Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book to Film (Jillian)

Still from The Hobbit, starring Martin Freeman. Due out next year.

As a writer, I have a great (perhaps natural) interest in books that grow up to be made into films. I do get a little queasy, however, when such a film deviates from its original material to the extent that it is an entirely different story. But I always come back to my philosophy: a novel and a film are two completely different art forms - words and images - therefore, they cannot and will not be able to convey a story in the exact same way.

Twilight and Harry Potter aside, the biggest discussions I've heard (and perhaps been a part of) in the last several years, have inv0lved the innumerable film adaptations of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte's novels, new television and film revivals of Sherlock Holmes, an Oscar-contending remake of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and excitement over The Hunger Games, which hits theaters in March. The Hunger Games, by the way, looks exactly the way I envisioned it. I'll have a quiver in my spine till I can go see it!

There is an unconscious desire among fans for a perfect film version of Pride & Prejudice or Jane Eyre. Many cite the 1995 "Colin Firth" version of Pride & Prejudice as "the best", whereas others appreciate the simple, natural beauty of the 2005 film. For Jane Eyre, the debate has recently been strung between the 2006 BBC version starring Ruth Wilson, and last year's film starring Mia Wasikowska. There are as many opinions as there are films. One thing it does show us is that these stories resonate strongly... that we want to see it retold again and again, from different camera angles, with different faces, with new music, in new colors. This kaleidoscope of story is an incredibly beautiful thing!

What prompted my thoughts today is a quiver of excitement about The Hobbit. A trailer was released this week, a year in advance. I have to say I was skeptical about The Hobbit being brought to film (actually two), as the story, frankly, is a bit of a hiccup of events prior to The Lord of the Rings. Knowing Peter Jackson, I am well aware that liberties will be taken, that story lines may be embellished, and the final product will be spectacular.

Having seen the trailer, I am excited - not because this is a translation of a beloved story into film, but because it looks as good as The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings, books and films, has an incredibly special place in my heart. I will see The Hobbit next year knowing 1.) this is a mixture of Jackson's storytelling with Tolkein's storytelling; 2.) it will have a lot more in it than the book did; 3.) I may not agree with some of these creative changes, but; 4.) I will enjoy it very much.

In other words, to boycott a film because it isn't exactly like the book is silly. In some ways, perhaps the film of The Hobbit will delve deeper into plots and journeys (and not just because this story happens to feature a company of dwarves). That's possible, isn't it? But even if it is "better" or least "flashier" than the book, the film can in no way replace the book. A film is only a retelling.

One more example of novel-into-film is Neil Gaiman's Stardust. Book and film do not match because the story is told in different ways: the book is far more mysterious, magical and shadowy than the film; the film is faster, more adventurous and more perilous than the book. I love them both, just as I love the original and retold versions of The Lord of the Rings, Pride & Prejudice, and Jane Eyre.


As a side note, I am a little curious about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, mostly as a study in character. What I've read of Stieg Larsson's Lisbeth Salander intrigues me, but I am not sure I'd want to be witness to the violence and brutality that inevitably comes with the story. I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Lo, How a Rose E're Blooming and other tales (Jillian)

Once upon an advent, I "discover" a "new" carol. "New" because it is new to me, or it had never interested me before. Carols are rich in history and echoes of medieval legend, so naturally, I never tire of them. They represent more than just the story of Christ coming to earth, but of how that story was told again and again in song and folklore across every culture.

As a child at Christmas, I would take the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Christmas Carol book off the piano and gaze at the beautiful nativity scenes, the woodcuts, the many paintings and tryptics of the Madonna and Child. I remember coming across odd carols I'd never heard before - "The Sussex Carol", "Joseph Dear, Oh Joseph Mine," and a Czech carol called "Rocking, Rocking." Then there was the compelling mystery of the Burgundian carol "Patapan" - where was Burgundy? Why had I never heard of that country before? (Northwest France. I think. Burgundy held itself as a separate entity from struggling France in the 100 years war, English allies. Joan of Arc campaigned against them in 1429, was captured by them, and later sold to the English for 10,000 francs by them. Just saying.)

This year's carol curiosity is "Lo, How A Rose E're Blooming." I have to admit, I always thought it was boring. Just boring. And slow. And too somber for Christmas. This may be because I grew up listening to the Mannheim Steamroller version, which presented it in French horn. There is nothing particularly malign about creating a brass rendition of this old song, but it makes the already somber tune too heavy for one who liked dancing around to "In Dulci Jubilo" and "Wassail, Wassail."

But then, I saw The Time Traveler's Wife. If you've ever seen it, please do. It is a beautiful film - a nicely watered down version of the novel. Anyway, "Lo, How A Rose" is woven throughout the film - from Henry DeTamble's mother singing it in the car with her lovely operatic soprano (in the original German), to his wife Claire's bridal procession, to the theme playing at their home in the last few months of his life. This was a simple string ensemble, perhaps a quartet, and it was/is perfect. This song should NEVER have been arranged for brass.

So naturally, I am intrigued and very deeply moved by so simple, so quiet, so lovely a piece.

Here's a little history:

* First officially "published" in 1582, but is probably much older.
* Thought to be from Song of Solomon 2.1 - "I am the rose of Sharon..."
* There is a legend associated with this hymn: a monk in the German town of Trier found a blooming rose while walking in the woods on Christmas Eve. He placed the rose in a vase, and placed it before the alter to the Virgin Mary.
* In 1609, Protestants adapted the hymn to reflect Jesus instead of Mary.
* Wikipedia has the lyrics:


Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen,
aus einer Wurzel zart,
wie uns die Alten sungen,
von Jesse war die Art
Und hat ein Blümlein bracht
mitten im kalten Winter,
wohl zu der halben Nacht.


Lo, how a rose e'er blooming,
From tender stem hath sprung.
Of Jesse's lineage coming,
As men of old have sung;
It came, a flow'ret bright,
Amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

Like Christina Rossetti's "In the Bleak Midwinter," it tells of hope in the midst of winter - roses blooming in the snow. That is the beautiful mystery of the Nativity: how Christ was born - whether it was winter or summer - into a dark, cold world. That's a hope we can carry throughout this winter - that there will be roses even in our Winters if we look hard enough.

* Trivia on this hymn is from

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stories That Still Haunt Me (Jillian)

Walking by my favorite local used-and-rare-books shop this week, I noticed a chillingly familiar title on display in the window. Timely, as All Hallows fast approacheth, the book is Scary Stories To Read In The Dark, one of three in a series by Alvin Schwartz, that I devoured as a fourth grader. These stories were read aloud in class around Halloween , and then my curiosity lead me to read them all. Though why, I can't hardly tell you... except that mine was the generation of Bonechillers (also gave me nightmares), Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps. Scary Stories was by far the most frightening. And yet I did read them. And remember them. And can't forget them. Yes, I am haunted.

Among my chilling recollections of these stories are a creeping thing that rises out of the local graveyard (visible only by its glowing green eyes) to devour other bodies and attack a girl in the town, a man who eats his neighbor's liver, a ghost family, baby spiders emerging en masse from a girl's face, dead people in a church...

I'm pretty sure I had nightmares about these stories, especially the thing-with-the-green-eyes story because I lived two blocks away from a cemetery, and could see it from my bedroom window. What amazes me, especially looking on the particularly grotesque artwork (see above... althought believe me, the original image I included here was worse), is that I kept reading them. And that years later, I would get a chill down my spine when I catch a glimpse of those books in a shop window.

The power of scary words is long-lasting - it lies dormant until something awakens it, that fear of the unknown, or what should never be... or a current obsession with the X-Files. Whatever it is, I am easily ensnared by the power of words. I am the cat Curiosity didn't kill but definitely did tease.

I won't be reliving the horror of the Scary Stories, anytime soon, mind - though I wonder if they are actually as malign as I remember. I'm not willing to resurrect the bad dreams of yesteryear. Instead, I will listen to my Autumn Playlist, write about an English autumn, and become Dana Scully for one night of mayhem.


I heard JS Bach's Toccata in Fugue in D Minor this afternoon (the Stokowski arrangement for full orchestra), and had chills. It is such a masterpiece. It is odd how it's opening notes, duh-uh-uh-DUH-uh-nuh-nuh-uhhh, have become synonymous with Halloween, haunted houses, and a vampire playing an organ. The entirety of the piece is so transcendent and hardly sepulchral.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

An Autumn Playlist (Jillian)

In tempus autumnum venimus. Translation: we have come into the time of autumn.

With every season comes a sound. I cannot explain it, but there are certain songs and voices that I associate with the seasons - for no particular reason other than an ineffable resonance between my creative self and the world outside.

A few examples: I associate Strict Joy (of the Swell Season) with early December, as it was a comfort to me after a grueling season of preparing for the GRE exam; then there is Imogen Heap's Speak for Yourself, which I listened to frequently (and while on the internet) in the Winter of 2007-2008; there is also Capercaillie's Beautiful Wasteland, currently in residence in the CD player in my car, which is glorious Autumn to me; Spring knows no particular artist but a playlist Michelle made for me this last year entitled "A Year in Song" which brought me out of a winter state. Most recently, the Beatles has defined my summer, as well as Sia's We Are Born.

Autumn is gathering a longer playlist for me, as well, this year - oddly enough a melange of sounds from many seasons of listening:

* M'ionam - Capercaillie, Beautiful Wasteland
* The Blue Rampart - Capercaillie, Beautiful Wasteland
* Beautiful Wasteland - you get the idea
* Evangeline - Karen Matheson, The Dreaming Sea
* Dear Prudence - The Beatles, the White Album
* Across the Universe - The Beatles, Let it Be
* The Moon - The Swell Season
* Upward Over the Mountain - Iron & Wine
* Live and Let Die - Wings
* Life on Mars - David Bowie
* Levater - Yael Naim
* Go to the River - Yael Naim, She Was a Boy
* I Try Hard - Yael Naim, She Was a Boy
* A Case of You - Joni Mitchell
* The Scarlet Tide - Alison Krauss

The music helps - whether it be circulating images in my over-active imagination or getting through the day. Do you have a seasonal playlist? If not, I'd recommend it. It's probably already chosen itself for you.

Evangeline, Evangeline... angel of the morning is here...
and though the summer is over
and we're all a little colder
we'll get by...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Lucas Effect (Jillian)

Dean of "Heart of the City", voice of a generation... or two.

You may have heard in recent weeks about the Blue-ray release of the entire Star Wars saga. Many fans are less than pleased with this event, as it is just the next installment in the re-re-release saga of George Lucas' films.

I am not rejoicing about the Blue-Ray release - 1.) because of the blue-ray exclusivity, 2.) I have DVDs from 2004 that work just fine, and 3.) I actually think the older, untouched versions of the films say more about storytelling in film than Lucas' recent perfectionistic and revisionist ventures do.

Besides, he's bribing us to give him money. The biggest lure: including longed-for and legendary deleted scenes from the original trilogy. For now, it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

In a nutshell, the man has not learned to stop meddling. Last year saw the thirty year anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back. In thirty-one years, Lucas has tweeked, subtracted to, added on, "improved" and "enhanced" the original Star Wars Trilogy from "fixing" outmoded special effects to adding dialogue to adjusting (unnecessarily) threads of the story that would later be added in the "new" trilogy. Mine was the "Han Shot First!" generation, referencing the scene in the first film where Han Solo shoots thug Greedo dead in the cantina; in 1997 Lucas toyed with the image, insinuating that Greedo actually shot first, and Han's act was self-defense. This was just one of many examples - small, yes, but enough to keep tempers flaring to this day. Why? Because once Star Wars came to the theatres, it was complete; it became someone else's story, too.

In the 1997 release, he said in a documentary that "Someone once said movies aren't completed, they're only abandoned." As I writer I understand this attitude completely. I myself am guilty of second, third and fourth guessing my work, wishing I could go back and add X to W, Y and Z. It's that perfectionistic streak we can never completely abandon, but never fulfill. Lucas, unlike many of us, actually has the money (and the legal right) to go in and do so... and so he has. Several times. You may have heard he's aiming for a 3D release somewhere in the future. Heaven help us.

Unanswerable questions:

* Is his goal to revamp/update Star Wars actually achievable?
* Can the man employ his energy for new creative ventures? (Besides Indiana Jones?)
* If you write a story, complete it to the best of your present abilities, and years, decades later go back and graft on dialogue, scenes, new characters, etc is it the same story?
* When will this possibly stop?

Please, Mr. Lucas. Please stop. This hurts.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

We're Whimsy Magpies (Jillian)

Ravens afoot in Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell; Portia Rosenberg, artist.

Writers are never bored - at least they have no excuse to be. We're whimsy magpies, after all, collecting all the shiny objects we can find. I am living proof. Things are the things I've sought out a'wiki-ing and a'lexicon-ing, this summer:
  • The constellation Virgo and other stars.
  • Life cycles (and colors) of stars.
  • Supernovae and black holes.
  • Theories behind faster-than-light travel.
  • Theory of Relativity (for dummies).
  • What happens when a person falls into a coma.
  • Parts of the brain.
  • Hypothermia.
  • Saint Radegund.
  • Making up hybrid names like Tristopher and Cambrose.
  • Eye-shine (cats have it, people don't).
  • Formula to convert temperatures from Fahrenheit to Celsius (because evidently, the space age is too cool for Fahrenheit).
  • Demon possession and exorcism.
  • Greek legend of Ariadne and Theseus.
  • Ominous bird imagery and mythology: crows, ravens, magpies, etc.
  • Difference between clairvoyance and telepathy under the psychic umbrella.
  • Beatles songs and the inspirations behind them.
I find these little intellectual treasure hunts keep my brain awake, and inevitably feed into my creative projects. Try it!

Monday, August 22, 2011

In Praise of Backyard Theatre (Jillian)

It is still in my head. The scene opens on a perfect August evening on a plywood set. Tree-people are trembling in terror as a "terrible thing" rushes about on stage, and a man smoking a cigarette begins an ominous opening number. The trees continue "Oh no! There's something out there... look to the skies! That's where the truth lies!" A space ship brilliantly fashioned with eerie lights rises out of the ether behind the stage (with the help of a forklift), the audience goes wild and Mulder and Scully appear on the scene. This was X-Files: the Musical, a Colonel Mustard production - an awesome experience of ad-libs, off-color jokes, and hilarious singing, all in tribute to the cultural icon of the 90s.

Last year we witnessed the awkward shenanigans of Doctor Quinn: the Musical, and the year before that was Jurassic Park: the Musical. All backyard, amateur performances - hardly professional, but wonderful. I've found myself fortunate to have been a witness to these productions, these creative explosions of song, laughter, sometimes gak, sometimes kazoos, sometimes fake blood.

What I admire about Colonel Mustard, which began as a band of friends putting on plays in the attic, is that drive to create, to laugh, to tell familiar stories from new and hilarious angles. A musical is the perfect venue for that. Why not have the X-Files' Agent Mulder belt out "I want to believe!" Story telling isn't always a polished affair. It thrives on spontaneity and a collective creative drive. I witnessed so much energy in X-Files: the Musical, that I was about ready to jump on stage and sing along with them.

Colonel Mustard and its musicals are a wonderful reminder that inspiration knows no bounds, and that there is energy in this good, healthy madness.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Word-Delving: what is "alien"? (Jillian)

In my recent adventures, I've taken to asking (seemingly) obvious questions of words I thought I understood. Language is organic and fluid, mysterious and multi-faceted. Naturally, there is never a dull moment with the lexicon.

This week's question is about the word "alien." In our culture we are so accustomed to the word that it automatically means one of two things: 1.) illegal or out-of-place immigrant in another country, or 2.) any non human, extraterrestrial being of the "little green men" or Klingon, Vulcan or Dalek category. Number 2 is a relatively new development, if you think about it: what with the dawn of flight and space exploration, Area 51 and alien-abduction hysteria.

But looking at Shakespeare or the Bible, "the alien" is usually the former definition: a dispossessed, homeless person in a foreign place. So using "alien" to refer to extraterrestrials is actually quite logical. They're not from earth. They don't belong. They are strange. They are "not like us."

But... does alien mean more than that? Looking up "alien" (as an adjective) for a Latin translation points to peregrinus: foreign, strange, etc. It is related clearly to the Latin word for "other", which is alius: "different." So that's all it means, pure and simple. In this century the word has been associated with "scary non-human" - it is amazing to think how a meaning could change, grow and accumulate (sometimes strong) connotations.

The above photo is, of course, the Doctor. For those of you who don't know, contrary to his outward appearance, the Doctor is not a human being. He is an alien with two hearts, psychic abilities, and who doesn't age, but regenerates into another man when his body is damaged. Among other pieces of evidence.

Why am I thinking about this? I have been thinking lately about how "alien" is a bit outdated - that "little green men" connotation. After all, we're surrounded by the weird and the unusual all day, every day. "Alien" to me has become very much a below-the-skin, can't-put-a-finger-on-it sort of thing... probably because of the significant influence the likes of Doctor Who has had on my creative thinking in the last four years.

Far more powerful than green skin or a cyclops-eye is the unshakable feeling that creeps exist among us (just watch Criminal Minds - but not too much, mind - and you'll get the picture) in human form. What if the extraterrestrials we always feared are among us, and either don't know it or are entirely indistinguishable from our office and flat mates? Battlestar Galactica dealt with this issue, as did the thankfully short-lived ABC remake of V.

Instead of "alien," I've been playing with that simpler word "other"... because in that sort-of context it could mean many things, and it is both terrifying and intriguing poetry that leads us toward the question of what it actually means to be human.

Here's for the lexicon!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Arguing (pleasantly) with the Prince of Wales (Jillian)

This week marks the premier of the final Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Naturally, there has been quite the buzz about it, as Harry has been in our literary world for years now and some of us were lucky enough to have grown up with him. I, like so many others, read the final novel in two days and cried for Dobby and so many others. Harry Potter is not exactly classic, and is flawed in certain ways - not entirely a perfect read, but honestly, what is? The magic of Harry was that he got so many young (and old) ones to read and enjoy reading.

Which brings me to commentary this week. Charles, the Prince of Wales, remarked this week that the end of Harry Potter is completely awful for all of those young readers. Now, I don't really think that this was a negative comment, but I want to argue a bit with him. Yes, it is sad that the series is ended, and that there are no more books to gobble up. But that has been the case for a number of years. With the end of the series comes an opportunity to move on to something new... to find pleasure reading something as equally exciting that takes one in new directions. Harry has grown up. I think that means we readers can, too. Not that we should let go of him and never look back, but appreciate what we've learned from him by enriching our experiences with other stories.

The end of a series is actually another beginning. And that in itself is a scintillating experience. So no, your Highness. The end of Harry is not an "awful" thing.


This is similar to my case for why American television stinks. If you've heard me yammer from this soap box, please ignore me. I'll keep it brief. '

We Americans enjoy procedural: crime dramas and who-dunnits that are built around a recurring, near-permanent cast. Not all of them are bad. But they follow a very irritating pattern. Once a show catches fire and popularity, the general consensus is that they remain on the air indefinitely - as cash cows. But because so many of these shows are not character-concetric, the longer they last on air, the staler they get. Oh, yes, the characters grow, but by committee and network discretion... not from the writers' instincts.

Again, not all shows are like this. But shows are stories at heart, and they are organic. Therefore, trying to keep them around does not guarantee they will resonate the same way. Take The Office, which began to lose its witty energy two years ago, but is still on the air. And House, which, in my opinion, has become boring.

This has come to mind after watching the British (note that: BRITISH) show Life on Mars. It lasted two seasons and about 15 episodes. Because it closely, evenly, carefully follows the story of the principal character Sam Tyler as he struggles to find out why and how he woke up as a detective inspector in 1973, the story ends the way it's supposed to. (I won't spoil anything for you.) Yes, it's a "crime drama", but that is merely the backdrop for a very human experience. The fact that the writers who created Life on Mars ended it of their own accord is brilliant to me. They listened to the story - not to plaintive whining of greedy executives or rabid fans - and that is remarkable in this age.

Follow the story. If the story ends, find another one. There are plenty lying in wait!

Friday, June 17, 2011

Little Things (Jillian)

A change of venue: Hingham, Mass.

It has been a crazy month, I will admit. May saw me out of town to visit Michelle. Then the first week of June, I was ill and unable to enjoy life for a while. Now, I am back, painfully aware that the blog hasn't been touched since before my adventure.

I've learned little things about myself in this month - things that help with the writing, and allow me to better enjoy the act of creation. I'll share:

* I've taken artist dates to Michaels and purchased a lantern (for candles), a new journal, candles, and fake ivy to drape over my other-wise very boring, very cheap book case.

* Going to visit Michelle gave me a nice change of venue, which was refreshing and at some points adventurous. You may not know it from our work here, but we operate from different parts of the United States: the East Coast and the Midwest.

* I was glad also to spend so much time with her, my creative compatriot. We artists need a circle of support, or, as Michelle and I call it, a mutual appreciation society.

* Try new things... or do things you've never done before. Par example, I boiled lobster for the first time this May! Also, I believe there is something to be said about branching out, using new brain cells... discovering new music, new television shows, a new favorite spot in the garden. Now on my list of inspiring things are BBC's Sherlock, the music of the Beatles and drinking lattes. (Thanks, Michelle!)

* Dive in before it's too late... in other words, don't think yourself out of something. In my case, I often over think my writing, and as a result, get scared or freaked out about its nascent uncertainty, and any hope of writing - just writing - dies a guilt-ridden death. We call that writer's block. Julia Cameron is very helpful about this: "Art is not about thinking something up. It is about the opposite - getting something down."

* And last but not least: sleep. Let's face it, the world is task-driven and we drive ourselves to the brink of exhaustion. We need to sleep: to recharge our batteries, to realign synapses and memory pathways, to allow our bodies to heal. This week I learned my lesson about staying up late to "watch just one episode of Doctor Who" (insert various other excuses): even one hour has severely reduced my ability to focus on my projects. This weekend I will sleep and enjoy it. No regrets. None at all.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Reading Deprivation (Jillian)

Last week, I embarked on the chapter in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way that emphasized... reading deprivation. It is exactly what it sounds like, plain and simple: don't read for pleasure, don't read to kill time. Don't read.

Bibliophile that I am, my first reaction was that this exercise was unnecessary self-torture, especially coming so soon after Lent. Here's what Julia has to say about it:

For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried... It is a paradox that by emptying our lives of distractions, we are actually filling the well. Without distractions, we are once again thrust into the sensory world... Reading deprivation casts us into our inner silence, a space some one us begin to immediately fill with new words - long, gossipy conversations, television bingeing, the radio as a constant, chatty companion. We often cannot hear our own inner voice, the voice of our artist's inspiration, above the static. In practicing reading deprivation, we need to cast a watchful eye on these other pollutants. They poison the well. (p. 87)

Hard as it is to believe, I found this to be completely spot-on. You can imagine with a job as a receptionist, I find many windows of ennui in which I am tempted to while away the hours with a deep perusal of internet newspapers and/or with a good novel. But when I relinquished said distractions it was a very clear indication of how addicted to this unhealthy media chat and extraneous stuff I'd been.

Those days as far away from a novel or the internet as I could get, I did actually find myself focusing on my art and filling the time (not killing time) with those introspective, creative thoughts. It was helpful. And it is still very eye-opening to know how much of the outside world is let in, and how much I don't actually need.

Very good lesson, indeed!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Artist Date (Jillian)

I have begun to revive the practice of going on purposeful artist dates - just me, myself and I. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the concept, it is basically the act of taking yourself out to recharge your creative batteries - do something simple but stimulating and freeing.

This activity could range from venturing to the local craft store for modeling clay and spending an afternoon twisting it into shape. Or it could be spent trying to figure out a sewing machine. Or simply take a long, thoughtful walk. Last week, I watched a movie. This week on my day off, I decided to plant flowers in the pot on our front porch which until then had been occupied by a very dead geranium. "Enough is enough," I thought. "It's finally spring, and I have an artist's urge to do something!" Hence the violas and purple allysum you see below.

It was a nice little creative project to accomplish in one afternoon. I didn't go ahead and tackle the garden like I'm tempted to do, but I know that will follow. These little bursts here and there are nice bits of encouragement I've been able to give myself. And flowers, with their bursts of color, really do give hope for brighter days ahead. Nature is in our veins; creativity is our natural interaction with the world, so I am not going to apologize for smiling with pride on my little flowers every time I leave the house!

Apart from the neighborhood squirrels digging in the pot for non-existent acorns, I'm satisfied to call this a success!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Meaning of Maundy (Jillian)

Every year at Holy Week, I've found myself asking the same, perhaps silly, question: what does "maundy", as in Maundy Thursday, actually mean? It has become a part of our church-language, but I'd never been apprised of its meaning. It didn't seem important. But, by golly, it is important!

Being the incorrigible logophile I am, I could no longer leave well enough alone, and so on Maundy Thursday 2011, I delved.

Maundy Thursday is the day of the Last Supper, and the night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. According to merriam-webster, "maundy" comes from the Middle English word maunde from the ceremony of the English king or queen washing the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. It is also connected to the Latin word mantadum, meaning commandment. John 13:34: "A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another."

The Queen participated in the washing of feet today in Britain. This is also her 85th birthday. For more on this tradition, please visit the Telegraph!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Jane Eyre 2011 in brief (Jillian)

Jane Eyre 2011 (Mia Wasikowska)

POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT! While on the subject of Charlotte Brontë, I did see the current-most theatrical version of Jane Eyre, last week.

Things I liked:

1. The film begins with Jane’s trek across the moors and finding refuge in the cottage of St. John Rivers (Jamie Bell) and his sisters.

2. Mia Wasikowska, despite her youth, is very good as the reserved but passionate Jane.

3. The character of the house keeper Mrs. Fairfax (Dame Judi Dench) is given more depth and more of a meaningful relationship with Jane.

4. The film is visually stunning with tricks of lights (i.e. fire light) and shadows. As Jane struggles across the wet, dark moor to the Rivers’ cottage, one light in a window draws her into safety.

Things I didn’t like:

1. Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender) is too handsome, and, quite frankly, too creepy. His is a complicated character – always in danger of being portrayed as either too mysterious and angry, or too masculine and cold – an uncomfortable contrast either way to Jane’s youth and lack of knowledge of the world. In the film, this contrast is made far more sexual than it needs to be.

2. It was hard to trust the nuances of their relationship. The film definitely shows Jane and Rochester falling in love but fails to truly answer those nagging depth-questions: Why does Jane love Mr. Rochester? Other than wanting to escape from his insane and mostly-inhuman wife, why does Mr. Rochester love Jane?

3. St. John Rivers does not lose his temper and threaten Jane with eternal damnation in the book.

4. There were moments where lines, lifted almost exactly from the book, were delivered awkwardly, as if the actors were reading them aloud in a literature class.

Over all, I am still very much devoted to the 2006 miniseries starring Tobey Stephens and Ruth Wilson. So much of the novel is better developed in that format – there is more space and time to deepen the story (the friendship into romance, the secrets, the riddles from Rochester’s past, questions of the future) in ways a two-hour feature film cannot. On the whole, Jane Eyre (2011) is a good film, and as novels-into-films go, the 2011 is very faithful to Charlotte Brontë’s masterpiece, but it has more shadows than spirit.

Jane Eyre 2006 (Ruth Wilson)

Getting to Know Charlotte (Jillian)

My latest literary endeavor is Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte. Having finally finished a long, grueling spell struggling with Charlotte’s Villette, I find I probably should have read her biography first to gather a better sense of her final novel.It's a great idea to get to know our favorite authors better - not merely in a sense of "how did they do that?" but to appreciate them for the creative people they are in ordinary lives, human beings who struggled instead of idols who leap out of the clay fully formed and automatically brilliant.

For those of you who are interested in branching out into Charlotte’s lesser-known works, I would urge you caution. Villette is a beautiful and profound work, a wonderful reflection of Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium. But the narrator and central character, Lucy Snowe, is a bit of an icy, indefinable ghost; at times Lucy, though she knows her own mind and her own sorrows, seems more of a captive witness to events rather than a strong participant. Though no less vivid than Jane Eyre, it was impossible at times to tell where Villette was going, if anywhere, and it took me about four months to finally finish it… reading other books along the way for occasional relief.

It is not to say that Villette is “bad”. It isn’t; it is rightly lauded as a masterpiece. It was also a profound challenge. Yet, that challenge inspired me to learn more about this mysterious, tragic writer, and see if following her journey can help me better appreciate her. Here are some interesting facts I have learned so far:

1. Charlotte had two older sisters who died of typhus when Charlotte was a little girl: Maria and Elizabeth. The circumstances of their deaths at a school in Yorkshire inspired the events in Jane Eyre wherein Jane’s only friend Helen dies during an epidemic.

2. Charlotte was private and had a quiet spirit, but when she set her mind to something, she was determined to carry it out. To quote Elizabeth: She was not one to take over-much about any project, while it remained uncertain – to speak about her labour, in any direction, while its result was uncertain.

3. Her hero was the Duke of Wellington, general of the Napoleanic wars and an important conservative political figure of the day.

4. She was terribly “short-sighted”, or near-sighted, and got by with the use of spectacles.

5. Charlotte and her equally famous sister Emily (Wuthering Heights) studied French and German at a Belgian school in 1842-43. Her experiences there would be the setting for her final work Villette.

6. One of Charlotte’s earliest pseudonyms was Charles Thunder. Later she would write under the name of Currer Bell; her sister Anne (Agnes Grey) was Acton Bell, and Emily was Ellis Bell.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Doldrums (Jillian)

This winter has been hard, I’ll not lie. You might have sensed it in the gaps between my posts, hovering there like some solemn, unspoken word. Michelle and I decided long ago that Daedalus Notes was a place to talk about writing, not to spill out the minutia of our private lives. But there are a few things, more personal than the norm, of which I’d like to share here today, because they are relevant to the writer’s life. Painfully relevant.

Long story short, this was my second time applying for MFA (that is, Master of Fine Arts) programs in Creative Writing. For years now, I thought the best way I could use my writing would be in academia, as a teacher of creative writing, as part of a creative think-tank alongside other writers. This is also my second time weathering the unpleasantness of rejections from the list of those universities: dismissals in the form of one-page form-letters, some more sympathetic and truthful than others. It is the same bitter taste of rejections from publishers, from potential employers. Not only is it a rejection of me, but of my life’s work. And in this case, indifference makes a deeper impression than outright dislike of my writing.

I write about this today because this is a reality for writers and artists. We write and bleed our souls out onto paper, poke and prod, knead and sculpt, and nip and tuck away at it for years until we have a manuscript or a substantial writing sample, a finished product. And when we send it off, we may be brimming with hope, but it is very rare that publishers or fellowship committees will snap it up with wild enthusiasm, offering a book deal with splashy cover art and an advance on our next endeavor, or an opportunity to dive into a writing community teeming with the world’s freshest wordsmiths – all by the time we’ve reached twenty-five. It almost never happens. And it hurts like utter hell. Like a door slamming shut in our face.

Last year, the MFA affected me in the most perverse way imaginable: I didn’t work on my novel very seriously for four months. I say perverse, because not writing is unnatural, paralysis for a creative being. Yes, I filled three legal pads with journal musings and anecdotes, but it was not my heart’s desire. There was a sort of transparent but rigid layer of shame around my will to work on my novel, to approach by beloved characters. It would take well into the summer before I began to trust myself again. During that time, my novel sat idle, and I had no energy. It was the Writing Diaspora. I called it doldrums. Or, as it is better known, writer’s block.

This year, having been through these waters once before, I am determined to take another course, and steer around the placid-but-dangerous doldrums. I do so by diving into writing, instead of struggling away from it.

Novel. Blog. Journal of seasonal musings. My collection of words. My emails. Little seedlings of stories and proto-novels. Write, write, write until the calluses on my pen-hand ache, until my eyes strain from squinting at the computer screen, until I collapse of hunger! WRITE! And don’t look back!

This is one thing that cannot be stripped from me: my identity as a writer. The MFA is not a license to write. I am not one who happened to catch the eye of a top creative writing program; I am one who earns a quiet living as a receptionist and retreats home to her creations. That is my little story. After all, we cannot all have glamorous beginnings. Nor must we. Our calling is to write, whether or not the world can see us.

I write knowing that sometimes I must create my own wind to fill my limp and lifeless sails, stir up lively waves to pull me back onto the open sea. And there I go.

So there it is, friends. Write out the doldrums. Make them your blank canvas. Fill it with life!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Wordsmithery (Jillian)

I've been away for longer than intended, still in the throes of Diaspora from my computer. Again, it does take a lot of effort for a (stubborn) writer to adapt to a new way of doing things (i.e. writing by hand), and that has been the way of things since last we met.


One of the most fascinating aspects of writing is the words themselves, how they sound and the images they bring. Recently, my appreciation for words has grown into a ravenous hunger. I will gobble-up, per se, any word that sounds mysterious, interesting, archaic or multi-faceted.

What, pray tell, is a grimalkin? Why, an old domestic female cat, of course. (Elder spinster-cat, in other words.)

What about a state of acedia? It sounds like it could be a serious mental condition or an illness, but is really a name for "boredom" or "apathy," in the same vein as another of my favorite words ennui. In the 16th century, it was used to describe the sin of sloth.

Another word is chthonic (pronounced "thone-ick"), an adjective which means "dwelling under the earth" or "pertaining to the underworld." Have you ever seen another word with such a combination as chth?

And polyonymous? The antonym of anonymous that seems strangely neglected: "having or known by various names." One literary example: Gandalf the Grey, Gandalf Stormcrow, Mithrandir.

I've also reveled in the fact that writers are not mere arrangers of language, but creators of words. We are wordsmiths engaging in constant tinkering, firing, cooling, hammering, sweating, and more hammering: hard work to form something beautiful and functional. To that end, I'll use the word bellwether.

Bellwether, the title of a Connie Willis novel, is a word that always sounded mysterious, and I could not resist exploring it. Nowadays the word means "an indicator of trends" or "one that takes initiative." Its origins point to the medieval practice of shepherds putting bells on the lead sheep in a flock. Simple, no?

Because I am always thinking (never about "important" things like where I left my keys or whether or not I remembered to feed the cat), I came up with a new connotative meaning for bellwether. If one changes the spelling slightly, it becomes bellweather. In fact, this is what I thought the word was before I saw it spelled out. My mind instantly imagined "weather for/of bells." And I thought of medieval church bells ringing out in superstitious hope to ward off approaching storms and plagues. Bellweather then has a potentially darker meaning than its parent word: a harbinger of doom or hard times, a jeremiad (prophesy of doom).

It's discoveries and accidental creations like these that keep me writing. Language is magical, hardly set in stone. It is both new and old and deeper than the seas.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Computer Diaspora (Jillian)

Alas, the time is coming soon where I might have to part from my beloved laptop on a temporary basis. Long story short, my laptop – friend and ultimate writing tool – decided it no longer recognized its AC adapter and refused from that point on to charge its battery. There is, of course, no logical explanation for this sudden bout of computer amnesia. I had two different partial diagnoses from two different “geeks”, and, believe me, a new adapter did no good despite their insistence. Hence, the fear that the geeks’ favorite way of solving things – that is, sending said machine off into the great unknown so someone else can attempt repairs and wipe the drive for good measure (grr…) – will have to be implemented.

Forgive the moaning in the above paragraph, but I am sure you can relate. When a writer’s preferred tool of crafting and performing her art is mercilessly taken away, a feeling of hopelessness settles in. Last year, I had the misfortune of falling down marble stairs at work with the same computer. Result? Cracked screen, just like a car windshield, but in retrospect, it could have easily been my skull. It was taken a repair shop where it languished idle for about two and a half weeks. Never mind how expensive that venture was, it was next to impossible to overcome the feeling that my hands had suddenly been cut off, and I could not write. Period. I dread returning to that state of writing paralysis again.

As I consider sending my dear friend away for another necessary respite, I cannot help but think how ludicrous the “writing paralysis” is. Yes, it is almost excruciating to be separated from the thing that has been such a vital instrument in my writing, but… I can write… because essentially writing is not about the computer. My brain works the same. My hands still work. The story is in my head, and not necessarily in its most consummate form on the hard drive, anyway. And, I must remind myself, writing via word processing machine is only a recent trend. After all the likes of the magnificent Mr. Chaucer and Mr. Shakespeare, many before and many, many after, produced manuscripts without use of a laptop, spell-check, online references and dozens of fancy fonts. Quills, hand-made ink, grossly expensive parchment and/or vellum, blotting paper, and candlelight… those were the tools. And what wonderful tools they are!

In fact, only last year (if you recall), Agatha Christie’s writing desk went on sale, no doubt for a pretty sum. I read Lucy Davies’ blog on the Telegraph website, and was intrigued some time ago by an entry devoted to those who collect the palettes of van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Mattise, etc. Anne Frank’s diary is preserved under glass. So is the Magna Carta in its various surviving versions. I wonder sometimes if I ever become noteworthy (ha! If at all, long after my demise!) would they preserve my laptop behind glass? Would it convey the same meaning as Jane Austen’s simple writing table, or would it be just another old computer with a black, dead screen? Hm…

Jane Austen's writing desk, from the Telegraph

I must remind myself that I do have these simple tools, too. Wouldn’t it be such a challenge, such an adventure to continue work on my novel as if nothing ever happened… except the change in medium? If all those others can make use of simple paper and pen, why can’t I? I already do.

So, I am beginning to toy with the idea of writing actual chapters via legal pad. While I have not yet lost the ability to write with a pen and paper, I don’t know if I’d have the patience for it. Another idea… old typewriter? That would definitely be an easier transition. But where might I find one that is both functional and semi-affordable?

A lot of things to think about. My only hope is that any crazy experiment can cause me to grow into a more versatile writer… the kind of person who can write a novel on a train or in a coffee shop, even if all I have is a napkin. After all, that’s what J.K. Rowling did – legal pads, coffee and a café after hours.

By Jove! It’s so simple, it just might work!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Strange Questions (Jillian)

One aspect of being a writer is that one is always coming up with strange questions - not necessarily seeking an answer, but enjoying the question in all its fullness. Even the smallest anecdote can open the doors to new worlds.

Today's whimsical question, happened upon this evening as I watched (and heard) a flock of geese fly northwest in the darkening sky:

Are those geese confused about dates, or do they know something we don't about the coming of Spring?


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Flowers in the Snow (Jillian)

We’ve reached the first of February, and much of the United States has woken to find that snow, once again, has covered the world in white. All is bitter, cold and blustery. This is the time of year which sees a great deal of misery compounded, I believe, by a great deal of whinging. One cannot approach this month without harkening back to the humble cadence we know so well…

In the bleak midwinter…

frosty winds made moan,

earth stood hard as iron,

water like a stone;

snow had fallen

snow on snow

snow on snow

in the bleak midwinter

long ago…

(Christina Rossetti)

I am still determined to see the good in Winter, in all the little ways inspiration comes… even through endless snow drifts, the major Thaws that never last long enough, and ice on the windows obscuring the scene outside. This week’s reason for enjoying Winter is that of the flowers I have growing inside: paper-white bulbs that have been growing up and up since the week before Christmas, and have been blooming indoors for two weeks, happy and content in the warmth.

I’ve even managed, miraculously, to keep a poinsettia alive for two months.

So here we are: flowers thriving in the snow… perhaps not literally, but the juxtaposition is a nice one.

I think flowers in the winter are like the creative ideas we have… these musings that rise up in defiance of cabin fever. Creativity does not need to be an overflowing, uncontainable garden; it can come in quiet little bursts, one or two blossoms at a time, and still be beautiful, tested and refine by ice and snow.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Winter (Jillian)

Alas, 'tis January still and we will be in the throes of Winter for quite some time, yet. I've resolved this year to enjoy winter (shocker, I know), despite the cold, the snow, and the everyday anxieties compounded by snowy streets and heating bills.

Emily Dickinson captures our tricky relationship with Winter quite beautifully:

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.

A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.

Winter is beautiful in ways that Summer is not. Yes, Summer is characterized by the green, growing, thriving elements of nature. Summer is projected as the perfect sister of the seasons, full of color and sunlight and excursions to faraway places. But Summer has her issues too: sweltering heat, insects, etc. Winter is clearly the earth's rest period, the plainer sister despised for her white mantel and her cold personality. Like throwing sheets over furniture to keep the dust off, so does the snow hide the naked and inglorious parts of houses and lawns. Everything beneath that snow-sheet is in suspension, getting reading for the Rise that will come with Spring. Without the snow, there would be no well-watered Spring, no glorious Summer, no magnificent Autumn.

I suppose I am saying all of this to jolt my spirits up. This morning, we had more snow to shovel... enough to erase the walks and the drive. It can get to be oppressive and exhausting, but there is still life there in the snow and in spite of the snow: words to write and books to read. That is Winter's diadem: her quiet, her birdsong (without the flies and cicadas), her Time to be busy and create new things... bake a new kind of cookie, grow flowers indoors, take up sewing. There are many possibilities.

Happy writing!

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Scribbling Suit (Jillian)

Another “rediscovery” I have recently made is that of Little Women, and the ways in which art comes out of the lives of the four March sisters; particularly Jo with her fiery, independent spirit and passion for writing. I’ll share with you a passage:
Every few weeks she would shut herself up in her room, put on her scribbling suit, and “fall into a vortex,” as she expressed it, writing away at her novel with all her heart and soul, for that till that was finished she could find no peace. Her “scribbling suit” consisted of a black woolen pinafore on which she could wipe her pen at will, and a cap of the same material, adorned with a cheerful red bow, into which she bundled her hair when the decks were cleared for action. This cap was a beacon to the inquiring eyes of her family, who during these periods kept their distance, merely popping in their heads semi-occasionally to ask, with interest, “Does genius burn, Jo?” They did not always venture even to ask this question, but took an observation of the cap, and judged accordingly. If this expressive article of dress was drawn low upon the forehead, it was a sign that hard work was going on, in exciting moments it was pushed rakishly askew, and when despair seized the author it was plucked wholly off, and cast upon the floor. At such times the intruder silently withdrew, and not until the red bow was seen gaily erect upon the gifted brow, did anyone dare address Jo. [page 260; Louisa May Alcott.]
A scribbling suit. I am intrigued by the little rituals we perform in order to bring about the fullness of a writing session, or prepare and properly clothe ourselves to enter our respective “vortexes.” I know I must clear my desk of non-essentials, light candles, don fingerless gloves, and perhaps make tea. Sometimes there is music, sometimes not. The windows must be open, and the cat safely barred from entering the writing space. These benign little performances are good for us; the writing space (whether window seat, desk or the back corner of a coffee shop) transforms into a personalized palette on which to experiment with ideas… in all their colors, hues and textures. Thinking on Jo, she can put all other things aside and enter into something new, something entirely immune to curiosity from the outside world. Not an escape; but an expedition.

I also think on other literary characters who possess creative inclinations. Jane Eyre. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility). Cassandra Mortmain (I Capture the Castle). Jo’s sisters Amy, Beth and Meg. Dorothea Brooke Casauban (Middlemarch). What strikes me about these characters (and many, many others) is not that a tendency towards art sets them apart from other characters (i.e. make them by contrast to be eccentric or unique), but that their art shows them to be creative beings, striving to achieve the most of their human potential: not simply to be, but to discover, to create, and to find joy in their own particular corner of life.

Friday, January 7, 2011

About the Bread Quote (Jillian)

If you look to your right, you may have noticed the excerpt from Jeff Smith's soda bread recipe. You may be asking yourself why this is relevant to a blog about writing, so I'll explain.

Lately, I've been thinking on the idea of kneading dough until it is ready, pouring a primordial lump of flour and buttermilk onto the counter and kneading it "until everything comes together." It is not a complicated formula. In fact, it isn't even a formula at all. Having made this recipe many times, I can tell you that the dough is sticky and cold, and it does take more than a tidy minute for it to transform into a loaf.

Writing is like this - in that the initial writing phase of a story or a novel-chapter (90%, I'd say) is difficult, messy, inconvenient and sometimes uncertain. But in order to create a beautiful loaf ready for the oven, or a story or part of a story to be ready to share, you have to work at it. You have to get your hands caked in the thick and sticky substance of the craft. Despite the mess, it will definitely be worth it.

Lodestar (Jillian)

It is a new year, and, as you can see, a fresh new blog. I hope to keep it fresh throughout 2011 and beyond. Thanks for reading!


I came by a word-a-day calendar for the new year. I’ve a passion for words; the more obscure the more deeply intrigued I am. One of my new little projects is to maintain a lexicon I created several years ago, and at the very least discovering or rediscovering words keeps me thinking. Thus, without further ado…

This week’s word rediscovery is lodestar (noun). According to Merriam-Webster a lodestar is “one that serves as an inspiration, model or guide… a star that leads or guides, in particular the North Star.” M-W also indicates that the word has its roots in Middle English (lode means course), and that Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales, Parliament of Fowles, etc) was one of the first to use the word when he wrote in the 14th century.

Appropriate, no? As yesterday, the 6th of January was Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, and the day we celebrate the Magi finding the Christ child in Bethlehem. The lodestar could be construed as the brilliant star that guided them on their journey.

What strikes me about the idea of a lodestar is the image of light in the darkness… more particularly light in the midst of a bleak midwinter. I hope for that spark of creativity and hope in 2011. Happy writing!


to a blog by three people who write, for anyone else who wants to write. It's a cruel world for creators, and here we promise support, whimsy, and curiosity that will hopefully keep your pen moving and keyboard tapping!

To read more about why Daedalus Notes exists, click