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.


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