that Spring approaches!), my mind is turning more and more to garden planning. I keep turning over in my mind the different things I would like to plant this year, and it turns out that a lot of these have their inspiration in literature. I want to plant blackberry bushes because they appear in The Wind in the Willows. I want to plant feverfew because it appears in Dealing with Dragons. I want to plant lavender because Harriet Vane's potpurri smells of lavender in Busman's Honeymoon. Almost every plant imaginable has some significance in some work of literature, and is therefore tinged with meaning.

On the one hand, this meaning seems as if it must come from the work of literature, right? I mean, my response to feverfew very clearly comes from Dealing with Dragons. That's undeniable.

At the same time, however, does our response to roses come from the way they are used in literature, or does literature merely reflect the way we feel about roses? Would Beauty and the Beast speak to us in the same way if Beauty's father had picked a buttercup or a daisy? There is something serious and complex about a rose that makes the Beast's rage somehow comprehensible, even if we do not understand it.

In Hamlet, when Ophelia drowns under the willow tree, somehow this seems to make sense (and not just because willows grow near water). There is something melancholy about willows, beautiful as they are. Even The Wind in the Willows has something of this sadness in its nostalgic tone, as bright and playful a story as it is.

The role played by flora in literature illustrates a give and take between nature and art. The natural world and the artistic one each lend themselves to one another in such a way that a person can never be absolutely certain whether meaning is bestowed by art or whether it belonged, somehow, to nature in the first place.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Chickens in Sweaters (Michelle)

Chickens in sweaters are the subject of this Daily Telegraph article. It's not as loopy as it sounds, actually, because these animals are being rescued from egg-production farms and genuinely need the extra warmth because they're balding.

Still, I doubt that the stripes and Christmas-themed patterned are strictly necessary. But if I had to knit tons of chicken sweaters, I'd probably try to make it fun for myself.

This picture reminds me of an illustration from Jerry Pinkney's The Talking Eggs.

Letters to a Young Poet (Michelle)

I recently read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet for the first time. I liked it quite a lot, though I do think it's important to feel free to disagree with Rilke...he is rather prone to pontification, which is not completely helpful for the artistic life in my opinion. But there is quite a lot of rich material for reflection, and he embraces the basic solitude of human life in some interesting ways. He sees a individual's interior almost as a landscape to be explored.

I particularly enjoyed this passage:

We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us. If it has terrors, they are OUR OWN terrors. If it has precipices, they belong to us. If dangers are present, we must try to love them. And if we fashion our life according to that principle, which advises us to embrace that which is difficult, then that which appears to us to be the very strangest will become the most worthy of our trust, and the truest...Why should you want to exclude any anxiety, any grief, any melancholy from your life, since you do not know what it is that these conditions are accomplishing in you? Why do you want to persecute yourself with the question of where everything comes from and where it is headed? You do know that you are in a period of transition and wish for nothing as much as to transform yourself.

This also reminds me of something Victor Hugo said: "There is one spectacle greater than the sea; that is the sky. There is one spectacle greater than the sky; that is the interior of the human soul."

Sorry I don't have page numbers and editions for these quotes, but I'm traveling and don't have my library with me.

Anyway, happy exploring!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Inspiration (Michelle)

This from Billy Burke, who plays Charlie Swan in the Twilight movie:

Q. Who or what inspires you?

A. Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows. Seriously, I don’t mean to take the piss out of this question but as I see it, inspiration is a completely subjective concept. Anyone who says that they are consistently inspired by anything, will ultimately end up a liar. Inspiration by nature, is an accident. It happens when you least expect it and with any luck, when you most need it. Shame on me if I ever put the responsibility to inspire me on anyone else’s shoulders.

Just one man's opinion, of course, but interesting.

Monday, February 9, 2009

In Our Time (Michelle)

In Our Time is a BBC Radio 4 program hosted by Melvyn Bragg. Each week, they assemble three or four experts on a given topic and let them talk about it for an hour. Topics range from "The Physics of Time" to "The Library at Nineveh," "The Sassanian Empire," and "The Fisher King." Yep, yet again, all hail the BBC.

I have a low-grade addiction to the program, meaning that I subscribe to the podcasts and they collect in my iTunes folder until I get sick and decide to listen to them, at which point I learn many, many cool things and wonder why I don't listen to them more often.

This week's program is about the Brothers Grimm, so I thought it might be of interest to the mythopoetic among us. I might even listen to it soon, even though I'm completely healthy!! You can download the program for free from iTunes, or you can go to the program website and click on "Listen to the latest edition." You can also browse around the archives, which is good fun.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Trompe l'Oeil (Michelle)

Well, I have no idea how to pronounce it, and only recently learned how to spell it, but I have trompe l'oeil on the mind --- i.e., the artistic style which tries to make a flat painting look 3D and real. For example, this "dome" is painted on a flat ceiling in Gozo Cathedral, Malta.

I've been thinking about this because I recently spent yet another magic morning in the library doing research for the novel, stressing out about historical realism.

As I was walking out of the library, I thought of another metaphor to add to my previous discussion of the problem. It's like trompe l'oeil. Think about it: a representational painting creates the illusion that you are seeing into space (the much-vaunted "picture window"), but at bottom it is still just an arrangement of lines and shapes and colors on a flat canvas. Trompe l'oeil is the most extreme example of this principle, striving for an illusion that borders on trickery.

It's the same with historical writing: I want to make my reader think (s)he's seeing into history --- and to do so I'd better look at history pretty darn closely and replicate it as nearly as I can --- but the very nature of my project is illusion and craft. That's the nature of the beast.

And aren't the best stories, that pull us in and wrap us up, a form of trompe l'oeil? Why do we cry when Romeo and Juliet die, if there's not a part of us that thinks they seem real?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Snakes and Salamanders (Michelle)

Forget giant prehistoric salamanders! How about this AP report of giant prehistoric snakes?

I love the tone of this article, which is similar to an eleven-year-old gushing about how really, really, big these snakes are. Bigger than a bus! No, they could eat a cow! Man, you would be toast if you met one of these guys. And dude, what if they got on a plane???

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Problem of Place (Maren)

Every writer has heard the advice "write what you know," but sometimes it can be a difficult thing to know precisely how to do that. Right now, I'm having a difficult time writing a scene that takes place in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. The Shrine is somewhere that I was taken frequently when I was in preschool, and it is somewhere that I went a lot during college as well. It had a formative influence on me in a lot of ways, and it also seems to have had a formative influence on the character I'm writing about. It is an important place for the story I'm writing, and I want to convey the sense of reality it has for me, and for my protagonist.

Unfortunately, I'm stumped by this problem. When I write the phrase, "He walked into the Shrine," I know exactly what I mean. I know what my character is seeing, smelling, hearing, and feeling. Thinking about walking into the Shrine has a very tangible familiarity for me that it of course doesn't have for everyone, and I'm uncertain how to convey that. The problem is really two-fold. One the one hand, how do I convey the concreteness of a place without falling into excessive description? Similarly, how do I convey the intense familiarity that a place can have for a person?

It may turn out to be a problem without a solution and I may have to sacrifice sense of place and sense of familiarity for the sake of the storytelling, but I hope I won't have to. Only time will tell. . . .

Puppies and Flowers (Michelle)

I have mixed feelings about this blog, which is inevitable given how mixed its content is, but I've finally decided to post it for your consideration. It's called "Puppies and Flowers: ...For when you need to think of something else in a hurry," and it does what it says on the tin. It's a collection of random photos, news stories, videos, and links. I stumbled on it one day when searching for photos of, I think, Anglo-Saxon jewels.

It has a pretty strong post-modern bent, with a lot of interest in advertising as art, and there are a number of posts that I'm not comfortable with at all. But it's a place to go, well, when you need to think of something else in a hurry. In part, the fact that it often does differ so markedly from my own sensibility makes it a fresh voice when I'm stagnating.

Some recent posts:

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Damsels in Distress (Michelle)

I’ve been musing on damsels in distress lately. Let me give you fair warning that this post will go on for a bit, but I've got a lot of ideas about said damsels to work out. As a writer of fantastical and perilous situations, it seems sometimes like I can’t live with ‘em and I can’t live without ‘em.

Damsels in distress are deep in the bones of Western literature at this point—maybe Virgil didn’t feel he needed a blonde woman going “Save me!” but by the time we get to the 13th century, they’re pretty firm fixtures. Your hero has a woman he fights for—a lady fair. Oh, there are variants: sometimes she’s really ugly. Sometimes she’s treacherous. Sometimes he needs her more than she needs him. But she’s always there, getting into scrapes and thereby allowing him to demonstrate his masculine prowess.

And there are reasons it works—reasons far too deep and lengthy and controversial and hard to express to get into here—but let’s all admit that it is so satisfying when Edward saves Bella from the potential rapists in Port Angeles; or when the Doctor shouts, “Now there is no power on this earth that can stop me!”; or when Mr. Darcy pays for Lydia’s wedding so that Elizabeth’s life won’t be ruined…on and on and on, all the incarnations. At its best, the tradition of the damsel-in-distress can do some very nice things to develop a character or a relationship. What jump-starts a confession of love better, for example, or proves its sincerity, than a perilous rescue?

The weaker-vessel-female thing also has some very lovely manifestions, in ballet or figure skating or fairy tales. There’s also a fun strain of irony in those manifestations, as we all know (or should know!) the strength and physical prowess it takes to be a ballerina, or the hardiness of heart required to survive a fairy tale. So the illusion of weightlessness in such stories is always just that—she only appears to be a creature of glass. If we don’t forget that it’s an illusion, it can be a fun game to play among ourselves.

“If we don’t forget.” But oh, how we forget. And the damsel in distress becomes so very problematic.

The first problem you probably saw coming a mile away. In many of the traditions, the damsel has no character. She becomes nothing more than an object to be won, a cipher for the hero to project himself onto. In actual fact, medieval romance perpetrates this kind of bland commodification much less often than 1930s heroic films or Walt Disney movies, but that’s neither here nor there. Remember the ridiculous women of Errol Flynn films, or to take a more elevated example, Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. I love A Tale of Two Cities, please don’t mistake me, but does that woman have any characteristics besides golden beauty and undiscriminating goodness?

And you’d be surprised how quickly the cipher damsel can take on darker characteristics. Take all the collective fantasies about sleeping, unconscious, or otherwise immobile women—Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Pygmalion—who must be restored to life. In a lot of the original versions of these stories, it’s not a nice little kiss that awakens these women, either, but fully fledged sexual conquest. I’m not of the camp that says these stories should be utterly jettisoned, as I think there are many interesting things going on in them besides a necrophilic impulse, but the pathological passivity of these women in many of their cultural incarnations—particularly the Disney ones!—shouldn’t be overlooked.

Or look at this Fuseli painting again: It’s not hard to see that while the source of the horror is supposed to come from the dark powers encroaching on the pure woman, there’s quite a voyeuristic sexual charge coming out of the threat to her as well. Why save her, when you could watch what happens next?

Then there are the scores and scores of Victorian poems involving ladies fair who die, the countless pre-Raphaelite paintings of dead or dying women, the images of Leda all painted from a masculine perspective in which the woman who is raped by a swan gazes lasciviously out of the canvas while it happens. Sorry to disturb you, but this is the heritage of anybody who writes in the Western tradition. Granddad left us more stuff up in the attic than the Mona Lisa.

So where does that leave a writer?

Contemporary adventure films always have to confront the damsel-in-distress tradition. Often, I think, they do it extremely unsatisfyingly, even when writers are clearly trying to be PC. Indiana Jones gets plucky companions, but the scriptwriters seem to mistake shrill shrewishness for feminine strength. As far as I’m concerned, this is just another form of misogyny. Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates franchise is also clearly a direct attempt to circumvent the damsel-in-distress tradition (“You like pain? Try wearing a corset!”), but to me and almost everyone else I know, she registers only as irritating. And as for the tough-and-rough women of sci-fi (Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider? Charlize Theron’s assassin in Aeon Flux? River Song in Doctor Who?), with their lycra costumes and dominatrix overtones, they’re fantasies just as disturbing as all the sleeping princesses in all the towers you could imagine.

Where's the good news, Michelle? Well, despite all appearances, I do actually think that this isn't a hopelessly screwed up motif. There are some examples of fiction, ancient and new, that offer some possibilities for hope.
The best and most broadly applicable answer is probably just to write rich characters. As I said earlier, if the damsel tradition is used judiciously in a relationship that is developed sufficiently in other ways, it can be very moving. If the damsel motif is so deeply ingrained in the Western tradition, then it stands to reason that it’s pretty deeply ingrained in the Western man, and that this is one way that a character born and raised anytime after the 13th century would communicate love. So, yeah, Edward wants to save Bella, and as long as he’s not objectifying her, we can and should accept it as an expression of love. Similarly, it doesn’t bother me that the Doctor is always trying to save his companions in NuWho (that’s kind of his thing, anyway); that Darcy gets all protective of Elizabeth; that Tristan comes swooping in to keep Yvaine’s heart from being cut out…etc, etc, etc. I’d sure appreciate that if my heart was going to get cut out, after all, and all the women saved in these stories have sufficient personhood that we experience these moments as expressions of feeling rather than defense of possessions.

Another contemporary film that has effectively dealt with the damsel issue is, bizarrely, The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiscz. The filmmakers let the man demonstrate his physical prowess as he’s always done, but provide the woman with a definite character and unique contribution to the situation. So, Brendan Fraser got to swoop in and save a woman who’s as hopeless in a crisis situation as I certainly would be, but she’s the one who is able to figure out what was going on by virtue of her archaeological expertise. (Again, though, this requires script development: it’s not enough just to put Jessica Alba in glasses and a lab coat and say, “See? She’s a scientist!")

There are also older stories that complicate the issues very satisfyingly. Jane Eyre springs to mind, with its constant fluctuation of power between the two protagonists, ultimately leading them beyond questions of power into love. In The Lord of the Rings, too, I love the character of Eowyn, who clearly can save herself with a sword but also suffers from a deeper spiritual distress (totally lost in the movie). Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale also portrays a woman who triumphs by the strength of her own character even as we wait for her to be reunited with her warlike husband. If memory serves, Chretien de Troyes’ Eric and Enide is also interesting on this score, as is Book III of the Faerie Queene, featuring Britomart, the female knight who is questing for her beloved.
Possibly it just says more about my personality than anything else that I prefer stories that work within the tradition to enrich and subvert it rather than stories that declare open war on it. Still, as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White prove, the good and the bad in culture can be inextricably tangled.

That is certainly the case for all those poor damsels in distress. Let’s save em, shall we?


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