Showing posts with label signature post. Show all posts
Showing posts with label signature post. Show all posts

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Where I Write

I always come back to Cassandra Mortmain: "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink."  

I myself am not sitting in the kitchen sink but at my desk.  My writing space is actually many places: this room, the kitchen and my sort-of-but-not-really office at work. But this is my primary space, and looking up from the page (er, screen), it's interesting to suddenly be conscious of the space I occupy, and how that creative side has manifested itself.  It's not just my living space, but my stories' space.


As Han Solo once said of his ship, "She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts." This is the extent of my "space." A little to your left, and there's the bed (with a cat asleep on it).  A little to your right and there's the vanity.  But I have the essentials:

1.) Desk.
2.) Chair. (Not pictured.  Doesn't match desk, and I can't adjust it any higher without my knees hitting the drawers.  Not exactly an ergonomic arrangement for posture or keyboard. I recently took the arms off the chair so that I could actually push it in.)
3.) Computer.
4.) STUFF.  (I'll get to that.)
5.) Window.
6.) Two iPods - one that works, one that is only for my alarm.

On this last note, Stephen King advises against positioning your desk near a window, but to put it in a far corner away from distractions, closing the curtains if necessary.  In this house and the one I lived in before this, I have had my desk at a window.  I'm not entirely sure why this is - perhaps a way of imagining that I am in a tower looking down on the world, or else sitting in a spot that is guaranteed to bring me the most sunshine, and (if the weather is good) fresh air.  In early March, I watched a robin perched in a branch outside the window, shivering in the cold but determinedly waiting for spring.  If I'd heeded Mr. King's advice, I would not have had that moment.  The fact is, I like my mind to wander here and again.  Sure, a busy street isn't the prettiest sight to behold, but there is enough sky to make up for it.


This is the current face of my ever-changing cork board.  To the left are the images associated with the novel I completed recently (Waterwill). To the right are pieces from an older board dedicated to a novel that went Nowhere in six years (Adrian Saint).  For years, the Adrian Board has been separate from the Waterwill board, perched precariously on the cork board's top (where the owl is).  It took me forever to take Adrian down.  I mean an eternity.  I might have been clinging to the old dream of the thing, or perhaps it gave me comfort, some hope that Adrian was (and still is, mind) waiting for me to come back to it.  As a whole, the board gives testimony to my need for visuals: to actually see face, cellos and stars, old maps, old keys and pocket watches, waterscapes and drowning islands, spindles, portcullises, Doctor Who, old libraries, crows and cloisters.  Here, my novels are alive.


A close up of the desktop.  It is usually not this nice.  Over the course of a week, it gets inundated with notes and lists, books, random purse-items.  When it's cleared off, like it is now, I can write with relief.


Partial window view.  Sometimes the computer is over on the other side, but most often, I like to sit where there is the most light. 


A highlight.  This is my grandfather's abacus.  I can't remember how it wound up in my possession - I've had it a long time.  All I know is that it makes interesting wall art.  I haven't the faintest idea how to use it, either, so it embodies a mystery.


Detail.  One of those Willowtree figurines, the Angel of Learning. Previous finished journal which I won't put away because it has Things I Might Need.  The Q&A journal.  A card of writing motivations.  And "edible ball-bearings" (Perles du Sucre d'Argent) from Michelle, paying homage to a Doctor Who episode we love.  (I haven't had the heart to eat them!)


Detail. In the corner bookcase we have my other journals. Guess which ones are blank and which ones are full to capacity!  Also, a bell from a wedding reception in 2010.  Decorative gourd from Mexico (holds buttons).  Part of my other owl.

Detail.  Some things just happen a certain way.  My life is not art.  Sometimes it resembles a jumbled mess of things I don't know what to do with but Might Need.  Hence, we have (dry) calligraphy pens to an old vase, a camera in a teacup, old Christmas and birthday cards, a thesaurus I haven't used in years, The Artist's Way and Mr. King's book, and a French dictionary.  (Latin is at work, otherwise it would be here somewheres.)  At least it's colorful, right? 



And last but not least, what makes blogging easier is a nice cup of tea.  In this case, steaming away on the desk beside me, some delectable, decaf Chai.  Sometimes it's green.  Other times it's black, peppermint or ginger.  Trader Joe's has a seasonal green tea called Crimson Blossom, filled with all sorts of goodness; it starts out green and turns red as it steeps.  Believe me, there's nothing better than a spot of tea and fresh air moving through an opened window to help along an afternoon of furious blogging.

I don't know exactly what a full analysis of my space can tell you about my life as a writer.  I hope it says that I try to use what I have to make life more interesting, that I try to think outside the box from inside in this room, that I get carried away.  But isn't this like blogging, itself?  A collection of thoughts put together in the best order we can make of them?  That is in itself art - unintended maybe, but beautiful nonetheless.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Taking the Fermata

Adventures in Logophilia, No. 207:

fermata

In music, a fermata is a pause on a note or a rest - its length determined by the conductor or the musician, usually to close a piece.  This bird's eye symbol is known as an extended rest.  It is from the Italian verb fermare, meaning "to stop."

Extended Rest
Extended Rest by Mike Corpus

I began the morning with another insightful post from Writer Unboxed, written by Barbara O'Neal on "Boundaries and Burnout." She reminds us about the importance of resting in the midst of our work, allowing ourselves to play, our minds to wander and relax.  There is a lot of pressure out there for writers to write-write-write, amping up word counts and producing book after book after book.  Which is one reason I shy away from (well-intenioned) Twitter advice these days - they tell me that once I've begun sending query letters to agents on my novel, I need to dive RIGHT AWAY into a new project.  There is a sense of immediacy in this world - to WASTE NO TIME, to be the early bird catching that worm, or a tireless writer, with stories pouring out right and left.  As if story-dehydration, or burn-out, is no real problem.  But it's been a good four months since I began the querying journey, and the second novel has informed me that on no certain terms will he (yes, he) be rushed.  Am I a failure for listening to the needs of this novel?  Am I using it an excuse to "goof off"?

No.  I'm not goofing off.  I'm resting.  Believe me, I am forming the internal structure of novel no. 2 and asking deep (and sometimes difficult) questions about the direction this story will go.  I don't call that idleness.  Also, I've taken the time to absorb novels - particularly those in my own genre - to identify passages that move me, taking notes, articulating to myself why this or that works or doesn't work.  I allow myself to get swept away in soundtrack music to chase the daydream of what my novel could be.  (By the way, if you've never heard Two Steps from Hell, you're missing out: awesome movie trailer soundtrack music, not heavy metal.)  In this case, work is play.

But rest is more than simply allowing a story to incubate and letting it cook on its own.  Resting in everyday life is helpful with the writing aspect of it.  For example, I hate going to the Y.  I hate exercising.  The idea of making an appointment with a piece of equipment in a noisy building full of sweaty (sometimes loud) people doesn't always appeal, even if the elliptical is a cardio wonder machine.  Walking quietly and at my own pace is restful and healthy - a sort of exercise that is not a shock to the system, but a sustained movement that helps the thinking process.  I've started learning yoga, as well, because it's an interesting balance of endurance and rest - clearing the mind as well as folding and flexing the body.

In the midst of this fermata, I read and walk, brainstorm, make plans to plant a little indoor garden using eggshells (and figuring out how to hollow out an egg and poke drain holes in the bottom without the thing breaking apart).  I sleep in on Saturdays and enjoy it.  I'm clearing out my older no-longer-me clothes from my wardrobe and investing in red heels, changing my hair style, trying new recipes, playing with the cat, watching the occasional Dickensian mini-series, reading what I've never read before, getting swept up in spring fever.  In this time, I feel that my wings are growing and extending, not shrinking.  So instead of freaking out because I didn't meet a word-count quota or have gone "no where" with this novel, I am breathing deeply and feeling my way forward.  There is no need to feel any guilt or panic because there is no deadline.  There is no one breathing down my neck.  There is just the story and getting to know him better everyday, forming a friendship with this living thing that will be with me for the next 2-3 years. 

So here I am, still coming down from osana.  I'll stay here until it's time to get up again. 

Namaste.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Whale Song on the Plains

Stories come from the strangest of combination of places, events and people.  They hit me over the head sometimes as I'm walking - often times quite actually because my head is usual off pondering in the clouds.  This is a wild circle of thought that occurred to me this week:

Tornado Sirens


It is early spring and they've begun testing the tornado sirens in our city, as they do most places with a tornado warning system.  The siren blares out in thick waves of sound - not merely loud but inescapable.  This is sound you can feel rattling the pavement beneath your feet, shaking your ribcage, startling the air, stopping your heart.  You are breathing in that sound.  Unlike the eardrum-cracking call of ambulances and police cruisers, it does not fade away as trouble races down the center lane.  Growing up in Nebraska, this is typical of the spring and summer months - the worry that sudden disaster may be hurtling nearby. 

Nebraska Tornado
by Anthony Woods

Sirens and Whales


When I was a little girl standing my grandparents' driveway  I remember asking my mother what that horrible drone was.  She said it was a whale, perhaps out of sarcasm.  (She might have actually said "dying whale" but I doubt she would have been that mean.)  I was a gullible imaginative child and wanted to see this whale, marvelling at the idea there was an actual whale somewhere in our landlocked state.  As we drove home, I had a vivid picture in my head of a whale lying out on the plains somewhere... not exactly making the connection that if, by some strange set of events, a whale was lying out in the middle of Nebraska, it would be a very sad story.

Whale Fluke 6 October 2012, Gloucester, Mass.

 

Whales in Nebraska


The closest whales have come to Nebraska was the in the Cretaceous Period when a great north-south swath of the continent was a shallow sea called the Western Interior Seaway, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic.  The "whales" were plesiosaurs (probably smaller than modern whales) - head of a brontosaurus and sea turtle flippers. 

Plesiosaur
By Dee Jay Morris

A Sea in Nebraska


Then it strikes me that Nebraska geology and paleontology is rich.  We had a sea!  We were underwater!  Okay, "we" weren't but the land that became our state (and Kansas, South and North Dakota, Minnesota and Texas) was underwater.  Comparing that reality to our current drought, the heat, the snow storms, the farmland, the ranches, the bison herds, the sand dunes... wow!  This storyteller is struck by the malleability of the earth beneath our feet, the fact that some day Nebraska may not look like it does now.  I don't know what the projections indicate for our geologic future, but if the Rockies continue to grow, so might our Plains.  This might become a desert or a marshland.  Someday Nebraska may have native camels (yes, camels) or saber-toothed cats (the descendents of our urban ferals?), bear dogs or a new breed of bison.  Or will there be a sea big enough for humpbacks and dolphins to swim down to greet us?

The Golden Sea
by Petter Sandell

And there will probably be tornadoes spilling across whatever version of the Plains comes to pass.  Will the whales warn us with their song? 



Sunday, February 10, 2013

Confessions of an Anxious Writer: Episode I


A Story


In the future, I hope to share my experiences living with anxiety as a writer.  The best way to begin our first episode is with a story.   

In the fall of 2005, I was taking the second exam in my favorite class, England from 1066 to 1688. I'd been studying hard, but it hadn't felt like studying because the stories of medieval England, as told by my engaging professor, had sparked my imagination.  It should have been an easy, fun exam (if there is such a thing): a few paragraphs describing Joan of Arc, the War of the Roses, the dramatic death of Richard III and the reign of Elizabeth I.


But something happened that I had not expected: a melt down.  (I mean, why on Earth hadn't it happened in that awful statistics class?)  I remember sitting there in the classroom, quiet but for the sounds of other students' pens and shuffling papers, and suddenly feeling all the knowledge I had packed into my brain evaporate, leaving my head empty... making plenty of room for panic.  I found myself completely unable to write - paralyzed and ashamed and terribly confused. 

What a blessing it was that Professor Carole caught sight of me turning a bright shade of crimson, biting down on my hand to stifle any sounds as the tears streamed down my face. She gently coaxed me out of my chair and into the hallway.  "Go home and rest," she said. "You can take the exam when you're feeling better.  There's nothing to be ashamed of."

This was just one of many stories I can tell you from my life that fell into place when I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) in college.  I knew I'd been an excessively worried and weepy little girl and teenager, but no one had ever been able to tell me why.  These days I can tell you plainly: my brain produces too much serotonin.  I am not overly sensitive or twitty.  It's the way I was made.

Writing and Anxiety


As a writer, this self-knowledge has been extremely helpful, especially as the writer's path is by nature precarious.  Having set out to publish a novel and knowing that it might take years for this dream to be achieved, I know it is not for the faint of heart.  Though early in the process, I have been beset by anxious thoughts, an internal Sturm und Drang of doubts and fears mixing with the desperate desire to get my story out there.  As you know, the direct way for an unpublished writer to begin that journey is to appeal to literary agents via (hundreds of) query letters - a subjective process that can either make or break you.  Arguments for practicality and "common sense" would ask, understandably, why on Earth I'd choose this path when it is 1.) uncertain and an indirect path to "success", and 2.) likely to expose me to more anxiety-causing situations.  In other words, isn't writing the stupidest thing you could do?

Far from it.  Throughout my life, but especially now in my late twenties, I have realized how much writing has been a natural survival mechanism.  My days are better and calmer when I stick to a self-prescribed regimen of at least 2,000 words per day - 2,000 words most likely spent world-building in my novels.  Somehow said activity balances the chemicals in my brain.  I equate this to having a C-drive cleaner on your PC; writing gets rid of the chemical junk and allows my brain to function better.  Writing is the one thing I know I can rely on for solace and steady ground.  It is not simply a fun little hobby I picked up in childhood and was never quite able to grow out of like a child and a beloved stuffed animal.

Writing is not only an enjoyable activity, but a lifestyle.  It is something that I love, something that brings order to my otherwise chaotic world.  The more I learn about craft, the more I learn about myself, and the more I want to bring my stories to the world to share with other people.  For these reasons, the uncertain road to publication becomes less daunting and more of a necessary learning experience.  That does not mean my anxiety will ever fully go away.  It does mean that facing anxiety-provoking situations is a necessary risk (or self-challenge) for the sake of art. 

Again, I think of what Stephen King said: art is a support system for life, not the other way around.  He was talking about a desk, but this can be applied more broadly.  Art is medicine, the antidote for situations out of our control.  Let's face it: much of the human experience is out of our control.  Finding out how to make that art work beautifully is our most important quest.  No one else can take that journey for you.  

Plain Facts About Anxiety


  • Anxiety is characterized by exaggerated worry and tension, though there might be nothing specific to provoke it.  A person with Generalized Anxiety constantly anticipates disaster, or a combination of any number of snowballing crises such as health, money, family or job-related stresses.
  • Anxiety is caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters (messenger chemicals) in the brain.
  • Anxiety disorders are chronic.  They are not the result of someone simply "not dealing" with their problems.  An anxiety disorder is about how someone was made, not about their choices.  Seeking (or not seeking) treatment in counseling and in medication is a choice.
  • Telling an anxiety sufferer to "get over it" is unhelpful, and might make his or her anxiety worse.
  • Anxiety is hereditary.
  • Anxiety is often closely connected to depression.  
  • Twice as many women as men suffer from anxiety.
  • In brief, methods of treatment can include: 1.) Medication to balance out the chemicals, 2.) counseling, which will give you the tools to change how you approach your anxiety, your triggers and your mechanisms of coping, 3.) exercise, 4.) eating right and staying hydrated, 5.) get plenty of sleep, 6.) reducing the time spent on social networking sites.

Sources


http://www.anxietydisordersfoundation.org
http://health.howstuffworks.com/mental-health/anxiety

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Myth: Ideal Writing Conditions (j)

Cassandra Mortmain writing in the 2003 film version of I Capture the Castle.

Last week, the weekly quote was from E. B. White who wisely said, "a writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper." The bare essentials to writing are a means of conveying words (paper, pen, keyboard) and a committment to fleshing out those words.  It doesn't matter where it happens and under what conditions.  Just that it happens.  "Ideal conditions" are a myth.

Stephen King wrote his stories as a full-time high school English teacher, staying up through the odd hours of the morning.  J. K. Rowling created Harry Potter and Hogwarts in cafes, taking care of her infant daughter. Stories are written on trains, on planes, on the road; in libraries, and in the back of lecture halls.  Art springs up anywhere, and thrives on adverse situations. 
 
Anne Frank hard at work in 1941, before the Annex.
I was an avid grade-school reader when I discovered Anne Frank's diary at the local used book store and read her for the first time.  She is one of the reasons I was first motivated to put pen to paper and seeing what I could with the words in my head.  She had a strong narrative voice, a bit sassy, but vigorous in ways i myself wasn't.  I related to her because we were the same age, because she was entering into confusing teenage years, and because she was honest about what she recorded in her diary.  She was (and is) more articulate than my friends and I were at that age, which intrigued me.

Anne is the champion of writing in adverse conditions.  Not merely because she and her family were hiding from the Gestapo, but logistics as well.  She had to share a room with the cranky, middle-aged Dr. Pfeffer (called Dussel in the published version of the diary) who monopolized the writing desk and didn't take her school work, her love of languages, history and stories seriously.  He wasn't the only one, and Anne (as a cornered teenager will naturally do) referred to herself as the misunderstood "Benjamin of the Annex." This did not stop her from writing. In fact, the diary is just one product of Anne's creativity during her time in the Annex; she wrote fairy tales and novel all while being shooed from one end of the apartment to the other, hiding in the attic, fighting horrible depression and the fear of death.  It makes my excuses of not wanting to get up early and write look awfully petty.  Anne had little space to work in, cheap (black market) exercise books to use and a plethora of daily interruptions, and she continued to write using what she had, using the time that was given her.

On 13 July 1943 Anne relates an incident with Mr. Pfeffer/Mr. Dussel over a matter of "the best little table."

Yesterday afternoon Father gave me permission to ask Mr. Dussel whether he would please be so good as to allow me (see how polite I am?) to use the table in our room two afternoons a week, from four to five-thirty. I already sit there every day from two-thirty to four while Dussel takes a nap, but the rest of the time the room and the table are off-limits to me. It's impossible to study next door in the afternoon, because there's too much going on.  Besides, Father sometimes likes to sit at the desk during the afternoon.  

So it seemed like a reasonable request, and I asked Dussel very politely.  What do you think the learned gentleman's reply was? "No." Just plain "No!"

I was incensed and wasn't about to let myself be put off like that.  I asked him the reason for his "No", but this didn't get me anywhere.  The gist of his reply was: "I have to study, too, you know, and if I can't do that in the afternoons, I won't be able to fit it in at all... Mythology - what kind of work is that?  Reading and knitting don't count, either.  I use that table and I'm not going to give it up... You're not the only one who can't find a quiet place to work.  You're always looking for a fight.  If your sister Margot, who has more right to work space than you do, had to come to me with this request, I'd never even have thought of refusing..."

5 April 1944: epiphany and determination

I finally realized that I must [emphasis Jillian's] do my schoolwork to keep from being ignorant, to get on in life, to become a journalist, because that's what I want!  I know I can write.  I few of my stories are good, my descriptions of the Secret Annex are humorous, much of diary is vivid and alive, but... it remains to be seen whether I really have talent.

11 April 1944: A break-in

"We should hide radio!' moaned Mrs. Van D.

"Sure, in the stove," answered Mr. Van D. "If they find us, they might as well find the radio!"

"Then they'll find Anne's diary," added Father.

"So burn it," suggested the most terrified of the group.

This and the police rattling on the bookcase were the moments when I was most afraid.  Oh, not my diary; if my diary goes, I go too!

Anne Frank: knew from an early age to be serious about her craft, especially in adversity.

Another recent quote I shared was from I Capture the Castle.  Dodie Smith's novel opens with Cassandra Mortmain beginning her first notebook:


I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.  That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog's blanket and a tea cozy... I found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.  I wrote my very best poem sitting on the henhouse.

Cassandra lives with her family in a dilapidated castle in humiliating and hilarious poverty in the late 30s.  She has the right idea: try new scenes, new places.  Living in the castle she writes in the attic, in the towers, on the hillsides... romantic setting, inspiring vistas, and while she is uncomfortable, hungry and never quite satisfied, she finds ways to find beauty and humor in everyday life.  And yet, she comes up with clever solutions - not necessarily to fix the problems she has with her writing environment but to use the resources that are available to her.  She knows she will be interrupted, cold or miserable but she writes anyway and doesn't complain about it.  I have learned a lot from her charisma.
 
Cassandra writes in bed, while sister Rose talks.

Places Cassandra writes:
  • kitchen sink
  • kitchen table
  • attic
  • in bed
  • tower
  • father's desk in the gatehouse
  • the mound
 
p. 24: writing by candlelight

I wonder if I can get a few more minutes' light by making wicks of match sticks stuck into the liquid wax.  Sometimes that will work.

It was no good - like trying to write by the light of a glow-worm.  But the moon has fought its way through the clouds at last and I can see by that.  It is rather exciting to write by moonlight.

p. 26

I don't intend to let myself become the kind of writer who can only write in seclusion - after all, Jane Austen wrote in the sitting-room and merely covered up her work when a visitor called (though I bet she thought a thing or two) - but I am not quite Jane Austen yet and there are limits to what I can stand....  it is extremely cold up here, but I am wearing my coat and my wool gloves, which have gradually become mittens all but one thumb; and Ab, our beautiful pale ginger cat is keeping my stomach warm - I am leaning over him to write on the top of the cistern.

p. 187

This is the first time I have used the beautiful manuscript book Simon gave me - and the fountain pen which came from him yesterday. A scarlet pen and a blue and gold leather-bound book - what could be more inspiring?  But I seemed to get on better with a stump of pencil and Stephen's fat, shilling exercise book.

  
Cassandra is also a queen of creative solutions and executes them determinedly.  She and younger brother Thomas attempt to break their writer father's creative block by imprisoning him in the old tower behind the castle.  The siblings know their father must write again to save his spirit.

p. 314

I felt dreadful, but Thomas seemed quite unconcerned.  He hauled up the basket father had filled, took out the plates and dishes, and put the dinner in.  I think he knew I was weakening, because he whispered: "we've got to go through with it now. You leave it to me." Then he lowered the basket and called down firmly:

"We'll let you out just as soon as you've written something - say fifty pages."

"I could never write fifty pages in less than three months even when I could write," said father, his voice cracking worse than ever.  Then he flopped into the arm-chair and gripped his head wth his hands.

"Just unpack your dinner, will you?" said Thomas. "You'd better take the coffee pot out first."

Father looked up and his whole face went suddenly scarlet.  Then he made a dive at the dinner basket, and the next second a plate flew past my head.  A fork whizzed through the door just before we got it closed.  Then we heard crockery breaking against it.

I sat down on the steps and burst into tears... "Please, please don't throw all your dinner dishes until you've eaten what's on them.  Oh, won't you just try to write, fatherWrite anything - write 'The cat sat on the mat' if you like.  Anything, as long as you write!"

How does Mr. Mortmain begin his long awaited novel?  THE CAT SAT ON THE MAT. 

Lastly: Stephen King, whose memoir on writing has been a tremendous help to me, writes about his dream desk:

For years, I dreamed of having the sort of massive oak slab that would dominate a room - no more child's desk in a trailer laundry-closet, no more cramped kneehole in a rented house.  In 1981 I got the one I wanted and placed it in the middle of a spacious, skylighted study... For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind, like a ship's captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere... A year or two after I sobered up, I got rid of that monstrosity... I got another desk - it's handmade, beautiful and half the size of the T. rex desk.  I put it at the far west end of the office, in a corner under the eave.  That eave is very much like the one I slept under in Durham [his childhood home]...

Put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn't in the middle of the room.  Life isn't a support system for art.  It's the other way around.
 
I was a teenager in the tiniest bedroom of the house and wrote a long, long sci-fi epic (alas unpublishable), four years of high school papers and massive journals.  I didn't hate my room, but it wasn't the best environment.  Until I was presented with a large wooden writing desk at age twelve, I perched on the edge of my bed and wrote my pages, front and back, on a piece of old foam board.  I did what I could to make the room better: plastering the walls with inspirations and rearranging my furniture every few months (not an easy feat when the bed takes up roughly a third of the room).  But I was happy.  I got things done.  I forced myself out of my room and into my characters' lives, and that was gold.  These days I try to put myself in this mentality in my current situation, even if I'm not completely satisfied.  I still use my old desk and don't necessarily love it, but it has loyally traveled with me to college, to my first post-college apartment, and is under my computer as I write this post in my current home. 
 
Writers thrive under less than ideal circumstance: in the rickety chair, at the tilting kitchen table, in the barn, in a room filled with noisy people, with a cat constantly jumping up in one's lap and walking across the desk.  These conditions flavor us and build up our carapace. The world is our office. Waiting for ideal conditions is simply an excuse not to write, even though - as proved by the sheer fact of our creative drive - we have the tools to make these conditions useful.  Granted, we're a stubborn bunch, but how awesome is it to say, "Yes, I shall write today even if this coffee shop is noisy and the coffee bitter, even if the cat jumps all over me and the dog whines on the other side of my door, even if that awesome television show is calling to me like a Siren."

I've been pondering the phraseology of "full-time writer." What is a full-time writer, anyway?  Well, you say (wondering if I've asked a trick question), it's someone who is fortunate to be able to write for a living by freelancing, writing stories, publishing novels.  Yes, a typical day in the life of a full-timer looks like heaven to us office-job-or-otherwise people.  But I don't "qualify" to have the "full-time" sticker next to my name simply because it isn't how I earn my bread?  Silly.

Writing is so much more than something to fill in those hours here at work.  Writing is a lifestyle, an attitude.  Courage and grace under fire!  It gets me out of bed and enables me to interact better with the world.  Nor does a writer ever really have the day off.  We're constantly processing, moving through our stories (if you open mail like I do, this is an ideal brain-time).  "Ideal" would be a place to myself, where I'm free from interruptions (no phones or walk-ins); but do I need ideal?  And is it really a solution or a distracting dream?


If you're fortunate enough to have a job where you can write in spurts as you work, take advantage of it... albeit discreetly. Get up early in the morning because your story means something to you.  Netflix and Redbox are not adverse conditions; they're choices.  Having trouble connecting to your story?  Try writing it by hand.  Don't like your handwriting?  There are ways you can improve it.  How much are you feeding your artist-child?  Read!  Take creative outings!  Go on quiet walks!  And give yourself more credit for weathering the storm!

Someday we might have that dream office or the quiet house, but until then, embrace the place in which you're writing now.  It's helping you more than you might think.

Happy writing!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Sisyphean Synopsis (Jillian)

I mentioned Sisyphus this morning right?  He was the man with the impossible task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it go rolling down again - eternal punishment for something he did to the chagrin of the gods. 

Since I've completed my novel and intend to send it to agents - the starting point for any novelist hoping to publish - there have been the inevitable tasks to complete, ends to sew up tightly, advice to be read and heeded.  It was quite a strange transition to make from one day being immersed in a world of words to the next when I was on my own again, orbiting that world instead of walking it.  The tasks are writing the dreaded query letter and writing a synopsis.  Ick.  Double ick.

The query letter is a basic, basic, basic letter no more than one page long.  It is the piece of writing one emails/mails to an agent, selling one's book in a matter of two (sometimes three) well-crafted paragraphs... in other words, just a handful of sentences to grab his/her attention.  The first paragraph involves the hook sentence much like that on a book jacket that encapsulates the novel's story, essence and selling-potential in one go.  The next paragraph is a slightly bigger expansion or synopsis of that hook paragraph.  The third is a discussion of one's credentials.  Etcetera.

Somehow I wrote it, rewrote it, embellished, pared down, expanded, pared down, cut, cut, cut, until the thing was the epitome of professional succinctness and naunce.  It is not easy, I tell you, to "say more with less" but it can be done.  After all, writing 125,000 words is a lot easier than 500 or 300: greater margin for error, for one thing. I think if one comes out of the process with a satisfactory query letter one doesn't mind showing to friends and complete strangers, one has grown as a writer.

The synopsis is my present onus.  This is a 1-2 page summary of the book, written dryly with all the facts about the story more or less revealed in sequence.  I didn't realize I needed one until I began to look at submission requirements to particular agencies and did a little subsequent research.  Luckily, Chuck Sambuchino of Writer Unboxed posted some advice on this very thing months ago, of which I found helpful.  One of the things I learned is that a synopsis is very important in genre fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, bla, bla) so that agents can easily follow whether or not one's novel has Acts I, III and III in the right places and in the right proportions.  It makes perfect sense, and yet it seems hopelessly Sisyphean.

Of course, my novel is science fiction, and I realized there is no way around this thing.  "One to two pages?" I asked aloud.  No one heard but the cat, who thinks I'm a nut anyway. "Double spaced?  How can I implode an entire 125,000 word novel into two pages?" The camel through the needle's eye... sort of...

When my panic wore off, I had to remind myself that I thought the exact same thing for the query.  Then, the reaction had been, "An entire novel in one paragraph?  Can't do it!" Obviously, I could and did, but it took me a while.  I'm in the process of reminding myself that the synopsis is really just a bit bigger than the query itself, another expansion of the details presented in those little paragraphs.  But slogging through it in the meantime is utter torture.

Advice to self (and others):

1.) Work on the synopsis a little every day, just like the query letter, then put it away and work on something else.  The first versions will stink, but first drafts of anything usually do.  If you don't have a first draft, how else can you write a better second draft and a good third draft?

2.) Patience.  When I'm on roll - having just finished a project or otherwise blindsided with enthusiasm and overconfidence - I often get the delusion that I can send out the query letter or the entire submission inside of a week if I just work hard enough on it.  This is unrealistic thinking.  Better to take time on something like a query or a synopsis than to send something off that it is rough around the edges.  Remember that you don't have a deadline yet.  That will come later.  Above all: no self-deprecations!

3.) Simplify, simplify, simplify, as Mr. Thoreau said.

4.) In the hours spent away from the query or synopsis, write something from the heart - get back into a routine.  Otherwise, you may feel drained and blocked for no reason.  Writing a query letter or a synopsis does not preclude you from going ahead with new stories.  This is for your sanity.

5.) Read lots of advice on formatting, etc.  Don't ignore it.

6.) Remember that you are doing this for your novel, your brainchild.  It is worth the torture.  And it might not nearly be as bad it seemed at the end.

All right.  Back to the boulder up the hill...

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.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Bit of Card on Character (Michelle)

I have just spent a (frankly unpleasant) day held captive to Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. I just couldn't put the darn thing down, which meant that in the course of one day, I have witnessed quite a few horrors. I don't usually resent being drawn into a novel as though it were a black hole --- quite the contrary --- but today I did. I still don't know if I liked it or not, retaining the prisoner's dull hatred for her captor that prevents me from making a clear judgment.

Some interesting reflections on character, though, from the novel's preface. (I'm working with a 1991 TOR paperback.)

Most novels get by with showing the relationship between two or, at most, three characters. This is because the difficulty of creating a character increases with each new major character that is added to the tale. Characters, as most writers understand, are truly developed through their relationships with others. If there are only two significant characters, then there is only one relationship to be explored. If there are three characters, however, there are four relationships: Between A and B, between B and C, between C and A, and finally the relationsihp when all three are together.

Even this does not begin to explain the complexity---for in real life, at least, most people change, at least subtly when they are with different people...Our whole demeanor changes, our mannerisms, our figures of speech, when we move from one context to another. Listen to someone you know when they pick up the telephone. We have special voices for different people; our attitudes, our moods change depending on whom we are with.

So when a storyteller has to create three characters, each different relationship requires that each character in it must be transformed, however subtly, depending on how the relationship is shaping his or her present identity. Thus, in a three-character story, a storyteller who wishes to convince us of the reality of these characters really has to come up with a dozen different personas, four for each of them.

Something to think about. Something sobering, because as I try to count my main characters, I am seized with fear that I have at least four. I try to comfort myself with remembering that Dickens certainly doesn't follow the three-character rule. Then I remember that I'm not Dickens.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tasty Nomenclature (Michelle)

What’s in a name? I loved Jillian’s post on the subject and couldn’t resist writing one of my own. I’ve been thinking lately about how much I love elaborate, baroque names. They stick in the mind, and there’s no danger of a character or a place or an event with a nice tasty name drifting off and becoming non-descript, bland, or unreal.

I made a very incomplete list of some good names.

Dickens is the king of them, of course:
  • Teachers: Mr. Machoakumchild, Mr. Headstone, Mr. Wackford Squeers
  • Lawyers (shady and otherwise): Mortimer Lightwood, Tulkinghorn and his assistant Clamb, Mr. Jaggers, Mr. Vholes
  • Men of business (shady and otherwise): Wilkins Macawber, Uriah Heep, Harold Skimpole, Ebenezer Scrooge, Mr. Guppy, Mr. Smallweed, Mr. Bucket, Mr. Krook, Mr. Ryderhood, Mr Venus and Silas Wegg
  • Ladies and gentlemen: Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet; Miss Havishem; Mr. Twemlow
  • Poor souls: Miss Flite, Jo, Charlie Neckett, Oliver Twist, and, naturally, Little Nell

Russell T Davies can be quite Dickensian about his epithets too, as they range from silly to histrionic, tongue-twisting to beautifully, contrastingly simple. I love the way he blends in scientific terms with the lexicon of fantasy as well. Who says television dulls our sensitivity to language?
  • Tandocca Radiation
  • Jaws of the Nightmare Child
  • Shadow Proclamation (which in my opinion was much cooler just as a suggestive name—see picture, when the mystery became an old lady with a rhino…)
  • Human-Timelord Biological Metacrisis
  • Chameleon Arch
  • Slitheen
  • Toclafane
  • And the counterweights to such vivid tongue-twisters: Time War, Reality Bomb, Void Ship. It also makes a nice contrast that his characters frequently have very simple names: John Smith; Martha Jones; Rose Tyler; Harriet Jones; Donna Noble.

Reading Terry Pratchett has also given me an occasional grin over the names:
  • The Counterweight Continent
  • Ankh-Morpork
  • Susan Sto-Helit
  • Mr. Teatime (pronounced TAY-uh-TEE-meh)
  • Agnes Nitt and her alter-ego Perdita
  • Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick
  • Hogfather and Hogswatch
  • Twoflower the Tourist (who becomes, for a few seconds in The Colour of Magic, Zweiblumen)
Most of my own characters and places, I’m sorry to report, have very bland names. But occasionally I come up with a corker. I won’t be listing them here, though!

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.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sandy: A Recantation (Jillian)


I spend a fair amount of time at UNL, despite the fact that I graduated in May. There is something about it that spells home to me, and its hidden nooks and woody areas provide a retreat from my not-so-quiet job. If you've ever been to UNL, you've probably walked through the "Sculpture Garden", the area of which is merely sprinkled with a collection of modern statuary. One of these is Richard McDermott Miller's "Sandy: in Defined Space", or as I often dismissed it: "Girl in a Box." When Michelle visited me last week, I have to say what came out of my mouth was an arbitrary "I hate it." And yet, in almost five years, I'd never really looked at her. And for a writer to have never looked deep on a piece of art… well… it's silly.


The statue, as you can see, is a naked girl perched in one of two little boxes. On campus it is located in front of a boxy-looking Art building (Woods Hall) - not exactly in the middle of campus foot traffic. And yet, she's always made me uncomfortable… for obvious reasons. When I see nude sculptures - particularly modern ones - I tend to be nervous. At first glance, "Sandy" is trapped in the box. I always detected a thread of womanizing sentiment from it, especially since, not twenty feet away to the north there is another sculpture of a woman's backside, as if the rest of her is buried just below the soil. I recoil. I cannot abide the objectification of women.

After my dismissive comment about hating "Sandy", I started thinking and really looking at her… and the silly fears I had about her began to fade. First of all - yes, she's nude, but why is she nude? Is it any worse than Michaelangelo's David? The nudity, I decided is only a small part of it. In this case, it is to measure an unhindered spirit, protected inside the little space and concealing nothing. Further, she isn't trapped. There is no look of terror or despair on her face - nor is she looking out at me or any passersby with a silent plea for help. In fact, she is glancing off into space, at the foot she has planted up on one of the panels. It is a deep, pensive look - neither smiling nor frowning. Inside herself. She lets one hand dangle free. She does not grasp for an invisible door because she is free. She has made a choice between this box and the box beside it. She has made this space "defined". She is not, I am confident to say, associated with the one submerged in the soil a few feet away.

It is amazing how much I am still learning… by seeing and thinking about the possibilities… imagining her to be a character with feelings and choices and a name instead of an object made of metal! Meanings inside meanings… the perpetual nesting doll! That is art!

Sandy - with the Sheldon Art Museum to the south of her

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Damsels in Distress (Michelle)

I’ve been musing on damsels in distress lately. Let me give you fair warning that this post will go on for a bit, but I've got a lot of ideas about said damsels to work out. As a writer of fantastical and perilous situations, it seems sometimes like I can’t live with ‘em and I can’t live without ‘em.



Damsels in distress are deep in the bones of Western literature at this point—maybe Virgil didn’t feel he needed a blonde woman going “Save me!” but by the time we get to the 13th century, they’re pretty firm fixtures. Your hero has a woman he fights for—a lady fair. Oh, there are variants: sometimes she’s really ugly. Sometimes she’s treacherous. Sometimes he needs her more than she needs him. But she’s always there, getting into scrapes and thereby allowing him to demonstrate his masculine prowess.

And there are reasons it works—reasons far too deep and lengthy and controversial and hard to express to get into here—but let’s all admit that it is so satisfying when Edward saves Bella from the potential rapists in Port Angeles; or when the Doctor shouts, “Now there is no power on this earth that can stop me!”; or when Mr. Darcy pays for Lydia’s wedding so that Elizabeth’s life won’t be ruined…on and on and on, all the incarnations. At its best, the tradition of the damsel-in-distress can do some very nice things to develop a character or a relationship. What jump-starts a confession of love better, for example, or proves its sincerity, than a perilous rescue?



The weaker-vessel-female thing also has some very lovely manifestions, in ballet or figure skating or fairy tales. There’s also a fun strain of irony in those manifestations, as we all know (or should know!) the strength and physical prowess it takes to be a ballerina, or the hardiness of heart required to survive a fairy tale. So the illusion of weightlessness in such stories is always just that—she only appears to be a creature of glass. If we don’t forget that it’s an illusion, it can be a fun game to play among ourselves.

“If we don’t forget.” But oh, how we forget. And the damsel in distress becomes so very problematic.

The first problem you probably saw coming a mile away. In many of the traditions, the damsel has no character. She becomes nothing more than an object to be won, a cipher for the hero to project himself onto. In actual fact, medieval romance perpetrates this kind of bland commodification much less often than 1930s heroic films or Walt Disney movies, but that’s neither here nor there. Remember the ridiculous women of Errol Flynn films, or to take a more elevated example, Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities. I love A Tale of Two Cities, please don’t mistake me, but does that woman have any characteristics besides golden beauty and undiscriminating goodness?

And you’d be surprised how quickly the cipher damsel can take on darker characteristics. Take all the collective fantasies about sleeping, unconscious, or otherwise immobile women—Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Pygmalion—who must be restored to life. In a lot of the original versions of these stories, it’s not a nice little kiss that awakens these women, either, but fully fledged sexual conquest. I’m not of the camp that says these stories should be utterly jettisoned, as I think there are many interesting things going on in them besides a necrophilic impulse, but the pathological passivity of these women in many of their cultural incarnations—particularly the Disney ones!—shouldn’t be overlooked.



Or look at this Fuseli painting again: It’s not hard to see that while the source of the horror is supposed to come from the dark powers encroaching on the pure woman, there’s quite a voyeuristic sexual charge coming out of the threat to her as well. Why save her, when you could watch what happens next?

Then there are the scores and scores of Victorian poems involving ladies fair who die, the countless pre-Raphaelite paintings of dead or dying women, the images of Leda all painted from a masculine perspective in which the woman who is raped by a swan gazes lasciviously out of the canvas while it happens. Sorry to disturb you, but this is the heritage of anybody who writes in the Western tradition. Granddad left us more stuff up in the attic than the Mona Lisa.



So where does that leave a writer?

Contemporary adventure films always have to confront the damsel-in-distress tradition. Often, I think, they do it extremely unsatisfyingly, even when writers are clearly trying to be PC. Indiana Jones gets plucky companions, but the scriptwriters seem to mistake shrill shrewishness for feminine strength. As far as I’m concerned, this is just another form of misogyny. Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates franchise is also clearly a direct attempt to circumvent the damsel-in-distress tradition (“You like pain? Try wearing a corset!”), but to me and almost everyone else I know, she registers only as irritating. And as for the tough-and-rough women of sci-fi (Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider? Charlize Theron’s assassin in Aeon Flux? River Song in Doctor Who?), with their lycra costumes and dominatrix overtones, they’re fantasies just as disturbing as all the sleeping princesses in all the towers you could imagine.

Where's the good news, Michelle? Well, despite all appearances, I do actually think that this isn't a hopelessly screwed up motif. There are some examples of fiction, ancient and new, that offer some possibilities for hope.
The best and most broadly applicable answer is probably just to write rich characters. As I said earlier, if the damsel tradition is used judiciously in a relationship that is developed sufficiently in other ways, it can be very moving. If the damsel motif is so deeply ingrained in the Western tradition, then it stands to reason that it’s pretty deeply ingrained in the Western man, and that this is one way that a character born and raised anytime after the 13th century would communicate love. So, yeah, Edward wants to save Bella, and as long as he’s not objectifying her, we can and should accept it as an expression of love. Similarly, it doesn’t bother me that the Doctor is always trying to save his companions in NuWho (that’s kind of his thing, anyway); that Darcy gets all protective of Elizabeth; that Tristan comes swooping in to keep Yvaine’s heart from being cut out…etc, etc, etc. I’d sure appreciate that if my heart was going to get cut out, after all, and all the women saved in these stories have sufficient personhood that we experience these moments as expressions of feeling rather than defense of possessions.

Another contemporary film that has effectively dealt with the damsel issue is, bizarrely, The Mummy, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weiscz. The filmmakers let the man demonstrate his physical prowess as he’s always done, but provide the woman with a definite character and unique contribution to the situation. So, Brendan Fraser got to swoop in and save a woman who’s as hopeless in a crisis situation as I certainly would be, but she’s the one who is able to figure out what was going on by virtue of her archaeological expertise. (Again, though, this requires script development: it’s not enough just to put Jessica Alba in glasses and a lab coat and say, “See? She’s a scientist!")


There are also older stories that complicate the issues very satisfyingly. Jane Eyre springs to mind, with its constant fluctuation of power between the two protagonists, ultimately leading them beyond questions of power into love. In The Lord of the Rings, too, I love the character of Eowyn, who clearly can save herself with a sword but also suffers from a deeper spiritual distress (totally lost in the movie). Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale also portrays a woman who triumphs by the strength of her own character even as we wait for her to be reunited with her warlike husband. If memory serves, Chretien de Troyes’ Eric and Enide is also interesting on this score, as is Book III of the Faerie Queene, featuring Britomart, the female knight who is questing for her beloved.
Possibly it just says more about my personality than anything else that I prefer stories that work within the tradition to enrich and subvert it rather than stories that declare open war on it. Still, as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White prove, the good and the bad in culture can be inextricably tangled.

That is certainly the case for all those poor damsels in distress. Let’s save em, shall we?

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Visibility and Art (Maren)


One of my favorite artists is the Swedish painter Carl Larsson, and I was lucky enough to receive a book of his paintings for Christmas this year. One of the points that the book stressed was that Carl Larsson and his wife decorated their house themselves and, in fact, made most of the decorations themselves.

Of course, this shouldn’t have surprised me. Why wouldn’t an artist make the art in his own house? But, I have to admit, I was surprised. I am used to having my art pre-made. I buy cds, books, and paintings for the walls. When I feel the need for something new, I go to iTunes or Amazon. When I grow tired of the paintings on the walls, I browse sites like Allposters and art.com.

And there’s no doubt that it’s a good thing to have art readily available. My life is richer for having music, books, and pictures in it. At the same time, however, the massive availability of other people’s art means that I rarely think of making my own. Writing and drawing are fairly new activities for me, and I’m enjoying them so much that I wonder why it took me so long to discover them.

Michelle recently posted an article about the lack of solitude in modern life, and this article was helpful to me in thinking about my own creativity. I especially liked the part about visibility as the defining feature of postmodern life. It seems that, to a certain extent, we assign value to art based on its visibility. Most of us scramble to read Oprah’s recommended books; we buy art prints by famous artists; we choose to watch movies that have been pre-reviewed for us by critics. We gravitate towards art based on its visibility, and personal art is rendered unimportant because of its invisibility. The irony is, of course, that the creation of art is always personal, and its visibility is only incidental. When we make visibility the goal, we become less likely to create because, “Well, who’s going to see it anyway?” We lose the joy of creation because creation becomes not an end in itself, but a means of achieving fame.

As I said before, writing is new for me, and I don’t think that anything I write in the near future will become visible to anyone outside of my immediate circle of family and friends. I’m just not that skilled. But that’s okay. My goal right now is to keep writing and to keep finding ways of creating that are personal and that bring joy. And if that means that no one ever hears my stories or sees my drawings besides my family, well, I think I’m okay with that.

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)

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