Showing posts with label reading list. Show all posts
Showing posts with label reading list. Show all posts

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wolf (Michelle)

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 29, 2009

On Beauty (Michelle)

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

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

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

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

Here is a sample from the beginning of the monograph:

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

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

Friday, May 15, 2009

Skellig the Opera (Michelle)

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

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

Friday, May 1, 2009

Comfort Reading (Michelle)

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

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

Friday, April 10, 2009

I Shall Not Live in Vain (Michelle)

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

Here's one from Emily Dickinson:

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

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

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

(c. 1864)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Neil Gaiman on Colbert (Michelle)

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

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

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

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

Chickens in Sweaters (Michelle)

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

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

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

Letters to a Young Poet (Michelle)

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

I particularly enjoyed this passage:

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

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

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

Anyway, happy exploring!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

ShakespeaRetold (Michelle)

From dire illness, I return (gradually) to the land of the living and, hence, the blogosphere. And I return with a film recommendation that made me want to write like mad!

I've been exploring the BBC's 2005 miniseries, Shakespeare Retold. There are four 90 minute adaptations: Much Ado About Nothing (set in a provincial newsroom), The Taming of the Shrew (with Kate as a stroppy politician), A Midsummer Night's Dream (in a faux-rustic resort), and Macbeth (in a gourmet restaraunt).

Usually I avoid modern retellings of Shakespeare that excise the language, not from snobbish impulse but because they're usually just not very good. I do enjoy 10 Things I Hate About You as much as the next teenybopper, but it has to be said that just a tad of the original play's richness is lost, and I'm usually acutely aware the entire time that whatever is being said, Shakespeare said it better.

Not so with these adaptations. Occasionally I do miss the language (when Beatrice says, "I love you so much I can hardly breathe," I do wonder what was wrong with Billy Shakes' "I love you with so much of my heart that none is left to protest!"), but most of the time I'm just slavishly admiring the creativity of the scriptwriters and the skill of the actors.

In A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, Peter Bowker captures the spirit of the conflict between nature and artifice in the original play with its touristy setting in DreamPark. Sally Wainwright, the scriptwriter of The Taming of the Shrew, makes some brilliant strokes as well, including some clever adaptations of the totally over-the-top, utterly un-PC farce of the original.

And there are so many good performances, too, but some of my favorites are Rufus Sewell's Petruchio, Shirley Henderson's Kate, Imelda Staunton's [Hip]Polly[ta], Dean Lennox Kelly's Puck, and Sarah Parish's Beatrice. If you like British TV, it's a good actor-watch. A good half of the cast have been on Doctor Who at some point or other.

The scripts are frequently eloquent, moving, and hilarious. For example:

"My advice to Titania and Oberon? Leave the forest. It's this place. It gets into your head. I mean, all this's not natural, is it?" (Puck)

"He just didn't want you to mistake him for one of the grown-ups. In reality, he's probably not more than about...six." (Petruchio's friend whose name escapes me.)

"Love is probably one of those things that a man grows into, like...jazz! And olives." (Benedick)

"If Beatrice doesn't watch it, she's going to grow into one of those women whose idea of a big night is a really big bowl of hommus." (Margaret)

"If you don't get it right, I'm going to turn you into a novelty key chain." (Oberon to Puck, of course)

A Misummer Night's Dream, written by Peter Bowker; starring Bill Paterson, Imelda Staunton, and Johnny Vegas

Much Ado About Nothing, written by David Nicholls; starring Sara Parish, Damian Lewis, and Billie Piper

Macbeth, written by Peter Moffat; starring James McAvoy and Keeley Hawes

The Taming of the Shrew, written by Sally Wainwright; starring Rufus Sewell, Shirley Henderson, and Stephen Tompkinson.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

David Nicholls, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, and Writing for the Screen (Michelle)

This Sunday, a BBC adapation of Tess of the d'Urbervilles was aired on American public television. I missed it, and in any case, I haven't read Tess --- it's one of those glaring gaps in my literary knowledge, not likely to be rectified any time soon. (Episode 1 is currently available to watch instantly on the website, if you are curious.)

However, if you visit the PBS website here, you'll find a link to an online conversation with the screenwriter, David Nicholls, at He is answering questions about the issues involved in screenwriting (particularly, adapting classics) until January 12. This is something that does interest me intensely, and I'd highly recommend checking it out.

Nicholls (IMDB profile here) also penned an extremely deft modern retelling of Much Ado About Nothing for the Beeb in 2005, as well as the quirky Starter for 10 starring James McAvoy.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Nut-Whacker! (Michelle)

Tis the season when I start rereading The Nutcracker and watching the Mikhail Baryshnikov ballet that used to air every year on PBS when I was a kid. My little niece calls it "Nut-whacker" which somehow seems to remind a world awash in sentimental sugarplum fairies that this is in fact a weird, edgy story. What else would you expect from E.T.A. Hoffman?

So, this is a seasonal suggestion for an artist date --- explore this story. Whether you're a sentimentalist or a scifi lover with a taste for the macabre, you will probably find something to intrigue.

The above picture is from Maurice Sendak's unsettling illustration of the tale, in which Godfather Drosselmeier (the creator of the Nutcracker doll) appears as a very, very ambiguous sort of figure. As with Shakespeare's Prospero or Hawthorne's Matthew Maule, it's sometimes unclear whether this magician is a force for good or evil. Imagine waking up in your living room finding that face looking down at you from the top of the grandfather clock!

I also rewatched the ballet a couple of days ago and found it unexpectedly heartbreaking. Obviously, it's imbued with a strong sense of wonder and fantasy, as harlequins come to life, Christmas trees grow huge, and snow and spun sugar suddenly seem indistinguishable. But as all this is going on, Marie/Clara is growing up, becoming ever longer, more graceful, able to match her magically transformed prince...but every growth also leads her closer to waking from the dream.

Baryshnikov's version of the ballet culminates in a gorgeous pas de deux, the part of a ballet traditionally between the male and female principal dancers, but this time Godfather Drosselmeier is constantly interposing his black form between the dancers, both guiding and separating them. He's creating the dream, but he's also ending it.

I am reminded of what Ursula LeGuin wrote about Sleeping Beauty:

"The story is, itself a spell. Why would we want to break it?"

Monday, December 1, 2008

Octavian Nothing, Et Alia (Michelle)

I welcome myself back after a very hectic Thanksgiving week! Welcome back, Michelle. So nice to see you here.

On to business: here is a great article that ran in the Washington Post this past weekend on M.T. Anderson, another young adult writer of quality. (At least, I think he is; I have not yet read his book.) He is the author of Octavian Nothing, an epic set in the Revolutionary War documenting the experience of a slave in very unusual but historically accurate circumstances. I noticed it in Borders a couple of days before the article ran, and now it's certainly on my list to read.

I was particularly interested in what Anderson had to say about trying to absorb 18th-century sentence structure, as I have been wallowing in Chaucer lately in an attempt to clean out some modern cadences from my ears, for the purposes of my novel. More on that in a future post probably.

In other news, here is What I Did With My Summer (or Thanksgiving) Vacation:
  • Read a lot of Chaucer (see above)

  • Saw (twice) and loved (twice) the Twilight movie. Ate my words from months previous about how it looked imbecilic and came away with a hearty respect for Robert Pattinson (channeling James Dean and Max Schreck simultaneously?!), Catherine Hardwicke (making it beautiful), and the general power of not being too cynical for your own good.

  • Finished a chapter! Yay! I successfully narrated a medieval journey without mentioning seedcakes once. Victory is mine.

  • Actually did research for my novel, which felt very virtuous.

  • Went to the library and checked out a whole pile of books I knew I wouldn't be able to finish but enjoyed myself anyway.

  • Fretted about historical accuracy in fiction. (More to come on this issue.)

  • Formed a resolution to read some E.T.A. Hoffman, after I finish the Canterbury Tales (ha!), The Faerie Queene (bigger ha!), and this random book I picked up at Borders about medievalists...

And, last of all, Coming Soon: Why History Is Just a Nuisance

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.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I'm Nobody (Michelle)

Ernest Hemingway's friend Evan Shipman was known to say, during the years when they were both expatriate writers in Paris, that what culture lacked was the truly anonymous and unambitious poet. At least, that's what Hemingway claims in A Moveable Feast, a lovely if not entirely reliable memoir.

I admire the sentiment, but I can't admit to such profound detachment that I don't actually desire to be published sometime. (And Hemingway couldn't either, as you might notice!) I still think, though, that it's important to remember that we don't (or shouldn't) write for the sole purpose of becoming known. Writing for me is a contemplative act, and one that grows in privacy. Ideally I should have the attitude of medieval craftsmen, putting elaborate carvings high up on the cornices and ceilings where no one but God could see them. I say ideally, because I am nowhere near such heights of serenity at the moment.

My sister and I have been discussing anonymity, having spent a rough 24 hours dealing with some opinionated folk who very stridently make their views heard. (I'm not opinionated, of course. If I were opinionated, I'd do something like start a blog where I could air my opinions...oh wait...) Anyway, it makes us want to curl up inside a shell a bit, and do things just for the sake of doing them. Emily Dickinson puts it so alluringly:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there 's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They 'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

She does make the rat race seem very small and petty, doesn't she? Perhaps it is far better and more fruitful to have your art be a wonderful secret that you share with the other nobodies. And its true, I think, that fame would be a very tedious experience. It's odd, because while I don't have any desire for fame, I do wish sometimes to be part of the communities of the respected - you know, to be in a position to chat with Russell T Davies about his creative choices and whatnot.

But is the price of that to become a "public frog?" I suppose it's mostly a matter of luck, whether to find (conventionally defined) success you have to croak your own name so loud that your throat gets raspy and you forget what it was all for to begin with. I want to croak other people's names: my characters', my artistic heroes', my friends' and my enemies' and God's.

I have a feeling that Emily Dickinson is going to become much more important to me in the coming months. And she was the truly, enthusiastically anonymous poet --- and look at how she's still touching hearts.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

A Halloween Read - A Day Late (Michelle)

Last night, in honor of the occasion of All Hallow's Eve, I read Christina Rossetti's poem "The Goblin Market" for the first time, and I found it great fun. It draws on the tradition of fairies as dangerous, otherworldly creatures found in Sir Orfeo, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Little Big, Stardust, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Also, I think it's quoted in the Doctor Who episode "Midnight," to great creepy effect, so that's fun too. It has a nice eerie rhythm to it.

It only took about 20 minutes to read, and it was worth the time. Good old Victoriana. You can find a full text here at the wondrous, wondrous Gutenberg collection of public-domain works.

'We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?'

Sorry my posts are all a bit goblinny these days - the fairy tale reading kick has reasserted itself!

Margaret Atwood and "The Juniper Tree" (Michelle)

I recently ran across this quote from Margaret Atwood in an essay called "Of Souls as Birds." It's in a collection of essays by women writers about their responses to fairy tales called Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales (ed. Kate Bernheimer). I'm very much enjoying the collection, but this quote particularly amused me. She's responding to the lyrical and brutal Grimm tale, "The Juniper Tree," in which a little boy's head gets chopped off by his stepmother. He is ultimately resurrected, in part through his stepsister's love.

In the early sixties I published a poem based on this story [“The Juniper Tree”], which began ‘I keep my brother’s head among the apples.’ My friend Beverley, who worked for the same market-research company as I did, has recently confessed to me tat she came across this poem and was badly frightened by it. She didn’t know about the original story; she thought I might just be too weird for words. Such are the hazards of mythopoetry.

I had to laugh, because (a) it's funny; and (b) I can identify.

At the moment, I am nourishing a secret and not entirely explainable wish to go to the grocery store and take photos of the bins of fantastical gourds and squash that are currently populating the produce section. I just think they look really cool, and they are tickling some part of my creative brain - it's no wonder that squash play such a crucial role in Cinderella. They're also traditional symbols of resurrection, apparently! I can't quite work up the nerve to do it, though, because I will look utterly insane, and I think that there's even an outside possibility that I will be asked to leave.

Such are the hazards, indeed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Stephenie Meyer's Character Thoughts (Michelle)

Continuing with my endless quest for character:

Last night, while idly searching around for information about the Twilight books (Who doesn't love a good romance? Except some people.), I came across Stephenie Meyer's website. Like many authors who have websites, she has some advice for aspiring writers. Her FAQ is worth looking at in full, but I especially appreciated her advice on character. I think one of her greatest strengths as a writer is her ability to create real, believable human moments for her characters - it's what makes her series worth reading, in my opinion...even if Edward's eyes do "smolder" a little too often for my personal tastes. She has this to say:

My focus is the characters--that's the part of the story that is most important to me. I feel the best way to write believable characters is to really believe in them yourself. When you hear a song on the radio, you should know how your character feels about it--which songs your character would relate to, which songs she hates. Hear the conversations that your characters would have when they're not doing anything exciting; let them talk in your head, get to know them. Know their favorite colors and their opinions on current events, their birthdays and their flaws. None of this goes in the book, it's just to help you get a rounded feel to them.

This is what Jillian always advises as well. I find it difficult to talk with my characters about unimportant things. When you're dealing with medieval people, it gets frustrating that you have never tasted their favorite foods or seen the world exactly as they see it. Still, when I do try, I find it worth doing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Horror? How Grimm! (Michelle)

So, my horror-reading jag continues, sort of - I don't exactly get a lot of time to read these days.

But it's got me thinking about other reading jags of mine. I spent almost two months last year reading nothing but fairy tales, retellings of fairy tales, and critical essays on fairy tales. And it occurred to me that perhaps these two reading jags are not unrelated. It's fairly common knowledge, at this point, that Disney pretty much eviscerated the raw power of the original tales collected by people like the Brothers Grimm and Straparola -- if you spend time with the original tales, there's plenty of horror to go around, and yet it doesn't quite qualify as horror fiction. There are important differences that I'm exploring imaginatively at the moment.

The following is typed pretty much verbatim from a free-write I did, and in it I'm working out the delicate balance between dark and light in my own aesthetic. I imagine that balance is different for everybody, but at the moment I feel like a tuning fork, striking some clear, precise note between horror and happy endings:

Horror is always lurking in the darker corners of fairy tale -- cutting out a young princess' heart, cooking children for dinner, killing wives and keeping them in a bloody chamber...ugh. But what I like about fairy tales is that those dark corners are offset by brighter shades, by the glittering gold of happiness and beauty.

Horror, true horror, is in actual fact a bit too dark for my aesthetic. Though I read Swamp Thing to the end of Alan Moore's run and feel that I got a lot out of it, it was too grim for me. I like a hint of the macabre, but too often in horror it takes over and the darkness is unrelieved.

I like the way fairy tales gesture at horror, at chaos, at darkness, without dwelling there for too long. It does seem rather as though, if you chase the horror too much, if you deliberately linger in the bloody chamber, you can just keep going into ever-deepening dark corners that just grow narrower and narrower but never actually end, as though the actual corner were some kind of asymptote or event horizon which you never reach. From the horror of the threat of incest in "Donkeyskin," you find yourself with the actual presence of a dead uncle reanimating the dead body of your husband in Swamp Thing...and the images are horrible, crawling bugs and rotting can always, always get darker. You never actually reach the heart of darkness, but really, do you want to? Aren't you more interested, really, in the light that escapes from it?

Being focused on bottoms, on the roots and limits of evil, leaves you like Gollum, like Matt Cable with his disgusting fantasies. It turns you into Kurtz from The Heart of Darkness; master of your own horrible empire of death. A little bit of the macabre is great, is a good reminder of the speckled, spare, and strange that is truth, but it's too easy to be like some Gothic heroine, edging towards darkness with perverse fascination.

Better by far to explore the mysteries of the light, as though we were all versions of Stephanie Meyer's vampires, who glitter with a thousand colors in sunlight, with so much to see.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Other People's Prose (Michelle)

The quote of the week last week was from Philip Pullman: "Read like a butterfly; write like a bee." I've always liked this quote, probably because it affirms what I already do (and isn't it nice to be affirmed?): read everything that crosses my path and then make it my own. I also like the image of the bee's sting - particularly apt for what Pullman does with Milton, I'm afraid - mixed with the nectar of its honey. It makes me feel powerful as a writer, which is a rare feeling!

Some writers, though, have a horror of reading while they're writing. I can sympthize - just like your annoying third cousin's sister's husband's voice gets stuck in your head, some writers' voices get stuck in your head. Even if they're good writers, this is a problem. For example, after I read I Capture the Castle, for months every single one of my characters sounded like Cassandra - i.e., always about to ask for a cup of tea.

And though reading is oxygen for my pen, every now and then I'm seized by paranoia that this is bad or dangerous. This happens most often when I'm reading something I feel slightly guilty about (say, Doctor Who fan-fiction, or a junky mystery novel) - then I hear a voice in my head going, "You're going to absorb that voice and then you'll never write anything good again, and it'll serve you right for not reading more Virginia Woolf." Or words to that effect. And sure, it's true that reading quality writing is the best way to teach yourself, unconsciously, about good craft. So fan-fiction, like junk food, should be kept at a minimum, I suppose.

There's also the fear that reading so much will choke originality. Every now and then I'll be writing, and I'll realize, "Well, shoot, this scene came right out of Our Mutual Friend. Now I have to figure out something else!" I've come to feel, though, that these moments aren't reasons to stop "reading like a butterfly" - a very manly butterfly, for my male readers.

We accept that other artists need materials, for instance that painters need models and paint and canvas...but we often expect writers to create from nothing, I think. But everyone needs materials. I've started to think of the imagination as a great big compost heap, as unromantic as that sounds, in which we throw all our experiences and all the books we read and all the films we watch and all the songs we hear, to break down into something new from which we can grow our own garden. (Just look at the way I kept control of that metaphor! ShaZAM!)

Every now and then, something pops out of that compost heap that hasn't broken down sufficiently - a character too much like Andrew Foyle, a phrase too much like something Fitzgerald would write, a setting that just is a little too much like Hogwarts - but that's not a reason to stop reading. The solution is not insulation but inundation. We ought to read more when that happens, find something else that touches our hearts and stirs out imaginations, because then the still-fresh images and prose of other books will break down and mix a little more, into a new color, a new soil, a new story.


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