Showing posts with label quotes. Show all posts
Showing posts with label quotes. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Newsflash! Jillian Changes the Weekly Quote!

Just a bit of self-deprecation here.  I finally changed the weekly quote, which has been featuring Mr. Gaiman's wisdom for several months now.  

This one is from an article/blog post from NPR last week, that I've found to be strangely positive and encouraging.  It is written by Martha Woodruff on the Monkey See blog.  As a general rule, I tend to slip away from social media blogs and articles - the sort of things that are posted to Twitter and Facebook - because they toy with my anxiety.  This isn't advice, it's just thoughtful reflections from writers who, not too long ago, were in the same unpublished-but-wanting-to-be boat as I am now.  They're not saying "your novel isn't getting published because..." or "ten things lit agents hate..." They're just telling us all to hang in there.

One of my favorite parts is from Chad Harbach, whose debut novel The Art of Fielding was ten years in the writing.  He said, "There were many days and months when I figured I'd work on the novel for the rest of my life without finishing it."  I'm so glad to know I'm not the only who worries about this, too.  I'm glad to know there's hope in devoting oneself to a years-long project, especially if it takes years for the fruit to show.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Wisdom from Oscar Wilde

The Telegraph yesterday featured an article on a recently discovered letter that Oscar Wilde wrote to a would-be writer around 1890.  It felt like he was speaking to me from the dawn of the last century:

Oscar Wilde

"The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread, and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer... Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice itself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you."

To me this sounds like: "so you're a novelist who earns her living as a receptionist? Excellent!  You're able to let your art remain art!  I know you dream of one day earning your living by your novels, but it might not be as rosy as you think.  Until then, use this time to grow as a writer and a student of language and see where it takes you.  You might go farther than you think."  Thank you, Mr. Wilde.


In a similar vein, author Matt Haig also had thirty pieces of encouraging wisdom to share via the Telegraph. My favorites were:

  • Being published doesn't make you happy.  It just swaps your old neuroses for new ones.
  • Success depends on great words and passionate people.  The words are up to you.  The people you have to pray for, and stand by them once you have them.
  • Beauty breeds beauty, truth triggers truth.  The cure for writer's block is therefore to read.

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.

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)

Monday, March 23, 2009

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 11, 2009

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.

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

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.

Monday, February 16, 2009

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, January 26, 2009

Solitude (Michelle)

Here is an interesting article about solitude in postmodernity from the Chronicle. (All credit due to Mental Multivitamin for posting it first.) Obviously, this is a topic of relevance to writers (and artists in general), because the time you spend creating, "courting Psyche your soul," is time not spent down at the bar meeting eligible bachelors and bachelorettes (so to speak).

Deresiewicz summarizes a history of solitude in Western civilization very succinctly and lucidly, from the prophets and saints who drew greatness from solitude to the contemporary 15-minute celebrities. He also, a little predictably but probably correctly, is concerned about the effect of Facebook, text messaging, and---the horror! the horror!---blogs on our ability to be alone. Some highlights:

The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.

[W]e no longer live in the modernist city, and our great fear is not submersion by the mass but isolation from the herd. Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness...The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.

Losing solitude, what have they lost? First, the propensity for introspection, that examination of the self that the Puritans, and the Romantics, and the modernists (and Socrates, for that matter) placed at the center of spiritual life — of wisdom, of conduct. Thoreau called it fishing "in the Walden Pond of [our] own natures," "bait[ing our] hooks with darkness."

I do think Deresiewicz oversimplifies at times. He seems to labor under the misapprehension that all young people are explicating their inner souls on their MySpace pages, sending 100 text messages a day, and are terrified to be alone. I think the tension between solitude and community, too, is a somewhat eternal one, independent of (post)modernity and the temptations of the internet.

Deresiewicz quotes Emerson at one point, who said: "He who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from traveling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions."

Fair enough, I suppose, but consider what Marley tells Scrooge to remember before it's too late: “It is required of every man...that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow-men, and travel far and wide."

Only you can decide when you are supposed to walk abroad and when you are supposed to go out to Walden and bait your hook with darkness, but at least Deresiewicz raises the question.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A House Divided (Michelle)

Do you remember this scene in Pirates of the Caribbean 3? Apparently, Captain Jack Sparrow’s version of hell is to captain a ship crewed by Jack Sparrows. I’m not a big fan of the Pirates franchise, but the third installment was redeemed for me by some of the arresting images it offered: my favorite is the surreal spectacle of Far Too Many Jacks and a man at war even with himself.

It’s not something I’d like to emulate, but I have to confess that I sympathize with him. I want to be one and whole, but as a writer, I feel subject to warring impulses of all kinds. I’ve got enough desires for several lives, not just one. Does anyone else experience this?

I haven’t got them all categorized—and I doubt that anyone would be interested in hearing the definitive catalog anyway—but my crew of Michelles, responsible for getting my life to safe harbor, argue constantly among themselves. There’s Ambitious Michelle, who ferociously wants to get her writing published and be part-of-the-world, constantly at war with Private Michelle, who doesn’t want to make an exhibition of herself and is happiest on some lost floor of a university library. There’s Writer Michelle, who doesn’t understand that Physical Michelle must eat and have health insurance. Don’t even get me started on Domestic Michelle and what that means for Adventurous Michelle. I want to be, well, everything, and I am often extremely discontent that I just can't be.

Contrary to all appearances, I’m not posting this as an opportunity to navel-gaze ad nauseam. (Believe me, I can do that without posting.) It’s just that I think that it might not be just me who can’t reconcile all these impulses. I think a lot of artists experience this. Everybody has contradictions, but artists, who tend to feel and think whatever they feel and think so intensely, practically have multiple selves to deal with.

Even characters can be a bit like multiple selves—I’ve got whole populations and races of people jostling around in my imagination, clamoring to get out! And they all have bits and pieces of me, of course.

I’m not particularly fussed about this. I’d like to think I’m a better captain than Jack Sparrow—nicer to all my little constituents, for a start. I took a walk yesterday, and I didn't kill the Workaholic Michelle who was protesting like mad; I just politely asked the other Michelles to sit on her head.
It also seems to me that it ties in nicely to Plato’s diagnosis of the soul: we have Rational Souls, Appetitive Souls, and Spirited Souls. Happiness is a matter of bringing those souls into balance. I imagine that it’s much the same with the artistic life—none of those Michelles get to run the show, but none of them should be shunted aside either.

F. Scott Fitzgerald is famous for saying that an artist is someone who can hold two opposed views and still function. When I looked it up, it turned out that he actually said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” I guess the jury is still out on the subject of my intelligence, and it remains to be seen if I will “retain the ability to function.”
But I’ve got 169 pages of a novel and I love my family: my hopes are high. I hope yours are too.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Hey, It's Okay... (Michelle)

...if this is what your writing sessions look like sometimes. This is from John Crowley's Little, Big; it describes the exploits of Auberon, a writer, who shuts himself into an "Imaginary Study" within his tenement apartment to write.

What he intended to do...was mostly to daydream, though he wouldn’t have put it that way; to court, on long wool-gathering rambles, Psyche his soul; put two and two together, and perhaps write down the sum, for he would have sharpened pencils in the pencil-well of the desk and a clean pad before him. (p. 315 of the Harper Perennial edition)

Friday, January 2, 2009

Salamanders, Part 2 (Michelle)

Happy New Year!

For those of you who were intrigued by the Renaissance idea that salamanders live in fire, I finally found that Thomas Browne reference. I'm on a mild pre-modern science kick, as that quote from Plutarch's Moralia also indicates.

Anyway, Browne, writing in 1646 or thereabouts, is actually debunking this idea with his "new science," but in so doing he describes the previous belief. Here we go, from the fantastically named Pseudodoxia Epidemica:

That a salamander is able to live in flames, to endure and put out fire, is an assertion not only of great antiquity but confirmed by frequent and not contemptible testimony...Pliny assigns the cause of this effect: an animal (saith he) so cold that it extinguisheth the fire like ice.
It hath been much promoted by stories of incombustible and napkins...which endure the fire, whose materials are called by the name of salamander's wool [how cool is that?!]; which many, too literally apprehending, conceive some investing part, or tegument of the salamander. [Browne goes on to explain how in antiquity the bodies of kings were burned in "salamander's wool" to keep their ashes pure. Goodness knows if this is true.]

There you go. A particularly arcane piece of whimsy to start off 2009. With the holidays behind, I hope to start posting a few more substantial things soon. But meanwhile, enjoy some eggnog!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Endlessly Winter (Michelle)

It's sleeting like mad where I am today, so perhaps that's why the following quote struck a chord with me. Thanks to my friend Rachel for posting it as her gmail status today! :)

"Antisthenes says that in a certain faraway land the cold is so intense that words freeze as soon as they are uttered, and after some time then thaw and become audible, so that words spoken in winter go unheard until the next summer."

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Death Grip (Michelle)

I just rewatched the end of Series 2 of Doctor Who ("Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday"). I don't know how many times I've seen this now, but it's still just as fresh. I'm laughing at the 3D glasses, pumping my fist at Cybermen v. Daleks, and crying at the end.

And it's not just "Ohhh, it makes me cry every time, the Doctor and Rose are sooooo cuuuuute." It feels like Russell T Davies has turned me inside out; David Tennant is magnificent, Billie Piper is understated, and I'm hearing Rilke in my head. It's practically a transcendent experience for me, and my brother-in-law on the couch next to me is looking at me like I've gone slightly insane. He's right; it shouldn't be this amazing, should it? It's not exactly Shakespeare!

Some stories just don't let me go. Doctor Who has a death grip. It feels utterly pathetic to be so involved in a story,and I'm trying to remind myself that it's the same thing that makes it possible for me to make my own stories. It just has an annoying way of making me look a fool at the same time.

Why am I advertising my foolishness on the blog? I guess I'm croaking Russell T Davies and David Tennant again to the admiring bog.

Keep ahead of all parting, as if it were behind
you, like the winter that is just now passed.
In winters you are so endlessly winter, you find
that, getting through the winter, your heart
on the whole will last.

(Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus II.13, trns. C.F. MacIntyre)

Why History Is Just a Nuisance (Michelle)

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." (L.P. Hartley)

"The perfect is the enemy of the good." (Voltaire)

Writing historical fiction convinces me of one immutable fact: history is a total nuisance. Mind you, it's a good nuisance, like the presence of other people in the world, or children clamoring for attention, or the need to eat. There are some things that "bug" us that actually make us fuller, better, or less selfish people.

The foreignness of the past, the presence of certain historical facts that cannot be changed, and the stubborn refusal of historical people to see the world as we do all force us to admit that our own experiences and culture are not immutable, inevitable or superior to others'. Still, the initial irritation caused by such stumbling blocks in the creative process cannot be denied. Hence, the "nuisance." In any case, here, as promised, are a few initial reflections on the problems of writing historical fiction.

My own novel is set in 1513 (Is that the Middle Ages? The Renaissance? Ask six scholars, you'll probably get six different answers.), and while it contains more than a heavy dollop of fantastical events, I do want it to possess a measure of historical authenticity. In fact, that authenticity is pretty important to its main themes.

This means that I get frequent, frequent headaches about that authenticity --- in terms of dialogue, events, character reactions, settings, and on and on ad infinitum. Would friends of different genders, not sexually involved, have embraced after long separation? What finger would that woman's wedding ring be on? What did royalty travel in --- were there carriages yet? What would she be wearing? It's so hard to be personally authentic to my own vision and yet not to be modern!

It helps that I believe that there is a basic core of human nature, however shaped by culture and historical circumstance individuals might be. I'm not of the school, for example, that believes that no one fell in love until Chretien de Troyes invented it in the 12th century. Chretien gave us a language to talk about it that still influences us today, but affection existed.

But in some ways that makes my task harder, because it means that so many modern novels set in the Middle Ages and Renaissance offer very little guidance to me, as they take for their premise that life was simply nasty, brutish, and short. In fact, the only modern novels set roughly in my period that have been any help are Ellis Peters' marvelous Cadfael mysteries. Her characters seem authentically medieval (whatever that means) while displaying some of the humane qualities I am attempting to use in my own writing.

Then there is the question of dialogue. The article about M.T. Anderson, author of Octavian Nothing, that I posted last week, offers this interesting perspective:

He was so obsessed with getting Octavian's voice right that for the better part of six years, he restricted his reading to books written in or relating to the 18th century. He started speaking in "much longer sentences with a lot of semicolons," with the unintended consequence that his girlfriend mocked him for sounding like "some 18th-century [expletive]."

I admire this approach immensely, and I was actually doing something similar before I even read this article (she said smugly) by rereading a lot of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and historical non-fiction, as well as listening to audiobooks in the car of the same. These days, I often hear the cadences of Lord Peter Wimsey or the characters on Doctor Who in my I'm trying to clear out some of those modern cadences.

However, no matter what I do, I will always be writing by analogy. Unlike M.T. Anderson, I cannot perfectly imitate the speech and writing of the period, because then my characters would be speaking some form of late Middle English. (D'oh!) Rather, I have to figure out a way to evoke pre-modern speech patterns without sacrificing the immediacy that modern idioms will have for readers.

And this seems to be the heart of the matter in general, probably even for M.T. Anderson ---historical fiction is always an exercise in analogy, in making the past imaginatively accessible to modern readers. If you recreate the past absolutely perfectly, then you're just a Chaucer imitator, and there's nothing fresh about what you're doing.

To paraphrase a rather brilliant friend of mine, a modern reader's interest in an imaginary country depends, among other things, on its immigration policy. That policy must allow easy passage --- you can't demand that your immigrants memorize the whole Constitution verbatim, for example. That means, for me, that I can't demand of my readers utter historical authenticity or the ability to read Middle English. I am allowed a few anachronisms in the name of accessibility.

This, unfortunately, is anathema to my perfectionist spirit --- that part of me that is the consummate scholar. It's really hard to be both a scholar and an artist, but for some reason I persist in believing that it's possible. As somebody not all that wise once said (I think it was Voltaire, you see) --- "The perfect is the enemy of the good." If I get too hung up on authentic speech cadences or historical exactitude, the story itself will never be told. And there's the difference between a novel and a dissertation: the point of the novel is the story, not the historical accuracy.

I need to remain constantly limited by the strictures of history --- to feel the thorn in my side of that "nuisance" --- but I also need to know when to let go and allow the story to tell itself. Must everything in life be a balancing act?

p.s. If you get these posts via RSS feed and have gotten this one about sixty times, I can only apologize. The glitchiness of Blogger is driving me insane today!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In Praise of the "Lowbrow" (Michelle)

I'm still reading Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, a collection of women writers' responses to fairy tales.

In the introduction, the Kate Bernheimer makes a much-needed defense of writers who work in less-respected genres, like children's literature, young adult literature, fantasy, mystery, and sci-fi. She says that not only "literary" like Margaret Atwood or A. S. Byatt writers deserve respect, but also the likes of Robin McKinley, Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman...She points out many of the original transcribers of fairy tales were women working in the French courts to collect the derisively named "old wives' tales."

Bernheimer says:

Highbrow readers quick to dismiss these tales because of genre labels might consider that these writers are also following in the footsteps of the salon writers of Paris, working subversively in fields often dismissed by the literary establishment, and staking out territory in books that have wide appeal. These authors often acknowledge their debt to a range of influences from Madame D’Aulnoy to Angela Carter.

I feel that this is an important point to make, because in current literary culture there often a deep divide between "good books" and "good reads." The books that continually win the Booker Prize, the Pulitzer, the Snerdly McSnoggall Prize for Great Literature are often horribly depressing, leaden reads that I occasionally force myself to read out of some misguided sense of virtue. I don't mean to suggest that all Booker Prize-winning books are dead ends, but that there is a culture which suggests that if a book is depressing and written in a certain style, it must be a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

Meanwhile, it's books like Twilight and Harry Potter which people are apparently dying to read. I know many many people, too, who humbly submit to preferring "escapism" over "literature" - but I can't help feeling that they shouldn't be made to denigrate their own tastes, simply because they enjoy the occasional happy ending or adventurous romp. Perhaps Harry Potter isn't the most well-crafted book (then again, maybe it is, given its addictive qualities), but it shouldn't be automatically dismissed just because of its genre and popularity. And there are certainly other representatives of its genre that are extremely artful, profound, and yes, beautiful.

The question is: Does the gap between quality and pleasure have to exist? My own opinion is ABSOLUTELY NOT, and I will fight to the death to prove it. The immense pleasure and edification I get from Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen, Gaskell, John Le Carre, Connie Willis, Dorothy Sayers, and Doctor Who tell me that it is possible to be intelligent and fun. Certainly, the writers listed above all contain different mixtures of fun and weight, but the point is that the rip-roaring good yarn can also be excellent, excellent art.

And it's immense fun to trawl through the less exalted genres and find the gems. Much more fun than struggling through The God of Small Things, I guarantee that.


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