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!


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